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How True Is Thomas Cromwell's Tale In 'Wolf Hall'?
Oh, Henry VIII, the bad boy of the 1500s. Novels, books, and television shows just can't get enough of the history behind Henry VIII, his six wives, and Thomas Cromwell, so how historically true is the new miniseries Wolf Hall? The six-part Masterpiece miniseries based on Hilary Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies premieres on PBS on Sunday, April 5 at 10 pm. The series tells the history of Henry VIII and how he dissolved his marriage from Catherine of Aragon (spelled as "Katherine" in Wolf Hall), his brief marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the Protestant reformation that allowed Henry VIII to finagle his marriages. All of these plot points are historically accurate, but that doesn't mean that Wolf Hall gets everything right.
But how right can we ever be when it comes to covering the story of Henry VIII for entertainment purposes? Mark Lawson for The Guardian made the point that:
With the events of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII taking place over 500 years ago, Wolf Hall — and any story about that history — will be an interpretation. And, of course, dramas will tend to uh, dramatize, the already quite dramatic happenings of the British king. But that doesn't stop historians from finding fault — even if there are little issues.
One of Wolf Hall's historical inaccuracies claimed by the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces Lucy Worsley is that the actress who plays Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips) is supposedly too pretty. (Seymour was Henry VIII's third wife after he got Anne Boleyn beheaded.) Worsley brought the issue up to director Peter Kosminsky, but she told The Mail that he responded to her concern by saying, "I picked her because of her acting, not because of her forehead."
And Reverend Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, said, "Ideas of beauty change from century to century and you might as well make them beautiful on our terms, because it's quite possible that the portraits of Jane Seymour that we've got were meant to flatter and give the impression that she was a beautiful woman."
Besides aesthetics, historians also take issue with how certain people are portrayed in Wolf Hall. Thomas More (who was executed for treason in 1535) is shown in an unflattering light while there is evidence that he was a good man who truly cared about his family — and was maybe even a feminist. In most interpretations of the Henry VIII story, Cromwell is seen as a villain compared to More. But Wolf Hall is Cromwell's story and the novel is told from his perspective, so it makes sense that he's more of the good guy in the miniseries. Plus, real life usually doesn't have clear-cut heroes and villains.
While some British historians like David Starkey may call Wolf Hall a "deliberate perversion of fact" (uh, even though Starkey hasn't read the novels or seen the series . hmmm), the actual events that take place are true to history — even if the motives of the characters may be up for debate. But hey, at the end of the day, Wolf Hall has gotta be more accurate than The Tudors, right?
Images: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC annesanstete, mametupa, blackwidowsredledger/Tumblr
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Wolf Hall Trailer (BBC Two)
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Damian Lewis from Homeland will play Henry VIII in this six-part drama series
The brooding, Emmynominated Homeland star Damian Lewis isn't an obvious choice to play King Henry VIII. Not physically, at least. With his lithe body and Prince Harryesque sexiness, he's nothing like the ageing, tyrannical, fat caricature usually portrayed in history books and period dramas.
But then the BBC's new sixpart series, Wolf Hall, in which he stars as the Tudor king is no ordinary take on history as we know it.
Based on an amalgamation of the book of the same name by Dame Hilary Mantel and its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, this is Tudor history revitalised. We see Henry VIII portrayed in the slimmer, more attractive playboy guise of his younger years, yet still spiked with the familiar deadly ruthlessness and pomposity.
Lewis says: "I think we all have this understanding that he was this womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis-like character. The truth is, he had a 32-inch waist and he remained that way for quite a long time.
"He was the pre-eminent sportsman in his court. He was much taller than anyone else. His beautiful, pale complexion was often remarked upon by commentators.
I think we all have this understanding that he was this womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis-like character. The truth is, he had a 32-inch waist and he remained that way for quite a long time
Damian Lewis, Actor
"The grandiose, more paranoid, self-indulgent, self-pitying, cruel Henry emerged in the period after this series actually. What we're trying to concentrate on is just to give a more varied portrait of Henry.
"You might see him composing something on the lute, you might see him in a very boyish way, sort of dreaming about Jane Seymour [another of his wives]. We see him at times frightened by the memory of his mother and I think these are little insights that people won't be used to and yet the vanity is still there, the self-importance."
