On September 8, Queen Elizabeth II, the United Kingdom’s longest-serving monarch, died at her country estate in Balmoral, Scotland. She was 96. Exactly two weeks later, on September 22, the celebrated British novelist Hilary Mantel died of a stroke in Exeter, England. Mantel was 70, her life-span coinciding exactly with Elizabeth’s reign. And with perfect timing, on October 10 New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition of “iconic portraits, spectacular tapestries, manuscripts, sculpture, and armor” called The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, running through January 8.

The convergence of these events provides a great excuse to write about the 2015 BBC series Wolf Hall (still available on Amazon Prime), though no excuse is needed because the glamour, terror, and intrigue of Tudor England never seem to lose what Petrarch called “the pure radiance of the past.” Petrarch’s verse appears as a postscript at the end of The Mirror & the Light (2020), the third novel in Mantel’s 2,000-page trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the self-educated yeoman who rose from obscurity to become a trusted counselor to King Henry VIII.

Which raises a question: Why should the past be pure radiance when the present never is?

One answer may be that the present, even at its brightest, is marked by shadows and the looming threat of darkness. By contrast, even the blackest deeds from the past can, in the hands of a great artist, acquire a halo of significance. Thus did William Shakespeare take sordid power struggles from Roman chronicles, Gaelic legends, and recent British history and alchemize them into tragedies leavened by humor and elevated by the triumph of political virtue. Of course, that alchemy required the dissolving of certain facts.

For example, in Richard III Shakespeare transformed a Plantagenet prince who in real life was no more villainous than his rivals into a monster whose grotesquely twisted body was an outward sign of inner depravity. “Since I cannot prove a lover,” Richard says in Act I, Scene 1, “I am determined to prove a villain.” In 2012, a skeleton was unearthed in a parking lot in the city of Leicester, near the site of Richard’s death in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. After genetic testing, the remains were identified as his. But rather than prove the slain monarch a “foul lump of deformity” (as asserted in the play), the skeleton revealed a pronounced scoliosis of the spine but no other physical deformity.

As for moral deformity, the scholarly consensus today is that Shakespeare was channeling Tudor propaganda about Richard III being the last of the evil Plantagenets, vanquished by Henry VII, the noble founder of the Tudor dynasty, which lasted through the first 39 years of Shakespeare’s life. The Bard knew where the red lines were, as evidenced by the fact that he wrote no history plays about Henry VIII until well after the death of his daughter Elizabeth I in 1603. Even then, the play Henry VIII concludes with an imaginary celebration of Elizabeth’s birth, which was not in fact celebrated because both her parents had been desperate to produce a male heir to the crown.

Henry VIII also omitted the consequences we know so well today: six marriages, none of which produced a healthy son. They all ended badly: three (to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Anne of Cleves) in forced annulments; two (to Boleyn and Catherine Howard) in beheadings; one (to Jane Seymour) in death during childbirth; and one (to Catherine Parr) with the king’s own demise. During a 1613 performance of Henry VIII, the thatched roof of the first Globe Theater caught fire from a scrap of burning material sent aloft by a stage cannon, and the building was leveled in an hour. No one was hurt, which is more than you can say for the reign of that loose cannon, Henry.

Thomases, Doubting and Doubted 

Not all of the men destroyed by Henry VIII were named Thomas, but three of the most prominent were. First in line was Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s rich and powerful lord chancellor, whom Mantel portrays as a mentor to Thomas Cromwell, her enigmatic hero. As Mantel tells it, Cromwell’s career began when Wolsey took notice of his quiet, watchful presence among the fawning, scheming aristocrats surrounding the throne. The son of a butcher whose education had been facilitated by the Church, Wolsey respected Cromwell’s self-propelled rise from “ruffian” in a humble Surrey village to wealthy, well-traveled, multilingual merchant and lawyer. The mentorship ripens into a friendship that endures through Wosley’s disgrace when, having failed to persuade Pope Leo X to annul Henry’s first marriage, the cardinal is forced into exile in remote, wintry Yorkshire.

