When it comes to up-market historical fiction, nobody delivers like the Tudors. There’s so much entertainment value in that Renaissance dynasty: royalty; costumes; cool accents; lust and murder; political and religious intrigue; the works—plus enough history to make you feel virtuous for watching. In the 1930s, studios turned out films like The Private Life of Henry VIII and Fire over England, which, for my money, still has the best portrayal of Elizabeth on film, by the great British actress Flora Robson. In the 1960s, there was Anne of the Thousand Days. Forty years ago, PBS broadcast Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. More recently, there was Showtime’s The Tudors. And now on PBS’s Masterpiece there is Wolf Hall, a BBC dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel.
All historical fiction involves anachronism, of course, and depictions of the Tudors often reveal more about contemporary issues than they do about the past. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons portrayed Thomas More as a liberal dissenter from state ideology, a man committed to individual conscience and the rule of law. (In the 1960s, liberals identified with such people.) Glenda Jackson’s 1971 portrayal made Elizabeth an icon for the rising feminist movement.
I was able to catch an episode of Wolf Hall on Sunday, and it seems to me the new series likewise reflects our current cultural moment. Maybe I spend too much time thinking about these things, but to me it is impossible to miss the allusions to current debates about rational government and religious belief. The message, for religious liberty, is not a congenial one.
Wolf Hall—which, incidentally, has great production values and wonderful performances, especially by Damian Lewis as Henry VIII—inverts the conventional portrayal of the Henrician Reformation. Most past film and television versions, even those sympathetic to Henry, show More as a kind of hero, a noble, if misguided, martyr for freedom of conscience. In Mantel’s version, by contrast, it’s Cromwell, the supporter of state orthodoxy and More’s tormentor, who is the hero. And More, the man who resisted the state from religious conviction, is the unalloyed villain.
Now, More was a more complicated figure than widely understood. Even saints have failings. He may have been, as Swift famously wrote, “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced,” but, as chancellor, he persecuted Protestants and approved burning heretics at the stake. Mantel’s portrayal goes beyond offering a helpful corrective to the conventional wisdom, though. Her More is not deeper or truer to the historical record. He is simply evil, a nasty piece of work—cold, fanatical, and sadistic.
Mantel’s Cromwell, by contrast, is warm, self-effacing, and pragmatic, even wistful—a family man, though with a ruthless edge. Between him and More, Cromwell is easily the more reasonable. Religious enthusiasm is not for him; he is far too insightful and levelheaded. He is also more compassionate. When More tells him that torture is for the victim’s own good—the real More forcefully denied that he ever tortured anyone—Cromwell is aghast. Cromwell is far too tender-hearted to believe something like that. He cannot bear to see someone burned at the stake for heresy. More, we gather, would be delighted.
I know nothing about Mantel’s politics. Perhaps her choices in Wolf Hall are purely aesthetic. Maybe she set herself the artistic challenge of portraying Cromwell, one of British history’s great villains, in a favorable light. But I’m guessing she has an agenda. Increasingly, secular liberals are losing patience with claims for religious liberty, particularly from traditionalists who dissent from progressive orthodoxy. Only fanatics could object to progressive goals like the Contraception Mandate and same-sex marriage, they believe, and it’s wrong to accommodate such people. Accommodation encourages backward and malevolent attitudes that cause innocent people grave harm.
In its biased portrayal of More, British history’s great example of religious resistance to state orthodoxy, Wolf Hall is sending its audience a message: Don’t think this man was at all admirable. He was a dangerous head case. And, by extension, be careful of his analogues today, who continue to oppose religious fanaticism to tolerance, reason, and progress. Cromwell and people like him—pragmatic people who protect us from the forces of reaction—are the real heroes.
It’s a powerful message, and one with increasing influence. Perhaps this explains why PBS is advertising Wolf Hall as “a historical drama for a modern audience.” The fact that this hatchet job on Thomas More appears in an impeccably well-done BBC production—surely the gold standard in upper-middle-class entertainment—shows how fast our culture is changing, and how much work defenders of religious liberty have before them.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.