Wolf Hall – A Guide to Characters and Events

Posted By on April 5, 2015

Wolf Hall PBS Wolf Hall starts tonight in the US on PBS Masterpiece so over the next few weeks I’m going to be publishing some articles on the real historical characters and events featured in the TV series and the books by Hilary Mantel that it’s adapted from.

But, for now you can read more about some of the main characters in my article Wolf Hall – The Real Cast and in the following ‘glossary’, which focuses on the characters and events of Wolf Hall in the 1520s and 1530s:

Main characters

  • Thomas Cromwell (c.1485-1540) played by Mark Rylance – Thomas Cromwell rose from humble beginnings in Putney as the son of “a poor blacksmith” to be Henry VIII’s right hand man. In the 1530s he served as Henry VIII’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Master of the Rolls, Secretary, Lord Privy Seal, Lord Great Chamberlain and Vicegerent in Spirituals. He was made Earl of Essex shortly before his fall in 1540.
  • Henry VIII (1491-1547) played by Damian Lewis – Henry VIII became king on the death of his father Henry VII in April 1509 and ruled until his own death in January 1547. He married Catherine of Aragon in June 1509 but began annulment proceedings in earnest by early 1528 due to his concerns over the validity of the marriage and his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. He married Anne Boleyn in January 1533.
  • Anne Boleyn (1501/1507-1536) played by Claire Foy – Anne Boleyn was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, a favourite courtier and trusted diplomat of Henry VIII, and his wife Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. It appears that she came to Henry VIII’s notice in around 1526 and that he wooed her with love letters and gifts throughout 1527 and 1528. Anne rebuffed the King a number of time but he would not give up and he offered her marriage in the summer of 1527. Anne agreed. She was crowned queen on 1st June 1533 and gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in September 1533. She was executed on 19th May 1536 after being found guilty of treason. The majority of historians believe that she was innocent.
  • Thomas Boleyn (c.1477-1539) played by David Robb – Thomas Boleyn was the son of Sir William Boleyn, son of Geoffrey Boleyn Lord Mayor of London, and Lady Margaret Butler, daughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormonde. Before either of his daughters became involved with Henry VIII, he was a royal favourite and had undertaken several embassies, as well as being in charge of looking after Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, on her visit to England in 1517. In 1522 he was made Treasurer of the Household, in 1525 he was made Lord Rochford and then in 1529 he became Earl of Wiltshire. He was also appointed Lord Privy Seal after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in 1530.
  • Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) played by Bernard Hill – Norfolk, brother-in-law to Thomas Boleyn, was a prominent Tudor politician, nobleman and soldier. He succeeded his father as Duke of Norfolk in 1524 and became one of Henry VIII’s leading councillors after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. He was made Earl Marshal of England in 1533.

  • Thomas More (1478-1535) played by Anton Lesser – Sir Thomas More, lawyer, statesman, author and humanist, served Henry VIII as a secretary and councillor before becoming his Lord Chancellor in 1529 following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. He campaigned against the Reformation and heresy, producing scholarly works against Luther’s writings and persecuting people who he perceived as heretics. His refusal to swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession led to his downfall and subsequent execution.
  • Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester (c.1483-1555) played by Mark Gatiss – Stephen Gardiner was not only a bishop, he served Cardinal Wolsey as a secretary and then Henry VIII as a diplomat and secretary. He was an expert on canon law and so was used by Wolsey and the King on diplomatic missions to try and get the case for Henry VIII’s annulment heard in England.
  • Eustace Chapuys (c.1490/1492-1556), imperial ambassador, played by Mathieu Amalric – Eustace Chapuys joined the imperial service in 1527 and arrived in England in September 1529 to begin working as Catherine of Aragon’s adviser in negotiations regarding the annulment. He was her link to the Emperor and to Rome.
  • Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) played by Joanne Whalley – Catherine was the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon and was Henry VIII’s queen consort from 1509 until their marriage was annulled in 1533. She was also the mother of Mary I. Catherine claimed that her marriage to Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and Henry VIII’s older brother, had not been consummated and that her marriage to Henry VIII was legal and valid. She fought the annulment and never accepted it or the title of Princess Dowager. She died a natural but lonely death, having been banished from court and prohibited from seeing her daughter, in January 1536.
  • Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal (c.1473-1530) played by Jonathan Pryce – Cardinal Wolsey rose from humble beginnings as the son of a butcher of cloth merchant in Ipswich, Suffolk, to become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and a cardinal in 1515. He had a talent for diplomacy, negotiating a number fo treaties, but was unable to secure an annulment for Henry VIII. His failure led to his downfall and he died on his way to London in 1530 to answer charges of praemunire.
  • Ralph Sadler (1507-1587) played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster – Sadler grew up in the household of Thomas Cromwell and served Cromwell as secretary. By Anne Boleyn’s downfall in May 1536, he was serving Henry VIII as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber.
  • Wolf Hall PBS 1

