“It’s no roistering doistering Tudor romp.” – Damian Lewis
Indeed. Be forewarned, in Wolf Hall, viewers will get no heaving bosoms, no bodices ripped by spoiled princes with fickle insatiable appetites. The King’s private life and private matters are very much the subject of this drama, but the King’s chambers are very much off limits to the camera throughout this series.
Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell did all his most significant work during the reign of Henry VIII, thus, Wolf Hall is also about Henry VIII, but only insofar as the King is the patron and leader and provider of opportunity behind Cromwell’s ideas. Lots of things changed in fact and in spirit during this time in English History. Since England was such an expansionist empire, these ideas rippled throughout the world, and, even you, especially you, dear America, were a beneficiary of the ideas born in the time this story is told.
As we meet Cromwell in the first episode, it may come as a surprise to us Yanks that he was not looked on favorably in English history. Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell seems like an okay guy, trying to make a life for himself, despite his even-less-than-humble beginnings: abusive father, poverty, hunger, a life of deep tragedy. It’s actually quite impressive how he got as far as he did, speaking sweet nothings into the ears of cardinals and kings alike. I imagine Mantel’s books go deeper into how he got to where we see him in the series. We see him here, already arrived, already a “person..not as if [he] could afford to be”, as the Earl of Norfolk likes to remind him. Cromwell seems cunning and manipulative, but only in the effort to defend wherever his loyalties lie. In Episode 1, Cromwell’s loyalty lie firmly with Cardinal Wolsey.
Okay, so what have we seen in this episode? Wolsey has tried but been unsuccessful in getting the Catholic church to grant Henry VIII an annulment. Henry has been married to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, for 18 years and the darn woman hasn’t been able to produce a male heir.
Some Back Story
Henry ended up with Catherine after his older brother, her first husband, Arthur, died unexpectedly at 15, mere months after his wedding. Yes, Catherine was married to Arthur when both were 15. The marriage was a grand diplomatic effort by Arthur’s father, Henry VII, to strengthen his kingdom by uniting it with the most economically powerful dynasty in Europe at that time. If King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sound familiar to you, you may remember them as the patrons of Christopher Columbus? The ones who gave him those three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, to make that fateful journey west, in 1492, to sail the ocean blue, where he ran into a couple of uncharted continents on his way to India? So, this story is taking place in a time when Spain was a pretty darn powerful force of expansion in the world.
In her book Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, Amy Licence paints Catherine as a clever girl, trained in leadership and statesmanship, wise beyond her years. In Licence’s telling, Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, befriended Catherine right away as soon as she arrived in England. They were peers and he was her one friend as she maneuvered thru a new land, not knowing the language and the ways of the English. But that was another book and another interpretation of this history. As with any telling of history, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in the middle.
So Arthur dies and Henry VII worries that the grand union he had planned was shot. Father puts forth his second born son, Henry VIII, to take over for his brother and be husband to Catherine. Henry VIII, at the age of 10, is now married to Catherine, and, more importantly, England is married to Spain. This was a boy who never expected to be king and was untrained in all aspects of leadership. He had greatness thrust upon him. At the tender age of 10. Henry and Catherine, if they had been friends before, could no longer leave their relationship in that happy childish comfort. They had to join their lives and be responsible for kingdoms uniting vs. trying to off each other. (not that England and Spain would’ve ever come to that, but who knows) Not an enviable place to start a marriage.
As this second marriage was arranged for Catherine, she affirmed that her union with Arthur had never been consummated: she was still a virgin and therefore legal marriage material for Henry. There were two ways the marriage to Henry would be legal: 1) a papal dispensation that consummation for sure had not happened or 2) a papal dispensation that consummation could have happened but likely didn’t, so we’ll let it pass. Henry VII chose to apply for the second option and was granted it. The truth of the matter of consummation was never known, and, of course was only known for sure by Catherine herself. Funny what happens when the state tries to dictate, imagine, prove or disprove the realities of a woman’s sex life, hm? One would think that since no one besides the two people in the bedroom ever know anything for sure, the powers that be would eventually stop spending so much time and energy and resources trying to legislate it. Perhaps we’ll get to that time one day soon.
Anyway, as I was saying: So Henry and Catherine are married and expected to get on with the task of creating heirs. They try and fail, have a girl, Mary, then keep trying some more and still failing to have a boy. If DNA had been a thing back then, they may have figured out Henry had a balanced translocation leading to repeated miscarriages and/or infertility….still incurable and untreatable accept by pre-genetic testing of embryos (but even then not 100% detectable)…but at least the ladies in his life would have been able to keep their heads…maybe. But, I digress…again. Meanwhile, Henry VII has died and Henry VIII has been crowned king at the ripe old age of 18.
Baby-making aside, here’s a note worth making on Henry and Catherine’s marriage: Henry decided to invade France personally in 1513. In his absence, Henry’s brother-in-law decided to invade England and take it for Scotland. Catherine, as the reigning Queen of England, did her duty, drove back the invasion, and had that rascal of a brother-in-law beheaded. She had her people collect the head as a trophy for the king. Not a shrinking violet that Catherine of Aragon.
