Thomas More – fictionalising history for political purposes

Deconstructing History

‘[Hilary] Mantel has chosen to make [St Thomas] More the singular object of her anti-Catholic vitriol. More does not appear in the book other than in a damning light; no one speaks anything but ill of him and he is not allowed a redeeming feature’


By  Graham Hutton

THE FIRST of a trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell by the successful English writer Hilary Mantel, ‘Wolf Hall’ has experienced a phenomenal success winning huge critical acclaim, selling over 1.2million copies and winning the Mann Booker prize. It has now been turned into a stage play and at both Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s West End this play, too, has been such a success that it is being described with such hyperboles as ‘a landmark’ and ‘a phenomenon’. No doubt the forthcoming TV series will reach even more people. Unfortunately, whatever the literary merits of the book, its popularity is something which Catholics can only regret. The great work of recent historians of the English Reformation such as Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh and Richard Rex, has done much to clear away the obfuscations of traditional English historiography around the medieval Church and the reformation.

Whereas the old Whig view of history portrayed the medieval Church as a deeply corrupt and unpopular institution and looked upon the events of the sixteenth century as a shaking off of superstition, leading to the introduction of a more enlightened religion under the influence of which England was able to spread progressive values to the world, the new generation of historians showed that this was to oversimplify to the point of distortion.

The English medieval Church could now be seen to have had a vitality and a claim on people’s loyalties which made the Henrican and Elizabethan reformations deeply traumatic for the country as a whole. Moreover, in many ways the break with Rome came to be seen not so much as the throwing off of foreign tyranny as an act of state which, in raising the King in Parliament to the level of an unfettered sovereign authority, supreme over matters spiritual as well as temporal, actually facilitated the creation of an all-powerful state unrestrained by the wider laws of Christendom.

Unfortunately Hilary Mantel has ignored these insights and taken us back to the old mind set with a vengeance. The Catholics of Henry VIII’s reign are seen as backward looking enemies of progress whilst the heroes, and above all the enlightened Thomas Cromwell, are the men on the side of history who see how the lot of humanity can be improved by the throwing off of Roman shackles.

This reversion to an outdated historiographical tradition is in itself to be regretted but what is quite unforgiveable and calls for all Catholics to stand up and object vociferously is the portrayal in the book of St Thomas More.

Mantel has chosen to make More the singular object of her anti-Catholic vitriol. My recent rereading of the book confirmed as literally true the impression that I had already formed: More does not appear even once in the book other than in a damning light; no one ever speaks anything but ill of him and he is not allowed a single redeeming feature.

In short he is not so much a life­like character (as one might expect in a novel which has been so widely praised) but rather a caricature, a personification of all that Mantel thinks evil about sixteenth century Catholicism. Since More is one of our greatest saints and the patron of both lawyers and politicians, it is worthwhile to look briefly at how Mantel falsely portrays him and then to compare this with the truth.

Even before More makes his first appearance in the book we are introduced to him as a bigot of the worst kind when Cardinal Wolsey (who, for some reason, Mantel has chosen to portray as some kind of broad-minded Anglican avant la lettre) is said to respond to those accused of heresy by praying for them and warning them to ‘mend their manners, or Thomas More will get hold of them and shut them in his cellar. And all we will hear is the sound of screaming.’

This is the first example of the leitmotif which sounds at almost every mention of More in ‘Wolf Hall’. Often he is contrasted, as in the previous passage, with the enlightened Wolsey: thus ‘when More and his clerical friends storm in, breathing hellfire about the newest heresy, the cardinal can make calming gestures’.

His bigotry is not only cruel but utterly pedantic: so Cromwell says of More ‘He would chain you up for a mistranslation. He would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you’. More is portrayed as almost sadistic, for it is not sufficient for him to have men tortured; rather he must witness the torture himself or even carry it out personally. So, when John Fisher’s cook is to be questioned after the poisoning of Fisher’s household it is said that they need More ‘a master in the twin acts of stretching and compressing the servants of God. He stands by at the Tower while heretics are tortured. He uses Sheffingham’s Daughter [a machine of torture which crushed its victims] and whips at his own house.’

