Tag Archives: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons

18 Jul

Wolf Hall is a book. A Man for All Seasons is a movie. They both tell the same story, more or less. The story is Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. This is a very famous sequence of events. There was a lot of political intrigue involved. Two of the main people involved were Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More. In A Man for All Seasons, More is the hero and Cromwell is the villain. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the hero and More, while not a villain necessarily, isn’t exactly presented in a flattering light. This blog post is about those two pieces of media, both of which I recently consumed, and how they can be so different, and, like, some other thoughts. Think of it as a New Yorker Critic at Large piece, except slapdash and poorly-informed instead of tight and focused.

A little background on WH and AMFAS. WH is a novel from 2009 by Hilary Mantel. It was very highly regarded. It won the Man Booker Prize and probably has other accolades. AMFAS is a movie from 1966. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Paul Scofield as Thomas More). WH is a fairly long book, so it’s obviously more expansive. There’s a lot more stuff in it, and a lot of the characters are more fully developed. I’m only going to talk about the things that happen in both. Following is a hopefully brief and hopefully accurate summary.

This is a complicated story. Bear with me. I think the common conception is that Henry just decided what he wanted to do and then did it unilaterally. It surprised me to learn just what lengths he went to to conform both to English law and canon law. This is what made behind-the-scenes operators like Cromwell and More relevant in the first place. Here’s the rundown. Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, was the widow of Henry’s brother, Arthur. This required that Henry get a special dispensation from the Pope in order to marry her. He got the dispensation because Catherine said she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. (He died only weeks after the wedding; they were both 15.) So, many years later, Catherine had failed to give birth to any sons and Henry decided to divorce her. Rather than just casting her aside and telling the Pope to go fuck himself, he waged a long campaign to get the marriage annulled, on the logic that the original dispensation was invalid. The Pope never granted the annulment. Failing to get the Pope’s support, Henry had the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declare his marriage to Catherine void and Henry married Anne Boleyn. As part of this, Henry asserted that he, and not the Pope, was the head of the church in England. Henry and Cranmer were excommunicated and the Church of England was born.

While all of this was happening, More was the Lord Chancellor of England. He was opposed to the divorce, but accepted it and recognized Anne Boleyn as queen. What he could not tolerate was anyone but the Pope as head of the church. He resigned as Lord Chancellor and refused to swear an oath recognizing Henry, and not the Pope, as head of the church and Anne Boleyn’s eventual children as heirs. He was eventually executed for treason.

All of Henry’s various maneuvering was accompanied by a lot of politicking from divorce advocates, notably Cromwell. Parliament enacted a whole series of laws legitimizing Anne Boleyn, and Henry went abroad to get the approval of other monarchs. Cromwell played a key role in passing new laws giving Henry authority over church matters and generally used the whole affair to solidify himself as Henry’s closest adviser. He was also eventually executed for some shenanigans related to Anne of Cleves, but that was several years after this whole sordid mess and irrelevant to what I’m talking about.

OK. I think/hope I got all the important parts. I know I left out a lot of things, if you spend some time on Wikipedia I promise this whole saga is interesting.

In AMFAS, More is the hero. He stands up to the king and refuses to compromise his principles. The cunning and immoral Cromwell is the driving force behind his execution, employing some treachery to get false testimony that More has denied that the king is head of the church.

In WH, Cromwell is a self-made man, as opposed to everyone else, who is part of the landed gentry. He rises to the king’s right hand on his own merits. He helps end the Pope’s authority over politics. (There are sequences in the book where Cromwell thinks to himself, “Where in the Bible is the word ‘Pope’” or something to that effect.) Without his political skill, there might have been a revolt against Henry and the Reformation may never have happened.

There are a lot of easy and obvious points to make about the disparity. Everyone has biases, history is complicated, we as an audience should always be skeptical of a work’s point of view, etc. I don’t think those are points that need to be made.

When I think about these two works, it’s easy to see how there would be different perspectives. In the abstract, a case can be made that Cromwell is bad or good. A case can also be made that More is bad or good, and I don’t think they necessarily even have to be on opposite sides. That’s in the abstract. In reality, they both seem to be advocating opposite sides of a profoundly stupid argument that, even allowing for “oh it was a different time” etc., just doesn’t seem to allow for either man to look anything like heroic.

More was a man of principle. That’s highly valued by a lot of people. Especially in contemporary American politics, where “flip-flopper” is just about the worst thing you can call someone. But let’s think about what his principle was. He was so sure of the Pope’s supremacy that he was willing to die for it. Not God. The Pope. Clement VII was much more of a political figure than a religious one. He controlled extensive territories in Italy. He collected taxes on land in England. And of course all of the other nonsense happening in the Catholic Church at the time. I don’t think there are many Catholics out there today who would rather be beheaded than admit the right of protestant denominations to exist, but Thomas More is apparently a hero for doing so. Whatever. Plus he spent a lot of time arresting people for translating the Bible into English and, as Lord Chancellor, burned six people at the stake for heresy. Principles can sometimes make you do bad things too I guess. I think a better principle might have been to let everyone read the Bible in English and decide for themselves whether the Pope ought to be the boss. This is an area where the historical argument holds even less water for me. There were a lot of reformers all over Europe at the time. More was one of their strongest opponents. Maybe you have to be Catholic to get it. I don’t know.

Cromwell’s position is, to me, even less reasonable. Oh, Henry needs to have a son. I mean, a legitimate son. (He had at least one illegitimate son at the time. A son who he acknowledged as his own and made a Duke.) The monarchy is maybe the one institution of the time that was stupider than the papacy. The obsession with legitimacy and heirs and the purity of women (but never of men, keep in mind that Henry also had a long-running affair with Anne Boleyn’s sister) just seems like a big dumb waste of time. Especially in England. They had a parliament. The parliament passed laws that the king had to follow. It was well-established that a woman could be the monarch. Henry was basically a big petulant baby and Cromwell went above and beyond to enable him.

In conclusion. The Henry VIII saga is one of the most obsessed-over stories out there. For good reason. It just seems hard for me to look at it and identify anyone as a hero or an upstanding character or even a rational actor. AMFAS goes further down this road with its lionization of More, but every dramatization or narrative about it goes looking for a hero or maybe an anti-hero, which seems so popular these days. I don’t understand the motivation behind the people telling these stories. If I were to come up with a fictionalization of it, a lot of my thrust would be a kind of winking “hey, audience, let’s all agree everyone in this story is being ridiculous” tone about it.

This got kind of out of hand. Maybe there will be a major edit coming up soon.