Top 4 Historical Inaccuracies in Wolf Hall

14

Wolf Hall, the 2015 BBC series about Thomas Cromwell and based on Hilary Mantel’s books, is an interesting conundrum. The TV production has prided itself on being as historically accurate as possible, and indeed, it’s probably much MORE historically accurate than most other movies or TV shows up to now, particularly in terms of things like lighting and costumes (don’t worry, we have lots more to say about all of these in our podcast and other posts). However, there are still a few glaring inaccuracies to spice things up. While I’m not trying to nitpick, it’s still interesting to point out these slip-ups … some of which go to the heart of the story.

Now, maybe some of these aren’t mistakes so much as questions of interpretation, in which Hilary Mantel (the novelist) chooses an interpretation that is contrary to the scholarly consensus. But that, in my opinion, qualifies as worthy of discussion!

Usually, we’d do a Top Five for Friday, but the series is so good, this is all I’ve got (share yours in the comments) — so let’s take a look at our top four historical inaccuracies in Wolf Hall:

 

4. Thomas More was a principled guy

In Wolf Hall, Thomas More is the baddie of the show — at least for the first few episodes. He’s shown as a staunch supporter of the Catholic Church who used his religion and strong principles for his own, self-serving, nefarious purposes — “a torturer of heretics with a penchant for self-punishment and a misogynist to boot” (The Guardian). Essentially, he’s self-aggrandizing and more interested in being right than anything else.

Anton Lesser as Thomas More

Anton Lesser as Thomas More

Although he was a complex guy, most historians agree that Thomas More opposed Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage due to serious conviction: “Religious reasons or, more precisely, faith, forbade him to assent to Henry’s divorce and remarriage and the separation of Christian England from the universal Church of Rome and the pope” (Peter Berglar, Thomas More: A Lonely Voice Against the Power of the State).

He is also known for his loving relationship with his eldest daughter, Margaret Roper. He personally championed education for all of his daughters: “Challenging the then common belief that learning would corrupt a woman, More promoted a liberal education for the girls as well as the boys in his household, so that his daughters, in particular Margaret More Roper, became exemplars of learning and virtue and proof of women’s intellectual and ethical potential” (The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More).

The real Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein in 1527.

The real Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein in 1527.

 

3. Anne Boleyn’s dresses wouldn’t have been wonkier than everyone else’s

Why are Anne Boleyn’s bodices so wrinkled when none of the other female characters’ are? One could argue that it’s due to the kinds of stiffening used in 16th-century dress bodices, but that doesn’t account for the differences between characters in the TV show.

wolf-hall

Anne Boleyn is wrinkly, Jane Seymour isn’t. Maybe that’s why Henry ditched Anne for Jane?

Read between the lines of this interview with Joanna Eatwell, the costume designer of Wolf Hall, and you can find the culprit:

One … costume fitting was all that was necessary for Mark Rylance (Thomas Cromwell), Damian Lewis (Henry VIII) and Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn). Their costumes were made to a set of measurements taken on trust, and the fabric was cut before the team had seen the actors. This meant several outfits had to be tried on and adjusted in one intense session. The costume team spent a whole day fitting Claire Foy, six hours fitting Mark Rylance, and four hours fitting Damian Lewis. (History Extra, “The truth about the Wolf Hall codpieces: an interview with costume designer Joanna Eatwell”)

Yeah. In other words, the costume team was given measurements, assembled the costumes to some degree, THEN had Claire Foy in for her fitting, at which point there was probably panic due to fitting issues, only some of which could be solved in the limited time. If fittings had been done throughout the process of costume making, errors would have been caught in time to fix them. (If you’ve already cut out the gown pieces, you only have so much fabric to work with in terms of refitting before you’re at a point where you just can’t do anything anymore. Trust me.)

Anne gets wrinkles, Jane Boleyn gets a nice fit.

Anne gets wrinkles, Jane Rocheford gets a nice fit.

 

2. Cromwell and Anne fell out over the dissolution of the monasteries

In Wolf Hall, it’s very unclear WHY Thomas Cromwell goes from “Team Anne Boleyn!” to “cut off her head? sure!” This is possibly one of the series’ biggest failings.

Why did it happen?

Primarily, because Thomas Cromwell wanted to use the proceeds of the dissolution of the monasteries (i.e., Catholicism is out, we don’t need monasteries anymore, let’s kick them out and take their money, of which they have lots) to personally enrich the king. Anne objected to this plan, preferring that Henry VIII use the money for charity. She publicly crossed the line when she had her chaplain deliver a sermon to the court that rebuked the enemies of the clergy for masking greed with reform: “nowadays madmen … rebuke the clergy … because they would have from the clergy their possessions” (quoted in Peter C. Herman, A Short History of Early Modern England: British Literature in Context).

Basingwerk Abbey, which was was abandoned and its assets sold following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.

The remains of Basingwerk Abbey, which was was abandoned and its assets sold following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.

They also disagreed about political alliances, with Anne favoring a French alliance and Cromwell favoring the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain).

 

1. Cromwell was more likely a torturer than not

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell improbably locks musician Mark Smeaton into a dark room at night (oh noes!) and that gets him to make a false confession to adultery to Anne Boleyn. If that doesn’t ring so true, it’s not just you. While no records exist to prove how Cromwell got Smeaton to confess, he did instruct his agents to use torture, if necessary, on suspected Catholic-supporting vicars (Tracy Borman, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant).

