Wolf Hall: Tudor History through an Anti-Historical, Anti-Catholic Lens
by Travis Curtright
Anti-Catholic animus or simple error disguised as history or art will not advance our understanding of a complex and divided period of conflict.
As Downton Abbey and Sherlock have raised the ratings of Masterpiecetelevision, PBS has just launched a new sensation on Sunday nights: Wolf Hall. The new six-part miniseries on Tudor politics and the Protestant Reformation is based on Hilary Mantel’s bestselling Wolf Hall: A Novel and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies.
Mark Rylance, star of the Masterpiece adaptation, exclaims: “I love it when an author, such as Hilary Mantel, does her research and discovers an original understanding of a very familiar piece of history.” Rylance’s comment deserves attention, if only for its irony. The “original understanding” of history in Mantel’s novel results from her use of dated and slanted research.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel aspires to rewrite Tudor history according to contemporary prejudices. In the process, she elevates Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), the novel’s hero, as the true statesman of the day, while his famous and celebrated counterpart, Thomas More (1478-1535), assumes the role of villain. Cromwell is depicted as a cautious, prudent, and tolerant counselor to King Henry VIII, whereas More emerges as a grim, misogynistic, religious bigot. If More’s trial and death typically illustrate his courage in refusing to compromise his own conscience, Mantel’s revision depicts More as a clever and even devious lawyer, who is simply and rightly caught in his own words. What once represented an object lesson in how the political order should remain open to the transcendent one becomes a tale of political intrigue that reveals Cromwell’s “statesmanlike” arrangement of More’s execution as unavoidable, even necessary. As pragmatic, proto-modern “realism” emerges as Mantel’s theme, More’s conscience is dismissed as unreasonable zealotry, a threat to England’s common good.
Elton’s Historical Revisions
The Masterpiece series, which premiered on PBS on April 5, will shock those acquainted with Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons (1960) or the Roman Catholic tradition, which not only reveres More as a saint but also, since 2000, proclaims him as patron of all government leaders. The countless churches named in More’s honor, those who admired the 1966 film version of Bolt’s play, and the testimony of Amici Thomae Mori societies stretched across the globe challenge Mantel’s depiction of this humanist scholar, lawyer, philosopher, and statesman, who has been lauded for centuries because of his integrity.
And the adversaries of Wolf Hall are right to question its characterization of More. In Mantel’s own words, she explains how she came to write Wolf Hall. “I can’t do plots,” she confesses, “so I will let history do them for me.” Her “history,” however, comes from “the Tudor scholar G.R. Elton” (1921-1994). The late Cambridge historian, Mantel believes, “had established Cromwell as a statesman of the first rank,” but his work did not succeed in improving Cromwell’s “popular image.” Mantel’s fiction aims to fix that.
Part of the reason why Elton’s work “had done nothing” for the “popular image” of either Cromwell or More, however, stems from the fact that many historians do not believe Elton “established” quite as much as Mantel thinks he did. Elton provides a controversial and highly contested narrative of the period. In Elton’s portrait, Cromwell is not a student of Machiavelli and the agent of the dissolution of the monasteries; rather, he is the King’s clear-sighted advisor and the architect of the modern state. In More, Elton finds ambition, intolerance, and an altogether “conventional believer” in the bygone world of the Middle Ages. More’s adherence to the old religion, Elton thinks, prevents him from entering the “new world” of the Renaissance.
Because the plot of Wolf Hall relies on Elton’s characterizations of Cromwell and More, Mantel writes as if the last thirty years of research in the Tudor period never happened. Though many prominent historians of the period—such as John Guy, Brendan Bradshaw, and Eamon Duffy—have refuted Elton’s claims about More already, George Logan most recently assembled a team of international scholars to reassess More’s life, writings, and political actions inThe Cambridge Companion to Thomas More (2011). These scholars put to rest the most inflammatory claims of Elton and his school. Instead, Logan’s team finds More to be a superlative humanist scholar and, as the chapter on statesmanship claims, the historical record reveals “a statesman of conscience” and one of “extraordinary insight and foresight.”
More’s political acumen finds its most complex and subtle expression in his two great works, The History of Richard III and Utopia. The first inspired Shakespeare’s own drama of the same king as well as illustrating the dangers of Machiavellian politics. Even more famous, Utopia explores not only the challenges of those who enter politics but also how what can appear to be aEutopia or a “happy” regime, could simply constitute a Utopia or “no place,” an impractical set of political ideals. Mantel uses the latter in a reductive way, as a derisive term for More’s beliefs, suggesting how More’s “time has passed” because “Utopia, after all, is not a place one can live.” Instead of the vision of Erasmus's school for princes, or the imaginative wit and scope of More’s writings, Mantel trumpets Cromwell’s realpolitik as the age’s most enlightened form of political philosophy.
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