While New York theatregoers groove to our own native son in Hamilton, Henry the 8th will hold court at the Winter Garden in the RSC's Wolf Hall. Coincidentally, Masterpiece Theatre will be pitting the TV version of "Wolf Hall" (starring Mark Rylance, no less) against "Mad Men" on Sundays this spring. Can local heroes Alexander Hamilton and Don Draper hold off another British Invasion? Get prepped for Tudor-mania with Playbill's guide to Henry the 8th, the king with the six wives!
Who were the Tudors?
Under Henry the 8th, England would enjoy a period of calm that would last the rest of the century. But the Tudor Era is only visible in retrospect. At the time, it felt fragile and provisional, since the country was recovering from a century of trauma. In the 1400s the country had suffered under a weak boy-king, Henry the 6th, and his adversarial uncles. This had led to the "Wars of the Roses" between aristocratic families, a civil war that blurred lines of succession.
Late in the game, the Tudors married into the Red Rose faction, the House of Lancaster. Henry Tudor then won the crown from Richard Crookback and was crowned Henry the 7th. To consolidate his rule, he wed the eldest daughter of the White Roses, Elizabeth of York, who bore him two sons. The first they optimistically called Arthur after the legendary king who had united England. The second was named for his father. For the first time in living memory, the nation had a stable government.
Who was Catherine of Aragon?
Henry the 7th aimed to strengthen Tudor rule and start playing in the big leagues. So he arranged for Arthur to marry the Spanish daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella — the monarchs who evicted the Moors and Jews from Spain and also funded Columbus. When the union was set up in 1489, Arthur was two and Catherine was three. The couple began corresponding as soon as they could write. Arthur and Catherine were married in 1499, but they didn't actually meet until 1501. And you thought your long-distance relationship was hard!
Five months later, half a year before his sixteenth birthday, Arthur died of a fever. Henry the 7th didn't want to return her substantial dowry, so he suggested she wed Arthur's younger brother Harry. The Pope was needed to sign off on this unorthodox proposal, so Catherine had to swear she had never consummated her marriage with Arthur. But even after the Pope's okay, Henry the 7th dragged his feet. In the meantime, Catherine acted as Spain's ambassador to the English court — the first female ambassador in European history.
Where and when did Henry reign?
In 1508, when Henry the 7th died and Henry the 8th was crowned, the Kingdom of England was the smallest it had been in centuries. It levied Ireland with a nominal tax but the English couldn't leave Dublin safely. Scotland was an unruly neighbor whose natives sent raiding parties south for spoils. And across the Narrow Sea (AKA the Channel), the French had re-conquered everything that Henry the 5th had once won. In fact, it had already been several generations since a warrior-kid named Joan pushed the English all the way to the sea.
On the plus side, Henry could now marry his fiancée Catherine. They proved to be a well-matched power couple, firming up England over the next decade. While Henry invaded France (or rather, failed to invade France), Catherine repulsed a Scottish incursion. A few years later she brokered an alliance between her husband and Charles V, the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and not incidentally her nephew.
Why was a male heir so important?
A few decades of stability weren't enough to heal the psychic scars of a century of humiliation and civil war. Likewise, a smooth transition from Henry the 7th to Henry the 8th didn't make the Tudors a dynasty. Henry saw how quickly death struck his brother Arthur, and knew other nobles would stake their claim on the English throne if given an opening. An heir would secure Tudor power and stabilize the kingdom. And the only precedent for a woman on the English throne, for six months way back in 1141, had a few asterisks next to her name. Henry wanted a boy.
In the first decade of the royal marriage, Catherine had two boys and two girls who died at birth; a third boy died after 7 weeks; only a girl, christened Mary, survived infancy. Henry wasn't happy. Henry took three mistresses (that we know about), one of which produced a son that he acknowledged. The third mistress was the daughter of minor nobility who had been recalled from abroad after her affair with the French king. Her name was Mary Boleyn, and she had a sister…
Who was Anne Boleyn?
In 1585, a Catholic historian claimed that Queen Elizabeth's mother had six fingers on each hand. The truth about Anne Boleyn is buried under centuries of bad reputation. From her debut in the court of Henry the 8th, she was dogged by controversy and scandal. And that's how she's introduced in Wolf Hall: a young nobleman has nearly wrecked his arranged marriage by claiming that he and Anne are secretly betrothed.
Around the same time, Henry becomes infatuated with her. But rather than follow her sister Mary's example, Anne puts her suitor off without shooting him down. Meanwhile, Henry has asked the Pope to nullify his marriage on the grounds that it was quasi-incestuous and therefore cursed by God.
Anne Boleyn was, according to her contemporaries, full of charisma, style and spirit. Like Henry she enjoyed hunting, dancing and modern literature (Italian love sonnets — very trendy). She embraced humanism and Protestantism, and she encouraged her partner's ideas about the divine right of kings. Even her enemies agreed that she was brilliant. She was the female pattern of a complete courtier.
In 1876, her body was exhumed and found to have ten fingers, like everyone else.
What did courtiers do?
In popular imagination, royal courts involved seduction, banquets and jousts — obviously not the whole story, though Henry the 8th enjoyed all three. More generally, a courtier was a member of the government administration. Clerks, officers, secretaries, and valets would be considered courtiers, and they didn't necessarily need to be aristocrats to be successful (but it definitely helped).
