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Hans Holbein the Younger

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Wolf Hall: Henry VIII and His Wives, from Cromwell’s Perspective

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This weekend I watched Wolf Hall, the Masterpiece adaptation of the successful stage-play based on Dame Hilary Mantel’s best-selling and award-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

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Though I watched the Golden Globes in January, I didn’t know what Wolf Hall was when it won the Golden Globe for “Best Limited Series.”

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Hadn’t heard of it when it was nominated for 8 Emmys either. And, I admit, when Mark Rylance, who has the lead in Wolf Hall (in photo above, far left), won an Oscar for his Supporting Role in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, I didn’t know who he was.

In fact, when I chose to watch Season One of the series this weekend, I watched it because of its subject matter, which, from the photos, I guessed would be about England’s Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

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When I read the description (and reviews) and discovered that it was about 4 of Henry’s wive from Cromwell’s perspective, I was intrigued. Within minutes, I was hooked. I watched all 6 episodes in one day.

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Wolf Hall is not The Tudors, which lavishly concentrated on reinterpreting the relationships between Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and his six wives: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour (of Wolf Hall), Anne of Cleves, Anne Howard, and Catherine Parr. Wolsey, Cromwell, More (all named Thomas), and other important political figures during this period were subordinated to the storyline of Henry and his wives.

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Of course, without Henry and his wives — and his continued need to dispense with his current wife to attain another who “would give [him] sons” — people like Wolsey and Cromwell and even More may have been rather unimportant. Their very political and religious importance — the reformation of the Catholic Church and the formation of the Church of England — were intricately woven into the fabric of Henry’s personal and dynastic drama.

Give Henry what he wanted, and you were successful.

Fail, and you were abandoned.

This applied equally to his wives and to his ministers.

Showtime’s The Tudors (4 seasons) is a good place to start if you are not intimately familiar with all the players in this religious, political, and marital drama. Its award-winning creator-writer Michael Hirst, is well versed in the time period, and much of the monologues and dialogue (as well as all of the characters’ letters) come from the historical sources, word for word. The liberties he takes with the historical facts are minor, and for dramatic purposes. (As you no doubt can determine from the “headless women” photo for season 1, the show concentrates on Henry VIII more than on his wives, though this is not a complaint: just a statement.) You can watch The Tudors free with a 7-day trial with Showtime, or for $2.99 to purchase each episode ($19.99 for the 10-episode season) on Amazon.

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If you prefer to read a good biography of the time period before delving into Wolf Hall, I recommend Lady Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which is thorough, well-researched, historically accurate, and reasonably unbiased. ($14.99 for the Kindle eBook, $17.29 & free 2-day shipping for the Trade Paper with Amazon Prime membership, or $17.29 plus shipping costs if you’re not a Prime member).

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I strongly suggest that you be familiar with the time period and its characters before you attempt to watch Wolf Hall because it is told from the perspective of Henry’s Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, played subtly and brilliantly by Mark Rylance (above). Much of the brilliance of WH is lost if you are not aware, even marginally, of the story of Henry, his wives, the Reformation, the religious upheaval, and the involvements of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce),

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and Sir Thomas More (Anton Lesser) to Henry’s story,

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and thus, to Cromwell’s.

Programme Name: Wolf Hall - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep5 (No. 5) - Picture Shows: (L-R) Thomas Cromwell (MARK RYLANCE), Rafe Sadler (THOMAS BRODIE SANGSTER), Richard Cromwell (JOSS PORTER) - (C) Company Productions Ltd - Photographer: Ed Miller

Cromwell became Henry’s Chancellor after Cardinal Wolsey

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failed to provide an annulment for Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley).

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Though Katherine was the mother of Henry’s daughter Mary (later, Queen Mary, also known as “Bloody Mary” for her brutal attempts to re-instate the Catholic religion, eliminating the Church of England, by burning those who refused to become Catholics),

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Katherine has failed to provide Henry with a living son. To ensure his dynasty — which was only recently established by his father, Henry VII, after he defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, ending the Civil Wars, also known as the War of the Roses and the Hundred Years War.

After Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield),

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he becomes infatuated with her sister Anne (Claire Foy),

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who allows him increasing sexual liberties while he is awaiting his divorce — referred to as “the King’s Great Matter” — but who will not allow him to fully consummate the relationship.

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Damian Lewis’ Henry, in Wolf Hall, is big and broad and a natural red-head, as was Henry VIII,

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and he does an admirable job of portraying Henry’s charm, his bullying when he doesn’t get his way, and his increasingly mercurial temper when he ages, doesn’t get what he wants, and is frustrated by the lack of a son.

When Anne delivers him a daughter, Elizabeth (who will become, after her step-sister Mary’s death, Elizabeth I),

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but no living sons, doting father Henry turns to Cromwell to find a permanent way out of his marriage with Anne, despite her importance in establishing the reformation of religious practices in England.

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Cromwell understands perfectly that his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, lost his reputation and life, as well as his friendship with and the love of his sovereign, Henry, because he did not obtain Henry’s annulment from his marriage with Katherine.

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Furthermore, it took many years (7) for the sexually frustrated Henry to free himself from Katherine, and Henry has no intention of putting up with yet another stubborn wife. Already interested in Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips), whose family home is Wolf Hall,

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Henry makes it clear to Cromwell that he must take immediate and drastic measures to free him from his marriage with Anne. His increasing cruelty to Cromwell, alternating with boisterous displays of affection, and Cromwell’s reaction to the same, are some of the most horrifying yet fascinating explorations into the period’s characters.

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Though Cromwell is interested in the shy Jane himself, he coaches her, as do her brothers, on how to “handle” Henry’s advances.

The quiet reluctance with which Cromwell “surrenders” Jane, without ever revealing his feelings to her, is poignant indeed. When your master and “only friend” is King Henry VIII, you do not pursue your own desires, but his.

Even if you do “show him up” in archery once in a while.

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Season One covers the period concerning the time Henry wants his divorce from Katherine of Aragon to the execution of Anne Boleyn.

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Those are the political arenas in which Cromwell first came to Henry’s attention, rose to power, and distinguished himself in Henry’s eyes while making enemies of everyone else, like Anne’s powerful Uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill).

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The gradual subsumption of Cromwell’s morals and personal desires to those of Henry are intricate and subtle. Mark Rylance’s performance is so nuanced that some reviewers didn’t think he was doing much acting. How wrong they were. Rylance deserved his own award for his stunning performance.

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Without having read the books on which the series is based, I assume Season Two will deal with Jane’s reign; the birth of Henry’s only son, Edward; Jane’s death shortly after childbirth; and Henry’s mourning for “the love of his life” (because she gave him the longed for son), Jane; while Cromwell busies himself arranging Henry’s next marriage: to Anne of Cleves.

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It is Henry’s unhappiness with Anne of Cleves and his inability to consummate the marriage that causes his rift with Cromwell, leading to his execution, since Henry blames Cromwell entirely for his own failure to be attracted to Anne of Cleves. (Surprising to many people is the fact that except for the Clevian match, Henry VIII always married for love. On his side, anyway.)

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You can watch Season One of Wolf Hall free on Amazon if you’re a Prime Member, or for $2.99/episode ($14.99/season) without Prime membership. I’m already looking forward to Season Two, and expecting it to be as wonderful, if not better, that its initial season. Below is an excerpt from Episode 1, in which Norfolk confronts Cromwell while informing him that Henry wants something from him.

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