There is always a role for challenging the orthodoxies of history – what we have was written or recorded via the filter of the culture and prejudices of the author no matter how scrupulously they claim otherwise. These are fine books and the TV adaptation is excellent, but we need to remember they are a fictionalised account of what happened – written by a brilliant author at the peak of her powers – but still fiction based on one interpretation of the history.
Wolf Hall is filmed and acted in such a naturalistic style, you might be fooled into thinking it was true By Andrew M Brown 12:00PM GMT 31 Jan 2015
Poor Wolsey has gone. Jonathan Pryce was pale and blotchy enough by the end, with those nasty-looking pustules on his face. Wolf Hall is filmed and acted in such a naturalistic style, it is hard not to assume that you are watching the truth. Would it matter if the characterisation was all wrong, as the historian Suzannah Lipscomb claimed on the radio?
Take my father-in-law: he read Hilary Mantel’s novels when they came out and his view was completely changed. Until that point, the Thomas More of his imagination had been Paul Scofield in the Robert Bolt play and film: the man of conscience and high principle, but also popular and loved by his family. Wolf Hall’s More, on the other hand, as played by Anton Lesser, is a sour, sarcastic, desiccated prig who’s horrid to his wife.
Meanwhile Thomas Cromwell, revealed in Holbein’s famous portrait to be a narrow-eyed, malignant schemer, sitting toad-like with his paperwork, is rendered by Mark Rylance as practically a saint. We experience with him the loss of his wife and daughters, his childhood suffering, and the death of his dear patron Wolsey. He is even kind to animals. Of course we empathise.
Revisionist historians such as Eamon Duffy with his masterwork The Stripping of the Altars have now conclusively exposed the Reformation for what it was – a cultural and religious calamity that ordinary people never asked for. And yet what Wolf Hall shows is that even in our age of indifference to religion, the old Protestant version of history – in which the Reformation supposedly liberated a backward people from the grip of murky superstition and greedy Popish priests – has not lost its power over our imaginations.
Last week’s episode had Cromwell confidently declaring to King Henry that the monasteries were riddled with corruption – and he hadn’t come to this view through prejudice, he insisted, but from his own observation. That is untrue: there were abuses, but we know that monasteries were much valued as centres of pilgrimage and sources of spiritual help as well as education and health care. But Cromwell cared nothing for the truth. He was a fanatic. He and his agents made up revolting lies about monks which they spread in lip-smacking pornographic pamphlets, notably The Black Book.
Reign of terror
The novelist CJ Sansom has researched Cromwell and the Reformation in depth for his Tudor mysteries featuring the lawyer-sleuth Shardlake. According to Sansom, Cromwell revelled in torturing his enemies and his network of spies was comparable to that of the East German Stasi.
As for the tragic destruction of England’s aesthetic heritage carried out in the name of Reformation, Sansom comments: “The great bare bones of the monasteries, the melancholy, majestic ruins of places like Rievaulx in Yorkshire or Glastonbury in Somerset, stand to this day as stark reminders of the ruin wrought by Cromwell’s reign of terror.”
Shakespeare himself expressed this poignant sense of loss when he wrote some 50 years after Cromwell (in Sonnet 73) of “bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang”.
Now, Mantel wants to rescue Cromwell from his bad reputation and tell his story, which is all very well, but she does distort the truth. What we get is a sort of propaganda, just as the 16th-century pro-Protestant Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was. We should think of Wolf Hall as fiction – even if it is entertaining fiction.