Back to Wolf Hall
Okay, so when we enter the story in Wolf Hall, Henry has been married to Catherine for 18 years and she hasn’t produced a son. He’s panicking. He wants out of the marriage and he wants the freedom to remarry. Henry has been pretty free with his affections throughout his marriage and has actually already sired a boy child with mistress Elizabeth Blout. Unfortunately, this son predated a ruling made years afterwards that illegitimate children could also ascend to the throne. Henry has had several other mistresses, among whom is loquacious buxom blond, Mary Boleyn. Once he was done with her, he moved on to her “flat-chested” sister. And this sister is the one woman who has refused to become the King’s mistress. Anne Boleyn has set her sights higher. Henry is enamored of her, and her youth renews the possibility of a male heir. She wants to be Queen.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the kingdom there are rumblings, new interpretations circulating of man’s place in the world. The heretofore Latin word of God has been translated into English and it’s got people talking. Cromwell is receiving from Germany, home of Martin Luther, English translations of sacred text. A New Testament that makes no mention of “nuns, monks, relics”, speaks of a world without popes. Secret meetings behind closed doors are held to discuss this heretical book.
And the gorgeously illuminated magical prayer books told in a mysterious language are becoming the playthings of children.
Henry VIII is under obligation to the Catholic church to prove Catherine’s duplicity in marrying him while not a virgin. Only if the Pope can concede that Catherine was not a virgin when she married Henry can Henry be granted the annulment he needs to get on with his goal of having a legitimate male heir. And the Pope is not budging. On top of all that, the Emperor of Rome is Charles V, Catherine’s nephew. Charles V is obviously on his aunt’s side in this matter and is literally holding Pope Clement hostage so he doesn’t end up giving Henry what he so desperately wants.
You see how much of this story is about Henry’s bedroom? And we never see his bedroom? And you see how much more long-ranging and significant all the events around the King’s bedroom become if our eyes are kept out of it? Wolf Hall is about the politics of the thing. About the machinations necessary for successful public life, manipulations needed even in the most personal of matters.
And you see that Henry doesn’t even appear in the first episode until the end? And what an appearance he makes. Standing in a doorway, the sharp white ermine over his shoulders casting a glow over his face. We see him first from afar and what a majestic presence Damian Lewis projects in that crisp white ermine. The rest of the room goes out of focus a bit, doesn’t it? We also first see Catherine from afar, defending her position, arguing against the annulment. Then the camera comes close as she speaks to Henry’s conscience. The camera then comes close to his face too. Do we see a flicker of guilt that he’s doing wrong by this woman who has been such a kick-ass queen for him? Not really. He seems royally nonplussed by his wife’s plea. So, yeah, we still don’t know if Catherine is telling the truth. She seems very cool about it all too, not at all afraid of being caught in a lie. Perhaps her confidence comes for her faith in the Catholic church to stick to its guns and not give Henry the annulment. Or maybe she trusts her old friend Henry to do the right thing? Hard to tell. In this case, because history never knew, neither do we.
The camera work and direction throughout this series is brilliant, especially in this courtroom scene, in that it seems we see the true reigning monarchs either from afar or up close, never in between. In between, in the middle ground, are various sychophants and hangers-on trying to assert their little place in the realm. Also in the middle ground is Cromwell.
Cardinal Wolsey loves Henry. He was Henry’s closest advisor and advocate before all this nonsense about male heirs addled Henry’s fragile brain. while Pope Clement is detained by Charles V, Wolsey plans to accompany Henry on a trip to France to gather other Cardinals and argue Henry’s case. It doesn’t go over well. For his part, Henry is angry at Wolsey but still has somewhat of a conscience about him, and is willing to offer him an allowance.
Meanwhile, Cromwell is dealt a massive blow in his own house when he loses his family to sweating sickness.
And he meets the woman who would be Queen, Anne Boleyn. She preens and prattles in French to him and considers it an especially hilarious inside joke to pronounce his name Creme-well. Claire Foy is absolutely perfect as a clever “poor chit of a girl” (as Wolsey vastly underestimates her to be). She makes rude little hurtful remarks and then laughs quietly to herself at her own cleverness. The designs she has on holding the throne as Queen of England are reflected as sparkles in her sharp blue eyes. The perfect mean girl. We see that Anne doesn’t care for Wolsey. She believes he’s not going far enough to help Henry. And since she holds Henry by the blankety-blanks, she knows she can have Henry on her side in getting rid of Wolsey.
Cromwell at this point doesn’t seem to have any other aspirations besides maintaining status quo, not causing too radical of a change anywhere (“believe nothing”), and saving Wolsey. To that end, he wants a seat in Parliament. There, he thinks he’ll be in a position to argue Wolsey’s case. Cromwell has held a position in Parliament before and lost it by speaking against the King’s war in France as being fiscally irresponsible. So, in order to get back into Parliament, Cromwell needs an audience with the King.
Finally, in this episode we are treated to an incendiary first meeting between Cromwell and his King. Before Cromwell has a chance to state anything about his case, the King brings up the opinion Cromwell wrote six years ago. Again, first seen at a distance, then in the foreground, the King saunters, gestures and preens like a rooster (a “beautiful big bumblebee”as DL tells it) before delivering an oratory displaying his disapproval of Cromwell’s opinion. As Henry is delivering his diatribe, Cromwell doesn’t waver. Damian Lewis, with a glance, shows us that Henry is curious of this man who doesn’t seem to be cowering before him as all others do. Cromwell listens and responds honestly, managing to win the King over by not fearing him, speaking to him respectfully while not kissing up to him. Finally Cromwell does the greatest honor to a King insecure in his standing since the day he was crowned. He tells Henry he is capable of forming his own opinion on what he hears vs. what is the truth. Of course, that brings a smile to Henry’s face. Then how tantalizing Henry’s words: “I can, and I will.” A perfect sign off to a first episode!
NEXT POST: More of what the King can and will do