Max Fowler as Mark Smeaton

Max Fowler as Mark Smeaton

Did you find any other historical inaccuracies in Wolf Hall? Do you agree or disagree with our list?

Tags

About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

14 Responses

  1. Katie Lewis

    A friend, who has made a large number of Tudor gowns, noted that the wrinkles on Anne’s placard are what happens when you assemble it like a pillow. That is, sew all the layers together, turn right side out and sew down the open side. Getting it to lay smooth almost requires doing it by hand.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Interesting! Right, because of the very subtle differences in measurement, especially if you’ve got a padded/interlined bodice.

      Reply
  2. Michael L. McQuown

    The public perception of More is probably based mostly on the fact of his sanctification by the Roman church and Robert Bolt’s play. The addendum to Wolf Hall wasn’t unsparing, but other sources suggest that, while More wasn’t as bad as many, he wasn’t entirely free of guilt from some acts of extreme cruelty and at least two burnings. Surviving the Tudor era seems to be rather like riding a pogo stick through a minefield.

    Reply
  3. Carolyn

    I also think that Thomas More has been over romanticised over time. I don’t doubt that he was a man of strong convictions, but it seems he was every bit an extreme Catholic and staunch persecutors of Protestants/heretics than anyone who was the reverse. I fear he would have approved of the Spanish Inquisition. He was both highly principled and extremely intolerant.

    Reply
    • Trystan

      Yeah, it’s too bad that dramas have to come down on making one a good guy, the other a bad guy, when of course they’re each more complicated.

      Reply
  4. Tracey

    One thing I notice is the language. It is too modern! I know they have to do that to make it acceptable to the modern ear, but it sometimes makes me crazy. On Mr. Selfridge, someone actually said, I kid you not, “wait for it.” NO NO NO person in the early 1900’s said that! Please leave that to Barney on HIMYM.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I had the same response! I’m not saying they should go full Shakespeare, but some effort would have been nice.

      Reply
  5. Michael L. McQuown

    The language issue is tricky. If you don’t go far enough, it sounds forced; just throwing in a few ‘thees,’ thous’ and ‘canst’ or ‘willst’ will not ring true. But if you go ‘full Shakespeare,’ many people may find it hard to understand. Thus I say to thee, that if thou doest this thing, thou may please a few, but lose the understanding of the many.

    Reply
    • Trystan

      I think I’ve just watched SO many much, much worse supposedly-historical shows/movies recently, that the lightly modern language in Wolf Hall doesn’t bother me :) The ones that drive me nuts are when they drop f-bombs & other swear words all over — not saying fuck, shit, etc. weren’t used pre-20th century, but they weren’t super common & each era had many other more colorful curse words.

      Reply
      • Michael L. McQuown

        Fuck never appears anywhere in Shakespeare’s texts that I’ve found. ‘Dight’ is used occasionally. There was the far greater tendency to be indirect or metaphorical, as in the exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia which ends with, “Did you think I referred to country matters?” My favourite slur was from (I think) the Scottish play, when one of the witches refers to someone as a ‘rump-fed ronyon.’ And speaking of obscure words, have you seen the ad for a feminine sanitary product that refers to the vulva as a ‘mimsy’? I’ll post it to your page. Must have been done in the 1900-1920s era. Amazingly forthright, but at the same time discreet.

        Reply
  6. jennythenipper

    As an adaptation of the book, the mini series was excellent. I think it’s quite clear in the book why Cromwell switches from team Anne: she has fallen out of favor with Henry and he’s been given the unenviable task of finding a way of getting rid of her. Whether that assertion is historically accurate or not, is debatable, but in the drama it’s clear: he’s ordered to do it. That is made very clear in the “nothing here is personal” scene that is so widely shown in previews, etc. The language is similar to the language of the book: modern English stripped as far as possible of modern phrases and words. The few times there are direct quotes from history, such as Anne’s words of praise on the death of K of A, they are a bit jarring, I think. The miniseries really downplays the monastaries. There is more in the books, but in service of making things more from Cromwell’s POV, they have been left out. In the books, Cromwell is largely motivated by self-preservation in his dealings with Anne. Once she realizes he’s no longer on her side, after the jousting accident (when he sends word to save Mary Tudor instead of being concerned for Anne and Elizabeth) she is out to get him before he gets her. The very last page of the second book is Richard reassuring Cromwell that if he had not done what he did, she would have Cromwell at the block. Since the book is highly skewed from Cromwell’s POV he is not to be fully trusted as a narrator. What the mini series does really well is interpret this in terms of tone and the acting so that there is ambiguity in a number of scenes. The very last scene with Cromwell walking toward Henry and being embraced is very ironic in tone. Henry looks happy, smiling, the sun is shining, Cromwell is a success, but the scene is so markedly at odds with the death of Anne in the previous scene that it gives a very chilling effect.

    Reply
  7. indiaedghillI

    One can partly blame “A Man for All Seasons” for the glow of virtue surrounding The Sainted Sir Thomas More”. The man really was happy to burn heretics for “the good of their souls”, and he didn’t ACTUALLY have a halo.

    Reply

Feel the love