Now that Hilary Mantel’s superb novels about Thomas Cromwell have been made into a TV series, Wolf Hall, her points about the good guys and bad guys in Tudor England are attracting attention and controversy. Conventionally, Cromwell has been considered a Machiavellian villain who helped Henry VIII break from the Church of Rome because of his romance with Anne Boleyn, only to later frame her for unfaithfulness. His foil was Thomas More–later, St. Thomas More–the humanist scholar who refused to go along with these schemes at the cost of his life.
But Mantel portrays Cromwell as a decent man, carefully navigating the whims of an unstable king, while deftly advancing the cause of reform and Reformation in a corrupt society and a corrupt church. More, on the other hand, as Mantel tells it, is a reactionary bigot, who sought to stamp out the Reformation by burning the “heretics” at the stake (which would include William Tyndale, for translating the Bible into English).
Now many Catholics are outraged at this treatment of their Renaissance saint, who has lately been held up as the model of the Christian intellectual who puts the laws of God over the laws of the state. Mark Movesian goes so far as to say that Wolf Hall is part of the attack on religious liberty. The depiction of More, he says, is an example of today’s mindset that the demands of the state should trump the teachings of the church. But, of course, it finally comes down to whether you support the beliefs of More or his victims.
Anthony Sacramone has given a quite brilliant Lutheran reply to all of this. He includes what More said about Luther (who also opposed Henry VIII and his shenanigans), More’s defense of heretic burning, and what Purgatory meant to the people of the time. [Read more…]