By Nancy Bilyeau
What’s easy to miss in Wolf Hall is that, during his lifetime, Thomas Cromwell was feared. In the television series, based on Hilary Mantel’s two novels, Cromwell has shown himself, up until Episode 6, both intelligent and cunning, with an easy familiarity with corruption. He has been a crook as well as a lawyer; he knows how to outsmart people. Still, he loves his family, he supports religious reform, he likes to cuddle kittens. This man is a Machiavellian with a heart of gold.
But in “Masters of Phantoms,” the final episode, Cromwell exhibits the characteristic he was most known for while alive: Ruthlessness. No matter how deep her admiration for Cromwell, Mantel has no choice but to tell the final chapter of the story of Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. She tries to rig up a justification device. Nonetheless, it isn’t pretty.
The first sequence prepares us for what is to come with macabre effectiveness. Many important people of Henry VIII’s court are gathered in Cromwell’s home, with the secretary himself at the head of the grand table, with candles flickering. It is some sort of party. Perhaps a celebration feast.
“Damn, Cromwell, when are we going to eat? I’m famished,” shouts the ever-boorish Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk.
As the first plates are served to the jovial guests, if you look closely, you will see Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk; Nicholas Carew; Thomas Seymour; Gertrude Courtenay; William Fitzwilliam; and Margaret Pole. Wait. This is the faction at court who hates Anne Boleyn and seeks to replace her with Jane Seymour. And then you will see what is being dragged by ropes up the table: Anne Boleyn, in her white coronation gown. She glances up, sees Cromwell, and smiles. He rises, takes a long knife—and he stabs her. It is a dream. Night turns to day. Cromwell is breaking his fast with members of his staff and household like Ralph Sadler and his nephew Richard Cromwell. A shaken Cromwell stares into the distance, and then begins to eat.
At the end of the previous episode, King Henry VIII told Cromwell he wants his second marriage ended. “I trust your discretion and skill,” the king says. This is the woman he nearly destroyed his kingdom to possess. Now, he wants her out. He’d rather not know how.
We see Anne Boleyn, with a two-year-old Elizabeth in her lap, gamely smiling and laughing and trying to engage her husband. King Henry’s chief groom of the stool (a sort of high-level personal aide), Henry Norris, smiles at the king’s side at the domestic scene. So does Cromwell, a bit. But the king himself picks his teeth, glaring at his wife, and rises, to leave her without a word.
Afterward Anne tells Cromwell to stay. She bitterly attacks him for trying to send for her stepdaughter the Princess Mary when the king was seriously injured in the joust instead of protecting her. With some justification, she says, “I am responsible for your rise.”
“Nothing is personal here,” says Cromwell, with a bit of anachronistic Godfather flourish. (Yes, it’s only business, and his business, as was the Corleones’, can include crime and murder.)
Anne isn’t having it. “You think you’ve grown great, you think you no longer need me, but you’ve forgotten the most important lesson of all,” she says. “Those who’ve been made can be unmade.”
“I entirely agree,” he says pointedly, and leaves.
Now that Queen Anne is no longer loved by her husband, her personal court has deteriorated into a place of gambling, flirting and quarreling. Francis Weston, a handsome courtier who flits about with no clear function, says he comes to her chambers not to admire anyone but herself.
Seemingly bored and angry with her situation, Anne teases her musician, Mark Smeaton. “Why are you sad?” she demands, and says if he is expecting her to converse with him as if he were a gentleman, she can’t, because he’s an “inferior person.” His eyes filling with tears, Smeaton says, “No Madame, I don’t expect a word, a look suffices me.” He runs off as she laughs.
Anne’s malevolent sister-in-law, Lady Jane Rochford, says about Smeaton: ‘I think he should be dropped from a great height, just like your dog Purkoy.”
The queen slaps Lady Rochford, and then orders Henry Norris to drop her sister-in-law into a river. When the appalled Norris draw back, she taunts him with past vows of love for her.
“Will you spill all your secrets, Anne, or only some?” Norris asks quietly, and strides away. Realizing she has gone too far, a panicking Anne says, “Get him back to swear on the bible that he knows I am a good wife.” But he’s gone.
Lady Rochford, who loves nothing more than spying and informing, runs to tell Cromwell everything. She then goes further than she ever has before, with the red mark of Anne’s slap fresh on her face.
She tells Cromwell, “Before they were married, the king and Anne practiced in the French fashion…She induced him to put his seed otherwise than he should have.” The king now recoils from having done such a “filthy proceeding.” But “he doesn’t know where the filth begins,” Lady Rochford sneers.
She then tells Cromwell that Anne and her brother George kiss and are always together and “nothing is forbidden.” A visibly shocked Cromwell asks why the queen would do this. Lady Rochford, with satisfaction, says, “You know why. The better to rule.” The queen needs to have a son, and if George is the father, the baby will “look like a Boleyn.” Her parting shot is that Cromwell should speak to Mark Smeaton.
He follows her lead. Smeaton, thinking he will entertain a party, arrives in Cromwell’s home at night. Instead, Cromwell says he needs the musician’s help. “You see, Mark, my master the king and my mistress the queen are at odds. And my dearest wish is to reconcile them.”
Smeaton says, “It’s no wonder she’s unhappy. She’s in love. With me.”
Cromwell manipulates Smeaton with threats into telling him that he has had sex with the queen, and her other lovers are Norris and Weston. (The next morning, he adds William Brereton to the list.)
