Louis Bayard
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Novels

Thomas More Follows His Principles Straight to the Torture Chamber
New York Times, April 19, 2015

Episode 3: 'Anna Regina'

More, More, More ... how do you like him?

Do you prefer the pained idealist of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons," marching toward martyrdom with melancholy eyes and perfect diction? Or the creepy, stringy-haired guy who intones Latin while, a few feet away, one of his heretic-prisoners writhes in a nasty device called Skeffington's Daughter?

That scene of torture—the opening tableau of Episode 3—gives us the clearest possible sense of where Hilary Mantel stands in the ongoing debate over Thomas More's character.

In her rendering More is not a saint but a fanatic, enslaved by an idea, and in defense of an idea, human beings are ultimately expendable. When asked to justify strapping the Tyndale follower James Bainham (Jonathan Aris) to the rack, More answers that, to save the man's soul, "I would have had him whipped, I would have had him burned with irons, I would have had him hung by his wrists."

God, in short, justifies all means. But which god? The god of More? The god of Tyndale? Or the god of the Turks, invading infidels who are knocking on the gates of Vienna and causing Western Europe to quake (not for the last time) at the thought of Islamic aggression?

Bainham may recant his beliefs under torture, but he reclaims them in dramatic fashion by publicly reading from an English-language Bible. "I couldn't live with what I'd done," he tells Cromwell (Mark Rylance). And here at last is a believer that "Wolf Hall" can live with—a man who sacrifices only himself.

Even as his funeral pyre is being prepared, Bainham groans, "I cannot unbelieve what I believe."

Contrast that with the steely pragmatism of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), who believes people should say "whatever will keep them alive." Or Cromwell himself, who may sympathize with the Protestant reformers, but is frankly impatient with their methods—and incredulous that Tyndale won't take the expedient tactic of supporting Henry's divorce.

"You'd think he'd bend a point of principle to make a friend of the King of England," says Cromwell. "But no. Tyndale and More, they deserve each other, these mules who pose as men."

In Cromwell's eyes, purity is no virtue, and flexibility no flaw. If anything, elastic principles are the best and truest response to human complexity. Oh, sure, he might "serve the Sultan if the price was right" (More's phrase ) but, having made that choice, he would serve his prince all the more effectively for knowing how the world works.

That's how he can see through the "prophetess" Elizabeth Barton (Aimee Ffion-Edwards) to the network of corrupt priests and political players behind her. And when Harry Percy (Harry Lloyd) has the temerity to lay a pre-existing marital claim on Anne, Cromwell doesn't "beat his skull in," as Anne's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), advises. He merely sets the young man straight with this minor masterpiece of Realpolitik:

"The world is not run from where you think it is. From border fortresses, even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from Lisbon. From wherever the merchant ships set sail off into the west. Not from castle walls but from counting houses. From the pens that scrape out your promissory notes.

"So believe me when I say that my banker friends and I will rip your life apart. And then when you are without money and title, yes, I can picture you. Living in a hovel, wearing homespun, bringing home a rabbit for the pot. Your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing that rabbit. Yes, I wish you all happiness."

And just in case Harry needs another nudge: "I will come and drag you out of whatever hole you're cowering in, and the Duke of Norfolk will bite your bollocks off. I do hope that's clear, my lord."

It is indeed clear. And what better way to seal off the threat than with that ironic and deeply unfelt "my lord"? Times have changed, and the "son of an honest blacksmith," to use Henry's romanticized phrase, is now giving marching orders to landed gentry. Cromwell, says Queen Katherine (Joanne Whalley), "used to be a moneylender. Now he writes all the rules."

But he can do that only so long as the King allows it. Herewith the cost of putting your faith in men: They turn on you. One man in particular. "Everything that you are," crows Henry (Damian Lewis), in an unconscious echo of Wolsey's words, "everything that you have will come from me."

As if to dramatize the peril of that position, Anna Regina, in the course of being crowned, prostrates herself on the cathedral floor, with her neck exposed and her arms outstretched—a Christ-like pose that uncannily prefigures her ultimate end. In this moment, she has achieved all she ever wanted, and she has never been more vulnerable—to fate, to genes, to a monarch's whims. With a chill, we recall Henry's romantic conceit: "I hunt only one hind." He has captured her now, and his mercy is all she has to depend upon.

Fraught symbol: In Calais, Edward Seymour (Ed Speleers) unwisely plays chess with Cromwell and quickly finds his queen captured. "How did you do that?" Jane, his sister, may soon have cause to ask the same question.

Best line: Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) reveals that Anne is selling herself to Henry "by the inch" and "wants a cash present for every advance above her knee." "She's got long legs," replies Cromwell. "By the time he reaches her secret part, the nation will be bankrupt."

Machiavelli would be proud: With the House of Commons set to take up a bill declaring Henry supreme head of the Church in England, Cromwell has the brilliant notion of staging the vote in full view of the king. All it takes is the monarch's baleful eye to send a solid majority of MP's scurrying over to the "Aye" side. If he were around today, Cromwell would be stuffing most of Congress into his back pocket.

Other things ...

  • Nice touch giving Anne turquoise earrings to match the ring on Cromwell's finger.

  • I recently described "Wolf Hall" to a friend as Showtime's "The Tudors" without the bare breasts. I stand slightly corrected: There is the briefest flash of bosom from a brothel window, but this series remains as averse to sexual display as Cromwell's Puritan descendant, Oliver.

  • If you have problems imagining dowdy Katherine of Aragon as the plum she was in youth, just think back to Joanne Whalley's earlier career and the gorgeous figure she cut in "The Singing Detective" and "Scandal." (If you've seen her more recently in "The Borgias," you know she's still gorgeous.).

So, "Wolf" watchers ... To whom are you warming currently? Knowing the gender of the child in Anne's womb, are you able to summon any pity for that cool customer? Or are we already shoving her aside in favor of her successor? Wasn't that "talking shrimp" Princess Mary (Lily Lesser) a little prettier than you were expecting? And were you surprised to learn it was illegal to marry your dead wife's sister? (In fact, it remained illegal in England until 1907.)

Next week!



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Louis Bayard