  • Gregory Cromwell (c.1520-1551) played by Tom Holland – Gregory was the only son of Thomas Cromwell and his wife Elizabeth Wyckes. He was educated at Cambridge and appears to have been a capable scholar.
  • ‘Harry’ Percy, or Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland (c.1502-1537) played by Harry Lloyd – Henry Percy was the son and heir of Henry Algernon Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland. He met Anne Boleyn while he was serving in Cardinal Wolsey’s household and she was serving Catherine of Aragon. They began a relationship and intended to marry. However, their relationship was broken up by Cardinal Wolsey and Percy’s father and Percy was married off to Mary Talbot, daughter of George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury. According to Wolsey’s usher, George Cavendish, Henry VIII ordered Wolsey to break up the relationship but Anne Boleyn blamed Wolsey and threatened “that if it lay ever in her power, she would work the cardinal as much displeasure”.
  • Jane Boleyn (c. 1505-1542) played by Jessica Raine – Jane was the daughter of Henry Parker, the 10th Baron Morley. She married George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother, in late 1524 or early 1525, and served as a member of Anne Boleyn’s household. It is often said that her marriage to George was unhappy, but there is no evidence for this.
  • Johane Williamson, sister of Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth and wife of John Williamson, played by Saskia Reeves.
  • Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Thomas Cromwell, played by Natasha Little – Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry Wyckes, a clothier form Putney, and the widow of Thomas Williams, a Yeoman of the Guard. She married Thomas Cromwell in around 1515 and the couple had three children: Gregory, Anne and Grace. Elizabeth died in 1528.
  • Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn (c.1499/1500-1543) played by Charity Wakefield – Mary Boleyn was the eldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn and the sister of Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn. At some point, she had a sexual relationship with Henry VIII but married William Carey, a member of the King’s Privy Chamber, in 1520. She had two children in the 1520s, Henry and Catherine. She was widowed in 1528 and went on to marry William Stafford in secret in 1534, leading to her being banished from court by her sister the queen.
  • Richard Cromwell (c.1502-1544) played by Joss Porter – Richard was born Richard Williams and was the son of Thomas Cromwell’s sister Katherine and her husband Morgan Williams. He was introduced into Henry VIII’s court by his uncle.
  • George Boleyn (c.1504-1536) played by Edward Holcroft – George was the only surviving son of Thomas Boleyn and the brother of Anne and Mary Boleyn. He was a courtier, poet, diplomat, royal favourite and member of the King’s privy chamber. George was influential in Parliament and carried out many important diplomatic missions on behalf of the King. He was executed in May 1536 after being accused of committing incest with his sister the queen and of plotting to kill the king. It is now believed that he was innocent.
  • Thomas Wriothesley, known as “Call me Risley” in the books, (1505-1550), played by Joel MacCormack – Wriothesley served Stephen Gardiner as joint clerk of the signet and as a secretary to Henry VIII.
  • Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (c.1484-1545) played by Richard Dillane – Charles Brandon was one of Henry VIII’s best friends. He was born circa 1484 to Sir William Brandon and Elizabeth Bruyn, and his father died carrying Henry VII’s standard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He was forgiven for marrying the King’s favourite sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of France, in 1515, without the King’s permission. The couple had four children: Henry, Frances, Eleanor and a second Henry after the death of their first son. Mary died in June 1533 and their second son died in 1534. Brandon married for the fourth time in September 1534; his new wife was his 14 year old ward, Catherine Willoughby. Brandon had poor relations with Anne Boleyn, his sympathy being with Catherine of Aragon.
  • Henry ‘Harry’ Norris (late 1490s-1536) played by Luke Roberts – Sir Henry Norris was the son of Richard Norris. He married Mary Fiennes sometime before 1526 and the couple had three children before Mary’s death c.1530. Norris was Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool and was one of the King’s best friends. By 1536, he was courting Anne Boleyn’s cousin, Margaret Shelton. He was executed in 1536 after being found guilty of sleeping with Queen Anne Boleyn and plotting against the King.
  • Jane Seymour (c.1508/9-1537) played by Kate Philipps – Jane Seymour was born in 1508 or 1509, probably at the family seat, Wolf Hall in Wiltshire. She was the daughter of Sir John Seymour, soldier and courtier, and of Margery Wentworth. Like all of Henry VIII’s wives, she was descended from Edward III. It is thought that she arrived at court around 1529. She served Catherine of Aragon and then Anne Boleyn as a lady-in-waiting. Her brothers, Edward and Thomas Seymour, were on the rise in the 1530s and it is thought that they and Sir Nicholas Carew coached Jane to appeal to the King.
  • Wolf Hall PBS 2

