Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s novel about early Tudor England, began airing on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” Easter Sunday night. It’s brilliant television. It’s also a serious distortion of history. And it proves, yet again, that anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable bigotry in elite circles in the Anglosphere.
The distortions and bias are not surprising, considering the source. Hillary Mantel is a very talented, very bitter ex-Catholic who’s said that the Church today is “not an institution for respectable people” (so much for the English hierarchy’s decades-long wheedling for social acceptance). As she freely concedes, Mantel’s aim in her novel was to take down the Thomas More of A Man for All Seasons—the Thomas More the Catholic Church canonized—and her instrument for doing so is More’s rival in the court of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell.
Hillary Mantel does not lack for chutzpah, for Cromwell has long been considered a loathsome character and More a man of singular nobility. In the novel Wolf Hall, however, the More of Robert Bolt’s play is transformed into a heresy-hunting, scrupulous prig, while Cromwell is the sensible, pragmatic man of affairs who gets things done, even if a few heads get cracked (or detached) in the process. All of which is rubbish, as historians with no Catholic interests at stake have made clear. Thus the president of the U.K.’s National Secular Society, historian David Starkey, finds “not a scrap of evidence” for Mantel’s retelling of the More-Cromwell tale; Mantel’s plot, he claimed, was “total fiction.” And as Gregory Wolfe pointed out in a fine essay on Wolf Hall in the Washington Post, historian Simon Schama has written that the documentary evidence he examined “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.”
So why did Hillary Mantel win Britain’s most prestigious award for fiction, the Man Booker Prize, not once, but twice, for Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies? Because the books are terrific novels. Because well-crafted novels that make a hash of history for the sake of defaming the Catholic Church and one of its English icons are, in today’s literary culture, quite all right, thank you very much.
And because Britain’s literary high culture is still in thrall to the Whig view of British history, and seems oblivious to the deep transformation that’s taken place in English Reformation studies since Eamon Duffy’s extraordinary book, The Stripping of the Altars, was first published in 1992. There, Duffy demonstrated beyond cavil what Simon Schama alluded to in his Financial Times article on the BBC version of Wolf Hall: that Henry VIII was a proto-totalitarian who, with his Protestant heirs, imposed his version of Christianity on England against the will of the great majority of plain folk, who stubbornly clung to the old faith until the overwhelming power of the state extinguished most of English Catholic life, and “anti-popery” got set in cultural concrete as modern nation-building went forward in Britain—often funded by expropriated Catholic properties.
Protestant anti-Catholicism in the U.K. has long since been superseded by secular anti-Catholicism, but the cultural afterburn remains virtually identical: to the Hillary Mantels of 21st-century Britain, Catholicism is retrograde, priggish, obsessive, fanatical, and, well, un-English. Where all this could lead was made clear in the run-up to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Great Britain in 2010, when just about every hoary anti-Catholic bromide in the playbook was dusted off and deployed in the media—and with a few notable exceptions, the British Catholic hierarchy proved itself incapable of rising to the defense of the Church and the pope, a task that was left, in the main, to laity. Which is fine, but was unhappily reminiscent of the English bishops’ performance under Henry VIII, when all but John Fisher truckled to the spirit of the age and joined in declaring Henry “Supreme Head of the Church in England.”
Thus Wolf Hall, while bad history, is also a cautionary tale for today.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.