The second aspect of More’s character as portrayed by Mantel is his perverted sexuality which is manifested both in his obsessive self-flagellation and in his contemptuous attitude to women, especially his wife, Alice.

He is described as a ‘failed priest’ at one point and, again, we are told that he ‘would have been a priest, but human flesh called him with its inconvenient demands’. Again Cromwell (or perhaps Mantel, for it is not always easy to discern who is meant to be expressing their thoughts) thinks More’s view is that ‘if you are so lenient with yourself as to insist on living with a woman, then for the sake of your soul you should make it a woman you really don’t like’.

More certainly is shown as not liking Alice. He makes his guests speak Latin in her presence throughout the whole of dinner even though she does not understand a word of it and then humiliates her by inviting his guests to eat adding, ‘All except Alice who will burst out of her corset’. More takes equal delight in humiliating other women, such as his ward Anne Cresacre More, and only his daughter Meg is spared the effects of his misogyny.

Of course, this is all part of Mantel’s anachronistic world view in which Catholics are backward looking obscurantists and misogynists whereas the reformers are almost children of the Enlightenment.

When Cromwell tells More that he is glad that ‘I am not like you… my mind fixed on the next world. I realize that you see no prospect of improving this one’, Mantel has slipped without noticing it, from the mindset of the sixteenth century (where the struggle was to discover the right way of having one’s mind fixed on the next world) into that of the eighteenth.

The real More, the man who was to become a Catholic martyr and saint, was, of course, nothing like the monster whom Mantel depicts.

Far from being a bigot imprisoned in a crude and unquestioning medieval world view, More was a humanist scholar deeply influenced by such enlightened figures as Colet, Grocyn and Erasmus, the latter of whom became a lifelong friend and correspondent.

Under the influence of such men, More dedicated himself to the learning of Greek in order to be able to study the scriptures and the Fathers in their original language. He lectured on the Fathers in order to make their works more known by others. He prayed with the fathers of the Charterhouse not because he was a failed priest (for he was already lecturing on law at the time he attended their devotions) but in order to develop a deep lay spirituality.”

When it comes to Mantel’s portrayal of More’s family life and view of women, nothing could be further from the truth. It is clear that he valued marriage as a sacrament and the Holbein portrait shows the significance to him of his family which he regarded as a kind of religious community of its own.

Although it is true that he married his second wife, Alice, within a month of the death of his first, there is nothing to suggest that either marriage was entered into purely to satisfy the lusts of the flesh, still less that he deliberately married women whom he disliked as a perverse from of self denial.

On the contrary, he touchingly wrote that he could not say which wife was dearer to him, the one who gave birth to his children or the one who raised them. In an age when women were often left uneducated, More was a model of enlightenment following the view of Plato and Pico della Mirandola that girls were as capable of learning as boys and so ensuring that all of his children, daughters as well as sons, were well educated.

Moreover they were given not a narrow backward looking education but a broad liberal arts education which included Latin and Greek, history, philosophy, the study of scripture and the Fathers of the Church and practice in the art of letter writing.

In ‘Wolf Hall,’ More is sour and angry, a man of no wit other than a cruel one deployed to humiliate others. The real More had a delightful character on which many contemporaries commented. Erasmus, hardly an unreliable witness, wrote of More that he is ‘always friendly and cheerful, with something of the air of one who smiles easily, and … disposed to be merry rather than serious or solemn, but without a hint of the fool or the buffoon.’

More the humanist, far from despairing of the ‘prospect of improving’ this world, as Mantel would have us believe, dedicated much of his attention to helping the poor by building an alms house next to his mansion in Chelsea and to reforming the laws of the commonwealth. His praise of Cardinal Morton’s reforms in his ‘Utopia’ and, indeed, the whole of the ‘Dialogue of Counsel’ section of that book, shows a profound understanding of and concern for precisely how ‘this world’ might be improved.

His biographer, John Guy, has shown how More used his brief term as Lord Chancellor to reform the laws in a humane way and describes him as ensuring ‘a smooth transition from the age of clerical to that of common-law chancellors’.

