The Priest and the Ploughboy: Hilary Mantel, More, and Cromwell

Celebrated historical-novelist Dame Hilary Mantel has died at 70. Of her many books, she will be most remembered for her final triumph, the Wolf Hall trilogy. Recently, she received an annual prize for historical writing from Lapham Quarterly, whose editor acclaimed that Mantel “has done for Thomas Cromwell what Shakespeare did for Richard III!” This may be true, but in a different sense than the statement intended. Mantel’s epic trilogy certainly brings the high drama and court politics of Tudor England to life in Shakespearian technicolor. But critics accuse her of unfairly caricaturing Cromwell’s rival, Thomas More, with the same malice and factual license with which the Bard transformed the Yorkist king into a monstrous hunchback.

Of course, the works are fiction. Diarmaid McCulloch goes so far, in the first lines of his imposing Cromwell biography, to assert that “calling them ‘historical novels’ [is] an injustice; they are novels which happen to be set in the sixteenth century.” In spite of Mantel’s “profound knowledge,… novels they remain.” Yet, Mantel herself professed, in accepting Lapham Quarterly’s prize, that her greatest satisfaction has been to see her trilogy “capture the attention of historians, and… [inspire] new academic work.” Clearly, she took her work seriously and hoped that others would do likewise.

What does Mantel’s trilogy achieve? Albeit for a different audience, she has affected a reconstruction of Cromwell in the popular imagination akin to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transformation of Alexander Hamilton from elitist friend of bankers to plucky immigrant and scourge of hypocritical slave-driving nabobs. Mantel’s Cromwell is the archetypal self-made man; great in genius yet meek in spirit. Contemporary rivals saw in Cromwell a grasping aspirant of Machiavellian ambition. Mantel portrays a humane statesman, the paragon of an age: a discerning judge of men, he masters and recalls every detail, learns languages with urbane ease, gives astute counsel, and practices shrewd diplomacy. Most of all, he is loyal and generous. In Mantel’s retelling, the driving force in Cromwell’s career is his memory of his first master Cardinal Wolsey’s betrayal and downfall. He sets himself unflinchingly to work vengeance, but, hearing his inner discourse, the reader perceives a good and faithful servant rather than a maniacal Monte Cristo.

Above all, Mantel’s Cromwell retains an inner humility born of his lowly origin. His jealous, plotting rivals of noble lineage declaim him as upstart blacksmith’s son from Putney. Readers see a great-souled man of affairs who treats the lowliest household servant with dignity, his wife with tenderness, and his children with affection. In contrast, Mantel portrays Thomas More as a self-absorbed snob and domineering domestic tyrant. The juxtaposition is embodied midway through the first novel in the person of Dick Purser, Cromwell’s kennel boy. Cromwell casually recounts of his prior history that “More took him in out of guilt after he was orphaned—I cannot say More killed the father outright, but he had him in the pillory and in the tower, and it broke his health. Dick told the other boys he did not believe God was in the Communion host, so More had him whipped before the household. Now I have brought him here. What else could I do? I will take in any others he ill-treats.”

In an earlier chapter, Mantel invents a childhood meeting between Cromwell and More. Her protagonist, at that point merely an anonymous servant in Lambeth Palace, brings a bread loaf to his future rival, then a fourteen-year-old scholar preparing for Oxford. Cromwell sets the loaf down and hesitates momentarily: “Master Thomas said, ‘Why do you linger?’ But he did not throw anything at him. ‘What is in that great book?’ He asked, and Master Tomas replied, smiling, ‘Word, words, just words.’” Mantel returns to this scene several times throughout the trilogy. Before More’s death, Cromwell even asks whether he remembers the interaction; naturally, he does not. Mantel’s Cromwell sees everything, especially the human dignity of the lowly; he forgets nothing. Her sneering, conceited More would never condescend to share the world of letters with an invisible house boy.

This vivid and compelling narrative is, by most accounts, grossly inaccurate. A simple web search will find innumerable articles objecting that More was, in fact, a witty and generous host who presided over a happy household. (For the liberal education he bestowed upon his adoring daughters, one commentator creatively reinterprets him as a proto-feminist!) A common objection is that Mantel has More not only order the torture of Protestant ‘heretics,’ but even unflinchingly interrogate one during the gruesome act. Eamon Duffy writes in the Times Literary Supplement that “we can be fairly certain that claims that More used torture against heretics are false. Whatever else he was or wasn’t, More was a truthful man.”

Why, then, does Mantel contradict scholarly consensus? The Wolf Hall trilogy is, in part, a morality tale for our present age. As John Anderson has written for America magazine that “if readers prefer Cromwell to More… it is because she has tapped into their inner small-d democrat.”

But the obviously prejudicial nature of Mantel’s characterization may run deeper than cultural presentism. In a 2017 essay for First Things entitled ‘Hilary Mantel and the Devil,’ Patricia Snow convincingly mapped the Wolf Hall trilogy onto the childhood trauma Mantel recounts in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Mantel’s story is tragic and heartbreaking. As a young child in an obscure, socially conservative English village in the 1950s she endured the bewildering shame of social ostracism when her parents’ marriage failed. Mantel’s father moved, not out of the house, but into her bedroom; a new lover, Jack, moved into the master bedroom (though, Mantel later realized, her mother continued to sleep with both men). Mantel witnessed her mother verbally abused by scandalized neighbors. Titillated schoolmates pressed her for the tawdry details. More alarmingly, darker forces than village gossip asserted themselves amid the moral squalor of a very broken household. Various signs of demonic activity culminated for the young Mantel in a terrifying encounter with a translucent shadow “[as] high as a child of two … The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking.”

