Monday, July 6, 2015

A Tale of Two Thomases: Wolf Hall vs. A Man for All Seasons

It’s 1535. The prison is shrouded in deep shadow; only a thin white light illumines the fierce human drama taking place within its stone walls. Weak from long imprisonment, Sir Thomas More gazes fixedly at his cruel-faced inquisitor, Thomas Cromwell. They’re sizing each other up, pondering, deliberating, performing a dozen separate mental calculations. It's a meeting of great political minds, and neither will cave.

Fiction is like a mirror of society. If we are to know what a generation feels, we must look at its stories, its narratives, its fantasies. And it's difficult to think of a better example than the way the story of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell has evolved over the years.

Within the last half-century, both have been the subject of wildly popular biopics. The first, 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, scooped up six Oscars and five BAFTAs. The other, 2014 miniseries Wolf Hall (based on the novel by Hilary Mantel), arrived amidst a flurry of critical applause, and will probably accomplish similar feats once awards season rolls around. Obviously, there's something about these two historical figures that captivates us.

Mark Rylance as Cromwell; Anton Lesser as More
In most ways, More and Cromwell were completely different. More was wealthy and privileged, a companion of every intellectual in 16th century Europe; Cromwell was the runaway son of a dishonest blacksmith, learning street smarts on the battlefields of France. More is still revered; Cromwell has become far overshadowed by his distant Puritan relative. More was Catholic, Cromwell Protestant. The former is remembered as an official representing the government, the latter as a civilian trying to escape it.

The two men came into conflict over the matter of the king’s divorce. King Henry VIII had been married to Catherine of Aragon for twenty years, but no heir was born to the couple. Desiring a son, the king called into question his wife's initial virginity. The relevant question: Was their marriage lawful? Couldn't the pope annul it so Henry could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn? The pope refused. If Henry proceeded, the Bishop of Rome would excommunicate him. Henry did, and was.

With the aid of his right hand man, savvy politician Thomas Cromwell, Henry not only married Anne but split English Christianity in half to do it. Thanks to Cromwell, much of the opposition to Henry's marriage was quickly eliminated, with the exception of the king’s former counselor, Thomas More.

Paul Scofield as More, John Hurt as Richard Rich, Leo McKern
as Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons
The influential Catholic statesman stood athwart history yelling stop (or more correctly, not yelling anything, which was even more effective). To many, his pointed silence on the issue was mere pedantry, but More knew his discretion could save his life. He foresaw that the determination to recklessly tear down laws in service of a mix of righteous and unrighteous motives would ultimately eat its own.

In the end, it ate both More and Cromwell. They were executed within a few years of each other, and in similar ways for similar reasons, but despite this, history remembers them very differently.

Thomas More has done pretty well for himself. He's a saint in both the Catholic and Anglican traditions. His book Utopia is still being studied and discussed. He's heralded as one of the first Christian Humanists. Up until recently, he was given a sympathetic film portrayal, even in crummy Protestant films and salacious HBO dramas.

A Man for All Seasons presents a hero almost impossibly upright. Paul Scofield’s Thomas More is a witty, urbane scholar, amusing, intelligent, and virtuous without a hint of sanctimony. His graciousness arouses a mixture of resentment and befuddled awe among his enemies.

Not so Thomas Cromwell, the villain of the piece. In A Man for All Seasons, he's a sleazy, rotund political operator who’s sold his soul for power. That image tended to be the accepted account. Historians agreed that Cromwell was a ruthless, Machiavellian scoundrel who, sin of sins, conspired to kill the sainted Thomas More.

2014’s Wolf Hall, interestingly, does not dispute any of those details, but rather presents them as admirable. Admittedly, to do so it does monkey with some of the facts. In the same way that A Man for All Seasons omitted More's history of torture (alleged), Wolf Hall ignores Cromwell's history of torture (proved). In both, the hero is sanitized to become palatable for a modern audience (in Wolf Hall more so). But that's beside the point. We're less concerned that they were different, than why they were different.

Wolf Hall is A Man for All Seasons filtered through the modern sensibility of The Godfather or Game of Thrones. If Scofield's More was a classical hero, achieving success through virtue, Mark Rylance's Cromwell is a modern hero, achieving success through any means necessary. Between the two stories, we see a huge shift in concepts of storytelling.

