Adapting Wolf Hall for TV: how I played historical guessing game

How to get it right. BBC/Company Productions Ltd

The television adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies is already being hailed as possibly the “greatest period drama ever made”.

Certainly, much has been made of its attention to historical detail. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-prize-winning novels are based on extensive research. As the author herself put it: “they wrap the fiction around the historical record”. The adaptation is aiming to do the same. But what did this mean in practice?

Portrait of Georg Gisze, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532.

As one of a number of expert advisers to the production, I worked with the art team as they tried to ensure that props and sets reflected what we know of Tudor material culture, particularly when it came to religion. I work in this area – my own research explores diplomatic and court culture in relation to liturgical ceremony – but my discussions with the Wolf Hall team brought home to me just how many gaps there are in our visual record of the past.

While the British Library and National Archives hold hundreds of volumes about the Tudor court and its doings, visual depictions of palace and church interiors are far rarer. The star artist of Henry’s court, Hans Holbein the Younger, was mainly a portraitist. That said, in the margins of Holbein’s works we find clues to interior style: a carpet over a table here, a luxurious cushion there. We can see from his paintings how letters were folded and sealed. All these little details help.

The Wriothesley Garter book. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

One preoccupation for the production team was getting the details of Tudor ceremony right (if press reports are correct, we will see a full eight minutes of cap-doffing across the series). Ceremony was a vital expression of power and hierarchy at the Tudor court. Documents such as this seating plan for Anne Boleyn’s coronation banquet and the Bodleian Library’s roll of the 1512 Procession of the House of Lords (though of later date) help us visualise the scenes. The image to the left of Henry VIII at the opening of parliament comes from the book of Thomas Wriothesley, Garter King of Arms, whose nephew (also Thomas) is mocked in the novels as “Call-Me-Risley”.

Religious ceremony was in many ways more of a challenge. Much English religious art was destroyed in the Reformation. We have continental images of Catholic mass from the 1520s and 30s, but it is not easy to be precise about how things looked in England. Still, there are occasional sources to be found. A manuscript from Christ Church College Oxford shows Henry VII and his family praying on their knees. A later 16th century painting in the collection of St John’s College Cambridge shows Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, in similar pose with her book of hours, in a richly-decorated royal closet. Putting together these clues, we can come up with some idea of how prayer might have looked – or at least how it was supposed to have looked.

Pomp and ceremony. BBC/Company Productions Ltd

Some religious objects can be linked definitively to specific individuals at the Tudor court. Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours – in which she and Henry exchanged marginal messages – is one. A French bible associated with Anne – often cited as evidence for her interest in reformed religion – is another. In the Victoria and Albert Museum we find a writing desk with the arms of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, another rare luxury object from the Tudor court. These surviving artefacts were the type of material that could help point to the right look for the show.

Other types of object, though, would always pose problems. Metalwork has a poor survival rate. A rare exception is the V&A’s Howard Grace Cup, dating from 1525-26. It escaped the more typical fate of Tudor silver and gold: to be melted down and remade into the latest fashion. Another very special Tudor object is to be found in the Museum of History of Science in Oxford: Cardinal Wolsey’s sundial.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. BBC/Company Productions Ltd

In his seminal work on history on screen, Visions of the Past, Robert Rosenstone argued that by its nature historical film (at least of the mainstream type) is obliged to invent. When we don’t know what an interior looked like, we have to create and imagine. But there is “true invention” – which engages with the historical record – and “false invention” – which does not.

As a historian, arguments about the “accuracy” of historical television sometimes frustrate me. However far one would like to know everything, when it comes to recreating the look of the past there are bound to be gaps in the evidence. Some degree of imaginative guesswork, some degree of painting in the missing elements, is going to be necessary. The question is whether screen history engages with what we do know. And in the case of Wolf Hall, the answer is certainly yes.

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