So that is the end of Wolf Hall. I watched the last episode on catch-up last night, and confess I had only been an intermittent viewer: but when it comes to the finale – the execution of Anne Boleyn – one cannot resist the temptation.
The execution scene was grisly, taut, dramatic, horrible. The conclusion, where an exultant Henry VIII congratulates Cromwell, and where Cromwell’s face betrays the realisation that he has become the servant of a monster, was priceless.
Anne was not a very likeable woman, but one feels quite sorry for her in the end, because she is the victim not of justice but of cruelty. All the emphasis on the mechanics of the execution – that famous swordsman from Calais – served to underline the sheer wickedness of Henry’s judicial murder of the mother of his child. The fall of Anne Boleyn has been the subject of numerous books, films and television adaptations: but the question remains, why are we so fascinated by cruelty? And why in particular are we fascinated by cruelty towards women?
Anne was, as the programme made clear, the first Queen ever to be put on trial. She was also the first queen or noblewoman to be executed. Queens had got into trouble before: Queen Isabella, the mother of Edward III, was imprisoned in comfortable circumstances, without ever being brought to trial, for her role in the overthrow and murder of her husband Edward II, while her lover Mortimer was executed. The wife of Duke Humphrey (younger brother of Henry V), Eleanor Cobham, who like Anne Boleyn, was a second wife, was accused of witchcraft in 1441. This may well have been politically motivated, as her husband was the regent for King Henry VI as well as heir presumptive to the Crown, but at the same time there is no reason not to think that people at the time did not consider the charges plausible or the duchess guilty. Despite this, the duchess was subjected to imprisonment for life, not executed. Of her fellow conspirators, one was hanged, another burned. The Duchess got off lightly, in comparison with Anne Boleyn, who may well have expected something similar by way of punishment in her more optimistic moments.
In fact there was never any likelihood of Anne being allowed to retire to a convent, and she knew it, as some of her recorded remarks, such as the one about having a small neck, make clear. Given that she herself, when in power, was constantly nagging Henry to execute his wife and daughter, the blameless Katharine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, Anne must have realised that her time had come and that she was justly served. This was one of the good things about the conclusion of Wolf Hall. As Cromwell inspects the arrangements made for the Queen’s execution, he clearly realises that one day a similar scaffold awaits him, and where the Queen will die, so too will he. After all, they are both people who have come from obscurity, and as they can rise, so also can they fall. What Mantel does not point out, as far as I can see, is that the greatest parvenu of them all was Henry Tudor himself.
If Wolf Hall wished to make its viewers unconformable as they watched the fall of Queen Anne, then it succeeded. She reminds us of the transient nature of all political eminence and the frailty of greatness. Nowadays failed politicians are allowed at least to live, but we are still, some of us, watching filmed beheadings thanks to ISIS. Wolf Hall did one unusual thing, it showed us quite a lot of blood at the death of Queen Anne, and the awful spectacle of her ladies-in-waiting removing her corpse with blood on their hands and on their dresses. There is no execution without suffering, in case we were in danger of forgetting that. Thank the Lord we have abolished the death penalty in this country. And as for poor suffering humanity in general, when will we learn that cutting off heads solves nothing?