Wolf Hall and Anti-Catholicism


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.

More to explorer


  1. It may well be rubbish and more fantasy than history, but so was Rolf
    Hochhuth’s smear of Pius XII in his play The Deputy. I imagine
    there are many, many people who will be all too willing to take Wolf
    for accurate history, just as many were eager to believe that
    The Deputy was a truthful portrayal of Pius XII during WWII.

  2. Hochhuth’s fiction was assisted by the KGB. The damage has been done. The Soviet Union was Hitler’s ally for almost two years, but this is conveniently forgotten, along with the crimes of the Soviet Union against humanity.

    Mantel is another in a long line of anti-Catholic English, since anti-Catholicism has never quite gone out of favor in the United Kingdom. Of course, the BBC snaps it up and shows it. Typical. Henry Tudor was one of the worst men who became a king in the history of the world, but, hey, let’s blame Thomas More instead.

  3. I watched the first episode. At the first negative description of Sir Thomas More I turned it off knowing that it was going to be sympathetic to the dissolution of the Catholic Church.

  4. What a member of the British chatterati trafficking in malicious historical fiction and condescending to everyone left and right in the process? Say it ain’t so…

  5. My cure for insomnia is the “2013-2014 Accounting Standards Codification – Volume 1”, page 1.

    Does everyone named “Hillary” need to be a congenital liar???

  6. ” … And it proves, yet again, that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in elite circles in the Anglosphere. … ” Yup. Public television serving a reality without virtues, truth, and goodness.

  7. Thanks for posting this. I love this period of history, and am an ardent devotee of More. I also like BBC period pieces and their Shakespeare productions. So I’ve been watching Wolf Hall with anticipation.

    What a disappointment. Even from a secular viewpoint, I find it boring, slow, plodding. How they could take such an exciting period of history and make it a snooze-fest, I can’t imagine. The lead playing Cromwell, apparently a noted stage actor in Britain, sleep walks through this production, showing little emotion or reaction to events around him, including the death of his wife and children from sudden illness.

    Last night took the cake, when the dispute with More was showcased and resolved. It seemed as if the producers churlishly wanted to debunk “Man for All Seasons,” taking notable incidents from that play and film, and having Cromwell pointedly contradict them. E.g., they have More begin the “I think none harm” monologue, but Cromwell angrily interrupts More to rebuke him for racking a heretic.

    The whole thing is undoubtedly part of the modern mania for deconstructing heroes, of which More was acknowledged to be one even by the mainstream Englishman.

    I want to keep watching now, if only to see Cromwell get his head cut off.

  8. I didn’t watch last Sunday’s Wolf Hall, but did see a short program after midnight on Wolf Hall the play which may have been on MD public tv. Included in that was a short docudrama or maybe excerpts from the stage version (I was sleepy) about Henry VIII’s reign which summed it up as one of the worst in British history. In a quest for his legacy he bankrupted his country’s treasury waging a futile war against the French and so appropriated wealth and lands held by the Church to pay for it and the expense of his lavish court. The man who earlier had been awarded by Pope Leo X the title of Defender of the Faith for his “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” in opposition to Luther’s Protestantism on the continent ended up furthering the Protestant cause in England. He later regretted the latter since he did not consider himself Protestant, but Catholic, head of the Catholic Church in England. (Queen Elizabeth II has DF after her name.) It was stated that on his death bed he held a rosary in his hand and remorsefully asked God for mercy. This last sentence maybe an a apocryphal story. Henry’s increasingly erractic behavior was attributed to a painful, festering leg wound from jousting in his athletic youth. Unmentioned was his syphillis. Henry had a classsical education and should have remembered the tale of Pandora’s box. Anyway the show was not pro Cromwell and had positive mention of More.

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