It's this detail, born of five years of research into the Tudors, that helped 62-year-old Mantel - a former social worker - become the first British author and the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice: in 2009 for Wolf Hall, and 2012 for Bring Up The Bodies, the first two books in an as yet uncompleted trilogy.
Mantel has been credited with animating a period of history many thought already too well known for it to be possible to have a renaissance.
Told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's adviser, Wolf Hall takes up the story as the king is trying to ditch Catherine of Aragon to marry the second of his six wives, Anne Boleyn, revealing the ferocious power struggles, loyalties and betrayals within the Tudor dynasty.
The BBC is rumoured to have spent £7million on the TV adaptation, filmed on location at some of our most beautiful National Trust houses including Barrington Court in Somerset and Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.
It also boasts a stellar cast such as Mark Rylance - who plays Cromwell - and unlike the previous BBC drama series The Tudors, which was panned for containing a litany of historical inaccuracies, we're promised there will be no such gaffes in Wolf Hall.
Mantel has said her "expectations were high and have been exceeded", having previously spoken of how she can't bear it when scriptwriters "dumb down" or meddle with historical facts.
Critics meanwhile are hailing the series, describing it as "the TV event of the year" and "the most historically-accurate depiction of the era ever filmed".
Why are we so enthralled with this period in history? Lewis believes it all comes down to sex, power and what makes people tick.
He said: "It's very easy to be interested in Henry VIII - he was a memorable, almost cartoonish king.
He made important adjustments to Parliament and music and literature flourished in his reign.
But of course the [real] reason we're interested, is in the six wives and the fact that two were beheaded, and his obsession with having a son."
In the Living Hall of the Frick Collection, on either side of a fireplace, there are portraits by Hans Holbein of the two most illustrious politicians of the court of Henry VIII. On the left is Sir Thomas More, Henry’s lord chancellor from 1529 to 1532, who, when the King needed an annulment of his marriage, and therefore a release from the duty of obedience to the Pope, was too good a Catholic to agree to this. For his refusal, he forfeited his office and, eventually, his life. Holbein’s portrait shows him thin and sensitive, with his eyes cast upward, as if awaiting the sainthood that the Church finally bestowed on him, in 1935. On the right side hangs Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the minister who did for Henry what More wouldn’t. He wrote the laws making the King, not the Pope, the head of the English Church, and declaring the English monasteries, with all their wealth, the property of the Crown. To achieve these epochal changes, he had to impose his will on many people, and that is clear in Holbein’s painting. Cromwell is hard and heavy and dressed all in black. His mean little eyes peer forward, as if he were deciding whom to pillory, whom to send to the Tower.
More and Cromwell were enemies, and history has taken More’s side. Good examples are Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, “A Man for All Seasons,” and the 1966 movie that Fred Zinnemann based on it, both with Paul Scofield, as a saintly More, and Leo McKern, as Cromwell, the very picture of skulking evil. Shortly before Bolt’s play, though, the eminent British historian G. R. Elton had begun claiming, in successive writings on the Tudors, that Cromwell wasn’t so bad. Under him, Elton wrote, English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period, and you can’t make that kind of revolution without breaking eggs. Elton’s research revealed, furthermore, that under Cromwell only about forty people per year were killed in the service of the Crown’s political needs. That’s a pretty cheap omelette. Yet Cromwell is still widely seen as the warty toad in the garden of the glamorous Henry VIII. In the Showtime series “The Tudors,” he is, unequivocally, a villain. Earlier this month, a new biography was published: “Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister” (St. Martin’s $29.99), by Robert Hutchinson, an English writer of popular history books. Already in his preface, Hutchinson calls Cromwell “a devious, ruthless instrument of the state,” a man who showed no compunction about “trampling underfoot the mangled bodies of those he had exploited or crushed.”
But now the excellent novelist Hilary Mantel has joined the tournament, with “Wolf Hall” (Henry Holt $27), a five-hundred-and-thirty-two-page novel portraying Cromwell as a wise minister and a decent man. Mantel is not new to revisionist projects. In her 1992 novel “A Place of Greater Safety,” about the French Revolution, she performed the amazing feat of making Robespierre a sympathetic man. Her interest is in the question of good and evil as it applies to people who wield great power. That means anguish, exultation, deals, spies, decapitations, and fabulous clothes. Mantel recently told an interviewer that she had long planned to write about the Tudors: “Almost all the stories you might want to tell are lurking behind the arras.” Some are quite bawdy, which, if we can judge from the Tudor playwright Shakespeare, is true to the period. A waiter at an inn advises Cromwell not to order the pottage: “It looks like what’s left when a whore’s washed her shift.”
