By Nancy Bilyeau
“Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the joust.”
These are the cold words of Henry VIII on hearing that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, has given birth to a daughter and not the son he’d wrecked so many lives to get.
In Episode 4, “Devil’s Spit,” disappointment and fear run through the story. The relationship Thomas Cromwell, chief minister, has with the king and queen shows signs of strain. His interests and Anne Boleyn’s are no longer in perfect harmony, and as he confesses to Thomas More at one point, he is capable of a mercy that the king is not. Cromwell is indispensable to the royal couple, but things are not going their way, and he is both unfairly blamed and severely pressured, to the point that that the strain nearly kills him.
Queen Anne is shown, unhappy and distracted, with her daughter in a cradle. She commands Cromwell to break up the household of her stepdaughter, the Lady Mary, and send Catherine of Aragon’s daughter to be a servant to Princess Elizabeth. “She is a bastard,” says the queen. “There can be no pretense of equality.”
In contrast to Anne Boleyn’s harsh nature, Cromwell sees the good-natured young Jane Seymour in court, holding a puppy. A woman sidles up to him while he watches Jane. It is Lady Rochford, unhappily married to Anne’s brother, George, and even nastier than the queen. “The Seymours are poor, they’ll sell her to you happily,” she says, tauntingly. She also offers to spy for Cromwell in Anne’s chambers, where all is not as ladylike as it seems. “Do you really think she’s given up all her nimble young men?”
Enough of that for now. What follows is Cromwell, deep in political difficulties, trying to protect the king from his enemies. The prophecy-spouting nun who appeared in the last episode, Sister Elizabeth Barton, is receiving all sorts of visitors, Ralph Sadler tells his master. Among them are one of the leading churchmen in the country, Bishop John Fisher, and aristocrats who may harbor disloyalty to Henry VIII and are seizing on Barton’s predictions of a dire end to Henry for their own purposes. “Bring them in,” says Cromwell.
A tough and wily Cromwell questions Barton, who comes across as vindictive and unbalanced, and then interviews each of the important people who’ve been conspiring with the nun. Not one of them comes within a country mile of Cromwell’s abilities and intelligence. The true motive of the last remaining Plantagenets’ unhappiness with Henry VIII during this period is not explored in Wolf Hall—their respect and affection for Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon; their (justifiable) fear for what will happen to her daughter Mary; and their fear of the country’s religious future in this fast-moving Reformation. Instead, the Poles and Courtenays and Bishop Fisher, one of the most respected scholars in all of Europe in the early 16th century, are shown as stupid, easily duped, and ungrateful for Henry VIII’s supposed years of kindness.
Wolf Hall strains to connect the followers of Sister Elizabeth Barton to an international conspiracy bent on destroying England and taking orders from Rome. At one point, Cromwell tells Margaret Pole, the niece of Edward IV, that through his spies in the kitchen he knows that her sons, Henry and Geoffrey Pole, had dinner with the Lady Mary twice and “talked about the Emperor, the invasion, and the best way to bring it about.” The Emperor Charles V was Mary Tudor’s first cousin through her Mother, and according to Wolf Hall, England was terrified of Spanish invasion in the mid-1530s.
There are two problems with this scene. One is that as Anne Boleyn made clear at the beginning of the episode, Lady Mary is a virtual prisoner in the household of her half-sister Princess Elizabeth. She was in reality subjected to emotional and even physical abuse during this time and watched like a hawk for receiving any letters from sympathizers. The possibility that she could escape her jailers to have dinner with her Yorkist relations and drink toasts to Spanish invasion is nothing short of ludicrous. Second, if such dinners had taken place it would fit the definition of treason to a “T.” All parties would have been carted to the Tower of London immediately. Several years later, when a religious rebellion in the North of England left Henry VIII even more paranoid, Cromwell would orchestrate the destruction of Henry Pole and Edward Courtenay on evidence much flimsier than the content of these alleged dinners. But the deaths of those found guilty in the “Exeter Conspiracy” lies years ahead of this episode, between Wife No. 3 and Wife No. 4.
