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?
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.
Interesting! Right, because of the very subtle differences in measurement, especially if you’ve got a padded/interlined bodice.
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.
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.
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.
Not sure how More could have been an “extreme Catholic”, or “extremely intolerant”, when he acted like a regular Catholic, and within the law, in a Roman Catholic England. Church and state were intertwined; an attack against one was seen as being an attack against the other. For this very reason, Henry VIII wrote a treatise that lead to him being declared a defender of the faith by the pope. Records show that More – as a chancellor, doing what chancellors do – did not have people executed for their beliefs. He had them executed for their beliefs leading them to certain acts: attacking priests and religious, destroying church property, inciting riots, and impugning the authority of the king and his ministers in relation to supporting the religious status quo.
As for Protestants not being like More or “less” in terms of violence? They too executed or imprisoned Catholics, closed monasteries and convents – which ran schools, hospices, orphanages, and were the only source of “social services” at the time; stole church property, etc. It’s been estimated that some 90% of centuries of religious art – pat of the collective cultural inheritance of the English people – was destroyed in England under several Tudor monarchs. Stained glass, memorials to the dead, altars, rood screens, sacred vessels, looted or smashed. Monastic libraries were decimated; Oxford University had most of its books burned. Even Elizabeth – also romanticized, as being “tolerant” – ordered the continued destruction of religious artifacts, and demanded that everyone in England – regardless of their beliefs – attend Church of England services or face fines or jail.
My point? More was not alone in being “extreme”, as you say. His intent was to nip religious and social upheaval in the bud. A pity he and others could not, given the winds that blew afterwards.
I agree…he was just as obsessive and manic in his pursuit of “heretics” as any of the Spanish if not more so. He was a hypocrite in that he hated himself for not being able to be celibate too…he whipped himself, did the hair shirt business etc. But he seemed to enjoy punishing hererics a bit too much. I can’t believe he is considered a saint. Sure he stuck to his beliefs but was willing to burn alive anyone who did not agree with him. I liked his portral in Wolf Hall…tired of him in The Tudors…he was snide there too, and smug, as Woolsey said. Always seemed to think he was above everyone else.
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.
I had the same response! I’m not saying they should go full Shakespeare, but some effort would have been nice.
Never go full Shakespeare with dialogue, as people never spoke like that in everyday life. Shakespeare was a odd mix of vernacular and poetic language. The TV series Deadwood is a modern example of this.
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.
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.
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.
Fuck, Shit, Cunt and many other vulgar words have a very long history in the English language. But many such as Fuck were narrowly used until fairly recently in our history. Fuck was a vulgar word for sex for most of its history NOT the like the modern version of word which can be used in so many different ways.
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.
At the same time, that last scene also foreshadows Cromwell’s own downfall.
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.
More was a man of his time, when all KINDS of horrible punishments were the norm for infractions against intertwined church and state. He didn’t have people executed because of their “beliefs” (his own soon-to-be son in law was by definition a “heretic”) but for their actions – attacks on priests, inciting riots, destruction of church property, etc., all of which constituted – at the time – attacks on social order and the state. He did what a chancellor was supposed to do, in the light of his time. As a lawyer – he refused bribes, and took complaints from the poor without a fee. Was he imperfect? Of course, just like we are. A “saint” or holy person though isn’t someone who is without fault. Even Jesus resorted to violence when He drove money enders out of the temple, an act that today would have Him get arrested. More’s sainthood is tied to his willingness to forfeit his own life on principle. Today, we honor soldiers, firefighters, and others for doing just that, we don’t withhold honoring them because they were – by our standards – flawed human beings.
Cromwell’s dad was a brewer, not a blacksmith, as depicted in WH. Unless he changed career later
I noticed two inaccuracies with the sets, which I otherwise love. In one scene (can’t remember which episode) Cromwell walks past a gilt, baroque table that would not have existed at the time. In other scenes we see windows framed by matching drapes. The custom at the time was to have windows without curtains, or with a single curtain or drape off to one side. “Pairs” of curtains didn’t become fashionable until the mid to late 1600’s.
