Quicksilver of Devil’s Spit

Call her Elizabeth. Call off the jousts.

source: BBC

A shadow is cast over the land and over Henry as he proclaims that no celebration will be necessary for his newborn girl child. In addition to this disappointment, Thomas More has refused to budge an inch to acknowledge the King’s marriage as legal and his offspring as rightful heirs. More has resigned as Chancellor, handed over the Seal, so why is what he thinks still important? Because, as Cromwell is ready to tell us, More’s opinion is adding fuel to the fire of opinion against Henry throughout the realm and Europe. No one likes what the King has done in declaring himself the head of the church
in England. No one wants England to separate from Rome. More is just one man who is vocal and adamant. When discontent is already widespread, a kingdom only needs one vocal man to foment a rebellion. And a country girl nun who sees visions (albeit with dubious timelines) and who also won’t budge an inch.

Since Henry has had another girl child, Anne’s focus is on assuring that her daughter holds a higher position than “bastard Spanish Mary”. She wants Mary to be brought into Elizabeth’s household as her servant. And she wants a French prince contracted in marriage for Elizabeth. Anne is still young, still quite capable of giving the King a male heir. Yet, still, she is scrambling to retain a foothold for herself and for her daughter in Whitehall. How wonderfully Claire Foy plays that insecurity and fear: Anne’s “crazy eyes” only to become even more crazy as this episode progresses. Of course, Anne’s not the only one losing it.

As Damianista summarized, we’ve seen a full cornucopia of emotions from Damian Lewis’ Henry. Boyish glee, fear over nightmares, regal posturing and gestures fit for a King. Shall we dissect some of the ways Damian Lewis is playing this mercurial role? Yes, we shall!

As Henry and Anne are going over the Bill of Succession, Anne examines every word with the eyes of a lawyer, looking for any loops that could be used against her (“why no mention of bastard Mary?”) or lead to her disfavor with the King (“I’m not dying!”). She literally lords over her lord and master while he holds her hand and attempts to shush her concerns. Anne wants More listed along with Eliza Barton and others who have betrayed the King, so that he may be dealt with as a traitor. “I want him frightened. Fright can unmake a man, I’ve seen it.” As those words are uttered by his beloved, the King casts his hooded defeated eyes at Cromwell. We’ve seen Henry share his insecurities with his friend Cromwell and here Damian Lewis communicates wordlessly “See what I mean, dude, she’s got me by the …”. Anne has instilled fear in Henry, fear of desertion, fear of proving to the world that he is not the man he wants to be, the man he has to be to rule a kingdom. Completely unfounded fears, of course, but, still, enough for Henry to want to soothe and placate her and agree with everything she says.

source: BBC

And watch as Henry learns Anne is pregnant again, the sheer pride and joy of it! Watch Damian Lewis capture Henry’s desperate need for hope, and pure artless belief that things will eventually work out.


source: BBC

Then, tragedy strikes. Anne miscarries.

source: BBC

In Anne’s presence, Henry is the supporting husband. When she leaves the room, he apologizes for her rashness, excusing her words as spoken in grief and pain. Then, in the space of seconds we get Damian Lewis showing us several disparate aspects of Henry’s own grief. 1) He looks searchingly at Cromwell, silently imploring his friend to listen and help with the pain, 2) He gathers himself as if to assert “Let’s fix this!”, 3) When Cromwell responds with his own legitimate and logical concerns, Henry barks back “Don’t tell me you can’t fix it; FIX IT!”, and finally 4) Henry calmly and summarily dismisses Cromwell with words with the subtext “We’re not friends, you’re mistaken if you think we’re friends; you are a serpent and you will FIX THIS.” A despot in the making? Made.

source: BBC

Meanwhile, what has Cromwell been up to?

We’ve seen the animosity brewing between More and Cromwell, scene after scene, but now, Cromwell wants attention taken away off of More and put on several other domestic dissenters who have allegiance to Rome and to Charles V. For some reason, he wants to save More. Is it an ancient loyalty or his own long-buried Catholicism that pushes Cromwell to want to save More?

