‘Wolf Hall’: Get Acquainted with the Court of Henry VIII

Most of us probably know the basic facts about King Henry VIII – his multiple marriages; his break from the Catholic Church to form the Church of England in order to enable said marriages; his quest for a male heir; and the unfortunate circumstances that befell most of his spouses who couldn’t provide him with one.

However, if you want to dig deeper into this time in Tudor history (and be entertained at the same time) you will probably want to watch Wolf Hall which will premiere on PBS’ Masterpiece beginning this Sunday. This six part series is based on two of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning historical fiction novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both books are said to be painstakingly researched though no one can know exactly what transpired behind closed doors almost 500 years ago.

I must admit that I attempted to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall…twice. I knew I was in trouble when I saw a six page list of characters following the table of contents. The intimidation factor may have finished me before I even began.  I soldiered on for a while, but found it was difficult to keep the various Thomas’ separate and the Dukes of This or That straight in my mind.

Therefore, before you settle in to watch the first episode of Wolf Hall on April 5th at 10 pm ET (check your local listings) I thought it might be helpful to have a guide to some of the series major characters.

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance). History has not painted a positive picture of Thomas Cromwell, yet in Wolf Hall, he is our protagonist. A calm voice of reason, we experience life at Henry VIII’s court through him.  

Once a poor blacksmith’s son, Cromwell rose above his station to become a lawyer and eventually an aide to Cardinal Wolsey, the King’s Lord Chancellor. When Wolsey falls out of favor and is forced from his duties and his home, Cromwell finds ways to make himself indispensable to King Henry and becomes his trusted advisor and doer of many unpleasant deeds. 

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)

Henry VIII  (Damian Lewis). From compassionate and patient to cold and vengeful, Henry’s volatile moods make him a monarch to be simultaneously loved and feared. Easily smitten, Henry’s affections for any given woman are quickly superseded by his desperate need to produce a male heir. Alas he is impatient with the men he entrusts to help him achieve this goal and Cromwell knows if he doesn’t succeed, he may suffer the same fate as his mentor Cardinal Wolsey.

Henry VIII (Damian Lewis)

Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce). Being more devoted to his King than the Church doesn’t ensure the Cardinal’s power within the court or secure a place in Henry’s heart. When he can’t deliver the goods (i.e. a divorce for the King from his first wife Catherine of Aragon) Wolsey loses his position as Lord Chancellor, all his property and is exiled to Esher where he loses his health as well.

 

Thomas More (Anton Lesser). Wolsey’s successor as Lord Chancellor, More was a devoted Catholic. While he was in favor of helping the King get his annulment from Catherine, More starts to have misgivings about Henry’s denial of the Pope’s supremacy. In the end More’s refusal to compromise his beliefs makes him an enemy of the crown. Despite Cromwell’s efforts, he can’t convince More to save himself with a false oath.

Thomas More (Anton Lesser)

Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill). The highest ranking of British noblemen, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, also happens to be Anne Boleyn’s uncle. He’s surly, ambitious and opportunistic. Not a natural ally of Cromwell, Norfolk could find himself on Thomas’ side if circumstances warrant it.

Rafe Sadler (Thomas Brodie- Sangster). Though Thomas Cromwell has a son, Gregory, and a nephew, Richard, under his care, you will most often see his ward, Rafe Sadler, by his side. The young man was Cromwell’s student and later becomes his secretary and, at times, his eyes and ears among the nobles.

And now for the ladies-                                                   

Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley). Henry VIII’s first wife and mother of his daughter Mary, Catherine has not given the King a son after over twenty years of marriage. Being a devout Catholic, she also wasn’t too keen on ending their marriage as her husband wished. In the end, the divorce is allowed by the new Church of England and Catherine is unceremoniously thrown out on her ear.

Catherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley)

Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). The Tudor monarch’s second wife, Anne, is a woman who knows her mind and distrusts most of the people around her. She isn’t well liked by those loyal to the Pope and they refuse to recognize her as the real queen. When she too can only produce a female offspring, the King tires of Anne and her demanding ways. Cromwell is charged with finding a way to rid Henry of Anne and her insufficient womb. 

Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy)

Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). A lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn, the two young women are polar opposites. Demure and retiring, Jane catches the King’s eye on a visit to her family home, Wolf Hall. Anne finds Miss Seymour pasty and dull and no apparent threat to her marriage. 

Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips)

Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine). There are plenty of ladies surrounding the Queen including her own sister, Mary Boleyn. None is more observant, however, than Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane Rochford. Cromwell depends on her frank, often critical, reports on to get an accurate picture of Anne’s moods and state of mind. She is especially helpful when Thomas has to dig up dirt in order to condemn the Queen. 

Jane Rochford (Jessica Raine)

There are literally dozens and dozens more characters in Wolf Hall – clergy, noble folk, government officials, Cromwell’s extended family, etc. My best advice is to not let yourself get overwhelmed with the quantity of players parading before you. If they’re important, it will be made evident. Some people are only relevant for a short time and then they fade into the background.

Just enjoy and know that, like good book, this series is dense with characters, facts and good solid drama. It may be one of those stories where you have to go back for a second or third look, but you’ll be rewarded each time you return with more and more understanding.

Which of you brave, persistent souls have read Hilary Mantel’s novels? What are your expectations for the series whether you’ve read the books are not? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.