In November 1530 Wolsey was ordered back to court for trial (and inevitable execution) for treason, but died during the journey. Cromwell stayed loyal, pleading the cardinal’s case to the end. But while doing so he gained the respect of the king, who was sorely in need of a fixer not blinded by arrogance and ambition. Shortly after Wosley’s death, Henry appointed Cromwell to the Privy Council—the first in a succession of high offices that over the next decade would provoke enough envy at court to fuel a conspiracy that, in 1540, led to Cromwell’s beheading on trumped-up charges of treason.

During Cromwell’s ascendancy, one of his steadiest allies was the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who after Henry’s death became the major architect of the English Reformation. Cranmer is present in Mantel’s novels and TV series but never in the foreground, perhaps because that was how, in real life, he survived Henry’s reign. Cranmer met his fate during the brief reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, who sought to restore the power of the papacy over England. Accused of heresy and treason, Cranmer was forced to recant his Protestant beliefs while in prison. But in 1556, when Mary ordered him burned at the stake, he reaffirmed those beliefs, placing the hand that had signed the recantation in the flames and crying, “Lord Jesus, receive my soul!”

No film or TV series about the Tudor dynasty that I know of has included this heart-stopping scene. Most likely this is because the viewing public is much less interested in the religious upheavals of the time than in the charges of serial adultery that led to the beheading of Henry’s second wife, the brilliant but doomed Anne Boleyn. To the gatekeepers of popular culture, the scorched flesh of a martyr cannot hold a candle to the heat of Henry’s lust for the fabled beauty of Anne, and the jealousy that accused her of seducing a long list of paramours that for good measure included her handsome, feckless brother, Geoffrey.

Different Men for Different Seasons

When Wolf Hall, the first novel in Mantel’s trilogy, was published in 2009, there was a tsunami of commentary about its reversal of the good-vs.-evil dynamic between Cromwell and another Thomas—the humanist, jurist, lord chancellor, and Catholic saint Thomas More, whom Henry condemned to death in 1535. More was canonized in 1935, and in 1960 the British author Robert Bolt immortalized him as a hero of conscience in a hugely successful play, A Man for All Seasons. Bolt was not religious, but he greatly admired More’s stoic resistance to Henry’s demand that the Catholic Church officially bless the annulment of his first marriage on the grounds that Catherine of Aragon had not been a virgin on their wedding night. Henry’s real reason, of course, was that Catherine had failed to give him a male heir.

In 1966 A Man for All Seasons was made into an even more successful film, which by placing More’s eloquence in the mouth of the charismatic actor Paul Scofield became a touchstone for those who would, in the words of the 1960s bumper sticker, “Question Authority.” The catch, of course, is that for most of his life, More was authority. Indeed, when following Wolsey as lord chancellor, More persecuted all the “heretics”—Lollards, Lutherans, Anabaptists, readers of Tyndale’s English Gospel, anyone who defied or disobeyed Rome—more harshly than Wolsey ever dreamed of doing. This side of More is not featured in Bolt’s play. On the contrary, in a preface to the text, Bolt writes of More that “the life of the mind in him is so abundant and debonair that it illuminates the body,” while finding in Cromwell “a self-conceit that can cradle gross crimes. In short, an intellectual bully.”

This is the dynamic that Mantel reverses. In her view, the low-born Cromwell, dubbed “Crumb” by his social betters at court, felt a natural affinity to Wolsey, likewise taunted as “Butcher Boy.” Mantel herself was the daughter of a poor Irish Catholic family in a depressed former mill town near Manchester. In childhood her family was close-knit and loving, but that ended when her mother decamped with another man. At age 10 Mantel was living with a harsh, unloving stepfather, and at age 20 she contracted a rare disease, endometriosis, in which the lining of the uterus spreads to the surrounding organs. Misdiagnosed by incompetent doctors, the disease became chronic, making it impossible for Mantel to bear children or relieve the chronic pain.

It was these experiences, Mantel has said, that shaped her depiction of Cromwell’s father as a cruel, hard-drinking blacksmith who in the opening scene of Wolf Hall is beating his son nearly to death. This portrayal has been questioned by British historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose biography Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life (2018) finds no evidence that Cromwell père—a tradesman who at one point owned a brewery and a tavern—was either a blacksmith or a violence-prone drunkard. But differences regarding historical facts do not appear to have caused friction between Mantel and MacCulloch. On the contrary, the novelist and historian praised each other’s books and joined together as a mediagenic team, working both sides of the literary street to their mutual benefit.

