Tudor mystery author Nancy Bilyeau explains the intricate plot of the premiere episode of Masterpiece Theater’s “Wolf Hall,” about Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII, whom some decry as an evil genius and others praise as the leader of the English Reformation.
“Three Card Trick” introduces Thomas Cromwell, the hero of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, at one of the most significant turning points of his life: the fall from power of his mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Throughout the episode there are many shifts in time, including flashbacks within flashbacks, while all the principal characters are introduced. In this review we will bring some clarity to a fascinating but densely structured episode.
To the sound of guitar strumming, white words appear on a stark black screen to inform us that it is 1529, and Henry VIII is desperate for an annulment from his wife of 20 years, Katherine of Aragon, so that he can sire a male heir. Two years of petitioning the pope has gotten King Henry nowhere. His chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, was spearheading the effort and he failed.
“And Henry is not a forgiving man.”
First scene: Dusk falls on a luxurious palace. But a party of horsemen gallop up the long drive to York Place. (1) One man at the window spots them, as if he were standing guard for just such an unwelcome visit. As the horsemen approach the palace and dismount, banging hard on the door for entry, the solitary man, carrying a lantern, hurries through its many rooms toward the churchman sitting in his privy chamber: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, struggling to hide his fear as the sound of stomping feet grows louder. (2)
Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, leading the party, burst in to tell Cardinal Wolsey with obvious glee that he is finished as lord chancellor of England and they have come to collect the Great Seal (3). “You wanted all to rule yourself,” says Norfolk with great resentment.
Wolsey tries to keep a light, bantering tone—“You’ll have supper?”—but it’s obvious that that won’t prevent the dukes from doing what they came to do: to brutally “fire” the cardinal who has managed the affairs of England since 1514, while Henry VIII was left free to hunt, joust, seduce women, and plan wars.
But then the man appears in the room who had hurried through the palace. Without acknowledging the two dukes, he whispers in Wolsey’s ear. And the cardinal’s anxiety dissolves.
“My lawyer, Thomas Cromwell,” (4) he says smoothly. According to what was conveyed in the whispers, he can only surrender the Great Seal if presented with a written order, and if it is given to a certain court functionary, he informs them.
Seething, the dukes leave without the seal.
In what appears to be the next day, the duke of Norfolk (5) has returned to preside over men laying claim to Wolsey’s belongings, including his cardinal’s robes and plate.
Wolsey tells Cromwell he’s heard that the palace, belonging to the archbishopric of York, is to be given to Henry VIII’s beloved and the woman he plans to make queen: Anne Boleyn.
Wolsey retreats from the distressing scene, but Cromwell remains. And Norfolk, in a bit of talent spotting, murmurs to Cromwell, “Come and see me.”
“Why, my lord?” Cromwell barks. “When?”
It is the first of many occasions in the episode when Cromwell, though he is of common birth and obscure background, stands up to the men and women who hold the greatest power in the kingdom.
In the next scene, a devastated Cardinal Wolsey is shown in a river barge, rowed by men in livery, with his two principal aides, Cromwell and George Cavendish, his gentleman usher (6).
Cavendish laments the cruelty of people who stop at nothing to bring down “a great man.”
Cromwell’s mind is not on the present, but on another turning point, eight years ago, that seemed insignificant at the time but actually caused Wolsey’s downfall: the thwarting of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland.
Flashback to a court dance. No sign of Wolsey or the king and queen of the land. Instead the attention is on an attractive young couple moving gracefully. Anne Boleyn’s mask says “Perseverance” and Henry Percy’s reads “Courage.” (7) As the dancers circle each other, they smile, obviously in love.
We cut to Wolsey receiving a visitor, Thomas Boleyn. (8) The cardinal orders him to break off his daughter’s romance. Percy is “of the noblest family in the land” but the Boleyns are tainted with “trade.”
Cromwell is bullying and curt; Boleyn’s fingers curl around the arm of his chair. But he knows he must endure the lashing. Still, on the way out, he mutters, “Butcher’s boy” (9) and then, turning to the two men waiting within earshot of his humiliation, “Butcher’s dog!” One of the men is Cromwell.
Wolsey laughs at Boleyn’s tantrum and then says, “Come out, dog.”
The taller man, Stephen Gardiner (10), leans down and says to Cromwell, “He’s talking to you.”
This is the first meeting between Wolsey and Cromwell, a job interview of sorts, and the two instantly form a deep rapport. The cardinal exults in news of Cromwell’s “remarkable memory” and his years abroad. Best news of all of him: Cromwell is a blacksmith’s son.
“At last!” Wolsey cries. “A man born in a more lowly state than myself.”
Cromwell finds his way home, where he enjoys a cup of wine with his wife, Liz. (11) It is a strong marriage. While Liz looks apprehensive at the news that her husband is going to work for Wolsey, she says, “You know what you’re doing, I suppose. At least you always look as if you do.”
