Thomas More & The Man for All Treasons

It began with an email.

A friend had been to London’s West End to see a play called Wolf Hall, a new production by the Royal Shakespeare Company; he asked if I had heard of it?

Heard of it? I was tired hearing of it. Let me explain: Wolf Hall is a novel set in Tudor times by English author, Hilary Mantel, now adapted for the stage. So what, I hear you ask? Well, her book has Thomas Cromwell as hero and Thomas More as villain. Not only is this historically suspect, it is also turning on its head what many—even many non-Catholics—grew up understanding, if for no other reason than having watched the 1966 movie A Man for All Seasons.

In that Oscar winning film, based on the Robert Bolt stage play of the same name, with its perfectly cast roles, More was accurately portrayed as a noble man who refused to bend to the prevailing wind, whereas, in contrast, Cromwell was seen as the operator of the “wind machine.” Paul Scofield’s award-winning performance, both subtle and understated, captured the struggle of a man whose conscience outweighed everything else. In the end, More may have gone to the block for it, but, at least, it was clear. One suspects the same could not be said for Thomas Cromwell who would have smiled indulgently at the mention of such things as “conscience” before turning back to the affairs of state.

With Thomas More we have a Renaissance Man who wanted to make England and the world a better place. With Cromwell we have a classic case of a man “on the make.” Whilst More was reading the classics and the scriptures, Cromwell was studying Machiavelli. Whereas More as Lord Chancellor was a trained lawyer who understood not just the intricacies of the law but also its limits, the man who succeeded him in influence saw the law as equally malleable as all those he found at the court of Henry Tudor. More was a gentleman in every sense, Cromwell, a thug in ermine.

Now, thanks to Ms. Mantel, we discover that for all these years we have been duped. A veritable sheep in wolf’s clothing, Cromwell was a misunderstood prototype for the modern politician, and, not only that, but one cruelly maligned by, in particular, Catholics. It seems she can say that sort of thing because she is a Catholic, albeit a lapsed one. In fact, she has no love for the Church, or anyone belonging to it, on record as saying it is a religion unfit for “respectable people.” People like Cromwell, I presume, although, his religious devotion seems to have been vague at best, and always secondary to whomsoever was in power, and, needless to say, subservient to his overarching interest: himself.

Wolf Hall was critically acclaimed; predictably, it won many awards. Inevitably, its author, beloved of the BBC amongst others, for a time seemed to be everywhere, and where she went so too did the misunderstood Cromwell. Let me put my cards on the table; I have not read this book, and, furthermore, have no intention of so doing, nor will I be attending the staged dramatization currently being lionized in London’s theatre world, nor, for that matter, shall I be watching the forthcoming BBC/PBS television mini-series. There really is no point, their history is not one I recognize, nor do I wish to read or watch something that traduces perhaps the greatest Englishman who ever lived.

That said, the time does seem ripe for revisionism of a different sort: a return to an understanding that, even if in costume, brutality and its political machinations were no less palatable then than they are today, no matter how adept its henchmen. And, furthermore, the State is never the best arbitrator of matters of conscience—then or now—and no hereditary ruler, or elected functionary, is a law unto himself, no matter how deluded, or drunk on his own power.

Forget this “historical novel,” and its sequels, and pick up a copy of the sadly neglected, Henry The Eighth, by Francis Hackett. Published in 1929, the author was both Irish and Catholic, although his allegiance to both grew more vague as he grew older, ending his days with his Danish wife in her homeland. He spent five years examining original source material, and wrote what was then a bestseller. He doesn’t “pull his punches”: errant Popes do not come off well, in fact, very few do, More and Catherine of Aragon excepted. And, as to his portrait of Cromwell, I wonder what Ms. Mantel would make of it, based as it is on primary sources and painting a thoroughly loathsome picture of one of England’s greatest criminals. When not robbing monasteries and defrauding the treasury, often for his own ends, he was arranging the cruel deaths of anyone whom his Lord and Master Henry deemed unworthy that day to live: blood flowed as freely as the whims that decreed death—not so much a man for all seasons as one for all treasons.

But, it’s easy to see what it is about Cromwell that today’s media love. Thanks to Wolf Hall, he is perceived as a modern man, a secular hero, and conveniently free of the traits that modernity can’t stand about Thomas More, namely, a man of family and faith, of loyalty and friendship, of conscience and sanctity. In fact, More’s traits, uncommon even in his own day, are now derided and undermined by aspects of today’s English law. In contrast, Cromwell is seen as a triumph of the state over religion, of pragmatism over truth, and, therefore, of man over God. Only such a conclusion is just another pathetic illusion in this age of ours when dark is light and light is too bright for eyes that cannot see.

