I have read two of Hillary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on King Henry XVIII and his fixer Thomas Cromwell. Now that the BBC has launched a television series on Wolf Hall, I will probably watch it. I see from reviews it is brilliant television. The novels were absorbing reads and beautifully-written. That said, one has to take into consideration the author’s point of view, which is that of a lapsed Catholic who is full of scorn for her former religion. One figure who does not fare well in her portrayal is St. Thomas More, who is seen through the eyes of his enemies.
Eamon Duffy, author of The Stripping of the Altars takes on the revisionist history in the TV series and novels with a post now on up Aleteia (originally published in The Tablet). A most interesting read and if the TV series and the novels provoke more responses like this, they will have done some good in the long run.
We know More better than almost anyone else in Tudor England. We are familiar with his eloquence, learning and often risqué humour, his legal reforms and judicial integrity, and his sardonic realism about the snake-pit of Tudor politics. Roper’s words and Holbein’s paintings open windows into More’s household at Chelsea, full of laughter, music and exotic pets, where girls were treated as equal to boys and taught Greek and Latin to a standard that would shame any modern undergraduate.
But More’s reputation has fallen on hard times. For centuries, he was an icon of innocent suffering for conscience’s sake; more recently, he has been represented as a hypocrite, a bigot and a persecutor. The More of Wolf Hall is the latest and most powerful example of this reversal. Mantel’s character is More as he was perceived by his enemies – a joyless puritan, a man whose social charm but cruel humour masked a steely religious bigotry. He is a sneering misogynist who enjoys humiliating the women in his household. Above all, he is a religious fanatic, flogging himself in a fear-driven piety, obsessively writing vitriolic and obscene polemical books, implacably hunting down defenceless Protestants, imprisoning and torturing them in his own cellars.
Far from being the innocent victim of a cruel regime, this More is a calculating political schemer, treated better than he deserved.