Through some convoluted deal-making rivaling anything done today in modern boardroom politicking, Cromwell surveills, negotiates with, and bribes various players loyal to the Plantagenets. (backstory: The Plantagenets were the ruling family before the Tudors took over; they were lead by Richard III, who Henry VII, our Henry’s father, defeated on a field of battle ending the Hundred Years’ War.) Cromwell has determined through his various spies in the field which current players have sided with which factions left of the Plantagenet regime. You may remember that Anne had accused Katherine and Mary of having talks with the Plantagenets too, and they are. As is Bishop Fisher, who Cromwell has found has written against the King abroad (our man Cromwell knows some printers, you see). The entire ungrateful bunch of them have been outed by Cromwell and testimonies taken, recants encouraged and recorded. The specifics are fascinating but not really necessary to appreciate what’s happening. All we need to know is that Cromwell is not going to allow a rebellion to gain traction; not on his watch. His message to them all: “Just because the Emperor’s soldiers aren’t running down the street, don’t deceive yourself. This is a war.”

So Cromwell compiles his list of conspirators and presents it to the King. While Henry is boyishly recalling a childhood snowball fight with one of the men on that list, Anne is repeatedly imploring that More needs to be on the list.

Meanwhile, as so many losing their livelihoods when monasteries and priories were being destroyed, the easiest target of Cromwell’s witch hunt is Elizabeth Barton. She speaks openly about sedition, and makes no apologies for what she sees as Henry fatal decision-making. So off to the block with her.

source: BBC

At Barton’s execution, More starts to worry and wants assurances from Cromwell that he’s safe. Cromwell tells him he’ll be safe if he signs the Oath of Succession. More doesn’t want words put in his mouth. Cromwell also recognizes that the House of Commons won’t want More to stand trial for treason, and may vote against the entire bill recognizing Henry’s marriage if More is on that list. Again, Cromwell is trying to save More, or, more likely, he believes More must be saved lest the entire project be lost. Cromwell asks Norfolk to join him in pleading the King to take More’s name off the list. Norfolk says he’ll do it if Cranmer does too. And Audley, More’s successor as Chancellor, joins them. We see all four “Thomasi” pleading before the king to take More’s name off that darn list. Henry finally concedes, but demands that More must still sign the Oath.

Cromwell pleads with More, “priests have taken the Oath and we know that the members of Parliament are…conformable, so why not you?” To which Cranmer reasonably adds, “Where it is a matter of conscience [vs. soul] there must be some doubt.” More confronts Cranmer with the knowledge that, when Cranmer became archbishop, he essentially took the oath of allegiance to Rome with his fingers crossed. More asserts, “I won’t be such a juggler.” Cromwell continues, “You just have to say some words, that’s all.” More: “Hm, just words.”

Now, I must call out the cute scene of Holbein making an appearance and painting Cromwell. How’s this for meta? (the nape of the collar, the emerald green of the tablecloth: a perfect match)

source: BBC; Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, Frick Collection

Cromwell rails against More’s stubborness, saying he’s lived a life in preparation for this performance and is looking forward to being a martyr to his cause. “He’s writing an account of today for all of Europe to read and in it we’ll be the fools and oppressors, and he’ll be the poor victim with the better turn of phrase. He wrote this play years ago and he sniggers everytime I trip over my lines.” Some vague memory of the Brothers Karamozov springs to mind: that long debate over martyr vs. saint, between dying for your beliefs vs hubris over a lost cause, “sacrifice” vs “self-slaughter”. Anyway, I’ll spare you my looking it up and recalling it in detail for you. Suffice it to say, there’s some deep philosophical debate and moral reasoning happening between Cromwell and More. And quite an engaging performance by Mark Rylance and Anton Lesser.

After More has gone to his Maker, Cromwell lies ill. Could More have arranged this illness from across the pearly gates? Possibly, probably…all depends on belief, right? In his fever dream, Cromwell recalls that pernicious snake in Italy, the same one his wife recalled as she was dying. He also recalls himself as a boy, working as a servant at Lambeth, where More was the master’s son. And, we see More, the boy, rejecting Cromwell, the boy, as he motions towards friendship. Thus, the boy who served him bread has been the one to put More to his death. And Cromwell sees him in fever with the daughter he lost, the angel, who loved to trace her fingers over magical illuminated Latin text.

source: BBC

In the final scene, we have Cromwell planning out the King’s itinerary for the coming days. He blocks out a good chunk of time to be spent at Wolf Hall, home of sweet sweet Jane Seymour. Now, I wonder is Cromwell himself attracted to Jane, or does he foresee the King’s interest in her as the next baby-making vessel? Or, (more likely) is it a combination of both? That is, has Cromwell insinuated himself so deeply within the King’s circle that anything the King is, does and acquires affords Cromwell himself the visceral vicarious satisfaction of status and possession? In Cromwell’s mind, has the King embodied his servant? Talk about hubris.

source: BBC

NEXT POST: The King in Wolf Hall and his Stance in The Crows

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