The Royal Shakespeare Company production Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2, adapted from Hilary Mantel’s historical novels about Thomas Cromwell and life in the court of King Henry VIII, is a fast-paced epic drama that moves through a variety of locations — some of which can still be visited today.
First, there is the River Thames, the main artery for transport in 16th century London. The Thames is still a tangible presence in the city, although its banks are now transformed by modern construction and it is much more narrow and fast-flowing than it was during the Tudor era. Several characters in the play will take the journey along this river to meet their death at the Tower of London. Then visit Hampton Court and the Tower of London, and with a little imagination you can step right back into the world of King Henry and his court.
Some other key locations in the story, however, survive in name only. At Austin Friars, Cromwell’s London home, all you find today is a collection of modern office towers. Cardinal Wolsey’s York Palace, which became White Hall after it was commandeered by King Henry, is completely destroyed. In its place is Whitehall, a major road with a string of British government administration buildings. However, by appointment only, a privileged visitor could gain access to the basement of the Ministry of Defense to view “Henry VIII’s wine cellar,” an actual remnant of the original York Palace.
Hampton Court Palace
It takes less than one hour by train to get to Hampton Court Palace from Central London. In the summer, you can also get there by boat (which takes about four hours) — the mode of transport for Cromwell and others when they were summoned to the presence of the King Henry. This palace, too, once belonged to Cardinal Wolsey; when the powerful prelate fell out of favor with the King — because he failed to secure an annulment for Henry’s first marriage — Wolsey tried (unsuccessfully) to appease the angry monarch by gifting his luxury home to the King.
The Great Hall is still decorated with Henry’s prized Flemish tapestries and is laid out as it might have been in Henry’s day. When Anne Boleyn fell out of favor and was executed, Henry had the intertwined initials “H&A” hastily erased from the wood paneling, replacing them with Jane Seymour’s insignia. But you can still find the spot where Anne’s symbol escaped obliteration and remains visible for posterity.
Hampton Court was rebuilt many times by different monarchs, but when you walk through the area referred to as Henry VIII’s Apartments, you see surviving pieces of the original Tudor architecture and decoration. The ceilings of the Great Watching Chamber are adorned with Henry’s and Jane’s coats of arms, and the tapestries on the walls are all original. The Council Chamber is arranged to give visitors a sense of what it would have looked like when Henry met with his Privy Council in that very room. One can also visit the Chapel Royal to gaze at the stunning blue and gold ceiling. When Jane Seymour died after giving birth to a much-longed-for son, she lay here in state; later, on Henry’s orders, her viscera were buried under the altar.
The Tower of London
At various points in English history, the Tower of London, located on the north bank of the River Thames in Central London, has served as a royal residence, armory, treasury, and sanctuary. Its notorious reputation as a prison and place of execution grew as King Henry VIII’s reign became more tyrannical; the Tower looms forbiddingly over the political, religious, and personal drama enacted in Wolf Hall. Currently, visitors are not allowed access to the Bell Tower, where Sir Thomas More was kept incarcerated until his execution in 1535, but you can visit Beauchamp Tower, where other Tudor-period prisoners of conscience scratched graffiti and poetry on the walls as they awaited their inevitable fates.
The Line of Kings Exhibit, Tower of London
In happier years (c. 1515), before the events in Wolf Hall take place, the young King Henry was much enamored of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon; he even had engraved into the hem of this silver armor skirt the initials “H&K” intertwined with a love knot. But their marriage of nearly 24 years was annulled in 1533 to make way for Anne Boleyn. This splendid suit of armor, along with other sets belonging to an older and more portly Henry, form part of the Line of Kings collection of arms and armors in the Tower. Here you will also find a carved wooden head of the much-married king, commissioned in the 17th century as a prop for one of the armor displays.
Traitor’s Gate and the Tower Green Memorial
The so-called Traitor’s Gate is a water gate built in the 13th century to provide access to the Tower from the river. The wooden framing above the archway was built during the renovations made in preparation for Anne Boleyn’s coronation as King Henry’s second wife. She spent the night before her coronation in the Queen’s Lodgings at the Tower, leaving the fortress in ceremonial procession to Westminster Abbey, where she was crowned in June 1533. A mere three years later, on May 2, 1536, the 29-year-old Queen Anne, accused of treason, adultery, and incest, was brought back to the Tower, is it claimed, through this very gate. She was beheaded by sword within the Tower walls on May 19.
Most condemned prisoners were executed on the plain outside the Tower; Boleyn was among a privileged few who were spared the public spectacle. A memorial by artist Brian Catling — a sculpted glass pillow atop a circular glass engraved with the names of the dead (including Queen Anne Boleyn) — marks the vicinity of the execution site in Tower Green.
Portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, The Frick Collection, New York — courtesy of The Frick Collection
Back in New York City, you can meet two key players of Wolf Hall at the Frick Collection, located at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street — some 20 blocks north and east of the Winter Garden Theatre, where the epic drama unfolds every night. Here, in the Living Hall of the century-old palatial residence that business tycoon Henry Clay Frick built for himself and his stupendous art collection, the arch enemies Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell stare out at each other across a great fireplace. Both portraits are the work of German painter and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger.
Copies of Holbein’s portraits, very popular with the elite families of Henry’s day, can be found in art museums around the world. In many instances the copies were made by the master himself or by his own studio. The Frick Collection’s portrait of More is not only the finest example in existence, it is a confirmed original. It is tempting to believe that this is the very portrait that a furious Anne Boleyn allegedly flung out a window of Hampton Court Palace, but the evidence to link this particular painting to King Henry’s own collection is based on hearsay. Although the Cromwell portrait has lost some of its luster due to cleaning, this painting too carries Holbein’s autograph, and is an older version of the copy that currently hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
In Wolf Hall, Cromwell astutely notes — while forcing a noble to alter his testimony — “the past changes all the time.” When Frick decided to pair these two portraits in his living room, More was universally regarded as the saint who was ruthlessly brought down by a malevolent Cromwell. Mantel’s view of More is far less reverential than that which endured through the centuries, and Cromwell is the man for a modern age.