Wolf Hall and Sir Thomas More: Historical Fact vs. Historical Fiction

Anton Lesser portrays Thomas More in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC.

Like many lovers of historical fiction, last Sunday night, I tuned in to the Masterpiece Theater premiere of Wolf Hall.  In scope and scale, I was not disappointed.  The sets were magnificent.  The costumes designed with understated accuracy.  And the acting and dialogue quiet, thoughtful, and a great deal less soapy than the last television series to feature this particular cast of historic characters.  (*Disclaimer: Soapy or not, I thoroughly enjoyed The Tudors.)

Somewhat surprisingly, Thomas Cromwell is depicted as the protagonist of Wolf Hall.  We learn about his working class upbringing, his abusive father, and his struggles to fit in at his job.  We meet his devoted wife and angelic daughters.  And somehow along the way, with what can only be described as a hefty dose of artistic license, the Cromwell of history – a man who was both hated and feared – becomes a sympathetic figure.

This novel version of Cromwell should have prepared me for an equally novel version of Thomas More.  It did not.  When More first appeared on the screen, I was astonished.  Could it be that in the fictional world of Wolf Hall Saint Thomas More is the villain?

Sir Thomas More, portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527.
Sir Thomas More, portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527.

That certainly seems to be the case.  And yet, Thomas More is generally accepted as a symbol of faith and principle in a period of history that was characterized by corruption, treachery, and religious upheaval.  His refusal to sign the 1534 Act of Succession, recognizing Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, cost him his life and cemented his place in history as the ultimate man of conscience.  Who can forget his famous last words?

“I die the King’s good servant – but God’s first.”

Thomas More was a lawyer, an author, a statesman, and a devout Catholic.  He was born in 1478, executed for high treason in 1535, and canonized by the Catholic Church 400 years later in 1935.

But what do we really know about him?  Few wrote about Thomas More while he lived.  It was only in death that his life became truly important and only through subsequent biographies that the enduring image of one of the most principled men in English History has been formed.  Does that mean that the portrayal of Thomas More in Wolf Hall could be an accurate one?

Many present day historians and religious scholars  (whose responses to Wolf Hall have been highly critical) would say no.  In an article in the Washington Post (“How ‘Wolf Hall’ will entertain millions — and threaten to distort history in the process”), Professor David Starkey, historian and president of Britain’s National Secular Society, is quoted as saying that there is “not a scrap of evidence” for the narrative of Wolf Hall and describes the plot as “total fiction.”  In a similarly themed article in The Financial Times (“What Historians Think of Historical Novels”), Historian Simon Schama writes:

“Try dropping the words Wolf Hall into a room full of historians these days and you’ll find out pretty quickly what they think of historical fiction.”

Mark Rylance portrays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC
Mark Rylance portrays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC

He goes on to write that:

“It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks” and that “When I was doing research for ‘A History of Britain,’ the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.”

In an article in the Catholic Herald (“Bishops criticise ‘perverse’ depiction of St Thomas More in Wolf Hall”), two bishops have come forward to condemn the portrayal of Thomas More.  They have even gone so far as to label Wolf Hall “anti-Catholic.”  Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury is quoted as saying:

Thomas Cromwell, Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532-1533.

“It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognize his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times.  It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.”

Or, as reviewer Colin Burrow at The London Review of Books writes in his article (“How to Twist the Knife”):

“There was no shortage of bastards in the early 16th century, but Thomas Cromwell stands out as one of the biggest bastards of them all.”

You get the picture.

But what about Thomas More, you ask.  If he was not the villain that Wolf Hall makes him out to be, who was he?  For the last fifty-five years, the most popular image of More has come from Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons.  In it, Thomas More is portrayed as the quintessential moral man.  A man who believes that the consequence of perjury is damnation.  In short, a saintly man who follows the dictates of his faith and his conscience all the way to the scaffold.

Based on the historical evidence that we do have, it appears that the truth about Thomas More lies somewhere in between Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons.

The Family of Sir Thomas More, portrait by Rowland Lackey after Hans Holbein the Younger, 1594
The Family of Sir Thomas More, portrait by Rowland Lackey after Hans Holbein the Younger, 1594

Thomas More was born in 1478.  He was the son of a lawyer and went up to Oxford with an eye toward becoming a lawyer himself.  After two years at school, he returned to London to read law at the Inns of Court.  As part of his study, he read scripture and chronicles of the history of England.  At that time in English History, law was seen as a holy thing and the teachers of the law were a sort of priesthood, believing that “all laws promulgated by men are…decreed by God” and that those who seek the good within the law do so by divine grace.

