Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, based on Robert Bolt’s play by the same name, swept the Oscars. With Paul Scofield in the lead role of Sir Thomas More, the film depicts the martyrdom of a man whose conscience would not permit him to submit to the tyranny of an unjust law. The drama swirls around the contest of wills between Bolt’s hero—More—and Thomas Cromwell. In her Wolf Hall trilogy (now complete with The Mirror and the Light), Hilary Mantel rewrites the narrative of the same events and presents the world with a new hero for modern times: the now-rehabilitated Thomas Cromwell. No longer an amoral, conniving minister who orchestrated More’s death after he failed to break him, the new Cromwell is a thoughtful and visionary statesman with bureaucratic genius who aims to transform England into a free republic. If the Bolt version of the events warns that an over-powerful state may leave no space for an individual conscience, the Mantel version turns this perspective on its head. She contends that the common good needs no such conscience driven individuals and that true progress is accomplished when leaders force through necessary changes.
Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is not modest in its ambitions. The trilogy grapples with the major historical questions surrounding a critical historical juncture; it is correctly understood as a quest to define and characterize Parliament and the Church of England as they developed during Thomas Cromwell’s tenure as Henry VIII’s chief minister. Styling itself a novelized version of historical fact taking few liberties with the record, the account is positioned to be the best-known version of “the origins of modern England”—as the prize committee for the Man Booker put it when granting Mantel the prestigious award for her second volume. In studying this period, historians ask how we understand these two institutions. Was it papal oppression that drove England from Rome or did an egotistical King and his corrupt ministers join the Reformation to further their political power? Was it, instead, an ultimately tragic incompatibility between the temporal concerns of the state (Henry VIII’s quest for a son) with the spiritual concerns of papacy (the indissolubility of a marriage)? Questions surrounding the rise of Parliament are even more complicated since the institution was hardly independent of the Crown and its ministers and had existed for centuries before. Do we see here the rise of the gentry, or their coopting through generous grants of lands and royal bullying? Mantel purports to answer many of these questions in her books with reference both to the historical record and the works of pedigreed historians.
To provide a brief overview of the historical events covered in A Man for All Seasons and Mantel’s work: Henry VIII began his reign under a propitious star: he was charming and erudite, he had married a Spanish princess allying himself to one of Europe’s most powerful monarchies, and England was entering a period of economic growth. He was also profoundly conservative: in 1521, the King himself defended papal prerogative and traditional sacramental theology against Martin Luther in his treatise Defense of the Seven Sacraments. But the marriage produced only one daughter and by 1527 Henry had become persuaded that the marriage itself was invalid. Had the pope granted him an annulment, he could have married a younger woman—and he had his eyes on Anne Boleyn. The pope, however, refused to act on Henry’s petition. In 1531, after years of failed negotiations, Henry was declared head of the Church of England by act of Parliament and shortly thereafter married Anne.
In 1535, the King’s former friend and Chancellor Thomas More was executed under a novel law that required the population to swear their support for the new marriage. (Bolt’s drama and Mantel’s first volume end with More’s death.) Twelve months later, Queen Anne herself was executed (the conclusion of Mantel’s second volume). Martyrdoms followed which included both conservatives who had refused the King’s title and evangelicals who gave sermons that were too fiery for the King’s conservative taste. By 1540, all of the religious houses in England were marked for dissolution and their lands transferred to the Crown. That same year, Thomas Cromwell himself was executed (the conclusion of Mantel’s trilogy). By Henry’s death in 1547 it was clear that England would remain Protestant despite the general popular distaste for Reformation, but it was also clear that new laws would originate, at least officially, in Parliament. Identifying the agents who worked these tremendous changes has drawn historians to the period since before John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Competing Tudor Histories
Conflicts in historical sources are inevitable and a historian’s (or historical novelist’s) method of resolving those conflicts reveals their presuppositions about human nature and the nature of institutions. At least one Tudor historian has pointed out that Mantel has created episodes out of whole-cloth, that she takes liberties with the historical record, or that her reading of certain episodes is simply not credible. But other historians have been kinder. Mantel has explicitly relied on the older work of Richard Marius and G. R. Elton to justify her characterizations. Diarmaid MacCullough, who penned the most recent scholarly biography of Cromwell, has said that “The Cromwell who reveals himself over the course of [Mantel’s] novels is very close to the Cromwell I met” and the two have shared a stage to discuss Tudor history. We are thus left with competing histories. On the one hand, we have historians of the Revisionist school who find it unbelievable that Thomas Cromwell was more winsome than Thomas More, or that he was magnanimous, loyal, and altruistic. On the other hand, we have Mantel and MacCullough who tell us the opposite: that England needed a visionary leader in Cromwell to bring the country into the modern world.
