A beginner’s guide to Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Mark Gatiss and Jonathan Pryce star in PBS Masterpiece's re-imagining of Hilary Mantel's novels – but what's it all about?

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What is it?

Remember that Hilary Mantel lady? Y’know, the one with the lispy voice and all those book prizes who likes to air her opinions on the royal family? Well, the BBC decided to turn her two Tudor novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies into a six-part series.

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What’s it all about?

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Many, many things but we’ll try and make this simple with five names you need to know. For starters, Thomas Cromwell. He’s a blacksmith’s son from Putney, trained as a lawyer and trying to make a mark on this Tudor court where no one pays you the slightest bit of attention unless you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth. But Cromwell’s rather good at this game and – much to the disgust of his rivals – rises through the ranks to become King Henry VIII’s right hand man.
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Yes, King Henry VIII (of six wife fame) is a major player in this story. Over a decade into his reign, Harry is still a youthful, athletic monarch but is desperate to be rid of his first spouse Katherine so he can wed (and finally get it on) with current infatuation Anne Boleyn. And – crucially – bear the son and heir he is craving.
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Anne is of good family stock with ambitions as lofty as her father and uncle’s. But – unlike Henry’s many other mistresses (including her sister) – she’s also crafty, refusing to bed the king until he’s made an honourable woman of her. It’s worked and Henry is railing against the Pope’s decision not to grant him a divorce.
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The poor chap tasked with convincing the pontiff is Cardinal Thomas Wolsey but the head of the church has finished bottom of the class. Popey’s not budging and the Cardinal – Cromwell’s mentor – is feeling the heat from a king positively brimming with lust for his new squeeze and desperate to bin his ageing wife.
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If Cromwell’s ally is Wolsey, his frenemy is Sir Thomas More (yes, another Thomas! Bear with us…) A fearsome Catholic, More is on a mission to stamp out the Protestant Reformation rocking Europe with no qualms about sending reformers to burn at the stake. A pious man, he was one of the King’s most powerful advisors but his beliefs proved instrumental in his downfall…

There you go, two books in five paragraphs with no spoilers – now you can fool your friends around the dinner table (you’re welcome).


So, who’s in it?

Your main man Cromwell is played by Mark Rylance (the award-winning stage actor lured to TV), joined by Homeland’s rusty-haired soldier-come-terrorist Damian Lewis as King Henry and Jonathan Pryce (with a good deal of hair and make up) playing the ageing Cardinal.

Claire Foy brings to life Anne Boleyn while Anton Lesser is the shaggy-haired Thomas More. But that’s not all… Auntie’s collected together a star-studded supporting cast that also includes Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss, Jessica Raine (Call the Midwife), Joanne Whalley (The Borgias) and Game of Thrones actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster.


Why should I watch it?

I’m already a lover of all things Tudor (OK, I’m obsessed) but even if you don’t share my fascination, there’s plenty in this multi-layered story to get your teeth sunk into. Henry’s court was packed with ambition, power struggles, backstabbing, love, deception and scandal – call it EastEnders in the 1500s with leopard print replaced by satin breeches and a legal system that was all too quick to relieve courtiers of their heads.


Is it any good?

Its tensions are slowly built and subtle, with characters and storylines deftly bleeding into one another. For those new to the books, this first episode might feel like hard graft but stick with it – your dedication will pay dividends as the plot thickens.


When is it on?

Wolf Hall starts tonight on PBS Masterpiece at 10/9c.

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Read our interview with author Hilary Mantel