The influence of religion in More’s life was so strong that after finishing his legal studies, he lived for four years at The Charterhouse of London – a Carthusian Monastery.  In the end, he gave up the idea of taking religious vows and, instead, went on to marry his first wife.  Nevertheless, his own personal writings reveal that, throughout his lifetime, Thomas More continued to be preoccupied with the nature of the English church and the nature of God.

Meg Roper (Thomas More's daughter), miniature by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1535-1536
Meg Roper (Thomas More’s daughter), miniature by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1535-1536

He had four children, two of which were daughters.  In Wolf Hall, it is Cromwell who is depicted as encouraging the education of his little girls.  In reality, it was Thomas More who believed in equal education for all of his children.  He took pride in the aptitude and intelligence of his daughters – and with good reason.  His eldest daughter, Meg, was fluent in both Latin and Greek, as well as being a skilled translator, and his younger daughter was educated to just as high a standard.  More even took on the education of a foster daughter.

That is not to say that Thomas More was perfect.  It was the reformation, after all, and he was a devout Catholic in a position of power.  He wrote polemics denouncing the Protestant reformers and, at the request of Henry VIII, he wrote the Responsio ad Lutherum, accusing Martin Luther of heresy.  He advocated the burning of Luther’s books and, most disturbing to our modern sensibilities, as Lord Chancellor he enforced the heresy laws by imprisoning so-called heretics and burning them at the stake.

Henry VIII of England, Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539-1540.

When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, Thomas More could not bring himself to support the king.  Both as a lawyer (for whom, at that time, law and religion were inextricably intertwined) and as a man of profound faith, he was wholly committed to the doctrine of papal supremacy.  His refusal to take the oath of supremacy of the crown, sealed his fate.  He was arrested for high treason, tried, and sentenced to death.

Thomas More lived five nights after his trial.  On July 5th, 1535, using a piece of charcoal, he wrote his final farewell letter to his daughter, Meg, saying:

“Fare well my dear child and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends that we may merrily meet in heaven.”

On July 6, he was taken to Tower Hill where he was beheaded.  He needed a hand up the steps to the scaffold and said to the Lieutenant of the Tower:

“I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.”

Sir Thomas More Vault
Sir Thomas More’s Family Vault, St. Dunstan Church, Canterbury (photo by Liondartois,CC BY-SA 3.0).

400 years later, in 1935, Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church.

Admittedly, there is nothing very saintly about burning protestants at the stake, but remember, although during his lifetime Thomas More was steadfast in his religious beliefs, he was not canonized for how he lived.  He was canonized for how he died – a martyr to his faith.

History shows that Thomas More was not a perfect man.  It also shows that he was a man of conscience in a brutal and dangerous time – an accomplished lawyer, a learned scholar, and a man courageous enough to stand up to Henry VIII, even though he knew it would cost him his head.

Personally, I find the true story of Thomas More to be historically fascinating.  In fact, I would argue that he is one of those figures in history for whom fictional embellishments are completely unnecessary.  Of course, that doesn’t mean I intend to forego the next five episodes of Wolf Hall.  The truth is, I’m rather looking forward to watching them.  As television goes, it’s great entertainment.

But I encourage you, before you allow a highly fictionalized version of history to persuade you that Cromwell was the good guy and Thomas More was the bad one, pick up a history book and find out the truth for yourself.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources  

Bolt, Robert.  A Man For All Seasons. New York: Vintage International, 1990. Print.

Caldwell, Simon.  “Bishops criticize ‘perverse’ depiction of St. Thomas More in Wolf Hall.”  The Catholic Herald.  N.p., 2 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Guy, J. A. A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.

