The Marriage Plot: Three Versions of “Wolf Hall”

By Laurie WinerApril 30, 2015

The Marriage Plot: Three Versions of “Wolf Hall”

Left: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the Masterpiece Theater miniseries Wolf Hall.


HENRY VIII’S ABILITY to rid himself of his wives when they no longer suited him is both a fantasy and a horror show, which explains at least in part our enduring fascination with the Tudor court of the 16th century and the ginger king who was a study in self-gratification.

Henry’s first marriage lasted technically 24 years, but let’s call it 23 since he married Anne Boleyn four months before the 1533 dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the most momentous divorce in the history of man. The king’s union with ambitious Anne lasted three years and change, ending with an annulment two days before her beheading on May 19, 1536. After that, Henry got better and faster at getting what he wanted. Before the month was out, he married gentle Jane Seymour, who did him the great favor of dying in childbirth a year and a half later. Next Henry wed Anne of Cleves in 1540. This was Henry’s passionless marriage; the union was to help cement England’s alliance with Germany, but Henry found himself physically repelled by this Anne, which was very lucky for her and not so lucky for Thomas Cromwell, the advisor who had arranged the nuptial. Not only did Anne of Cleves outlive all of Henry’s wives, but, when their marriage was annulled six months into it and she gave him no fight, Henry bequeathed her much property, including an estate that had belonged to the Boleyns. As for Cromwell, he was executed on July 28, 1540, the same day the king married his new love, 19-year-old Catherine Howard. (When you’re beheading a lot of people, sometimes the happy and sad days overlap.) Catherine Howard took what Anne Boleyn had been unjustly accused of taking — lovers — and she was beheaded a year and a half into her marriage.

By the time Henry married sixth wife Catherine Parr in 1543, his gluttony was catching up with him; in his last years he weighed 280 pounds and sported a 54-inch waist. In solidarity (or to remain on the king’s good side), members of his court started padding their clothing, but they did not, if they could help it, go so far as to develop gout and painful, malodorous boils. In his last year Henry had to be moved about with a crane, and his moods were understandably foul.

But this is all well known and has been told and retold from hundreds of angles. So why did Hilary Mantel’s version, told in two Man Booker-prize-winning novels (Wolf Hall, 2009, and Bring Up the Bodies, 2012, with a third part, The Mirror and the Light, to be published possibly next year), catch fire? The books are so addictive that they immediately inspired a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production (currently on Broadway) and a six-part Masterpiece Theater miniseries (now on PBS) starring Damian Lewis as Henry and Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. This is officially the month of Wolf Hall.

Mantel is a fine writer and a serious reader of history, a woman who respects the experiences of long-ago others and the imaginative abilities of her audience. Wolf Hall puts to shame a show like Showtime’s The Tudors (2007–2010), which gave us a svelte Henry (in the person of Jonathan Rhys Meyers) with sultry eyes and cushiony lips who never got fat or old, a king who walked bare-chested around the palace (Henry would have never), looking a bit like young Halston at Studio 54, while soliciting blow jobs from ladies of the court. Showtime proved itself a slave to the sexual mores of its own time and had little interest in how things were done in the 16th century. And — because the goings-on in Henry’s court weren’t dramatic enough — The Tudors added an assassination attempt on Anne Boleyn during her coronation and made Cardinal Wolsey’s death a suicide that was covered up by Henry and Thomas Cromwell. This is akin to a novelist making up Nazi tortures in a book about the Holocaust.

Writing in The Guardian, Mantel remembered how she steeped herself in Henry’s world:

To do that, I had to accustom my inner eye to bare underfurnished rooms, where possessions are kept in chests, and floors are strewn with rushes, and turkey carpets glow on tabletops in the houses of the wealthy. I needed to wear, in my imagination, fresh linen, heavy draping wool, damask and diamonds. My palate had to grow used to the sweet, spicy, scented tastes of Tudor cooking, to winter stockfish and summer fruit tarts. I had to live in a gated city, with green open spaces surrounding monasteries, with the long gardens of noble houses running down to the Thames: a London where the river was the main highway and there was only one bridge, sometimes decorated with severed heads.


But the true genius of Mantel’s approach is in making Thomas Cromwell the hero of her story.

It was the German-born British historian Geoffrey Elton who began resurrecting Cromwell’s reputation with his 1953 book The Tudor Revolution, which promoted Cromwell from little more than the henchman to a despotic leader to the genius who transformed a troubled monarchy into a parliamentary government bound largely by the rule of law. Robert Bolt, a British playwright and screenwriter (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), set back Cromwell’s cause considerably with A Man for All Seasons, a popular play and film of the 1960s. Bolt saw Thomas More, not Cromwell, as the unambiguous hero in the tale of Henry VIII; to him More was a man defined by conscience, a man who gives up his life for what he believes is right (and who was, of course, the great defender of the Catholic faith). In this universe Cromwell is the humorless villain consumed by his own temporal power, a man who seals More’s doom out of sheer spite. Bolt’s story resonated in the first half of the 1960s, at a time when American and British protesters were just beginning to find the courage to stand up en masse to the military-industrial complex at home and across the globe. (Bolt himself was arrested and briefly imprisoned for protesting nuclear proliferation.)

