Wolf Hall Recap: Master of Phantoms

We’ve done it, y’all. We’ve made it to the end of Wolf Hall’s season without producing a male heir for Henry. I’m amazed he’s let us stick around this long. He’s usually not so forgiving.

As this chapter winds to a close, it seems Anne Boleyn’s straits are a bit more dire. Henry’s tired of his second wife, and is ready to transfer his affections to Jane Seymour. The person most tied up in knots about this happens to be the person tasked with making Queen No. 2 disappear: Cromwell, who’s having disturbing nightmares about serving Anne up for dinner. Dealing with Anne in his waking hours is proving to be no less horrific.

As her fortunes sink, rats are fleeing the Boleyn ship, including the rats closest to her. As she does her typical cruel flirt-teasing with Mark, her musician, she sparks a quarrel among her hangers-on. Apparently the riffraff are tired of being treated badly, and now that they smell blood in the water, they’re speaking up. Anne being Anne doesn’t help the situation, as she spills her secrets at an alarming velocity, outing several of her lovers and flirtations right out in the open. Only after the words come out of her mouth and one of her longtime flames, Henry Norris, storms out, does she realize this was a terrible mistake.

Her sister-in-law, Lady Rochford, scampers to Cromwell to tell him all the splendid gossip, and adds a little something spicier: she accuses Anne of having relations with her relations, namely her brother, George. It’s not oftenCromwell is surprised—or at least displays it—but he goes bug-eyed over that one. His interactions with Anne herself are less surprising. Anne can feel the winds of change, and she’s hunched into a defensive crouch. As it would be suicidal to lash out at Henry, she saves her abuse for Cromwell, the man she continues to insist she made. As her benevolent uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, points out later, Cromwell and Anne really made each other.

“Madam, nothing here is personal,” Cromwell tells her, which would soothe absolutely no one given the circumstances. And Anne is no exception. “Those who are made can be unmade,” she threatens, not fully comprehending her shaky standing. “I entirely agree,” replies Cromwell, master of quips.

What Anne fails to recognize is that Cromwell takes no particular pleasure in his job of ousting her. Like her, he’s just a cog in Henry’s machine. Please the king and keep your place at the table; displease the king and become lunch. Cromwell’s discomfort with the proceedings is apparent in his interactions with Anne’s enemies, who are bloodthirsty and eager to see the Catholic-friendly Jane installed as queen. He’s doing what he knows he must, but he’s less than keen—and let’s not forget Cromwell’s religion and Jane’s aren’t exactly compatible.

Still, he plods on, acting on a tip from Lady Rochford that Mark the musician was one of Anne’s lovers. Cromwell brings Mark to his house for a sip of wine and a nibble of interrogation. The latter is almost unnecessary, because Mark starts boasting about his relationship with Anne before the cheese plate’s even been served. It doesn’t take long, though, before he—just like Anne—has realized how terribly troublesome an ill-placed boast can be.

After a few threats and an overnight stay, Mark coughs up a list of gentlemen Anne also allegedly had relationships with. Poor, sweet, stupid boy. With this confession and a litany of names to go along with it, Cromwell has the evidence he needs to make a case against Anne. He dispatches Richard to give the news to Henry, which he does in the midst of some sort of royal tourney. Nothing rains on a king’s parade like the happy news that his wife is an alleged serial adulterer.

But good news is all relative, I suppose, and Henry’s exit plan is secure. For as we all know, trials are mere formalities in Tudor England. Cromwell sets about gathering confessions from the other arrested Romeos, some easier to secure than others. In a masterful stroke of karma, many of these fellows happen to be actors in that disparaging play about Wolsey that ticked off Cromwell all those episodes ago.

Vengeance is a dish best served piping hot. He promised retribution then, and now Anne, the woman who almost singlehandedly unmade Wolsey, is on the receiving end. She’s hauled into the Tower of London—so much for her belief that Henry would never abandon her. Her lovers stand trial together, with no surprise as to what the verdict will be. She and her brother, however, are tried by a jury of their ennobled peers. You’d think a trial presided over by your uncle might go your way, but not in the Boleyn family. Despite denying the grand majority of the charges against her, Anne is still found unanimously guilty.

Truly, she never believed it would go this far. From her chamber in the Tower of London, she tells Cromwell this must all be a test of Henry’s. He’ll come and get her shortly, except we all know he won’t. Cromwell’s suggestion is for Anne to act as penitent as she can throughout this ordeal. Unless her execution falls on a particularly good day for Henry, he’s unlikely to be merciful to her, but good behavior might do some good for her daughter down the line.

Anne does act particularly pious right up until the moment of her execution, continually praying, giving alms to the poor, and praising Henry’s “gentle” nature. One must not tell lies, Anne. We all saw your husband musing on your faults just a few scenes earlier, including how you “practiced” against Wolsey. In fact, he wrote a play, a tragedy, about the whole situation. Oh, how the tables have turned.

Unfortunately for her, Anne has never seemed more sympathetic than when she’s marched up to meet her death. She’s a woman who played a dangerous game and lost, not some evil ingenue out to ruin England. As Henry engulfs Cromwell in a bear hug after Anne’s execution, it seems clear Cromwell too realizes the dangerous game he’s playing. The final shot of Wolf Hall is of his face, peeking out of Henry’s embrace, with a quiet terror in his eyes.

May God save the King, may he help Cromwell, and may he bring us more Wolf Hall.

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