Today, much is made of his humble origins, Cromwell having emerged from the streets. What is overlooked is the fact that the stench of those same Tudor streets never left him, or his edicts. In the end, however, this keen student of Machiavelli may have fared better if he had studied at least one passage of Scripture: Matthew 26:52, namely, those that live by the sword….

His end was to be as sorry as the many he had despatched to a similar fate. When arrested he yelped and cried, before, holed up in the Tower of London wrote grovelling letters of undying devotion to his King. The devotion was to die, of course, on a July day in 1540, when, like another Thomas before, he placed his head on the block and, once more, the executioner’s blade was raised….

Of course, what no one mentions is that Cromwell may have lost his head by Royal Command, but the House of Cromwell was not to be outdone. A century later another Cromwell, Oliver, arose from Cambridgeshire and made his way to London and in so doing not only toppled a throne, but had the head of a monarch as well. The actions of his kinsman would have no doubt pleased Thomas if only he had known whilst rotting in the Tower awaiting execution and writing of his love for all things royal.

Needless to say, Oliver Cromwell took this family “love” of the state and hatred of Catholicism to new heights—or is it depths? His name is, to this day, despised in Ireland. It is not simply that he propagated a war against the Irish—Ireland’s history is full of that; no, it was the manner of the propagation. There is the sad litany of towns attacked and burned before the resultant massacres of prisoners, women and children, to be followed by the barbarity of ethnic cleansing. Irish Catholics were given an infamous choice: To Hell or Connaught, die or move to the barren lands in the West. What followed, thereafter, for those that did move was hellish in any event, with both famine and bubonic plague causing the deaths of thousands, all watched over by the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Now, wrapped in Calvinist garb, this was simply the philosophy of The Prince on a grand scale.

To end, some good news and some bad news.

The bad? Wolf Hall is coming to America, with a Broadway transfer in the offing, tell all your friends—not to go.

And, the good news?

A lesson to all those who propose the inevitability of history repeating itself, telling as it does of a still greater force in charge. It begins with a dinner party some years back whilst on holiday in Italy. On a veranda, looking out to Castel Gandolfo, I sat with two others, both English, one a descendant of Thomas More and the other a descendant of Thomas Cromwell. On learning this, I seemed the only one surprised by it, but not half as surprised as further learning that not one but both were Catholic. And so, having watched these two merrily meet, there was nothing left for me to do but look towards the vault of heaven, and through the gentle light of an Italian evening, marvel at the hope, and indeed mercy, available to all.

K. V. Turley


K. V. Turley is a London-based freelance writer and filmmaker.

  • hopecrolius

    You write like a dream I am always glad to see the latest Turley article arrive in Crisis. Thank you.

  • kentgeordie

    All well and good, but St Thomas More’s view on Jews and the burning of heretics, not mentioned in the article, do not sit well with contemporary sensibilities. This is what you needed to write about.

    • GG

      Why? Because the ill informed and effete cannot be bothered to think more deeply?

      • kentgeordie

        “ill informed and effete’ – that would be me, perhaps? Good way to start a mutually enriching dialogue.

        • AdMaioremDeiGloriam

          I was thinking all of us except you, kentgeordie. Nonetheless, it is certainly an interesting way to start a dialog.

        • GG

          I was not thinking of you, but of those you mentioned. Why on earth would you bring up such a silly concept when the piece here is beautiful and informative?

        • cestusdei

          Kent, that’s a bit like saying that people back then were stupid because they didn’t have our ideas of democracy. They did not live in our contemporary world.

    • DE-173

      Do you still beat your wife? As long as we’re casting vague and inspecific aspersions here, can you get as good as you give?

  • Fred

    It seems if the loyal (?) opposition revels in turning things on their head, decrying victim-hood in rationalization bad behavior or making excuses, and destroying those who seek decency. I guess all we can do is continue to fight the good fight and shine stage light on those that live in darkness.

  • George Sim Johnston

    I listened to the audio rendering of “Wolf Hall”, in which the narrator (or performer, as they now style it) uses a voice for Thomas More that is more suitable for Hannibal Lecter or Doctor Evil. The novel is well done; its sequel “Bringing Up the Bodies” is even better. But the author is nastily anti-Catholic.

    • DE-173

      “But the author is nastily anti-Catholic.”

