Follow TV Tropes


Series / Wolf Hall

Go To
Those who have been made can be unmade.

Hilary Mantel's 2009 novel Wolf Hall was adapted for television by Peter Straughan, and first broadcast on BBC 2 in the UK in January 2015. It stars Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Bernard Hill as the Duke of Norfolk. Covering both the eponymous novel and its 2012 sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, the series is quite faithful to the books.

This is the familiar story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from the point-of-view of his closest adviser, Thomas Cromwell. It rehabilitates the character of Cromwell—rather than an amoral schemer, the Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a man with true depth of feeling and principles. His rise from abused blacksmith's boy to the king's right hand is not shown as evil but a well-earned and admirable achievement. It also paints a dimmer view of some of Cromwell's adversaries, particularly Thomas More—ultimately, however, it does not shy away from Cromwell's unscrupulous role in Anne's fatal downfall.


Series 2, covering the final book, was confirmed to be in production on 27th May, 2019.

This series has examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • In the books, Anne Boleyn is described as not being particularly pretty, while Claire Foy is very conventionally attractive. Historical accounts also generally give Boleyn's appearance rather mild praise.
    • Mark Rylance is certainly not as thuggish as Cromwell is described in the book.
  • Adapted Out:
    • In the books, Cromwell is assisted (particularly in interrogating Mark Smeaton) by Christophe, a comically French Psycho Sidekick. In the series, Christophe doesn't appear (which makes sense since he's the only fictional character in the books), and his role is split between Rafe and Richard.
    • The series also leaves out most of Cromwell's domestic concerns, so characters like Cromwell's nieces only appear briefly and some (like Helen Barre, Rafe's future wife) not at all.
    • Advertisement:
    • Thomas Wyatt's accusation and acquittal is not included. Wyatt was known to have a giant crush on Anne and wrote ambiguous poems about it, and his acquittal was shown as a result of Cromwell's friendship with him and his father.
  • Adorkable: Gregory Cromwell, in typical form for Tom Holland.
  • Affectionate Nickname: "Crumb" to a few, including Henry.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Cromwell has every reason to dislike the Duke of Norfolk, but when he curses by "the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus" Cromwell can't help but crack a smile.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: It's heavily implied that Mark Smeaton was in love with Anne Boleyn. Anne breaks his heart in Episode 6, making it clear that she will always see him as nothing but her dog. This leads to Smeaton's Too Dumb to Live moment.
  • Almost Kiss: Thomas Cromwell and Mary Boleyn, but they're interrupted by William Stafford—who she had actually arranged to meet, but arrived so late she thought he'd stood her up. (She eventually did marry Stafford.)
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Cromwell recalls his father's advice to cross his wrists to "confuse the pain" when he burns his hand. This actually works to reduce pain, according to a 2011 study, though only by about 3%.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Has Anne Boleyn cheated on Henry? It's certainly rumoured, but the show remains as ambivalent as history.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Thomas More defends his refusal to take the Oath by saying that he doesn't speak against it, he thinks no harm, and he does no harm. Cromwell's retort is "What about Bilney? What about Bainham?" and it's one of the only times he is openly, vividly angry.
  • Artistic Age: The series doesn't use makeup or other methods to show the passage of time. Rafe Sadler is as youthful during Anne Boleyn's fall as he was during Katherine's (though he'd married and established his own household) and Henry likewise is the same fit man (although his famous weight gain didn't get away from him until the jousting accident in episode 5 made him effectively unable to exercise).
  • Artistic License – History: The show takes a number of liberties with history to compress the action and maintain some of its characterizations
    • Anne Boleyn was said to have a "devilish spirit" as she walked to the scaffold, while in the series she is more understandably afraid.
    • George Boleyn gave, by all accounts, a masterful self-defense during his trial, causing popular opinion in the audience to expect that he would be found innocent. In the show, he's tricked into mocking the king on the stand and then stupidly realizes that he's angered his judges.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: When Cromwell is informing Henry and Brandon (who's a bit of an Upper-Class Twit) of the conspirators around Elizabeth Barton, Henry is aghast to hear the names of some old friends whom he'd played with as a boy. Cromwell continues on with the evidence and suggestions for punishment when Brandon suddenly remembers and starts babbling happily about that one Christmas where Henry got "lost" in a snowdrift with some girl. Cromwell quietly backs out as the two instantly fall to reminiscing.
  • Badass Bookworm: Cromwell doesn't look particularly dangerous and spends the series as a government minister, but he reveals that he was a soldier in his youth. Although he claims that he was too short to be an archer, he manages to strike a bullseye when handed a bow.
  • Badass Boast:
  • Bait the Dog:
    • At odds with his reputation as a debauched tyrant, Henry initially seems like a fairly decent guy, albeit one with an eye for the ladies and who is perhaps a bit dim and self-centred. There's hints of his darker side in earlier episodes, but it really comes out after his jousting accident in Episode 5 with his callousness toward Katherine's death and him totally losing it against Chapuys and Cromwell. Then, Episode 6 rubs it in by showing Henry's positively gleeful reaction to Anne's execution, and it hits the viewer and Cromwell that yes, Henry is a completely horrible person.
    • Cromwell himself falls into this. He's quite sympathetic throughout the series and there's even some Adaptational Heroism on top of what was already a borderline Historical Hero Upgrade in the books. However, the final episode calls this into question by showing Cromwell as succumbing to corruption and evil, using his cleverness and audacity (formerly used in sympathetic contexts) to arrange the deaths of people whose worst crime was that they were jerks. And unlike with Thomas More, there's no longer an excuse/justification of it being for the greater good.
  • Batman Gambit: Thomas More refuses to speak, and legally that silence is an effective defense, imperiling the desired outcome of Cromwell's Kangaroo Court. So when Cromwell applies more pressure by taking away his books, he instructs Richard Riche to take them away personally—gambling that More will speak more freely around someone he's always dismissed as an unimportant wastrel. It works, and Riche uses their hypothetical "putting cases" as the fatal testimony in court.