The line between a statesman whose thorough knowledge of government allows him to propose inspired interpretations of existing laws and one who re-writes the law to eliminate opponents is somewhat open to interpretation. In Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell and his political allies manipulate institutions to steamroll anyone who stands in their way—and this is portrayed as a bad thing. In a critical exchange between Cromwell and Richard Rich (who will end up perjuring himself to bring about More’s execution), Cromwell cynically justifies the measures he is willing to take under the general rubric of “minimizing the inconvenience” to the monarch. In the film version, he acknowledges that precisely these sorts of actions make administrators disliked and unpopular, but contends that this is the nature of doing his job well. This, however, places him as a foil to More’s character who has already remarked that men who forsake their consciences lead their country to ruin whatever their noble intentions. Bolt’s More is a man, therefore, both restricted by the law (in that he is forced to submit to the historical jurisdiction of the papacy) and enabled by the protections the law grants to those who wish to withhold their consent to the actions of the state. Bolt vindicates More’s view of the law, having him convicted on the basis of perjured testimony, and granting him a final speech which exposes the injustice of the law under which he is condemned. Mantel argues the opposite position: men such as More hide behind the law, using their station and privileges to oppress others, then evading punishment by clever lawyering. To drive these “cunning foxes” from their dens, Cromwell’s character adroitly bends the law to realize his vision for a better England and ultimately tricks More into exposing his own treason (Rich does not perjure himself in the Mantel version). In cases where Cromwell’s vision is opposed, she depicts the opposition in the most unfavorable light to justify her hero’s actions.
Characterizing Cromwell’s handling of the government as statesman-like is challenging because of his well-documented willingness to kill under the slightest legal pretext. Mantel must therefore spend considerable time vilifying the various people who cross her protagonist. They are legion. Thomas More’s wit and legal acumen are reduced to calculated cunning hidden beneath a “mask of malice.” Rich no longer commits perjury against More; he outfoxes More into making a treasonous statement. Queen Anne Boleyn goes to the block not because Cromwell realizes a political opportunity in Jane Seymour, but because Anne is selfishly promoting her faction to honors and power without any consideration of the good of the realm. Mantel tells us that the men who are executed alongside the queen were cruel to one of Cromwell’s friends on an earlier occasion, justifying the fact that he fabricates a charge of adultery against them. The Pole and Courtenay families whom Cromwell destroys are depicted as political schemers engaged in actual treason. She tells the reader when the Catholic martyrs are executed for treason, but often omits the scant nature of the evidence. All of these omissions or additions serve a larger aim: to justify Cromwell’s actions and his vision for England in the reader’s mind.
That Mantel could explain away the casualties of Cromwell’s administration and that her reviewers accept her explanations speaks volumes as to the contemporary yearning for powerful government.
And this brings us to Mantel’s discussion of the Reformation. Years before the dissolution of the monasteries becomes politically feasible, the trilogy foreshadows it when Cromwell accuses the monks (all of them) of “hypocrisy, fraud, and idleness.” Mantel severs the connection between the institutional church and learning—noting that the major authors of Latin grammars were “university men” (not monks)—but fails to mention the fact that most university men were in holy orders and one of the most famous was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. She deletes from the record the friar Edward Powell who was headmaster of Eton and who was martyred alongside the evangelical Robert Barnes (although Barnes’ conviction is covered). She omits that the author of an earlier grammar book for boys was a friar. She fails to mention the few well-documented schools that were run by monasteries, implying that no monks ran schools. She passes over the fact that both the universities had colleges devoted to the training of friars and monks. If her readers do not know that the monastery at Evesham kept a school or that the friars constituted a major portion of the university student populations, they will not reckon the loss when Cromwell dissolves such institutions. They will accept at Cromwell’s word that the English Reformation was enacted to free men’s consciences with regard to worship, that the seizures of Church property targeted only waste, and that the Reformation was largely unopposed among the learned (Catholics being ignorant or corrupt).
