December 2022

Hilary Mantel's 'Thames Mud'

By Rama Friedlander (University of Sheffield, PhD candidate),

Image credit: Chris Boland

***Saddened by the shocking news about Hilary Mantel’s death, I was going back through my notes, only to realise how indebted I am to her for drawing me from the stage of Wolf Hall (2014) to William Shakespeare’s histories. In an interview (2021) with Jenny McIntosh (RSC) she mentioned that Shakespeare’s portrait is a constant presence at her home, ‘where he lives’, and recalled her first reading of Shakespeare, Marc Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar, at the age of eight. She told us how ‘everything I have done is somehow wrapped into that scene’ and that ever since, she had been concerned ‘with the moment when one thing turns into another’.[1] Shakespeare’s tetralogies disclose a profound interest in various ways of conceptualising historical change, and – as my own research emphasises – these are often associated with imagery of water. Mantel similarly places the Thames at turns and changes of Wolf Hall’s plot as an epitome of time, violence, and change. When Wolsey ‘speaks of the deaths of kings’, he concludes with the image of ‘loose rattling bones under the paving of the Tower’ that eventually were ‘mulched into the Thames mud’ (77-80).[2] Reaching back to the Plantagenets, it is a moment that echoes Shakespeare Richard II’s ‘sad stories of the death of kings’ told on England’s shore (3.2.161).Regrettably, no one (as far as I can tell) ever asked Mantel for her thoughts on a play that might seem particularly relevant to Wolf Hall, namely Henry VIII. A comparison might reveal a difference in historical outlook, where change is concerned, between the works of playwrights Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and that of Mantel. While Mantel seems to follow Raphael Holinshed (Shakespeare’s earlier source) in asserting the presence of the Thames, describing how ‘the river Thames out there was alive with Salmon’ as a strong recollection of these times, Shakespeare and Fletcher forbear, quite noticeably, from recalling past histories and the rivers – Severn, Thames, Trent – that were a prominent presence in them.[3] By that, they detach this enigmatic moment of change from the ones explored in earlier history plays. The English Reformation is a moment whose ‘strangeness, its horror, its unpredictability, its astonishing complexity’ shouldn’t be overlooked, according to Mantel.[4] Notwithstanding this strangeness, however, it is a moment regarded by her as a part of England’s history and identity. The narrator tells us about the mythic origins of the island as the Trojan Brutus ‘landed on an island shrouded in mist’ and how the leader of the native giants was ‘thrown into the sea’, eventually connecting the mythic Arthur with the deceased brother of Henry (54). However, a sense of estrangement from this past emerges at the point of More’s execution at the end of Wolf Hall, when Cromwell’s son Gregory responds to the startling notion that a foreign scholar ‘has written a chronicle of Britain, which omits King Arthur on the ground that he never existed […] no, he is wrong. Because if he is right, what will happen to Avalon?’ (531).When myth is called into doubt, questions about the past imply future consequences, both in Mantel and in Shakespeare and Fletcher. Executions are stressed in both works as if to foretell the bloodshed not only of Henry VIII’s reign but those of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII’s first fall begins with an ‘ax with the edge towards [Buckingham]’ (2.1 sd70), as Lovell says to him, ‘To th’ waterside I must conduct your Grace’ (113), the play’s only reference to the Thames. And Mantel ends Wolf Hall with More’s execution, as she depicts ‘the tall halberdiers closing rank behind him: the boat for the Tower is waiting at the steps’ (529).Apart from past and past-future views, Mantel strives to make historical figures ‘people who jumped back to life’, as if ‘the events were happening now’.[5] Even when she adds notes on characters to Mike Poulton’s play version, she talks to them directly in the present tense (THOMAS CROMWELL: ‘You are the man with the slow resting heartbeat’).[6] Peculiarly enough, past figures do jump back to life, and the Thames prominently re-emerged as an image associated with royalty and historical change shortly before Mantel’s own death as the line to view Queen Elizabeth II’s Lying-in-State meandered along the river. Figures like Edward I, Llewellyn, and Glendower also thrive beyond Shakespeare’s lively theatre stages. We read the news and find a Welsh petition requiring the cancellation of the title ‘The Prince of Wales’ and a protest over the cancellation of Glendower’s day of memorial due to the new King’s visit to Wales.[7] It is as if the years of the 1280s and 1400s reverberating in Shakespeare’s Henriad, in fact, are events ‘happening now’, adding new perspectives to what Mantel had repeatedly said in interviews and Wolf Hall, ‘Beneath every history, another history’.
References[1] The Royal Shakespeare Company, In Conversation with Hilary Mantel, interview by Jenny McIntosh, 21 June 2021<>[2] Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)[3] BBC Radio, ‘The Iron Maiden’, The Reith Lectures, 13 June 2017<>[4] Sarah Shaffi, ‘Celebrating Hilary Mantel: how the Wolf Hall author rewrote history’, The Booker Prizer (2022)<>[5] Royal Shakespeare Company, Interview with Hilary Mantel (2013)< >[6] Hilary Mantel, adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), p. 11[7] BBC, Prince of Wales: Investiture for William like 1969 'extremely unlikely', September 2022<>