Bolt left out the part about More flogging heretics in the garden of his Chelsea estate, which, as far as I can tell, is a disputed fact, but one that Mantel makes much use of. In her universe, the floggings repulse Cromwell, a man with a great sense of fairness.

Cromwell, as Mantel draws him, is an extremely attractive hero for our time. He has carved himself out of misery — the book opens with the boy Cromwell lying in a puddle of his own blood; his father, a blacksmith, has beaten him nearly to death and is yelling at him to get up. Mantel starts with this scene because she wants us to care for Cromwell; indeed, she wants to bind us very tightly to him both through his ascent and then, for as long as she can, through his fall — all the better to understand the true complexity of corruption and how it worms its gradual way, with difficulty only at first, into the soul of a fundamentally good person. (In this way, Wolf Hall is a cousin to Breaking Bad, another chapter in the all-important ongoing saga of how even we, as good as we are, might find ourselves on a very wrong path. Or, as Noah Cross says in Chinatown: “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.”)


Forced to leave his native soil, the young Cromwell goes abroad with no friends and no money to somehow emerge as the second most powerful man in England. He is insulted at every rung on his way up the ladder by men of “high birth” who want to keep him in his place. They take any opportunity to remind him of his two greatest crimes: that he is the son of a blacksmith, and that he is good with money, that it seems to stick to his fingers. (It’s a wonder that no one accuses him of being a Jew.)

Mantel writing on Cromwell in The Guardian:

Much studied by academic historians, he appears in popular history as an all-purpose, pre-packaged villain. In fiction and drama he is just off the page or in the wings, doing something nefarious: but what? I wanted to put the spotlight on him; more than that, I wanted to get behind his eyes, the eyes of a man obscurely born, and watch as his country shapes itself about him, a dazzle of possibility.

Wolf Hall’s Cromwell is admirability itself. His superpower is knowledge. When he returns from going abroad as a boy, he knows Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Castilian, French, Latin, German, and a little Welsh. He is a good storyteller and performs card tricks, including a killer version of three-card monte. He loves dogs. He is tough with himself and kind to others. He misses nothing. He is witty, dry, and super observant. He can tell you what an animal or a bag of beans weighs by eyeballing it. He knows how the markets work and has “an eye for risk”; in other words, he’s great with money. He can navigate a ship. He likes mentoring young people.

And, in an age when a man really did not need to bother, he treasured the women in his life. Mantel’s Cromwell is a feminist — he adores his wife Liz, and he wants his little daughters to be educated. Prima facie evidence: he is a better man than Henry.

Cromwell is noticed by his powerful employer, Cardinal Wolsey, and is quickly elevated, causing all kinds of jealousy and resentment. Wolsey cannot do without Cromwell’s good judgment and does not wish to do without his good company. They share a pragmatism that is leavened by humor and a compassionate regard for the follies of their brothers; they are always together. Cromwell loves Wolsey, who is the father figure to heal all wounds. Cromwell is loyal, you could say to a fault; he helps Wolsey, then the nation’s second most powerful figure, as he falls from favor and becomes persona non grata in the court for failing to secure the king an annulment from Catherine. Cromwell never forgets who treated Wolsey cruelly when he was alive, or who mocked him after his death.

The Wolf Hall books contain a micro and a macro drama, as all great works of narrative must. As we watch in close-up the stories of Cromwell and Boleyn, we are all the time building a picture of the system that compels the characters to proceed precisely as they do. Wolf Hall shows how corruption weaves itself around individuals the way a trumpet vine entwines a fair English rose; no one so entangled escapes the consequences, least of all the enviably competent and likable Cromwell.

The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn spans books one and two. (Cromwell’s four-year fall from favor will be the subject of The Mirror and the Light.) Anne’s is the books’ secondary morality tale, but it is of paramount importance to the experience of Wolf Hall. Her story is analogous to Cromwell’s — like him her life is in Henry’s hands, but her usefulness, i.e., her desirability, is of a more ephemeral kind. Anne plays the first part of her rise brilliantly, but, like any ambitious person with no real power, she quickly overreaches and is unceremoniously thrown under a very sharp blade that separates her pretty head from its slender neck. To watch her go, petted and bejeweled, from the Queen’s bedchamber to the Tower of London is to feel the full force of fate in the Tudor court.


The books are addictive — a great story perfectly retold. So it’s been interesting to see how Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have been adapted by TV and stage (both versions run about six hours under the single title Wolf Hall), what gets highlighted and what gets lost, and what the two adaptations tell us about the media doing the adapting.

