Wolf Hall Episode 4 “The Devil’s Spit”: Playing the Blame Game

It should be evident what direction Wolf Hall is now headed from the opening placard. Anne Boleyn, it tell us, has promised Henry VIII a son. In return, the King has cast off his first wife, and, over the objections of the Pope and the rest of Christendom, crowned Queen Anne.

Wolf Hall is now lapsing into the blame game proper, where Henry VIII is continually absolved of his crimes by delegating them to various councillors, courtiers, wives, or bangs on the head. Evidently we are to believe Henry tore his kingdom apart simply because Anne Boleyn promised him a son. Not because he no longer wanted to recognise Papal authority. Of course Wolf Hall won’t show you Anne Boleyn fleeing Henry’s advances and taking refuge in her family home when Henry first began to pursue her. It won’t show you the ideals of Queen Anne Boleyn who was dedicated to real religious reform, not Henry VIII’s version of reform which meant retaining all Catholic ideals and rituals but plundering the abbeys of their wealth. It will only show you Mantel’s version of Anne – in Mantel’s own words a woman who took her maidenhead to market and sold it for the best price.

Henry himself would have been pleased with the blame game, he was perfectly adroit at the game himself. Every time he decided he regretted one of the many executions he ordered, he blamed someone else for goading him into it. Indeed, he blamed Anne herself for the executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More. But most historians agree it was little to do with Anne, and far more to do with Pope Paul III making Bishop Fisher a cardinal. The Pope was trying to save Fisher’s life. It failed, to the grief of all of Europe.

Wolf Hall‘s Thomas more is stripped of most of his wit, gentleness and warmth, by way of lessening the viewers’ sympathy for him at his execution. Moreover, we’re treated to a fictional account of a young Thomas More ignoring a younger Thomas Cromwell, as if Cromwell’s supposed disenchantment with More should somehow settle the matter. We’ve seen More being abrasive to his wife, coldly misogynist, ambitious, a man who put himself and his conscience above his family, whose ideals could only be borne of intellectual arrogance, and a man who delighted in torturing and burning Evangelicals. Of course nowadays we’re led to believe that the Tudors invented the burning of heretics, with little indication of the execution method being sanctioned by the Catholic Church several centuries earlier nor its theological significance.

Why would a viewer feel sympathy for this portrayal of Thomas More? The Catholic Church has rightly called it perverse, and has gone so far as to dub Wolf Hall anti-Catholic. We’re certainly seeing a one-sided view of England in the earliest stages of religious reform. Elizabeth Barton’s story weaves in and out of the plot to reinforce the idea that rabidly superstitious and corrupt Catholics were ruining the realm. What the show won’t depict is how actual Protestant reform didn’t come about until the reign of Edward VI. It won’t show you the actual unrest of the citizens of England who were truly afraid of breaking with Rome. It won’t show you the after effects of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the real impact it had on the social climate. It won’t show you the thousands made destitute, hungry and homeless when they no longer had the abbeys to employ, feed and heal them. It won’t show the the later persecutions of Evangelicals Henry VIII continued to carry out because he was still a Catholic at heart.

Bishop Fisher
Bishop Fisher

And what it didn’t show us was Bishop John Fisher’s imprisonment and execution, nor Thomas Cromwell’s continued efforts to save both Fisher and More’s lives. The first victims of the King’s Great Matter, as David Starkey puts it were chosen deliberately for their eminence and distinction: the monks of the Carthusian Order, Bishop Fisher of Rochester and Sir Thomas More himself. The Carthusians were the holiest monastic order in the country, Fisher the most saintly prelate and greatest theologian, while More was both Henry’s intimate friend from boyhood and the Englishman with the widest European reputation.

The torture of the Carthusian monks was horrifying, and Henry forced his courtiers to attend the execution and watch.

Both Thomas More and Bishop Fisher suffered greatly during their incarceration. Fisher, who was in his sixties and frail, wrote to Cromwell appealing for help. Fisher constantly felt the cold and was growing ill from his poor diet. As John Schofield notes A certain Anthony Bonvisi, a man Cromwell knew, was wont to send meat and wine two or three times a week to More, and wine and jelly daily to Fisher, but these supplies may have stopped when the prisoners were brought to trial for fear of provoking Henry. Henry who had delighted in beggaring and humiliating an old bishop, threatening to send his head to Rome if they sent Fisher’s cardinal hat, did not even care to see that a sick and dying old man who had been his own Grandmother’s spiritual adviser was provided with adequate food.


Fisher was so frail he had to be carried to his execution in a chair. Both Fisher and More’s heads were displayed on pikes on London Bridge. The tomb Fisher had built for himself at St John’s College, Cambridge, was dismantled, his heraldic emblems  defaced, and the college statutes redrafted to eliminate all mention of him.

This shocking tyranny pre-dates the now-popular idea that Henry VIII suffered brain damage in a jousting accident in 1536, and allegedly “changed”, only then “becoming” a tyrant. Henry’s true tyranny had been growing for years, but in reality it was probably Wolsey’s death that allowed it to come out in full force.

As Thomas More once said: Ever tell him what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do … For if a lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him.

Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More ultimately shared the same fate. They both ended their old age with their heads on the block. It’s about time we remembered who was actually responsible.