Marius, Richard. Thomas More: A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Schama, Simon. “What Historians Think of Historical Novels.” Financial Times. N.p., 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Wolfe, Gregory. “How ‘Wolf Hall’ Will Entertain Millions — and Threaten to Distort History in the Process.” The Washington Post. N.p., 4 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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13 Comments on "Wolf Hall and Sir Thomas More: Historical Fact vs. Historical Fiction"

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Renée Reynolds
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I watched the first episode of Wolf Hall at 2:00am while up with a sick child. At first I thought I had my Thomases mixed up, until I finally put the actors’ faces with the correct names, and it left me with very mixed feelings about this show. It’s one thing to fictionalize problems or situations for historical figures while keeping true to what we know of the figure’s character and behavior. Thus I could forgive The Tudors for its beautiful and trim Henry VIII because he was still the selfish, brutish, libertine we all know and love/tolerate. It’s another… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
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What a wonderful comment, Renee! I feel exactly the same way. I sincerely hope those people watching Wolf Hall who do not know the actual history will be inspired to look up the facts for themselves.

Maggie Scott
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I admit I was almost afraid to read this post after having read some others that steadfastly maintain the Mantel view of More. And I certainly agree that the single fact that most people overlook is that More was indeed canonized for his martyrdom, rather than the way he lived his life, much in the same way Jeanne d’Arc was executed not for treason but for heresy. I do feel that a writer of historical fiction, which is what Mantel is, no more and no less, owes a certain amount of historical honesty to her readers, even in the fictional… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
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Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment. I completely agree. I enjoy a good story as much as the next person, but when I see so many taking a piece of fiction as historical fact, it troubles me. What is the saying? “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” I try to keep my articles impartial, but I think that sums up how I feel!

Angelyn
Guest
I haven’t seen Wolf Hall yet–plan to watch tonight (recorded earlier). I haven’t read the book either, but have been following its meteoric success. The author has been lauded for writing a highly historic, readable, entertaining book. Man for All Seasons–the play is unmatched in dialogue and storytelling, in my opinion. A great example for how Sir Thomas More is typically portrayed–a hero who followed his conscience. Not so clear, as I see it, that he opposed Henry VIII because he was a good Catholic. He was very much a political creature and was close to Catherine of Aragon and… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
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Thanks for commenting, Angelyn! Like any historic matter involving law, religion, and politics, I think nothing is 100% one thing or the other. There is a danger in painting any historic figure as completely good or as completely bad. Human beings are complicated and imperfect. However, the actual facts of Thomas More’s life and death have no similarity at all to the Wolf Hall narrative. That doesn’t mean people can’t enjoy watching or reading Wolf Hall! I hope, at the very least, it will prompt a lot of research into the true history of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.
Monica
Guest
I too find Thomas More fascinating as a humanist and a lawyer, although we can’t overlook this darker side to his personality, which Hilary Mantel focuses on and exaggerates. I haven’t watched Wolf Hall but read the book a few years ago and was shocked, as it seemed to contradict all I thought I knew. So I did some online research and found out that her interpretation is based on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, as a piece of Protestant propaganda, must be taken with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, from what I remember, Bolt’s More is… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
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Thank you for such a great comment, Monica. I agree. I think when anyone – author, historian, or even the church – characterizes a historical figure as 100% good or 100% bad, there is a strong desire to disprove them. In trying so hard to disprove More’s reputation as a perfect, saintly martyr, Mantel ends up committing the same sin with regard to her characterization of Cromwell – making him a bit too perfect.

Terry Tyler
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Fascinating, thanks.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you for commenting, Terry! So pleased you liked my article.

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[…] Cromwell in my article Wolf Hall and Sir Thomas More: Historical Fact vs. Historical Fiction HERE.)  Most of the post-Wolf Hall scholars are generally of the opinion that his ambition was in no […]

Sian Griffith
Guest
Actually, Wolf Hall is a perfect reply to A Man for All Seasons. Both men are highly idealized, and Mantel just provided an equal opportunity for Thomas Cromwell. By the way, I actually don’t see More in WH as a villain at all. He does what he does because he believes he is doing a right thing, however hard it may be to understand in our very secular 21 century. People do not always choose between good and evil, sometimes they choose between two evils, and hopefully they choose a lesser one May be we just were raised on comic… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest
Very good points, Sian. In my opinion, as I stated in my article, the truth about Thomas More lies somewhere between A Man for All Seasons and Wolf Hall. He has been sainted, true, but he is a man for all that and one living in a very difficult time serving an incredibly difficult King. I am not offended by the historians outrage at how he was portrayed. I think all legitimate historical viewpoints are interesting. And we mustn’t forget, the bottom line is that both Wolf Hall and A Man for All Seasons are fiction – first and foremost… Read more »
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