“Wolf Hall” looks like a lying piece of anti-Catholic agitprop

“Wolf Hall” looks like a lying piece of anti-Catholic agitprop April 8, 2015

My friend Greg Wolfe does the autopsy.

Critics have pointed out that the author’s liberties with the historical record demonstrate a clear ideological bias. [Hilary] Mantel was raised Catholic but is now a vocal critic of that church, which she has said “is not an institution for respectable people.”

Historians debate over ‘Wolf Hall’

Questions about “Wolf Hall” have been raised not only by the Catholic faithful but also in the academy. Professor David Starkey, a historian and president of Britain’s National Secular Society, said there is “not a scrap of evidence” for the narrative and describes the plot as “total fiction.”

Simon Schama, the respected Jewish historian and veteran television presenter, writes in the Financial Times that while he believes that historical novelists should have some leeway for invention and imagination, Mantel has gone too far.

“It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks who got precious little thanks for doing Henry VIII’s dirty work,” Schama writes. “When I was doing research for ‘A History of Britain,’ the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.”

That’s not a debate.  It’s an indictment for fraud dressed up as history. The English Reformation is best described as a revolt of the rich against the poor.  English history, ever since then, has consisted of sycophants of the rich and the overclass explaining to the lower orders why they were heroes for oppressing them, and telling outrageous lies like this one to ensure the security of their class.  This is Orwellian history.

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  • orual’s kindred

    English history, ever since then, has consisted of sycophants of the rich and the overclass explaining to the lower orders why they were heroes for oppressing them, and telling outrageous lies like this one to ensure the security of their class.

    Interestingly author Hilary Mantel, who “was raised Catholic but is now a vocal critic” actually describes the Church as “not an institution for respectable people” (emphasis mine).

    • chezami

      “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” – Oscar Wilde

      • orual’s kindred

        A quote not as shared or well-known as others 🙂

    • dasrach

      When my husband saw that Mantel quote out of context, his first thought was, “Huh, I didn’t know Mantel was still a practicing Catholic.”

      • orual’s kindred

        Whoops X-D Sorry for the confusion!

        • dasrach

          Oh, no, it wasn’t when you posted it. He saw the original article, read the headline, and agreed with it so strongly that he couldn’t believe it was intended as an insult. The idea that the Church needs to embrace its Flannery-ness has always been a hobbyhorse of his.

          • LFM

            Couldn’t believe it was intended as an insult? I’ll say! When was the last time you witnessed an artist of any political stripe sing the praises of – gasp – respectability? I mean, talk about bourgeois morality and all that, once the most embarrassing accusation that could be made against any writer.

            Suddenly I feel really old.

    • IRVCath

      Given who we describe as respectable people today, I’ll take the Church with the inhabitants of the gutter, thanks.

  • Wally Noon

    Wolf Hall doesn’t portray Cromwell as a good man. Not even he believes that, It doesn’t portray More as a bad one and clearly establishes his martyrdom. It doesn’t portray the establishment of Anglicanism as a protestant movement but political. Catherine of Aragon is a figure wronged and treated with great sympathy. I have seen all the episodes on BBC. Have you even seen this series. If not you should reserve judgement.

    • Newp Ort

      Come on, Wally. Reserving judgment is for suckers.

      • tj.nelson

        Knowing the history – I find the series fascinating, and the sets terrific. The characters very well played – I was surprised to see Cromwell as sensitive as he was portrayed, and in his encounter with Sir Thomas More at the dinner, I was reminded very much of how all the online Catholic saints respond to their critics – much worse however than how More snapped at Cromwell. I intend to watch the entire series knowing full well there have always been staunch anti-Catholics among the anti-papist Anglicans – for centuries.

        The series is a delight!

