The Crows are circling

Wolfhall seems an awful long time ago to me. I saw it when it aired in the UK at the beginning of the year. Therefore the run up to the Emmys provided the perfect excuse for a re-watch and I continue our countdown to the Emmys by looking specifically at the episode for which Damian has been nominated (Wolf Hall, episode five, ‘Crows’) in the best supporting actor for ‘TV Movie or Limited series’ category.

source: BBC
source: BBC

The first question to ask is why episode five? Damian’s performances across the five episodes he is in – he only appears briefly at the end of episode one – are all very solid and any one of them could easily be the one up for nomination.

Some people complained that episode one was too slow paced, but if you had the patience to stay with it you get the reward. Think of Wolfhall as a pot slowly simmering to a boil. Episode five is when Wolfhall begins to come to the boil in readiness for a finale in episode six which will sear itself into our minds. Episode five simmers and crackles. It begins to reach the point of boiling over…and that isn’t the pot lid threatening to blow off that is the King with steam coming out of his ears!

It is important to acknowledge the fantastic onscreen relationship between Damian (King Henry VII) and Mark Rylance (who plays Cromwell and is nominated in the lead actor role) as Wolf Hall is told from Cromwell’s point of view. Cromwell is the main character of this programme, but not the story he’s telling. That one fact makes the relationship between Cromwell and Henry extremely important and thus between Mark and Damian. This episode shows exactly how dependent on each other the two are.

source: WSJ
source: WSJ

We begin episode 5 with The King and his entourage arriving for dinner with the Seymours. As they sit down to dinner it is suggested to the King that perhaps he will find a new wife among their number. Jayne Seymour is among the dinner party.

Symbolically, Cromwell is seated on Henry’s right hand side. More than just a little appropriate.

Henry is sitting at the top of the table, but makes no effort to lead conversation. He is not really paying attention nor is he interested in doing so to what the others are saying. They speak to him, but he does not answer and then he falls asleep. I know he is the King, but surely some effort? Well, no actually. He’s the King. He doesn’t need to impress.

Damian has little to nothing at all to say in this scene. Everything is done by movement and sheer presence. He stares openly at Jayne Seymor and blatantly ignores all around him whilst at the same time silently daring them to comment on where his attention is fixed. He sits to the one side in his seat and shifts his positions slightly indicating impatience or indifference to those around him.

When Henry falls asleep at the dinner table, Cromwell has no wish to be the one to wake the sleeping dragon as it were and suggests that Francis Weston does so. Francis is no keener than Cromwell for the job and the men at the table embark on a discussion as to how to wake him without repercussion. Jayne Seymour impatient with the men simply walks up and taps the King on the hand a few times and wakes him up. His declaration that he “was just resting my eyes” only serves to add to the humour from our point of view though it is no laughing matter for those at the table who now try to ignore any awkwardness and pretend it hadn’t happened, in the King’s presence at least. He cuts an imposing figure.

With all the times he had to look left to right and back again between Damian and someone else, Mark Rylance could claim for repetitive strain injury. Cromwell doesn’t just sit at the King’s right hand. He sees everything, the King’s wandering eyes at the dinner table and later observes the King outside and alone with Jayne Seymour and there can be no doubt the King is smitten with her.

Cromwell has become extremely important to the King. Not for the first time, we see him discussing the King’s private life with others and practically arranging it for him. As the news that Anne is pregnant once more reaches Cromwell, Lady Ratchford says to him “that you should tell the King as he might Knight you on the spot”. In the context of what has gone before she is not exaggerating. The King is desperate for a son.

Meanwhile, Anne is blinded by her dislike of Catherine of Aragon and her constant fear of being replaced by Jayne Seymour. Wife 1 is not even dead yet and Henry is already entertaining the idea of wife number 3.

Wife 1 may not be dead yet, but she’s not far off it and Cromwell tries to suggest that, in the interest of diplomacy, Chapuys, be allowed to go and be with her as she passes. Anne scoffs at any such suggestion. The King agrees with Anne on this point or I rather think that the King is insulted that Chapuys and his master do not acknowledge his marriage and therefore his authority so decides to be spiteful and not allow it. When simply sitting in a chair or on horseback, tone of voice and posture become extremely important in indicating mood. Damian is at ease on his horse and in command. He firstly exerts his authority on the situation and then is bored with it. Cromwell will not argue with the King’s position. He has made it very clear.

We then see Anne thanking God and the reason is that news has arrived of the death of Catherine of Aragon.

The King, clearly happy to be rid of the burden of one of his wives, is strutting about the room with baby Elizabeth in his arms and a smile on his face. Anne is standing next to Cromwell smiling away as well…until the King opens his mouth and decides now that Catherine is out of the way he can turn attention to the other matter that bothers him.

source: BBC
source: BBC

“She is very much looking forward to seeing her younger brother. Aren’t you dumpling? And I share her impatience. It has been a long enough wait.”