Partly, no doubt, for this high color, which few people dislike, “Wolf Hall” last week won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most valued literary award. It was heavily favored the London bookie William Hill gave it ten-to-eleven odds, the shortest ever accorded to a nominee.
Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith, who, in Mantel’s account, beat him regularly and violently. At fourteen, he ran away, to the Continent, and he stayed there for more than a decade, learning several languages and trades. Returning to London, he became a business agent, mostly for cloth merchants, and a lawyer. In his mid-thirties, he entered government service, as an adviser to Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s princely lord chancellor. But Wolsey, having failed to obtain an annulment for the King, was soon dismissed. He died a year later. Mantel makes much of Cromwell’s kindness to the disgraced man—a show of loyalty rare in the Tudor snake pit.
After Wolsey’s death, Cromwell became a minister to Henry himself, and increasingly indispensable to him. He not only wrote—and pushed through Parliament—the laws that accomplished the English Reformation he did much of the King’s dirty work. When Henry decides that he needs the castle in which he has stowed his discarded wife, Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell is the one sent to inform the Queen that she is being relocated. He was famously persuasive. He could make your creditors weep, people said he could convince your tenants that their rents were fair. His cunning was legend. When the King tires of Anne Boleyn, Cromwell watches for hints as to who has caught his eye, and, determining who it is, he immediately loans her father some money at low interest. Such shrewdness made him the most powerful man in England, second only to the King. The nobles hated him, the more so in that a person of such low birth should have been raised above them. “You are everything now,” the Duke of Suffolk tells him. “We say, how did it happen?”
Mantel records Cromwell’s maneuvers without disapproval. And she doesn’t mind that, in his ascent, he got very rich. She tells how much property he owned, and she stresses his capacity for enjoyment. He loves his wife. (We glimpse them briefly, in bed, his hand resting on her “familiar but lovely left breast.”) He adores his two little girls, especially Grace, the slow one. Early in the book, Grace succumbs to the “sweating sickness,” which may have been a strain of plague. (“Grace dies in his arms. . . . He eases her back against the damp sheet.”) Before her, the other girl had died, and their mother. But, even after his wife and daughters are gone, Cromwell’s home breathes comfort. It smells of cakes. There is always a dog, and she is always named Bella. At one point, Cromwell picks up the current Bella, and she kicks her legs with happiness. The house is full of young people—his nieces and nephews, his wards, his assistants—telling jokes and running through the halls. The girls, especially, are wonderful. One day, the King comes to visit Cromwell, who has been dangerously ill. Cromwell’s two nieces, Jo and Alice, make a fuss over the great man, and he is charmed. “Do you not notice, Master Secretary,” he says to Cromwell, “the older one gets, the lovelier the girls?” It’s like a Dutch painting.
Mantel doesn’t hide Cromwell’s bad deeds, or not always. She mentions the bribes he took, the spies he placed in important households. She tells us that he could kill. His servant Christophe, a ruffian whom he brought back from a trip to France, says that the other boys in the minister’s employ perform innocent tasks. “Only you and me, master,” he says to Cromwell, “we know how to stop some little fuckeur in his tracks, so that’s the end of him and he doesn’t even squeak.” But Cromwell, as G. R. Elton emphasized, avoided killing. During the conflict over the annulment, Mantel’s protagonist tries again and again to persuade More to make some concession, and thereby save his life.
As for More, he comes off badly, as a man who combines a milky piety with an underlying cruelty. We see him humiliating his wife in front of guests (“Remind me why I married you”), and we get the list of the “heretics” he imprisoned and tortured. Mantel acknowledges that he was a renowned thinker and writer, but she turns this to his discredit. At his trial, he sniggers when a clerk makes a mistake in Latin. Years earlier, in Mantel’s account, he gave the same treatment to Cromwell. To earn a few pence—or perhaps just to get a meal—Cromwell, when he was seven, worked as a kitchen boy in the house of a cardinal where More was a student, and he had the job of delivering to the scholars, before they retired for the night, a mug of beer and a loaf of bread each. Bringing More his snack, he found him reading a big book. He had had no formal education he was curious, and he asked More what was in the book. “Words, words,” More replied. Cromwell, in one of his last interviews with More, asks him if he remembers their exchange that night, and More says no. Of course not. Why should he have taken a minute to tell a servant what was in a book, let alone remember the episode many years later? But Cromwell remembers, and as he is assembling the evidence against More he thinks of it. Mantel admires self-made men. (Her father was a clerk. Her mother went to work in a textile mill at the age of fourteen.) Hence, in part, her defense of Robespierre, and of Cromwell.
