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.
Forget Batman vs. Superman. That’s for kids. This is the grown-up stuff.
It seems some folks are in a lather over the depiction of Thomas More in the British series Wolf Hall, set in the court of King Henry VIII. In short, the series, based on a couple of novels by Hilary Mantel, paints More as pretty much as I’ve tended to see him: a rather vicious sort.
Huh? SAINT Thomas More, the Man for All Seasons, the martyr to conscience—vicious? Well, in Mantel’s telling, he was pretty much a heretic-hunting, power-hungry fanatic, and it was Thomas Cromwell who was, if not exactly a saint, a pretty decent “fixer” who we can recognize as something of a modern, and moderate, conciliator, someone who wouldn’t let dogma get in the way of greasing the wheels of governmental efficiency, and saving his own head, temporarily, in the process.
Mark Movesian, over at First Things, sees Wolf Hall and More’s refusal to assent to the “arrangements” set up by Henry & Co. as a reflection on contemporary controversies: “secular liberals are losing patience with claims for religious liberty, particularly from traditionalists who dissent from progressive orthodoxy.” And George Weigel pulls no punches, claiming that “Hillary Mantel is a very talented, very bitter ex-Catholic who’s said that the Church today is ‘not an institution for respectable people.’” Hence her More.
The depictions of both More and Cromwell are exaggerations, if not distortions, of the historical figures, of course. Scholar Eamon Duffy, author of Stripping of the Altars, which goes to great pains to argue that the English Reformation was a giant boo-boo because the Christian religion was doing just fine in England, even as he goes on to describe a grotesque piety that focused on the horrific tortures of a fictitious purgatory, is both distressed about More’s sullied reputation and frank about More’s not-so-benign intentions toward what are now the separated brethren :