He speaks deliberately through his child who at this point neither knows nor cares about the possibility of a baby brother and he chillingly uses the words to emphasise how much he expects that the baby on the way will be a boy. I say chillingly because a child represents innocence and he hides his threats in a veil of innocence.

Have you grown tired of hearing Teachers, Tutors or Professors impressing upon you the importance of enunciation? If you have, perhaps you should consider taking the advice on board because the only thing that reveals the threat more than the words themselves is how Damian says them. Managing to make the word dumpling sound like a threat deserves an Emmy in my opinion. “It has been a long enough wait” may as well be “or else”. Neither Anne nor Cromwell miss the threat or menace in both his words and stance. Anne and Cromwell are on one side of the screen together. Henry is opposite them and filling the space, standing over them and talking at them rather than to them.

The King is in his element in this scene. He has a lot to be pleased about after all, wife 1 is dead and wife two is frowning and temporarily mute until he mentions Catherine again. I get the impression he is now provoking Anne for his own enjoyment as she cannot hold her tongue when Catherine of Aragon is the subject of conversation.

“I suppose we must expect the Country to mourn for her. She was once given the title of Queen.”

To which Anne responds “wrongly”.

His answer to that is silence and then simply moves on to discuss Catherine’s death as though he were discussing the weather i.e. a minor inconvenience, declaring that she should be buried where it will cost less. He speaks quite softly here when giving out these orders and this only serves to further emphasise how dangerous Henry is.

Barely acknowledging Anne, he turns to Cromwell and speaks about Catherine

“She wrote me a letter. Get rid of it, I don’t want it.”

Anne of course smiles at these words, but it could not be clearer that the King did not say them to please her as only seconds later we see Cromwell noticing Anne noticing the King paying attention to Jayne Seymour (who looks uncomfortable at this point). Anne is not smiling anymore and looks as though someone just shoved dog’s dirt under her nose. The King is aware he is in Anne’s line of sight. He just doesn’t care.

Later on in the night Anne’s bed catches fire with her in it. The King arrives and we hear him saying “if I had been here…”. Quite what use he thinks he would have been is anyone’s guess since he rarely does or has to lift a hand for himself. Not only that, but the words don’t quite sound sincere. There is an air of falseness about him at that moment and it seemed to me that Anne saw through Henry’s false concern, for she speaks to Cromwell in French about the possibility it was deliberate. Henry again appears to be ignoring their conversation, but just as Cromwell is basically asking (still in French) Anne who she thinks may have done this, Henry interrupts the serious conversation by bemoaning the fact that the now ruined bed was “a good piece”. Damian says this with a straight face and seemingly now entirely unconcerned and unaffected by Anne’s concerns.

The next day we see Cromwell the King together as they discuss how much money is brought into the Archbishop. Cromwell is standing and the King is kneeling (at the alter). This seems an appropriate representation of their positions. There is no doubt that Cromwell serves the King, but equally there is no doubt that the King now relies on Cromwell greatly and more often than not defers to his advice.

As the King stands, Cromwell who seems concerned turns the topic of conversation to the joust that will take place later. Specifically focusing on the fact his son is set to run against Henry. In testament to the changing nature of their relationship Cromwell actually asks the King to “forebear to unhorse him if you can help it.”

The King cold as ever replies (in a bored tone of voice) “we can’t help what we do really. When you are thundering down at a man, you can’t chat.”

However, in a further testament to the changing nature of their relationship he firstly calls Cromwell “Crumb” and then pays a very serious and worried Cromwell a compliment about his son “he is very able”. The King doesn’t go out of his way to say things to people to make them feel better. He may never say it out loud, but the King is becoming a little fond of Cromwell. We even get a smile when Cromwell admits he doesn’t really care how well his son shows up in the joust, only that “he is not flattened”.

Then comes the accident that turns the King from a dangerous man, but one capable of warmth at times into a walking volcano. Before any joust can actually take place, Henry’s horse goes down and he goes too. He is thought to be dead. Cromwell is not in attendance at the joust. He used the excuse of work, but it is clear he was far too nervous to watch his son take part. When told of the King’s ‘death’ Cromwell’s first reaction is “ah” and then to pick up a knife as he goes outside. Rafe whispers to him that “if the King really is dead, we should escape now before they close the ports”. Cromwell choses to go to the King.

