Historians should be banned from watching movies or TV set in their area of expertise. We usually bore and irritate friends and family with pedantic interjections about minor factual errors and chronological mix-ups. With Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and the sumptuous BBC series based on them, this pleasure is denied us. The series is as ferociously well researched as it is superbly acted and directed. Cranmer probably didn’t have a beard in 1533, but, honestly, that’s about the best I can do.
In any case, criticising historical fiction for being fiction is not particularly clever. The imaginative space through which novelists and screen-writers move is one historians can only look in on from outside with envy, and from which we should learn lessons about practicing our own craft. Yet writing historical fiction, as opposed to another kind, means operating within a set of constraints, as well as investing one’s work with a particular kind of moral authorization. It involves drawing on a well of audience knowledge and expectation, even as it sets out to challenge or surprise.
Here historians do have the right to comment. The question is not whether fiction gets the past exactly right (no two historians would agree upon this anyway), but how claims about the past are used to address questions about the human condition. All historical writing, fictional and ‘factual’, is a kind of conversation between past and present. And in any conversation, we need to listen as well as talk.
In making Thomas Cromwell the focus of attention, Mantel believes she is enabling a suppressed voice to be heard. As chief minister of Henry VIII, Cromwell is not an obscure figure, but he left few records of an intimate or revealing kind. Moreover, his popular reputation suffered in the later twentieth century due to the success of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (turned into a critically-acclaimed 1966 film), where he serves as foil to the hero, Thomas More, whose lonely refusal to recognise Henry VIII’s Supreme Headship of the Church marks him out as a martyr for individual conscience.
“Although a major protagonist, More’s ‘big moments’ are routinely silenced or sidelined.”
Wolf Hall is a riposte to A Man for All Seasons as much as it is a fresh reimagining of the Tudor World. Bolt’s More, gentle family-man and courageous non-conformist, becomes in Mantel’s vision a cruel, conceited misogynist; Bolt’s Cromwell, a brutal pragmatist, unfolds before us as complex, passionate, and profoundly humanitarian.
This is not as iconoclastic as recent commentary suggests. Zinneman’s film of A Man for All Seasons was from the moment of its cinematic release a spur to revisionist historical scholarship on More, drawing attention to his hatred of heresy, and the implausibility of his holding or expressing the views on the inalienable rights of conscience that Bolt (in the aftermath of McCarthyism) attributed to him. As Wolf Hall replaces Man for All Seasons as the lens through which most people will view the 1530s, let’s hope it will similarly energise historians.
After catching up on iPlayer, this historian’s reaction is of (almost) admiration for the thoroughness with which the ‘dismanteling’ of More has been carried through. A revealing line is given to Cromwell, as More maintains his frustrating ‘silence’ over the Oath: ‘he wrote this play years ago, and he sniggers every time I trip over my lines’.
Cromwell need not have worried: suspecting that the garrulous More wrote the historical script to his own advantage, Mantel and her adapters, assisted by Anton Lesser’s outstanding performance, have systematically – ruthlessly – rewritten it, down to costume and props. The historical More’s lack of care over personal appearance becomes here distasteful and unsettling. Cromwell – in common with the entire membership of Facebook – likes playful kittens; More appears cradling a showy, and eerily inert, long-eared white rabbit. And is it me, or does Mark Rylance resemble the More of Holbein’s famous portrait much more than he does the corresponding painting of Cromwell? A particularly mischievous touch robs More of the one distinction guaranteed to score points with a modern secular audience: his unusual concern for the education of his daughters. Cromwell’s ill-fated little girls – implausibly – are being taught Latin and Greek too.
Although a major protagonist, More’s ‘big moments’ are routinely silenced or sidelined. We see, but do not hear, the conversation accompanying his surrender of the chancellorship to Henry (who promised ever to be his ‘gracious lord’); nor his words at the block, where he joked with the executioner and announced, with characteristic irony, that he died ‘the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’ More’s eloquent speech at the end of his trial is reduced to the shouting of hackneyed slogans. And Mantel wants us to think (against the balance of probability) that his conviction was not caused by Richard Rich’s perjury; rather, More carelessly lets slip his real opinions because he thinks Rich is a person of no importance.
More’s most poignant utterance was made (during an interrogation) in Cromwell’s presence: ‘I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live’. In Wolf Hall, More only has time to utter the first few words before an enraged Cromwell cuts him off: no harm! What about Bilney, what about Bainham? These Protestants were burned during More’s period as Lord Chancellor, and we have seen More personally supervising Bainham’s torture. His own fate is more merciful than the treatment he dished out to others.
Mantel’s revisionism seems here to be on strong moral and historical turf. More did believe – an embarrassment to his modern admirers – that unrepentant heretics deserved to die. Yet this was an utterly conventional sixteenth-century opinion, and although More detested ‘heresy’, for both theological and social reasons, he hardly initiated a genocidal slaughter. Six Protestants were burned during his Chancellorship, and he was personally involved in only three of the cases. The accusation of overseeing torture – though made by his enemies at the time – is almost certainly false. More, who had a marked aversion to perjury, denied it in detail in print.
As (Mantel’s) More’s refusal to take the Oath of Succession drags on, Anne Boleyn suggests the wrack. ‘No madam, we don’t do that’, Cromwell icily retorts. Cromwell’s occupancy of the higher moral ground defines his relationship with the supposedly urbane More, and is the marrow of our moral kinship with him.
But does he really deserve to stand there? The historical Cromwell was deeply involved in the fate of the Carthusian monks who, like More, could not bring themselves to recognise Henry’s new title: half a dozen were butchered after spending weeks chained to posts by their necks and legs, stewing in their own excrement. A further ten starved to death in prison. They were executed for ‘treason’, which to modern minds tends to seem less unwarranted than punishing heresy. But Cromwell was implicated in heresy cases too, arranging the burning in 1538 of a Franciscan for the political heresy of saying Rome was the true Church. And in June 1535, it was under commission from Cromwell as the king’s vicegerent (or deputy) that at least ten Flemish immigrants were executed for denying infant baptism. They died so that Henry VIII could demonstrate that – despite rejecting the pope – he was still an orthodox Christian. Cromwell personally promised the emperor’s ambassador that the sentences would be carried out. Thomas Cromwell, in fact, was instrumental in more burnings for heresy than Thomas More was, though his reasons were different.
Whether the motivations behind coercive violence really make some instances of it more defensible than others is a question the past can fairly ask the present. And one which historical fiction might help us honestly explore.