One might assume that, partly because Mantel was intimately involved, the stage play retains more of the novels’ virtues. The TV version is less focused on the structure that compels the action than on an individual morality tale, in what Cromwell goes through and what happens between him and Henry. It would be unfair to call this a buddy movie, but the most palpable sexual energy in the series is between the king and his advisor.

The Wolf Hall miniseries takes full advantage of the beauty of Henry’s court — the heavy furniture and stark rooms, the tapestries, the jewels, the massive candelabras, the velvets, the ermine, the embroidered silks, the brocades — all are fully represented. Costume designer Joanna Eatwell (a great name for someone working on Henry’s clothes) has said she relied heavily on the information provided by Hans Holbein, the official court painter who gave us portraits of Henry VIII as well as More and Cromwell, but the show’s mise-en-scène is also guided by the serenity and unerring sense of balance of a somewhat later painter, Johannes Vermeer.

It’s amusing and also telling that Eatwell has referred in the British press to Damian Lewis, who plays Henry VIII, as “our leading lady.” That designation, which by rights should belong to Claire Foy, a gorgeously furious Anne Boleyn, actually, and more precisely, goes to Mark Rylance as Cromwell.

Many in the American television audience will be seeing Rylance for the first time and will no doubt be seduced, as everyone who encounters this protean actor in his very prime must be. Rylance, a one-time artistic director of the Globe Theatre, is relatively new to television; Broadway audiences have witnessed his seemingly infinite variety — as a naive nabob plopped to his amazement into a sex farce (Boeing-Boeing, 2008), as a monomaniacal actor on a monumental talking binge (La Bête, 2010), as a craven but impossibly touching drug dealer (Jerusalem, 2011), as a comically vulnerable Countess Olivia (Twelfth Night, 2013), and as a Richard III who hides his malice by overplaying his oafishness (also 2013).

Cromwell, though, is a personality type we haven’t yet seen Rylance tackle: he is a reactive presence, the consummate watcher, a man who scrupulously keeps himself to himself. He conveys the necessary intelligence and sensitivity; his brown eyes are lovely and it is fun to watch his endless observing, but Cromwell’s carefulness and deliberation are essentially undramatic, and director Peter Kosminsky relies on a superabundance of Cromwell close-ups and medium shots, never giving sufficient shape to the larger dramas swirling about him. As if to make up for the fetishization of Mark Rylance and his lovely eyes, Damian Lewis gives an uncharacteristically un-nuanced performance as Henry VIII. He seems to have based Henry on the most celebrated jock in high school — handsome, strutting, self-satisfied, blind to the moods and needs of others, and a bit of a mouth breather.

Though Peter Straughan’s adaptation for TV utilizes the same six hours as the stage version, the Wolf Hall miniseries includes more from the book. On TV you will meet the young prophetess Elizabeth Barton and see her burned at the stake; you will spend time with Cromwell’s daughters and will know of his relationship with his sister-in-law; you will see Cromwell’s demon father; and you will learn of Thomas More’s relationship with his wife and daughter. None of this makes it into the pared-down stage version, adapted by Mike Poulton, which covers less and yet goes deeper.

The difference may be felt 10 seconds into the play at Winter Garden Theatre, which begins with the entire cast, replete in the rich fabrics and frills of 16-century finery and accompanied by ominous smoke and thunder, storming the stage to face the audience. It is a show of strength, a setting of mood: this is a powerful and terrifying world you are entering. It appears somewhat orderly and civilized and yet it has a crazy energy: its order is dependent on the whims of a mercurial and peevish monarch. You will do well not to fuck with it.

Christopher Oram’s set design is as minimal as his costumes are sumptuous. The stage is left largely open for the sweeping costumes and for dancing — when the RSC performs 450-year-old dances, you believe you are seeing the real thing — but is topped by a series of iron grids that denote a punishing end to the infinite space. Stephen Warbeck’s music and Paule Constable’s lighting both add a sense of doom that seeps into even intimate seduction or household scenes.

The RSC’s Nathaniel Parker looks very much like Holbein’s Henry (a kind of young Sebastian Cabot), and, as compared to Lewis, he is a leader who sees more and who, when changing life-and-death rules mid-game, has at least the sense to register a bit of shame. Ben Miles, as Cromwell, is not as mesmerizing as Rylance — who is? — but he is a likable presence. Forced to do dirty deeds, we see his warmth slowly freeze as he begins to feel in his blood the beginning of his end.

Because of the perpetual long shot that is the stage, this Wolf Hall, directed by Jeremy Herrin, keeps the viewer always aware of the two-tiered nature of the drama, of the large heavy wheel that is Henry’s moods, which threatens to run over anyone who tries to turn it in a way he does not wish it to go. When the play ends, a viewer is left very much as the reader is left — in a state of being able to honor history by fully imagining the feeling of being crushed by a system gone off its axis.


Laurie Winer is a longtime journalist who has been on staff at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. She is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Laurie Winer is a Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor.


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