And ours. In a joint interview promoting the 2015 premiere of the BBC series Wolf Hall, MacCulloch observed that while “the archive is vast” with regard to Cromwell’s activities, “most of his own letters and writings are lost, the records of them probably destroyed by his household when he was arrested, to try and complicate the investigation of him by his enemies. So you stumble through a cacophony of other voices, trying to hear echoes of what he said.” Mantel agreed, adding that for her, the dearth of material was both the challenge and the allure of writing about Cromwell: “You can’t add him up. He’s an enigma. He’s always, for me, a work in progress, and I think he becomes so for the reader and for the viewer.”

This could hardly be less like Thomas More, who kept a voluminous chronicle of his own life and career. In the novel Wolf Hall, Cromwell and More are discussing Elizabeth Barton, a young woman claiming to have divine visions about the sinfulness of eminent figures from Henry on down, when More states reassuringly that he has “written to this maid” with a list of reprimands and advice, ending with the withering admonition that she should “stay at home and say her prayers.” Cromwell nods agreement, then asks with sly irony, “I suppose you kept a copy?”

Not to the Manner Born

Fortunately for the viewer, this is one of many wonderful moments in the novel that, thanks to the skill of the screenwriter, Peter Straughan, and considerable input from Mantel, made it into the BBC series. In another promotional interview, Straughan said that the most difficult episode to write was the first, because he had to introduce “so much background information” while at the same time keeping “the ‘front story’ moving forward.”

Straughan is right, but it doesn’t matter, because despite the confusion we can instantly tell that this series is as beautifully cut, fitted, embroidered, and bejeweled as the heavy, intimidating garments of the Tudor nobility. This is true of the musical soundtrack by composer Debbie Wiseman, who used period instruments but made a point of, as she put it, “avoiding anything that sounded like a pastiche of Tudor music.” It is true of the locations, carefully selected by the National Trust for their historical authenticity. And it is true of the director Peter Kosminsky, whose myriad good calls included adding no artificial illumination to daylight, firelight, and candlelight as they penetrated the darkness of that time.

Most of all, the gemlike beauty of this series is achieved by Mark Rylance, the extraordinary British actor who plays Cromwell. In Mantel’s novels, the story is told exclusively from Cromwell’s perspective. But instead of using the conventional first-person narration in the past tense (“I saw this, I did that”), she uses third-person narration in the present tense (“he sees this, he does that”). The result is a feeling of intimacy, not just with Cromwell but with his surroundings—as though the reader is standing right next to him, breathing the same air.

The challenge for Rylance was to transfer this device to the screen. It probably helped that, like Cromwell and Mantel, he is not to the manner born. His English parents migrated to America when he was two, and he grew up in Wisconsin, play-acting roles from TV shows with friends, and staging Broadway musicals at school. At 18 he returned to England to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and as he recently told an interviewer, “I arrived at RADA thinking I would be well out of my league, coming from the Midwest of America. But actually I had more experience than most of the English kids.” When asked if that had made him more comfortable, he smiled like Cromwell and said, “No.”

In that same interview, Rylance shared his conviction that the most powerful mode of dramatic expression is not to project yourself out toward the audience, but to draw the audience in toward you. Not every actor can pull this off, but Rylance, who has been doing it for years on the Shakespearian stage, does it effortlessly in Wolf Hall. As Cromwell he is in every scene, and over time, that constant presence begins to feel like our own. As the historian MacCulloch puts it, “Cromwell’s more than an observer for us, because we are observing him too, on the screen.”

Thus, we find ourselves shadowing Cromwell as he moves through the landscapes and interiors of the radiant Tudor past, trusting almost no one but loving those whom he trusts, coping with the bizarre behavior of a monarch who feels no constraint on his will, and enduring the bile of courtiers toward an upstart with the gall to be cleverer than they. And we find it impossible to take our eyes off him, not because he is the most charismatic character but because he is the one who sees through all of the rest.