As a particularly telling vignette that captures Mantel’s approach to historical truth: in one brief concession to monastic character, her Cromwell deplores the King’s vindictive attitude toward the London Charterhouse monks, acknowledging this particular order’s universally high standard of behavior (and entirely justified) high reputation among the English people. She omits his role in the martyrdom of the house prior in 1535, four additional monks in 1536, and the plan he personally orchestrated to bring the house to acknowledge the royal supremacy. These omissions serve to justify the elimination of the powers who oppose her hero. If her readers do not know that it required a well-coordinated policy of social isolation, strategic executions, starvation, monastic transfers, and preaching to break the will of a monastic community, they can accept that the royal supremacy was generally palatable to all but the arrogant and power hungry among England’s religious elite.
And thus, Mantel has created a neat narrative where the old religion is opposed to a modern system of government founded on freedom for the Englishman that is protected by Parliament (at least when it is guided by the firm, prescient hand of Cromwell). As Mantel’s Cromwell says:
It is time to say what England is, her scope and boundaries: not to count and measure her harbor defenses and border walls, but to estimate her capacity for self-rule. It is time to say what a king is, and what trust and guardianship he owes his people: what protection from freight incursions moral or physical, what freedom from the pretensions of those who would like to tell an Englishman who to speak to his God.”
As she tells it, there were no real casualties to the reforms of Cromwell’s government. To be sure, the unjust who hid behind the show of religion needed to be removed and there were a few unfortunate souls whom Cromwell could not protect from the unpredictable wrath of Henry VIII. But none of these are deaths properly attributable to Mantel’s hero.
The praise heaped upon the trilogy demonstrates that Mantel has justified Cromwell’s actions to the satisfaction of modern reviewers and readers. The architect of the Tudor administrative state who personally effected the deaths of multiple political enemies (not to mention the destruction of the monasteries and executions of people who opposed the religious changes) comes forth from her pages as a sincere, observant, far sighted statesman who aims at nothing but the common good. Her Cromwell is the perfect bureaucrat: unswervingly loyal to his friends, protecting towards the poor, and meticulous in his administration of duties. That Mantel could explain away the casualties of Cromwell’s administration and that her reviewers accept her explanations speaks volumes as to the contemporary yearning for powerful government, guided by a brilliant statesman who does not let the unenlightened, however sincere or popular their ideas may be, impede the changes necessary to realize the latent potential in the common law of England.
Indeed, in some ways, Mantel’s modern hero has transcended justice. When Henry VIII asks his minister if he was “right” to execute Anne to clear the way for Jane Seymour, Cromwell thinks: “Right? The magnitude of the question checks him . . . Was I just? No. Was I prudent? No. Did I do the best thing for my country? Yes.” Mantel has therefore given us her version of a model statesman: one who has the vision to discern the “good of country” without any traditional morality that might limit his actions.
It is unremarkable that a modern storyteller would read her philosophical convictions back onto a historical figure or that her contemporaries would find these resonances compelling. Yes, Bolt’s More does sometimes quote verbatim from the historical record (the final scene with his family in the Tower is drawn from Meg Roper’s account and More’s speech at the trial is in William Roper’s account). In another scene, however, he grounds his refusal of the oath in a remarkably modern sovereign “I” which would have made him an attractive figure to anti-McCarthyites who refused to publicly reject Communism. In the work under discussion, Mantel’s disdain for Catholicism is evident and she gives voice to these beliefs in her Cromwell. What is more significant however, is the connection between discredited beliefs and conscience: by characterizing nearly every Catholic figure in her trilogy as villainous or dangerously delusional, she implies that conscience when it applies to politics (as opposed to worship style and words) is really nothing but a subterfuge for treason. The popularity of the work indicates that this characterization is palatable to many modern readers.