It began with an email.
A friend had been to London’s West End to see a play called Wolf Hall, a new production by the Royal Shakespeare Company; he asked if I had heard of it?
Heard of it? I was tired hearing of it. Let me explain: Wolf Hall is a novel set in Tudor times by English author, Hilary Mantel, now adapted for the stage. So what, I hear you ask? Well, her book has Thomas Cromwell as hero and Thomas More as villain. Not only is this historically suspect, it is also turning on its head what many—even many non-Catholics—grew up understanding, if for no other reason than having watched the 1966 movie A Man for All Seasons.
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In that Oscar winning film, based on the Robert Bolt stage play of the same name, with its perfectly cast roles, More was accurately portrayed as a noble man who refused to bend to the prevailing wind, whereas, in contrast, Cromwell was seen as the operator of the “wind machine.” Paul Scofield’s award-winning performance, both subtle and understated, captured the struggle of a man whose conscience outweighed everything else. In the end, More may have gone to the block for it, but, at least, it was clear. One suspects the same could not be said for Thomas Cromwell who would have smiled indulgently at the mention of such things as “conscience” before turning back to the affairs of state.
With Thomas More we have a Renaissance Man who wanted to make England and the world a better place. With Cromwell we have a classic case of a man “on the make.” Whilst More was reading the classics and the scriptures, Cromwell was studying Machiavelli. Whereas More as Lord Chancellor was a trained lawyer who understood not just the intricacies of the law but also its limits, the man who succeeded him in influence saw the law as equally malleable as all those he found at the court of Henry Tudor. More was a gentleman in every sense, Cromwell, a thug in ermine.
Now, thanks to Ms. Mantel, we discover that for all these years we have been duped. A veritable sheep in wolf’s clothing, Cromwell was a misunderstood prototype for the modern politician, and, not only that, but one cruelly maligned by, in particular, Catholics. It seems she can say that sort of thing because she is a Catholic, albeit a lapsed one. In fact, she has no love for the Church, or anyone belonging to it, on record as saying it is a religion unfit for “respectable people.” People like Cromwell, I presume, although, his religious devotion seems to have been vague at best, and always secondary to whomsoever was in power, and, needless to say, subservient to his overarching interest: himself.
Wolf Hall was critically acclaimed; predictably, it won many awards. Inevitably, its author, beloved of the BBC amongst others, for a time seemed to be everywhere, and where she went so too did the misunderstood Cromwell. Let me put my cards on the table; I have not read this book, and, furthermore, have no intention of so doing, nor will I be attending the staged dramatization currently being lionized in London’s theatre world, nor, for that matter, shall I be watching the forthcoming BBC/PBS television mini-series. There really is no point, their history is not one I recognize, nor do I wish to read or watch something that traduces perhaps the greatest Englishman who ever lived.
That said, the time does seem ripe for revisionism of a different sort: a return to an understanding that, even if in costume, brutality and its political machinations were no less palatable then than they are today, no matter how adept its henchmen. And, furthermore, the State is never the best arbitrator of matters of conscience—then or now—and no hereditary ruler, or elected functionary, is a law unto himself, no matter how deluded, or drunk on his own power.
Forget this “historical novel,” and its sequels, and pick up a copy of the sadly neglected, Henry The Eighth, by Francis Hackett. Published in 1929, the author was both Irish and Catholic, although his allegiance to both grew more vague as he grew older, ending his days with his Danish wife in her homeland. He spent five years examining original source material, and wrote what was then a bestseller. He doesn’t “pull his punches”: errant Popes do not come off well, in fact, very few do, More and Catherine of Aragon excepted. And, as to his portrait of Cromwell, I wonder what Ms. Mantel would make of it, based as it is on primary sources and painting a thoroughly loathsome picture of one of England’s greatest criminals. When not robbing monasteries and defrauding the treasury, often for his own ends, he was arranging the cruel deaths of anyone whom his Lord and Master Henry deemed unworthy that day to live: blood flowed as freely as the whims that decreed death—not so much a man for all seasons as one for all treasons.
But, it’s easy to see what it is about Cromwell that today’s media love. Thanks to Wolf Hall, he is perceived as a modern man, a secular hero, and conveniently free of the traits that modernity can’t stand about Thomas More, namely, a man of family and faith, of loyalty and friendship, of conscience and sanctity. In fact, More’s traits, uncommon even in his own day, are now derided and undermined by aspects of today’s English law. In contrast, Cromwell is seen as a triumph of the state over religion, of pragmatism over truth, and, therefore, of man over God. Only such a conclusion is just another pathetic illusion in this age of ours when dark is light and light is too bright for eyes that cannot see.
Today, much is made of his humble origins, Cromwell having emerged from the streets. What is overlooked is the fact that the stench of those same Tudor streets never left him, or his edicts. In the end, however, this keen student of Machiavelli may have fared better if he had studied at least one passage of Scripture: Matthew 26:52, namely, those that live by the sword….
His end was to be as sorry as the many he had despatched to a similar fate. When arrested he yelped and cried, before, holed up in the Tower of London wrote grovelling letters of undying devotion to his King. The devotion was to die, of course, on a July day in 1540, when, like another Thomas before, he placed his head on the block and, once more, the executioner’s blade was raised….
Of course, what no one mentions is that Cromwell may have lost his head by Royal Command, but the House of Cromwell was not to be outdone. A century later another Cromwell, Oliver, arose from Cambridgeshire and made his way to London and in so doing not only toppled a throne, but had the head of a monarch as well. The actions of his kinsman would have no doubt pleased Thomas if only he had known whilst rotting in the Tower awaiting execution and writing of his love for all things royal.
Needless to say, Oliver Cromwell took this family “love” of the state and hatred of Catholicism to new heights—or is it depths? His name is, to this day, despised in Ireland. It is not simply that he propagated a war against the Irish—Ireland’s history is full of that; no, it was the manner of the propagation. There is the sad litany of towns attacked and burned before the resultant massacres of prisoners, women and children, to be followed by the barbarity of ethnic cleansing. Irish Catholics were given an infamous choice: To Hell or Connaught, die or move to the barren lands in the West. What followed, thereafter, for those that did move was hellish in any event, with both famine and bubonic plague causing the deaths of thousands, all watched over by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Now, wrapped in Calvinist garb, this was simply the philosophy of The Prince on a grand scale.
To end, some good news and some bad news.
The bad? Wolf Hall is coming to America, with a Broadway transfer in the offing, tell all your friends—not to go.
And, the good news?
A lesson to all those who propose the inevitability of history repeating itself, telling as it does of a still greater force in charge. It begins with a dinner party some years back whilst on holiday in Italy. On a veranda, looking out to Castel Gandolfo, I sat with two others, both English, one a descendant of Thomas More and the other a descendant of Thomas Cromwell. On learning this, I seemed the only one surprised by it, but not half as surprised as further learning that not one but both were Catholic. And so, having watched these two merrily meet, there was nothing left for me to do but look towards the vault of heaven, and through the gentle light of an Italian evening, marvel at the hope, and indeed mercy, available to all.