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