The third episode of Wolf Hall showed the dark side of Thomas More, and Cromwell himselfby Sameer Rahim / February 5, 2015 / Leave a comment
After three gripping episodes of Wolf Hall, a problem has been nagging some viewers. Was Thomas Cromwell really such a sensitive ladies’ man and was Thomas More such a creepy heretic-chaser? As we saw last night, Cromwell was charming the Boleyn sisters while the Lord Chancellor grimly tortured men for wanting the Bible in English. There have been objections to Mantel’s portrayal of More both in the novels and this TV adaptation. Catholic bishops have described the portrayal of the author of Utopia as “perverse” (unsurprising perhaps), but others including the historian Simon Schama on Twitter have expressed reservations.
Our view of the two men has been shaped by fictional works such as Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, where More was the principled individual standing against the power of the state. Cromwell, in that play, is a bruiser. But it hasn’t always been that way. Cromwell was regarded as a Protestant hero by John Foxe, who featured him prominently in his Book of Martyrs. Nineteenth-century historians such as James Anthony Froude defended the enlightened reformation Cromwell brought to a superstitious England. In the 20th century the great Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton described him as one of England’s great revolutionaries. “The end does not indeed justify the means, but at least it explains and to some extent excuses it,” he wrote, adding that his reforms, “proved not only important but beneficial”. Mantel, though brought up a Catholic, clearly shares Elton’s view.
Cromwell and More embody two ideas of England. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, tried to reform England’s state infrastructure, not just its religious practices. It was a nationalist programme as well: last night we saw him say to Queen Katharine that he had found ancient precedents to justify Henry being head of the church. Against him is More, aristocratic humanist, friend of Erasmus, valuing Latin higher than English and defender of the Pope’s authority. In fact, More in his earlier years was an advocate of change within the church. But by the time we meet him in Wolf Hall (played with sour grandeur by Anton Lesser), he is terrified that Christendom will fall apart, leaving it exposed to the Turks. For him, stamping out heresy was about suppressing dissent he thought would only bring misery to…