Though admittedly wary of over-zealous psychoanalytical commentary, Snow argues that for Mantel, Thomas More embodies the censorious Catholic Church which excommunicated her mother and planted deep-seated guilt in her nascent personality. Meanwhile, “out of the raw material of the historical Cromwell, [Mantel] fashions a powerful father, one whose love-hate relationship with Anne Boleyn allows her to express, in the safe forum of historical fiction, both sides of her ambivalence towards her mother.”

So much for Wolf Hall’s historicity and Mantel’s motives. Readers should be wary of both. But if Mantel’s reimagining of Cromwell and More are somewhat novel, her reduction of their titanic struggle into a totemic allegory is not. As Duffy notes, heavy-handed fictionalization of Tudor-era Reformation politics dates back to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and has not ceased since. Edwardian Archbishop of Canterbury-turned-Catholic convert, Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, for example, produced a popular series of romantic melodramas with “Protestant villains [who] are hiss-boo bad, [and] Catholic heroes and heroines sweetly virtuous.”

More recently, Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, depicted More as an urbane champion of religious liberty. The late U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia silently evoked the enduring emotional power of that narrative when he wore a replica of More’s hat to President Obama’s second inauguration. The problem here, as literary critic Cynthia Haven neatly summates, is that “neither Bolt nor Mantel portrayed the real Thomas More, because the real Thomas More was a medieval man, not a modern one at all.”

The religious and court politics of Henrician England have been so heavily and frequently dramatized because the stakes are high. Human beings are creatures of story. We are born into times and places of largely inherited significance. Contrary to modern myth, the world is not ours to shape by force of will. We are shaped by the past in more numerous and intricate ways than the most able historian could begin to fathom in a hundred lifetimes. This is the appeal and the danger of historical fiction; it is why Mantel’s novels are read, celebrated, and criticized. What, then, should confessional Protestants make of her epic trilogy?

The importance of the question and the key to answering it is, I think, captured in some passing references to William Tyndale. Inevitably, Mantel transposes the English Bible translator into a catspaw in the More-Cromwell struggle. In one of his interviews with Cromwell while awaiting his own execution, More asks the Lord Chancellor: “‘what do you hear from Antwerp? They say Tyndale is there. They say he… dare not stray beyond the English merchant’s house. They say he is in prison, almost as I am.’” In his internal monologue Cromwell reflects on the injustice of Tyndale’s having “labored in poverty and obscurity, and now his world has shrunk to a little room; while outside in the city, under the Emperor’s laws, printers are branded and have their eyes put out, and brothers and sisters are killed for their faith.”

More continues, commenting acerbically that “‘Tyndale would be safer in London… under yourself, the protector of error… You see, Thomas, where heresy leads us? It leads us to Münster, does it not?’” Mantel’s More posthumously wreaks vengeance on Tyndale in the end. When Cromwell later learns of the biblical translator’s death, his informant states that More’s “‘arm reached out of his grave… [He] had men everywhere, all about Tyndale. It was More’s agents who betrayed him.”

This detail is Mantel’s fabrication; it is not certain who commissioned Henry Philips, the English agent who betrayed Tyndale. However, evidence points to John Stokesley, the Bishop of London with whom More worked closely in prosecuting Protestants. According to More biographer Peter Ackroyd, “Stokesley occasionally interrogated suspects in More’s house at Chelsea, and… they successfully set up a network of spies and informants within the capital.” More exults in detail in his writings over the ‘heretics’ he placed under observation, the letters he intercepted, and the witnesses he interrogated. Late in 1530, as his grip on power began to slip amid his opposition to Henry’s divorce, More intensified his official campaign against heretical books. In a typical case, he ordered a raid on the home of John Petyt. Nothing incriminating was found but, on the testimony of a priest that the wealthy merchant had financed Tyndale, Petyt was confined to the Tower where he later died.

Tyndale’s life, death, and legacy encapsulate the great dilemma of the Reformation. When Charles V’s secretary questioned Luther at Worms in 1519, he asked how a lowly monk presumed to question matters settled even by ecumenical councils. When Luther pleaded his conscience and the word of Scripture, the imperial interrogator declared: “you are completely mad!…We will have nothing in Christianity that is certain or decided!” That logic pervades More’s proclamation in early 1530 suppressing circulation of Tyndale’s translation. Though he had earlier admitted the need for a vernacular Bible, Chancellor More now pleaded “the malignity of this present time, with the inclination of people to erroneous opinions.”

Thoroughgoing Protestants of Tyndale’s ilk felt no ambivalence in their work. In John Foxe’s doubtless apocryphal dramatization, the youthful Tyndale admonished local priests to read Erasmus’s Greek New Testament and study the Word directly. When one answered him that “we had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s,” the zealous Tyndale is said to have replied: “I defy the pope, and all his laws; and, if God spare me, I will one day make the boy that drives the plough in England to know more of Scripture than the Pope himself!”

Five centuries later, confessional Protestants might be more circumspect. Has the religious revolution unleashed by Bible translators and the printing press not left many matters unsettled, proliferating confusion and schism? Though no modern can sympathize with the brutal methods of More or Cromwell, Mary Tudor’s England or Calvin’s Geneva, we should understand the trepidation that inspired More’s attempt to suppress Tyndale’s work and preserve ecclesial unity. And yet, what times have not been malignant, or men not prone to error? Can we doubt that under such logic the time for commoners to read Scripture would never have come?

What does this have to do with Hilary Mantel? Everything and nothing. She was a great writer. Pick up her novels and enjoy them as fiction. They are, in themselves, no more a reason to sympathize with the historical Cromwell and loath the historical More than Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is reason to believe that Christ married Mary Magdalen.

But, if we must prefer one over the other, there are real reasons enough.

Sam Negus lives with his wife and daughter in southern Michigan, where he works in academic administration for Hillsdale College.


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