  • Thomas Cranmer, Archbisop of Canterbury (1489-1556), played by Will Keen – Thomas Cranmer was born in Nottinghamshire in 1489 to Thomas and Agnes Cranmer. From 1527 he was involved involved in the proceedings to get Henry VIII’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. He was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury on 30th March 1533 and opened a special court for the annulment proceedings on 10th May 1533. On 23rd May, Cranmer ruled that the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was against the will of God, the marriage was declared null and void. Five days later, on 28th May, Cranmer declared the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn valid and on the 1st June he crowned Anne Boleyn Queen of England. In September 1533, he had the pleasure of baptising the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, and becoming her godfather.
  • Francis Weston (c.1511-1536) played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd – Francis Weston was the son of Sir Richard Weston and Anne Sandys, a former lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. He became a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in 1532 and was a popular courtier and member of the Boleyn circle. He was executed in 1536 after being found guilty of sleeping with Queen Anne Boleyn and plotting against the King.
  • Mark Smeaton (d.1536) played by Max Fowler – Mark was a talented musician who had been a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s choir before joining the King’s Chapel Royal. He became a Groom of the Privy Chamber in 1529 and was a member of the Boleyn circle. He was executed in 1536 after being found guilty of sleeping with Queen Anne Boleyn and plotting against the King.
  • William Brereton (c.1487/90-1536) played by Alastair Mackenzie – William Brereton was the sixth son of a leading, landowning Cheshire family and himself became an important man in Cheshire and North Wales. He was married to Elizabeth Savage, daughter of Charles Somerset, 1st Earl of Worcester. He had a colourful reputation and was not a member of the Boleyn circle of friends. He was executed in 1536 after being found guilty of sleeping with Queen Anne Boleyn and plotting against the King.
  • >Elizabeth Barton (c. 15066-1534) played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards – Elizabeth Barton, known as “the Nun of Kent” or “the Holy Maid of Kent” was a servant girl who became a religious visionary in around 1525. She was working in a household in Aldington, Kent, when she was taken ill and fell into trances where she had visions which were “of marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice”. She became a Benedictine Nun and became famous for her visions and prophecies, corresponding with the likes of Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. However, she went from a harmless nun to a threat to Henry VIII when she began prophesying against his planned annulment and his relationship with Anne Boleyn. She was hanged at Tyburn on 20th April 1534. Click here to read more about her.

Events and topics

You can find out more about the locations used for filming at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3LnHj2K1xnzQmGmjqBrtnz0/wolf-hall-the-locations and http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355870235583/

Do let me know if there’s anything else you’d like me to explain or cover.

P.S. If this post makes no sense whatsoever or it’s full of mistakes then I do apologise. I’ve got a cold and my brain is just mush at the moment!

24 thoughts on “Wolf Hall – A Guide to Characters and Events”

  1. I really enjoyed wolf hall with mark rylance so I bought the book which explained the characters even more looking forward to getting bringing up the bodies the next sequence

  2. Cathleen Willoughby says:

    A while back someone mentioned a number of stately homes and castles used in the filming of this show. It’s starting tonight in Canada and am wondering if you could republish the names of those venues again?

    1. Claire says:

      You can find out more about the locations used for filming at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3LnHj2K1xnzQmGmjqBrtnz0/wolf-hall-the-locations and http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355870235583/
      I’ve just added that to the article above too – thanks!

