“Henry VIII is a monster, but he’s our monster. No other nation has a king who had six wives and cut the heads off two. We’re perversely proud of Henry.” – Hilary Mantel
The world lost a true literary genius yesterday. Hilary Mantel’s style was unique. So was her imagination. Her wit was matchless. She published 17 books that received literary applause. Yet Wolf Hall Trilogy stands out as her Magnum Opus. She once said she knew Wolf Hall would be the best thing she would produce when she started writing it. Mantel became the first British writer and the first woman who won the prestigious Man Booker Prize with Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. As we all know both books have been adapted for a BBC miniseries which I many times called “the best thing that ever happened to TV” as well as for plays produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I am privileged to have seen them both. Multiple times. That is how much I love Wolf Hall.
Mantel published the final installment in Wolf Hall series The Mirror and The Light in 2020 and BBC confirmed they are adapting The Mirror and The Light as a sequel to the Golden-Globe winning Wolf Hall and that Mark Rylance will resume his role as Thomas Cromwell. We hope that Damian will also return to the show as Henry VIII.
And I did not come to Wolf Hall because of Damian. I was absolutely thrilled when I found out he was cast to play Henry but Wolf Hall was already my all-time favorite book then. Since this post is not about me so I am leaving a link here if anyone is interested in my “Wolf Hall” journey.
Damian just tweeted a lovely tribute to Hilary Mantel…
The genius of @hilarymantel was to curl her fingers around the door and tip toe through the darkened corridors of the palaces and houses of Tudor England imagining the intimate moments. Her vision of Henry VIII was perfect and my privilege to play him.
— Damian Lewis (@lewis_damian) September 24, 2022
…and inspired me to pay yet another visit to Henry VIII in the BBC mini-series to celebrate Mantel’s “perfect vision of Henry” with the king’s memorable moments in Wolf Hall. This is my own way of saying “thank you” to the Queen of Literature.
Welcome to year 1535! In the most delightful deleted scene in Wolf Hall, King Henry declares his age to the women in Thomas Cromwell’s household: “45 in June…”
Well, Henry is 531 years old and popular as ever or as Damian suggests:
“Henry, as a brand, is right up there with Coca Cola!”
Telegraph reports that Damian Lewis compares playing Henry “to being a substitute on a football team – in particular, he compares him to ‘Supersub’ David Fairclough, who played for Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘He was a redhead,’ he says, identifying closely with the footballer. ‘He rarely started a game for Liverpool – he was always a substitute, and he had a knack for coming on and scoring a winner. And I feel that in this version, it’s a bit like what Henry VIII is. He comes on occasionally, dazzles, and goes away again.”
That’s a very accurate description of Henry in Wolf Hall. That said, even in the scenes that he is not physically present, you constantly feel the King’s presence. Because, everyone is constantly talking about him. About his marriage… About his obsession with a male heir… About his mistress… Henry is there even when he is not physically there.
Take the opening episode Three Card Trick. This episode is mostly about Thomas Cromwell’s personal tragedy in which the king does not make an appearance until the last few minutes; however, he has a strong presence all over it, because people are constantly talking about him and his “private matter:” Henry now believes his 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon has never been lawful and he wants a new wife in the form of flat-chested Boleyn sister, Anne.
When we eventually get to meet Henry, all the gloom we have seen in the episode due to Cromwell’s personal tragedy, suddenly goes away. With Henry, comes a romantic setting with finely manicured gardens, beautiful flowers — you can almost smell the roses — and the bright daylight!
Henry has a first conversation with Cromwell that starts the relationship that is at the heart of the series. Henry is intrigued by Cromwell. He does not necessarily trust or like Cromwell at the moment.
Henry: “Master Cromwell, your reputation is bad.”
Cromwell: “Your Majesty can form your own opinions.”
Henry: “I can. And, I will.”
Henry knows he can make some good use of Cromwell — to get rid of Katherine! The bromance starts here!