      That still traffics well in merry old England. I’m sure that after the British government excises any warranted criticism of Islam, it will get around to excising the now 500 year old Anti-Catholic prejudices.

      But the again, Guy Fawkes day is so much fun and serves to remind the people of the dangers posed to the British Royals, so never mind.

      I wonder how well the Royal family will fair when the Crescent is raised over Parliament?

      • JMC

        “…serves to remind people of the dangers posed to the British Royals…” If I’m remembering correctly what I studied in history, Guy Fawkes accused a Catholic of fomenting the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic who was proven innocent of wrongdoing, though the investigation showed Fawkes himself the fomentor, and that is why he is vilified to this day. How does that fuel anti-Catholic prejudice? Is it because most today believe that the Catholic WAS guilty, and Fawkes the hero who “outed” him? Why, then, is he burned in effigy every year?

    • Crisiseditor

      Welcome back to Crisis. Nice to see you are in the audience.

  • Charles Ryder

    “Wolf Hall” does indeed include enormously falsified portraits of the Thomases, the one blackened, the other whitewashed. That Mantel is a novelist of great gifts makes the matter worse, if anything. Yet another reason not to seek for the facts of history in the pages of novels. Peace to all.

    • kentgeordie

      A bit sweeping? Doesn’t it depend on the judgment of the writer? Mantel wants to make a hero of the murderous henchman of a murderer, and a villain of a man who gave his life for the truth – that’s bad judgment.

      I love the historical novels of RH Benson, H. Prescott and Lucy Beckett, to name but three, and I would argue that they paint a correct picture of the past.

  • Roy Tenn

    Trinitarian priest Fr. Daniel, a highly regarded priest at HolyRosary/St. Richard Church at Palmetto Bay in South Miami, told me my diction reminds him of the Shakespearean actor Paul Scofield, who played the role of Saint Thomas More in the film, A Man For All Seasons.

  • David Kenny

    I researched kentgeordie’s claims and cannot find any serious info on St. Thomas more persecuting Jews. He was involved in the burning of 2 heretics at the stake. At the time Henry VIII was still Defender of the Faith and was very concerned with the heretical literature seeping in from the Continent and More, as Chancellor, was required to stop this. In those times physically preventing heresy was an acceptable policy including execution. In today’s human rights world this is unacceptable, BUT THIS IS NOW AND THAT WAS THEN. More was doing what the Law at the time required. We need to remember that Zwingli and Calvin were busy burning Catholics at the stake and both Mary and Elizabeth of England burned Protestants and Catholics also. The obvious sarcasm in kentgeordies opener, ” All well and good…” does nothing for the validity of his implication that More is no better than Cromwell. If wee are to write about contemporary sensibilities, we must remember the sensibilities of the early 1500’s as the context. many good people of past ages have been condemned by modern , contemporary sensibilities. That does not negate the good done by these past moral heroes. Of course today we have the dictatorship of politically correct atheism which now controls official policy and happily persecutes serious Catholics and Christians in Canada and the UK with Human Rights Councils and other quasi legal bodies with no rules of evidence or trained lawyers and judges, often staffed by liberal progressive political appointees. These systems usually provide the complainant with state funded support, while the accused must fund their own defense privately to the tune of $100,000 at least. The further result is the accused being unjustly convicted and fined without the presence of the accuser and having their careers and private lives ruined. This is simply modern burning at the stake without the right to a defense and no right to confront the accuser. We should also remember ” the contemporary sensibilities” here as well. Having stated this it appears that the contemporary sensibilities are also quite discredited and therefore we are now at a draw as both Sit Thomas More and the modernists are equally discredited. So, we are now back at the start and no one has proven anything.

    • entonces_99

      kentgeorgie didn’t say that St. Thomas persecuted Jews. (He could hardly have done so, since Jews weren’t readmitted to England until the next century.) What kentgeordie said was that St. Thomas’s “view on Jews . . . does not sit well with contemporary sensibilities,” which is quite another matter.

  • DE-173

    Apparently Hilary Mantel is just another leftist lawyer with a pen who specializes in attacking the dead.

    And there’s more courtesy of wikipedia:

    Hilary Mary Thompson was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, the eldest of three children and raised in the mill village of Hadfield. She attended St Charles local Roman Catholic primary school. Her parents, Margaret (née Foster) and Henry Thompson, both of Irish descent, were also born in England.[6] Her parents separated and she did not see her father after age eleven. The family minus her father, but with Jack Mantel (1932-1995)[7] who by now had moved in with them, relocated to Romiley, Cheshire, and Jack became her unofficial stepfather.[8] She took her de facto stepfather’s surname legally.
    She has explored her family background, the mainspring of much of her fiction, in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003).

