The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Tale of Two Thomases

The adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has sparked much debate; in particular Roman Catholic Bishops Mark Davies and Mark O'Toole have been scathing:
But yesterday two bishops publicly attacked the drama for its depiction of St Thomas, a martyr who was canonised in 1935 and who was made patron saint of politicians by St John Paul II in 2000.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said: “We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.

“It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognise his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.”

Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth said there was a “strong anti-Catholic thread” in the series, which stars Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.

“Those modern parallels need to be cautiously drawn,” said Bishop O’Toole. “Hilary Mantel does have this view that being a Catholic is destructive to your humanity. It is not historically accurate and it is not accurate in what the Catholic faith has to contribute to society and to the common good as a whole.

“There is an anti-Catholic thread there, there is no doubt about it. Wolf Hall is not neutral.”

Bishop O’Toole said: “The picture of More is dark. More was a man of his time and heresy was the big sin, really, it was the big wrong on both sides. It is hard for us in our modern mentality to see it as wrong. They looked on heretics as we look upon drug traffickers. But it is inaccurate to say that he (St Thomas) condemned people to death.

“The other side which I think is dark, which it doesn’t give, are the things Erasmus describes – his enlightened family life, the fact that he did educate his daughters.”
Now, Mantel's novels are, as works of fiction, extremely well written, and compelling. They take Cromwell as the viewpoint figure, and More is seen in a very different light than in Robert Bolt's A Man for all Seasons, an equally well wrought drama, one which has cemented the legend of More as an enlightened, humane man averse to the forcing of anyone's conscience.

In Bolt, Cromwell is depicted as a soulless thug, an enforcer of the King's will whose efforts to save More's life are pragmatic--he fears the King's conscience will lead him, ultimately, to avenge More. Mantel portrays Cromwell as genuinely reluctant for More to be executed. He is the King's faithful servant, but strives to act prudently, and with a minimum of violence.

It should be noted that Mantel's view is based on the writings of, among others, Geoffrey Elton, of whom Derek Wilson writes:
The last 50 years have seen great shifts in the reputation of this man about whom, despite his importance, we still know remarkably little. Indeed it is the enigma behind the public figure which provides such rich pickings for novelists. Elton’s presentation of Cromwell as an administrative genius who single-handedly transformed a ‘medieval’ system of household government into a ‘modern’ bureaucracy was vigorously (in some cases bitterly) challenged by his peers. This somewhat esoteric debate over the nature of institutional change was significant in that it served to highlight the importance of the 1530s. England on the day after Cromwell’s execution, we now realise, was a vastly different place from the England that had awoken to the news of Cardinal Wolsey’s death.

But who was responsible for this transformation? That was the next question exercising the minds of rival theorists. Were the royal supremacy, the extinguishing of monasticism, the stripping of the altars, the growing involvement of Parliament, the disposing of ecclesiastical lands to a rising ‘middle class’, the promulgation of vernacular Bibles, et al, all innovations springing from the creative mind of the Putney brewer’s son, or was the minister, at all times, carrying out the policies of his royal master? Can we even think in terms of ‘policy’. Once Henry had set in train his plans to divest himself of his first wife did all the other changes follow inevitably, like a line of collapsing dominoes?

No one was, rightly, prepared to accept the concept of the English Reformation as a haphazard series of events over which no one had effective control. Therefore there must have been a mind behind it. Either Henry VIII was working to a caesaropapistical schema or Cromwell had a vision for a new England which he tried, with considerable success, to manoeuvre his master into endorsing. But ‘vision’ implies religious conviction and there was always a school of thought that clung to the pre-Elton assertion that Cromwell was a ‘Machiavellian’, by which was meant that his actions were governed by realpolitik, with no regard for morality or human sentiment. Thus, for example, he only brought down the abbeys to enrich the king and he cunningly allied himself with the New Learning in order to give his policies an aura of intellectual respectability. Any attempt to defend Cromwell’s reputation was always hampered by the fact that he never declared a clear personal statement of his own convictions. Even so, there remain few historians who would now sign up to the Bismarckian stereotype. If Cromwell did not write his own apologia pro vita sua, there were friends and other contemporary chroniclers whose letters and books provide details of conversations and actions that reveal attractive facets of his character. Moreover Cromwell lived in an age when people did hold religious beliefs – often passionately. Were it otherwise there could have been no Reformation.
Elton's England Under the Tudors maintains that Henry, not Cromwell, wanted More dead, writing that
Cromwell seems to have had a real liking for More whose integrity, personal charm, gentle determination, and miserable fate make him the most attractive figure of the early sixteenth century (not a difficult achievement.). . . . In any case, Cromwell probably realized the folly of a policy which made martyrs of these well-known men.
(P. 139). More recent biographers like John Schofield and Tracy Borman build on Elton's research to excavate a much more attractive figure than the Cromwell written by Bolt and masterfully enacted by Leo McKern.

