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Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is all wrong, but does it matter?

Andrew M Brown - The Telegraph - Fri, Feb 6th 2015

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is all wrong, but does it matter?

Wolf Hall is filmed and acted in such a naturalistic style, you might be fooled into thinking it was true

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell Photo: Giles Keyte / BBC

Sympathetic: Rylance as Cromwell (BBC)

Revisionist historians such as Eamon Duffy with his masterwork The Stripping of the Altars have now conclusively exposed the Reformation for what it was – a cultural and religious calamity that ordinary people never asked for. And yet what Wolf Hall shows is that even in our age of indifference to religion, the old Protestant version of history – in which the Reformation supposedly liberated a backward people from the grip of murky superstition and greedy Popish priests – has not lost its power over our imaginations.

Damian Lewis as Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy)

Last week’s episode had Cromwell confidently declaring to King Henry (above) that the monasteries were riddled with corruption – and he hadn’t come to this view through prejudice, he insisted, but from his own observation. That is untrue: there were abuses, but we know that monasteries were much valued as centres of pilgrimage and sources of spiritual help as well as education and health care. But Cromwell cared nothing for the truth. He was a fanatic. He and his agents made up revolting lies about monks which they spread in lip-smacking pornographic pamphlets, notably The Black Book.

Reign of terror

The novelist CJ Sansom has researched Cromwell and the Reformation in depth for his Tudor mysteries featuring the lawyer-sleuth Shardlake.According to Sansom, Cromwell revelled in torturing his enemies and his network of spies was comparable to that of the East German Stasi.

As for the tragic destruction of England's aesthetic heritage carried out in the name of Reformation, Sansom comments: "The great bare bones of the monasteries, the melancholy, majestic ruins of places like Rievaulx in Yorkshire or Glastonbury in Somerset, stand to this day as stark reminders of the ruin wrought by Cromwell's reign of terror."

The remains of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire

Shakespeare himself expressed this poignant sense of loss when he wrote some 50 years after Cromwell (in Sonnet 73) of "bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang".

An illustration from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs

Now, Mantel wants to rescue Cromwell from his bad reputation and tell his story, which is all very well, but she does distort the truth. What we get is a sort of propaganda, just as the 16th-century pro-Protestant Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was. We should think of Wolf Hall as fiction – even if it is entertaining fiction.

To read a brilliant summary by the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy of why the traditional story about the Reformation is so wrong, click on this link.

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