I’ve been watching Wolf Hall (again!) with a friend who recently picked up the novels. Both the books and the television adaptation are very dense with detail, so there’s always more to see. After two reads of the two novels and two viewings of the six-episode series, I finally noticed how often the characters ask one another to dine–and how much importance those meals bear. The main players on the political stage of this novel are 16th century merchants, lawyers, and minor nobles: persons of wealth and ambition, often persons with something to prove. Their dinners make excellent devices for characterization: to invite another man into your home for a meal is to put your household on display and show him how fine are your provisions, how capable is your kitchen staff, how obedient are your relatives, and how interesting is the company you keep. But in Hilary Mantel’s novels and the televised script, dinners become more than just set dressing for the wealthy; shared meals can become be opportunities for conspiracy or controversy, public displays of personal philosophy, or conceits for other kinds of appetite.
One of the first dinners we see is given by Thomas Cromwell’s friend Bonvisi, an Italian merchant who must be quite comfortably off in addition to well-connected, because this sumptuous table is attended by the Spanish emperor’s new ambassador Chapuys and Lord Chancellor Thomas More.
This meal takes place during Lent, and perhaps tempers are high due to the privations of the season, but in any case no sooner does Cromwell take his seat than he picks a fight with More. Cromwell is at that time still working for Cardinal Wolsey, who has lost favor with the King; the subject of his disagreement with More is how (or whether) the Cardinal went wrong. Cromwell, perhaps feeling reasonably secure surrounded by friends and fellow merchants, showers More with scathing contempt — and since the Cromwell of this adaptation never does anything without purpose, we can be sure that he wanted his low opinion of the Lord Chancellor to be public. Later, Bonvisi chides Cromwell for his harsh words and implores him to be more careful. In the novel, Cromwell thinks to himself that “the whole purpose of the evening has been to warn him: to warn him off. He will remember the fatal placement: if it proves fatal.” He does indeed remember: he imagines a grotesque dinner table at which he and More and Chapuys have their places, as well as the king and the Pope and every other figure with influence over the outcome of King Henry’s divorce and remarriage. This imaginary banquet will haunt him as he continues his labors for the king.
Since we know how little regard More and Cromwell have for one another, it is a little surprising to see them dining together at More’s house in the next episode. In the book, this unlikely invitation is extended after More and Cromwell find themselves unable to best each other verbally: More tries to get Cromwell to admit he has ties to the Protestant reformist Tyndale, and Cromwell casts the question back at More, who has read the forbidden translation. Stalemated, More enjoins Cromwell to join his dinner table: “The talk is excellent, and we shall like you to add to it. Our food is simple, but good.” In the adaptation, the battle of wits takes place at the dinner table, but in both instances More’s assertions turn out to be untrue; Cromwell’s nemesis Stephen Gardiner complains of an empty belly after supper. The conversation leaves them equally empty: More talks innocently of ancient kings, the antics of his fool, and the faults of the women in his household.
If the effect of Bonvisi’s dinner was to showcase the talent of his cook (within Lenten limitations) and his network of powerful friends, the effect of More’s dinner is to shore up the persona he leans upon during the tumult of the King’s new marriage and division from the church: eccentric, ascetic, intolerant of sensuous weakness but ultimately harmless. He does not speak of politics with Cromwell; he has begun to realize that he is on the losing side of this debate and must speak no harm if he cannot speak good. Later, when King Henry insists that his subjects take an oath of loyalty to the new queen and any issue she may bear, More refuses to sign but attempts to preserve his good standing by promising not to speak against anyone who does.
So it is probably for the best that he doesn’t take up Cromwell’s offer to put his own household talents on display:
Thomas More worries that Cromwell will use dinner to poison his speech or his name (or perhaps even his body; men of good breeding often suspect Cromwell of nefarious intent). In this telling, we more often see Cromwell arranging witnesses as diners poison themselves. Dinners among these political men and women are given, not made; the making of dinner happens behind the scenes, by servants and urchins like Cromwell himself when he was a boy, and this backroom upbringing gives him an edge against the rarefied intrigues of sheltered aristocrats. For example, when Cromwell interrogates Lady Margaret Pole, who is suspected of conspiring against the king with the so-called prophet Elizabeth Barton, he shares with her the knowledge that Lady Pole’s sons have dined with Lady Mary, the king’s daughter by Katherine of Aragon. Lady Pole declines to offer any further information about these suspicious meals, but she doesn’t need to; as Cromwell tells her, “The boy who carried in the dish of asparagus, that was my boy. The boy who sliced the apricots was mine too. They talked about the Emperor, about the invasion, how he might be brought to it. So you see, Lady Margaret, all your family owes much to my forbearance.”
Although it happens offscreen, this damning dinner illustrates two ongoing conceits of the series. For one, there is no privacy for the courtly class. Their lives are truly public lives; even private conversations can be attended and witnessed, and even the flimsy testimony of overheard table talk can be admissible evidence. Later, Cromwell will use this same tactic — cultivating relationships with persons who are considered insignificant, and leaving them alone with persons of interest — to entrap Thomas More with charges of treason.
The second is the conceit of the banquet as a symbol for power and powerlessness. In Mantel’s version of history, Cromwell wields a great deal of power over the king and kingdom, subtly guiding England away from war and toward church reform and economic growth; he works unobtrusively to place his own men in influential positions and to limit the influence of his political enemies. At the table of the king, Cromwell is both the host and the cook: other favored members of the court dine at his pleasure and feast upon the fruits of his labor. But Cromwell, in turn, serves at the king’s pleasure, and the king has become increasingly violent and paranoid. Which is why Cromwell dreams himself again at the head of a grotesque banquet, reluctantly preparing to carve up Anne Boleyn like a roast for her enemies to fall upon:
So it’s particularly poignant that the last place we see Anne Boleyn before she is sent to the Tower is her dinner table, watching as the palace staff undress the table and remove the place settings. By this time we’ve seen Henry fuss about his royal textiles more than once (reclaiming Katherine’s furs, mourning Anne’s burnt bedcurtains), so we can imagine him demanding an inventory of the Queen’s household articles. With Anne dressed a bit like her own linens here, we might also imagine her as another household ornament; after she watches her tablecloth folded and carefully put away, Anne herself is put away in her former bridal suite to wait for her sentence.
Of course, Anne’s fall from favor–not to mention More’s and the Cardinal’s–foreshadow Cromwell’s own downfall. Mantel’s version of this story has not yet been written, but history suggests that Cromwell’s execution was sudden and almost immediately regretted by the erratic king. One wonders what miscalculation, and on whose side, caused the king to pull the tablecloth out from under Cromwell’s banquet.