As the episode Entirely Beloved starts, we learn that Cromwell’s beloved Cardinal Wolsey is more ostracized than ever, urged by the King to go further north, further away from the political center of the country. And we see Cromwell holding fast to his mission of getting the Cardinal back in favor with the King.
Meanwhile, Wolsey is destitute, flagellating himself on the advice of monks who visit and likely believe that the suffering he is going thru is the result of a sin that must be expiated with even more suffering. A cat gives birth to a litter of black kittens under Wolsey’s bed. Cromwell promptly translates the dark omen into something optimistic. He doesn’t want the Cardinal to give up hope.
Ironically, Wolsey’s suffering, both self-inflicted and by the hands of the King who has exiled him, has transformed the Cardinal into a martyr in the eyes of the Northern countries. These lands of harsh weather and harsh people (according to Cromwell) stand fast in their Catholicism, stand fast to the Cardinal and elevate him such that he momentarily believes he can function without the favor of the King. By allowing these people to flock around him is the Cardinal exhibiting a sign of independence or a sign of pride, Cromwell wonders. And with that we can extrapolate the larger question: Is Reformation of the Church a sign of man’s willingness to trust that morality is innate, that it doesn’t have to be dictated with horse hair shirts and barbed thorn whips, that man can be a moral being through the practice of free will? Or is a separation of state and church, a concept which this drama pre-dates by a century but strongly hints is inevitable, a sign of man’s pride? Indeed, questions when asked are liable to grant a couple of Booker prizes to the books wherein they are asked.
Back at the palace, Henry with his peripheral vision sees Cromwell waiting in the wings among many others lined up to present petitions for review. With a princely flick of the hand, Henry gestures Cromwell forward. Cromwell has gotten an audience with the King through sheer persistence and the King’s nascent admiration of that persistence. Henry also seems to admire Cromwell’s focused readiness to stand by his man in spite of everyone telling him the Cardinal is a lost cause. What in the King respects Cromwell so, to pick him out among so many others wanting favors?
Wolf Hall doesn’t really go there, but, again, some back story may help. So here it be: Henry VIII was the epitome of a Renaissance man. He excelled at the arts, introducing music as an everyday pastime at court, writing songs, singing. He also excelled at sports, archery, jousting, hunting; all of which he saw not as mere pastimes but as displays of prowess over any who would doubt his strength to rule. He was the first king with a well-rounded humanist education: he read widely, knew many languages. So, it follows, that Henry would appreciate bold opinion in any man, even his inferiors. He would appreciate loyalty to a cause, however contrary to his own interests that cause may have been. It was Cromwell’s process that got Henry’s attention. Not the ends Cromwell hoped to achieved, but the means by which he as going about achieving them.
And so because of Cromwell’s persistence and because of his own lamenting confession that “Everyday I miss the Cardinal of York,” Henry whispers a sum to Cromwell to give to Wolsey so that he may support himself and move wherever he’s most comfortable. It’s a victory for Cromwell.
Next, we see Cromwell going head to head with his chief ideological adversary, Thomas More. This episode is a menagerie of black cats, talk from Cromwell’s son of his black greyhounds being the brunt of jokes at school “only felons have dogs you can’t see at night”, and now a white rabbit. We get More’s scatalogical analysis of Martin Luther and Tyndale and the Protestant Reformation. There’s a lot of back story here, but I’ll save that for another time. Or just head on over to wikipedia later and find out what More and his Utopia were really about. If you can make sense of it, let me know!
Now, what’s Anne Boleyn been doing since last we saw her, you wonder? Why, still lording over her handmaidens, holding forth on getting her man, come hell or high water, and seeing her own trite conspiracies in cartoons drawn against her, of course. “Anne sans tete”, indeed.
She also shares her sweetly self-serving interpretation of Tyndale’s reforms: “the subject must obey his King as he would God.” And we meet her chaplain lurking in the wings. Spoiler: In off-screen history, Dr. Cranmer will go on to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Anne after she becomes Queen. Her sweet back door method to get to the Pope. Claire Foy, again, with the perfect honey laced with poison delivery.
Next, Henry as Renaissance man is shown in archery practice. We see him boyishly excited about hitting his mark, and, as the center of all attention that he must be, we see him naively believing the laughter from the sidelines is a participation in his glee, instead of the result of the telling of a ribald joke by bored sycophants having little to do with him at all. Was Henry really so naive? Or perhaps it was delusion. The kind that comes from absolute power.
