Wolf’s Hall: A Morality Play?
January 29, 2015 5 Comments
This showed up in my Twitter feed yesterday:
‘the destruction started and legalised by Cromwell amounted to 97% of the English art then in existence’ http://t.co/Uk7n5VcGkF
— Ed West (@edwest) January 28, 2015
I can’t vouch for that 97% number but the destruction as widespread and severe.
For my American readers Wolf’s Hall is a historical costume drama set in the reign of Henry the VIII. I’ve seen the first two episodes, and it’s very good TV, although I doubt it’s overly accurate history. Here’s a bit of the article referenced in the Tweet.
The UK’s current primetime TV fantasy blockbuster du jour is Wolf Hall. Everyone loves a costume drama, but there is a world of difference between fictional history and historical fiction. One dramatizes real people and events. The other is an entirely made-up story set in the past. The current tendency is to blur the two, which Wolf Hall does spectacularly.
Thomas Cromwell, whose life it chronicles, comes across as a plucky, self-made Englishman, whose quiet reserve suggests inner strength and personal nobility. Back in the real world, Cromwell was a “ruffian” (in his own words) turned sectarian extremist, whose religious vandalism bears striking comparison with the iconoclasm of Islamic State or the Afghani Taliban.
Thanks to Wolf Hall, more people have now heard of Thomas Cromwell, and this is a good thing. But underneath its fictionalized portrayal of Henry VIII’s chief enforcer, there is a historical man, and he is one whose record for murder, looting, and destruction ought to have us apoplectic with rage, not reaching for the popcorn.
Historians rarely agree on details, so a lot about Cromwell’s inner life is still up for debate. But it is a truly tough job finding anything heroic in the man’s legacy of brutality and naked ambition.
Against a backdrop of Henry VIII’s marital strife, the pathologically ambitious Cromwell single-handedly masterminded the break with Rome in order to hand Henry the Church, with its all-important control of divorce and marriage. There were, to be sure, small pockets of Protestantism in England at the time, but any attempt to cast Cromwell’s despotic actions as sincere theological reform are hopeless. Cromwell himself had minimal truck with religious belief. He loved politics, money, and power, and the reformers could give them to him.
Continue reading Thomas Cromwell was the Islamic State of his day.
Well, OK. But I don’t think that is any more accurate than the program. So far the program does seem to be downplaying Cromwell’s [shall we say] ambition a bit but he hasn’t consolidated his position yet, so we’ll see
This in particular “[…]the pathologically ambitious Cromwell single-handedly masterminded the break with Rome in order to hand Henry the Church, with its all-important control of divorce and marriage.” Strikes me as a description of any number of bureaucrats and politicians in Westminster as well as Washington. And many in history as well.
Still the dissolution of the monasteries did happen, and if we believe that England’s (and America’s) ascent to world power is an overall good, we should thank God that it did. At the time nearly half of the land area of England was owned by the church, and thus tax exempt, and if you consider the amount of art in England older than this period, just how much wealth was tied up in the church?
In my article today at All along the Watchtower (linked in the sidebar), I speak in passing of the utter destruction of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which was one of the foremost pilgrimage shrines in Europe, and included the carrying off of a famous (and historic) statue of Our Lady to London to be burned in the streets.
So yes, there was a perhaps frenzied overreaction involved in the suppression, there nearly always is. Kristallnacht was no picnic for the relics of the Jewish population of Germany either. That poorly disciplined soldiers, irregulars or just people get out of hand is just a fact of life.
That said, comparing Cromwell to ISIS is just silly, Cromwell’s goal wasn’t to kill the population of England, it was to get rich. Henry’s illegal use of Prerogative power was a bad thing, as was recognized, even at the time. But is today’s Parliament (or our own bureaucracy) any better? Only if we force them to be, and we’re not doing a very effective job ourselves.
So perhaps, after all, Wolf’s Hall is a morality tale for our times.