In the second episode Entirely Beloved, we find a vulnerable Henry at the end of his rope. Being the king obviously comes with big perks like opulence and wealth, and most importantly, POWER over anyone and anything. But it is certainly not stress-free. And, Henry is pretty stressed out as he confides in Cromwell about Anne threatening to leave him if he cannot have his marriage to Catherine annulled soon.
This very human Henry is just the beginning. We see him at his most needy when he sends for Cromwell in the middle of the night after seeing his dead brother Arthur in his dream.
Henry: “Why does he come back now? I have been king for twenty years.”
Cromwell: “Because now is the vital time, now is the time to become the king you should be, and to be the sole and supreme head of your kingdom. Ask Lady Anne. She will say the same.”
Henry now has a mischievous look on his face praising himself: “I knew who to send for. I always do.”
The king is a man of a million moods — and he is now pretty self-confident. Haha no wonder Mark Rylance says Henry “has very complicated patterns in his mind, which Cromwell tries to guide and deal with. Sometimes you felt a bit like a psychiatrist, playing Cromwell” in a recent Telegraph article.
This self-confident Henry is not leaving anytime soon. He is all about “Yes, I can!” in Episode 3 Anna Regina. First, he gets the church via Cromwell pushing a bill through the Parliament to take power from the bishops and make Henry the supreme head of the Church… and then he gets the girl!
The king has desired Anne for years! “I’ve known passion, Cromwell,” he says as they look at “Anselma” together, which Henry sends to Austin Friars as a gift later.
“With Anne. I shake. Do you understand? I shake.”
It’s quite amazing that Henry — he’s not your regular Joe, he’s the King for God’s sake — has waited for this woman for seven years! Henry genuinely cares about Anne, and respects her wishes. And, one should give credit to where it is due; exactly like Damian Lewis, who says, for Anne:
“She was good at withholding – that’s never changed between men and women, that little dance, so on a domestic level that was a very normal situation.”
A high drama at Calais ends unexpectedly! Henry is dancing with a local notable’s wife as Anne is openly flirting with Francois. Henry’s face tells it all: Pain. Jealousy. Anger. All bundled into one. Damian Lewis, as usual, does not need words; he says it all with whatever it is, you know what I am talking about, that he can do with his face!
Cromwell tells Norfolk to fetch away his niece.
“She’s done enough diplomacy.”
And… lo and behold it’s Henry’s lucky day — he ends up getting what he has desired for seven years… on the condition that he swears on the bible that they are married in God’s sight and he will later marry Anne in England and crown her the queen. Henry keeps his promise.
As he watches a heavily pregnant Anne’s coronation from behind a screen and as he sends her to confinement with a kiss, Henry is tender, and very proud: He is in love, and, he believes that his son is finally coming his way.
Then he turns boyish:
“The queen missed her…” and then ecstatic with Anne’s new pregnancy: “This time for sure.. England is ours!”
Damian Lewis perfectly captures the moment of hope, pride and joy!
Anne miscarries. Henry’s obsession with male heir now peaks and makes him furious than ever about anything. When Cromwell says their “treason” case against More, who is resisting to sign the bill of succession is slender, Henry growls:
“Do I keep you for what’s easy?…. I keep you because you’re a serpent. Don’t be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.”
Ha, this is ruthless Henry, the god-like King who has the power, and who sees in himself the right, to take the lives of others. And, he has made his decision to take More’s. As Henry switches from somber to boyish and ecstatic to ruthless, I concur with Damian Lewis who says “It’s a bit like we get the 20 greatest hits of Henry’s emotional mood changes” and I believe this greatest hits album is an instant classic!
This amazing range of emotions cooks up and turns into a real STORM in Episode 5 Crows which Gold Derby reports Damian Lewis submitted for awards consideration — no surprise there, he just SHINES in Crows! Henry is restless. He is capricious. He is obnoxious. He is EXPLOSIVE… He has a jousting accident that eventually brings out in Damian’s words “womanising, syphilitc, bloated, genocidal Elvis character.”