It should be pointed out that More literally is a saint.
I don’t see Cromwell as an evil person at all. He was self interested to a degree of course but he was also genuinely devoted to King and Country. Interestingly he and More had perfectly civil, indeed friendly relations for years. There was nothing personal in Cromwell’s prosecution of More and other dissenters from Henry’s chosen course. It was all business. He helped Henry break young Mary Tudor’s will because it was politically necessary. After it was done he was very kind and supportive of Henry’s young daughter and she came to depend on him as an intermediary between her and her father (you couldn’t write the king directly even if you were his daughter. You had to write to somebody who had his ear like his favorite minister). His destruction of Anne Boleyn and her faction was similarly a political necessity not something he enjoyed doing or did for the Evulz. He was machiavellian without malice.
Why does nobody ever point out the stupidity of a white wedding dress in this era? The tiniest bit of research shows that white wedding dresses were popularized by Victoria. In this era, people would have said, “Why’s she just wearing a chemise to her own wedd–oh! It’s a gown. Weird.” Makes me crazy.
Agree! I always have to remind myself that they will always take creative license over true historical accuracy. I mean, the set dressers left a Starbucks cup of tea in the shot on Game of Thrones!
Welll, Lydiechan, I have to admit that, when we did our 17th c wedding, we went with white velvet as a concession to the more modern tradition, but also because we see whit being worn at the time, inspired by the officer in “The Night Watch.”
Anne’s bodices(or rather placards)have inconsistent wrinkles.The yellow dress fits Anne perfectly,so does the green jewel toned one.The red gown has some wrinkles,but they aren’t that visible because of the dark fabric colour,also because of the scenes she wears them in either mostly show her face in close up(conversing with Cromwell about More and then the trial scene)or just show her from far off(when Chapuys acknowledges her).
The dresses that actually don’t fit are the pink and the purple one.Atleast the purple gown fit on the exhibition mannequins,and in one short scene when Anne pleads Henry never to joust again the same dress doesn’t show any wrinkles.But the pink dress is wrinkled in literally every scene,even in costume exhibitions.The team should have realized the issue and given her different dresses but Anne ended up wearing that pink dress in SO many scenes(meeting Cromwell,encountering Barton,the scene after Elizabeth is born,fighting with Cromwell over Mary,relishing Katherine’s demise,the joust,and the entire scene after she is charged and taken to the Tower).
Maybe the issue arose because Claire was pregnant during the shooting(not sure,but she had a baby in March 2015and most of it was shot in 2014).Even Whalley wears unboned placards as Queen Katherine,but they show no wrinkles.
And the other dresses-execution outfit,coronation ensemble,hunting clothes and the Perseverance masquerade gown all fit Anne nicely.
The archery outfit was a joke though.I felt like Wolf Hall wanted to troll us,”If people can wear trash for relatability Anne can wear shit masquerading as Maid Marian.”
Honestly, as regards More, I know Mantel as a rule is very strongly anti-Catholic; which makes me suspect that there’s a fair bit of overlap, in her portrayal, between the notion of More as an individual, and More as a prominent figure deeply immersed in the practice of Catholicism. (Which then obviously carries over to the show). I personally find it easy to excuse, given that she’s written at least one other novel, to my knowledge, that is overtly and unapologetically anti-Catholic – I feel like the way she writes More is probably more likely to be self-aware than unconscious, even if it’s embellished.
Admittedly, I’m a raised-Catholic atheist, so that might also be a contributing factor to my not being bothered…
A lot of the tension between the two sides begins to take on a new dimension with the beginning of the witch mania that sweeps Europe and into the Americas from about this period on. To see the kinds of manipulation that arises, read “Satanism and Witchcraft” by Jules Michelet and the two Books titled “The Affair of the Poisons” one by Frances Mossiker and one by Anne Somerset and read the very good Wikipedia summary and “The Witch Craze in Europe” by HR Trevor-Roper. Or Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudoun,” which inspired Ken Russell’s film, “The Devils.”