Don’t you just love when history comes in a nice convenient story arc? Wolf Hall, episode 5 is the climax leading up to the denouement of the stories told in Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies. We all know how this is going to end, yet, here we are still watching, rapt, captivated by a fascinating story of a fascinating time told and performed impeccably by the best ensemble cast imaginable.
In this episode, titled “Crows”, we see leonine Henry’s frustrations coming to a head and wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing Cromwell being shown his place in the realm. And we see Anne slowly and painfully getting prepared to be escorted to the gallows.
We start with the King’s assignations viewed through a window. The King’s private life is lived in a fish bowl, his retinue, his nation, the nations of friends and enemies all watching. Even to the man constantly at his side and aware of every detail of the King’s private matters is on the outside, watching it all happen from a window. Henry has started chatting up Jane. And Cromwell is summarily out of the running. That is, if he ever imagined himself in the running to begin with.
Sweet guileless Jane Seymour, a blank slate really. She seems to have learned a thing or two from being a ladies maid to Anne and witnessing the rift between the sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn. She seems to be recieved an education on how to be a wife vs. being a mistress.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s bed is on fire, Henry laments the loss of the drapes, and Lady Rochford drops innuendo (candles lit way past bed time) and names (Henry Norris).
The Queen grows more desperate. Bastard Spanish Mary has been offered a match in France. Anne resents this greatly because she had asked expressly for Elizabeth to be arranged a match in France. Mary married to France will lead to a Catholic stronghold in a country already plenty Catholic, whereas Elizabeth marrying France means Protestantism can potentially spread to England’s best frenemy and further secure England’s position in Europe. Cromwell tells Anne the obvious: the French were never going to allow a match with Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, born of Anne. Anne responds, well, go compromise Mary somehow in public, make the French hate her. Cromwell tells her, in so many words: homie don’t play that.
While Mary’s prospects are being discussed among the most elevated houses in Europe, her mother Katherine is dying in exile, not allowed to see her daughter. (back story: Katherine, when she came to England to wed Arthur and he died, was similarly kept away from her sister when their mother died…something about the deathbed, much like the birthing bed, is very very scary to those in power) Cromwell visits Katherine, comes back and requests Henry allow her to be visited at least by her old friend Chapuys, servant to her nephew Charles V, emperor of Rome. Henry says, nope, not until Chapuys bows before my Queen. Henry knows his position in Europe is precarious and he is desperate that Rome acknowledge Anne before anyone marries or meets their dying mother. Politics before people.
Katherine dies with her last written words to Henry going unread: “Mine eyes desire you above all things.” A grand lady laid to rest like a pauper, with Henry speaking of her still only with anger. He really does believe he was deceived for 18 years. And Anne, of course, rejoicing at her death. Her throat, so sinewy, so exposed, pointed to the sky.
Next, we meet baby Elizabeth. A spitting image of her daddy as he waddles like a bumblebee with her on his hip. Our minds are so etched by popular images of historic figures that my mind naturally went to Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth. The idea of Damian Lewis fathering Cate Blanchett makes utter sense in the minds of many a Tudor nerd, I’m sure. Henry is looking forward to his little “dumpling” welcoming a baby brother.
No sooner is Katherine laid to rest that we hear report of the death of the King. The few seconds after we hear the news are a masterful dance of politicking, the managing of succession, a wonder to behold. Here’s what happens in a helpful list format:
1) Cromwell considers escape, but first calls for Fitzwilliam, the Master Treasurer.
2) The Boleyns descend like a murder of crows over the King’s body. Vultures calling for Cromwell’s demise (Anne’s brother) and announcing regency (Uncle Norfolk).
3) Fitzwilliam arrives, Cromwell wants to send him to fetch Bastard Mary before the Boleyns get to her.
4) Stated flatly, if the Boleyns reach Mary, she’s dead. If she lands in the hands of the Papists, those loyal to Rome, Cromwell’s dead. In either case, it’s civil war.
5) Under the cacophony is Norfolk’s his old refrain: a woman cannot rule, a woman cannot rule.
6) Henry twitches. Cromwell invents CPR. All is well. The King was dead, but, now, long live the King.
