Wolf Hall and Cardinal Wolsey going down to Hell

Posted By on February 2, 2015

The masque scene from BBC2's Wolf Hall

The masque scene from BBC2’s Wolf Hall

If you haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s novels, don’t know the history surrounding the farce “Cardinal Wolsely going down to Hell” and haven’t watched episode 2 of Wolf Hall, then you might not want to read this article – SPOILERS!

Last week’s episode of “Wolf Hall” closed with Cardinal Wolsey’s death and Cromwell watching a performance of a court masque in which an actor playing Wolsey is mocked for his low birth and chased off to Beelzebub in Hell by demons. The King and Anne Boleyn laugh and applaud, while it is clear to viewers that Cromwell finds the whole thing shocking and distasteful. He watches as the demons leave the stage and take off their masks: George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton.

When a weeping George Cavendish (Wolsey’s gentleman usher) recounts Wolsey’s last days and death and tells Cromwell of how he has “prayed to God to send vengeance upon them all”, Cromwell quietly assures him “No need to trouble God, George, I’ll take it in hand.”1 It is clear that Cromwell is going to take revenge on all those he holds responsible for Wolsey’s downfall and all those who mocked his former master. It is a moving scene.
In Bring Up the Bodies, after the executions of the men in May 1536, Thomas Wriothesley says to Cromwell: “All the players are gone […] All four who carried the cardinal to Hell; and also the poor fool Mark who made a ballad of their exploits.” Cromwell replies: “All four […] All five.””2

The masque scene is a dramatic one, particularly as the TV adaptation flicks between the masque, Cromwell being sworn in to the Privy Council and Cavendish’s account of Wolsey’s death, and the reader/viewer can understand how Cromwell feels. Cromwell has a real motive for bringing down Anne Boleyn, her brother George, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Francis Weston. Wolsey’s downfall and this farce explain how those men got caught up in Anne’s fall in May 1536 and why they had to die.

But is it true?

Well, yes and no, but mostly no.

Hilary Mantel has taken a real event from 1531 and used it to provide her protagonist with a motive for what she has him plotting a few years years later. The farce “Cardinal Wolsey going down to Hell” really did take place, but not as Mantel presents it in her novel or how it is seen on TV.

In reality, the farce was performed at Thomas Boleyn’s London home at a private dinner for Claude la Guische, the French ambassador, in January 1531. The aim of the farce was, as historian Greg Walker points out, to stress “the King’s new, more hostile attitude towards the Roman Church and all its agents”, while “also tacitly reminding the French of their own supposedly ‘special relationship’ with Wolsey, and their alleged involvement in his plotting immediately prior to his fall”.”3 It was an opportunity for Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, and his brother-in-law, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, to show the French ambassador their importance and status now that Wolsey was gone. Wolsey’s time in power was over and now France should deal with Wiltshire and Norfolk, was the message. However, according to Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, their plan backfired and la Guische was offended by the play and by Norfolk’s idea of having it published:

“Some time ago the earl of Vulchier (Wiltshire) invited to supper Monsieur de la Guiche, for whose amusement he caused a farce to be acted of the Cardinal (Wolsey) going down to Hell; for which La Guiche much blamed the Earl, and still more the Duke for his ordering the said farce to be printed. They have been ever since [Jocquin’s departure] entertaining the said gentleman most splendidly, and making the most of him on every occasion, and yet I am told that however well treated by them he still says very openly what he thinks of them, and laughs at their eccentricities in matters of government and administration.”4

Although historian Robert Hutchinson writes that the masque was commissioned by George Boleyn and performed at court at Greenwich Palace, there is no evidence of this.5 Anne Boleyn’s father and uncle were the ones behind the masque and although it is likely that George was present, there is no evidence that he, or any of the men caught up in Anne’s fall in 1536, played any parts in it. As Clare Cherry and I said in a previous article on Bring Up the Bodies, “the notion of an aspiring courtier, diplomat and politician demeaning himself by performing in a farce is… farcical!” and there is no mention of Norris, Brereton, Weston and Smeaton even attending the performance.6 While the scene provides Cromwell with a motive and builds empathy and sympathy, it does not tell the real story.

Who was ultimately responsible for Anne Boleyn’s fall and why these men were caught up in it are questions that are still being debated today. Did Cromwell plot against Anne Boleyn of his own accord or was he simply following orders from the King? Why did Norris, Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and George Boleyn have to fall? Were they in Cromwell’s way? Were they just innocent scapegoats? The answers to these questions are not clear, but Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton had nothing whatsoever to do with Wolsey’s fall and Cromwell had no need to seek revenge on them.

Mantel’s Cromwell, and his motivations, may make for good fiction and TV but her story is a fictional one and her Cromwell is far removed from the one of the historical sources.

Derek Wilson and Olga Hughes have written excellent articles on Walter Cromwell, the father we see beating the boy Cromwell in Wolf Hall:

Notes and Sources

  1. Wolf Hall, BBC2 adaptation, Episode 2: Entirely Beloved, aired 28 January 2015
  2. Mantel, Hilary (2012) Bring Up the Bodies, Fourth Estate, London, p400
  3. Walker, Greg (2008) Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry VIII, p20
  4. , Cambridge University Press, p20

  5. CSP, Spain IV.ii.615
  6. Hutchinson, Robert (2009) House of Treason: The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Dynasty, Orion
  7. Bring Up the Bodies: Fact versus Fiction – https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/bring-up-bodies-fact-versus-fiction/