By Nancy Bilyeau
The title of Wolf Hall: Episode 5 is “Crows,” although we aren’t sure why. It could be because crows can be seen as a sign of bad luck. Also, there is the expression, “a gathering of crows.” Before night falls, the dark birds gather, fighting but tightly united. In late 1535 and the first part of 1536, that is what the Boleyn family was certainly doing.
In this tense and well written episode, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell experience, in different ways, the unpredictable, explosive anger of Henry VIII. They are each of them completely dependent on the king’s good will. Should they lose it, then, as the Duke of Norfolk reportedly once said, “The wrath of the king is death.” Once united in a common goal, Queen Anne and Cromwell no longer trust each other. But will they now try to destroy each other? And if so, who will go in for the kill first?
While the title may be crows, the visual theme of the episode is shadows. Director Peter Kosminsky uses it brilliantly as characters emerge from the darkness, and then recede. The first time is near the beginning of the episode. The king and his court (without the queen) are spending five days at the Seymour family estate in Wiltshire: Wolf Hall. Cromwell had specifically re-routed the king’s “Summer Progress” to wind its way there in the autumn. He has long been drawn to Jane Seymour, the kind-hearted and dry-witted young woman who occasionally serves as a lady to Anne. At dinner with the Seymours, her father, Sir John, says to Cromwell, “Perhaps you’ll find a bride while you’re here.” Cromwell’s shy glance strays to Jane down the table. But the following morning, glancing out the window, Cromwell sees Jane being wooed by King Henry in the garden. With his usual subtle reaction (Mark Rylance’s expressions are a master class in acting), Cromwell registers his disappointment, and steps back, literally, into the shadow of his room.
In an awkward family conference, Jane is prodded to tell Cromwell what happened in the garden. “He asked me if I would look kindly on him, if he wrote me a poem for instance,” she says. “I said I would.” Her brothers, Edward and Thomas, try to figure out how Jane can reap rewards out of the king’s favor without sleeping with him—and thus losing her value. Should the king try to seduce her, she should scream, suggests Edward.
Cromwell says, “Don’t scream—pray. Out loud. Something that will appeal to His Majesty’s piety and sense of honor.” And with that, his last hopes for himself vanish and he becomes something of a pimp for the king. As abhorrent as this is, the nobility and ministers often pushed their female relatives into the sight of the amorous King Henry. What they seemed to have trouble understanding is the enormous risks to any short term benefit for the family. And, of course, the life and reputation of the woman in question was always of minimal interest to her male relations.
Cromwell then moves from Henry VIII’s future woman to his past woman: Catherine of Aragon. The first wife, after 20 years of marriage, fought hard to preserve her rights, and is still refusing to answer to anyone who will not address her as queen—despite the fact that Henry VIII has married Anne Boleyn and had a child with her. “That’s why he sent you, to see if I am really dying,” she says, weak and fighting spasms of pain. She pleads with Cromwell to allow her to see Mary, the daughter whom Henry keeps isolated and away from Catherine. Finally she says she heard “Boleyn’s daughter” had a miscarriage. “I know how that is,” she says, showing a humanity Anne never for an instance extends her way.
Catherine is also shrewd and picks up on the fact that Cromwell doesn’t know if Anne is pregnant again. “I thought she always confided in you—I do hope there is no rift,” she says, allowing herself a moment of malice.
There IS a rift between Cromwell and Anne. The next woman he visits is Henry’s current one. The queen runs a gamut of emotions in this scene, from grief over the death of her dog (seemingly thrown out a window) to sadness over the French ignoring her while trying to make a marriage alliance with her stepdaughter Mary (“It’s as if I didn’t exist”) to malevolence over her plan to have Mary’s reputation ruined. She tells Cromwell to work on that scheme and he flat-out refuses. “Drop your plans and schemes, put down the burden of them,” he advises.
“The king will never abandon me,” says Anne, furious. “I’m warning you, make terms with me, Cromwell, before my child is born.”
In the next scene, an important character, Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to the Emperor Charles V, emerges from the dark shadows of Cromwell’s sitting room at home. They drink wine together, in Cromwell’s increasingly luxurious home, hung with a large tapestry the king personally gifted to him.
To learn more about Henry VIII’s mania for tapestries, the dominant visual art form of his court, go here.
“I hear you’re going to put all the monks and nuns out on the road,” says Chapuys sternly, referring to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, one of Thomas Cromwell’s main achievements. Thousands of monks, friars and nuns were in reality ejected from their abbeys as Cromwell oversaw their destruction, the buildings stripped of value and given to the king’s friends. In this scene, Cromwell assures Chapuys that most of the nuns and monks wanted to leave when his commissioners visited their abbeys, which were places of corruption and vice. This is where Wolf Hall falls back into the distortion and propagandizing which marred the previous episode, “Devil’s Spit.” The massive corruption that Cromwell keeps referring to throughout Wolf Hall is exaggerated. It was a pretext to convince Parliament to make legal the seizure of the buildings and land, which poured thousands of pounds into Henry VIII’s treasury.
For a sense of how the real nuns experienced Cromwell’s dissolution, go here.
