The Old "Loller" Woman

Violence and Death
in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

by Erwin Biener

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Booker Prize, is a fascinating novel about one of the most troubling periods of English history: Henry VIII's risky decision to annul his marriage to Katharine of Aragon to obtain Anne Boleyn as his wife. The story focuses on Thomas Cromwell, the King's chief minister, an influential supporter of the English Reformation. A recurrent motif is the omnipresence of violence and death. Few modern readers can really conceive of the era's attitude toward violence and death. Unlike us, they were inured to the suffering of others. Executions were ceremonial occasions staged, as Michel Foucault says in Discipline and Punish, as "a liturgy of torture and execution" to maintain absolute judicial power. Hangings, burnings, drawing-and-quarterings and the beheadings of nobles and important office holders attracted large, excited crowds. But the modern era has seen public executions, as well, with responses as passionate as anything Mantel conjures up.

One of the most powerful scenes in Wolf Hall is that of an old Lollard woman burned at the stake for denying that the bread and wine of the mass is literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Making the cruelty of her execution all the more tangible, it is seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. Driven by curiosity, young Thomas Cromwell finds himself in a hate-filled, bloodthirsty mob impatient to witness the death of the old "Loller". "Let the child forward, they said. Let him be instructed, it will do him good to see up close, so he always goes to Mass after this and obeys his priest." A woman bent on instruction takes him under her wing: "You get a pardon for your sins just for watching it, she said. Any that bring faggots to the burning, they get forty days' release from Purgatory."

The boy notices everything. To him the woman led to the stake, her hair torn out in patches, "was a grandmother, perhaps the oldest person he had ever seen." If this does not arouse the reader's pity, there are her screams, her burning body with its acrid stench making people cough. "Smell her! they cried. Smell the old sow!" And then "the remnants of flesh, sucking and clinging." When the burning is done:

The Loller's skull was left on the ground, the long bones of her arms and legs. Her broken ribcage was not much bigger than a dog's. A man took an iron bar and thrust it through the hole where the woman's left eye had been. He scooped up the skull and positioned it on the stones, so it was looking at him. Then he hefted his bar and brought it down on the crown. Even before the blow landed he knew it was false, skewed. Shattered bone, like a star, flew away into the dirt, but the most part of the skull was intact. Jesus, the man said. Here, lad, do you want a go? One good swipe will stove her in.

Mantel skillfully evokes a number of perspectives. Our view shifts continuously from the incensed, vulgar crowd to the Lollard engulfed by the flames. As a counterpoint to her torments we hear the confused credo of the mob, religious superstitions that encourage them to enjoy the spectacle. The boy, obviously stunned by the horrors of the stake, retains enough detachment from the mob to feel pity for the old woman. Readers sense not only his profound disgust but also his intelligence and sense of curiosity. As a blacksmith's apprentice he is keen to find out how hot the fire would have to be to burn the body right down to the bone. As a religious person he wonders whether the poor woman is now in Hell. He even prays for the dead Lollard "thinking it could do no harm." As a result, the spectacle cannot be reduced to the merely picturesque and spine-tingling execution scenes readers have grown used to in historical novels of lesser quality.

The scene brought to mind one of my most disturbing childhood memories, the public execution of two Fascist mass murderers. It took place in Budapest on a cold February day in 1945. I was only a few years older when I witnessed these deaths than Mantel's Thomas Cromwell at the burning of the Lollard woman. Unlike him, I was not simply curious. As a persecuted Jewish boy who had escaped by a hair's breadth being killed by marauding Arrow Cross bandits, I wanted to see justice done to two army sergeants who had tormented and killed scores of Hungarian Jews forced to labor as slaves in Russia.

I was part of a large crowd gathered in one of the principal squares of the city to watch the execution. The Germans were still fighting on the other side of the river, their shells still landing on our side, liberated by the Soviet Army. But few in the crowd seemed to care about the possibility of being hit or killed by the exploding mortars. I, too, was filled with hatred and loathing for the two mass murderers and could hardly wait to see them dangling at the end of the rope.

What I witnessed was not what I had expected. For a long time I was unable to speak about these executions. I had recurrent nightmares of witnessing a hanging or even being hanged myself.

The car arrives, carrying the two condemned. The public prosecutor reads out the death sentence. The priest performs the last rites. As there are no gallows, two lamp-posts will do. The first condemned is lifted onto a table requisitioned from a nearby cafe. In a minute he is swinging in the air, but suddenly the rope breaks and he is lying on the ground. He is hoisted up again and now is safely on his way to eternity. The other condemned is further away, so I can't see quite clearly what is going on. But this time the hangman must have learnt his lesson because the condemned remains hanging at the end of the rope.

For the crowd this is an occasion to express its immense hatred against all the bloodthirsty soldiers, gendarmes and roving Arrow Cross murderers who slaughtered thousand of innocent people during the Second World War. They shout, they curse. Some speak in tears about the slaughters in the city during the last two months. They break through the thin police cordon. People run up to the two dead soldiers, hit the corpses with incredible fury and cover their faces with spittle. A young man with a stick hurries towards one of the condemned. He aims the stick carefully and with a sudden movement thrusts it into the eye of one of the dead soldiers.

I will never forget the sight. Though I had wished their deaths, I returned home with a sense of horror which still haunts me.

The burning at Smithfield Market must have impressed Mantel's Thomas Cromwell in a similar way. Perhaps his experience gave him compassion for those condemned to the extreme punishments so common at the time. Unlike his great antagonist, Thomas More the humanist scholar and Catholic martyr, Cromwell the son of a blacksmith takes no particular pleasure in extracting confessions and obtaining the death penalty for those he considers a danger to the state. In certain instances he even tries to lighten their punishment. While Cromwell was not a humanist like More, if we believe Mantel, he was a much more humane character.

See listing for Wolf Hall at Powell's Books

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