Wolf Hall

Prodigal Defiances

A Television Review by Akash Singh


The name “Wolf Hall” immediately brings to the mind an image of a corridor ubiquitous with schemers, some ripping throats out of their enemies and friends alike while others merely observe, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Others are stomping out their rivals as if they were merely dormice. Still others simply enjoy the theatrics, amused at the wolves ripping themselves apart and leaving the pathway clear for their own ascension without them having to lift even a paw. All political arenas share such unsettling, unsavory characteristics, and royal courts are no exception. The courts of the Tudors of England in particular have crafted an everlasting fascination in popular culture. The intrigue, the passion, and the underlying sexual tension alone make the Tudors an object of intense study. But what solidifies this obsession are arguably Henry VII’s six wives, and the ascension of a powerful female monarch to the English throne in the form of Elizabeth I. Their legendary exploits crafted two figures who became larger than life, even though historical records show little mercy to the former. Refreshingly, Wolf Hall, based on the Hilary Mantel novel of the same name, is less concerned with those two grand figures than those who bask in the former’s shadow (Elizabeth I is still a young child at the end of the series). It’s more concerned with the tragic figure in Anne Boleyn and more so the phantom man Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is the key fixture of Mantel’s novel, her pages chronicling the rise of a man whose loyalty seemingly doomed him before becoming his savior and then becoming in turn a noose.

Loyalty is a defining theme of Wolf Hall, even more so than the pernicious nature of politics itself. Each character’s loyalty serves most of all to either bolster or crumble their incredibly tenacious positions at court. Cromwell’s loyalty lies at the beginning with Cardinal Wolsey, a man tasked with the fairly unenviable task of annulling the marriage between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon so Henry can marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir. Wolsey fails as everyone who knows a bit of history could have foretold and Cromwell’s loyalty to the Catholic cardinal seems to be the final strike against him. Yet it doesn’t become so, on account of Cromwell’s shrewd political acumen. As a man not born into the clergy, the aristocracy, and certainly no the echelons of Tudor royalty, Cromwell didn’t have a position of blood power that rested upon his ability to kiss Henry’s arse. Yet he did have a family and a household, so his moments of telling the king the blunt truths he needed to hear versus what he wanted to hear were telling in and of themselves. But his acumen and those moments of honesty granted Cromwell a seat of power that he otherwise would have lost. In a move perhaps more closely allied with irony than Cromwell would have liked, that seat of power came at the cost of sacrificing the Catholic loyalties he shared with Wolsey and crafting a path for the Anglican Church to rise.


As Katherine fell, the star of Anne Boleyn rose, as short-lived as its brightness was. Anne herself is a fascinating figure, forever enshrined in popular culture as a tragic figure who was killed at the orders of a monstrous, despicable king. In Wolf Hall, her masterful skills for manipulation were on full display, as she quickly ensnared a place for herself in the treacherous English court. More so than perhaps other queens who replaced their predecessors with existing kings, Anne arrived with the baggage of splitting England from the Papacy in Rome, a serious break with tradition that garnered her plenty of enemies from day one outside of the Spanish courtiers. The crown befell her head and she waited for the male child who would survive and cement her position as the Queen of England. The male child did not arrive. The irony of the dismissal of Elizabeth considering her future role is palpable, but in that moment Anne’s position weakened. The more stillborn children that arrived, the more untenable her position became. Her relationship with Cromwell, arguably the heart of Wolf Hall, was of mutual benefit as Cromwell’s loyalty to her and Henry ostensibly meant the same thing. As time shifted, those loyalties began to diverge and Cromwell chose as he was wont to do. He chose his loyalty to Henry and his newfound love for Jane Seymour, once again throwing the deck to replacing a queen with a younger, more favorable one. Anne at that moment needed more supporters than ever before, but her circumstance was not unlike that of a roadkill upon whom all the nearby vultures suddenly began to rip apart for a measly meal. Perhaps simply behaving as if a human, at her most desperate moments she turned away the few supporters she could have garnered, becoming more isolated than ever before she realized that there was no escape.

There is always a price to pay, for loyalty, for the dormice Cromwell steps on to craft testimony of infidelity against Anne, for survival. The final shot of Wolf Hall is incredibly damning to the man at its center, having committed within the construct of the narrative the most horrifying betrayal. There is little leeway the finale gives to Cromwell and each touch of kindness that he displays seemingly damns him more than any thing because all of the atrocities he’s committing for Henry remain in the forefront. He weirs the veil of loyalty over his eyes, yet the screams of the man being tortured below (a common man as the gentry and aristocracy were off limits to torture) refuse to let him go to sleep. Each step led him further and further into the abyss, to where his circumventing of Thomas More seemed like almost a pittance in hindsight. As loyalty became a defining theme, the theater became a recurring motif, often framing Cromwell as the observer, if not the ventriloquist himself. He can see each of his machinations being mocked and displayed for all to be entertained by, each passing reenactment seemingly damning him more and more. It’s as if he can see through the veil a frighteningly fast sword slicing through a very little neck. Henry had barked at Cromwell that above all, he was the man who existed to do his dirty work, all consolations of friendship aside. Cromwell never forgot, and nor did the blade who saw in its metal his own reflection.