Then it is morning, and Cromwell breaks his fast with his two daughters, Grace and Anne. His wife gives him a book from Germany that “came packaged as something else.” Cromwell tries to interest his wife in the book, Tyndale’s New Testament, written in English, but she says, “My prayer book’s good reading for me.”
We then meet the young men who are devoted to Cromwell and follow him everywhere: Ralph Sadler and his nephew, Richard Cromwell. The three of them make their way to Wolsey’s. It may seem that this is soon after Cromwell’s first meeting with Wolsey, but it’s in fact years later, most likely 1527.
Inside, he entertains Wolsey by demonstrating his “three card trick.” It is a card trick that he learned on the docks shortly after he left his father’s Putney home and how he made his living because “everyone thinks they can beat a child.”
Wolsey confides that the king summoned him “exceptionally early” that morning, brooding over “sin” and determined to annul his “cursed” marriage to Katherine of Aragon because it violated biblical law that a man should not “take” his brother’s wife.
Cromwell warns his master that the Queen is “a fighter.” The cardinal laughs off the warning and admits that while the queen blames him for her problems, he found her beautiful when she came to England at age 16 to marry Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne who died weeks after the wedding. (12)
“God forgive you?” Cromwell asks about this lustful thought.
“God forgive us all,” Wolsey laughs.
The story switches to 1529 and Cromwell is overseeing the cardinal’s move to his country estate in Surrey, now that he is no longer favored by the king. Wolsey is weak and fearful, and Cromwell shouts orders to those who should care for the cardinal. The relationship has shifted from Wolsey as father figure to Cromwell to Cromwell acting as a devoted parent to Wolsey.
Cromwell arrives at a manor house on the Thames. He’s greeted by Antonio Bonvisi, an Italian merchant. Although he was invited, Bonvisi is nervous about Cromwell’s arrival. Inside is Sir Thomas More, a man who holds different views on statecraft and religion than Cromwell.
At the dinner table, More tries to lecture Cromwell, who swiftly turns the tables and mocks More for saying all he wants is a spiritual life. “How is it that I come back to London and find you’ve become lord chancellor? What’s that, a fucking accident?” Cromwell demands.
But Cromwell has found a man who is not thrown by him. More says in a subtle threat: “You’re no friend to the church, Thomas. You’re friend to one priest only, and he’s the most corrupt in Christendom.” (13)
After dinner, Bonvisi criticizes Cromwell for baiting More, an important man, and urges him to leave Wolsey “now” or else he will be finished too.
The story jumps back in time, to 1527. The business of obtaining the king his divorce is well under way, with Wolsey still in charge. Katherine’s family connections appear to be an immovable obstacle. The armies of her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, have captured the Pope. He won’t find it easy to dishonor Queen Katherine by throwing her off the throne. But Wolsey is confident he can persevere.
Cromwell shares with the cardinal the gossip: “The king has moved from Mary Boleyn to her flat-chested sister Anne.” Again, Wolsey shrugs off any possibility of a threat, even though she never forgave the cardinal for stopping her marriage to Percy.
At home, Liz tells Cromwell his sister stopped by and urged him to see their father, from whom he is estranged. Cromwell says no.
Cromwell lies in bed with Liz, talking about their children, when their youngest daughter, Grace, wearing her angel wing Christmas present, knocks on the door to say she’s warm. Cromwell lovingly sends her to her own bed.
The next morning, Cromwell leaves an unusually tired Liz to go to a secret meeting of men sympathetic to William Tyndale and Martin Luther.
When he returns to his home that same day, Cromwell is shocked to find his wife died that day of the “sweating sickness.” (14) Ralph Sadler runs into the room to tell him the girls are also dying. In disbelief, Cromwell makes his way to their room. In minutes, he is holding the hand of Anne, whispering tenderly, “It’s all right. Go” while she dies.
Devastated, Cromwell stands in his own garden. His sister-in-law Joan tries to comfort him while he blames himself for not sending the children out of disease-ridden London. “Liz wouldn’t have let them go,” she says, then breaks down sobbing.
Cromwell goes to see his father, who treats him brusquely. In a flashback we learn that his father beat his savagely.
Wolsey returns to England, admitting “my mission could not be described as an overwhelming success.” When Cromwell tells him his wife and daughters are dead, he extends genuine compassion.
The episode returns to 1529, after Wolsey’s fall.
Cromwell, sitting in the cardinal’s ruined home, asks Cavendish for an inventory of all the possessions of York Place, to take to the Lady Anne. In the next scene, he returns to a York Place redecorated by Anne Boleyn. On the way to her, Cromwell passes a musician who was once in the employ of Wolsey: Mark Smeaton.
“It must feel strange being back in York Place, with the world so altered?” Cromwell asks.
“No,” Smeaton sneers.
A barking dogs runs toward Cromwell.
