A brilliant, flawed listener

Listen Like a Lawyer spent last week sheltering in place during the Atlanta snow debacle. It was a good week to make crock-pot chili and spend some time re-reading a good book—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Wolf Hall is a brilliant novelization of the Henry VIII saga. It has been chosen as the first book for the Wall Street Journal Book Club (Twitter hashtag #WSJBookClub). It will be discussed this weekend at the Crime in Law and Literature conference at the University of Chicago Law School.


The main character is not Henry VIII or Thomas More or Anne Boleyn, but Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was a commoner of uncommon distinction: a mercenary, a wool merchant, a lawyer, a politician, and Master Secretary to the king. This powerful and adept “nobody” earns the fear, if not the respect, of the English nobility at this “disordered” historical moment involving Henry VIII’s quest to father a male heir.

In reading and re-reading Wolf Hall, I was struck by Cromwell’s listening. The different ways he listens, and how he fails and succeeds by his listening, have much to teach lawyers.

Listening to his client’s spoken and unspoken instructions

As portrayed in Wolf Hall, Cromwell listens to what the king says as well as what he really means. Cromwell well understands that the king wishes to view himself as perfect although his desires and actions are certainly not. Thus there is a mismatch in what he says and what he wants to have done. “Sometimes it is a solace to me,” Henry says to Cromwell, “not to have to talk and talk. You were born to understand me, perhaps.”

Listening to his client’s mood

When Henry “rages,” Cromwell responds not with words but with quiet: “He sits quietly, watching Henry, trying by stillness to defuse the situation; to wrap the king in a blanketing silence, so that he, Henry, can listen to himself. It is a great thing, to be able to divert the wrath of the Lion of England.”

Listening to what cannot be written

At one point Cromwell is sent by the king to check on the former queen, Katherine, and their daughter, Mary. For Cromwell—by then the Master Secretary of the kingdom—this seems like a waste of time. Yet as he perceives the situation at Katherine’s lodgings, he understands why the king sent him in person: “The things that are happening cannot be put in a letter.”

The new queen, Anne Boleyn, seeks to make the old queen’s life miserable through her instructions to Katherine’s servants. The king does not want to contradict her openly yet does not want to bring misery to Katherine and Mary either. Only by in-person presence and careful listening to the servants’ statements of their orders can Cromwell comprehend the situation accurately and help the king avoid direct harm to Katherine while also appeasing Anne Boleyn.

Listening to everyone, not just the powerful

Cromwell speaks many languages and is a master “code-switcher,” able to converse with anyone of any station. He is always collecting bits of information about the common people’s mood toward the king. In one scene, Cromwell takes off his fine ring and helps the cook to chop meat as he learns what the people are saying about Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.

At times Cromwell listens to what he was not meant to hear, such as what people really think of him. He passes by a doorway and hears a sycophantic musician discussing not only his own desire to see Cromwell’s execution but also the musician’s belief Anne Boleyn was not a virgin when she married Henry VIII. This information helps Cromwell first assist the king in marrying Anne Boleyn and later to prosecute her.

A failure of listening

Despite Cromwell’s many strengths as a listener, he fails at one crucial moment. For years early in his career, Cromwell served Cardinal Wolsey, who became his mentor. Wolsey is a powerful man, handling much of the kingdom’s business including arranging marriages among nobles. In an early scene in Wolf Hall, Wolsey meets with Anne Boleyn’s father, brother to the powerful Duke of Norfolk. Cromwell stands in the corner.

The cardinal and Monseigneur Boleyn discuss Anne Boleyn’s unsanctioned decision to enter a marriage contract with a young nobleman. Cromwell says nothing as Wolsey insults the entire Boleyn family as lowborn, and attacks Anne Boleyn in particular, calling her “spoiled goods.” This is not, as it turns out, a good career move for him.  Later, in privacy, Cromwell shares with the cardinal the rumors from London about the king’s growing alignment with the Boleyn family. He has already begun an affair with Mary Boleyn (popularly depicted in The Other Boleyn Girl). Cromwell’s action–or really, his inaction–during this crucial meeting has helped to set in motion the cardinal’s downfall. “Why did you not speak up?” the cardinal asks. “How could I have introduced the topic?” Cromwell replies.

The Boleyns later take revenge; the cardinal loses everything and dies alone. Cromwell manages not to go down as well, instead transitioning to the king’s service, where he helps the king refute Anne Boleyn’s supposed marriage contract. Cromwell then masterminds the legal and political strategy to separate England from the Catholic Church.

Wolf Hall is a worthwhile read for lawyers, especially those with an interest in literature, history, or politics. If you have read it, please share thoughts in the comments here. The second book in the series, Bring Up the Bodies, narrates Cromwell’s actions during Anne Boleyn’s reign and fall. (In an early scene in Bring Up the Bodies, one of the queen’s courtiers tries to share gossip about her with Cromwell, who is distracted and inattentive. “You are usually such a good listener,” she says.) Hilary Mantel’s third and final installment in the series, The Mirror and the Light, is forthcoming in 2015.

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