****WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD****
Based on the Booker-prize winning novels by Hilary Mantel, BBC’s new mini-series Wolf Hall has received thunderous praise from critics and has garnered the highest ratings of any BBC drama since ratings began. This Spring, the entire series airs as part of PBS’ Masterpiece on THIRTEEN, and we’ll be watching right along with you — you’ll find recaps here every Monday.
Episode 1 of Wolf Hall drops us smack in the middle of one of the most contentious periods of Henry VIII’s reign. The King (Damian Lewis, Homeland), still unable to produce an heir with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, has sent Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, to appeal to Rome to secure an annulment of the Royal Marriage. When Wolsey fails to accomplish this task, Henry’s various advisors begin to engineer his demise.
This perceived failure has also made Wolsey an enemy of two of the Court’s most powerful ladies — the Queen Katherine, whose wedding night purity is now being put on trial in an attempt to prove the marriage has been a sham; and Anne Boleyn, the king’s current consort, who still harbors a grudge after the Cardinal intervened in an earlier romance that may have put her chances for strategic marriage in jeopardy. As the episode title, “three card trick” suggests, it’s going to take some deft sleight-of-hand to get the Cardinal out of this jam — and the deck is stacked against him.
Enter: Thomas Cromwell. Played by renowned Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, Cromwell is a self-educated man of simple birth but shrewd political skill, who takes on the challenge of reinstating the Cardinal to the King’s good graces. Cromwell is an ambitious free thinker who educates his son and daughters equally (which may or may not be historically accurate, but goes a long way to establish him as a Good Guy) and puts little faith in the canon and power structure of the Catholic Church. In fact, Cromwell has been secretly meeting with a group of dissenters who closely follow William Tyndale, a biblical scholar who played a major role in the Protestant reformation, and is credited with writing one of the first English translations of the Bible.
This sets him up as a natural opponent to Thomas More, a staunch ally of the church and a close advisor to the King. When the two meet at a dinner party, More wastes no time in drawing the battle lines – casting Cromwell as a heretic and denouncing the Cardinal as hopelessly corrupt. When the Cardinal is stripped of his position as Lord Chancellor, it’s More who replaces him.
Amongst all this political jostling, the Cromwell family is struck by tragedy. Cromwell’s wife and two daughters are struck down by an mysterious epidemic known as “sweating sickness,” leaving him to grieve with his nephew, ward and sister-in-law. Three deaths in one episode seems like a lot of catastrophe right off the bat, but for all the modern liberties taken in this series, at least the prevalence of illness and disease is period accurate. Three serious outbreaks of sweating sickness had been recorded between 1485 and 1578. In fact, it was sweating sickness that killed King Henry’s older brother Arthur leaving his marriage allegedly unconsummated – and his widow Katherine to marry Henry.
Not long after his replacement as Lord Chancellor, the Cardinal is forced into exile, and Cromwell takes up his cause at court. His association with the unpopular Wolsey has left his reputation damaged, and only careful diplomacy and strategic alliances will put both men back into the King’s good graces. Cromwell’s interest in fighting the nepotism and corruption of the Church conveniently aligns with the King’s own goals – which makes for the best alliance Cromwell could possibly hope for as prepares to confront his many opponents. And after a brief meeting in the royal gardens, it appears this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Masterpiece airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.