Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

Wolf Hall has ended. The six episode Masterpiece Theater production told the story of King Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister.

Here are some lessons we can take from this fascinating story.

1. Women should make men wait. Or should they?

Henry started his courtship of Anne in 1526. By all contemporary accounts, and judging from Henry’s love letters written to her during this courtship, Anne denied Henry the forbidden fruit–and it drove him crazy. She didn’t give in until 1533. She made him wait for seven years! That was not normal for a king accustomed to getting whatever he wanted.

But perhaps that was the secret to keeping him interested. Humans are notorious for wanting what we can’t have. We are also notorious for quickly getting bored with what we do eventually get. Humans are dumb. We do this again and again, never learning our lesson. See shiny object, desire shiny object, obtain shiny object, get bored with shiny object. Look for the next shiny object. Repeat. Mix that with sexual desire, the life-force of the universe, and you often have a recipe for disaster.

In 1536, just three short years after succumbing to Henry’s desire, Anne was executed for high treason. Not only could she not provide a male heir, but it seems that Henry simply may have tired of her. Henry always had a roving eye and raging libido. Type-A he most definitely was. He had even bedded Anne’s older sister, Mary.

Lust and sex don’t always have such high stakes as it did in the King’s Great Matter, but it can, and often does, lead to the ruin of careers, marriages, and relationships.

My personal belief is that a better understanding of sex and lust is needed to fully appreciate the impact it can have on our lives. I generally don’t believe that anything is “just sex” for those involved. Perhaps for one person it can be, but it’s doubtful that it will be for both. Human nature doesn’t permit it to be so. There are always underlying motivations beyond pure sexual impulse. Most people simply haven’t explored the personal issues lurking beneath their desires.

So women (and men), I say: Know thyself and take it slow. Or don’t. Just know the stakes.

2. Hang, Drawn, and Quartered

Anne Boleyn was beheaded by an executioner brought across the English channel from France specifically for that duty. Apparently he was well known for the accuracy with which he was able to separate a head from its body.

Anne’s numerous partners in crime, the men she allegedly had affairs with, did not meet such a swift or merciful end. Instead, they were subjected to the manner of death befitting those who committed high treason. They were Hang, Drawn and Quartered.

If you aren’t aware of this method of execution, let the death warrant of Thomas Harrison guide your imagination. Harrison was convicted in 1660 of regicide, for he was one of the main participants in the execution of King Charles I.

“You, that are the Prisoner at the Bar, you are to pass the Sentence of Death, which sentence is this. The Judgment of this Court is, and the Court doth award, that you be led back to the place, from whence you came, and from thence to be drawn upon an hurdle (sled) to the place of execution, and there you shall be hanged by the neck, and being alive shall be cut down, and your privy members (genitals) to be cut off, your entrails (guts) to be taken out of your body, and (you living) the same to be burnt before your eyes, and your head to be cut off, your body to be divided into four quarters, and your head, and quarters, to be disposed of at the pleasure of the King’s Majesty: and the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

Executions are never pleasant things and have an obvious finality once they are carried out. Not all people put to death are guilty, not back in the Tudor era and, as DNA evidence has shown in the past 10 years, not in the present.

The justice system is human, and thus fallible. To continue with the death penalty, it must be acknowledged that innocent people will most certainly die. That is our system.

3. Churching of Women

Churching was a ceremony, usually about a month following childbirth, welcoming women back into normal life following their confinement. Noble women (not sure about commoners) were usually sent into confinement when they were close to their due date.

It must be remembered that giving birth was quite the hazardous affair in the old days. When reading history, death of women during childbirth is shockingly common, even among the rich and powerful. So Churching was a rite of thanksgiving in a way, essentially saying, “Thanks be to God that you survived”.

These days, birth is such a non-event in many ways–often just another money making “fee-for-service” provided by doctors and hospitals–instead of the sacred event that it was once held to be. Perhaps that’s just what happens when science and technology evolve to such a point that the majority of danger is removed from certain aspects of life. But in my mind, there are few happenings more sacred, and fascinating, than the series of events that occur between conception and delivery of human life.

4. Thomas Boleyn returned to court.

Even after his daughter, Queen Anne, and his son, George, were executed by King Henry in 1536, Thomas Boleyn made it back to court by 1538.

What does it say about this man, or human nature in general, that he would want to make it back to court and be in the presence of the man who had his children executed on false charges? Perhaps he needed money. Perhaps he believed in good old fashioned Christian forgiveness. Or perhaps he believed, as Michael Corleone did when plotting to kill the crooked cop in “The Godfather”, that his children’s execution wasn’t personal, it was strictly business.

Often times we never get good explanations for what we deem the odd behavior of others. But like my experience shows when forced to deal with a job I detested, coping mechanisms may not make sense to anyone but the person doing the coping. They may not be the best way to do things, but often the mechanism is the only way for the person in question to continue with life at that point in time. Thomas Boleyn must have had a reason to return to court that made sense to him, and Henry apparently didn’t hold it against him.

5. Groom of the Stool

Yes, there existed a Groom of the Stool. And yes, he assisted the King in defecation. It was a highly desirable position in fact, due to the very intimate relationship it provided with the King. The groom was privy to the King’s most closely held secrets, namely his choice of bathroom reading material.

Eventually, the Groom of the Stool took on further responsibility, such as being in charge of the royal treasury, a hugely important position–though still paling in comparison to helping the king poop and washing his undercarriage.

Even the most lowly jobs are noble in nature, and they exist because someone has to do them. All functions play a role in society, no one more important than the other. That may seem an odd view; surely jobs that are well paid are deemed by society as more important than others, why else would they be well paid? Surely a doctor is more important than a garbage man.

But can you imagine was a hell hole New York City would be without garbage collection? Disease, filth, and vermin would run rampant (as they did in the old days) and all the well paid doctors very well may get sick and die themselves.

Respect all work, no matter how menial it may seem. It’s needed.

6. It was high treason to imagine the King’s death, or that of his wife, and eldest son.

Originally, “imagined” was taken to mean “design” or “intend”. However, over time, it literally became the verb “to imagine”, as in a picture occurring in one’s mind.

Take this exchange between Queen Anne and Henry Norris. Anne was greatly displeased that a close friend of King Henry’s, one Sir Henry Norris, had not yet proposed to Lady Shelton.

“The Queen asked Norris why he was not going through with a marriage to Lady Shelton and he just shrugged, saying that he would tarry a time. Well, Her Majesty was rather irritated by his flippancy and she snapped at him, saying, “You look for dead men’s shoes. For if aught came to the King but good, you would look to have me.” We all gasped at this remark and his lordship was deeply shocked, replying, “If he should have any such though, he would his head were off.” Her Majesty was in a real rage now and threatened him, telling him that she could undo him if she would. They continued slinging angry words at each other and it was horrible, a very violent quarrel.”

Damnnnnnn……Queen Anne not only intimated that Henry Norris wanted to get into her royal britches, but she also imagined the king’s death with the words “you look for dead men’s shoes”. Surely this exchange did not work in her favor as the Boleyn clan was already falling out of the King’s favor and Henry’s eye was already set on Jane Seymour. You could be put to death for such talk.

Freedom of speech, more than any other freedom, is the bedrock of all civil societies.

7. I have no 7th lesson. For some reason the number “7” draws more readers than “6”.

Que sais-je?

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