  • Bear Hug: Henry surprises Cromwell by giving him one of these upon learning that Anne is pregnant again.
  • Beneath Notice: Cromwell served More when they were both youths. He looked up to More and remembers a lot about him, but More consistently states he has no memory of Cromwell. Cromwell was a poor serving boy at the time, so he somewhat bitterly admits that More had "no reason" to notice him. One flashback shows Cromwell watch More playing a recorder at a window and then wave at him. More stares blankly at him for a moment and then shuts the window.
  • Best Served Cold: Cromwell's story arc is pretty much defined by his intent to avenge Cardinal Wolsey against his political opponents, methodically learning their weaknesses while working with them at court, then finally pulling off his masterstroke and implicating them all to be executed.
  • Big Bad: Arguably Henry, as he is without the doubt the most dangerous character and the most ruthless of them all.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: Mark Rylance gives quite an impressive pair to Cromwell.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family:
    • Downplayed due to time constraints, but the Boleyns and their relatives would make an unhappy family picnic. Anne treats her sister Mary terribly, and her cousin and uncle later plot in her fatal downfall.
    • The Seymours, what with John Seymour's affair with his own daughter-in-law. His sons Edward and Thomas talk about their sister Jane like a commodity to be bought and traded to her face, and require Cromwell's prompting to show her fairly basic courtesy.
  • Bilingual Backfire: Occurs at a dinner with Thomas More's retinue in the first episode. Cromwell suggests people stick to Greek if they want to talk about him in his presence.
  • Black Comedy: A few moments. The best example is probably when Cromwell, having prepared himself for a long Battle of Wits to get ammunition against Anne in a conversation with a man he has decided to scapegoat, is instead confronted with the man boasting about how Anne is in love with him. Cromwell afterwards says "Well, there aren't many men alive who can say they took me by surprise."
  • Bloodless Carnage: The last shot of Thomas More is him kneeling with his head resting on the block; his actual execution is never seen. Likewise, Anne's execution in the final episode is also fairly clean, and the most graphic it gets is when her severed head and body are lifted into the coffin, and shots of her ladies' hands now stained in blood.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Henry VIII is this in many ways, but the juvenile good humour can turn into childish petulance and spite at the drop of a hat.
  • Book Dumb: Gregory is not exactly the smartest of weapons in Cromwell's arsenal. He is, however, more adorkable than anyone else in the show.
  • Brother–Sister Incest:
    • Lady Rochford claims that Anne and George are lovers, specifies that when she says "they kiss" she means with tongues, and says that Anne does this so that if she has a bastard it will at least look like a Boleyn. Cromwell decides to run with it and when making the accusation formally says that siblings who were raised apart (as Anne and George were) would lack the natural inhibition against it.
    • Cromwell's affair with his sister-in-law is also viewed as incest, which prevents them being together.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday:
    • When Cromwell brings up a case of some years ago when a man was murdered on Will Brereton's land over a bowls match, Brereton brushes it off by saying "the game can get very heated." Cromwell then details a more recent offense in which Brereton arranged the lynching of a man who was lawfully acquitted and says, "You think nobody remembers, but I remember."
    • Cromwell keeps bringing up details of his and Thomas More's shared youth, but More repeatedly insists that he has no memory of Cromwell. Since Cromwell was a servant, he was Beneath Notice to More.
  • Call-Forward: In one scene, Jane Seymour discusses her uncertainty for her future, and Cromwell reassures her that she is pretty enough to get herself anywhere she wants to. Anyone who knows their Tudor history can tell you what happens next.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Cromwell has been estranged from his abusive father for years. When he finally returns to confront him, he grabs a hammer, apparently unsure whether he's going to attack him. His father gets the best of their conversation, however, and Cromwell simply drops the hammer and walks away.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: After Henry's apparent death, Cromwell details the possibilities for the immediate future: they have to get Princess Mary out of the country to protect her from the Boleyns; when told she's already in their care, he concludes that she'll die. But if the Catholics set her up on the throne, Cromwell and his people will die instead, and either way it's a civil war. At most he sounds slightly distracted as he pushes his way through the crowd around the king.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: This happens to Mary Boleyn; while in Real Life and in the books she was banished from court for marrying without her family's permission - and beneath her, to boot - in the broadcast version of the series she just disappears for the last three episodes with no explanation. There are some deleted scenes on the DVD that show Anne throwing a strop and banishing her sister from court, and Mary packing to leave, with help from Jane Seymour and less help from Jane Rochford.
  • Clean Cut: Anne's head is severed in a single blow. Justified, and Truth in Television, as they specifically hired an expert famed as a swift executioner to come over from France, and he is shown to be both extremely skilled with a specially-made sword and to have a technique to ensure she is in the right position for him to cut cleanly. Furthermore, he tells Cromwell that even he can't guarantee an instant death if she isn't steady.
  • Composite Character: Executed Tyndale followers Little Bilney, James Bainham, and John Frith were condensed into the single character of James Bainham for the series (though Bilney does speak in the first episode and his death is mentioned). In the book it was Bilney who tested his hand in a candle flame the night before his death at the stake, and Frith was the one who told Cromwell it was pointless to arrange an escape because he could not unbelieve what he believed and would just get arrested for public preaching again.
  • The Consigliere: Cromwell initially gains Henry's approval by refusing to back down from a speech he made criticizing Henry's efforts to recapture France. He's one of the only people who can get Henry to reconsider something or see a different point of view, and Henry considers Cromwell his right hand—that said, Cromwell has to step very carefully about it.
  • Continuity Nod: Jane Seymour shows off the sleeves she made from the pattern book Cromwell sent her in the third episode. A close look in her subsequent appearances shows that she's still using "Thomas Cromwell's sleeves" on different dresses.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Faced with an unconscious Henry, Cromwell apparently restarts his heart by thumping his chest.
  • Daddy's Girl:
    • Thomas More's daughter Meg, who thanks to his indulgence received a far better education than most Tudor women. He writes to her often from prison and after his execution, Meg even secretly retrieved her father's head from Tower Bridge.
