Tudor drama savages the reputation of a saint

Rehabilitated: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall.

After nearly 500 years as a martyr, Thomas More will tonight be portrayed as a detestable villain in a BBC drama. It’s a controversial reading of history, but how can we judge its accuracy?

Thomas More is one of the most revered figures in British history. In the five centuries since his execution, books, plays and textbooks have portrayed the scholar and statesman as a man of high principle and profound wisdom. He defied the despotic Henry VIII by refusing to accept the king’s separation from his first wife or to bow to his Protestant Reformation, and died with dignity for his faith. He has even been canonised as a Catholic saint.

Tonight, however, a new BBC drama will tear this venerable reputation to shreds. Wolf Hall, a six-part series based on Hilary Mantel’s enormously successful novels, recounts the grisly turbulence of Henry's reign through the eyes of More’s greatest rival — Thomas Cromwell, a wily counsellor who rose from humble roots to become the greatest power in the land.

Cromwell has traditionally been portrayed as a ruthless thug who plundered England’s monasteries and disposed mercilessly of his enemies, including Thomas More. But the Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a much more complex character: a shrewd and occasionally unscrupulous politician, but also a family man who values loyalty and sincerely cares for the common good.

More, by contrast, is cast as a contemptible fanatic and a snob. He beats and humiliates his wife and dismisses Cromwell because of his origins as a blacksmith’s son. His defence of Catholicism is pig-headed and puritanical rather than heroic. And during his period as Lord Chancellor, he slaughters heretics like hens.

This portrait is controversial, but it is not pure fantasy. In recent decades, respected historians of Tudor England have questioned the angelic qualities ascribed to Thomas More. After 490 years of martyrdom, is St Thomas finally getting the comeuppance he deserves?

Which version of history is accurate? Each has its disciples, in academia and fiction alike. But there is a third school of thought which argues that all historical accounts are equally flawed and subjective. It’s impossible to write about the past without imposing our own interpretations on it, some argue, and those interpretations say more about historians than the people they are writing about. Perhaps this series simply shows that we have become more distrustful of the high-minded moral certainty represented by Thomas More.

What's More?

Thomas More has traditionally represented an ideal of moral courage and resistance to tyranny. Many who grew up with this narrative will be affronted to see his reputation sullied on primetime TV.

Others believe that the series rectifies a great historical injustice. More has always got off lightly because of his literary prowess, they say, while lowly Cromwell has been a victim of snobbery.

You Decide

  1. Is somebody who dies for their beliefs always admirable?
  2. Do historical figures make good role models? Or are people from other eras fundamentally different from us?

Activities

  1. As a class, conduct a mock trial in which you debate whether Thomas More is guilty of treason.
  2. Pick a historical figure you have studied and write a short story from their perspective which challenges the conventional view of their character.

Some People Say...

“Unless truth is easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

Hilary Mantel

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is everybody so obsessed with the Tudors?
That’s an interesting question. For a start, many historians see the roots of modern England in this period. It was during the reigns of the Tudors that England broke with the Catholic Church and developed into a centralised state with an independent national identity. But perhaps equally important was the fact that the Tudor courts were full of colourful characters and outrageous intrigue – as well as talented writers to chronicle the drama.
But it happened 500 years ago! Why should we still care?
Because we can’t understand who we are without knowing about where we came from. Exploring the past allows us to think more critically and intelligently about the present. Besides, history is full of great stories...

Word Watch

Plays
The most famous previous portrait of More is the play and film A Man For All Seasons, in which he is the suffering hero and Cromwell the villain.
Scholar
More was one of the most learned Europeans of his age. His most famous work, Utopia, still bamboozles academics today.
Despotic
Henry was a notorious tyrant whom one respected historian has compared to Joseph Stalin.
Protestant Reformation
Before Henry VIII, all monarchs deferred to the pope in spiritual matters. Henry abandoned Catholicism when the pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Monasteries
After Henry’s row with the pope, Cromwell set about stripping the rich and powerful monasteries of their resources. They were later disbanded. This was motivated partly by greed, and partly by ideological opposition to Catholic hierarchy and ritual.
Lord Chancellor
In those days the most powerful office below that of the king.
Heretics
People who did not follow religious orthodoxy. Thomas More ordered the burning of many supposed heretics, but historians dispute whether he was more guilty than others of his era.

Subjects

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