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The calculations of politicians: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is coming to America in April. I can’t wait. I’m relistening to Hillary Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies right now and am fascinated by the precarious tight-rope walking job that Thomas Cromwell has to do in nearly every interaction he has with the aristocrats in King Henry VIII’s court. The following scene from the BBC2 production illustrates what it’s like to be the white trash playing in the blue blood pool. Here, Cromwell, an accomplished soldier and statesman from humble background, takes archery practice with Henry and his furry pack:

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Let’s discuss the subtleties. Cromwell is thrice the man any of Henry’s hangers on are but he has to undercut his proficiency. He misses the target but gets close enough to make the others take notice. He is self deprecating. The target is not that far away, he says. Henry proposes he come down and meet the general populace, maybe even attend a practice with the butchers and the grocers. “We’d win for sure”, Cromwell says. But does he mean the team from Austin Friars would be unbeatable with Henry or does he mean the grocers and the butchers would deliberately lose to assuage Henry’s pride? Henry thinks the former, Cromwell means the latter and he drives this point home by neatly hitting the middle of the ring. Cromwell doesn’t need any help from the King where archery is concerned. Henry is delighted.

The nobles look uncomfortable.

The last thing they want is a competent, intelligent upstart who comes to trash the town and it isn’t even his town.

Ahhh, well. We only have to wait a few years before the nobles get their revenge for being shown up time and again by Cromwell. It’s all well and good that he made them a lot of money but why should they be forced to share it? Cromwell is too focused on the state and government and bureaucracy while their primary concern is government getting in the way of their personal property rights. They were bred for battle. Cromwell thinks wars are a waste of money. Cromwell thinks putting people to work on infrastructure projects would keep insurrections at bay. The nobles think poverty is just the way things are and why mess with God’s will?

Same as it ever was.

And it’s probably the same for any skillful politician who has a different agenda from the pedigreed who like things just the way they are, thank you very much. They find themselves having to talk in double entendres, deprecating themselves while excelling and trying to keep the wolves at bay. It requires the slickness of a serpent who speaks with a forked tongue to inch the aristocracy towards modernity.