Mantel’s characters do not speak sixteenth-century English. She has created for them an idiom that combines a certain archaism with vigorous modern English. It works perfectly. And how urbane her people are! When Wolsey, after his dismissal, arrives at the moldering castle to which he has been exiled, he gamely says to Cromwell that he will send for some people to sort out the kitchens: “They will be Italian. It will be violent at first, but then after three weeks it will work.” The most striking feature of the book’s storytelling, however, is the tightness of its point of view. Everything is seen through Cromwell’s eyes. Here is the scene with which the book opens:
“So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you, an eel?” his parent asks. He trots backward, gathers pace, and aims another kick.
It knocks the last breath out of him he thinks it may be his last. His forehead returns to the ground he lies waiting, for Walter to jump on him. The dog, Bella, is barking, shut away in an outhouse. I’ll miss my dog, he thinks.
Jane Seymour’s Costumes in Wolf Hall
Jane Seymour’s wardrobe can be summarize as: Comparatively subtle with a hint of changeability.
If you compare Jane with the other female characters, like Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, and Jane Rochford, you’ll see that Jane Seymour is always wearing relatively somber colors. However, there are a few hints that she may have surprises lurking in her sleeves or under her hood!
Jane’s first ensemble is a very dark burgundy velvet gown, with burgundy taffeta sleeve turnbacks. Note how the crimson red undersleeves peek out of this somber ensemble, giving a flash of color that ties in with the sleeve turnbacks.
Also of note is the fact that Jane’s hoods are NEVER terribly ornate. They are always tight to the head, with a simple white frill around the face and a small row of bilaments (the jewels around the face). Also, contrary to some of the other characters, the hood itself is always black, never white. Jane is modest, quiet, and retiring.
Next she wears a drab, blue/brown velvet gown with royal blue undersleeves:
So much that’s good here — the bust silhouette is fabulous. That line of the pearls stretching to the outside of the bust is right out of portraits. And look at the pins holding the sleeve turnbacks in place!
What is interesting is how this dress changes color subtly in the light, emphasizing the brown. Perhaps Jane has hidden depths that can only be seen if you look very carefully? The only color pop here are the bright blue sleeves even the sleeve turnbacks are a subtle tobacco brown. It’s also a little bit friskier — she’s got gold lace along the edge of her French hood, and some gold and pearl trim along the bodice.
She wears this ensemble at court, while waiting on Anne Boleyn. Seems appropriate that this is the only time this is the only time she’s shown without a partlet, and wearing this changeable fabric.
Then she’s back in that first outfit — the red velvet:
Compare Jane Seymour’s (left) simple hood and dark colors, with Jane Rochford’s (right) comparatively more impressive hood and richly patterned fabric.
When the court comes to Wolf Hall, Jane is looking VERY middle-class hausfrau.
A drab olive green dress, opening up down the center front of the bodice, showing a matte salmon pink kirtle. Jane also almost always wears black velvet partlets (the shoulder/neck fill-in) here you can clearly see where it is pinned on (so historically accurate! so good!). Even her jewelry is simple — a narrow strand of small pearls.
Is that flash of pink kirtle again a hint of Jane’s hidden depths? This is the outfit she wears when she wakes the king, showing that small flash of fire. It’s interesting that her family hasn’t covered her in silks and jewels, but presents her as the drab little sparrow. Perhaps they haven’t yet realized what they have in Jane?
This is the outfit Jane wears when she receives the king’s gift, but sends it back. It’s the changeable gown worn above. This time she’s wearing a sheer white partlet, but she’s definitely covered nonetheless.
Compare her still-simple hood with the slightly bigger one on the lady on the right.
The king has noticed her, so perhaps that’s why she’s wearing the red patterned undersleeves and petticoat?
Beautiful blackwork on the cuffs!
What did you think of Jane Seymour as a character and Kate Phillips’ performance? Did Jane’s costumes suit her character?
