‘Wolf Hall’: Doomed commoner in King Henry VIII’s court

Much of how you receive  “Wolf Hall” may come down to how you want your history served. Do you want it hot and steamy? Do you want it sexualized with many a moment in aristocratic boudoirs? Do you want to authenticated by historians? Do you want it focused on the behind the scenes working of men, minds and the machinations of rising in a dangerous world? And finally: Are you Catholic?

“Wolf Hall” is based on two historical novels by Hilary Mantel: “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” The title itself is based on the name of the Seymour family based, Wulfhall in Wiltshire, but also reference to a Latin saying, “Homo homini lupus” or “Man is wolf to man.” This is a behind the scenes meditation on survival in desperate times, close to power and close to death.

The novel’s focus is on Thomas Cromwell, a man born to a working class family (a black smith) who rose to power under Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and helped maneuver King Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, then his second and was out of power by the third. Cromwell is portrayed here as a family man with modern sensibilities toward his daughters.

Accusations have been made that the novel portrays Cromwell in a more sympathetic light than is historically accurate and must vilify his opponent, Thomas More. More is the subject of Robert Bolt’s classic 1960 play, “A Man for All Seasons.”

Sir Thomas More was the Chancellor of England who refused to endorse King Henry VIII’s divorce to his wife of 20 years, Catherine of Aragon, so that he might marry the much younger Anne Boleyn, sister of his former mistress. In Bolt’s play, the king, Wolsey and Cromwell are depicted as corrupt. More is a man who sticks to his principles and dies because of it under the king’s orders.

The TV series begins not with Cromwell, but with Wolsey. He is old and his station and power are now threatened by his inability to broker a divorce for the king from Catherine of Aragon from the pope.

In the first episode of this mini series, “Three Card Trick,” the opening text sets up the situation. The year is 1529. Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) has been married to Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley) for 20 years.  For the last two years, Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) has been petitioning the Pope on behalf of a divorce decree for Henry. He has only failed Henry in this one matter, but Henry is not a forgiving man.

Men on horses arrive in the dark and are led to Wolsey, an old man who fiddles with his great jeweled cross and looks at the large rings on his fingers as he waits for them to come through the candlelit hallways.

Norfolk (Bernard Hill) and Suffolk (Richard Dillane) stand before him and announce, “You’re dismissed as Lord Chancellor.”

“You’ll have supper?” he asks.

They demand he hand over the Great Seal. A man whispers in Wolsey’s ear advice on the legality of their request. That man is Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance).

After Wolsey has his wardrobe, plates and other furnishings taken from him and must leave his residence behind, he still remains calm. With his men are in a boat, he cautions, “I will not hear a word against Henry from any man,”

Flashing back eight years earlier, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) has been brought back and flirted with Harry Percy, a matter that comes under discussion by Wolsey and her father Sir Thomas Boleyn. This Wosley is an entirely different man, in control, with a resounding voice, and arrogant manner. Cromwell waits listening in the shadows with Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss).

Wolsey demands that Thomas Boleyn take control of his daughter. She is simply a political pawn, something to be used.

Cromwell is the butcher boy’s dog. He entertains Wolsey with a three card trick and reveals that he has lived dangerously–he once made a bet about a snake, not knowing if it was poisonous or not.

Cromwell wanders into this murky moral landscape because of ambition. He wants to do more than “spend my life dealing in conveyances” he tells his patient wife. His wife chides him for never visiting his own father nor introducing his children to their grandfather.

Soon, his wife and sweet girls are dead from the “sweating sickness,” sending Cromwell back to his father, a cruel crude black smith who has not become kinder with old age.

To his father, Cromwell is somehow foreign. To the rest of the English court, the French-educated Anne Boleyn is foreign. The tenderness Cromwell displayed toward his daughter and the patience he showed toward her declaration of love for Cromwell’s ward sharply contrast his assessment of Anne Boleyn and her physical charms, even with her sister Mary (Charity Wakefield) who assures him that her sister remains a virgin.

Cromwell also has bold words with the king when the king challenges Cromwell’s feelings that the king shouldn’t lead troops into France because England no longer holds major pieces of coastal land. What’s a king to do? “Do you want a king to huddle indoors like a sick girl?” Henry asks.

“That would be ideal for fiscal purposes,” Cromwell replies.

Historically, Wolsey would fall from the king’s favor as well and More succeeded him as Lord Chancellor. Wosley avoided death by treason by dying en route to London to answer charges of treason.

Catherine as Dowager of the Prince of Wales, outlived Thomas More, dying a year later in 1536. Cromwell died in 1540.

 Historian David Starkey calls “Wolf Hall” a “deliberate perversion” of history. Of course the scenes between Cromwell and his wife and two daughters are fictional. Yet Starkey finds that Cromwell and the man who would become his enemy, Thomas More, are misrepresented. More was the kindly affectionate father where there seems to be not proof that Cromwell was.

The author, Hilary Mantel,  did spend five years doing research, but she is reportedly anti-Catholic, telling The Telegraph the Catholic Church “is not an institution for respectable people.” Starkey also takes issue with another series: “The Tudors” which he has called “gratuitously awful.”

The American Catholic Church has taken issue with the series.

On the positive side, is Foy’s portrayal of the ambitious Anne Boleyn. There’s an exuberant intelligence and an ego to match. We fully understand the enormous demands Anne is making, one that would transform England and result in many deaths long after she lost her head.

“Wolf Hall” Episode 1 was broadcast on 5 April 2015 and is streaming until 3 May 2015. You can also buy the DVD.

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