Some historians believe that Mark Smeaton was tortured by Cromwell’s men, and the method was a rope with knots that gouge into eyes. Wolf Hall goes to great lengths to emphasize that the pressure was only psychological—“I don’t want him hurt”—and Smeaton spilled all out of fear and confusion. In Mantel’s world, only Sir Thomas More tortures people. Cromwell’s overseeing of the torture, starvation, and horrific executions of the Carthusian monks who would not sign an oath swearing that Henry VIII was the head of religion in England is kept firmly off camera, for example.
It’s unclear if Cromwell truly believes anything Smeaton has said. His astute assistant, young Ralph Sadler, says, “Years of being despised by lords has made a boaster of him.”
Once the king is informed at the famous May Day Joust of Smeaton’s “confession,” he leaves, taking Norris with him for questioning. Wolf Hall doesn’t tell us what happened during that ride, but Norris is known to have denied any adultery.
With Norfolk, Audley, and Fitzwilliam, Cromwell goes to the queen’s chambers to arrest her. In the boat to the Tower of London, Cromwell and Anne cannot look at each other. She is terrified, but calm.
The king is disgusted by the reports of his wife’s adultery, but does not seem personally wounded. “I’ve written a play, a tragedy, it’s my own story,” he tells Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer.
“I never had a better opinion of any woman,” Cranmer says, but then stops. One of the most important factors in Anne Boleyn’s fall was her lack of supporters. The few friends she had deserted her, kept silent, or, as in Cranmer’s case, were only willing to go so far out of self-preservation.
In Norris’s prison cell, Cromwell says to Norris, “You want me to write it on the wall? She can’t give him a son, he wants another wife. She won’t go quietly; she has to be pushed. I have to push her.”
Cromwell then reminds Norris of an “entertainment” at court years ago, a play enacting Cardinal Wolsey’s “descent into hell.” It was a cruel play, and it filled Cromwell, then Wolsey’s aide and protegee, with rage. The men who put on demonic costumes in the play and dragged “Wolsey” to hell were Norris, George Boleyn, Weston and Brereton.” These are perhaps the “phantoms” of the episode title.
A stunned Norris says, “It was a play, a joke.”
Cromwell replies, “Life pays you out, don’t you find? I need guilty men, Harry. So I found men who are guilty, though not necessarily as charged.”
Hilary Mantel’s provocative theory that Cromwell was enacting vengeance on those who mocked Wolsey has a couple of problems. For one, it was the duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII who laughed and applauded, and probably commissioned the play. As the people who made sure of Wolsey’s disgrace and arrest, aren’t they more at fault than the actors? And second, Cromwell didn’t name these men as suspects, Smeaton did. It is something of a coincidence that they were actors in a play Cromwell hated. As a justification for murdering these young men, it has problems.
Francis Weston is the most saddened and least arrogant of the accused. “I thought I had another 20 years,” he says, breaking down into tears. This seems to get to Cromwell, who when he emerges, reacts badly to Wriothesley and Richard Riche’s question if he’s gotten enough out of the prisoners.
“You think I’m too soft on young men?” he shouts.
“Do you want us to draw up charges?” asks Wriothesley. “The more the merrier,” Cromwell replies.
Most, but not all, historians believe that Anne Boleyn and the accused men were innocent of adultery. One of the reasons is the dates given on when her alleged adultery occurred are implausible, she was either not in the place given or was pregnant or obviously not able to commit such acts. Wolf Hall creates a very ambiguous situation. Perhaps Anne slept with other men. Perhaps she didn’t. There are suggestions of both guilt and innocence.
When Cromwell visits the imprisoned queen, she says, “I don’t know why the king’s holding me here, I suppose it’s some sort of test.”
Cromwell advises her, for the final time in their lives. “Help the king. Unless he’s merciful, there’s nothing you can do for yourself. You can help your daughter, the more penitent you show yourself through the process.”
“The process,” she says, her voice catching. “And what is this process to be?”
Before he leaves, she begs him, “Just tell me you don’t believe these stories against me? You don’t in your heart.”
Cromwell doesn’t answer.
The last thing Anne Boleyn says to him is “I only have a little neck, so it will be the work of a moment.”
And so it is. After being found guilty at her trial, Anne must die. Cromwell has forced her judges to not specify she be burned to death. She will be beheaded, and a French swordsman is sent for. Before the execution, the swordsman says to Cromwell, “If she is steady, it will be over in a moment. Between heartbeats. She knows nothing.”
The death of Anne Boleyn is a scene often written and televised. Wolf Hall acquits itself well; there is no soaring orchestra or emotional forcing. It is a cloudy, windy day at the Tower of London. Anne is both dignified and frightened. The stark violence of this unfair execution of a lovely young woman is devastating. Anne Boleyn says not with loud defiance but in a quiet rush, “To God I commend my soul.” She does die in an instant, and afterward her waiting women’s gowns are soaked with blood as they gather up her head and body, put them in a plain chest, and stagger away.
The final scene of the series is in its own way just as powerful. Thomas Cromwell, looking stunned, walks down the luxurious gallery of Whitehall. This place is where the series began, when men came to arrest Wolsey at York Place, Cromwell at his side. The king renamed the palace and gave it to Anne Boleyn. Now it is his alone.
Courtiers move out of the way as the ruthless Thomas Cromwell approaches his master. It is just the two men now. Henry VIII reaches out in a celebratory gesture—he couldn’t be happier with the way Cromwell rid him of his second wife. He then goes further and hugs Cromwell. The king smiles, content. But Cromwell looks over his shoulder, blank and traumatized. This is the man he serves—and must continue to serve. What will happen to him if he fails to please?
We know only too well…