Ah, that renowned pimp. In the books he is arrogant and foolish. In the TV show…. is he there? In reality he was a highly successful courtier and diplomat long before either of his daughter caught the King’s eye. Evidence strongly suggest he was against the marriage of his daughter to the King. Primary sources portray him as a rather cautious man rather than an arrogant one. His competence as an ambassador and diplomat are omitted to enable him to be depicted as the author, and the author alone, has chosen to portray him.
Situated in southern Somerset, Montacute House is a classic example of Elizabethan Renaissance architecture. The house was completed in 1601 by Sir Edward Phelips, who would later become known for his role as opening prosecutor at the trial of the Gunpowder plotters.
Within the mansion is a Long Gallery, which features more than 60 Tudor and Elizabethan portraits, including the works of Francis Bacon. The property also boasts rooms of portraiture dedicated to Elizabethan England, the Jacobean Court and – of most interest to fans of Wolf Hall – the court of Henry VIII.
The intricate stonework was crafted under the instruction of William Arnold, a master mason. However, Montacute House’s honey-coloured glow can be attributed to the hamstone used in its construction. Sourced just two miles from the property, hamstone features in many of the medieval churches in the area.
Looking back in time
The quality and authenticity of the settings has been commented on widely. Much praise has been heaped on the use of locations such as Montacute for “authenticity”. A closer look shows that the care and attention paid to the environment went beyond the superficial use of locations, permeating every aspect of the storytelling. Some commentators, notably Catherine Fletcher, have referred to the challenges of getting the material and visual culture of the Tudors right, and “whether screen history engages with what we know”. The answer is definitely an emphatic yes.
The costumes and fabrics in Wolf Hall reflect the very best of contemporary scholarship on the look and feel of Henry’s Court. Take, for example, the meticulous attention that has been paid to the dressing of the protagonists, notably Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.
Anne wears the French hood contemporaries always commented on, dressed in very strong colours, while Henry VIII, on the other hand, wears garments of considerable intricacy, often cloth-of-gold, decorated with sumptuous embroidery, and supplemented by jewellery. Anne’s clothing is laced, Henry’s is fastened by buttons. Anne’s clothing is best shown off inside, Henry’s emphasises his athleticism and outdoor sportsmanship.
An incredible attention to detail in costume. BBC/Company Productions Ltd
Cromwell perpetually dresses in black, but a closer look reveals the change in the status of the man, as wool and linen give way to increasingly voluminous fur-lined cloaks and of the most sumptuous black dye. Black was the colour of the professional man, so Cromwell denotes his status in his dress throughout Wolf Hall as the professional who faithfully serves his master. In doing so, he gains in significance and draws ever closer to the centre of power.
As the series progresses, Henry’s and Cromwell’s relationship becomes increasingly tactile, as Cromwell stands closer to the monarch and spends less time observing in the shadows. Of course, this new visibility means he makes himself vulnerable – and we all know how this will end.
Discover the castles, medieval streets and stately homes seen in Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall, one of Wolf Hall’s most successful ever period dramas, depicts the meteoric rise of Thomas Cromwell: the son of a lowly blacksmith who rose through the ranks of the Tudor court to become Henry VIII’s trusted advisor.
The series was not just a triumph for its star Mark Rylance – it also showed the wealth and luxury of Tudor Britain like never before.
Director Peter Kosminsky insisted on filming the entire series on location. “All those small details add up and make a significant difference,” explains series producer Mark Pybus. Some of the properties were actually used by Henry VIII five hundred years ago.
Mark Pybus tells us about his favourites…
Chastleton House, Oxfordshire
Chastleton’s small stone courtyard doubles for Putney, where we see Cromwell as a young man being viciously attacked by his father. The interiors stand in for the Seymour family home, Wolf Hall, where Henry first falls for Jane Seymour. “The Seymours are on the up when we first meet them, before Jane becomes queen,” says Pybus. “It’s one of the only properties in the drama that has a shabby feel. We wanted to get across that they’re not as rich as other people in the show.” It’s possible to visit this ancient house, first built by a rich wool merchant, and now managed by the National Trust.
