A Handy Guide To “Wolf Hall,” Your Next British TV Obsession

Based on the acclaimed novels from Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall debuted to a big audience and strong reviews on BBC Two. With its period lighting and the complexity of the source material, the show can be tough to follow for new viewers. Here, some helpful context on episode one.

A Handy Guide To “Wolf Hall,” Your Next British TV Obsession
[Photos: courtesy of BBC Two]

The hotly anticipated Wolf Hall hit U.K. TV screens last night in the first of a six-part series from the BBC, launching the country into a Tudor obsession. The debut drew 3.9 million viewers, making it BBC Two’s most successful series since Rome (and U.S. audiences can catch it on PBS staring April 5).


Based on the best-selling, Booker Prize-winning books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two volumes of a three-part trilogy by Hilary Mantel, the series tells the story of the rise and fall of lawyer and fixer Thomas Cromwell, played by an inscrutable Mark Rylance, in the Tudor court. The backdrop is Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn and the sticky end that mess comes to.

It’s high politics, high religion and high treason. While we all know the basics of this story, including how it ends, the beauty of Wolf Hall is the complexity of the relationships between the main players as they seek to further their own goals, changing history as they do so.

It is challenging to follow unless one is up on the complicated context and Mantel has refused to reduce the more than 1,000 pages of historical drama to “clichés and over-simplifications.” The author has said there is no point “dumbing-down” the story to please a broader TV audience. Viewers will have to have their wits about them to keep up.

Speaking after a screening at the British Film Institute in London, Mantel said:
“You’ll never pitch it right for everyone. What you can do is do it honestly, do it with integrity, try to serve its complexities and also hope to carry the audience with you when you open to them the possibilities.” Peter Kosminsky, the director, added the series is far from the “escapist pap” seen elsewhere on our screens.

Here then is a handy guide to help decipher some of the context in episode one:

Henry VIII is looking very slim and handsome

In most visual representations seen previously, Henry is depicted as very overweight and often rather sweatily unattractive. In this adaptation, which opens in 1529, the king, played by Homeland’s Damian Lewis, is (like Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Henry in the early part of The Tudors) slim and hot. This is because Henry’s physical decline did not begin until after a jousting accident in 1536.


Factoid: Viewers of early previews questioned the whiteness of the character’s teeth. Mantel retorted: “There are two ways in historical drama: either glamorize them impossibly, or rough them up in some picturesque way so they all have bad teeth. Which, actually, at that stage in history people didn’t have because they ate so little sugar.”

Anne Boleyn’s Beef With Cardinal Wolsey

Next to the king, Wolsey, played by Jonathan Pryce, is easily the most powerful man in England. The Pope’s representative in the country, he developed a close relationship with the young Henry and is his right-hand man. He’s charged with convincing Pope Clement VII to grant an annulment of Henry’s first marriage. This is what Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) wants, right? So why is she so ticked off with Wolsey? Well, some years previously, Wolsey put a stop to her romance with Harry Percy, a rich heir of whom we will hear more in later episodes. Anne was livid.

In episode one, when Cromwell warns Wolsey that Anne has never forgiven him for his intervention in her love life, he dismisses her as “a chit of a girl who will be in Henry’s bed by summer and out by autumn.” As misjudgments go, this rates higher than Steve Ballmer scoffing at the original iPhone.

Factoid: Anne Boleyn grew up in France (her father was the Ambassador), which is why she pronounces Cromwell as “Cremuel.”

Beware “sweating sickness”

The first episode saw the shocking and sudden deaths of Cromwell’s wife Liz and two daughters Grace and Anne (one “pretty” and the other “clever” – shame they had to be one thing or the other).

Sweating sickness was a serious illness, which appeared first in England then spread into Europe during the period. It killed thousands in a series of epidemics between 1485 and 1551. The onset of symptoms was dramatic and sudden, with death often occurring within hours.


Factoid: No one seems to know what caused sweating sickness or even exactly what it was and it disappeared after 1578.

The Emperor and his Ambassador

The Emperor to whom reference is often made but is never seen is Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He is Queen Catherine’s nephew and this is a major headache for Henry as he seeks to engineer a divorce, partly because Charles is holding the Pope prisoner after the 1527 Sack of Rome. In a delicious moment from episode one, Cromwell first meets Eustace Chapuys, the Emperor’s Ambassador to the Tudor Court, who, unaware that Cromwell speaks several languages, makes an unkind quip to Thomas More in Italian. Cromwell says drily: “If you want to speak secretly, try Greek.”

Factoid: Much of Cromwell’s early life is mysterious but we know he was a mercenary in Italy, among other things.

Tyndale’s New Testament

We saw Cromwell having a covert meeting with a shadowy group of men. They were discussing the first English translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale. This was dangerous, controversial stuff. Beginning with German friar Martin Luther in 1517, Europeans were increasingly questioning the power, wealth and basic tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. Cromwell supports this and so, intriguingly, does Anne Boleyn, common ground that will later cement their relationship.

As Cromwell told his wife about the translation: “Read it and you will see you’ve been misled–no mention of nuns, monks, relics.”

Factoid: It will be Thomas Cromwell who drafts the legislation that formalised England’s religious and political break with Rome during the 1530s.


Cromwell and Henry VIII’s meeting

In episode one, Cromwell meets Henry in person for what we think is the first time but he already has a bit of form with the king. Six years previously, during a stint as MP, Cromwell had argued against Henry’s wish to go to war with France on the grounds that it was unaffordable.

At their meeting, Henry challenges Cromwell: “You said wars are not affordable things and that the king could not lead his troops into battle in case he was captured and ransomed. Do you want a king to hide indoors like a sickly girl?”

Cromwell replies evenly: “That would be ideal.”

Factoid: Cromwell meets Henry in a garden but throughout the episode, indoor scenes show a series of numerous anterooms. Rank dictated how many of these rooms one could pass through and how close you could get to the king. If you were not of high birth, an earl for example, your chances of standing in the same room as Henry VIII were limited by law.

Episode one showed the beginning of Cromwell’s ascent to become the most pivotal man in England, but he is still pretty lowly. As the drama develops we will see him evolve to take on what Mantel calls the “dark glitter of a Mafia boss.”

If you’re still baffled, PhD researcher @KateMaltby and @cath_fletcher, a historical advisor with the Art Department on Wolf Hall helpfully live tweeted information throughout the first episode, we can only hope they continue do so for the remaining five.


About the author

Louise Jack is a London-based journalist, writer and editor with a background in advertising and marketing. She has written for several titles including Marketing Week, Campaign and The Independent.