In a scene in Zizu Corder’s novel Lionboy (2003), which is currently bedtime reading for my daughter Isobel, young Charlie Ashanti, who can speak to all felines, releases a pride of lions from captivity in a circus. He has made a bargain with them: in order to find his kidnapped parents, he arranges their escape and they accompany him on a journey (via the Orient Express) to Venice, where his parents have been taken, and thence to the lions’ ultimate freedom in Morocco. Riding on the back of the Young Lion in a night-time Paris, Charlie realises that he is in the company of lions, not cats. They are tractable, but he is not in control. He cannot order them, as the liontamer in the circus had done. He suddenly becomes aware of his own vulnerability in the presence of their power, their capacity for violence, their otherness. This moment is occasioned by the seeming fate of his enemy and pursuer, one Rafi (a London street-kid who has connived in the kidnapping of Charlie’s parents), who is ambushed by three lionesses and dumped into a Parisian canal. Charlie is aghast at their straightforward capacity for violent action. In one sense a relatively crude means by which to lever open the ethical ambiguities of Charlie’s situation, this moment is also illuminating in its revelation of his terrifying proximity to unbiddable power. Riding with the lions is a dangerous (if not fatal) game.
I don’t watch much television, but I’ve been captivated by the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantels’ Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In episode 5, Archbishop Cranmer (Will Keen) asks Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) how he manages to deal with the capricious will of King Henry VIII. You must anticipate his desires, says Cromwell. The problem is when he changes his mind, and that can leave you ‘out there’ and vulnerable. Speaking to the Ambassador Chapuys (Mathieu Amalric), Cromwell declares that ‘Princes do not think like other men’: King Henry is volatile, capricious, even unstable. Predicting or managing such a being is the means by which Cromwell ascends the ladder to become Henry’s ‘right hand’, but is also a fatal game. He, like Charlie Ashanti, is also dealing with lions, riding them but with the certain knowledge of a fall to come. When Henry is pitched off his horse at a jousting tournament in episode 5, and is feared dead, Cromwell must calculate whether to rally to the king’s side or to make plans to flee ‘before they close the ports’, upon which he would be a dead man and his family placed in the hands of the lions. He goes to the king and is central in reviving him, knowing the alternative is certain death (and the prospect of civil war between English Catholic and Protestant factions). But as the series nears its end, the shadows of Cromwell’s eventual fate grower longer and darker. In ascending the ladder of power, and becoming Henry’s instrument, he has made powerful enemies. Though he plots the fall of others, sooner or later he will fall subject to similar machinations, and will go to the block.
I’ve been interested in how proto-class issues are flagged up. One of Cromwell’s enemies, Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss) consistently refers to Cromwell’s lowly birth and upbringing in Putney. Just as Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Price) suffered insults as to his own birth (a ‘butcher’s boy’), Cromwell is a blacksmith’s son, and his rise is resented by the aristocracy, most notably in the form of the Earl of Norfolk, who is played with relish by Bernard Hill as a brutal, thuggish man, who works with Cromwell but makes little attempt to hide his contempt for him. One of the markers of class is language: sharing a ferry across the Thames, Gardiner is affronted when Cromwell enquires whether the Bishop ‘has women’: this is ‘Putney talk’, Gardiner says contemptuously, while Cromwell smiles at his enemy’s priggish disdain. At other times in the series, however, it is revealed that Cromwell uses bawdy or obscenity strategically, for deliberate effect. Where, in Norfolk’s case, obscene language is a marker of violent brutality – he says that Cromwell should go to the Lady (formerly Princess) Mary and ‘beat her fucking head against the wall until it’s a soft as a baked apple’ – for Cromwell, it’s an indicator that he is able to use a range of resources, including linguistic, to effect his desired ends. In episode 5, he talks to Chapuys about the dissolution of the monasteries. While, for Henry, this is simply a means of boosting the Exchequer, Cromwell has a personally-urgent ethical animus against the institutions. Inveighing against their corruption and in particular the (sexual) exploitation of novices by older monks, he tells Chapuys that monks ‘feeling each other’s bollocks’ undermines the Ambassador’s arguments about protecting the monasteries and their religious role in the fabric of England.
Everything Cromwell does, it seems, is deliberate, even swearing. Everything is calculated, one of a series of manoeuvres that either furthers his (or the King’s) intentions, or serves to protect them (or him). His dress is also finely calibrated and its changes over the episodes reveal his self-presentation as a man of power. Always dressed in black, Cromwell at first looks like the lawyer he is, sober and solid; in a scene with Lady Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) she notices that he has begun to wear grey velvet as a sign not only of prosperity, but of enhanced status in the hierarchy at court. In the latter episodes, as Henry’s right hand, Cromwell’s cloak is faced with luxuriant fur, the neck of his tunic even adorned with it. Cromwell appears more magnificently attired, as befits the holder of high office, but he also seems encased within it, the heavy garments weighing on him like an armour, an armour that will ultimately afford him no protection. Henry’s own dress displays his peacock masculinity and the power of Kingship to unmistakeable effect, magnifying Damian Lewis’s physicality (Rylance is, by contrast, a rather small, if wiry man).
Mystery surrounds elements of Cromwell’s own past – had he killed a man before he went to Europe as a youth? – but in Wolf Hall he’s not only a master strategist and politician, he’s also a master actor, knowing which lines to use to effect, knowing how to modulate his performance to suit court conventions, a performer as well as Henry’s ‘serpent’. Cromwell’s containment suggests a remarkable self-possession, but while he can disregard or return the threats of aristocratic players in the power games (such as the Boleyn family: ‘you’ve made a mistake to threaten me’ he tells one of them), when he is dressed down in public by Henry in episode 5, we next see him sitting alone, drinking wine from a goblet to steady himself, his hands shaking uncontrollably. The performance threatens to evaporate in the full beam of Henry’s anger, his volatility. In part this is the strategist wrong-footed, Cromwell finding himself ‘out there’; but as his aristocratic enemies exult in during a Privy Council meeting soon after, it is a ‘check’ for the commoner, the man of ambition. It is a moment when the performance will not serve, a moment when he crosses his arms before him (psychologically motivated by a flashback to a pain-filled childhood scene, but also a symbolic warding off of the predator), a moment when Cromwell the man is revealed. For Cromwell is not only a master politician and performer: we see him, in the first episode, as a loving father; as someone admired and revered by sons and retainers; and as a sexually attractive man, whose reticence marks his difference from the lustful monks or wanton Henry. We rarely see Cromwell unbuttoned: even in bed, covers and furs are piled high. But the series suggests that there is someone vulnerable, all-too-human, beneath the performance as ‘Cromwell’.
For someone like myself, who comes from a working-class background and whose life has been a matter of assimilating into the codes and behaviours of a social and cultural structure that I remain always part-outside of, Cromwell is a tantalising figure. While in academia I’ve encountered few with King Henry’s capriciousness (and thankfully none with his power), enacting or inhabiting a social or institutional performance is always haunted by a sense of doom, that a fatal mis-step lies close ahead. I know many academics struggle with a sense of inadequacy (that they will be exposed as a fraud or charlatan); I’m hardly alone here. But the question that is implied by Cromwell’s ascendancy (and materialised in the moment of near-panic when Henry is presumed to have died) is: if you’re riding the lion, how do you get off? When have you achieved what you wanted to, and retire from the ring? I’ve yet to work this particular thing out.