‘Wolf Hall’: Episode Five

A portrait of Henry VIII with his family. On his left is his third wife, Jane Seymour.

Two years on from Elizabeth’s birth, one year before Anne Boleyn’s death; in its penultimate week, ‘Wolf Hall’ explores 1535. In the same episode that begins by passing the very ‘Act of Supremacy’ that legitimises Henry’s marriage to Anne, the King implores Thomas Cromwell to cut short the union. The cause, of course, is Jane Seymour, whose portrayal was intriguing. Presented as chaste, she is also unexpectedly audacious. Cue the royal progress to Wolf Hall itself, much anticipated by all the courtiers – all except our delectable King, who fell asleep mid feast at the table. Whereas the male guests were baffled, Seymour, the only female diner present, woke the King. Rather than being reprimanded by Henry, Jane instead was sent a sealed letter, which she kissed instead of opening. Compared to his wife’s raucous egoism that a “new England” incited by herself can “subsist” only with her, it seems obvious why Henry would be attracted to Jane.

Perhaps ‘Wolf Hall’ this week came dangerously close to depicting a love story, but I think that this in any case is a better modification than the usual interpretation of Henry VIII as the malicious wife-grabber. Yet again, Kosminsky presents us with a relatable character as he carries the toddler Elizabeth, yet with the political and dynastic concerns ever prevalent as his main personal concerns. Thus, he shares his daughter’s ‘impatience’ as she waits for a younger brother. What is most apparent is that any notional ‘new England’ is wholly dependent on the birth of a son. Anne was, despite what she may have thought, expedient. Her “plans and schemes” were not enough to maintain her political influence and neither was depriving Princess Mary of a royal marriage alliance.

Relations are strained, not merely between the King and his Queen, but also with Cromwell. As Henry stares longingly at Jane, Anne bores bitterly into Henry and the political implications are clear. Whereas Anne failed to produce an heir or reach a French alliance by marrying off Elizabeth, Jane offered dynastic hope and the rise of a much more amicable faction. Although ‘Wolf Hall’ makes it seem as though Anne’s miscarriage of a possible son sealed the deal on her fate, it is just as apparent that her fate is intricately bound to Cromwell’s.

Chapuys, the ambassador sent to England on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor, reminds Cromwell that it was Anne Boleyn who onset Wolsey’s fall. Consequently, ‘Wolf Hall’ commences a race: who will fall first, Cromwell or Anne? Who will politically outlast the other? Henry asserts that he was “dishonestly led” into his marriage and although the accusation of witchcraft is placed on Anne, there is no escaping the allusion to Cromwell as having tricked him too. After the 1535 Act of Treason, heresy was equated with treason, as More so haphazardly found out in last week’s episode. Whilst a predominantly female crime, the belief, fear and even accusations of magic were not restricted to women alone. So Henry’s allegation against Anne’s sorcery is entirely directed at Cromwell, too.

Cromwell’s dependence on the King is a fact known by the minister, the King and Boleyn. Any notion of interdependence that was so prominent after Wolsey’s death is now only ostensible; although Cromwell is the one to physically revive Henry after a jousting accident, Henry very much puts him back in his place. Cromwell knows how to survive, either by anticipating the King’s “desires” or by dodging quickly and adeptly out of the way. But the King knows how to knock Cromwell down.

Even though the King’s excommunication looms nigh, Damian Lewis’ Henry is explicitly not a law unto his own, for it was a law very much presided over by Cromwell. Thus, the King is not impressed that the Emperor is in treaty negotiations with France, for this would have the international effect of isolating England. Neither is he happy that Princess Mary would be the one to resurrect England’s chances with a foreign match. It’s left to Cromwell to persuade Chapuys to put in a good word with the Pope, which in the political context proves that he is much, much more than a mere intermediary. The relationship shared between the King and his minister is anything but simple, even if Henry can’t – or won’t – acknowledge it. Neither will Henry listen to Anne, though this is not surprising really.

My favourite scene of this episode was when Anne publicly dressed down her increasingly estranged husband, ordering him not to joust ever again. It was a domestic that wouldn’t have been out of place in any other television drama; but it depicted a historical event that marked and marred a turning point both in the reign of Henry and in the political life of Anne. Her sway was diminishing, rapidly, whilst his determination to bear an heir was only increasing.

It is also of significance, and again of little surprise, that even Henry’s waging war on Anne is presented as not softening his loathing for his ex-wife, Catherine of Aragon. Her deceased body would be laid to rest in Peterborough, for the simple reason of it costing less. Her will entrusted the care of the Princess to her father; fair, but as demonstrated by the reluctant marriage search, not followed through.

The episode concluded with Henry’s plea to be rid of Anne; in next week’s final episode, his heart will be fulfilled and her head will…well, you know how the rhyme goes! Inevitably, the last episode will also see Cromwell’s demise. It has so far been hinted at, but it will be exciting to see how it is portrayed to an audience fully persuaded in his favour.

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