We're part of the post-Watergate generation. Heroes invariably have feet of clay, and villains sympathetic back stories. The only really successful hero must achieve his goals through adept maneuvering and well-placed cruelty. Our horror at Michael Corleone's deeds is not unmixed with admiration. This is justice, we think. The world is cold, how else can he act? And how clever he is! We gasp at the latest evils of Game of Thrones, and ponder the paradoxical truth that the only way to survive is to be a good traitor and a treasonous ally. Instead of Mr. Smith in Washington, we have Frank Underwood lying and cheating his way to power.

And survival is the obvious goal here. The world of More and Cromwell is little different from our own. Danger lurks in every street, in every school - even in our churches. The strength of our faith offers little protection from a bullet to the skull. Sometimes, like Thomas More, our faith is what gets us in trouble in the first place. It's becoming more and more dangerous to risk concrete things - like our lives - on abstract beliefs.

This begs the question: should we? Is it the right thing to throw away everything for a pedantic point? This paper says the king has authority over the church. Well, it's just a piece of paper. It's just a signature. I've got a family to support. It would be wrong to die for a creed. It'd be like suicide, and that's wrong, right?

A more relevant question: Why should I risk my livelihood, privacy, and comfort to bake a cake?

Reason would reply: You shouldn't. This view is aptly summarized by Thomas More's daughter Meg, in A Man for All Seasons:
Meg: "God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth." Or so you've always told me.
More: Yes.
Meg: Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.
More: What is an oath then, but words we say to God?
Meg tries other ways. She attempts to wear down his resolve with physical considerations. His family is suffering. God doesn't need this useless tribute. His responses are all batted away, his appeals to dignity and sense found empty. At last, he abandons reason: "It isn't a matter of reason. Finally, it's a matter of love." Thomas More was executed 480 years ago today.

Contrast this vision with Mantel's Cromwell. He struggles with the tension between belief and pragmatism. He's a protestant, but he's willing to discard that fact in the face of need. He is puzzled by the curious, self-destructive belief of men like protestant James Bainham. His world is based on doubts and half-known facts, underworld violence and unlawful bargaining. From the book:
A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.
Ironically, while Thomas More was famous for his crucial silence, alongside Rylance's reticent Cromwell, Scofield seems like a chatterbox. Cromwell's power is in his mystery. He is infinitely pliant - anything the king wants, Cromwell can deliver. Anything the king wants, Cromwell can be.

And that begs a new question: If we bow beneath any pressure, what are we but slaves? Is there anything to which we can point and say, that I will not do? If survival is our only goal, how are we better than the brute animals, who kill and destroy and strike at friend or foe without reason? Or perhaps not so unreasonably. For it is reason and practicality, ultimately, which does bring us to this pass - a narrow and dead-end pass, which leads to a fortress where we make our last stand, lashing out at every intruder and dying utterly, utterly alone, in a barren and friendless old age. I will do anything to survive means that survival becomes worthless.

At the end of Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell has achieved all his desires. He has consolidated his power, bought the king's everlasting friendship (at least for now), and gained the whole world. And as he steps into Henry's embrace, his eyes are cold and empty.



  1. ". . . than the way the story of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell has evolved over the years."

    Yes, evolution. For 475 years historians--Protestant, Catholic, and none-of-the-above-- have examined every scrap of the evidence and judged Thomas Cromwell the villain and Thomas More the man of principle and hero. Then Hilary Mantel writes a piece of what she freely admits is "historical fiction" that plays into the anti-Catholic/anti-religious (inculcated) mindset of modern day Britain and suddenly history flips on its head. Surprising that. It must be all those amazing fictional conversations. Oh, the conversations may have taken place and involved the participants depicted, it's just all the words are created out of whole cloth and Hil's posterior. That gets the "low-information" scholars/readers/viewers every time.

    Wolf Hall is an incredible piece of television. But then again they say if you ever meet the Devil, he'll be the most attractive and charming man you'll ever see.

    1. I think the anti-More crowd probably got its start with Daughter of Time - and I get the feeling that Cromwell in The Tudors (a show I didn't watch) was a bit more sympathetic than usual. In the end, I don't think either AMFAS or Wolf Hall gives the period the ideological complexity it should have - neither story understands that for these people, killing a person because of their beliefs was pretty usual behavior (Cromwell's boohooing over that is ridiculous). Either way, I decided not to tackle that issue in this piece - it's been dealt with aptly elsewhere.


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