    • Thomas Cromwell clearly favors his daughters. He criticizes his son's Latin while praising his daughter's intelligence, joking that she'd make a fine mayor of London.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: After discussing his plans to take a job with Cardinal Wolsey, which will mean lots of travel away from home, Cromwell tells Liz that she's sweeter to look at than the Cardinal. She laughs and calls it the smallest compliment a woman's ever received.
  • Daydream Surprise:
    • Cromwell at one point is seen to be reaching out and stroking Anne Boleyn's chest (with her oddly unconcerned by it) after he solves the Lord Percy problem for her—and then we see it's just in his head.
    • He later has a particularly nightmarish one at the beginning of the season finale: having received Henry's hints that he wants Anne disposed of, he then drifts off to daydream being at a banquet table together with noble folk openly identified as Anne's enemies. Anne is then literally dragged along the table like roasted meat to be served, and Cromwell then takes a knife to plunge into her face—all while she is dissonantly smiling at him.
  • Defiant to the End: Thomas More. Say what you want about him, but the guy shows no repentance for his utter hatred towards the newly established Church of England, even in the face of certain death.
    More: My conscience stands with the majority. Against Henry's kingdom, I have all the kingdoms of Christendom! Against each one of your bishops... against your Parliament! I have all the general councils of the Church stretching back for a thousand years!
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The common belief that a woman on the throne would ruin England drives most of the plot as Henry desperately pursues a son. It's ironic when he becomes despondent upon discovering that Anne gave birth to a girl, not knowing that Elizabeth would become one of England's most beloved and respected rulers. The way women are discussed is also rather coldblooded, with both of Henry's queens valued only for their fertility and discarded when it apparently fails.note 
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Played to the hilt. Anne mocks her sister-in-law, Lady Rochford, one too many times. Lady Rochford mocks her back. Anne slaps her in the face. Lady Rochford then tips Cromwell off that Anne's having an affair with Mark Smeaton, and when Smeaton confirms it — indeed, boasts about it — that's all the ammunition Cromwell needs to have Anne tried and executed so that Henry can be free to marry someone else.
    • When Cromwell needs to find people to accuse of adultery with Anne Boleyn, he picks out the five men who acted as demons in the "Wolsey dragged to Hell" masque. Harry Norris is aghast when Cromwell brings it up; five minutes in a play, even one disrespecting the dead, is a bit much to have a man killed over.
    • During the same conversation, Harry Norris asks Cromwell what harmless Smeaton has done against him. Cromwell responds by saying Smeaton did nothing, he just doesn't like the way the young man looks at him.
  • The Ditz: Henry himself. He has the attention span, temper and capacity for introspection of a four-year-old boy. There's some thought now that the head injury from his jousting accident altered his personality for the worse, but he was hardly a paragon of good behavior beforehand.
  • Don't Explain the Joke/Lampshaded Double Entendre: A witness at Katharine of Aragon's trial insists that Arthur must have consummated his marriage to Katharine because on the morning after their wedding night, Arthur made a joke about having been "in Spain." When nobody laughs, the witness explains "The Queen was Spanish, you see..."
  • Doomed by Canon: Anne Boleyn is one of the series' main characters, but we all know how things work out for her.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Invoked by More, according to Cromwell at least. He is indeed planning to become a sacrifice for the Catholic Church to taint the image of Henry, the British Parliament, and all other supporters of the Church of England. Cromwell's not impressed, but he doesn't think much of his friend Tyndale's refusal to do the pragmatic thing and support Henry's marriage, referring to both as "mules who pose as men."
  • Dramatic Irony: A key element of the series, as the average viewer will know generally how events play out but the characters don't. This adds extra dimension to various events, such as Anne worrying about Elizabeth's inheritance and insisting that she won't die.
  • Dynamic Akimbo: Damian Lewis often strikes the wide-leggged, arms akimbo pose that the real Henry did in the most famous portrait of him.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Jane Seymour in Episode 2. Although her first name isn't mentioned, she introduces herself as the daughter of John Seymour of Wolf Hall.
  • Empathic Environment: It's a grey, windy day when Anne Boleyn ascends the scaffold, and there is thunder and imminent rain after she is killed. By contrast, the corridors of Whitehall are incongruously sunny as Cromwell goes to inform Henry and sees the joyful look on his face.
  • Enigmatic Minion: Various people are willing to be Cromwell's patron, but only Wolsey can have any claim to knowing much about him, and even that's only because Cromwell trusted him enough to let his guard down. Attempts to accurately describe or categorise Cromwell rarely seem to get beyond that he is a "person" of some kind.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Cromwell's first conversation with More seems expressly designed to shock any viewer expecting a similar dynamic to the one they shared in A Man for All Seasons. Here it's Cromwell who displays all the wit and moral fiber, running circles around More while accusing him of being a gossip and a hypocrite. For his part, More mounts almost no defense of himself before retreating from the room.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Cromwell will ruin men legally and financially and organize Kangaroo Courts that end in beheadings, but he doesn't like using torture on people, and ensures that when death does come it's as clean as possible. He also treats Katharine, Princess Mary, and even Anne with courtesy even though he's working against them—in Anne's case he's one of the only people involved in her downfall to treat her death with the gravity it deserves.
  • Eye Scream: Threatened; one of Anne's accused lovers smugly says that, as he's a gentleman, Henry would never permit his torture. Cromwell promptly grabs him and threatens to gouge out his eyes just to show how easy it would be.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • Thomas More walks to the block not happy, but with composure as he lays his head down on it for the axe.
    • Anne Boleyn is visibly terrified, but she quietly distributes money and gives a brief, formal speech before undressing. Cromwell tells the executioner beforehand that he knows she'll be still enough for the cut, and while she is shaking from head to foot as she kneels, she manages it.
    • Most of those who get scapegoated for adultery with Anne act with some combination of fear, disbelief or outrage. The one who gracefully accepts that the case against him will be too strong to beat, and expresses simple sadness about not having more time gets a compassionate hand on the shoulder from Cromwell, despite having been one of the men who took part in the Wolsey pantomime.
