‘It wasn’t that I wanted to rehabilitate him. I do not run a Priory clinic for the dead’
“Show up at the desk” is one of the first rules of writing, but for Wolf Hall I was about 30 years late. When I began writing, in the 1970s, I thought of myself simply as a historical novelist; I can’t do plots, I thought, so I will let history do them for me. I had an idea that, after the French revolution was done and dusted, Thomas Cromwell might be the next job. Blacksmith’s boy to Earl of Essex – how did he do it? The story seemed irresistible. I thought someone else would write it.
The 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession fell in 2009. Dimly aware of this, but not yet focused, in 2005 I proposed to my publisher a novel – just one, mind – about his great minister. Still no one had told the story. The Tudor scholar GR Eltonhad established Cromwell as a statesman of the first rank, but Elton’s work had done nothing for his popular image. Holbein’s portrait shows a man of undistinguished ugliness, with a hard, flat, sceptical eye. In A Man for All Seasons, he is the villain who casually holds another man’s hand in a candle flame.
Biographies of him are cut up into topics: “Finance”, “Religion” and so on. He seemed not to have a private life.