Two invaluable how-to books for ambitious courtiers were published in Italy during Henry's reign. "The Book of the Courtier" was more genteel, advising a cool head, athletic style and good taste. A talent for dancing and poetry was as important as managerial skill. Its key was sprezzatura, or nonchalance: make it look effortless. The second, much more successful manual was Machiavelli's "Prince," whose advice was ethically pragmatic and stinted on the social polish.
Enter Thomas Cromwell, the true protagonist of Wolf Hall. Cromwell embodied Machiavelli's principles by working tirelessly for his king and for himself. In the past, he's usually been depicted as a tough, wily schemer devoted to his king's appetites. Wolf Hall's brilliance lies partly in recasting him as a Tony Soprano type, a brutal antihero who sees himself as a good man.
Who is Thomas Cromwell?
The protagonist of Wolf Hall began life as the son of a London blacksmith. He ended it, on the chopping block, as Lord Chamberlain. His rise may impress us today, but it left his contemporaries deeply suspicious. If his rival Thomas More was a man for all seasons, Thomas Cromwell was the man of the moment.
After a stint as a mercenary, Cromwell entered the Italian mercantile trade, where aptitude counted more than nobility. He had a real knack for investments and futures, then-new monetary concepts that were transforming economies. Business brought him to the Netherlands, where he saw up close the era's second revolution, the Protestant Reformation.
By age 40, Cromwell returned to England wealthy enough to represent part of London in the House of Commons. Before Wolf Hall starts, he has begun working for Cardinal Wolsey, the King's chief minister. As a master of administration and an advocate for mercantilism and reformation, Cromwell would help Henry modernize the country and provide the stability that the Tudors dreamed of. He would also help Henry get the marriage to Catherine nullified, whatever it took.
What was the Reformation?
The Reformation got rolling in 1517, when Martin Luther stated that salvation was between God and the individual. This went against the long-standing tradition that the Pope acted as God's representative on Earth. To Luthor, the Papacy was obviously corrupt — after all, the two Popes in this era were part of the infamous Medici family! The Catholic Church also took bribes to pray souls out of Purgatory faster, which milked the poor while giving the rich extra license to sin. Rituals like Mass were just a bunch of hocus pocus, a phrase invented in this period to make fun of Latin liturgy.
None of this — the Pope, the Mass, Purgatory, the Church itself — was mentioned in the Gospels. Most Christians didn't know that though, because the Bible was only available in Greek or Latin. So many Reformers, including Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, wanted the Bible translated into the local languages. Incidentally the Reformers used a relatively new invention, the printing press, to spread these populist ideas and translations.
Who was Thomas More?
If anyone in Henry's court has done well by history and poorly by Wolf Hall, it's Thomas More. Uniquely, in the last century he was declared a saint by the Catholic Church and honored by the godless Soviet Union. More was an intense, forward-looking man of principle. He made a point of educating his wife and daughters in an era when that was rare. He corresponded with the leading thinkers of his day — really, he was one of the leading thinkers of his day.
Henry and Catherine acted as his patrons, drafting him for his legal skills but also for the prestige of having one of Europe's great minds be a homegrown Englishman. His relationship with the king soured, however, since More stood against the Reformation generally, against Henry's serial monogamy, and against his separation from the Catholic Church. Cromwell framed these stances as treason against the crown, and had More beheaded. For a more faithful view of Thomas More, rewatch or reread A Man for All Seasons.
How accurate is Wolf Hall?
It's the criticism that comes up around Oscar time whenever a historical epic or biodrama is nominated (in 2015 the target was "Selma"). How much freedom should an artist take when dramatizing historic events? An accurate profile of Thomas Cromwell would show a bullying, scheming opportunist instead of this self-doubting humanist. That description would fit Thomas More better, instead of Mantel's misogynist self-flagellator and torturer of heretics.
But while Mantel has come under fire for her characterizations, she does not alter the order of events. Poulton, in adapting Mantel's novels, does compress the action and shuffle dialogue among the players, but this is dramatic fudging rather than historical revision.
What's more, drama has very different standards than history — one is an art, the other is a science. Mantel breathes life back into these figures of history and she shows how they were affected by current events that historical abstractions like "the Renaissance" and "the Reformation" can't capture.
Why is it called Wolf Hall?
Wolf Hall, in southwestern England, was the manor that belonged to the Seymours, a minor family in Tudor times. At first, Cromwell crushes on the mousy Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to both of Henry's queens. But when she catches the king's wandering eye, Cromwell uses that attraction in his plot to oust Anne. How successful was his plan? Jane Seymour married Henry 11 days after Anne's execution. The next year she would bear him that male heir, but the delivery would kill her.
But there's more to the title than foreshadowing. The novel mentions a Latin tag, quoted by Wolsey in the play: Homo homini lupus, or "Man is wolf to man." With this theme, the deadly intrigues of the Tudor court resemble a wolf stalking its prey. Wolf Hall is England, a kingdom of predators.
Aaron Grunfeld is a freelance theatre critic for publications and online magazines in New York City. He's also served as a literary manager and dramaturg for plays on and Off-Broadway, and for theatre companies such as Manhattan Theatre Club. He writes about Shakespeare and other theatre at The-Fifth-Wall.blogspot.com.