I didn’t watch the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall first time around because I’d started the (first) novel—all 650 pages—of it and didn’t get beyond the first 20 pages. It begins in Putney, 1500, with young Thomas Cromwell getting the living daylights kicked out of him by his father. He flees to his sister Kat’s, to be consoled and then flees further, abroad. Most writing is judged in the first few pages. This wasn’t the book for me.
Yet, I started watching the screen adaptation by Peter Straughan and I was hooked. The incident that begins the book is presented as a flashback. Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a grown man with a wife and three daughters. His patron, Cardinal Wolsley (Jonathan Pryce), is in trouble. King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) wants to divorce Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), his brother’s widow, because she cannot produce for him the male heir he needs to cement his dynasty. King Henry VIII claims she was not a virgin on their wedding night.
We all know about Henry VIII and his six wives. Katherine of Aragon introduced the Spanish farthingdale, the cone shaped structure worn under a dress, to the Royal Court. Henry VIII was a spendthrift and fashion trendsetter. The warrior Queen Katherine shows her loyalty to her Spanish forbearers by wearing a Spanish headdress. Henry VIII’s Sumptuary laws, 1510, against the ‘wearing of costly apparel’ in men’s fashions, by which the King decides who should wear what clothes, means at a glance he can tell what’s what and who’s who. Cromwell, the black crow, is obviously nothing. The King has the richest plume of colours. His wardrobe lists 134 doublets made from 29 different fabrics. They are the Posh and Becks of their time.
Wolf Hall does not however show the aristocratic men wearing codpieces. They were part of men’s upper hose, reach elaborate decorative heights in the early years of Henry’s reign, a habit carried over for Henry VII. Henry VIII’s codpieces would have been gilded with gold. No doubt priapic and measuring more than eight inches. A man needed room to store his jewels. Not just a piece of cloth. A symbol of male virility.
1521, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) enters the service of Katherine of Aragon. Fireworks. Henry VIII with his wandering eye. Katherine of Aragon has produced a male heir, but he lasted seven days. She’s produced miscarriage after miscarriage and one female princess, Mary (later Mary I). Henry acknowledges a bastard child, a male child, by another courtier as his own. Henry tells Katherine his doubts about the validity of their marriage. He tells Cromwell to fix it.
Cromwell’s mentor and former master Cardinal Wolsey has been exiled north. Wolsley’s inability to fix it with the Pope has moved him out of royal favour and royal circles. Cromwell is the king’s ‘right hand’. His lowly birth and his connections with the lower classes he plays to his advantage, setting up a spy network that trades in rumours and truth. To please the King, a group of noblemen murder Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell watches from the side-lines as they play it out in a grotesque masque for his King. He does not swear revenge, he waits and gathers evidence.
We know, of course, 1536 Anne Boleyn will be beheaded. ‘Such a little neck,’ she’ll proclaim. Here we have it. Having not read Wolf Hall, is no disadvantage. Cromwell (fictional Cromwell, not Cromwell, the Archbishop of Canterbury) was born in 1500 then by Ann Boelyn’s death, Cromwell, in his forties, and at the peak of his power. Eleven days later Henry VIII marries another courtier, Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). We do not see this. Nor the Act of Supremacy making Henry VIII the Head of the Church of England, breaking with the Catholic Church in Rome. Drama is personal. 1532, Katherine of Aragon is made to give back the Queen of England’s jewels. Anne Boleyn has the crown. Love and hate, played against the backdrop of Boleyn’s marriage, not her death. She produces a girl, a future Queen, Elizabeth I, that’s for later history, becoming herstory. Not enough, for now.
Breaking up churches and monasteries enriches Henry VIII, but it also makes Cromwell more powerful. ‘Power corrupts,’ argues historian Robert A.Caro, ‘but it also reveals’. Drama also reveals the fault lines in the royal court, the scrambling for power and influence. Cromwell, the power behind the throne. A wonderful drama. I’m almost tempted to give Wolf Hall, Mantel’s novel, another try.