Warning: Spoiler Alert
As the BBC series “Wolf Hall,” reached the closing minutes of its sixth and final chapter, Sunday night on the PBS showcase Masterpiece Theater, I found myself drawing parallels between Anne Boleyn and the subject of an ancient Greek Myth. The Greeks told a tale of a young man name Icarus, who built himself a pair of wings and attempted to fly to the sun. Although the young man amazed all around that he could actually fly with his wings, his attempt to do the impossible, lead to his death. As Icarus got too close to the sun, the wax that held his wings together melted, sending the young man crashing to his death far below.
Anne Boleyn also had lofty goals in 1529: to make the English Monarch King Henry VIII fall in love with her, annul his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, proclaim himself the Supreme Leader of the Church Of England and crown Anne as the country’s new Queen. Against overwhelming odds, Anne Boleyn got everything she wanted, but she couldn’t hold onto it. Failing to produce a male heir to the throne, she lost her hold over Henry and the sins she committed throughout the years would lead to her ultimate undoing.
The episode opens with a graphic telling us that we’ve reached the year 1536 and Henry’s love for Anne Boleyn has given way to anger and distrust. His attention now fixed on Jane Seymour, he’s instructed Cromwell to rid him of his second Queen. Sensing her loss of favor the Queen’s enemies are gathering.
Thomas Cromwell sits at the head of an enormous banquet table, surrounded by older men and women, clearly members of the aristocracy. The Duke of Norfolk asks Cromwell where’s the food and the host signals to his wait staff to start serving the meal. As platters of all sorts of delicacies are served, Cromwell suddenly sees Anne Boleyn being pulled down the table as she lies on her back, by two ropes attached to her shoulders. Boleyn looks around the room, finally making eye-contact with Cromwell. He stands up with a knife in his hand and stabs downward.
It’s a fantasy as we soon see that in reality, he’s at home having dinner with his family members, but Thomas can’t shake the vision. He remains silent and contemplative as he eats his dinner, staring off into space as if he was eating alone in the woods.
We are at Whitehall as Anne fusses over her red-headed daughter Elizabeth, showing Henry the new bonnet she got for her. Henry stares in silence takes a slug from his goblet of wine and picks his teeth. Finding the bothersome morsel, he gets up from the table and walks away. Cromwell starts to follow the King, when Anne calls for him.
She tells her husband’s right-hand man, that she heard that when Henry nearly died in the jousting accident, Cromwell started making arrangements for Henry’s first daughter Mary to return to the Palace. She asks why he was not planning on her, or Elizabeth or the baby she carried at the time, that she subsequently lost.
Thomas looks at her and says he can’t hold the throne for a baby in the cradle, or for a baby yet to be born. Anne glares at Cromwell, telling him she promoted him and she ‘s the reason he’s had the success he enjoys. She then says the first chance he got to betray her, he did exactly that. Thomas looks her in the eye and dryly says Madam, there is nothing personal.
She lets out a cruel laugh at the remark, then she says he thinks he doesn’t need her any longer. However he’s forgotten the most important rule, those who’ve been made can be unmade. Cromwell says he wholeheartedly agrees with her statement, Anne’s unaware that Thomas is thinking of her in those terms.
That night at home Cromwell’s visited by the Duke of Suffolk, who tells the King’s secretary that we want the concubine gone and we know you do to. We’re fine with Henry marrying the Seymour girl, she follows the Church and might get Henry to reunite with Rome.
Cromwell asks the Duke who besides him, he speaks for. The Duke responds many who are close to the Crown, from the days of old King Edward. Lord Exeter, Lord Montague, the Chauncey family and Lady Margaret Pole. Cromwell asks the Duke what he proposes to do with the Queen and the Duke says he’s not sure, possibly send her to a monastery. He then asks the Duke what he wants of him and the Duke responds we want you to join us and help England get a new Queen.
Things start to unravel in the next scene, as Anne’s playfulness backfires and her reputation and honor get brought into play. Anne starts flirting with the young lute player, Mark Smeaton and the young man gets embarrassed and he runs out of her room, his eyes filled with tears. Her sister-in-law, Lady Jane Rochford says that Smeaton should be dropped from the top of a building, as Anne’s dog was.
Anne hauls back and slaps Rochford in the face, Jane says if Anne hits her like that again, she’ll hit her back. She says that Anne’s not a Queen, just the daughter of some Knight. Anne calls out to Harry Norris and asks him to do her a good turn and drown her brother’s wife. Harry tries to calm her down and she says you told me you would walk barefoot to China for me. He laughs and says it was somewhere within the confines of England.
She says to her sister Mary that Harry will never marry her as he says that he’s in love with Anne. She says however, he apparently doesn’t love her enough, to put Rochford in a bag and drown her. Norris says that if she wants to tell tales out of school, would she care to talk about their son. He then walks off and Anne’s mortified and terrified, requesting somebody bring him back, so he can deny the remark. Nobody goes after him, so Anne chases after him herself.
Thus the beginning of the end for Anne Boleyn and things unravel at a rapid pace. Anne chases Harry to the courtyard and they argue out there for all to see, including Henry. The Queen went right to her husband after talking with Norris and Jane says he did not seem forgiving.
