Friday 22 September 2017

More the gurrier: how 'Wolf Hall' reshapes history

Four weeks into its run, it’s plain that the BBC drama is nakedly anti-Catholic, writes Mary Kenny

Anton Lesser as Thomas More in Wolf Hall
Anton Lesser as Thomas More in Wolf Hall
Beguiling: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Is Wolf Hall anti-Catholic? Some of the Catholic bishops in England believe it to be so. Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury - a gently-spoken, rather thoughtful man - has called it "an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain."

While Bishop Mark O'Toole of Plymouth said he believed there was "a strong anti-Catholic thread" in the drama. It seems, he said, to connect the Catholic faith to religious fundamentalism of the 21st century, in the style of Isis.

Perhaps there are certain parallels between life at a Tudor court and Islamic fundamentalism - brutish, short, and a woman gets her head chopped off if she gives birth to a daughter rather than a son - and it is undisputed that Wolf Hall's acclaimed author, Dame Hilary Mantel, is herself anti-Catholic. Or, what is often more ferocious, an anti-Catholic ex-Catholic.

"I'm one of nature's Protestants," she has said. "I should never have been brought up a Catholic. I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people."

The editor of the liberal Catholic magazine The Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, has described Mantel's attitude as harking back to a "no popery in England" era. "Wolf Hall is a respectable way of covering up old-fashioned anti-Catholic feeling."

Hilary Mantel herself - the damehood was recently bestowed upon her by the Prince of Wales, although she also got into hot water for describing Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, as a mere "mannequin" - partly ascribes her own anti-Catholic feelings to her upbringing. She thought that the priests and nuns she encountered "were amongst the worst people I knew." She was also appalled - as who wasn't? - by the child sexual abuse scandals among the clergy, and the cover-up that followed.

Mantel's anti-Catholicism is of relatively recent vintage, and it's hard not to suspect that, like most writers, she's alert to a shrewd career move. Indeed, she has all but said so herself. "In a cold-blooded way, as a writer, I've had full value from Catholicism.''

It's also an adept training for a historical author, since the history of faith is a rich seam for character, conflict and great frocks, as amply illustrated by Wolf Hall.

And again, like most writers, Mantel bends her characters to suit her own narrative. Her interpretation can be seen as a kind of corrective to Robert Bolt's A Man for all Seasons, which portrayed St Thomas More as a man of unblemished integrity.

Mantel presents him as a Popish creep - played with sneering wiliness by Anton Lesser - while his rival, Thomas Crom­well - the beguiling Mark Rylance - is the wise advisor who crafted the constitution of modern Britain. He's Henry VIII's fixer, who would first advance the cause of Anne Boleyn, and after she had failed to produce a son, arrange her judicial murder.

Tudor times were brutal times, and the Catholic-Protestant conflict sharpened adversarial court intrigues. In the 1530s, it was more about Henry's break with the Pope than about liturgical niceties: Henry had, after all, written a tract refuting Luther's reforms. The standard-issue Oxford Companion to British History says Cromwell meted out "ruthless treatment of high-profile opponents", while Thomas More was a "humanist".

As a writer, I would say Hilary Mantel has cleverly taken an established story and shaken it about. That's just what imaginative writers should do.

Catholic bishops are entitled to defend their faith, though they won't pay the price of some Tudor martyrs - burnt at the stake, or hung, drawn and quartered - nor, indeed, the price for so many afflicted Middle Eastern Christians hunted from their homes and cruelly persecuted right now.

Wolf Hall is an entertainment: Iraq is a tragedy.

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