Dame Hilary Mantel: Booker Prize winner whose Wolf Hall engrossed a generation

·3-min read
Writer Dame Hilary Mantel at Buckingham Palace after receiving a CBE from the Queen (PA) (PA Archive)
Writer Dame Hilary Mantel at Buckingham Palace after receiving a CBE from the Queen (PA) (PA Archive)

Dame Hilary Mantel, one of Britain’s most highly regarded writers, immersed a generation of readers in the turbulent and cut-throat world of Henry VIII’s court.

Her Wolf Hall trilogy, which spanned the life of Thomas Cromwell in gripping detail, made her an international star and won her two Booker Prizes.

But she was also an authority on the royal family and how political events from the distant past are so clearly reflected in today’s events.

Dame Hilary was born in Derbyshire in 1952 and educated at a convent school in Cheshire.

She studied at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University before becoming a social worker in a geriatric hospital.

Although those experiences were brief, they later helped inspire her novels Every Day Is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possession.

In 1977 she went to live in Botswana with her husband, who was then working as a geologist, and in 1982 they moved to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

Her first novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985 and she returned to the UK the following year.

In 1987 she became the film critic of the Spectator magazine, and even in her later career continued to review for a wide range of publications.

By this point she had begun to regularly win literary prizes and her fourth novel, Fludd, claimed the Cheltenham Festival Prize, the Southern Arts Literature Prize and the Winifred Holtby Prize.

Her fifth novel, A Place Of Greater Safety, won the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award.

Beyond Black, published in 2005, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

In 2009 she published Wolf Hall, the first book in her acclaimed trilogy about the rapid rise to power of Cromwell during the time of Henry VIII.

The work won the 2009 Booker Prize, as did its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and prompted rave reviews.

The third and final book in the trilogy, The Mirror And The Light, was published in 2020.

The first two series were adapted into a BBC Two show starring Sir Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.

It was a critical hit and pulled in an average audience of more than four million viewers, with Sir Mark winning a TV Bafta for his performance.

The trilogy has also been adapted for the stage, starring Ben Miles as Cromwell.

Throughout her life Dame Hilary suffered from a severe form of endometriosis that took many years to diagnose.

She required a surgical menopause in her late 20s, leaving her unable to have children, and she continued to need treatment all her life.

The female body would remain a central theme in her books, and she later became a patron and a supporter of the Endometriosis SHE Trust.

Mantel was outspoken on a number of subjects, including Brexit, saying in 2021 that she hoped to gain Irish citizenship, leave the country and become “a European again”.

In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica she described the UK as “an artificial and precarious construct”.

She also criticised the Catholic Church in 2012, saying it was no longer “an institution for respectable people”.

In an interview with the Telegraph, she added: “When I was a child I wondered why priests and nuns were not nicer people. I thought that they were amongst the worst people I knew.”

This prompted some to suggest there was an anti-Catholic thread running through the Wolf Hall trilogy.

Mantel was also forthright in her wish for the UK to become a republic, describing “the howl phenomenon of monarchy” as “irrational”.

She was made a CBE in 2006 and a Dame in 2014.