1531: one year after Wolsey’s death, one year into Cromwell’s royal prepotency, one year closer to the Break with Rome. Even in the context of this weekly serial drama, ‘Wolf Hall’ made the pace of change and tension discernible; opening with More reading aloud in Latin, anew in his appointment to Lord Chancellor. Political and religious change permeated the political, religious, social, cultural and, especially, sexual aspects of this episode. Our acquaintance with Catherine of Aragon in the previous episodes has been slight, but sympathetic. So really there was nothing new this week, except the distinct hopelessness of her regaining any favour with the king or his court. What particularly resonated was Catherine’s grievance not at Henry running off to Chertsey with his ‘Jezebel’, but at him not ‘saying goodbye’ before doing so. Perhaps this injects unnecessary romance, but it’s certainly interesting that ‘Wolf Hall’ sidelines Catherine as a cause of her own annulment; as reflected in Parliament, the ‘matter’ of Henry’s personal life rests entirely with the king and his minister.
Even though Cromwell is manipulating and colluding with the brother of the “odd” Jane Seymour, he remains a whole lot nicer than the Latin-speaking, and hence innately shady, More. I think that More has been given a harsh treatment by Hilary Mantel, but that even Cromwell buys in to Elizabeth Barton’s Catholic prophesies gives some due back to More’s cause. To a twenty-first century audience, the alleged Holy Maid of Kent brings heresy to the forefront as a real political issue, underpinning and almost undermining the entire Reformation.
Our minister, Cromwell, now ‘writes all the laws’. We see him holding sway over the king and holding up a swaying, queasy Henry. Even though his influence is so far-reaching, ‘Wolf Hall’ doesn’t present Cromwell as power hungry. His background as a humble blacksmith remains sensitive and motivates his request for a position in Anne’s household; Master of the Jewel House he may become, but as with Henry, Anne wears the trousers. In a Tudor court where it’s quickly becoming a game of who hasn’t been seduced by Anne, she touches Cromwell’s hand, but unlike the king, this courtier does not go weak at the knees. His relationship with Anne is very much political, and even when he enters her bedchamber to deliver a kiss from her babyfather, Cromwell never hides his constitutional perspective of Anne. In joking that the nation would be bankrupt for the cash advances given to Anne for each inch of flesh shown, he really is quite degrading of her. There is little compassion for Anne, which will probably only serve to make the audience complicit in her beheading for believing the claims of cheating and incest to come.
Rather, Cromwell’s unconstitutional behaviour is reserved for Anne’s sister. Suffice to say that even though he’d let loose the Duke of Norfolk to “bite [the] bollocks off” anyone slandering Anne’s “freedom”, Cromwell is the real lothario. Cromwell is again one step behind Henry in his affair with Mary Boleyn. Here is a sister who is loyal, likeable and really quite ardent to Anne, the Tudor Pippa to Kate Middleton, if you will. The sex in this episode was inescapable, but I don’t think that it trivialised ‘Wolf Hall’ into being like every other television drama. By his own admittance, Damian Lewis’ Henry rules with his heart and follows only “one hind”; the implication is that Cromwell must rule with his head, even if he is subject to Henry’s heart and whim.
‘Wolf Hall’, then, demonstrates the consequences of politicised love; Anne’s coronation in Calais – the oft-emphasised lost tenet of English colonialism in France – proves that passion has prevailed. Politics has been left to follow in its wake. Obviously, the Reformation had national and international repercussions in religion and ‘Wolf Hall’ did not ignore these, but instead honed in on the central court itself. Anne is not oblivious of her national unpopularity, but is negligent of the impact her marriage has on her step-daughter, the future Mary I. Aged just 17 years at this point, her practiced pretend “humble face” really sheds light on how and why she later earned her maligned reputation.
For now, the only character with any semblance to bloodiness remains Anne. She knows that her son will make the rest of the courtiers powerless; what we know is that her daughter that can’t seal the Tudor dynasty’s fate will seal Anne’s. It is this fact that ends the episode with a brilliant should-be cliffhanger. The dramatic irony, the historicity, of the hoped-for heir is compelling to watch. It’s here that history makes great television. I really can’t wait for next week’s episode, which I’ll certainly be watching along with the National Trust’s ‘Wolf Hall’ ‘bingo’ card. To find it, simply follow this link: https://www.facebook.com/nationaltrust/photos/a.97566018585.89649.13533633585/10153132516838586/?type=1