    She lost her religious faith at age 12 and says this left a permanent mark on her:
    the “real cliche, the sense of guilt. You grow up believing that you’re wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough. It’s like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.”[9]

    She attended Harrytown Convent in Romiley, Cheshire. In 1970, she began her studies at the London School of Economics to read law.[3] She transferred to the University of Sheffield and graduated as Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1973. During her university years, she was a socialist.[6]

    “During her twenties, Mantel suffered from a debilitating and painful illness. She was initially diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, hospitalised, and treated with antipsychotic drugs, which reportedly produced psychotic symptoms. In consequence, Mantel refrained from seeking help from doctors for some years. Finally, in Botswana and desperate, she consulted a medical textbook and realised she was probably suffering from a severe form of endometriosis, a diagnosis confirmed by doctors in London. The condition and necessary surgery left her unable to have children and continued to disrupt her life. Continued treatment by steroids caused weight gain and radically changed her appearance.”

    It’s funny how rants of loons are treated as genius in the secular, leftist world.

  • Leo Reilly

    Since you haven’t read Wolf Hall (which I found engrossing), I guess it doesn’t surprise me that you got it all wrong. But how do you review a book or a play that you admit you haven’t read or seen?

    • Augustus

      The author does not address the literary quality of the play. Whether or not it was “engrossing” is beside the point. He objects to Mantel’s historical revisionism that favors Cromwell over More, based on press descriptions of the story. Are you saying the press “got it all wrong” too? What makes your assessment any more accurate? Perhaps seeing the play first hand is no assurance of accuracy either. Perhaps you got it all wrong yourself.

  • Bones

    I generally find causes, plays, playwrights, books, authors, recording artists, producers, sportsmen and women and even art applauded and espoused by the BBC is good enough reason to treat with suspicion.

  • JayRobThom

    I chose my confirmation name partly in honor of St. Thomas More & as the assault on the Church through the destruction of marriage has advanced have often thought of his witness. The malice of sin overcomes the souls that reject grace- so they are left with the craven worship of the arch – politicans. A pity Alice Thomas Ellis is not alive to take the sad traitress’ work apart.

  • Kam counts

    Tough call to mention a play you have not seen and then discuss the main players based on your acceptance of a version of historical events.
    In their time life was far more brutal than today, thankfully we have learned from these errors, or have we?

    Politicians still sending our forces against another religion.
    churchmen condemning someone else’s view of God as being unacceptable.
    But I am with Cromwell, we should have the right to find our own spirituality not forced to accept another man’s vision of it!

    • kentgeordie

      So give up on the idea of truth then?

      • Bob

        “But I am with Cromwell, we should have the right to find our own spirituality not forced to accept another man’s vision of it!” I’m sorry, but that’s not what Cromwell stood for. No historian I’m aware of has ever asserted that it was, either, so please enlighten us about your sources. Cromwell stood for himself most of all — his own enrichment and advancement in power and influence — as Mr. Turley stated, and that stand expressed itself in the brutal and heartless persecution of the majority of his countrymen who had no wish to change their religious practices, beliefs, or loyalties.

        • kentgeordie

          It would be comforting to think that Cromwell did all his wickedness out of a misplaced concern for religious freedom or the common good.
          But as far as I can tell, all the evidence points to him pursuing just one objective: his own perceived interests.

    • JMC

      Excuse me, but those forces are not being sent against another religion, but against the undeniably evil ACTS committed in the name of that religion. Or haven’t you been listening to all those saying we must take care not to lump all believers of that religion into the same class as the evildoers?

    • Athelstane

      But I am with Cromwell, we should have the right to find our own spirituality not forced to accept another man’s vision of it!

      But that was not a proposition that Cromwell stood for – as evidenced by how many people he sent to the headsmen or the stake for refusing to abjure their faith.

      Cromwell stood above all for the aggrandizement of state power.

  • I too will be watching for future (and past) articles by this writer.

  • Richard Lawrence

    I think the author of this article should have read Wolf Hall. I think it was by no means as terrible in its portrayal of Thomas More as they seem to think. By the end of Bring Up the Bodies I was applauding Mantel because I felt her portrayal of Cromwell had duped us. He is monstrous by the end of the second book and some readers such as myself feel foolish for having forsake Thomas More in the first.

    We all see perhaps what we want to.