‘What did a Tudor coffin look like?’: the weird and wonderful world of a Wolf Hall adviser
One of the most hotly anticipated historical dramas of recent years will finally come to television screens tonight. Starring Homeland’s Damian Lewis, Wolf Hall will follow the meteoric rise of Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor court, from his lowly start as the son of a blacksmith to becoming Henry VIII’s closest advisor. We caught up with Dr Catherine Fletcher, a historical adviser on the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels. Here, she shares some of the more unusual elements of the job…
Q: How did you become involved with the making of Wolf Hall?
A: I was recommended by a colleague. The production team was looking for someone who knew about the ceremonial world in Tudor times, and I had written about Henry VIII’s relationship with the court of Rome. We remember Henry for his break with Rome, but we forget that all the way up until that point Henry took his role as a Catholic prince seriously, paying close attention to what the papacy thought.
I was available to talk to the set dressers and prop designers during filming – from April to August last year – so that they could ask questions and make sure what they were doing was historically accurate.
It was not all that glamorous – sadly I wasn’t hobnobbing with Damian Lewis [who plays Henry VIII] or anything! But it was fascinating. The production team were very keen to ensure that, as far as possible, what they were doing was correct. Of course, there are not sources to answer every question, but we do our best.
Q: What was the most bizarre or memorable question you were asked?
A: ‘What shape was a Tudor coffin?’ was a particularly unusual one! The team wanted to know for the scene where Catherine of Aragon dies. Thankfully I managed to find a watercolour of the vault under St George’s Chapel in Windsor, where Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are buried. Jane’s coffin was shaped around the head. So I was able to suggest that to them.
Another moment that was quite wonderful was a scene featuring Franciscan monks carrying a cross, when they bump into another group – I can’t remember who. Of course, for health and safety purposes you couldn’t have actors ramming into one another with a large, wooden cross! So the team instead designed a soft cross, and they asked me what it should look like. I tracked down an image from the 1530s, to give them an idea.
I was also asked what sort of hats the characters should be wearing. The wide cardinals’ hats you see on coats of arms were reserved for ceremonial purposes only. Wolsey would more often have worn a small, red cap.
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It was a challenge getting the scenes to look right at times. We can turn to Hans Holbein’s portraits for inspiration, but he did not paint entire interiors. It was extraordinary trying to piece together all these little pieces of evidence.
All credit to the team, they made a serious effort to engage with all the expertise available: they sought advice on Latin pronunciations; on the music – I was one of many people they consulted.
Q: Do you think the emphasis on historical accuracy resulted partly from the great attention to detail author Hilary Mantel paid to it in the novels themselves?
A: Yes, I think it’s because the books drew on such a lot of historical research. This effort was continued in the making of the BBC series.
Q: You’ve read the final scripts but are yet to see the series on screen. How are you feeling?
A: As a historian I often find it really hard to get on with historical TV, but I am genuinely looking forward to watching Wolf Hall. I think it will be a wonderful piece of drama.
Dr Catherine Fletcher is a lecturer in public history at the University of Sheffield.
The first episode of Wolf Hall airs on BBC Two on Wednesday 21 January at 9pm. To find out more, click here.