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Review of Wolf Hall, Episode 3: Anna Regina

By Nancy Bilyeau

In Episode 3, “Anna Regina,” one queen is exiled and another queen is crowned. Although King Henry VIII is the husband in question, none of this could have happened without the ingenuity of Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of Wolf Hall. “This is Master Cromwell, he used to be a moneylender, now he writes all the laws,” says an appalled Catherine of Aragon to her daughter, Princess Mary.


As with the previous episodes, a high level of Tudor knowledge is assumed. The events that occur in “Anne Regina” are momentous not only to the series but are actual turning points in the history of England, setting in motion the Reformation, the Elizabeth Age, and many another era. But to watch this episode is to see a vote, a marriage, a burning, and other things, and it’s not always clear why they are happening or what connects them.


An explanation: Three things happened that made it possible for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn. Without these three factors, there’d have been no marriage.

The first is that Henry VIII had no male heir after 20 years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, born a Spanish princess to a family more powerful than the Tudors. The king’s obsession with a son seems sexist and wrong to modern viewers, but securing the succession was a genuine problem. England had endured generations of civil war—now known as the Wars of the Roses—in which various branches of the Plantagenet family kept overthrowing each other. The Tudor dynasty was only 44 years old in 1529. His father, Henry VII, took the throne not through anything remotely resembling a legal or orderly transition. He gathered an army in France of disaffected nobles and mercenaries and invaded England, defeating at Bosworth a king, Richard III, who was intelligent, skilled and ruthless. There were ample other precedents for loss of a throne. With the prevailing 16th century belief that women were “inferior,” Henry VIII was not wrong to fear that a daughter could lose England to rivals.

The second thing that happened was the character of Anne Boleyn herself. There are few women who possessed the determination to supplant a born royal—Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella—and the strength to ride out the ferocious disapproval she provoked, in England and in most of Europe. When Henry VIII fell in love with her, he did not intend to marry her, historians agree. But Anne refused to become his mistress, and her ambition to marry, once united with his, was a force that destroyed those who failed or opposed them—Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was just the beginning.


The third factor is the religious split. Until Martin Luther nailed his theses to the wall in 1517, all Christians were Catholic. By the time of Henry VIII’s “Great Matter,” the authority of the Pope was being denied in the German states, and doubts were spreading throughout France, Scandinavia…and England. Henry VIII wanted to end his first marriage on a point of theology and remain Catholic, the “defender of the faith,” as he was named in 1521 after writing an attack of Luther. Popes in the past had granted annulments to kings on pretexts even flimsier than King Henry’s. But Catherine of Aragon’s nephew was Charles V, and so Pope Clement delayed a ruling for years. Henry VIII repeatedly warned the pope that if he did not receive an annulment he would break from the church as others were doing. But the pope did not believe him—until it was too late.

When the episode begins, Sir Thomas More, the lord chancellor of England and a man of great piety, is personally overseeing the grotesque torture on the rack of an English barrister, James Bainham, accused of heresy. Bainham believes that the Bible should be widely read in English and does not believe in the sacredness of Communion or the existence of Purgatory.

This is one of the most controversial scenes in the Wolf Hall series, causing tremendous anguish to those who admire Sir Thomas More and say that the historical record does not support More personally torturing heretics. (The main source of this is the anti-Catholic writer John Foxe, who published his “Book of Martyrs” a generation later.) The novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are written in the first-person point of view, and since Cromwell helped bring about the death of More, it is to be expected that written passages would take a dim view of the “Man for All Seasons.” But in this torture scene, Cromwell is nowhere to be seen. It is the omniscient camera that pans away from More calmly reading Latin to the sight of a helpless man, moaning as he suffers the agony of the rack.


Cromwell does appear in the next scene, a tense audience with Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary. “The king has merely defined a position,” Cromwell says to the queen, but she will have none of it, correctly pointing out that he is crafting the parliamentary legislation making Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England.

When informed that she will now live in the country, away from King Henry, Catherine replies: “I expected this. But I didn’t expect he would send a man like you to tell me.”

In the next scene, Cromwell enjoys the comforts of being in bed with his sister-in-law, Joan. He’d like to discuss a present for her, but she is beset by fear that God will not be happy with what Cromwell is doing to the kingdom. She then relays a piece of gossip: a nun named Elizabeth Barton prophesizes that if the king marries Anne Boleyn, he will die.


“Aren’t you afraid?” Joan asks. Cromwell isn’t. And a little later, he reads a letter smuggled to him at considerable risk from William Tyndale, translating the bible into English while hiding in Antwerp.

Cromwell’s first scene with Anne Boleyn makes clear their new, friendly relationship: laughing, teasing, cooperating, even conspiring. She promises him that she will get James Bainham released. “People should say whatever will keep them alive,” she says scornfully, when Cromwell worries that Bainham might refuse to recant his religious beliefs. (When their time came, neither Anne Boleyn nor Thomas Cromwell were able to come up with the words that would keep them alive.)

Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister and servant and Henry’s ex-mistress, tells Cromwell that Anne has not yet slept with the king. “She’s selling herself by the inch. She wants a cash present for every advance above the knee,” she tells Cromwell. (This scene is unlikely to please Anne Boleyn adherents.)

