Is Thomas Cromwell From 'Wolf Hall' Historically Accurate? Likely More So Than His Last TV Incarnation On 'The Tudors'
BBC2's latest mini-series to cross the pond is PBS' historical series Wolf Hall. Based on the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the mini-series revolves around the historical advisor Thomas Cromwell, who made his mark in England during the rule of King Henry VIII. However, television fans are all too familiar with this master manipulator, just from a grossly historically inaccurate place: how does Thomas Cromwell from The Tudors. On the Showtime series, the way Cromwell caused the downfall of many religious and political figures played out like a Tudor period House of Cards. The BBC2 mini-series cannot deny some aspects of this devious character, but the Showtime series took decidedly more scandalous liberties.
In real life, Thomas Cromwell was a man of humble origins who became instrumental in both introducing King Henry to his many wives and making it legal for him to marry and divorce them as he pleased. Cromwell was a lawyer, thus rounding out King Henry VIII's advisory team. His youth, powerful position and reformational ambitions made him an unpopular figure at court and due to his logical background he is often portrayed as somewhat cold and Utilitarian. You can see why we want to tell stories about this fellow. Both Wolf Hall and The Tudors have followed this with some changes along the way.
If you had any doubt that Cromwell could be the basis for Petyr Baelish (aka "Littlefinger") in Game of Thrones, James Frain's performance in The Tudors must have convinced you. He was so slimy, and was working with the Boleyn family to infiltrate the throne. It isn't until later that Queen Anne Boleyn begins to turn against her old friend.
It was also very important to Cromwell's plot (in both senses of the word) on The Tudors that he is a secret Lutheran. We saw him going to meetings, and introducing Anne Boleyn to this particular Protestant faith that she would later bring to Henry VIII. It added a layer of mystery that a man so close to a king leading a very specific Protestant revolution was practicing an entirely different faith. Between that and his alliance with the Boleyns, it was clear that Thomas Cromwell had an agenda beyond serving his King.
First of all, yes — that is Damien Lewis, best known as Sergeant Brody from Homeland, playing King Henry the VIII. (I always thought Queen Elizabeth I got her red hair from her mother!) Anyway, that's probably the most shocking thing about this show. It does not appear that Wolf Hall has Thomas Cromwell as a Lutheran or friend of the Boleyn family at all. On the whole, Wolf Hall's portrayal of the historical figure seems to be much more subtle and sympathetic. From what I've seen, he's more interested in securing his own position at court. The mini-series also includes Cromwell's ward, Rafe Sadler. His agenda is more political and impersonal. The series also paints a darker picture of Sir Thomas More, who was literally sainted by the Catholic Church and somewhat of a rival to Cromwell's agenda.
This all makes sense simply because Wolf Hall is about Cromwell, whereas The Tudors used him as a sort of antagonist, depending on who you were willing to root for each week. But perspective matters, especially in historical fiction!
Image: Giles Keyte/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC; cecilyneville /Tumblr