  • Face Framed in Shadow:
    • When Wolsey appears at the end of Episode 5, he's lit only from the back.
    • The natural lighting makes this happen a lot in general, but it's used to particular effect with Cromwell in the final episode. He looks quite menacing with only half his face visible as he interrogates the men he's picked to accuse of adultery with Anne.
  • Fanservice: Thomas Brodie-Sangster looks really good in leather.
  • First-Name Basis: Aside from members of his household, the only person who addresses Cromwell as "Thomas" is Cardinal Wolsey.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone who knows their Tudor history can tell you more or less who's going to die, and when.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Off for the day, Cromwell says goodbye to his wife. He's going down the stairs when he glimpses his daughter at the top of them. He tells her to return to bed, and the camera pans back to her, but she's vanished. He'll never see either alive again.
    • Similarly, the night before the deaths of his wife and daughters Cromwell seems both troubled and amused at the sight of his youngest, Grace, walking away in costume angel-wings to say her bedtime prayers, after having complained of being "too warm", an early sign of the sweating sickness which kills her.
    • Katherine of Aragon, while dying, seems aghast that Henry would think their daughter, the Princess Mary, would rebel against him due to her banishment, especially when Cromwell reports she has been conversing with the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor, Eustace Chapuys ("What does Henry imagine? Mary, returning with an army, turning him out of his kingdom?"). While it was not covered in the series, Mary would indeed "return with an army" and turn out the "lawful" heir to Henry's line. note 
    • At the end of Episode 5, while Cromwell is considering how to get rid of Anne, Wolsey appears as an hallucination and states that it was his failure to give Henry a new wife that killed him. When Cromwell tries to create an alliance between Cleves and England some years later, the failure of Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves is precisely what gets Cromwell killed.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Thomas Cromwell and Lady Jane Rochford seem to have this reputation at court (the former for his enigmatic and generally suspicious presence, and the latter for being too humorless and free-speaking against Anne Boleyn for a lady in waitingnote .) It is therefore no surprise that they would work quite well as accomplices.
  • Glad I Thought of It: Cromwell asks Mary Boleyn to get him a real job in Henry's circle and says he'd like to be keeper of the jewelhouse. A little later, Anne offers him the position like it's her idea. Not long after that, a tipsy Henry says that he is the one who will make Cromwell keeper of the jewelhouse.
  • Good Bad Girl: Mary Boleyn, former mistress to King Francis and then King Henry. She's still catty and flirtatious, and has a try at Cromwell a few times, but she's also deeply unhappy with having been used as a means for her family to advance only for them to turn around and call her a whore—she wants a husband so she can be in a house where she's not constantly insulted (hence her attentions to Cromwell). In deleted scenes, she marries a poor knight without anyone's permission and gets banished from court, but she's not too broken up about it.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Anne's death. The executioner distracts her, she turns her head, then it briefly focuses on him taking the swing and cuts to Cromwell watching in the crowd as the sound of her body collapsing is heard.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Cromwell comes off most sympathetically as the protagonist, but no side is a saint. Every one largely acts in their own interests, with secondary motives such as the well-being of England, the Church or allies, and all of them are aware of the axeman's shadow if they should make a misstep.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Henry can be this, though what makes him so dangerous is that it's impossible to tell when he'll explode and when he'll laugh if something displeases him. Cromwell and More discuss how being friends with him is like being with a tame lion; you can pet it, you can even pull its ears, but you can never forget about those claws.
  • Heir Club for Men: It's agreed by all in Henry's court that a son is strictly necessary; after all, it's not like you could expect a woman to lead an army. Cromwell reminds them that Mary's grandmother, Queen Isabella of Castile, had done just that. He gets a Death Glare and Norfolk snaps at him not to intrude on a conversation among his betters.
  • Heroic Vow: Doubling here as a Badass Boast. Cromwell's friend George Cavendish tearfully tells Cromwell of Wolsey's last days, before praying that God will take revenge for Wolsey's ignominious death.
    Cromwell: No need to trouble God, George. I'll take it in hand.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Cromwell is at best remembered as an amoral bureaucrat; more often he's characterized as a wicked schemer who got what was coming to him. Here, he's depicted as a man who has rightfully earned his position in society, with intense personal loyalty and distaste for unnecessary cruelty. While the events have him Slowly Slipping Into Evil, he seems far from proud of himself for doing so and treats Anne's execution with far more gravity than those around him despite being the one who engineered it.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Thomas More is depicted in a negative light as a ruthless (though well-meaning) extremist. It is a matter of record that he presided over the burning of six Lutherans, though the charge that he personally tortured people is less certain, and he's depicted as having a more arrogant and unpleasant personality than in, say, A Man for All Seasons. Cromwell charges him with hubris and hypocrisy when More speaks out against the injustice being done to him. Cromwell also recalls More when they were both youths, remembering how Cromwell looked up to More and More consistently treated him as Beneath Notice.
    • Lady Rochford probably wasn't the malicious gossip she's portrayed as. Mantel herself admits in the book that the idea of her as one was imposed in retrospect due to her involvement with Katherine Howardnote  and doesn't have much basis in historical fact, but she was used as a composite for a few individuals who supplied rumors against Anne.
  • Homage Shot: A scene virtually reproduces Cromwell's portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, presented as him sitting for the portrait. Almost every element in the shot corresponds to the historical portrait.
  • Hot Consort: Anne Boleyn—at least in visible contrast to Henry's ageing first wife (Katherine of Aragon) and to his modest soon-to-be-third (Jane Seymour).
  • How We Got Here: The first episode begins with Cardinal Wolsey packing for his journey north in disgrace, then goes back to the unsuccessful hearings to get an annulment from Rome to separate Henry from Katherine of Aragon.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Cromwell to Wolsey and then to Henry. Finally acknowledged as such when Henry tells him that he's his right hand (as a sort-of apology for publicly shouting at him earlier).