There is only one respect in which even the faintest glimmer of truth can be found in Mantel’s portrayal of More: his hatred of heresy.

Of course, Mantel is anachronistic in the way she deals with this. No one in the 1520s thought that heresy was a thing to be tolerated; the only question was what constituted heresy. The vitriol which More poured out against heretics was no different in kind from that which Luther or Tyndale directed at Catholics.

Each side, unlike modern man, believed in objective truth and believed that holding to that truth was a matter of life and death: life and death of the soul. If it is true, then, that More hated heresy this is not something for which he is to be vilified, unless we are to make the historical error of vilifying everyone in the past who did not share the views of modern man.

Mantel might think that More persecuted heretics with a particular and unusual ferocity but this is far from the truth. In reality only six people were burned for heresy while More was Chancellor. There had been burnings before him and they would continue after him. By contrast, there is no evidence of any personal cruelty on More’s part towards the heretics. Those who recanted were merely allowed to do penance as the law required.

The accusation that More tortured heretics was first made by Foxe many years later to glorify the Protestant martyrs and there is no contemporary evidence for it.

So distant from the truth is Mantel’s depiction of More, then, that it is difficult to tell whether she is merely a bad student of history or, worse, is deliberately creating a calumny against the memory of a saint in order to make a point. Certainly it would not be impossible to believe this, given the animus which Mantel (herself a lapsed Catholic) shows against the Church in ‘Wolf Hall’.

Perhaps the supreme example of this, and one which is truly sickening, comes towards the end of the book. Shortly before his own execution More and his daughter, Meg, who was visiting him in his cell in the Tower, witnessed the leading away of the fathers of the London Charterhouse. They were to be dragged to Tyburn where, still wearing their habits, they would be hanged, drawn and quartered. This was the vicious death which the law of England laid down after 1534 for those who denied that Henry VIII was the Head of the Church.

History records a touching scene in More’s cell when he turned to Meg and said ‘Lo doest thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to the marriage’.

In the novel this scene is depicted in Mantel’s typically twisted way. More is said to be pitiless and to have used Meg in order to strengthen his own resolve. It is perverse of Mantel to have her hero, Cromwell, disapproving of More’s failure to protect Meg from the fearsome sight (as he says he would have done for his own daughter) when Cromwell himself has deliberately arranged for Meg to be in the cell at the requisite time so that she might witness the execution procession.

However, by far the most twisted passage in the entire book comes a few pages earlier when Mantel says of the Charterhouse fathers ‘As April goes out, four treacherous monks are put on trial’, their treason being their having refused the oath of Supremacy.

Mantel then goes on positively to gloat over what happens to them, first mocking their otherworldly response to Cromwell’s attempts to persuade them to swear the oath: ‘go away and leave me to my sanctified death’ and then ending ‘If they think that they will maintain to the end the equanimity of their prayer-lives, they are wrong, because the law demands the full traitor’s penalty, the short spin in the wind and the conscious public disembowelling, a brazier alight for human entrails. It is the most horrible of all deaths, pain and rage and humiliation swallowed to the dregs, the fear so great that the strongest rebel is unmanned before the executioner with his knife can do the job’.

More was regarded by his most enlightened contemporaries as the glory of England and of his age. He behaved throughout his ordeals with the utmost bravery and integrity and died in the end for the truth that the Pope, not the King, is head of the Church on earth.

That was the true measure of the man and it is to be deplored that a novelist with a grudge against the Church can try to destroy his reputation so monstrously. Catholics should stand up for their saint and martyr against such calumny.

GRAHAM HUTTON is the founding partner of the private equity firm Hutton Collins. He studied History at Cambridge and Theology at Oxford as an Anglican before converting to Catholicism in 1982. He serves on a number of charity boards, including the Christian Heritage Centre as well as Aid to the Church in Need, UK, of which he has been chairman since last year.

This article appeared in the September 2014 edition of Annals Australasia, reprinted with kind permission of the Editor, Paul Stenhouse MSC PhD,

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