In our penultimate episode of Wolf Hall, we see Cromwell change the course of history twice. Once when his desire to see Jane Seymour brings the royal party to Wolf Hall, which has has unexpected consequences, and then again when Henry VIII dies.
Jane: "I'll get my prayer book. I'm sure I can find something that will fit the bill."
When Wolf Hall premiered in 2015, it garnered near-universal praise. This was, as we noted before, a commitment to bringing us a Shakepearean level history play, but by modern authors with modern sensibilities. This was the sort of thing that shows like The White Queen or Game of Thrones could only aspire to. If there was one complaint by anyone, it was that the dramatic liberties novelist Hillary Mantel and script writer Peter Straughan had taken with history would be mistaken by the audience as a true account of events. (Much like Shakespeare before them.)
Two of those liberties are at the heart of this week's episode. The first is the conceit that Thomas Cromwell was in love with, or at least harbored a tendre for, Jane Seymour. History doesn't say he didn't, but history does not record that he did either. But it is suggested by the show that this overriding desire by Cromwell to see Jane, especially after last week's illness, is the only reason the royal party bothered to stop at Wolf Hall at all.
The end result is that the ever-suggestable Henry, already less than pleased with his second wife's failure to carry a son to term, finds himself staring into the gentle face of Jane. And before the party has left the residence, Cromwell finds himself no longer under consideration for her hand (if he ever was in the first place), by Jane or anyone else. The King now has his eye on her, and the entire family is hoping she can reel in that fish - with Cromwell's advice, of course.
Anne: "He'll never abandon me. Never. Since my coronation there's a new England, and it can't subsist without me."
As most viewers know (spoiler alert) history says we will soon see Henry throwing over everything in his country for Jane, much like he did for Anne before her. But before we get to that, we have to contend with Mantel's other not-exactly-historically-accuate plot point this week. If this were an episode of Friends, it would be entitled "The One Where Henry VIII Dies."
Now, historical records agree that on the 24th of January, 1536, Henry VIII was injured in a jousting accident when he was thrown from his horse. The horse then apparently landed on top of him. The king was unconscious for two hours, with some records claiming that he stopped breathing for up to 15 minutes. Now that seems a little impossible - the human brain cannot go without oxygen for that long. This week's episode shows it to be more like five minutes before Cromwell bodily throws himself at the king and restarts his breathing. But still! Modern day science agrees that loss of oxygen to the brain for even that length of time can cause serious brain damage, and that's not including the fact that Henry also suffered massive concussive trauma as well. Some historans have gone so far to suggest the cumulative effect of all that jousting caused Henry CTE like symptoms later in life. Some even imply that his tearing through four more wives like tissue paper over the next decade, until he passed in 1547, was part and parcel with the personality changes brought on by this accident.
But in the moment, all Cromwell knows is this: there is no male heir yet (though Anne is pregnant at this time). Anne may insist that the new England cannot survive without her, but the truth is it cannot survive without Henry. The Boleyn position at the top of the food chain was far to precarious at this juncture. They could have fought for three-year-old Elizabeth to become Queen. Cromwell could have sided with her to try and force the issue. But his instinct to tell people to get Mary out of the country suggests his choice could go either way. After all, the reformation is less than five years old, and the country is still restless. Katherine of Aragon is in a very good position to stage a civil war and put Mary on the throne. (Consider that a decade and one short-lived male heir later, Mary still was put on the throne before Elizabeth. Chances of her being crowned and keeping it at this point in history would have been slim to none.)
Cromwell: "How many men can say 'My only friend is the King of England?' You'd think I'd had everything. But take Henry away and..."
Henry cannot die. It would be a disaster for the country. The lords are running around losing their heads, or else cuing up their long held plots in case of the eventuality of Henry dying. Norfolk is standing around pounding his chest yelling he will be regent: "ME! ME!" Cromwell, seeing the scope of the catastrophe if they let this happen, decided the only answer is for the king to live. In desperatation he turns around and pounds on the king's chests until Henry, startling into conciousness, breathes again. Was it really Cromwell who really saved Henry's life? History does not say that it was. But for our purposes, Cromwell's choice to keep the King alive is the one that makes the most dramatic sense.
But it's a short lived victory. Cromwell gets not thanks from the King for his quick thinking, or for keeping him from the grave. Instead, the King's behavior turns erratic. His attitude towards Anne verges on hatred, from the first time she comes to see him after the accident, to her next miscarriage (which some say was brought on by the shock of being told her husband was dead). Those he associates with bringing him Anne are also under fire, and Henry lashes out at Cromwell too, accusing him over overstepping, when all Cromwell is doing is attempting to set up things to bring in the next match, whether that be Jane or anyone else.
Henry: "I cannot live like this... you must free me from this... from Anne."
It's a useful distraction, though it does not really play like one Henry planned. But the Boleyn men sit around pridefully amused to see Cromwell "put in his place". Meanwhile they completely miss the reality that the only reason they sit at the King's hand is due to a woman he's planning to put aside, and soon. Jane has caught his eye. All Henry is looking for is someone to give him an excuse to call this marriage to Anne a fraud - perhaps charms or spells? If at first you don't succeed, anull, anull again.
Next week: Anullment? Beheading? You say tomato, I say tomato. Let's call the whole thing a sign of Cromwell's own fate to come.