The late, great Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall burst onto the scene in 2009, capturing readers' imaginations with her re-telling of Thomas Cromwell’s rise and fall, and earning Mantel the Booker Prize. It grew into a trilogy with Bring Up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020) — hailed by the New York Times as "probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade."
Many of the sites featured in the books still stand. Have you passed part of Tudor London today without knowing it?
Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, probably in 1485. A blacksmith's son, he grew up in the then-village before working at Lambeth Palace, where (in the books, at least) his uncle John was a cook:
"Where he grew up, in the streets near the quays, Putney Heath was at his back, a place to go missing. He spent long days there, running with his brethren, boys as rough as himself: all of them in flight from their fathers, from their belts and fists, and from the education they were threatened with if they ever stood still. But London pulled him to her urban gut."
Cromwell then travels to Europe to learn his trade, and spends most of his time trying to ignore Putney's influence. But he admits to himself in Wolf Hall: "It's worth anything, to be reacquainted with the Putney imagination".
Mantel unveiled a blue plaque at 3 Brewhouse Lane in 2012 to commemorate Cromwell as Putney's most historic export.
Cromwell was a member of Gray's Inn. Though times have changed, the law students were just as rowdy five centuries ago as some students are today:
"[Cromwell] takes the young men to Gray's Inn, for the Twelfth Night revels. He regrets it almost at once; this year they are noisier, and more bawdy, than any he remembers... The night is loud with the noise of bone rattles, and alive with the flames of torches. A troop of hobby horses clatters past them, singing, and a party of men wearing antlers, with bells at their heels."
The present buildings are mostly different to the ones he visited, although he would have used the same site, and the Old Hall at nearby Lincoln's Inn dates back to 1490.
Hampton Court Palace
Originally part of Cardinal Wolsey's estate, Henry VIII took over Hampton Court Palace after Wolsey fell out of favour. In the books, Hampton Court is Henry's out of town house — the scene of a plot-centric anti-Catholic farce 'The Descent of the Cardinal to Hell', as well as the marriage of Henry's illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, and Mary Howard. Mantel also notes that Cromwell designs his own tennis courts based on the ones he saw at Hampton Court. (There are still 'real tennis' courts at Hampton Court today: see image above.)
Another of Wolsey's residences, also appropriated by Henry VIII. The king renamed the townhouse Whitehall and ended up building tennis courts, a cockfighting pit and a tilting yard for jousting tournaments nearby. It's also the site of both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour's weddings to Henry. Though the palace burned down in a fire in 1698, its Tudor wine cellar survived, and can be found beneath the Ministry of Defence building, though rarely opens to the public. You can, however, visit Banqueting House, a grand hall that survived the palace fire (though it's temporarily closed). Horse Guards Parade — which anyone can go and see — stands on the old tiltyard.
In the heart of the City of London stand the last parts of Cromwell's home. It was a huge household:
"These are sounds of Austin Friars, in the autumn of 1535: the singing children rehearsing a motet, breaking off, beginning again. The voices of these children, small boys, calling out to each other from staircases, and nearer at hand the scrabbling of dogs' paws on the boards. The chink of gold pieces into a chest. The susurration, tapestry-muffled, of polyglot conversation. The whisper of ink across paper. Beyond the walls the noises of the city: the milling of the crowds at his gate, distant cries from the river."
Only the rebuilt Draper's Hall and Dutch House remain. To walk along the street now called after the estate, from Threadneedle Street go along Old Broad Street and up the side of the Tesco Express.
This east London enclave was the Tudor equivalent of modern Chelsea — many rich and aristocratic Londoners lived in the village here. Cromwell’s 'country house' was a mansion called (unpretentiously) Great Place, slightly to the west of St Dunstan's church (which still exists), "set among orchards, and the summer seems to linger in the garrets where the fruit is stored".
In the books, Cromwell sent his daughters to Stepney during the plague, and his family spends Christmas here. Great Place no longer stands, but was at the east end of Stepney Way.
Henry VIII and his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, were all born at the palace in Greenwich; its ruins now lie under the Old Royal Naval College. Greenwich Palace was also the site of Anne Boleyn's arrest. Bring Up the Bodies evokes a Tudor Christmas at Greenwich:
"Inside the palace, a roaring heat, stampeding feet; musicians toting their instruments, upper servants bawling brutish orders at lower... Lucky that Henry is in holiday humour. He likes feasts, pastimes, an hour in the lists, a masque in prospect; he likes even more the idea that his former wife is lying in the fens gasping her last."
The museum at the Naval College has around 30 Tudor artefacts excavated from this site on display.
Tower of London
Where Anne Boleyn and Cromwell lost their heads; the Tower would have been a symbol of dread for anyone who knew Henry — he began locking opponents up here from the age of 10.
But it was also a place of novelty and pleasure for Cromwell's character:
"The Tower is like a small town and its morning routine clatters on around him, the guards and the men from the Mint greet him, and the keeper of the king's beasts trots up to say it's dinner time — they eat early, the beasts — and does he want to see them fed? I take it very kindly, he says, waiving the pleasure; unbreakfasted himself, slightly nauseous, he can smell stale blood and from the direction of their cages hear their truffling grunts and smothered roars. High up on the walls above the river, out of sight, a man is whistling an old tune, and at the refrain breaks into song."
National Portrait Gallery, Room 1
See Cromwell's portrait after Hans Holbein the Younger, but be warned: it's likely to diminish any fondness you might feel for the chap after reading Mantel's characterisation.
"In black legend he is a greedy thug, a spymaster, a torturer", wrote Mantel of Cromwell in a profile for the National Portrait Gallery, "But to John Foxe, 'a valiant captain of Christ'. To Archbishop Cranmer, 'such a servant… in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had'. He doesn't care what you think of him. No man more immune to insult. Truth is the daughter of time. Time is what we haven't got."
This article was originally written in 2014, and was updated in 2022