We also see Cromwell bend the King’s ear once again, this time to speak against the corruption of the monasteries and to suggest alternative streams of revenue from trade. Henry likes what he hears. In a bizarre moment of vulnerability he shares his most intimate thoughts with his new best friend: the fear that Ann will leave him. Between gritted teeth, he growls, “I shall be unmanned by it.” Again, naivete or delusion? Ann could not possibly leave him. He’s the freakin King. Goes without saying that Damian Lewis plays with perfection the boyish laughter, the guileless offer to go to the country in disguise on an archery expedition with Cromwell, and the utter loneliness and fleeting desperation of a reluctant King.
Now, we’ve seen the King laugh so we must see him cry. Thus, we see more humanizing dints in the King’s obligatory armor when he calls Cromwell to his bedside to seek counsel out of a nightmare. Like Wolsey, Henry is quick to see prophesies and omens. But no black cats for Henry; his visions take the form of his dead brother Arthur visiting him.
In a recent interview, Damian Lewis was confronted by a critique that his particular advantage in acting is that he’s able to be empty while still being present. His response was appropriately snarky: “Put that on my tombstone: ‘His speciality was being empty’!” In previous posts, I’ve also spoken of Brody as empty, a vessel to be filled by various other characters he meets on his journey. To me, what we really say when we say empty is that Damian Lewis is able to project hauntedness. He is so deeply present in the minds of his characters, that he is able to project that presence as a haunting. Brody being haunted by his mission, his past self, his future inevitable annihilation. And, here, Henry, in our first view into his chambers, haunted by his insecurity and guilt over acquiring his position by a random accident of fate, of stealing his brother’s wife and using her. Arguably, Henry is also haunted by the God of Catholicism who he is questioning and conspiring to overthrow. He’s haunted by ideas from the books he has read and by a lost brother who was supposed to be doing all this work of being King, managing economies and producing heirs.
Along with Cromwell, Anne Boleyn’s personal chaplain, Dr. Cranmer, is present and also attempting to offer advice to the King. He gives Henry the standard biolerplate message to be given to anyone in moral discomfort: God is merciful and you will be forgiven. This doesn’t work for Henry because he doesn’t see himself as worthy of mercy; he imagines that Arthur will plead against him on judgement day: “He has come to be make me ashamed and I alone must bear it, I alone.”
Cromwell jumps into the logical hole at the heart of the omen: he offers his interpretation that the reason Arthur appeared was to remind Henry to hold strong and fast to his kingdom. “Now is the time for you to become the King you were meant to be.” Henry’s brother and father appear in his dreams to strengthen his hand. Whereas Cranmer had said something akin to “sure, you’re guilty, but, no worries, God will show mercy”, Cromwell essentially says “You are not guilty of anything. Now is the time to exert power and you will be redeemed for whatever you think you’ve done through exertion of that power, the power to not bow to Rome.”
Cromwell has turned Henry’s frown upside down for which Henry congratulates himself and erects his spine back to working order: “I knew who to send for, I always do.” And again, we get Damian Lewis, with the mercurial mood swings which defy a viewer’s ability to look away and not be awed.
Finally, Wolsey’s suffering ends with his death. Cromwell opens the gift his master gave him before dying. It’s the magical ring Wolsey spoke of in the first episode: a ring possessing a magic that “enables its owner to fly, allows him to encompass the death of his enemies. It detects poison, renders ferocious beasts harmless, and ensures the favor of princes.”
Now Cromwell wears the ring as he glances at all those who conspired and played a hand in the Cardinal’s death and now replay their deed in a violent skit to entertain the court. This plot device sort of loses me, because is this what Cromwell was all about in real life: exacting revenge? What a minor thing to occupy the mind of such a masterful observer and manipulator. Alas, in Mantel’s telling of it, Cromwell has now seen the guilty parties and he has made the marks in his mind’s ledger. Wolsey’s death is a slight that God alone can’t make right. Cromwell must take God’s work into his own hands.
It is with this episode we on this side of the pond finally see what the English were going on about Cromwell not being such a great guy. And, as they say, the plot thickens.
NEXT POST: Anna Regina, boy.