The reign of Henry VIII is always fertile ground for writers partly because of his six wives and, with the exception of Katherine Parr, their decline and fall. Within the last few years two powerful television Series were screened on the BBC, The Tudors and Wolf Hall. The latter is based on the bestselling and award- winning novel of the same name by Hilary Mantel. This sympathetic fictionalised biography documents the rapid rise to power of Sir Thomas Cromwell who indeed emerges as a most unlikely hero.
The book caused controversy because of the depiction of the saintly not to mention actual Saint, Thomas More. A Roman Catholic hero who refused to support Henry when the king insisted that his divorce from Katherine of Aragon should proceed without the approval of the pope, Thomas would eventually be martyred rather than betray the Church. He is often set in opposition to Cromwell, the king’s right hand man and avowed opponent of that same Catholic Church. It was he who achieved the steps towards official Protestantism which would continue except during the reign Of Mary Tudor. It was he who enriched Henry beyond his wildest imaginings through dissolving first the smaller religious houses and then the greater monasteries.
On Tuesday last I attended a very interesting talk in University Church, St Stephen’s Green. The topic was ‘The Two Thomases’ and the guest speaker was Professor Richard Rex of Cambridge University. Even today, both of these hugely important historical figures remain relevant and controversial because they are two of the emblematic figures of English history. As such they can be used or misused to model conflicting approaches to religion and society, and to reflect the changing concerns and priorities of our times.
They could not have had more differing beginnings. More the son of a lawyer and judge attended Oxford University and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn. Cromwell was born in the back streets of Putney to a brutish tavern owner. After running away from home this second Thomas ‘educated’ himself in the armies and streets of the Netherlands, Florence and France.
Eventually they would both rise high in the ranks of advisor to a dangerous king and both would literally lose their heads under the axe of that same king’s executioner.
Before Wolf Hall was thought of, Robert Bolt’s play of 1960, a Man for All Seasons and even more so the film adaptation of 1966 was what defined the positive legacy of Thomas More. More, beautifully played by Paul Scofield, was the elegant and eloquent idealist, a saintly figure unconcerned with the trappings of the world. Cromwell is portrayed as the calculating and unprincipled opponent of Thomas More’s honour and morality. Here More is the liberal hero of freedom of conscience and Cromwell is the ruthless agent of State means justifying the end. Cromwell is portrayed by Leo McKern but if you really want to see evil personified check out creepy Donald Pleasance as Cromwell in The Six Wives of Henry VIII!
Contrast this with Thomas More in Wolf Hall. Now he is presented as fanatical, snobbish, chilly, a man who humiliates his illiterate wife, while Cromwell treats his as an equal. Even the fact that More educated his daughters, at a time when women were excluded, is made to seem something that he does only to showcase his own skills. Cromwell now is the apostle of humanist tolerance and More the hate-filled prophet of religious fanaticism. As a child, Cromwell witnessed the burning of a woman as a heretic and seems to have a sympathetic heart.
Mantel’s Cromwell is transformed from henchman to handler who has the political savvy and ability to make salutary contributions to the governance and society despite his noble king’s less than noble motives. More is the ruthless tormentor of English Protestants while Cromwell cuddles kittens. Like it or not Mantel manages to sanitise the notorious Cromwell and tear down More from his pedestal as saint. As Professor Rex pointed out in his talk, in Wolf Hall Thomas More has no redeeming features.
At this point it is important to note that in the 1950’s, Cambridge historian Geoffrey Elton began to assemble a new portrait of Cromwell, depicting him as an able visionary statesman who helped create the governing bodies and structures that would assist in the transformation of England from a monarchy rooted in religion and divine right to a secular democracy. Mantel not only continued with this interpretation but turned it on its head. She seems to contradict the view that he was an arch-manipulator who used bullying and torture to bring about the execution of More himself and Anne Boleyn.
Historians have long suspected that Cromwell harboured Protestant sympathies, due to his early encounters on the continent. For Mantel, who acknowledges her debt to revisionist scholars, Henry’s divorce is the impetus for Cromwell’s “Tudor Revolution”, as Elton called it by which the British state won independence from the foreign and ecclesiastic rule. Truly a hero for modern times and Brexit!
There is a huge difference between historical fact and historical fiction and any treatment of Wolf Hall needs to keep that firmly in view. In an edition of the Catholic Herald, Bishop Mark Davies wrote: “It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain”. Bishop Mark O’Toole was not the only person to find “a strong anti-Catholic thread” in the TV series, with 16th– century Catholicism portrayed as the religious fundamentalism of today.
Perhaps the clue lies in the fact that he was an author who was brought up as a Catholic is on record as saying “I’m one of nature’s Protestants I should never have been brought up as a Catholic.”
Written by Marie-Therese Cryan