In a bizarre fiction, Chapuys says, “I see famine before the spring. You’re buying corn from the territories of the Emperor. This trade could be stopped.” When Cromwell asks quietly what Emperor Charles V would gain from starving England, Chapuys says it would prove how badly governed the kingdom of England is.
In the 16th century, the country was in no way reliant on importing food from the land controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor, which included Spain, Portugal and Austria, the German lands, the Netherlands, and part of the Americas. There was trade between England and the Netherlands, mostly of wool. The threat of starving a country to make a point of politics belongs to some more modern age. Also, the show must mean “wheat” when Chapuys says “corn,” a common description of the time, because in the reign of Henry VIII the English did not eat maize, which was discovered by Spanish explorers in Mexico.
Wolf Hall is back on solid ground when Chapuys tearfully begs to be able to see Catherine of Aragon so that she will not die “all alone.” When Cromwell asks the king and queen on Chapuys’ behalf, Anne mocks Catherine. It seems that permission is refused, but in reality Henry VIII relented and Chapuys did visit her in exile the week before she died.
Henry and Anne celebrate Catherine’s death, dressed in yellow, and the king refuses to have his first wife buried with high ceremony (to save money) and gives her last letter, unread, to Cromwell. There are lessons here for Anne to pay attention to, but she doesn’t appear to grasp them. She’s too busy fuming when she catches her husband making eyes at Jane Seymour.
The following sequence is one of the strongest in all of Wolf Hall: the jousting accident of Henry VIII. Cromwell worries for the safety of his son, Gregory, but it is his own fate he should fear for. When he is told that the king’s horse fell on him and he appears dead, Cromwell slips a knife in his sleeve, and runs to the grounds. An unconscious Henry lies in a tent, surrounded by complete screaming chaos. “A woman cannot rule,” shouts the duke of Norfolk, referring to Queen Anne. “You’re a dead man, Cromwell,” says George Boleyn. The country is on the verge of civil war, disintegration.
Only Cromwell has the presence of mind to work on reviving the king. He isn’t dead after all. Afterward, deeply shaken, he tells the household treasurer, William Fitzwilliam, “How many men can say their only friend is the king of England? You think I have everything, but take Henry away…” Fitzwilliam urges him to join forces with Anne Boleyn’s enemies, a powerful faction. “If she has a son, the Boleyns will walk our backs.”
In the next scene, Anne Boleyn once again miscarries. An anguished Henry VIII opens up to tell Cromwell, “If a king cannot have a son, if he cannot give stability to his realm, then it doesn’t matter what else he can do. The victories, the just laws, the famous court. Nothing.” He then tells Cromwell and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, “It seems to me that I was dishonestly led into this marriage. And if that were so, the marriage would be null, wouldn’t it?”
Cromwell and Cranmer look at each other repeatedly, both surprised and fearful of what to say. In his next shadowy meeting with Chapuys, Cromwell says, “I have influence on King Henry but I do not claim to govern him. To succeed with Henry, you have to anticipate his desires, but then, if he changes his mind you stand out there, exposed.”
Chapuys says, “It’s Anne you should fear. She’s desperate and dangerous. You should strike first.”
But the next person to do the striking is King Henry. Chapuys is manipulated by Cromwell and the Boleyns, working together again, into acknowledging Anne Boleyn in public with a nod, something that he had avoided doing for years. Afterward, he approaches Henry to discuss an alliance with Emperor Charles. The two countries would benefit greatly if they did so, it is clear. Now that Charles’ aunt, Catherine of Aragon, has died, it is possible.
But Henry explodes in rage before his court, dredging up all his grievances against Emperor Charles. He raises his hand as if to punch the shocked Chapuys, shouting, “Tell him I’m not an infant. I demand a profound and public apology.”
The king then turns on Cromwell. Bearing down on him, red-faced and ranting, he says, “You have gone too far. You have put my honor in jeopardy. But what would a man like you know about the honor of princes? You think you are the king and I am the blacksmith’s boy. Don’t you? DON’T YOU?”
A terrified Cromwell raises his hands, crosses his wrists in a strange form of subjugation and says, his voice trembling, “God preserve Your Majesty and now will you excuse me.”
Huddled in a chair, Cromwell afterward thinks back on when he was a child and after he burned his arm, his father said, “Cross your wrists. It confuses the pain.” Cromwell is traumatized by what happened with the king.
George Boleyn picks this time to strut into Cromwell’s room and gloat. “You are not a gentleman born. Remember who you serve.”
Cromwell stares at Anne’s brother and says, “I shall profit from this lesson.” George seems happy, but he missed the chill in Cromwell’s voice.
In the next meeting of the king’s council, Chancellor Audley respectfully asks Henry VIII to pursue an alliance with the Emperor Charles for the good of the kingdom. Henry agrees, and then asks Cromwell, who has said little, to walk with him.
In the garden, the king comes as close to an apology as he is capable of. “You are my right hand, Sir.” He then gets to the heart of the matter: “I cannot live as I have lived, you must free me from it, from Anne. I trust in your discretion and skill.”
At the end of the episode, Cromwell broods at his desk. A last shadow falls over him, and it is the most important one of all. The ghost of Cardinal Wolsey, his beloved mentor, appears to say, “Trouble is, Thomas, the king wants a new wife. Fix him one. I didn’t and now I’m dead.”