3 Historical Inaccuracies in BBC’s Wolf Hall

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The BBC television adaptation of Wolf Hall is the latest adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award winning series of novels. The series has received mixed reviews, with many criticisms being levied against the show for its stiff, dark atmosphere and it’s historically inaccuracies which occasionally veer too far from known history to be satisfying. Let’s take a look at two significant inaccuracies—and some of those little inaccuracies that add up over time—in Wolf Hall.

Cromwell was not Henry VIII’s puppet master

The show has taken some pretty great pains to depict both Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII as more innocent than they really were. Cromwell, strangely enough, is depicted both as fairly innocent and a puppet master for his king at the same time; in the show, Cromwell clearly holds the reins (or more accurately, “reign”!) over the king, to the point where he is depicted as the sole influence over some of Henry VIII’s major political and personal decisions. Yet in reality, Cromwell was an advisor to the king; a top and trusted advisor, to be sure, but merely that: an advisor. Cromwell did wield influence in court, and with the king, but he was not the puppet master to a hapless but violence Henry.

Anne Boleyn was not a threatening shrew

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The characterization of Anne Boleyn in the series is a sore sticking point for many people, particularly since the reputation of Anne Boleyn has undergone some much needed repairs in recent years. The show’s version of Anne—like Hilary Mantel’s novel—is a calculating, threatening shrew-like character that has very little warmth in her except love for her daughter. Boleyn in the series is constantly scheming; constantly thinking of ways to take down her enemies, and even threatens Thomas Cromwell with an “undoing” if he doesn’t obey her wishes. This depiction is straight out of the gossip sheets and propaganda-like reports written by Anne Boleyn’s most hated enemies, who naturally had cause to write the worst about Anne—and should not be taken as an accurate description of her behavior by anyone with an eye for accuracy.

Some aspects of Tudor life just aren’t quite correct

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There are many little details in the show that just don’t ring true. Some of the most notable small details are:

  • The characters, at Hilary Mantel’s insistence, have straight white teeth; while their teeth may not have been blackened like those at Elizabeth I’s court (due to the importing of sugar) they would not have been bleached-white modern smiles, either
  • The tapestries, bedding, clothing and other decorative objects have faded dull colors. In reality they would have been bright and vibrant, however the show’s frontrunner said that audiences would be “used to” the drab colors and for that reason, he didn’t want to make them historically accurate.
  • The codpieces are very small. Codpieces were a staple for Tudor men, particularly the king and the most elite at his court. The show makes them so small they may as well have done away with them altogether.

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