Cromwell the Humanitarian

What Did PBS's 'Wolf Hall' Get Wrong?

Caught up in the flurry of interest in Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, I recently watched the six-episode PBS mini-series, directed by Peter Kosminsky, based on the books. The novels and its TV adaptation begin with the fall of Thomas Wolsey, continue through the rise and eventual execution of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, and conclude with the triumph of the Mantel’s unlikely hero, the lawyer and chief minister to Henry, Thomas Cromwell.

The show is beautifully shot, featuring authentic historical interiors and exteriors and painstakingly recreated period costumes. Some of the scenes, in particular Cromwell’s interactions with Sir Thomas More (brilliantly portrayed by Anton Lesser) and Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), are in fact breathtaking; the trial of More is a tour de force, and the execution of Anne Boleyn made my heart pound so hard I thought I was about to suffer the same fate as Henry VIII’s hapless wife.

And yet, in spite of the brilliant acting and exquisite sets and costumes, something about the series troubled me—not so much the liberties it took with historical accuracy as its abandonment altogether of the facts concerning Thomas Cromwell. From his portrayal by the telegenic Mark Rylance, to his depiction as a loving family man, to his presentation as a reasoned humanitarian who eschews torture and comforts Henry’s victims, Cromwell actually emerges as the sympathetic hero, when in fact he was a ruthless and pitiless operator who did not hesitate in eliminating political opponents in his desire for wealth and power.

Rylance is a distinguished British theater actor best known for his work at the reconstructed Globe Theater in London. Unlike the corpulent and ungainly Cromwell of history, he is slim and attractive, one reason why he was so convincing and successful as Countess Olivia in the Globe’s recent production of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night. Rylance’s Cromwell comes across as kind and almost caring, not only in his early incarnation as a devoted servant and friend of Cardinal Wolsey, but also at the height of his power as he orchestrates the downfall of Anne Boleyn. For example, in a scene where he visits the Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, he is courteous and considerate, even providing a chair for the distressed Princess Mary to sit on. Later, as Boleyn nervously fingers her blindfold in preparation for the axman’s blow, he whispers to her to lower her hand in order to make the grim task of decapitation smoother and less painful. In historical fact, Cromwell ostentatiously stood in the front row in order to gloat at Boleyn’s death and, moreover, to be seen to do so.

This was not out of keeping for the actual Cromwell, who also presided over the creation of a Tudor police state aimed at imposing conformity through terror. More than three hundred religious dissidents were executed between 1532 and 1540, years coterminous with Cromwell’s tenure. Yet in Wolf Hall we have Cromwell assuring other characters (and thus the audience) that “we do not do such things”—by which he presumably means torture. If his contention was simply presented as political spin—if we saw him practicing what he says he doesn’t do—that would be one thing. But in fact we never do see Cromwell torturing his victims, whereas Thomas More is shown positively relishing the experience.

There’s another problem with Wolf Hall: Kosminsky’s direction reduces the sinister dialectic of watching and being watched to a one-way process. Cromwell is always located in the shadows and in the margins, not merely observing the others’ actions but practically manipulating Henry’s courtiers with his powerfully expressive eyes. In some ways these scenes of surveillance are among the finest and best observed in the show. But they have the unfortunate effect of making us identify with Cromwell, rather than letting us view him objectively. And inviting viewers to identify with a man who enabled Henry to tyrannize his subjects and force on them a religion they didn’t want is ethically problematic. The show comes perilously close to reproducing the Whiggish view of the Reformation as a much-needed sweeping away of a corrupt and outdated form of medieval Catholicism.

In recent years, this one-sided view of the English Reformation, best exemplified by the work of the historian G. R. Elton, has been revised by scholars like Eamon Duffy and Alexandra Walsham, who offer a far more complex picture of English medieval Catholicism. Their work reveals a thriving religion whose focus on the socially cohesive rituals of parish life and the church calendar appealed to the mainstream population. But in Wolf Hall, this Catholicism is largely presented as the realm of cranks and fanatics, epitomized by a dotty Elizabeth Barton, the so-called Holy Nun of Kent, and a distinctly donnish Sir Thomas More intent on eradicating all forms of heresy. Cromwell and his son, by contrast, are shown as distinctly rational and reasonable in their ridicule of the relics of saints as objects meant to deceive the English people.

Then there’s the show’s portrayal of Cromwell as family man and loyal attendant to his fallen master Wolsey. In fact, Cromwell was loyal to Wolsey only as long as it served his interests. As soon as the cardinal fell from power, Cromwell dropped him and offered his talents as a lawyer and bureaucrat to the king. Perhaps there’s no reason why a writer of fiction can’t take liberties with the historical truth. After all, Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons transforms Thomas More into a modern humanitarian from the complex figure who, as Lord Chancellor of England, presided over the torture and execution of a handful of Protestants. But in the TV series Wolf Hall, the tables have simply been turned to present Cromwell as the modern humanitarian, while More is portrayed as a religious zealot—this despite the fact that state violence under Cromwell was far more extensive than anything inaugurated by More.

Further, Wolf Hall has it, whatever cruelty Cromwell did engage in was somehow necessary, or at least unavoidable. For example, his framing of Anne Boleyn as an adulteress is not presented as a preemptive strike to save his own neck in a kill-or-be-killed struggle for power, but as the reluctant concession to King Henry’s fanatical desire for a son. The opening salvo in the campaign to remove the queen is the forced confession of Mark Smeaton, a member of Anne’s entourage and a court musician. As the TV series correctly indicates, the interrogation of Smeaton (who was probably homosexual) took place in Cromwell’s own house in Putney. The scene brilliantly shows the tipsy young man falling into Cromwell’s trap as he boasts over a glass of wine that Boleyn is in love with him. What starts out as harmless banter soon turns into lethal self-incrimination. Yet what the segment doesn’t show is the torture Smeaton in fact endured, torture that also led him to incriminate the queen’s other courtiers—including her brother, Lord Rochford—all of whom went to the block. What we’re asked to believe instead is the rather improbable notion that Smeaton was simply locked up overnight in a storage room until, like a naughty schoolboy, he was moved to confess.

The implications of the audience’s identification with Cromwell are particularly disturbing insofar as the architect of the English Reformation was the henchman of a tyrannical king intent not only on making himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, but also the master of his subjects’ consciences. It was both of these factors that led men of conscience like Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, to oppose Henry’s Reformation. For all their faults, they rightly saw in it not only the death-knell of medieval Catholicism but also the inauguration of a political tyranny unprecedented in English history. More’s execution caused shock-waves throughout Renaissance Europe and led to the isolation of England, helping it earn status as a pariah nation.

In the end it should be remembered that Cromwell was not a decent sort of chap merely caught up by circumstance. He was a man who, instead of transcending his violent age, typified it. It would be better if Wolf Hall acknowledged this, rather than serving up for its audience a view of Tudor history that most historians no longer accept. A final installment in the series is due from Mantel, and thus presumably a corresponding television version. Can we expect it to set the record just a little bit straighter? 

Published in the June 3, 2016 issue: 
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Alfred Thomas is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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