Jane Rochford immediately finds Cromwell and decides to air out all the dirty laundry. Perhaps the most shocking accusation she makes, is that her husband George and his sister Anne Boleyn engage in incest. She says she’s seen them kiss and not as brother and sister, but as if they were lovers. She tells Cromwell that she believes that her husband and the Queen are hoping to produce a male heir that looks like a Boleyn, so there won’t be any accusations of adultery.
Thomas advises Rochford not to speak to anyone else on this matter. She then tells Cromwell that she advises he speak to Mark Smeaton, as he can reveal a lot of information. Thomas sets up a meeting at his house with Smeaton, Rafe and Richard.
Mark’s a foolish and uneducated teenager, whose full of himself. Being a member of the Queen’s court, Smeaton’s convinced that he’s the equal of any noble. He says they call him boy, but they all fear him. Cromwell then asks the teen why the Queen’s constantly upset and he responds because she’s fallen in love with me. Thomas says he can see why she would be attracted to Smeaton as he’s young and good-looking. He then starts asking about Anne’s other lovers.
Smeaton suddenly realizes this isn’t just some bull-session, trading tales with other commoners about his prowess in the bedroom. He says he takes it all back, but Cromwell tells him it’s too late for that. He’ll either talk to them willingly or under force, the choice is his. He starts crying saying he was just making the whole thing up and Thomas tells him he’ll spend the night in Cromwell’s home. Richard takes the teen to a room and Mark’s scared and asks what is this place, Richard tells him that’s where the phantom lives.
In the middle of the night, Cromwell’s woken by the banging and screaming of Smeaton. This time he’s very cooperative, providing a list of names and saying he had relations with Anne about three or four times. He doesn’t realize it’s only going to get much worse from here on out.
Cromwell then starts bringing in the accused men, including Harry Norris, Francis Brian and George Boleyn. Cromwell’s relentless in his questioning and uses the statements from one man to implicate one of the others. However it’s with Harry Norris that Thomas admits why he’s going after the men he’s pursuing. He asks Norris if he remembers being in a performance, depicting Cardinal Wolsey getting chased to Hell by some demons? Harry gasps and asks is this what this is about? Cromwell says I need guilty men Harry so I’ve found men who are guilty, although maybe not of the same offense.
Harry says he won’t confess to anything or name anybody else, he says we’re cultured gentleman. Henry doesn’t believe in and would never allow torture. Cromwell walks over to the table that Norris sits at, and puts his hands on Harry’s cheeks rather forcefully. He says it can be informal, right now I could put my thumbs in your eyes and have you sing Green Grows The Hollie, if he so chooses.
The Duke of Norfolk gives Cromwell an arrest warrant for his niece, family loyalty means nothing to him. He says perhaps Henry will listen to his advice after this. Anne greets her uncle, the Lord Chancellor, the Master Treasurer and Cromwell. She says to the group, this is the man I invented and Norfolk says he invented her as well and now he grieves that he did so. Norfolk asks Anne if she’s ready and she replies she doesn’t know how to be ready. Cromwell extends his hand and says, why don’t you just come with us.
Anne’s taken by rowboat to the room she’ll live out her days in, Cromwell’s in the boat with her. She stares at all the buildings as they float by, realizing deep down this could be the last time she sees them.
Cromwell meets with Henry and the Archbishop of York at Whitehall and the Archbishop berates himself for allowing Anne to deceive him for all these years. Henry comforts the Priest by saying they were all taken in by her act, then he says he believes she committed adultery with over 100 men during their marriage. He says she said she loved me, but alas the opposite was true.
Thomas goes to visit Anne and she asks Cromwell if this is all some sort of test? She asks when Henry will release her and let her return to the Palace? Cromwell says to her they are compiling the confessions as they speak and soon she’ll be on trial. She grabs hold of Cromwell’s arm and says that he doesn’t believe these terrible stories about her. She looks him in the eyes and says deep in your heart, you know I’m innocent. Thomas removes her hand from his arm and remains silent.
The trial takes place and Anne’s voted guilty by each member of Parliament. The Duke of Norfolk says that she’ll either be burned at the stake, or have her head cut off, whichever Henry prefers. The King decides to give his wife the quick death and orders her head to get cut off.
Before the execution Cromwell goes down to the stage she’ll be executed from and he meets the executioner, a man from France. The executioner tells Thomas that if she’s steady she won’t feel a thing, it will happen between heartbeats. If she’s steady.
There’s a mob surrounding the stage as Anne and he ladies in waiting descend the stairs to the stage. She quietly but calmly addresses the crowd, She says she’s come here to die, because that’s what the law calls for. She says God bless the King and she says that he always treated her kindly and fairly. The headband’s removed from her head and a bonnet’s placed upon it, then they blindfold her.
When the blindfold’s put on she starts to show her fear, sobbing softly. A stray lock of hair escapes the bonnet, she fusses with it to put it back in place. Cromwell whispers move your arm. The executioner goes to the Queen’s left and shouts out, she turns that way and he slices off her head from the right, in between heartbeats as he predicted. The ladies in waiting pick up her head and body and place them in a plain wooden casket.
Cromwell heads inside Whitehall and Henry stands there waiting for his secretary with open arms, beaming from ear to ear. He embraces Thomas and the expression on his face is one of complete joy, looking as if the weight of the world’s lifted off his shoulders. Cromwell however got shaken by the experience, his face’s creased with worry and he looks disoriented and confused.