What's the purpose of this revisionist view?
The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St. Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
Judging by the media coverage [in the UK], the BBC dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant reimagining of the court of Henry VIII has unleashed a wave of Tudor frenzy. Great fiction based in fact, Wolf Hall seems set to shape a generation’s perception of what really happened in the most formative age in English history.
For admirers of St. Thomas More this could be bad news. More’s reputation for humanity and integrity survived his execution for high treason, and even England’s repudiation of the Catholic faith for which he died.
Two generations on, Shakespeare collaborated in "Sir Thomas More," a play portraying a man who embodies good humor, good sense, decency and justice. There was a stream of admiring biographies, above all the eyewitness memoir by his son-in-law William Roper, the ultimate source for Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man for All Seasons.
We know More better than almost anyone else in Tudor England. We are familiar with his eloquence, learning and often risqué humour, his legal reforms and judicial integrity, and his sardonic realism about the snake-pit of Tudor politics. Roper’s words and Holbein’s paintings open windows into More’s household at Chelsea, full of laughter, music and exotic pets, where girls were treated as equal to boys and taught Greek and Latin to a standard that would shame any modern undergraduate.
But More’s reputation has fallen on hard times. For centuries, he was an icon of innocent suffering for conscience’s sake; more recently, he has been represented as a hypocrite, a bigot and a persecutor. The More of Wolf Hall is the latest and most powerful example of this reversal. Mantel’s character is More as he was perceived by his enemies – a joyless puritan, a man whose social charm but cruel humour masked a steely religious bigotry. He is a sneering misogynist who enjoys humiliating the women in his household. Above all, he is a religious fanatic, flogging himself in a fear-driven piety, obsessively writing vitriolic and obscene polemical books, implacably hunting down defenceless Protestants, imprisoning and torturing them in his own cellars.
Far from being the innocent victim of a cruel regime, this More is a calculating political schemer, treated better than he deserved. After More’s arrest, Thomas Audley, the contemptible climber who succeeded More as Lord Chancellor and pronounced the death sentence on him, tells him: “We spare you the methods that you used on others.”
One of the avowed motives of Wolf Hall was to correct the idealized picture of A Man for All Seasons. In this unforgettable but misleading portrait, More featured as an icon for twentieth-century liberals, defending the rights of the individual against a coercive society. Bolt projected on to his hero opinions More would have indignantly repudiated; Mantel’s starker portrait has sixteenth-century warrant, and far greater plausibility.
For it is perfectly true that as a Crown agent, and then as Lord Chancellor, More did pursue heretics. He never presided at a heresy trial (no layman could) and he never condemned anyone to death for their religious beliefs. In his autobiographical Apology, he refuted the charges of torture and maltreatment of suspects that Wolf Hall reports, accusations that, through John Foxe’s hostile elaboration in his Elizabethan propaganda work, Actes and Monuments, nevertheless persisted down the centuries.