As Cromwell enters the area where the King is laid out, there is a lot of arguing about who should take over between the many gathered there. A fine example of loyal subjects on display. Cromwell is immediately concerned for Mary’s (the King’s daughter with Catherine) safety. He fears that with her father dead, she is dead too (by the hands of the Boleyn’s) and that if she is allowed to fall in to the hands of Rome she would be set up as Queen, risking Civil War and this would be his death warrant as well.

There is a lot of noise in this scene with distractions everywhere although, after much agonising, Cromwell realises the King is not actually dead and revives him.

Later on we see Cromwell lamenting “How many men can say my only friend is the King of England. You think I have everything, but take Henry away…”

Take Henry away and Cromwell is a dead man and he knows it.

Cromwell is advised of support to overthrow the Boleyn’s and that Sir Nicholas Carew thinks “you are an easy fellow to get on with.”

We see Cromwell thinking very deeply. More and more he finds himself caught between Anne and the King. He is expected to keep both of them happy, but realistically he knows this is not possible and he has seen more than anyone that the King’s attention and affections have been wandering to Jayne Seymour. He also knows that as Anne and Henry’s relationship continues to fracture his loyalty has to be to the King. Anne is much aware of this and is finding issue with Cromwell. Cromwell is also very much aware of that and he knows that, even if it could be said the King is fond of him, if Anne gives the King a son, Cromwell is a dead man. Anne would make sure of it. A son is the only thing that matters to Henry.

Anne and entourage come to check on the King after accident. The King is leaning to the one side of his chair again. His eyes are blazing. He fidgets in his seat and he is literally giving off burning heat. Cromwell, who is standing off to the King’s side, has noticed it and we have noticed, but Anne contrives to appease the King in the most idiotic way. If someone is looking at you the way he was looking at her, you use common sense and keep quite. Saying something for the sake of it when you could cut the atmosphere in the room with a knife is a bad idea.

Anne says that “the whole of England prays that you would not joust again.”

The King slowly leans forward and there is menace in the movement, indicating to Anne to step closer and spits his angry words at her “Why not geld me while you are at it? That would suit you wouldn’t it, Madam?”

Anne and the others then literally flee the room. No one wants to stay in a room engulfed with the King’s anger and mistrust.

Save for Cromwell, and rather tellingly, Jayne Seymour is only one who does not back away from King’s Anger.

The downward spiral which began with Henry’s accident the day of the joust continues to pick up pace. Word is brought to Henry that Anne has miscarried by Lady Rotchford “the child had the appearance of a male and of about 15 weeks’ gestation.”

There is no sensitivity or concern from Henry for his wife or at the loss of the child at all, only anger and he is indignant that he is yet again to be denied a male heir. “What do you mean the appearance of?” He asks this in exasperation.

Lady Rotchford replies, “I only repeat the words of the Doctor.”

Henry answers to this “Oh get away with you woman. You have never given birth. What do you know?”

He continues to rant “There should have been a Matron at her bedside, but no you Boleyn’s must crowd round when disaster strikes.”

He must blame them and not Anne feeling stress at the thought of being replaced by Jayne Seymour or his previous outbursts at her. No, it’s all the Boleyn’s fault…until he decides it is God’s fault of course.

Cantankerous, irascible, bad tempered, cross? Whichever way you say it, he is not happy. He is totally unreasonable, agitated and self-centred in this scene.

His angry voice then gives way to his soft voice and that is when you know danger is coming as he plots for the future…his future without Anne.

“If a King cannot have a son. If he cannot give stability to his realm then it doesn’t matter what else he can do. The Victories. For just laws. The famous Courts. Nothing. It seems to me that I was dishonestly led into this marriage. It seems to me I was seduced. Practiced upon. Perhaps with charms. With spells…women do such things.” He nods his head as though revealing a secret. “And if that were so the marriage would be nul, wouldn’t it?”

Silence is all that greets him, but he knows he has been heard. He is threatening, demanding and menacing. There are no need for answers because there were no questions, only orders and instructions which he does not expect to have to explain further, but fully expects Cromwell to get around to carrying them out and Cromwell will because he won’t argue with the King. He wishes to accept no responsibility in his marriage to Anne. She fooled him and that is that.

Henry is now fixated on Jayne Seymour and cares not a jot how his attentions to her affect Anne. He sends Jayne Seymour a purse with money and a letter. She sends both back and does not open the letter, but does kiss the seal before sending the letter back. Thereafter Henry is walking around talking of “the virtuous and chaste Jayne.

The King’s mood swings are so bad that even Cromwell who is normally able to judge makes a tremendous error in advising Chapuys. Chapuys was idiotic to say the least to address Henry at all and manages to land Cromwell in it.

As the King shouts at Chapuys about his master refusing to acknowledge his marriage to Anne – at this point it is definitely more about the King’s honour and pride than his actual being married to Anne – and all the help the King gave him previously, he rages rather ironically that

“The Emperor treats me like an infant.”

