Like many lovers of historical fiction, last Sunday night, I tuned in to the Masterpiece Theater premiere of Wolf Hall. In scope and scale, I was not disappointed. The sets were magnificent. The costumes designed with understated accuracy. And the acting and dialogue quiet, thoughtful, and a great deal less soapy than the last television series to feature this particular cast of historic characters. (*Disclaimer: Soapy or not, I thoroughly enjoyed The Tudors.)
Somewhat surprisingly, Thomas Cromwell is depicted as the protagonist of Wolf Hall. We learn about his working class upbringing, his abusive father, and his struggles to fit in at his job. We meet his devoted wife and angelic daughters. And somehow along the way, with what can only be described as a hefty dose of artistic license, the Cromwell of history – a man who was both hated and feared – becomes a sympathetic figure.
This novel version of Cromwell should have prepared me for an equally novel version of Thomas More. It did not. When More first appeared on the screen, I was astonished. Could it be that in the fictional world of Wolf Hall Saint Thomas More is the villain?
That certainly seems to be the case. And yet, Thomas More is generally accepted as a symbol of faith and principle in a period of history that was characterized by corruption, treachery, and religious upheaval. His refusal to sign the 1534 Act of Succession, recognizing Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, cost him his life and cemented his place in history as the ultimate man of conscience. Who can forget his famous last words?
“I die the King’s good servant – but God’s first.”
Thomas More was a lawyer, an author, a statesman, and a devout Catholic. He was born in 1478, executed for high treason in 1535, and canonized by the Catholic Church 400 years later in 1935.
But what do we really know about him? Few wrote about Thomas More while he lived. It was only in death that his life became truly important and only through subsequent biographies that the enduring image of one of the most principled men in English History has been formed. Does that mean that the portrayal of Thomas More in Wolf Hall could be an accurate one?
Many present day historians and religious scholars (whose responses to Wolf Hall have been highly critical) would say no. In an article in the Washington Post (“How ‘Wolf Hall’ will entertain millions — and threaten to distort history in the process”), Professor David Starkey, historian and president of Britain’s National Secular Society, is quoted as saying that there is “not a scrap of evidence” for the narrative of Wolf Hall and describes the plot as “total fiction.” In a similarly themed article in The Financial Times (“What Historians Think of Historical Novels”), Historian Simon Schama writes:
“Try dropping the words Wolf Hall into a room full of historians these days and you’ll find out pretty quickly what they think of historical fiction.”
He goes on to write that:
“It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks” and that “When I was doing research for ‘A History of Britain,’ the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.”
In an article in the Catholic Herald (“Bishops criticise ‘perverse’ depiction of St Thomas More in Wolf Hall”), two bishops have come forward to condemn the portrayal of Thomas More. They have even gone so far as to label Wolf Hall “anti-Catholic.” Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury is quoted as saying:
“It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognize his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.”
Or, as reviewer Colin Burrow at The London Review of Books writes in his article (“How to Twist the Knife”):
“There was no shortage of bastards in the early 16th century, but Thomas Cromwell stands out as one of the biggest bastards of them all.”
You get the picture.
But what about Thomas More, you ask. If he was not the villain that Wolf Hall makes him out to be, who was he? For the last fifty-five years, the most popular image of More has come from Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. In it, Thomas More is portrayed as the quintessential moral man. A man who believes that the consequence of perjury is damnation. In short, a saintly man who follows the dictates of his faith and his conscience all the way to the scaffold.
Based on the historical evidence that we do have, it appears that the truth about Thomas More lies somewhere in between Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons.
Thomas More was born in 1478. He was the son of a lawyer and went up to Oxford with an eye toward becoming a lawyer himself. After two years at school, he returned to London to read law at the Inns of Court. As part of his study, he read scripture and chronicles of the history of England. At that time in English History, law was seen as a holy thing and the teachers of the law were a sort of priesthood, believing that “all laws promulgated by men are…decreed by God” and that those who seek the good within the law do so by divine grace.
The influence of religion in More’s life was so strong that after finishing his legal studies, he lived for four years at The Charterhouse of London – a Carthusian Monastery. In the end, he gave up the idea of taking religious vows and, instead, went on to marry his first wife. Nevertheless, his own personal writings reveal that, throughout his lifetime, Thomas More continued to be preoccupied with the nature of the English church and the nature of God.
He had four children, two of which were daughters. In Wolf Hall, it is Cromwell who is depicted as encouraging the education of his little girls. In reality, it was Thomas More who believed in equal education for all of his children. He took pride in the aptitude and intelligence of his daughters – and with good reason. His eldest daughter, Meg, was fluent in both Latin and Greek, as well as being a skilled translator, and his younger daughter was educated to just as high a standard. More even took on the education of a foster daughter.
That is not to say that Thomas More was perfect. It was the reformation, after all, and he was a devout Catholic in a position of power. He wrote polemics denouncing the Protestant reformers and, at the request of Henry VIII, he wrote the Responsio ad Lutherum, accusing Martin Luther of heresy. He advocated the burning of Luther’s books and, most disturbing to our modern sensibilities, as Lord Chancellor he enforced the heresy laws by imprisoning so-called heretics and burning them at the stake.
When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, Thomas More could not bring himself to support the king. Both as a lawyer (for whom, at that time, law and religion were inextricably intertwined) and as a man of profound faith, he was wholly committed to the doctrine of papal supremacy. His refusal to take the oath of supremacy of the crown, sealed his fate. He was arrested for high treason, tried, and sentenced to death.
Thomas More lived five nights after his trial. On July 5th, 1535, using a piece of charcoal, he wrote his final farewell letter to his daughter, Meg, saying:
“Fare well my dear child and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends that we may merrily meet in heaven.”
On July 6, he was taken to Tower Hill where he was beheaded. He needed a hand up the steps to the scaffold and said to the Lieutenant of the Tower:
“I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.”
400 years later, in 1935, Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church.
Admittedly, there is nothing very saintly about burning protestants at the stake, but remember, although during his lifetime Thomas More was steadfast in his religious beliefs, he was not canonized for how he lived. He was canonized for how he died – a martyr to his faith.
History shows that Thomas More was not a perfect man. It also shows that he was a man of conscience in a brutal and dangerous time – an accomplished lawyer, a learned scholar, and a man courageous enough to stand up to Henry VIII, even though he knew it would cost him his head.
Personally, I find the true story of Thomas More to be historically fascinating. In fact, I would argue that he is one of those figures in history for whom fictional embellishments are completely unnecessary. Of course, that doesn’t mean I intend to forego the next five episodes of Wolf Hall. The truth is, I’m rather looking forward to watching them. As television goes, it’s great entertainment.
But I encourage you, before you allow a highly fictionalized version of history to persuade you that Cromwell was the good guy and Thomas More was the bad one, pick up a history book and find out the truth for yourself.
This article originally appeared on MiMiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Header photo credit: Anton Lesser portrays Thomas More in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC.
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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her latest Victorian romance The Matrimonial Advertisement can be ordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com.