After going thru this near-miss, Cromwell considers his position. He admits, without Henry, he doesn’t have a crumb. Fitzwilliam reasonably asks, what would have happened if the King hadn’t lived? Who would Cromwell back, Norfolk or Anne? Cromwell says Anne. Fitzwilliam says: “Let the Lady be regent, and the Boleyns walk on our backs with your head on a spike…That will come to pass anyway if she gives Henry a son.” So, either way Cromwell is screwed. It seems the pieces on the chess board have moved behind his back since he did what Wolsley couldn’t do. This marriage he mediated may be the vehicle for his demise. He wanted Henry to have Anne, to have a son. But, the winds have shifted in an unforeseen way, as winds tend to do.
Henry has survived, but, now he’s more desperate than ever. And, pregnant , but miscarrying Anne is desperate too. She bows before him and asks that he never joust again. In a terrifyingly sinister princely wave he motions her towards him only to spit in her face.
Rough thing to say a wife who’s having a miscarriage as she bows in front of you. Rough guy, this King of No Sons. The truth is, the King has been gelded. Damian Lewis chewing at the inside of his mouth shows unequivocally, the King, gelded in spirit. His face is all panic. Then in a split second his face turns to resolve, and, snap, so much for self-reflection. That witch cast a spell on me, “women do such things”. The Kingly equivocation.
Meanwhile, that sweet girl Jane, shown previously garnering the King’s affections, is now weighing purses full of coin and letters sent professing his royal admiration. Not that we get to see what he’s written, she doesn’t open the missives, but, instead sends them back with a kiss. Playing the game like a pro this girl. What an education to be gotten as a young girl in the King’s house!
Skeletons in Cromwell’s closet are brought back up, leading him to question his own perception of his history. In a conference with Chapuys, Cromwell muses, “Is it possible to deceive yourself…[about] something you believe about your life, where you are, what you are.” The fact he’s asking this question is another beautiful tactic by Mantel to build sympathy for him. This is a question, these are doubts, that no one else in the court would dare to state, even to themselves. Henry certainly never questions anything about his version of reality, does he? Only those unsure of where they stand can ask such things. And those unsure of where they stand are the underdogs, therefore, sympathetic characters. Cromwell in this moment, as he was in the moment when he asked the King to please not unhorse his son in the joust, is the benign underdog.
Despite all the sympathy he just amassed, or perhaps because of it, Cromwell manages a manipulation worthy of a king. He entices Chapuys to Mass, where against his will, he is forced to bow to the Queen. This courtesy finally grants Chapuys an audience with the King, where he gets his head served back to him. Chapuys mumbles messages from the Emperor. Charles V wants Mary married to Spain, her mother’s native land. Henry doesn’t want Mary to leave the country, be it France, or Spain. Perhaps, he fears she may come back with an army and overthrow dear old dad. He doesn’t want her going anywhere not until she signs the Oath of Succession. And he explodes at Chapuys. Witness the width of the King’s stance getting wider and wider the angrier he gets. The jutting elbows making his already corpulent body take up even more room. Yes, he’s wearing a fat suit, but that’s all Damian Lewis, bellowing, maniacally growing bigger and bigger right before our eyes.
Henry storms out only to return again and direct his rage at Cromwell. He accuses Cromwell of manipulating the whole thing, manipulating Chapuys’ audience with him (which he did), manipulating a concession to Rome (which Cromwell sort of wants to do too, even though he stands a firm Reformist…he wants what’s good for everyone…he wants, like anyone from humble and damaging beginnings, to please all the people all the time) Henry rails at him. And the bitterness of his accusations is like bile spewing off the screen.
Cromwell crosses his arms to “confuse the pain”. (is the sign of the Cross itself meant to confuse existential pain, I wonder?…again, a second’s worth of action in this series evoking chapters full of thought and discussion) Is Crum really sad that the big bad King made him feel small? Can he need reminding that he’s small? Apparently so.
But, impetuous boy he is, Henry turns it around. In the next scene, in conference with all his right hand men, Henry glances contritely at his best friend as Cromwell quietly goes back to work advising the King on how to handle Chapuys and Mary. Henry’s glances say: Ah, shucks, you know we’re still friends, right, Crum. And out loud he says, “You are my right hand, sir.” He begs for more help.
However much of the relationship between Henry and Cromwell is historically accurate is a fount of debate. One thing is certain though, what we’re seeing is an epic bromance played by two of the finest actors anywhere in any time. Makes you really really hope Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance get to do more projects together after the book closes on Wolf Hall.
NEXT POST: The book closes on Wolf Hall