  • Hypocrite:
    • Cromwell sees Thomas More as one. He accuses More of hiding behind false humility, claiming to want no elevation of position and yet somehow climbing his way up the social ranks. In conversations with others, Cromwell describes More's behavior as one big performance, implying that More's piety is more about how he wants people to see him than how he truly is. When More claims that he never hurt anyone, Cromwell hotly reminds him that he not only had Bainham burned at the stake for heresy, he had the man tortured to such a degree that he had to be carried to the scaffold.
    • It is sometimes remarkable how Anne Boleyn puts people down (such as her claim that Cromwell, being made, can be unmade, as well as her cattiness about Jane Seymour's affair with Henry) and yet her insults may as well apply to herself. It can, nonetheless, also be a source of Dramatic Irony.
  • Imagine Spot: Cromwell has a few flights of fancy, including one where he imagines fondling Anne while they're standing at a window.
  • I Meant to Do That: Cromwell is summoned to Henry's bedchamber in the middle of the night and finds the king distraught about a dream he'd had in which his late brother appeared to him. Henry feels that his brother was reproaching him, but Cromwell (who badly wants Henry to regard him as a Hypercompetent Sidekick) suggests that the brother was urging Henry to become the best king he can be and throw off the influence of the Catholic church. Henry, who is a bit of a ditz, cheers up immediately and says "I always send for the right people."
  • Innocently Insensitive: What Gregory often turns out to be to his father, such as when he's offered a kitten to adopt and complains that his dogs will kill it.
  • In Vino Veritas: When helping an extremely drunk Henry back to bed, Henry tells Cromwell much more about himself than he would sober. However, the next morning Cromwell discovers that Henry has gifted him with a tapestry they discussed at the time, proving Henry does remember the conversation and might not have been as out of it as he appeared.
  • Is That a Threat?: Both variants occur in the third episode.
    • When More drops by Austen Friars to say he knows Cromwell is using his influence to protect Protestants and corresponding with Tyndale:
    Cromwell: Are you threatening me? I'm just interested.
    More: Yes... yes, that is precisely what I'm doing.
    • After More resigns as Chancellor, he tells Cromwell he intends now to write and pray.
    Cromwell: My advice—write only a little, and pray a lot.
    More: Now is that a threat?
    Cromwell: My turn, don't you think?
  • It's All About Me: Henry, so very much. Possibly the best example of this comes when Anne has been arrested (on almost certainly bogus charges, after Henry has hinted to Cromwell that he's fully aware the reason for being rid of her may just be a pretext), and is awaiting execution; he tells Cromwell "I've written a play. A tragedy... my own story." This interaction is taken directly from the historical record.
  • Jerkass: The Duke of Norfolk is one of the rudest, crudest, and most aggressive old gits you could ever meet. Later, he assists in his niece Anne's downfall on the grounds that it might convince the king to listen to him more, and even presides at her (obviously staged) trial.
  • Karmic Death: How George Boleyn's downfall happens. In his trial, Cromwell passes him a piece of paper with a slanderous statement about Henry that he is alleged to have spoken, and is told not to say anything out loud, but to confirm whether he recognizes it or not. George, who is something of a Jerkass anyway, proceeds to read out the statement in a mocking voice ... and then realises, far too late, what he's just done.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Cromwell tries to avoid this by refraining from torture as much as possible, saying that torturing "sad creatures" like Mark Smeaton is one step away from "stamping on dormice". He also absolutely opposes the lawyers who insist Anne's death should be by burning (coming close to open anger as he does so), and ensures she gets cleanly beheaded by an expert.
    • Henry's treatment towards both of his wives also counts.
    • Anne does this rather a lot with Lady Rochford, which turns out to be a bad idea.
    • A literal case in the fifth episode, in which somebody has kicked (or shoved) Anne's dog out a window.
    • Lady Rochford herself is fond of venting her own misery by kicking those weaker than herself. She (only half-jokingly) laments that Jane Seymour is such a pushover there's not even any sport in tormenting her.
  • King Incognito: When Cromwell befriends Henry, the latter suggests sneaking onto Cromwell's estate in disguise to take part in its weekly archery competition as a member of his team. Henry is recorded as having performed such antics when jousting. Cromwell's reaction suggests that he doesn't have much confidence of winning if Henry does.
  • Large Ham: For those who think of Bernard Hill as the regal and dignified Theoden King, prepare for a surprise. Mantel's Norfolk is a loud, crass, violent old bastard and Hill was clearly enjoying every minute of it.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn repeatedly miscarry, "cheating" Henry of a son and a solid succession. However, this is a matter of historical record, and so realistic.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: When Cromwell hears that Henry has (supposedly) died, he immediately grabs and hides his dagger in anticipation of an attack.
  • Limited Wardrobe: In the sense of color. While everyone around him is in Gorgeous Period Dress of crimsons, purples, and greens, Cromwell's clothing is always dark. It's made of increasingly fine cloth and fur, but it's still dark. When he tells Anne he's wearing scarlet in keeping with her wishes about her coronation, she replies that it's a very black scarlet.
  • Little "No": How Cromwell responds to Anne's command to discredit Mary Tudor, letting everyone know that he doesn't answer to her.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Anne always pronounces Cromwell's name with a continental accent to reference his past, fighting foreign wars as a mercenary.
  • Malicious Slander: How Lady Rochford brings down Anne.note 
  • Man on Fire: Poor James Bainham is burned at the stake at the end of Episode 3.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": The news that Henry is apparently dead in a jousting accident sends everyone into an uproar.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Cromwell recalls asking More what he was reading when they were both youths, and More responding, "Words." The casual dismissal is apparently one of many times that More treated Cromwell as Beneath Notice, and Cromwell has never forgotten.
  • Mobstacle Course: The hospital tent after Henry suffers his accident. It's full of people panicking, or Boleyns opportunistically staking their claim on the kingdom, all yelling their heads off. When Cromwell arrives he has to bull his way through the crowd to get to Henry and determine if he really is dead or if he can be saved. (This ended up being an instance of Enforced Method Acting; the other actors were supposed to move aside but didn't, so Mark Rylance really did have to grab them and shove them out of his way.)
