New Show Recap: Wolf Hall, Episode One, “Three Card Trick”

Happy almost weekend! I’ll be recapping the American broadcast of Wolf Hall on PBS’s Masterpiece over the next few weeks, and I’m really looking forward to it. For those of you who don’t know, the series is based on Hilary Mantel’s novel of the same name and tells the story of Henry VIII, his break with the Catholic Church, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. This series features an all-star cast and one of the best portrayals of Henry VIII that I have seen to date.

The series starts out in 1529, and Henry, after years of marriage with Catherine, only has a living daughter as an heir. Desiring to marry Anne Boleyn and father a male heir, Henry has been petitioning the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine for two years without success. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s chancellor, is the one Henry is blaming for it.

As the series begins, the Dukes of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) and Suffolk—the former Anne Boleyn’s uncle, by the way—arrive to relieve Wolsey of his position and retrieve the great seal. Unruffled, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), Wolsey’s lawyer, whispers instructions in his ear. Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) advises both Norfolk and Suffolk that they will have to return with a written order for the royal seal and that he needs to give the seal to the master of the realm. Suffolk and Norfolk are angry and leave. Wolsey is trying to draw things out day by day, but the king’s men are putting on the pressure as they have taken the plate and Wolsey’s palace to give to Anne Boleyn. Despite all that has happened, Wolsey will not say anything negative about Henry.

Cromwell remembers his first dealing with Anne Boleyn. Anne was supposed to marry an Irish nobleman, but went and became engaged to Henry Percy. Wolsey and Thomas Boleyn see that the match is not politically advantageous, even if it is a love match, and forbid the marriage from occurring. Anne and Percy also pledged themselves to one another, which makes things difficult, because a betrothal back then was as good as a marriage. Wolsey instructs to Boleyn to act as though the marriage never occurred. After Boleyn left Wolsey, the cardinal takes notice of Cromwell. We discover that Cromwell was born the son of a blacksmith and raised himself up out of poverty to become a lawyer, and that he has traveled to such places as Italy. Wolsey is pleased that Cromwell is from as low of a background as he is and decides to help him further his career.

Cromwell returns home after seeing Wolsey to his new lodgings, and it’s clear that he and his wife have a loving relationship. Cromwell’s wife is ambivalent about the idea, but she feels her husband is making the right decision. We see more of Cromwell’s family life, and of how much he loves his sons and his daughters. We see that he takes pride in his older daughter’s love of learning. Cromwell also receives a copy of Tyndall’s New Testament, a copy of the Bible in English. Cromwell is also a secret follower of the Reformation.

Some time later, Cromwell and his sons leave to see to Wolsey at his new house. Cromwell keeps Wolsey entertained with card tricks and there is more talk of politics. Wolsey tells Cromwell about the king’s Great Matter and how Henry is convinced that his marriage to his brother’s widow has left a curse on his bed. We all know this story: Henry insists Catherine (Joanne Whalley) consummated her marriage to Arthur and that she wasn’t a virgin, meaning that their marriage was unlawful. Catherine insists she was a virgin and that the marriage is legal. They both know that Catherine will fight Henry the entire way. Wolsey is very stressed out and is getting very sick. He has feelings of dread about his fate.

No one knows who will be chancellor now that Wolsey has basically been fired. Cromwell surmises that it will be Thomas More, even though More opposes the king’s Great Matter. Thomas More arrives at a friend’s house for dinner later that evening, and Cromwell speaks very plainly to More since he heard More talking shit about him behind his back. We also meet Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador. Cromwell intimidates them with his smarts, because he can understand Spanish and hears Chapuys remarking on his low origins. Cromwell does not like More, who is ambitious despite all of his talk about not caring for worldly goods. More believes that Wolsey is corrupt.

Later, the Holy Roman Emperor, who is Queen Catherine’s nephew, by the way, has taken Rome and is basically holding the pope prisoner. Wolsey has a plan, as cardinal, to convey a meeting of church officials and pass the king’s annulment. Cromwell doesn’t have faith in this, and he reminds Wolsey that Henry has moved on to Anne Boleyn and that Anne has a bone to pick with Wolsey, who laughs it off. When Cromwell returns home, his wife tells him that his sister stopped by and asked Cromwell to come see his father, but Cromwell won’t see him. And here is some foreshadowing: Cromwell’s younger daughter enters the room wearing angel wings made out of peacock feathers, something only taken out at Christmas. She later complains of being too warm. Not a good sign.

Cromwell is awakened early in the morning to attend a Protestant meeting. When he comes back, he finds that his wife and daughters have fallen victim to the sweating sickness and died. This is very sad, because we know how much he loved them. The sweating sickness has come back to England, and it’s spreading through the country like wildfire.

The cardinals will not meet with Wolsey, so Wolsey decides to hold a legantine court to elect another official to stand in for the pope. While Cromwell drones on about his plans, Cromwell quietly tells him of the deaths of his wife and daughters. Wolsey is visibly shaken at the news, but Cromwell remains impassive.