Dover Castle, Kent
This medieval castle doubles for the Tower of London, where we see Anne Boleyn being executed. “We were looking for a tower, but the problem with the one in central London is that you can end up looking at so much modern stuff [in the background] and have a lot of tourists watching you as you work,” says Pybus, “but Dover has a very similar tower to the White Tower.” The English Heritage site was also used for scenes in Meryl Streep’s new movie Into the Woods. Visitors can also see the fort that’s guarded Britain’s shores from invasion for hundreds of years.
Used for many of the street scenes in Wolf Hall, this atmospheric medieval city is the smallest in England. Pybus and his team were given unparalleled access to the cathedral. “We used the cathedral library, which has never been filmed in before,” he says. “It had books in it that were 400-500 years old. People can also explore the high street and enjoy the teashops and the Bishop’s Palace next to the cathedral.”
Great Chalfield Manor, Wiltshire
Used for the Cromwell’s happy family home in the series, this moated manor was built between 1465 and 1480 by a wealthy clothing trader. It also features in The Other Boleyn Girl and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “Cromwell is a successful merchant by the time we meet him, and it felt like a house that a merchant in Tudor times might live in.” Visitors can walk around the entire house, including the garden, courtyard, bedrooms upstairs and Cromwell’s study in the series.
“It one of the jewels in the National Trust’s portfolio, Montacute House represents Greenwhich Palace in the series,” explains Pybus, “we were looking for stairs and a sense of scale that you don’t often get in period dramas. It felt like the kind of palaces that Henry would have had. Henry the VII was the last king that wasn’t London-based, he would travel around the country. The civil war had ended and Henry VIII actively started building these much grander palaces, with large windows and designs to impress, getting that scale was something we spent a lot of time looking for and we found it a Montacute.”
Penshurst Place, Kent
Once owned by King Henry VIII, the structure of this beautiful fortified house has almost remained the same for 600 years. “There were these huge long rooms that characters could walk through,” explained Pybus, who used the Long Gallery to film shoot the Whitehall scenes. When the weather was abhorrent, Henry would have used the Long Gallery to take exercise, while today, family portraits and furniture from the period are displayed in the room.
Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire and Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire
Both of these magnificent castles were used on screen and have had the same families living in them for hundreds of years. “The people currently running these locations are doing a wonderful job of it and they are carrying on a family tradition” says Pybus, “It feels really nice, as opposed to other locations that may have been bought by an American 20 years ago, and that sense of history has been lost slightly.” Open to the public on certain dates, visitors can wander the estates and experience what it was like living hundreds of years ago.
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All associated graphics, logos, trader marks, trade names or copyrights are the property of the original owner and are used here for factual and educational purposes only.
Storytelling with costume
But I don’t only admire the costume for its accuracy. Like the use of dress in contemporary Tudor portraits, it has also been used here to add additional layers to the unfolding of the narrative itself.
Watch for example the way clothing is used to tell emotional stories. In the case of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, their early scenes show a couple often dressed in vivid, brilliant, and often contrasting colours, the other figures of the courts appearing colourless and pale in comparison to the drama that attaches itself to the protagonists.
In tune in red. BBC/Company Productions Ltd
Then there follow scenes where Anne and Henry wear complementary colours, fashioned from similar material, their common purpose reflected in their garb. Towards the end, Anne dresses increasingly in red, often holding flame-haired Elizabeth in her lap, with Henry choosing muted colours, which makes the closing sequence of the series all the more shocking. Note how the sombre colours worn by Anne and her ladies-in-waiting on Tower Green give way to the exuberant gold and red of a jubilant Henry, who again dons his courting robes from earlier in the series, this time in honour of Jane Seymour. Colour and clothing makes power relationships visible.
Many of the scenes are framed enclosed by walls, by hedges, by courtyards. Events unfold that are only ever visible to a small group of spectators. Rare indeed are the occasions when the actions in Wolf Hall are played out in bright sunshine and to a crowd, and for those crowds of onlookers, of eyewitnesses, the clothes of the protagonists tell the story they remember.
The intricacies ad subtleties of the dangerous power games at the heart of court remain largely invisible, and of course, they centre around the ever still and always dark-clad figure of Thomas Cromwell. The colours of the courtiers swirl and change around Cromwell, yet he alone never changes his colours (so to speak) and remains the emotional anchor and centre of Mantel’s complex story.
After all, as Stephen Greenblatt once wrote, the Tudor Court is about self-fashioning an identity. Performance is at the heart of these relationships and they become nowhere more visible than in the small details of the fabrics of Wolf Hall.