Hilary Mantel’s Re-appropriation of Whig Historiography: A Reading of The Wolf Hall Trilogy in the Context of Brexit





Brexit, Hilary Mantel, historical fiction, Thomas Cromwell, Whig, historiography


This article analyses Hilary Mantel’s critically-acclaimed Tudor novel series (Wolf Hall, 2009; Bring Up the Bodies, 2012; The Mirror & the Light, 2020) in the context of Brexit. Even though Mantel has dismissed any possible analogy between the Reformation and Brexit, this research builds on the hypothesis that the past and the present interact in historical fiction, a genre that has contributed to both feeding and questioning the myths upon which nations are constructed. More specifically, I focus on the trilogy’s protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, to argue that he is presented as the architect of what Whig historiography has understood as the pillars of Englishness (and, by extension, Britishness), often evoked in the discursive context surrounding Brexit. However, although the narrative’s portrayal of Cromwell undoubtedly fosters the reader’s sympathy with the character, a deeper analysis of Mantel’s characterisation and narrative techniques —and, more specifically, Cromwell’s status as a flawed human being presented through the lens of what turns out to be an unreliable narrator— suggests that Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell cannot be reduced to a simple vindication of the Whiggish notion of Englishness, subtly questioning instead the myths upon which the latter is built.


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ARTICLES: Literature, film and cultural studies