I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall over the holidays. It’s a marvelous book. There was a time when I could have rattled details of the English Reformation off the top of my head; I still could do it, I suppose. Cromwell is rarely depicted by historians as a sympathetic figure. Certainly not in recent years as revisionism has set in. Mantel makes him a human being–ruthless, power-hungry, acquisitive, to be sure, but with deep affection for his family, for Wolsey, and for those young men who have been given over to his care.
She also fleshes out Thomas More. At least since A Man for All Seasons if not for centuries earlier, More has been depicted as a gentle man of letters and deep religious faith. He was both of those things but he was also a ruthless hunter of religious dissidents and a tireless, and humorless polemicist against William Tyndale. For those who know him only as the author of Utopia and someone who died for his faith, a few hours spent reading his attacks on Tyndale will shed very different light on him.
I’m not quite done with the book which ends with More’s execution. It’s not clear why one would choose this particular period of Cromwell’s life on which to focus–from the fall of Wolsey to the execution of More. In some respects, the years immediately following More’s execution are even more interesting, with the execution of Anne Boleyn, the dissolution of the monasteries, and ultimately Cromwell’s fall.
For another interesting take on Cromwell, I would recommend the mystery novels of C. J. Sansom which are vivid portrayals of the religious and political turmoil in the 1530s and 1540s.
By the way, either is a much better portrayal of the period than the recent TV series The Tudors.