George Weigel takes on the BBC’s paean to anti-Catholicism and bad history:
Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s novel about early Tudor England, began airing on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” Easter Sunday night. It’s brilliant television. It’s also a serious distortion of history. And it proves, yet again, that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in elite circles in the Anglosphere.
The distortions and bias are not surprising, considering the source. Hillary Mantel is a very talented, very bitter ex-Catholic who’s said that the Church today is “not an institution for respectable people” (so much for the English hierarchy’s decades-long wheedling for social acceptance). As she freely concedes, Mantel’s aim in her novel was to take down the Thomas More of A Man for All Seasons—the Thomas More the Catholic Church canonized—and her instrument for doing so is More’s rival in the court of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell.
Hillary Mantel does not lack for chutzpah, for Cromwell has long been considered a loathsome character and More a man of singular nobility. In the novel Wolf Hall, however, the More of Robert Bolt’s play is transformed into a heresy-hunting, scrupulous prig, while Cromwell is the sensible, pragmatic man of affairs who gets things done, even if a few heads get cracked (or detached) in the process. All of which is rubbish, as historians with no Catholic interests at stake have made clear. Thus the president of the U.K.’s National Secular Society, historian David Starkey, finds “not a scrap of evidence” for Mantel’s retelling of the More-Cromwell tale; Mantel’s plot, he claimed, was “total fiction.” And as Gregory Wolfe pointed out in a fine essay on Wolf Hall in the Washington Post, historian Simon Schama has written that the documentary evidence he examined “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.”
Go here to read the rest.
I doubt if this bad historical pot boiler will have much impact on the historical reputations of More and Cromwell. Saint Thomas More has long been regarded as a hero even by non-Catholics. Here is Winston Churchill’s verdict on More:
“The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. They saw that the break with Rome carried with it the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter. More stood forth as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values, and its instinctive sense of otherworldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counselor, but a system which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”
As for Cromwell this passage from one of his letters inadvertently sums him up:
Who seeth not that he that is an evil counsellor to a prince is an evil counsellor to a realm? If it be sin to be an evil counsellor to one man, wat abomination, what devilish and horrible sin is it to be a flatterer or an evil councillor to a prince?
Ironically Cromwell’s illegitimate daughter Jane became a fervent Catholic. The divine sense of humor is ever just below the surface of History.