  • Mood Whiplash: After sleeping with Johane for the first time, Cromwell is in a good mood as he strolls his grounds and uncharacteristically tells a funny story from his time in Italy. As soon as he goes back in, he's met by George Cavendish telling him that Cardinal Wolsey has died.
  • Mysterious Past: A key character trait of Cromwell, much commented upon.
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve: It appears that Cromwell keeps a small knife up his sleeve at all times.
  • Nice to the Waiter:
    • Anne averting this trope, with her poor treatment of those close to her ensures that there is no shortage of people willing to corroborate the charges against her.
    • Played straight with Cromwell, who treats his inferiors very well, and is rewarded with their sincere respect and loyalty.
    • Cromwell's distaste for More began when they were boys and Cromwell was a servant. More would always treat Cromwell as Beneath Notice.
  • Nothing Personal: When Anne accuses him of "betraying" her by reaching out to Princess Mary as soon as it looked like Henry might die, Cromwell simply says "none of this is personal". This echoes a previous conversation, where Anne complained about the Act of Succession he drew up not explicitly declaring Mary a bastard, and Cromwell's reply that laws are meant to be impersonal was refuted by Anne.
  • Not So Stoic:
    • The sudden deaths of Liz and their daughters Anne and Grace leave Cromwell looking as though he's been hollowed out and he's noticeably distracted in his work when Wolsey returns from France.
    • Though he exits calmly after Henry's very public explosion of temper, Cromwell's hands are shaking visibly as he grasps a cup of wine to settle his nerves afterwards.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Jane Seymour appears to be something of a Cloudcuckoolander who cries easily and can't stand up for herself, but the way she handles Henry's attention shows that she's much more clever than she looks.
  • Off with His Head!: Thomas More and Anne Boleyn have their executions depicted, albeit with a cut away just before the final blow.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Invoked in the looks Cromwell and Cranmer give each other while Henry is convincing himself that he had been bewitched into marrying Anne.
    • Anne and all of the people who go down with her get at least one as they realise just how much trouble they're in. Of note is Anne's reaction when she has to admit in court that she gave one of her alleged lovers money.
    • Rafe's voice is absolutely filled with terror at the news of Henry's apparent death.
    • Bishop Fisher and the aristocrats who supported Elizabeth Barton are all self-assured at the beginning of their interviews with Cromwell, then collapse once they realize that Cromwell has been spying on all of them.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Thomas More is constantly reminding Richard Rich of his misbehavior as a young man, calling him a creature of vice and the despair of his family. Cromwell is able to use this against him.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Cromwell very rarely loses his temper, and only in situations that are extremely emotional for him:
    • The first time is after More says he does harm to no one—Cromwell slams the desk and says that he's treating More far more mercifully than James Bainham and the other Lutherans he had tortured and burnt, and his voice cracks when he says that More ought to be grateful that they're not doing to him what he did to Cromwell's friends.
    • The second is when he's building his sham case against Anne's "lovers" and Risley suggests he's not going far enough. Cromwell yells at him that he's not one to go too soft on young men, displaying his inner turmoil; he's arranging this of his own free will and to exact revenge for Wolsey, but he's got enough morals that he's not particularly happy about it.
    • He just barely keeps himself under control on a third occasion; Anne has been convicted and some lawyers are insisting that she be burned rather than decapitated. Cromwell, feeling guilty enough already, absolutely refuses to make it worse for her than necessary, and comes as close as he ever does to raising his voice in anger. The lawyers are suitably cowed, and Anne gets a clean death.
  • Papa Wolf: Richard says he didn't want to read the Tyndale letter he's delivering so he wouldn't have anything to say if he got arrested. Cromwell smiles and says that if Richard was arrested, he'd take Thomas More and beat some Christian principles into it on the cobblestones.
  • Parental Substitute: Cromwell is a surrogate father for his ward Rafe and his nephew Richard. Richard goes so far as to take Cromwell's name after his own father's death.
  • Perma-Stubble: Thomas More has a perpetual two-days beard (though the effect is to make him look slovenly rather than tough).
  • Pet the Dog:
    • In one flashback, Cromwell's father does advise him on how to treat a burnt hand—it's the one decent thing we see him do.
    • According to Stephen Gardiner, Cromwell's father also paid off the people planning to lynch him after killing a man and leaving London, without Cromwell ever knowing.
    • The Duke of Norfolk, despite being someone who had utterly dismissed Cromwell in the past, calls Anne out when she claims to have made him, pointing out that Cromwell made her in turn. In a deleted scene, he also visits Cromwell during his illness and gives him a medallion supposedly blessed by the Pope (while complaining a lot about his own health and, after leaving, yelling at someone for telling him that Cromwell was almost dead in a manner that suggests he wasted the trip).
  • Playing Sick: Anne accuses Cromwell of faking sick to get out of negotiating a French marriage contract for her daughter. When he says that he was sick (and almost died), she replies that he wouldn't get sick unless he wanted to.
  • Precision F-Strike: Cromwell unleashes one on More in the first episode.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: In a way. Do remember that this is the story of Thomas Cromwell, who has been portrayed for centuries of Tudor historiography/historical fiction as either a slimy, unprincipled courtier or as the first iconic Beleaguered Bureaucrat. Making him sympathetic despite him still committing some of the most contentious policies of Henry VIII's reign is pretty much within the scope of this. That being said, it still works.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Cromwell remains sympathetic for most of the series and gets a chance to defend policies like the Dissolution of the Monasteries; he even brings another side to the execution of Thomas More. When Henry turns on Anne, however, Cromwell is not just trying to save himself from Wolsey's fate. He takes it as an opportunity to get back at the men who loudly jeered Wolsey's demise, ignoring the fact that Henry was at the root of it all, and uses the whim of a tyrant to avenge an insult made years ago. He seems to be well aware that he's left his morals behind him judging by some of his words in the Tower, and the look on his face when he goes to inform Henry that the execution has been carried out.
  • Quick Draw: When Cromwell gets surprised by someone coming up behind him, that knife is in his hand and at the man's throat in an eyeblink.