      1. Jillian says:

        With reference to your previous post about Tudor cats, Cardinal’ Wolsey’s love of them is shown in the dramatisation of ‘Wolf Hall’.

        When his pet has kittens, he gives one to Thomas Cromwell, who calls it Marlinspike.

  3. Christine says:

    I read in Alison Weirs book on Henry V111 that he owned a cat so obviously he didn’t care about the witchcraft element.

  4. Fran wilkinson says:

    Do you have any idia of the time and day it will be broadcast.
    I live in Ireland and missed the running of it on the BBC so would love the
    2nd chance to see it

    1. Claire says:

      The first episode was aired on PBS in the US last night and I assume that it’s going to be on at the same time every week. It’s out on DVD in Europe if that helps.

  5. Gail Marion says:

    An excellent article from Salon Magazine published yesterday including reference of PBS airing of Wolf Hall..

    http://www.salon.com/2015/04/05/our_enduring_tudor_obsession_sex_ambition_wealth_and_power_never_go_out_of_style/

  6. Johane Williamson was a real person and was indeed Thomas Cromwell’s sister in law. She is mentioned in Mary Robertson’s Ph D thesis on the Cromwell household – available from the Huntington Library where Mary was, until recently, chief archivist.

    1. Claire says:

      Wonderful, thank you, I couldn’t find mention of her anywhere. I’ll correct that now – thanks.

      1. Jillian says:

        She is also mentioned (briefly) in Tracy Borman’s recent biography of Thomas Cromwell as ‘Joan’ – I think that Johane would have been the latinised form of her name.

        Dr. Borman says that after her sister’s death ‘Joan…married John Williamson, an old friend of Cromwell, who became prominent in his service’.

  7. Hannele says:

    I wonder how a person who had not read the novels or know anything about the period would like the series. In the first part there were many flashbacks.

    I must admit that I have difficulties to know the young men (George Boleyn, Norris, Weston, Brereton) because they were so alike. I wish somebody would have been fair or that their names would have said like that Chapuys.

    The methods to get the watcher to feel sympathy towards Cromwell were the usual ones:
    1. he was virtuous: he stayed loyal towards Wolsey after his fall when it was could not profit him and was even dangerous whereas f.ex. Gardiner abandoned him
    2. he had a happy home with a family he loved but suffered a sudden tragedy without any fault of his by losing his wife and daughters
    3. he had abilities but because of his low birth, he was despised by the nobles although luckily esteemed by Wolsey and Henry
    4. he could use foul means like threaten Henry Percy but he used them only when necessary

    Cromwell followed his own advice to Henry: a wise acts inside his restrictions. Anne, on the hand, had no restrictions but wanted all opponents dead. Therefore in this series she was an architect of her own fall, not only speaking carelessly to her admirers but making an enemy of her sister Mary and Lady Rochford who are constantly telling stories of his misbehavior to Cromwell.

    However, there was an interesting scene when Anne and Cromwell look from the window when Thomas More gives the great seal back to Henry: first Cromwell in his imagination touches Anne bare skin, and then their hands touch and they smile to one another with perfect harmony: they had achieved a common goal.

    1. Mrs. Arthur L Keith III says:

      Carefully with respect to Chapuys, the comments that so dismayed many and of course me concerning Queen Anne Boleyn. Though he the great communicator of the Tudor era, Chapuys quite left a very badly written set of papers on Anne. She was such a immoral… Oh, contain the quotes and read other considerations of Anne’s virtues. Start with her acquaintances and time living in France, where there were tender words by one aristocrat concerning lovely Anne Boleyn before she entered the English world of up and down-who is in favor with the Tudor king Henry 8th. ATS

  8. Gary Thomas says:

    When you are raised Catholic, you are imbued with the view of the saintly Thomas More, which was reinforced in Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Season.” But we in America we knew virtually nothing of Thomas Cromwell except of how he was portrayed (brilliantly) by Leo McKern in the film version. Mantel’s inversion of this, in the books and now in the miniseries (and I would love to see the stage version) is intriguing and sets that long-held view of More=good and Cromwell=evil on its head. Has this set off historical reanalysis in Britain, much as the reburial of Richard III sparked debate about whether he was the victim of Tudor (i.e. Shakespeare) propaganda (which originated from More)?

