The story of Henry VIII and his revolving door of wives is saturated with a delicious sort of drama (Adultery! Intrigue! Beheadings!) and so it has been told time and again—on stage, in film, on television, and in books. Wolf Hall, which premieres April 5 on PBS, is a Tudor story that has been reincarnated twice. It began as the best-selling novel by Hilary Mantel, was adapted into a six-part television series by the BBC, and is currently enjoying a 20-week run on Broadway.
The PBS/BBC series will be the subject of this review, and man, is it great television. We know how things are going to end up for Wolf Hall’s main players (pretty badly, for the most part), but thanks to the show’s robust characterizations of iconic historical figures, it’s a thrill to watch them get there. Also fascinating is just how contemporary Wolf Hall seems. As I watched the show’s depiction of Anne Boleyn and the public fixation on the contents of her womb, all I could think about was Kate Middleton.
Wolf Hall follows Thomas Cromwell, the English lawyer who rose from obscurity to become Henry VIII’s right hand man. Cromwell plays a key role in enacting the hugely divisive bill that saw Henry (Homeland’s Damien Lewis) install himself as the head of the Church of England, thereby allowing him to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. When Henry’s attitude towards Anne sours, Cromwell arranges for her execution on trumped up charges of adultery. The guy is basically a fixer—like Scandal‘s Olivia Pope, but with better hair.
Much of the series’ fun derives from watching Cromwell (played with magnetic nuance by Mark Rylance) navigate the volatile terrain of the King’s favor. But at the center of the narrative is Anne—beautiful, ambitious, cruel Anne. In Wolf Hall, she is portrayed by Claire Foy with brazen assurance that is offset by an undercurrent of panic. Though they don’t care for each other very much, Anne and Thomas Cromwell are on parallel journeys of tenuous ascension. Both are gaining tremendous status and influence that can be torn away from them at any moment by the whims of a fickle King.
Wolf Hall is fascinated by power, and by what power meant for a woman in 16th century England. Once she schemes and seduces her way onto the throne, Anne is a forceful, often vicious ruler. She demands the executions of prominent men who quietly oppose her rule, and keeps a hawkish eye on the Succession Act that made her daughter Henry’s heir. But whatever influence Anne manages to accrue hinges on the state of her uterus, which proves to be a very hollow sort of authority.
Henry is desperate for a son to secure his dynasty and Anne promises that she can supply one (scientific knowledge of conception was, at that time, a little wonky). During her first pregnancy, she is content in her conviction that the child will be a boy. “I was always desired,” she tells Cromwell. “Now I’m valued. And that’s different.” When the baby turns out to be a girl (the future Queen Elizabeth I) any value that Anne had acquired quickly crumbles into nothingness.
All of this, of course, is the well-known narrative of Anne Boleyn’s sad life. But Wolf Hall’s depiction of Henry VIII’s most fascinating queen is particularly piercing. In Wolf Hall, Anne is an acutely visceral woman—all heaving bosoms, and swelling bellies, and failed pregnancies that devolve into thick pools of blood. Her body is a force unto itself because it is her most important feature. Regardless of how clever and ambitious Anne may be, her primary purpose is as a dynastic baby-maker.
Anne’s womb—whether or not there is a child occupying it, and whether or not that child is a male—is a matter of public interest, and Wolf Hall shows just how oppressive that sort of scrutiny could be. The king talks giddily about Anne’s missed periods, and every dude with a title is intimately familiar with her pregnancies and miscarriages. “Do you think it’s already been decided what the Queen’s baby will be?” asks one of the Queen’s handmaidens (Jane Seymour, incidentally, who would become Henry’s next wife). “I wish we could see inside her so we could tell.”
This sentiment was particularly striking because it still rings so true. When Kate Middleton was getting ready to give birth to Prince George almost two years ago, I remember being shocked by the hysteria that surrounded the advent of this little baby. People were betting on when the “royal baby” would be born and what its gender would be. Onlookers surrounded the hospital where Kate was in labor, waiting for her to push her infant out into the world. It was all in the name of good-natured entertainment, to be sure, but I couldn’t help but think that there was a pervasive desire crawl inside of this woman and take a look around.
Now, as Kate prepares for the birth of her second child, that penetrating scrutiny has returned full-force. Otherwise respectable publications run articles about Kate’s “bump:” how big it is, how she dresses it. People are once again waging money on the gender of her baby and even staging corgi races to determine what the child’s name will be (adorable, but really).
Most celebrity women endure similar levels of public fascination with their pregnancies, but they aren’t expected to parade their newborns on the steps of a hospital and subject themselves to further inspection of the size of their stomachs.
I half expected the characters of Wolf Hall to start talking about baby bumps. Much has changed since the Tudors ruled England, but the bodies of royal women remain as fascinating and as public as they were in the days of Anne Boleyn.