“Purqoy—don’t let him out!” a woman shouts. (15)
It is the Lady Anne, stylishly dressed and mocking his name with her French accent. (16) Cromwell boldly asks Anne Boleyn how the quest for a divorce is faring after the cardinal’s “reduction.” Clearly it is not going well, and she tells Cromwell she blames Wolsey.
“We asked one thing, one simple thing of the Cardinal, and he would not,” she says.
“You know it wasn’t simple,” Cromwell interrupts.
“Perhaps I’m a simple person,” Anne says. “Do you feel I am?”
“You may be, I hardly know you,” he retorts.
Anne then dismisses Cromwell, but her blonde sister, Mary Boleyn, runs after him to urge Cromwell to come again because “my sister likes a good fight.” (17) Another blond woman comes to retrieve Mary, giving Cromwell a reproving look. It is Lady Jane Seymour.(18)
Cromwell goes to see the duke of Norfolk, who says he will help him get a seat in Parliament. However, Norfolk demands to know more of Cromwell, and when he learns that he was a mercenary soldier in Italy for the French, the duke said, “I knew there was something about you I didn’t like.”
We then come to the final first meeting of “Three Card Trick,” and the most momentous, of Cromwell and King Henry VIII.
The king, dressed in resplendent scarlet, grants Cromwell an audience in a manicured garden (19), making it clear that he remembers Cromwell once publicly opposed his leading an army to France.
“Do you want a king to huddle inside like a sick girl?” the king demands angrily, his voice rising.
“That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes,” Cromwell answers calmly. Just as his boldness made an impression on Anne Boleyn, the king, surrounded by sycophants, looks intrigued by Cromwell’s backbone. Still, there is a problem, he says.
“Master Cromwell, your reputation is bad.” When Cromwell remains silent, the king says, “You don’t defend yourself?”
“Your Majesty can form your own opinions.”
“I can,” answers Henry VIII. “I will.”
And with that, a thoughtful king walks away.
(1) Cardinal Wolsey made substantial improvements to York Place, turning it into a spectacular palace that Henry VIII claimed after Wolsey’s fall. It became known as Whitehall, and was a principal residence of the Tudor and Stuart royal families until it burned down in 1698. For “Wolf Hall,” the producers used Barrington Court, in Somerset, to stand in as York Place.
(2) Wolsey acquired enormous wealth as a cardinal, a “prince of the church” and lord chancellor. His fortune was second only to the king’s.
(3) In 1529, there were three dukes in England: Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk; Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk; and Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond, the 10-year-old illegitimate son of Henry VIII by his first wife’s lady in waiting, Bessie Blount.
(4) Where Thomas Cromwell studied the law is unknown. Nonetheless, he became a successful lawyer, money lender and merchant when returned to England by 1514.
(5) Thomas Howard’s grandfather died at the Battle of Bosworth, fighting for the “wrong” side: Richard III’s. It took the Howards time and effort to win favor in the Tudor court.
(6) George Cavendish’s biography of Wolsey became historians’ main source of information about not only the cardinal but the early years of the reign of Henry VIII and the lives of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. His manuscript was a major source for Shakespeare’s play about Henry VIII.
(7) Anne Boleyn famously wore the name “perseverance” in a court pageant on March 1, 1522, her first recorded public appearance in England. It was not a romantic dance with Percy.
(8) Thomas Boleyn performed important court functions aside from being the father of two women the king of England bedded. He was appointed ambassador to France in 1518 and had exceptionally good French.
(9) Thomas Wolsey’s father was an Ipswich butcher, cattle dealer and merchant.
(10.) Stephen Gardiner was rumored to be the son of a woman who was Jasper Tudor’s illegitimate daughter, and so a cousin to Henry VIII.
(11) Elizabeth Wyckes was a well-off widow when Cromwell married her in 1516.
(12) Sir Thomas More once said that for beauty “few women could compete with the queen in her prime.” She was nearly six years older than her second husband, Henry VIII.
(13) The 1966 movie about Sir Thomas More’s life, A Man for All Seasons, won six Academy Awards. Paul Scofield played More, Leo McKern played Cromwell, Robert Shaw played Henry VIII and Vanessa Redgrave played Anne Boleyn.
(14) The sweating sickness often killed victims within 24 hours. Anne Boleyn had it but survived. It killed Mary Boleyn’s first husband, William Carey.
(15) Anne Boleyn was devoted to her dogs. Besides Purkoy, she had a greyhound she named Urian.
(16) Thomas Boleyn sent his daughter to France as a child to serve in royal households, including that of Queen Claude. She was influenced by King Francis’s sister Marguerite, who favored religious reform.
(17) Mary Boleyn was believed to be the mistress of two kings, Francis I and Henry VIII. Francis referred to her as his “English mare.”
(18) Jane Seymour served in the households of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. She was a distant cousin of the latter.
(19) Tudor gardens were filled with roses and violets.