    1. Esther says:

      What I hope is being re-analyzed is the problem created for real history (where good people do bad things and bad people do good things) by historical fiction’s requirement of heroes (who do good things) and villains (who do bad things):

      http://www.historytoday.com/paul-lay/no-more-heroes-thomas-cromwell-and-thomas-more

      When writing modern fiction, authors are no longer able to delay the action by providing explanations, such as the fear created by the Peasants’ Rebellion in Germany, to explain how a “good guy” like More can do “bad guy stuff” like persecute heretics, or the different theories to explain why Henry VIII ordered Cromwell (who did “good guy stuff” like trying to get a public works bill through Parliament so the poor can get jobs) to do “bad guy stuff” like persecute the monks.

      This affects Richard III also — those who see him as the murderer of his nephews, will minimize the importance of his legal reforms; those who can appreciate the importance of his reforms usually think someone else dunnit.

      1. Hannele says:

        It is an interesting article but I think that the author’s reading of historical fiction is rather limited. It is quite possible for a great writer to describe person without labeling them as heroes or villains.

  9. Leslie says:

    I realize the series is based on Mantel’s fictional novels, but I was a bit disappointed in how these historical figures were portrayed. I felt there was a significant depth missing to most characters, and I was not pleased with how Anne was portrayed (or Cromwell for that matter). I did enjoy the atmosphere created with candle-lit scenes, and the superb costumes, but overall, I was left wanting a more profound representation of these fascinating people in history. Just my opinion!

    1. Hannele says:

      I agree that Anne’s portrait is one-sided, but that of Cromwell is not. That is the result of that we only have Cromwell’s POV: we share his thoughts and feelings, but see only the other persons’ actions and only then when Cromwell is present or he gets hearsay.

      Although that means that only Cromwell is a multi-faced person and others are seen one-sided, it also means how unsure not only his but all people’s view of the others is.

      1. Rowan says:

        The problem with the “Cromwell’ point of view” explanation for such things is that it would mean Cromwell saw people as one-sided. I don’t think there’s anything in the books or the tv series that makes Cromwell seem the sort of person who perceived everyone as one-sided caricatures, and so I think they are one-sided (to the extent that they *are* one-sided) because that’s how Hilary Mantel saw them or wanted to present them.

  10. Christine says:

    I did enjoy Wolf Hall but I’m not sure if Cromwell was presented as exactly how he was, in the series he was quiet and non argumentive, I know he was aware of his lowly birth so maybe that’s how he was at court, silent and unobtrusive but history portrays him as a bit of a bully and to me in the film A Man For All Seasons the Cromwell there was to me more life like, he was more assertive and quite nasty to Thomas More banning his books from the Tower when he was imprisoned in there, I don’t know if Cromwell was like that he could have been more like the one in Wolf Hall but Mark Rylance looked like you could have pushed him over with a feather duster and the painting of Cromwell by Holbein shows him as incredibly fat and he looks very confident in the painting to, his got a steely gaze in his eye, very good drama tho.

  11. Mrs. Arthur L Keith III says:

    Come now, are we really to believe every comment concerning how dreadful King Henry the VIII appears to modernist essayists?
    Where are the PHD candidates who will rally around Henry VIII ‘s creative input into the history of England… Poetry, literature, music, dance, and many other great intentions.
    This comment is to answer an individual in the WOLF HALL PBS SERIES who laid such usual acclaim to such a figure of historical interest and husband of 6 wives, most treated by the standard of the era poorly. AS a poor king if there ever was one. How about Jame II, King George, and a host of many wretched monarch of the English.
    Shush me now, for a host of condemnation twitter followers to come. ATS

  12. Barry Cull says:

    I find the reading of Wolf Hall quite difficult, mainly due to the fact that one never knows who is being referred to – who for example is Henry the fool who appears in More’s household throwing bread at guests? I appreciate the stream of conscious writing that Mantel uses, but it makes following the story quite difficult and often more work than it is worth.

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, I really didn’t like the third person present tense style, for me it just didn’t work, I kept putting it down. I also found the characters very unlikeable.

  13. Charles James says:

    I put the unfinished book back on my shelf twice! I wasn’t going to deal with Mantel’s style which is way worse than Faulkner or Joyce. Anyway I’m back now.

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