      • antigon

        Absolutely. Besides, how preposterous to trust Erasmus; the whole of humanist as well as Catholic Europe; More’s own work & extraordinary grace in death; National Secular Society president & historian David Starkey’s contemptuous dismissal of Mantel’s pretenses as ‘total fiction’ constructed sans ‘a scrap of evidence;’ Jewish historian Simon Schama’s equal contempt of Mantel’s admiration for the ‘detestably self-serving, bullying monster’ T. Cromwell who by ‘cook[ing] the evidence’ & ‘extract[ing] confessions by torture’ both secured & ‘perfected state terror in England’ that was brought to such refinement in the 20th century – & while these examples but touch the surface of what we need to distrust, most of all is the very idea that any who won’t bow to State power should be other than denigrated by respectable courtiers of such as Cromwell & groupies’ alloy.
        No, no, Mr. Shea, much better to reserve judgment about this holocausty revisionism, else how will the much needed reforms of its lineage be restored in a new millennium so in need of them?

    • orual’s kindred

      Why, if this is so, and the show does not in fact portray anti-Catholic propaganda, then that’s great! This, does, I think, make it an odd adaptation of a work that the author intended to be specifically revisionist against the Catholic Church, which the post discusses the series would apparently be about.

  • Sue Korlan

    Before the English Reformation the monasteries provided for the local poor as well as their members. When the Crown took over the properties, they no longer provided for these poor people, who left the land in search of the necessities of life. London soon was filled with healthy beggars.

  • LFM

    I have read the first book of the Wolf Hall series, but not the rest, and contrary to Wally’s suggestion, it certainly does portray Cromwell as a sympathetic figure. Not only is he the main “point-of-view” character, we are given a detailed (largely imaginary) portrait of his childhood to humanize him. It portrays More, on the other hand, as a deeply unattractive figure, rude to his wife (alas not altogether a false suggestion), manipulative, power-hungry and vindictive. Cromwell is given some unpleasant qualities too, but these are always accounted for with careful explanations about why this or that action of his was necessary. The rest of the books may be more nuanced, but the first is certainly an encomium to Cromwell.

    The book annoyed me for other reasons as well. I could not understand at first why critics were responding to what was very clearly a work of historical fiction as if it were an actual history, going on about how “well-researched” it was – something impossible to know unless an author provides footnotes and a bibliography, which Mantel didn’t, or has some specialist knowledge of the period in question. But as I read on, I began to realize who, or rather what, Mantel’s real hero was: the English state. Cromwell’s revolution effectively dismantled the Church as an independent power in England and replaced it with one entirely controlled by the state and at its mercy.

    Modern leftists, unlike their earlier Marxist counterparts who were at least in theory devoted to the idea of the “withering away of the state”, worship state power and regard anything that interferes with it not merely as an administrative encumbrance, which of course the Catholic Church often was in England, from the Crown’s point of view, but as a threat to the kind of public order they want to establish. The Wolf Hall books were written from this perspective and that is how best to understand them.

    • Amaryllis

      It’s true that the dismantling of Church power and the rise of the state is a major theme of the books. It’s not so clear that Mantel regards this as an unalloyed good. Or an unalloyed evil, for that matter. It was a complex period in history, and at least Wolf Hall, both the book and the series, treat the period seriously. It’s refreshing to see a Tudor drama that isn’t all bodice-ripping and who’s sleeping with whom and how many wives Henry had..

      I’ve only seen the first episode of the series, but I thought it was very well done– beautiful to look at and Mark Rylance as Cromwell is very effective.

      The books were fascinating from a literary standpoint: a real “behind-his-eyes” presentation of Cromwell’s point of view (as imagined by Mantel, of course). And Mantel’s Cromwell is a an interesting and complex man, not a hero, not a villain, but– to quote Mantel’s Duke of Norfolk– “always such a person.”

      I’m looking forward to reading the third book, in which, I suppose, he who lives by the political maneuver will be brought down by the political maneuver.