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:

+Cromwell’s daughter Anne being the better scholar versus her brother

+“What did he want?”


+“If I were you, I’d leave the needle in.”

+“Keep the angel wings away from the fire.”

+“Can I choose whom to marry?”

+“Fool was making an enemy of Anne Boleyn. Who knew how far she’d rise?”

+“Well, perhaps I’m a simple person. Do you think I am?”

+“Why are you such a … person?”

+“You need a seat to invade France.”

+“Master Cromwell, your reputation is bad…”

+“Your majesty can form your own opinions.”

+“Some debts are not to be reckoned.”

+Wolsey avoiding Cromwell to please Lady Anne

+“Your master may be down, but you’re not poor. And you’ve got everything below in good working order, haven’t you?”

+“I want a husband who upsets them.”

+“Where have you have been?”


+“A woman on the English throne flies in the face of nature.”

+“A woman can’t lead an army.”

“Her grandmother did.”

+“May I speak?”

“God, I wish someone would.”

+“I speak from experience, not prejudice.”

+“The dead don’t come back to complain about their burying.”

+“Become the king you should be.”

+“There’s no need to trouble God, George. I’ll take it in hand.”

+The painting of a woman stabbed in the neck

+Anne is horrible at archery

+“People should say whatever keeps them alive.”

+“My sister is a notorious virgin.”

+“Write only a little and pray a lot.”

+“You won’t reign seven months.”

“Couldn’t you at least round it up?”

+“You made a mistake threatening me, sir.”

+“I was always desired. But now I’m valued, you see?”

+“There can be no pretense of equality.”

+“Tell him you don’t have the brain of a flea.”

+“I think you’d like to put words there, too.”

+“You just have to say some words, that’s all.”

+“Where the line is drawn between sacrifice and self-slaughter.”

+“You are a serpent. Do not be a viper in my bosom.”

+“You know my decision. Execute it.”

+“I no more understand him more than the Holy Trinity.”

+“When we meet again in Heaven, as I hope we will, all our differences will be forgotten.”

+“Take it, I will not yield it.”

+“He’s not a cruel man, you know that.”

“Do I?”

+“If I stop to think how I’m doing it, I won’t be able to do it.”

+“Don’t scream. Pray, out loud.”

+“Tell him to let us in before I show his arse my boot.”

+“You should tell him. He might knight you on the spot.”

+The sexual abuse in the Catholic monasteries that Cromwell uncovers

+“Oh, he’ll have the furs.”

+“The man must have had 500 fingers.”

+“How many men can say that his only friend is the King of England?”

+“You’ve killed a man.”

“Not in this jurisdiction.”

+“I shall profit from this lesson.”

+“So do they come to any conclusion?”

“I think it’s every man for himself.”

+Cromwell stabbing Anne’s “body” at the dinner table

+“I am responsible for your rise.”

+“Madam, nothing here is personal.”

+“Those who’ve been made can be unmade.”

+“No sir, I’m a banker.”

+“I do you a favor by noticing you at all.”

+“I don’t know how to be ready.”

+“You’ve always regarded women as disposable.”

+“The game can be heated.”

+The necessity of guilty men,

+“I only have a little neck, so it’ll be the work of a moment.”

+Perhaps it’s the greatest irony of all, how vile Cromwell has become painted in history as Anne became a martyr and Elizabeth became the queen.



Name: Wolf Hall

Episode Titles: Three Card Trick, Entirely Beloved, Anna Regina, The Devil’s Spit, Crows, Master of Phantoms

Based on: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Executive Produced by: Colin Callender

Produced by: Mark Pybus

Written by: Peter Straughan

Directed by: Peter Kosminsky

Starring: Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Bernard Hill, Anton Lesser, Mark Gatiss, Mathieu Amalric, Joanne Whalley, Jonathan Pryce

Music by: Debbie Wiseman (Original music), Claire van Kampen (Tudor music)

Edited by: David Blackmore, Josh Cunliffe

Cinematography: Gavin Finney

Production Company(s): Company Pictures

Distributor(s): BBC Worldwide

Image Courtesy: Radio Times, WUNC


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