And, with all respect to the bishops, More certainly was responsible for the death of heretics. Six "heretics" were burned under More's administration, and he was personally engaged in the proceedings of at least three. As More admirer Steven Smith acknowledges:
More [wrote in a letter] that he is content to leave every man to his own conscience and that they should leave him to his. But in fact, in his various offices, and especially as Lord Chancellor, More actively persecuted and prosecuted Protestant dissenters and in some cases approved their execution. As [biographer] Peter Ackroyd explains, "his opponents were genuinely following their consciences," but More "truly believed that Lutherans to be 'daemonum satellites' ('agents of the demons'), who must, if necessary, be destroyed by burning."
More did not merely do what his office demanded; he pursued the heretics zealously, exceeding both the efforts of his predecessor Wolsey and the king's own wishes. On occasion, he attempted to apprehend a wayward preacher toward whom the king was well disposed, hoping to act quickly before the king's leniency might step in to save the hapless heretic.
Steven D. Smith, "Interrogating Thomas More: The Conundrums of Conscience,"1 Univ. St. Thomas L.J. 580, 596-597, 598 (2003).

And a reading of the rhetoric deployed by More in his debates with Martin Luther is rather shocking--his essays are studded with invective, both violent and scatological (At one point he calls Luther "a turd from the devil's anus," to give one example). He wasn't Paul Scofield any more than he was Anton Lesser.

My point isn't to choose Mantel over Bolt, Cromwell over More--nor to choose the other way, for that matter. These were two very complex men in a world that was substantially different from ours in some ways, substantially similar in others. Both played power politics, and, ultimately, lost. Cromwell gave us much of what is great in the Reformation, while bearing responsibility for some of its early excesses. More played a part in violent repression of the reformers for as long as he could. He also gave us a noble example of personal courage and grace under terrible circumstances, and a vision of justice that is worth study even now.

Neither was a plaster saint nor a melodrama's devil.


rick allen said...

That More wasn’t a plaster saint nor Cromwell a melodrama’s devil is a an important point. Nevertheless, beyond teh truism that there is indeed good and eveil in everyone, there seems to me some value in questioning the extent to which these new images of More and Cromwell in fiction accord with history.

I read Elton’s England under the Tudors about a decade ago, and though I think his thesis has been challenged, he makes a good case for the centrality of Cromwell in devising the means by which Henry eliminated rival authority in his kingdom. Elton’s assessment of Cromwell’s character was not that he was sadistic or cruel, nor that he lacked affection for More, but that those personal feelings never interfered with a single-minded end to achieve the king’s wishes.

Ms. Mantel has made no secret of her desire to take More down a peg, and her portrait of More as a bigot, a hypocrite and a sadist seems to be finding surprisingly receptive audiences. I don’t know quite what accounts for this, though it brings to mind a line that Harpsfield attributes to More toward the end of his trial: “Howbeit, it is not for this supremacy so much that ye seek my blood, as for that I would not condescend to the marriage.”

I posted a brief review of the first book, if you have any interest:

I haven’t read Bring up the Bodies (but my wife did, and was dutiful in reading me some of the purpler passages). I thought the first episode of the BBC drama was exceptionally well-done, and I’m sure I’ll follow through to the bitter end.

Anglocat said...

Thanks for the comment, Rick, and the link to your blog (I'd like to add it to my blogroll, as it will remind me to visit more often.)

Although I liked Mantel's book (the sequel is better, I think), it's all fair comment, in my opinion.

Schofield and Borman find some documentary support for pointing out the more attractive facets of Cromwell's character, including some grudging admiration from French ambassador Chapuys and Cardinal Pole. Unfortunately for Cromwell--not unlike Richard III--his enemies wrote the history.

Yes, Mantel has a visceral dislike for More. To be fair, his rhetoric against Luther could be both cruel and vile. (So was Luther's, of course, but the point is, Luther was known to be a bit of a plug-ugly; More's descending so readily to his level could upset those who expect better.) Also, his famous claim that he would "leave every man to his own good conscience.

And me thinks in good faith that so it were good reason that every man should leave me to mine" is beautiful, but a piece of special pleading--it's carefully limited to the Oath of support for the Supremacy Act (which he was always on the dissenting side on, so yeah, of course he never put anyone to the test on that subject). More was a late convert to the claims of freedom of conscience--when his own was questioned.

Mantel's reaction to that is to discount him almost utterly, which I think unfair--she's applying 21st Century standards to a 16th Century man. The insight that she brings that I think is worth holding is that Cromwell's virtues are worth excavating, and More's flaws as well.

Whit Johnstone said...

Given that Moore was literally made a saint by the RCC and everyone else has gone along with that until recently, I think Mantel can be excused for focusing single-mindedly on the darker aspects of Moore's character. Also, for an anti-hero like Mantel's Cromwell to be properly sympathetic he needs to battle a truly evil villain.