This week's episode of Wolf Hall takes the plot of the famous A Man For All Seasons and turns it sideways. Meanwhile, Anne may have nutured her way to be queen, but nature is refusing to cooperate.
Lady Rochford: He doesn't know his place. He's a jumped up nobody, taking his chance because the times are so disordered.
Cromwell: You could say the same of me, Lady Rochford. And I'm sure you do.
The story of Henry VIII and his six wives is one that has been mined for drama almost since the moment his life ended. Since the 1600s there have been countless retellings about the King who turned an entire country and its religious practices on its ear, just so he could get a divorce. That he then proceded to divorce, behead or outlive four women in succession is just gravy. There has been everything from silly vaudeville songs, to sexy late night dramas on pay cable to works of serious scholarship. Even Shakespeare wrote about it, though notably he did not actually do so until after the death of his patron, Elizabeth I. (As we are reminded this week, she was the daughter of said monarch. Trying to put it to stage during her reign would have been the 16th century version of "too soon").
Prior to Wolf Hall, the last artistic work of "serious scholarship" that was put to novel and screen was back in the 1960s. (Sorry The Tudors.) A Man for All Seasons was a originally written for BBC radio, which was then turned into a film adaptation in 1966 starring Paul Scofield and Orson Wells. It went on to sweep the Oscars that year. For those who have not read or seen it, said story covers the exact period over the last two episodes and this one, giving an account of the same events from the perspective of an English lawyer and councillor to the King. (Sound familiar?) Except instead of Cromwell, it is from the perspective of Sir Thomas More - religious hero, pious soul, and so faithful to God in all seasons that he was willing to be executed rather than bend to the will of the King.
Wolf Hall novelist Hillary Mantel and script writer Peter Straughan clearly knew that their work would be inevitably compared to this award winning movie. One can almost feel them glancing over their shoulders as the climax of that film - the excecution of More - arrived this week. They, of course, have taken the opposite viewpoint than the one espoused by A Man for All Seasons. In that film, Cromwell is the evil, unpious man, working to bring down god's faithful servant. Here, More, "God's faithful servant", is so pious as to strike terror in men's hearts. In this latest retelling, someone who is so commited to the word of God he would be executed is also the sort of man who would happily sit and torture "heretics" while droning on in Latin. As Cromwell says in the first episode, in retort to someone who complains that Woolsey burns books: "More will burn men."
Cromwell: We know his reasons. All of Europe knows his reasons. He's against the divorce. He doesn't believe the king can be the head of the church. His heart is with Rome. Not with England. He'd sooner see some foreigner imposed by the Emperor ruling us than back a man who's been his friend since childhood. And do you know what I hate the most? He's writing an account of today for all of Europe to read and in it we'll be the fools and oppressors and he'll be the poor victim with the better turn of phrase. He wrote this play years ago, and he sniggers every time I trip over my lines.
It also speaks volumes of how much we have changed as a society in the last fifty years. The story told now does not celebrate the piety of religion, or ask us to hold a man who would commit suicide by King up as a moral standard. (I remember seeing A Man for All Seasons as a teenager in the 90s and thinking to myself that he was hella selfish, since his wife and children would be left destitute and displaced one he died. I believe, as the kids these days would say, that is known as "problematic.")
Instead we celebrate the areligious figure in Cromwell, who gives speeches on how the real power in the world is money, and woe be to those who forget that. It also says a lot that back then, such a story of upright moral fiber and gorgeous period setting would sweep the Oscars. Nowadays, the same tale, told from the other direction loses at the Emmys to Game of Thrones.
Meanwhile, while More is sacrificing himself all noble-like in the Tower of London, Anne, and Cromwell, are discovering that women can only hustle one's way up the ladder of success so far in 1533. One can remove the religious hysterics attempting to bring her down with dire pronouncements, as Elizabeth Barton "The Holy Maid" is removed. One can take down the powerful families that find such women useful to their cause. One can even push for More's head, as Anne does post-miscarriage, blaming his holy nonsense as part of why she cannot conceive properly.
Anne: "I won't die. I'll give the king a son. And I won't die.
But, when one's stature - and very life - are dependent on something as dangerous as childbirth, then nature and luck often dictate the winning side as well. And right now, neither seem to be on the side of Anne, who, over the course of the hour gives birth to a baby of the wrong sex and miscarries another. Standing there in the morning light, bleeding out her child, and surrounded by sharks like Lady Rochford, Anne's life looks very vunerable indeed.
Next week, time will desert Anne too, along with nature and luck. Cromwell has seen More beheaded, and survived a fever. In response, he seems to think it's time to have Henry's Royal Traveling Band stop off at Jane Seymour's homestead, Wolf Hall. Is it just to gaze at her? Will he ask for her? Spoiler alert - by the time they're done, perhaps Cromwell will have wished he hadn't brought the king along at all.