After shouting a lot at Chapuys Henry storms from the room only to storm back in once it occurs to him that Cromwell had been speaking with Chapuys.

He is incandescent with rage by this point and towers over Cromwell, yelling his head off

You have gone too far.”

“You have no authority.”

“You have put my honour in jeopardy. What do I expect? What would a man like you know about the honour of princes?

He says a lot more and Cromwell just stands there and takes it until that last quote. It seems that is Cromwell’s breaking point where he can stand to listen to no more. However, he does not argue back. He merely lifts his arms and crosses them in front of his face, saying to Henry “God preserve you your majesty…and now if you’ll excuse me…” He then leaves the room. The King is so confused by this action that he does not call Cromwell back. He does not possess the ability to stay silent when provoked so perhaps it is no wonder he is confused by Cromwell’s discipline. We later see a flashback which explains. When a young Cromwell had hurt himself and cut his hands, his dad told him to put his hands in water and cross his arms as “it confuses the pain”. It certainly did here.

The King was quite publically nasty and vicious to his right hand man and perhaps he realises it because the next day he asks Cromwell to walk with him. His conversation is awkward. This is a man who does not know how to and, probably has never felt the need to apologise to anyone before, but here he is so obviously trying to apologise to Cromwell without actually saying “I’m sorry”. He says to Cromwell that he “should go down to the weild with him one day”. The King offering his company? Now there’s an apology.

The King does not want something for nothing though. I’m sure he did mean to apologise, but he is also self-centred and needs Cromwell. He speaks a bit like a child here which is again ironic when earlier he was complaining about being treated like an infant.

source: BBC
source: BBC

He needs Cromwell to find a way to get rid of Anne and suggests that Cromwell make something of Anne’s relationship with Harry Percy who she was as good as married to before Henry, adding that “and if that won’t run you know I was on occasion with Anne’s sister, Mary. Perhaps having been with kin so near…Anyway I trust in your discretion and Skill. Be very secret.”

He does trust Crowell’s discretion and Trust but this is yet again another thinly veiled threat of “get it done or else.”

The King is then to be found staring out the window at his latest object of desire and declares “does not mistress Seymour have the tiniest hands?”

After Henry has left the room the men in the room meet said statement with derision.

Wolfhall shows that people are not afraid to mock Henry behind his back, about his ability as far as his love life is concerned, chiefly around the inability to conceive a son and his perceived general ignorance. They feel safe given their own positions to be able to do this. They should know better. Rafe who was in the room brings news of their discussions to Cromwell, principally that Henry cannot be trusted to do the deed (get Anne pregnant again and with a son) so one of them will have to do it for him.

Wolsey, who ended up dead because he would not make the match between Anne and Henry when Henry’s favour changed in that direction and, who was a good friend of Cromwell’s, appears to Cromwell in a vision. He tells him “the King wants a new wife. Fix him one. I didn’t and I am dead”. Cromwell therefore plans to use the information Rafe brought him.

The King is impatient, indifferent and arrogant and sometimes all at once. He is spoken about as though he is stupid. He may not have the intelligence of Cromwell, but that does not mean he is stupid and more than once a look from Damian, a hand gesture or a slight change in stance is used to suggest that he is more aware than he is given credit for. It is not unreasonable to believe he could guess exactly what was going on while he was unconscious. Nor is it unreasonable to believe that he is perfectly aware of how badly everything would turn out for Cromwell had he died. Yet, he will know that not only did Cromwell chose to come to him even when he was thought dead, but he was actually the one who revived him. The King may not hear and see everything, but his right hand man does and together they are a formidable double team and those gossiping about the King will pay dearly for it.

The King is in the mood to chop off the heads of anyone that irritates him. At this particular point in time Anne Boleyn’s head is moving ever closer to the chopping block.


This episode is about subtly and reading between the lines. It relies on Damian and Mark’s relationship and their character’s leaning on one another emotionally and physically. When I say physically I mean their presence in a scene i.e. The King’s rage at Cromwell. Damian is physically exerting himself over Mark who makes himself smaller as Damian commands the space. It is also about them relying on each other because they are so suspicious of everyone else. Cromwell knows without a doubt he can’t trust anyone at all and the King comes to the realisation that Cromwell may very well be the only one he can trust. They are very co-dependent.

source: BBC
source: BBC

Henry surfs a whole range of emotions in this episode from A – Z and back again. Damian plays him as a minefield of emotions exploding on, at and around everyone unfortunate enough to be near him.

Wolfhall gave us great entertainment and a great cast to deliver it.

We wish Damian, Wolfhall and Mark all the best on Sunday.

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.