A Historical Perspective on “Wolf Hall”: Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More Revisited

Dr Rebecca Rist, Associate Professor in Religious History, gives her thoughts on the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. 

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Credit:BBC

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Credit: BBC

No doubt many of us have been tuning in to watch the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on Wednesday nights.  I have, but after watching four out of the six episodes and enjoying a slick and glossy BBC period drama, with all critical and historical faculties suspended, the historian in me has revolted – I have had enough.  Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as an angelic family man: calm, measured, patient, prudent, sage, self-effacing, softly-spoken; no matter he’s also a wily, calculating, sycophantic, bullying, side-kicking, yes-man operator.  Most of the other characters look like figures from a sub-Scorsese Mafia movie.  Thomas More is a crusty, pantomime Casaubon: dry, dusty and pedantic are never sexy.  Mark Rylance, who plays Cromwell, is made up to resemble one of Holbein’s pictures of More.  In fact we know from Holbein’s painting that Cromwell looked rather different.  In sum historically-speaking it is a travesty of a highly complex and nuanced period in which the moral qualities – or otherwise – of key players on the English stage would be severely tested and alter forever the religious history of a nation and its relationship with the continent.

I was somewhat heartened, therefore, trawling idly through the reviews, to find this discussion of the television series and in particular the portrayal of Thomas More in The Observer. 

Some good points are made here:  not least Vanessa Thorpe’s understanding of what Thomas More has traditionally meant to English (and other) Catholics; her emphasis that in Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel has deliberately and zealously reacted against previous studies of the period and – presumably in reaction to her Catholic schooling – sought to turn history on its head by portraying Cromwell as the saint and More as the sinner.  Knowing human nature as he did, More would not have been surprised.  Also worthy is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s insistence that More was a much more complex and sophisticated figure than the mere dessicated fanatic Mantel portrays.

The problem is that not just the television series but this article itself still leaves much unquestioned and unanswered.  Nowhere, for example, do we find mention of Cromwell’s interest in Machiavelli by whom he was greatly influenced, nor any serious discussion of Cromwell’s ambitions: what he really wanted to gain from the power plays and court intrigues in which he was no innocent co-opted bystander.  Similarly more needs to be said about More.  The More in A Man for all Seasons with which Wolf Hall is compared is none too accurate a portrayal of the man either: there the problem is that he is too modern in his concerns.  As a lecturer on St Augustine’s The City of God, the real More in his zeal for burning heretics probably had Donatist separatism (a fifth-century schismatic group of proto-Protestants) very much in mind; with regard to ‘The King’s Great Matter’ he was much more likely to have been worried about the universal testimony of Christendom than with his individualist conscience.  We know that he was a devoted family man who was enlightened enough to encourage his much-beloved daughter Margaret More to study Latin and Greek just like the men.

Searching on I then came across this piece by Eamon Duffy in The Tablet.

Again, excellent to see such a learned treatment of More, especially the point that not just he but at the other extreme the Protestant William Tyndale would have had little time for Cromwell.  Furthermore, in evaluating More’s stance on the legal system, it should not be forgotten that in his work Utopia he seems to indicate his views about the need for penal reform in England.  There, through his character Raphael Hythloday, More presents a convincing argument why in the case of theft capital punishment is both immoral and ineffective.  Hythloday tells how he had been present at the table of Cardinal John Morton – Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England under Henry VII – a man of whom More certainly approved.  Significantly Hythloday recounts how when a lawyer tried to rubbish his remarks, Morton shut him up and asked Hythloday to expand his views further.  Hythloday tells this story to the character “Morus” – More himself had been a household page under Morton when young – who gives no indication of disapproving of what Hythloday says.  It therefore seems extremely likely that More very much agreed with Hythloday’s views on the immorality of capital punishment for theft, though not – and this is important to emphasise too – necessarily on other matters.

Continuing my search I also came across this article in The Guardian, and this in The Independent.

Once more some thought-provoking comments here by Martin Kettle and Ellen Jones; it is good finally to see recognition of the influence of Machiavelli on Cromwell’s thinking.  Whereas in the older more sectarian accounts Cromwell is either a brutal manipulator or a laudable hero, depending on your religious sensibilities, the latest secular and ‘amoral’ consensus agrees that he was ruthless and brutal (Machiavellian?) but praises him for being good at the sort of stuff he and Henry VIII wanted done.  Of course this raises philosophical questions.  Is this really what we now admire as a society?  Do we truly want our role models and heroes to be of this mould?  Are we drawn to people who are good at doing – and therefore being – bad?  When we see such figures on the screen in the comfort of our living rooms they have a certain charm.  But when one comes face-to-face with such politicians, bureaucrats, PR men and journalists in real life the consequences are not so dandy.

So if you want to enjoy a period yarn with plenty of intrigue, sex and drama then by all means watch Wolf Hall.  The costumes are beautiful; there are some salty acting vignettes.  But if you want serious history – to really find out what were the ambitions and goals of two such different characters as Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More and their long-term effect on British and European politics I suggest these for starters:

  • Geoffrey Rudolph Elton, Thomas Cromwell: Secretary, Minister and Lord Privy Seal, 2nd edition (Oxford, Davenant Press, 2008).

  • Eamon Duffy, ‘“The comen knowen multitude of crysten men”: A Dialogue Concerning Heresies and the Defence of Christendom’, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More edited by George M. Logan (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp.191-215.

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6 Responses to A Historical Perspective on “Wolf Hall”: Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More Revisited

  1. Cliff says:

    I think it is arrogant for the commenter to suggest that the program’s audience is automatically “hip” enought to get the Cromwell/Machiavelli connection. It may be “mere” exposition, but I think the author would better serve her readers (and the show its viewers) if a more meaningful explanation of how Machiavelli “canonized” political amorality, and how Cromwell put it into practice (even if he wasn’t directly influenced, the “irony” or “coincidence” might also be worth exploring. I think the author of the “Historical Perspective” is entitled to cry “foulle.”

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  3. James Gibbons says:

    “Nowhere, for example, do we find mention of Cromwell’s interest in Machiavelli by whom he was greatly influenced…”

    A few paragraphs later:

    “Once more some thought-provoking comments here by Martin Kettle and Ellen Jones; it is good finally to see recognition of the influence of Machiavelli on Cromwell’s thinking…”

    The latter references two TV critics’ reviews of the television series.

    While Machiavelli may not be named directly, his relevance to the character of Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” is self-evident to any learned viewer. And that’s the basis for why this drama is a product of this period in history. It’s not because “want our role models and heroes to be of this mould,” but rather this type of anti-hero character has been the preeminent type of protagonist in prestige television productions over the last 15-20 years, particularly on the American networks HBO and AMC.

    Mantel intended to offer a corrective to the hagiography of “A Man For All Seasons” as an ultimate goal, but there was proximate thinking at play on her part too. The story’s success on the screen owes much to what’s recently trendy in television — namely the rise and fall of an ambiguously moral protagonist. That’s certainly the story of Cromwell in “Wolf Hall.”

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  6. Paul says:

    In the book (have you read it?) Cromwell’s character is more complex and ambivalent.
    No, I don’t expect “serious history” from a work of fiction. I’m content with what it is – a clever, well written, persuasive story set in an interesting historical context. The tv series, though based on the book, is outstanding as film, with subtle lighting, convincing locations, good acting and able direction, but as usual, the “film of the book” is little more than a gloss on the parent text.

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