  • The Quiet One: Cromwell. Amusingly played up when he starts to tell a story about his early life; it's established that he does this so rarely that when his other apprentices come over to hear him, he laughs and looks embarrassed before continuing.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia:
    • Damian Lewis is suitably impressive in Henry's outfits, though the size of his codpiece was reduced to avoid scandalising some audiences.
    • Anne Boleyn is also depicted as very fashionable from her time in France, even before becoming queen.
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    • In the early episodes when he had no real power, part of Cromwell's way of gaining the attention of the highborn nobles he meets seems to be to skirt the very edge of suicidal insolence, yet provide the (often somewhat outlandish) solution they seek before they chop his head off.
    • When accused by a raging Henry of manipulating him and committing treason (a situation that easily leads to a quick execution), Cromwell simply crosses his arms, says he'll speak to the king later and strolls off.
  • Reverse Psychology: George Boleyn's arrogance and contempt for Cromwell means that getting him to mockingly read aloud an insulting note about the king (while he's on trial for treason) is as simple as ordering him not to.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder: Cromwell does this to the king, of all people. Henry seems impressed by his boldness.
    Henry: You told me I could not lead my own troops! You told me if I was taken prisoner, the ransom would bankrupt the country! So, what do you want? You want a king to huddle indoors, like a sick girl?
    Cromwell: That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes. A strong man acts within that which constrains him.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Cromwell visits James Bainham in prison and offers to pull strings to get him released. Bainham tells him it's no good; his beliefs would compel him to keep reading the Bible in English and he'd just be arrested again.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: In the deleted scenes, Mary Boleyn marries beneath her station and is banished from court. She's glad to go, since she's sick of the poisonous atmosphere and constant pressure from her family to put up with being a royal mistress; she wants to spend her life with someone she actually loves.
  • Second Love: Arguably Anne for Henry after Katherine, but his feelings seem far too more shallow and capricious for that. Cromwell's relationship with his sister-in-law Johane is a much straighter example. He even asks a hallucination of his wife to let him love her.
  • Self-Made Man: Cromwell started as the son of a blacksmith, ran away to be a mercenary in Italy, trained in law on his return, and entered the political sphere through his service to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey himself is delighted when Cromwell tells his father's occupation, as he himself came from a family of butchers.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: The Duke of Norfolk can't seem to get through a scene without swearing, often creatively. If he misses out on a chance to curse, it's probably because he was making a violent threat or a crude sexual reference.
  • Skewed Priorities: After Anne escapes a suspicious fire that broke out in her bedroom and everyone is checking for signs of arson, Henry is seen inspecting the bedcurtains and complaining that such a good set was burnt.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Not shown as often as in the book, but Cromwell pulls off a Surprise Checkmate against one of the Seymour boys in Episode 3, and his chess set is seen on his desk in Austen Friars.
  • Smug Snake:
    • George Boleyn repeatedly tells Cromwell not to interfere with those above him, but is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. After Cromwell has been publicly shouted at by a raging Henry (which Boleyn implies he had a hand in arranging), he then goes to gloat, thus tipping Cromwell off as to who was behind it and needs dealing with. This is clearest at his trial, where he tells Cromwell to bring it on, as he's confident of confounding Cromwell's questions. He then falls for Reverse Psychology with comical ease.
    • Thomas More also counts with his show of contempt towards Cromwell; it doesn't end well for him either.
  • The Snack Is More Interesting: Cromwell is often snacking on a plate of food when dealing with matters of state.
    • After delivering a verbal beatdown to More at dinner, causing More to retreat from the room, More casually munches on the food and asks for the recipe.
    • He has a plate of food on his desk as he interviews the various individuals conspiring to use Elizabeth Barton's prophecies to undermine Henry. He munches from it casually as, ignoring their insults and excuses, he details how much he knows (everything) and which servants were really his spies, and instructs them on just what humiliating things they should say of themselves in pleading for mercy and forgiveness from the king.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Sir Thomas More can swear in Latin.
  • Spare to the Throne: Henry has a dream of his brother Arthur centred around his issues in this role.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead:
    • The "Cardinal Wolsey dragged to Hell" masque, in which Wolsey is dragged into Satan's maw and mocked for being a butcher's son, is pretty cruel (and was downright obscene in the book). Cromwell marks the men who played the demons for revenge, but Henry is laughing as loud as anybody.
    • Anne reacts to Katherine's death by pointedly wearing yellow, which represented joy.
  • The Stoic:
    • Cromwell, though he may let his guard down at times, very rarely lets his feelings slip out without his permission.
    • In another use of the trope, his lack of expression feeds into his Refuge in Audacity approach above, as the lack of any smirk or contempt on his face makes it difficult for the noble he's just insulted with his words or tone to be sure of what's happened.
    • However, when he watches Henry talking to Jane Seymour during the king's stay in Wolf Hall, he looks completely disheartened, since Jane is now out of his reach.
  • Student and Master Team: Rafe is Cromwell's closest agent, sidekick and spy.
  • Stunned Silence: Happens during a meeting where everyone is arguing about whether Henry should divorce Katherine of Aragon or not. One person insists that Katherine did consummate her marriage with Arthur, Henry's older brother, because he recalls that the following day, Arthur told him he was in Spain last night. He tries to tell it as a joke, and nobody laughs along with him.
  • Succession Crisis:
    • The background to the plot, driving all events. Henry needs a son to inherit, and his lords expect the same, but Katherine of Aragon can't seem to give him one.
    • Barely averted in Episode 5, when a fall appears to kill Henry. Everyone immediately panics, courtiers side with Princess Mary or the Boleyns, and Cromwell's cronies advise him to flee the country before his foes avenge themselves.
  • Talking to the Dead:
    • Cromwell hallucinates talking to his wife when fevered, mistaking his sister-in-law Johane for her.
    • He later imagines a warning from Wolsey to successfully divorce Henry from Anne or be similarly punished as his former master was. note 
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: The last shot of the series. Henry embraces Cromwell with a beatific smile, and Cromwell is staring dead-eyed over his shoulder.
