Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel dies aged 70

The Booker Prize-winning author died ‘suddenly yet peacefully’ on Thursday, her publisher said

Hilary Mantel at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival in 2017
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy sold more than 5 million copies
(Image credit: David Levenson/Getty Images)

Hilary Mantel, author of the bestselling Wolf Hall trilogy, has died “suddenly yet peacefully” at the age of 70.

In a statement, her publisher 4th Estate said: “We are heartbroken at the death of our beloved author, Dame Hilary Mantel. Our thoughts are with her friends and family, especially her husband, Gerald. This is a devastating loss and we can only be grateful she left us with such a magnificent body of work.”

Mantel was best known for her Wolf Hall trilogy – “a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of Henry VIII,” said the BBC.

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Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford theology professor and biographer of Thomas Cromwell, said of the epic: “Hilary has reset the historical patterns through the way in which she’s reimagined the man,” The Northern Echo reported.

Following Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), the conclusion to the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, was published in 2020 to critical acclaim, becoming a bestseller and long-listed for the Booker Prize, Mantel having won the coveted award for the first two books. The trilogy has been translated into 41 languages and has sold more than five million copies.

In an interview with The Guardian, Mantel said the books had required years of historical research to ensure their accuracy. She said it was her aim to transport the reader to “that time and that place, putting you into Henry’s entourage”.

“The essence of the thing is not to judge with hindsight, not to pass judgement from the lofty perch of the 21st century when we know what happened,” she said. “It’s to be there with them in that hunting party at Wolf Hall, moving forward with imperfect information and perhaps wrong expectations, but in any case moving forward into a future that is not pre-determined, but where chance and hazard will play a terrific role.”

Writing career

Mantel was born in Derbyshire, and studied law at the London School of Economics and Sheffield University. She was a social worker before living and working in Botswana and Saudi Arabia. It was when she returned to the UK in 1986 that her writing career began to take off.

She became the film critic of The Spectator magazine in 1987 and her novels began attracting critical acclaim and literary prizes.

Mantel found her first broad audience in 1992 with her fifth novel, another historical epic, A Place of Greater Safety, which was set during the French Revolution.

Her agent Bill Hamilton, who began representing her in 1984, said it had been “the greatest privilege” to work with the author. “Her wit, stylistic daring, creative ambition and phenomenal historical insight mark her out as one of the greatest novelists of our time,” he said.

“She will be remembered for her enormous generosity to other budding writers, her capacity to electrify a live audience, and the huge array of her journalism and criticism, producing some of the finest commentary on issues and books.”

Mantel spoke in 2020 about how chronic endometriosis had affected her life since the age of 19. She said the condition had “confiscated her fertility at 27”, when she had a medical procedure, and led to her separating from her husband at the time, only for them to reunite two years later.

“You have to find a way of living with it and living around it,” the Daily Mail reported her saying.

She was awarded a CBE in 2006 and made a dame in 2014.

Tributes paid

Among those paying tribute to Mantel was Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said it was “impossible to overstate the significance of the literary legacy Hilary Mantel leaves behind”.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted “We’ve lost a genius”, while author and newspaper columnist Caitlin Moran said: “Hilary Mantel’s mind was one of the most powerful and magic machines on Earth. We were lucky she wrote as much as she did, but holy hell, it’s devastating that we’ve collectively lost something so astonishing.”

Fellow novelist Philip Hensher said her “kindness was unexampled, her ambition immense, her clarity of mind an inspiration”.

Emma Jacobs, a journalist at the FT, noted that in an interview with the paper two weeks ago, Mantel was asked whether she believed in an afterlife. “Yes,” she replied, before adding: “I can’t imagine how it might work. However, the universe is not limited by what I can imagine.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.