Cromwell is working at his desk when More springs a surprise visit on him. Refusing offers of food or wine, the lord chancellor says he wants to inform Cromwell that “your friend Bainham has recanted his heresy and been released.”


With the Muslim Turks battling the Christian armies in Europe and winning, More demands to know why Cromwell picks this time to weaken the power of the Catholic Church. “I think your faith is for purchase,” More says and then reveals he knows all about Cromwell’s letters back and forth from Tyndale.

“Are you threatening me? I’m just interested,” Cromwell asks.

“Yes, that’s precisely what I’m doing,” More says.

It is Cromwell’s love life that comes to the fore next, when Joan tells him, with regret, that her mother knows about their affair and they should break it off. Although in reality he was a widower whose name was not firmly linked to any woman’s, in Wolf Hall Cromwell is a George Clooney of the Tudor court. In this episode alone, he sleeps with one lover, is propositioned by another woman, fantasizes about fondling a third, and makes tentative approaches toward a union with a fourth.

Cromwell’s and Joan’s wrenching scene is interrupted by alarming news: a former suitor of Anne Boleyn’s says he was in fact married to Anne Boleyn, which means she cannot wed Henry VIII. The Boleyn/Howard faction summons Cromwell. Cardinal Wolsey was the one who “fixed” Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, last time. Cromwell must now step into the cardinal’s shoes and fix him again.

He finds Percy drunk, slumped over in a whorehouse. Cromwell spells out to Percy what will happen if he thwarts Anne Boleyn: “you’re a man who has borrowed all over Europe, I’m a man who knows your creditors.” Percy goes away again.

Thomas More, distressed by the bills in Parliament that break allegiance to the pope, resigns his office as lord chancellor, to the undisguised glee of Anne Boleyn and the satisfaction of Cromwell. In an interesting use of color and space, we see Cromwell escorting Anne from a palace window above to the ground below. He hands Anne, dressed in red, to the king, the only other person clad in red, and they preside off together. Cromwell is left behind to deliver a taunt to More. “My turn, don’t you think?”

Now the path is cleared to success. Thomas Cranmer replaces William Warham as archbishop of Canterbury after his death of old age, and Cromwell ally Thomas Audley replaces More. The king and Anne Boleyn will travel to Calais, the only remaining English-owned territory on French soil, to discuss a treaty with King Francis and bask in his approval of their imminent marriage.

Before they travel to Calais, a drunk King Henry says he will give Cromwell the post of Keeper of the Jewel House (Cromwell actually put the suggestion into the ears of the Boleyn women.) “Everything that you are, everything that you have, shall come from me.”

The volatile king also confides that he shakes with unsatisfied desire for Anne Boleyn. When he tried to sleep with other women to “take the edge off the lust,” he was impotent. “Which is proof of the rightness of my pursuit,” he says. Henry VIII, an anointed sovereign, sees God’s will showing itself to him in such ways. (The divine right of kings was an accepted belief until the tragedy of Charles I, the great-great-grandson of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret.)

The king’s confidence is put to the test when in Canterbury he encounters the nun that Joan told Cromwell about: Sister Elizabeth Barton. Surrounded by monks, she proclaims that Henry VIII will die himself if he does not burn the heretics who surround him. When she mentions seeing his mother in a vision, it upsets Henry VIII, and the nun is hurried away. Cromwell follows her and offers to pay her money if she can help him communicate with the dead Thomas Wolsey. She is hesitant. (To learn more about Elizabeth Barton, go here.)

In Calais, after her flirting with King Francis enrages Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn finally sleeps with the English monarch. “If he’s shy, Anne will know how to help—I’ve coached her,” Mary Boleyn tells Cromwell. She suggests to Cromwell they have sex too, but they are interrupted.

Once they all return to England, Anne and Henry are married and she is crowned in Westminster Abbey. After visiting the triumphant and visibly pregnant Queen Anne, Cromwell speaks to one of her ladies, Jane Seymour, whom he is fond of. He’s already sent her a present of needlework patterns, which is significant—his dead wife Liz and his lover Joan are repeatedly shown sewing. In addition, Cromwell has already asked her brother Edward if their father has arranged a match for Jane.


Cromwell now advises Jane, whose family is mired in scandal at their country estate, Wolf Hall, to stay close to the new queen. Jane says drily, “Well it’s good to be humble and she makes sure we are.”

All is not going Cromwell’s way. James Bainham cannot restrain himself from preaching scripture in English during a church service. He rejects his earlier recantation and is imprisoned. Cromwell visits him in the Tower of London to tell him an escape plan is in the works. “What would be the point, Thomas? I cannot unbelieve what I believe.”

Bainham dies at Smithfield, burned at the stake while a sorrowful Thomas Cromwell watches.

At the end of the episode, Anne Boleyn withdraws from the public eye to await the birth of her child. She has promised her husband a son. Henry VIII is convinced that God gave him no male children in his first marriage because it was unlawful and cursed. Should Anne now give birth to a prince, it proves that his cause—which has already cost some people their lives—is sanctioned by God.

Ralph Sadler says to Cromwell, “All of our fortunes depend on this lady now.”

The kingdom waits…

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII. For more information, go to


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