  • Title Drop: It's the name of an actual location, but the first time it's mentioned is as the last words in a scene with Anne's shot of "those sinners down at Wolf Hall!" The fifth episode's opening title cards also leave quite a long beat between informing the audience that Henry's retinue has a stop at the Seymour family residence and the place's actual name.
  • To the Pain: When Harry Percy refuses to back down from his claims that he and Anne Boleyn had a precontract to marry, Cromwell informs him that the world is not run from castles, strongholds, or even Whitehall—it's run by the banking capitals like Florence and Antwerp, where Cromwell knows everyone, including Percy's many creditors. He threatens to call in Percy's debts all at once, leaving him penniless. If Percy is penniless, he can't pay the soldiers he needs to hold the northern border. If he can't hold the northern border, Henry will replace him with someone who can. Then picture the happy marriage he'd have with Anne in some hovel, wearing homespun, eating rabbits. Finally, Cromwell informs Percy that whatever Anne may have felt in the past, she now despises him for getting between her and queendom. Percy shuts up.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Mark Smeaton brags out of spite against Cromwell and other titled men that he is having an affair with Anne Boleyn and that lower born guys can seduce and take the women of powerful men. Not only is admitting to such a thing treason in itself, but he doesn't realize that Cromwell is intentionally building a case against the Queen until it is too late. By the time Cromwell is done with a terrified Smeaton, he names all the people Cromwell wants him to name as adulterers, which so happens to be all of Cromwell's enemies at court, including Anne's own brother. And it's heavily implied that Mark Smeaton lied about sleeping with Anne in the first place, and Cromwell knows it.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Wolsey gives Cromwell his turquoise ring but tells him not to open the box until after his death. At the end of the second episode, Cromwell puts the ring on; he wears it for the rest of the series.note 
  • Tranquil Fury: It's extremely rare for Cromwell to raise his voice. But there's no denying the intensity of his anger when someone makes an enemy of him.
  • Undying Loyalty: Cromwell is loyal to Wolsey to the very end, and though he left his service he tried everything he could to get the Cardinal back in favour. Wolsey did after all act as Cromwell's supporter, patron and friend for much of Cromwell's adult life. After Wolsey falls, and a pantomime is put on showing him being dragged to hell, he mentally marks the people involved in the mockery. Cromwell also appears to be enjoying taking revenge on those who hounded Wolsey to his death while following unrelated missions, such as More and Percy.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The Boleyns would still just be a middling noble family (though distinguished by Thomas Boleyn's ambassadorship) who had a king's mistress among them if it hadn't been for Thomas Cromwell Cutting the Knot over the annulment. But they decide that they're responsible for his rise, and as soon as he shows that he's not willing to be a mindless Yes-Man, Anne declares him her enemy and her relatives promise to have him killed the second it looks like Henry is gone.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Anne Boleyn. She wears seven different dresses in Episode 3 alone.
  • Un-person: Katharine, as far as Henry is concerned. One day he just rides off without saying goodbye and never sees her again. Though he is forced to acknowledge that she still exists, he ignores all communication from her and even tells Cromwell to get rid of her deathbed letter. Their daughter Mary suffers the same.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Cromwell as a boy seems much more open and friendly, compared to the increasingly guarded man.
  • Warrior Prince: King Henry is a deconstruction. He's not a particularly good strategist, and his campaigns are far too costly. However from what we see he's a good shot with a bow and arrow, albeit apparently not quite as good as Cromwell, and enjoys jousting.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist:
    • Cromwell; his actions might not be the cleanest nor most honorable, but he did intend the best for England... and for himself.
    • Thomas More also is a more classic version of this.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Anne Boleyn, even without directly interacting with Princess Mary. Though being concerned over Elizabeth's standing is understandable (not being a son, the only advantage she has over Mary is Anne's marriage), she seems inordinately spiteful. Anne plots to ruin Mary's engagements and tries to have her seduced to damage her reputation. In a particularly petty move, she renames her dwarfish fool after her.
  • Wham Line:
    • In-universe, the news that Henry is apparently dead in a joust causes a Mass "Oh, Crap!", though the audience know he'll survive.
    • Similarly, Henry stating that he thinks he was deceived into marrying Anne lets Cromwell and Cranmer know that the time has come to ensure their own survival.
  • Wrong Name Outburst: It's in a quiet moment, but Cromwell inadvertently calls Johane "Liz" after a conversation about their dim prospects for a future together. She's not happy.
  • Yes-Man: Virtually everyone at court counts as this to Henry and Anne (at least while she's queen). Played with in the case of Cromwell himself; Henry (who doesn't want to hear that the legal case against More is slender) says that he doesn't keep Cromwell around for the pleasure of his company, but because he's a "serpent" who's clever enough to carry out the more difficult commands. However, the fact that Cromwell still carries out all the commands, even ones with which he's clearly uncomfortable, essentially makes Cromwell somewhere between this trope and the Hypercompetent Sidekick.
  • Young Future Famous People: A very young Rafe Sadler acts as Cromwell's apprentice, not much more than a lackey and a spy of a man with humble beginnings himself. He will later become Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a key ambassador, Secretary of State, and Privy Councillor to Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, with possibly his most impressive achievement being to serve three monarchs and then die of old age.
  • You Have Failed Me: The first episode's title cards explain that annuling Henry's marriage to Katherine is the only time Cardinal Wolsey has failed him. That one incident is all it takes to get him killed.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame:
    • After Anne's execution, her own cousin Francis Bryan congratulates Cromwell on a job well done, then makes a crude joke about Anne and gleefully goes to inform the Seymours of her death. Both Cromwell and Gregory watch him go with a look of complete disgust.
    • At the end of the final episode, Henry gives Cromwell a great big hug. Cromwell seems significantly less enthused to get a brotherly embrace for killing a man's wife.
  • Your Mom: When Elizabeth Barton confronts Henry with her prophecies, Henry laughs them off to the amusement of the crowd—when she says he won't reign seven months, he jokes that she should at least round it up. Then she says she can see his mother's spirit surrounded by pale flames, and he instantly turns grave and questions "where?"note 


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: