Actor Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of “Wolf Hall”.
Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning novels about Thomas Cromwell have been made into an acclaimed television series and a Broadway play. Later this year the third novel in the Cromwell trilogy will be published. But how accurate is her portrayal of Henry’s VIII’s chief minister and the Tudor period? MercatorNet asked Richard Rex, a Cambridge University historian and specialist in the period.
MercatorNet: Why have Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell, been so popular as novels, a BBC adaptation and a Broadway play?
Richard Rex: It’s clearly not about literary artfulness, creative plotting, or the insightful depiction of character amidst moral complexity. Speaking as a historian, I would put it down to a particular moment in the evolution of modernity and in the place of the Catholic Church within that evolution. The Thomas More of the last generation was the resolute but fundamentally liberal hero of Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons. One might say that the success of his work owed a great deal to a reacceptance of Catholicism back into the mainstream of English and Anglophone culture – that was the time when Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were at the peak of their popularity – and also to the understanding that was reached about that time between the Catholic Church and the forces of Western Liberalism, which the Church had been fighting for the best part of the hundred years following 1848. That understanding was to a large extent forged in the crucible of the Cold War, which gave Catholics and Liberals common cause in withstanding the forces of Stalinism and Maoism.
With the abrupt termination of the Cold War around 1990, and the transformation of “communism” into the gangster capitalism of Russia and the authoritarian capitalism of China, there has been less to threaten the consumer capitalism of the West, and underlying tensions between Catholicism and Liberalism have once more surfaced. It is no longer, as it was in the 19th century, that the Church is hostile to Liberalism.
Now it is Liberalism that is hostile to the Church. Specifically, “social liberalism” (into which the older tradition of “political liberalism” is rapidly mutating) is necessarily antagonistic towards religious traditions which do not see morality as a purely human construct but as a reflection or expression of an ultimate and eternal reality (for Catholics, natural law as the expression of God’s will within creation).
Combine that with the revolting and well-publicised moral failings of Catholic priests betraying their callings through depraved sexual depredation against children and the vulnerable, and you have a perfect storm. (It now transpires that the Catholic abuse scandals were unique only in their early detection, and that sexual abuse on an almost systematic scale was endemic in late 20th century Britain. But that is no comfort to Catholics, and the news has broken too late to stop the Catholic Church serving as scapegoat for the wider problems of society.)
The high tide of the reacceptance of Catholicism into English culture was probably reached in 1992, with the publication, to massive acclaim, of Eamon Duffy’s magisterial account of the crushing of medieval English Catholicism under the Tudors, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580.
But since then, a new and vocal contempt for Catholicism has become part of the stock-in-trade of significant sections of the opinion-forming classes (one thinks of Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, and others). To the extent that individual public Catholics, like Pope Francis, are exempted from this contempt, it is only to the extent that they are thought likely to water down the Church’s moral teaching.
This is the cultural moment that Mantel seized so successfully. It was not her saintly Cromwell that first struck her readers, but her demonic More.
Q. Are the characters of Thomas More, and his nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, presented accurately in Mantel’s novels and their adaptations?
A. No. In any case, Cromwell is, in a sense, the only “character” in the books. There is a measure of moral complexity to his constitution as Mantel re-imagines it, although his marked resemblance to a reader of The Guardian lends him an almost laughably anachronistic aspect. For the rest, “character” is hardly the word. Everyone else is simply an old-fashioned “goodie” or “baddie”, with the Protestants almost exclusively cast as goodies, and the Catholics almost all baddies.
Thomas More is the arch-Catholic and therefore the arch-baddie, depicted in terms of such unalloyed vileness that one might almost think some personal demon was being exorcised. Poor Stephen Gardiner, second only to More in Mantel’s pandemonium, is turned into a seedy and sneering toady, deprived of that ready wit and anecdotal flair for which he was renowned in his time.
Q. Perhaps I am naïve, but I grew up on Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons which depicted More a humanist, a statesman and thoroughly decent man. Was all that just hagiography?
A. Bolt’s More was a liberal hero for the Cold War, just as Mantel’s Cromwell is a liberal hero for the Culture Wars. But Bolt’s creation owes rather more to the historical More than Mantel’s does to the historical Cromwell. Indeed, Mantel’s creation owes a good deal to Bolt’s. In the end, there is a touch of Aesop’s crow about the whole exercise. Mantel’s Cromwell is decked out in liberal feathers borrowed from Bolt’s More.
Nowhere is this more evident than in that little passage in which Cromwell is said to have educated his daughter just as More educated Meg and his other girls. And am I the only one who found Rylance’s quiet, reserved and shrewd Cromwell distinctly reminiscent of Scofield’s More? To make Cromwell a hero, you have to turn him into More.
Q. Why is the 21st Century media besotted with 16th Century Tudors?
A. Because they mattered. The events that unfolded from Henry VIII’s determination to rid himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, shaped English, British, and even world history. The English Reformation ensured the success of the Reformation in Scotland and ultimately led to the formation of a Protestant Britain. The collapse of the traditional amity between England and Spain, and the crucial transference of the weight of England from the Catholic to the Protestant scale in Europe may even have made the difference between the success and failure of the Protestant Reformation on the European stage. The Protestantism of the United States, which until very recently set the tone of that great nation, was itself the fruit of English Protestantism. The Tudors mattered.
Q. The columnist Simon Jenkins once wrote that “most Britons had, by the late 15th century, come to regard the Roman church as an alien, corrupt and reactionary agent of intellectual oppression, awash in magic and superstition. They could not wait to see the back of it.” Was the Roman Catholic Church in England really that bad in the 16th Century?
A. Jenkins is a gifted and thought-provoking columnist, but that particular comment displays ignorance on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. If we substituted “18th century” for ‘15th century’, then it would make some sense. For one of the most dramatic consequences of the English Reformation was precisely to create that sense of the foreignness of a Catholicism, which until about 1550 had been perhaps the most important force shaping English culture.
And there is a strong case also for seeing the political unification of Britain over the two centuries following Henry VIII’s Break with Rome as another of the momentous consequences of the English Reformation. Nobody talked of “Britons” in the late 15th century! English people did not imagine their church as “the Roman church”: indeed, they tended to call it the “Church of England”!
They had no concept of “progress” with which to criticise that church as “reactionary”. And they had no concept of freedom of speech with which to resent as ‘intellectual oppression’ a cultural hegemony to which the overwhelming majority of them subscribed. Catholicism was as much part of the cultural atmosphere in which they lived and breathed as the doctrine of human rights is part of ours.
Q. The third volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light, will be published later this year. It may be a bit late in the day, but have you any advice for her on how to sum up her life of Henry VIII’s chief minister?
A. I would not presume to offer advice to a writer of Mantel’s stature.
Richard Rex is Reader in Reformation History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. His particular specialism is in the history of the kingdom and church of England under Henry VIII, and his research and teaching interests include the Reformation in both England and Europe, Tudor history, and the Lollards. He is currently working on a study of Martin Luther.