Henry comes back from that accident as a pressure cooker…. He is obviously in physical pain which makes him capricious than ever. And, he is very much aware of his own mortality that he is obsessed with a son more than ever. He really needs that male heir, and he needs it NOW… He gives quite a warning to Anne when she visits him after the accident:
“Why not geld me while you’re at it? That would suit you, wouldn’t it, madam?”
Henry is one miscarriage away from getting done with Anne. As Henry is agonizing over his own mortality, Anne’s miscarriage is the last straw. He makes his case to Cromwell and Cranmer:
“If a King can not have a son, if he cannot give stability to his realm, it does not matter what else he can do. Victories, or just laws, the famous courts, nothing.”
Henry is in deep pain…
And, all of a sudden, as you almost feel for this desperate man, he throws a curveball and has this sinister look in his eyes: Now, it seems to him that he was somehow dishonestly led into this marriage.
“It seems to me that I was seduced… perhaps with charms, with spells. Women do use such things. And if that were so, the marriage would be null, would it not?”
Damian Lewis is absolutely mind-blowing in this scene turning a desperate man into a sinister one in the blink of an eye.
The almighty Henry feels TRAPPED and tries to find his way out… He is in such an uncontrollable emotional state that he is almost losing it. He shouts at the Emperor’s Ambassador Chapuys on the top of his lungs for interfering with his domestic affairs and then repeats it with Cromwell, too, for scheming with Chapuys, in front of a big crowd:
“I really believe you think you are the king, and I’m the blacksmith’s boy!”
But then he comes to his senses, turns into a kid making amends to his best friend… and spills the beans:
“I cannot live as I have lived, Cromwell. You must free me from this. From Anne.”
Henry knows Cromwell is the only one out there that could help him out of this. And once he delegates THE JOB to Cromwell, Henry becomes a hopeless romantic again and is ready to move on… well, to the next wife:
“Doesn’t Mistress Seymour have the tiniest hands?”
From playful to tender to needy to proud to stressed to restless and capricious and bitter and a big ball of RAGE, Henry turns into a real MONSTER in Episode 6 Master of Phantoms.
We first find him looking nauseous in a room with Anne, baby Elizabeth and Cromwell. Henry looks worn out. He looks quite disgusted. He is SO OUT OF IT in the same room with Anne. I cannot think of a better description for Henry than “gelded in spirit” for which the credit goes to JaniaJania! He does not say a single word, he just stands up and leaves. It’s obvious Henry is counting down the days until his freedom. He just can’t wait for the day he will be free of Anne.
As Cromwell is on the job finding “guilty men” to frame Anne; Henry, back in his good spirits, kills time writing a play! He tells Cromwell and Cranmer:
“I’ve written a play. A tragedy… My own story. I want you to see her true nature. I believe she has committed adultery with 100 men.”
Henry is writing a best-seller here – working title: 100 Shades of Anne! And, when Cranmer asks if it could really be likely that she has sexual relations with her own brother, Henry’s response makes me think he has already written that chapter:
“I doubt she resisted. Why spare? Why not drink the cup to its filthy dregs?”
Anne’s trial is a farce and she’s charged with death. While Norfolk is more than ready to burn her then and there if he could, Cromwell seems to have convinced the “merciful” King so that Anne can get death by beheading rather than death by burning… And… It’s OVER.
Henry gives Cromwell the biggest hug ever. He’s ecstatic. He’s FREE. He’s happy as a clam and cannot wait to be a bridegroom again soon — which takes him one more step closer to the son he has been obsessed with for so many years. Oh, I will never ever forget this smile — WHOA, Henry, you are ONE BIG BAD WOLF! Henry is a man, whose — in Damian Lewis’ words — “ability to love and then to simply discard is sociopathic.”