      And surely it’s not “lying agitprop” to present a (fictional) St. Thomas More as a not very likeable figure, regardless of the merits of his cause. (I admit it, I’ve had my doubts about “the sainted More” ever since I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. But that’s an argument for another day.)

      • LFM

        I’m afraid I’m not really able to sympathize much with your perception of the matter, although it’s possible that if I had read the other two books I might be more willing to accept it. I really dislike “serious,” but wrong [edit: inaccurate], historical fiction because it is more deceptive than the bodice-rippers. At least people are unlikely to assume they’ve learned The Truth from them.

        As I indicated, I’m not a wholehearted fan of More’s myself, based on his writings, but I thought that Mantel’s fiction-writer’s trick of making Cromwell sympathetic by giving him a difficult childhood (of the kind modern people admire one for overcoming), while viewing More only from a distance, was emotionally dishonest. It might be hyperbolic to call this kind of thing “lying agitprop”, but it is not unreasonable to object to what I suspect was intentional deception that involved no actual lies because it was written under the cloak of fiction.

        Mantel may not regard the new Caesar as wholly good, nor the previous church-state arrangements as wholly bad, but again, not only is it very obvious which side she is on (not necessarily a bad thing) but unlike a real historian she does not leave readers the opportunity to weigh and measure opposing points of view and the various documents that led to hers. Full confession: I have graduate degrees in history, and this kind of thing always irritates me. Although I have no objection to historical fiction as such, the big historical controversies, especially those that are still relevant, are not handled well by novelists as a general rule.

        • antigon

          Dear LFM:
          Have written & published some histories & been a history prof meself, LF, & with that polish & blow of me nails, have these enquiries:
          Is it hyperbole to call things hyperbolic even if they’re simply & accurately descriptive?
          When something is manifestly lying agitprop, & being promoted no less manifestly for not just impolite but vicious political ends, might it perhaps not be hyperbole to refrain from calling the cur ill-tempered when it’s obviously rabid?

          • LFM

            The thing is that while it seems fair to call this “agitprop”, to say that Mantel lied in writing Wolf Hall is more than I know. She presents Wolf Hall and its successors as fiction, after all.

            I do think the series is manipulative and misleading in a broad sense, but the “lying” accusation implies that this was intentional, and I am not certain that it was.

            • antigon

              Ok, LM, fine if you want to strain at that gnat, tho perhaps finer that Mr. Shea chooses not to.

            • LFM

              All right, and I hope all is well with you.

  • Russell

    It might be useful for all and sundry to have a look at Mantel and Starkey’s amicable discussion about many of the points raised. It is refreshingly sophisticated and illustrates that using Starkey in the manner employed on this blog is an all too crude appeal to authority. Her hostility towards Bolt’s nearly hagiographical treatment of More in A Man for All Seasons is entirely understandable. To push so far in the opposite direction as she has is similary problematic. And yet, for me, the novels and films have been helpful in making me reassess the recieved interpretations of all the main players as they are found in pop and academic culture. It has also helped me reappraise and reappreciate lesser known sites scattered all over Greater London.


    • antigon

      Despite how much we nowadays want to treat the exercise & resistance to tyranny as complicated & problematic, albeit always & invariably in order to excuse tyranny & question the motives of any who resist it, Bolt’s treatment of More was not nearly nor indeed hagiographical at all: it instead caught the particulars of the conflict with no mean accuracy, & the essence of it with precision. Henry was a monster & a tyrant, however interesting if no less sickening such may be, & More resisted it.
      That’s what happened, & why what happened is under attack; for this nostalgia about resisting tyranny, in particular when it’s Catholic, is a notion our current ruling classes, like those in Henry’s time, find most objectionable to the ends they wish to impose.

  • Mary Petnel

    I enjoy Tudor History and especially books by Alison Weir. I read Wolf Hall and was appalled. Then I googled the author and was horrified at her obvious bigotry. I boycotted the series and pulled out my DVD of “A Man for All Seasons”. What darkness is spreading everywhere!