Wolf Hall update

Finished it and have been reflecting on it ever since. I’m still not sure about the title, but of course the Seymours would loom large over the next stage of Cromwell’s life. I also liked the constant presence of Mark Smeaton, foreshadowing events to come as well. The final scenes of the novel were quite powerful. In the end, I found the depictions of both More and Cromwell utterly believable.

As I thought about the novel, I also thought more about my perspective on the 1530s, that first phase of the English Reformation. I suppose it’s safe to say my scholarly judgement was largely shaped by my own Protestant upbringing. In addition, my undergraduate senior thesis focused on the early English reformers’ attacks on the wealth of the church. In researching that project I read almost everything written in the 1520s and 1530s against the Catholic establishment and I gained a deep appreciation for the theological and ethical commitments of the early reformers like Tyndale, Frith, and Latimer. They had a vision of a church and state that were very different from the institutions that existed, and the ones that emerged in the course of the English Reformation.

Cromwell used those reformers to support his efforts to dissolve the monasteries. Of that there is no doubt. That the reformers’ ideals were not realized is also true. But somehow over the last 150 years or so, the Protestant side has tended to get the blame for what happened.

But between More and Cromwell, I suppose I would still choose Cromwell. For all of Cromwell’s faults, I find More’s choices, and his theological positions, deeply troubling.

It’s interesting finishing that book over the holidays when the attempted bombing of a Northwest flight is in the news and there is again talk about the use of torture in the media. Andrew Sullivan’s blog, as always, keeps a close watch on all of the outrageous statements by politicans and pundits. More’s problem, from my perspective, was his absolute sense of certainty. That’s always a danger, because if you know you are right, than any means you use will be justified.

Wolf Hall

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.