Cromwell goes to see his father, who is a blacksmith in one of London’s poorer districts, and his father is still the same brutal man he always was. We see a memory of Cromwell’s father beating him cruelly, and when Cromwell tells his father of his profession, his father spits on the ground and insults him. Cromwell has had enough and leaves. Cromwell’s nephew comes to him in the face of his own father’s death, and they propose to take Cromwell’s name.

Later, we see the hearing on the validity of Henry and Catherine’s marriage at the legantine court in Blackfriars. We see Catherine’s testimony and pleas with Henry. Things don’t look good for Wolsey. When Cromwell’s son remarks on how he believes Catherine, Cromwell retorts he doesn’t believe anyone. They receive the news from Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss), Wolsey’s secretary, that the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor have signed a treaty, and Henry’s petition will be quashed. As they watch Wolsey’s decline, Cromwell’s son remarks on how he pities Wolsey and that Wolsey, once so proud, had angered the king and lost everything. Cromwell disagrees; Wolsey’s mistake was making an enemy out of Anne Boleyn.

Later, Cromwell goes to York Place, Wolsey’s former home, now occupied by Anne Boleyn, to pay court to her. Anne (Claire Foy) has had the house redecorated, and there are musicians in her solar where she receives Cromwell. Cromwell has a quick conversation with Mark Smeaton, a minstrel who used to work for Cromwell but who now works for Anne Boleyn. Cromwell first meets Anne’s sister Mary, who is chasing after her sister’s dog. Then we see Anne, standing up among her ladies. Anne is beautiful and ruthless and speaks to Cromwell in French. Cromwell has arrived to smooth things over with Anne Boleyn on Wolsey’s behalf, but Anne doesn’t budge. Cardinal Wolsey was asked to annul the marriage, and he didn’t, a simple order, in Anne’s mind. “Perhaps I am a simple person,” she said snidely, to which Cromwell replies mildly, “I hardly know you.” Anne, having had enough of him, dismisses Cromwell. As Cromwell leaves, Mary Boleyn hurries after him, inviting him back. She explains that her sister loves a good argument, and she confirms the rumors that Anne and Henry haven’t slept together yet.

Cromwell confides to his sons that he needs a seat in Parliament to act as an advocate for Wolsey. He fears for Wolsey’s life. Cromwell goes to see Norfolk, who has spoken to Henry on Cromwell’s behalf. Cromwell is supposed to take instructions from Henry and Norfolk in the House of Commons. Norfolk reminds Cromwell of how he had spoken out against Henry VIII’s French campaign, and that Henry hasn’t forgotten it. Norfolk doesn’t care for Cromwell’s sang-froid. Cromwell seeks to appeal to Norfolk on Wolsey’s behalf, but Norfolk will not relent and orders Wolsey away from London.

Cromwell next goes to see Henry (Damian Lewis), and the two have a conversation in the garden. Henry asks after Wolsey, and he informs Cromwell that the list of charges against Wolsey grows. Henry has been ignoring Wolsey’s pleas on purpose. Henry then confronts Cromwell about coming out against the war in France, and Cromwell explains why and gives reasons for not going to war again, along with a better strategy. “A man acts within that which constrains him,” he tells Henry. Henry seems impressed by Cromwell’s intelligence and sang-froid. He seems to have warmed to Cromwell despite the lawyer’s reputation. They part on a good note, and Cromwell is optimistic that he can help Wolsey.

There have been mixed reviews about the production, but I must say that I’m very impressed with it. Mark Rylance portrays a brilliant, calculating man who conceals much under his cool exterior. His power lies in people underestimating him, and then he chooses opportune moments in which to shine. Cromwell is almost always portrayed as a sneaky, conniving little weasel, but the character is painted in a more sympathetic light. Jonathan Pryce is an excellent Wolsey, portraying the cardinal as someone who overestimates the power he has and who is still extremely ambitious, though underneath, he’s capable of feeling pity for those whom he knows. Claire Foy, who was first seen in an ingenue role in the BBC production of Little Dorrit, plays a far different role in Wolf Hall. She gives Anne Boleyn a very Regina George vibe, especially in her treatment of Cromwell. You see how proud and confident she is, and it’s almost sad, because you know what history has in store for her. Damian Lewis’s portrayal of a younger, more virile Henry VIII is one of the best I’ve ever seen, nearly up there with Richard Burton’s in Anne of the Thousand Days. Henry was still young by today’s standards, in his mid-thirties, and under a lot of pressure to produce a son because the Tudor dynasty is still very young. We also see Henry getting his feet wet with the power he has now that Wolsey has been exiled from court, and Anne Boleyn’s family has stepped in and tells him exactly what he wants to hear.

I am very excited to see what happens next week! There’s also a “Wolf Hall Bingo” card shown in one of the tweets I linked. Maybe we could make a game of it? Anyone interested?

One thought on “New Show Recap: Wolf Hall, Episode One, “Three Card Trick””

  1. I’m so excited about this show!! I didn’t enjoy the books (the writing style was a bit too dry for my tastes) but the Tudor period is my favorite in English history. Loved the first episode, it completely lived up to my expectations. This is one I’ll be saving on my DVR until I buy the DVDs.

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