‘All sorts of weather and none of it good. A dangerous day,’ warns forecaster Dianne Oxberry- who died young.
A Shipping Forecast packed tight with gales, hurricane force 12 off the Irish coast.
Travelling south to Stratford-on-Avon, the sky darkens, the wind picks up with volleys of hail. The River Avon is yellow-brown and in spate, brim-full but within its banks, its direction bewildering. The wind blows against the flow of the river, intent on forcing it back upstream. The swans are embattled. Squalls lash at us as we head for 'The Swan' to see Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘ Bring up the Bodies.’ The theatre door is open and the wind blasts right through the entrance and into the shop.
‘What else would you like?’
‘The sun to come out?’
Laughter erupts in the audience. By 21 February 2014, we have confirmation of the wettest winter on record and meteorological spring isn’t until St David’s Day. The weather for 1527 seems familiar.
Wolsey loses the king’s favour, is ejected from Hampton Court and moves his household to Esher. A distracting ticking sound grows more persistent. Water drips from the roof of the theatre. The hurricane has done serious damage and water pours onto the stage. Do we head for the exits? Of course not, we’re British. Tempted to nudge my companion and ask when we’re leaving. Then I realise, Esher was in need of repair and the stream of water is switched off and mopped up. Well if ever there was a night for a roof to fail it’s tonight. Tiles are coming off all over Cumbria, trees uprooted.
The production is pacy, pared right down. Ben Miles as Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII. There are ghosts, as I had expected.
For the English, a radical rethink of what kingship means. Henry VIII breaks with Rome and becomes the spiritual leader of his people. Where do we go when we die? In Bristol Cathedral the oldest sculpture is the Harrowing of Hell, where Christ redeems mankind, leading Adam and Eve out of Hell. When Cromwell’s wife and daughters die they might expect they'd be heading for Purgatory. But it no longer exists, so where are they?
In Tudor stained glass windows who might these queens be? Katharine of Aragon with her pomegranate device, Anne Boleyn with falcon, Jane Seymour with phoenix? They follow upon one another too fast for the glaziers in the churches and cathedrals of England to keep pace. Can’t have Katharine looking over us when Henry denies he was ever married to her. And iconoclasm strikes here too.
We are seated in the front row of the stalls and devils thrust their pitchforks in our faces, hunters with cross-bows take aim and we are the quarry. Queen Katharine’s blacks sweep our knees. We’re right there in the action and it’s thrilling. Mantel's genius is to bring the long-dead so alive. Rather, no one dies. Not Wolsey, not Cromwell's wife and daughters, not Anne Boleyn and her brother George. They die, and do not die. Like a river with eddies, backwaters and quiet pools - a respite in purgatory before moving on to 'The Other Place.' Yes, we've been there too.
What intense pressure Henry VIII was under to produce a Tudor heir! The dynasty was only second generation, his father seized the crown at Bosworth. The throne was insecure until Henry had sons. Why didn’t he go for offspring, legitimate or not, whilst he was waiting for a divorce from Katharine? Well, name me one illegitimate who came direct to the throne of England. I ponder his challenge and suggest William the Conqueror, William the Bastard. And illegitimacy second generation weaves tightly into the monarchy, over and over. Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s grandmother, came of John of Gaunt’s long liaison with Catherine Swynford, their children later legitimised. One day your a bastard, next a prince. King Henry's children flit in and out of legitimacy.
Splendid production. An interesting comparison - what suits historical fiction, what works on stage.
A dramatic drive to Bristol, toward midnight. The moon looks down upon us. Stars and scudding white cumulus cloud. The wind howls, buffets and blasts us, and snow pelts the windscreen and gathers in bands of white along the road. Ice warning, and the news tells of 108 mph winds back in Cumbria into the early hours. Sheet lightning illuminates the sky through falling snow and squalls, lightning over and over. We are driving into thunder snow. What turbulence! A storm spectacularly lit. There is a fierce beauty in elemental power. One of fifteen severe storms this winter, Thomaz Shaffernaker tells us. Thirty low pressure systems, with storms.
If the rain does not stop, if Covid 19 has us in self-isolation, I set myself to discover when those medieval stained-glass windows were smashed. Were Thomas Cromwell's men in Bristol? Or some half-forgotten insurrection, like The Pilgrimage of Grace, which - according to Mantel- had no grace about it but was led by thugs on the rampage.