The heart of “Devil’s Spit” belongs to the fraught friendship of Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. In the previous episode, More went out of his way to inform Cromwell that he refused to see Elizabeth Barton and believed she was nothing but an attention seeker. Cromwell in turn emphasizes to King Henry that More, his former chancellor, is “clear” of suspicion. But Anne Boleyn orders Cromwell to put More’s name on the list of the bill of indictment even though she knows he isn’t guilty. “I want him frightened,” she snaps. Henry VIII goes along with his difficult queen.
After begging the Duke of Norfolk to join them to plead for the removal of More’s name from the list, in the only scene of this episode containing any humor, Cromwell, Audley, Cranmer and Norfolk silently kneel before Henry VIII until he relents.
The reason for the king catering to Anne Boleyn is revealed. The queen is pregnant again. Henry VIII shares the news with Cromwell, calling him “Crum,” with a bear hug and a heartfelt, “England is ours.” The closeness of the two men has never been more profound.
More escapes being executed with Sister Elizabeth Barton and her monastic followers, but he will not sign the Act Respecting the Oath of Succession. This oath, passed by Parliament in late 1534, required English subjects to swear to recognize Anne Boleyn as queen, her children with Henry VIII as the only heirs to the throne. It also confirmed the statute making Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England. More was prepared to accept Anne Boleyn and her children but not say that the king was the head of the church.
“I can’t take the oath, but I won’t speak against it,” More tells Cromwell and the rest of the king’s council. He takes refuge in silence. Nonetheless, Cromwell must send More to prison.
The marriage of Henry and Anne endures another blow when the queen miscarries. Afterward, the queen is even more vengeful and vindictive. “I’ll have no peace until Fisher is dead,” she says. “I’ll have no peace until More is dead.”
Anne tells Cromwell she wants him to “make” More talk, to say why he won’t sign the oath. When Cromwell replies, “No, Madam, we don’t do that,” she runs from the room.
This is one of the most dishonest moments of Wolf Hall. It is no secret that the real Thomas Cromwell, during this same period, presided over the arrest, questioning and executions of a group of friars and monks who also refused to sign the oath. The Carthusian monks of the Charterhouse were starved, hanged, cut down while still alive, castrated and dismembered. This is one of the most well known aspects of England under Thomas Cromwell: the swift arrests, the torture, the convictions without trial, the harrowing executions. No matter how many kittens that Wolf Hall’s Cromwell cuddles or women he flirts with, the historical record is inescapable. Yet at one point in this series, a fair and tolerant Cromwell tells More to “repent your cruelties.”
It is then that the king drops the pretense of friendship. He hisses, “Do I keep you for what’s easy? Do you think I’ve promoted you for the charm of your company?” He informs Cromwell that he considers him a serpent. “You know my decision. Execute it.”
Cromwell bows in compliance, but not before we glimpse a hurt expression.
More’s wife, Dame Alice, comes to see Cromwell, and her heartfelt pleas and Cromwell’s sad frustration with More’s “stubbornness” form the most emotional scene of the episode. “Ask him how could he leave all of us at the mercy of a man such as yourself?” she says, her voice shaking.
But Cromwell has no choice but to go in for the kill. More is found guilty on the basis of evidence from an up-and-coming lawyer named Richard Rich. Historians have seen perjury in Rich’s evidence, but Wolf Hall puts across a feasible reason for More to confide treasonous feelings to Rich.
As Cromwell watches More climb the steps of the scaffold, we see flashbacks that fill in the background. He had told More while he was in the Tower of London, “I’ve always respected you.” When Cromwell was a child working in a kitchen, he served food to a brilliant young scholar and longed for a gesture of friendship from the teenager, but never got it.
A drained and tormented Cromwell falls ill with fever and almost dies. He mistakes his sister-in-law, whom he had an affair with, for his dead wife and moans, “Let me love her, Liz.” We don’t know who he’s talking about.
Cromwell recovers. In a scene with Ralph Sadler, he dictates the itinerary of the king’s summer progress. After a thoughtful moment, he says, “In early September add five days. Wolf Hall.” That is the Seymour residence, and Jane, the young woman he’s drawn to, will be there.
In the final scene of the episode, we see Henry VIII, without his wife, followed by Cromwell, march down a corridor of Wolf Hall. He is greeted by Sir John and his wife. Behind them peeks their demure daughter: Jane Seymour.
This is how the Hilary Mantel novel Wolf Hall comes to an end. Next are the two episodes devoted to her second Cromwell book: Bring Up the Bodies.
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com