Wolf Hall, helped by Holbein

In the BBC’s ongoing production of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (and its sequel, Bringing Up The Bodies), there is a problem. I thought it was a problem of appearance, to be lain at the door of the production. After consideration I think that is not so; the production is masterful in every way. The problem is to be assigned to the novels themselves. It is one of historiography.

Mantel’s Wolf Hall is lauded for its revisionist approach to the much-hackneyed story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Its revisionism resides as much as anywhere in its tone. It is a quiet, introspective portrait of a man; it is the antithesis of the scenery-eating treatments of Hollywood (or Showtime’s bodice-ripping, or Bolt’s moralizing, or Philippa Gregory’s attempt to turn the court of England into a middleschool dance).

Mantel’s book chooses as its focus a character whom the historical novels either demonize or ignore: Thomas Cromwell. It portrays him as a quiet, exceedingly complex character; it looks to his formative years, his motivations, his joy in family, his sense of justice, his great loyalty. Mantel makes him a remarkably sympathetic, even likeable character. These are hard things to make of any statesman, let alone one who has been vilified in much of history. (Let alone one who was a lawyer.)

Mantel shows Cromwell delighting in books, in discussing the interest of the realm, in reading the scriptures – and in dissenting from Rome in private, and in quiet. She makes him a figure suitable to modern approval. She makes him, practically, a figure of the Enlightenment.

The only image that survives of Cromwell is Holbein’s portrait of him. But is this description not meet with this portrait?


Throughout the production, I was struck by how masterfully well the series was cast. Aside from being a truly magnificent actor, Mark Rylance is the spitting image of Cromwell. Not just in physicality: he captures the very soul of this portrait. I could not shake the feeling. Every scene I found myself positively squeeing. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seeing history come to life.

To wit:


At one point in the series, we see him sitting for his portrait. He even has a few words with Hans Holbein. This is him sitting for the portrait.

vlcsnap-2015-04-30-18h38m48s81 2

The series’ captures Thomas Cromwell beyond reproach.

…and then I realized something. That’s not Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell.

That’s Holbein’s portrait of Erasmus. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great Dutch humanist. Erasmus was one of the wittiest men of the century, a forebear of Voltaire. His In Praise Of Folly was one of the first bestsellers, hot on the heels of the development of the printing-press. He was fiendish in his writing, delightful in his conversation. He never dabbled in politics. He never played to intrigue. And he never wavered from his support of Catholicism.

Erasmus was the grandfather of the Enlightenment. And that is rather how the series displays Cromwell. A little rough around the edges – as befits a self-made man, in an era which detested them – but still: a man of quiet, of introspection, of loyalty, of God.

This is Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell:


One cannot fault the BBC’s costume department. Their Cromwell sat before their Holbein attired, and situated, in exactly this fashion. It is still history come to life and they deserve our praise.

But look at the man who wears the costume, is surrounded by the trappings of period and place. He is not Erasmus. He is not a quiet, contemplative man, given to pleasant scenes of family life. He is a bulldog. He is The King’s Bulldog: beady-eyed, iron-eyed and iron-willed, holding that little paper in a death-grip. He does not look like a man who enjoys the written word. He is holding words like other men hold daggers. And that is exactly what he did.

The real Thomas Cromwell was the Iron Chancellor of his day and country. He left bodies piled upon bodies to get him there. He arranged for his predecessor to be imprisoned so that he could take the job. He kept him imprisoned for years, in the basest conditions, before finally having him killed. It seems likely that he poisoned the King against his wife, Anne Boleyn; he certainly facilitated her downfall, and presided over her execution (and that of several others). And he then supplied the king with his next wife, Jane Seymour – after having allied himself with the Seymour family, so that he would personally benefit from her position.

One might see why Fred Zinnemann cast Leo Kern as his villainous Cromwell. This besides the fact that Leo actually looks like Holbein’s portrait:

cromwell seasons

But I do not think that the above facts should lead us to conclude that Cromwell was a villain. He was a man of the Middle Ages, when blood was not so dear. He was the servant of an absolute monarch. More specifically, he served a monarch who was fond of blood – particularly the blood of those closest to him. Cromwell paid in that blood, when like Thomas More before him, Henry Tudor chopped off is head.

But he did not bemoan his fate. He knew what he was getting into. He knew it exactly. They all did. Anne Boleyn did. Catherine Howard sure as hell did. They played the game of thrones, to win or to die – and unlike George RR Martin’s legion of poor ingenues, they knew the risks, and still entered the lists with their heads high.

England did not break from Rome because of lofty theological ideas or base human instincts. It was a political move, undertaken by the sober weighing of political considerations by a number of deft and self-interested statesmen. Perhaps he did want a divorce, and a son. But that was only one element of his thinking. The king did not take personal possession of the lands of the largest landowner in England because he thought they would give him a son. One might as well think that the Church absorbed the wealth of the Templars because all those priests just couldn’t stand buttsex.

Wulfhall was the seat of the Seymour family. I thought that the reason Hilary Mantel had named her novel Wolf Hall was to establish that they were but one faction in the dynastic struggles of late medieval England. That the Boleyns and the Seymours became rival camps in a power struggle no different than the thousands of others that dominated feudal history and imagination. That the story The Boleyn Girl is NOT a love story, NOT a tale of passion of woe, that the royal Tudor dick was, in fact, NOT the driving force of history.

Alas, this did not quite happen. And Mantel’s Wolf Hall became just another retelling of the passion and pain of Henry and Anne and the Sainted More. A little more refined, perhaps one step closer to the history. But a small step. Not what I had hoped for. Not what the story of 16th century England deserves.

The BBC’s Wolf Hall is simply the apotheosis of the novel upon which it is based. It takes Mantel’s vision and lifts it to the heavens. She confused Cromwell for Erasmus; we can forgive the BBC for doing so in kind, and masterfully.

Allow me to be quite clear: I do not believe that Thomas Cromwell was a good man. I do not believe he was a bad man. I believe that he was a politician and a very good one. He was smart. He was fierce. He was a zealous advocate for the one man who had the power to reward zealous advocacy; this is not loyalty, nor is it disloyalty. It is only in the imaginations of the middle classes that things must be put in terms of Good and Evil: because we cannot understand the machinations of self-interest; because we cannot enjoy history unless we get to pass judgment upon it.

I am called to mind of Lermontov’s introduction to his Hero Of Our Time: 

“Our audience is still so young and simple-hearted, it wouldn’t recognize a fable if there weren’t a moral at the end of the story. It doesn’t anticipate jokes, it doesn’t have a feel for irony; it is simply badly educated… it is like some country bumpkin who hears a conversation between two diplomats from opposing courts and goes away convinced that each is betraying his government for the sake of an intimate mutual friendship.”

Let me simply say that I hope that we will one day be ready for a treatment of history that does not call for judgment. Let us hope one day we shall be able to simply look at Cromwell, warts and all.


…for bonus points, compare Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More with Jeremy Northam, who played TMuffins in The Tudors. It’s nice to know that I am not the only one who gets mad boners from mimesis.


~ by davekov on 30 April 2015.

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