Late reflections on Wolf Hall: will the real Thomas More please stand up?


Is this the real Thomas More? Maybe… (Mark Rylance in “Wolf Hall”)

I fell in love with Thomas More as a girl, when my mother took me to see A Man for All Seasons. Whether I fell in love with More or actor Paul Scofield, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps I fell in love with playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt, more than either of them.


The actor who refused a knighthood, here as Thomas More.

Much ink has been spilled over the defamation of More in the BBC television series Wolf Hall, based on Dame Hilary Mantel‘s Man Booker award-winning novel by that name (and now available as a boxed set). Clearly, she had a bone to pick with the English icon, as a national hero as well as saint. But she is punching the wrong man. For her quarrel is not with More, but with Bolt, a fellow atheist, who recreated More to be, as he put it in his introduction to the play, “a hero of selfhood.”

From Bolt’s introduction:

“Thomas More, as I wrote about him, became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.”


Holbein’s Thomas More

The reason … well, one reason … I have delayed so long in posting my reaction to Wolf Hall is I wanted to watch the 1966 film again, and see how it holds up today, at the other end of a life. When it was made, the lauded film received best film, best actor, and best director Academy awards. Scofield said it was his toughest role ever.

So I watched the film again with two young people. (Well … young-ish … compared to me, anyway.) The low-budget film often adheres to polished stage conventions rather than modern film conventions (Scofield won a Tony as well as an Oscar for the role), and the actors wore far too much make-up. That’s not what bugged my companions, however – not the main thing, anyway. They couldn’t imagine any principle worth dying for, when a simple lie could get you off the hook. That divide proved more unbreachable even than pancake makeup. I’ve since learned that this mindset is usual among Millennials.

Bolt, too, dealt with that issue directly: “why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?” he asked. The answer is bound up with his earlier discussion of selfhood:


Lesser’s More as a sadist

“For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as guarantee. And it works. There is a special kind of shrug for a perjurer; we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer. Of course it’s much less effective now that for most of us the actual words of the oath are not much more than the impressive mumbo-jumbo than it was when they made obvious sense; we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than with themselves. We feel – we know – the self to be an equivocal commodity. There are fewer and fewer things which, as they say, we ‘cannot bring ourselves’ to do.”

Bolt recreated More as a modern hero, just as Mantel has given us a postmodern one, a “recreation” untethered to anything we might consider a fact. (For a little factual history, try Gregory Wolfe‘s WaPo story here.) Hence, I didn’t care for Anton Lesser‘s performance – he portrays More as a waspish eccentric and sadist. That doesn’t fit the man described by Robert Whittington this way: “More is a man of angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not of his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth, a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons.” And, famously, by Samuel Johnson: “He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.” Yet this singularly fortunate man was drawn against his will to depart from the family he loved and the society he enjoyed. Why? According to Bolt:

For More the answer to this question would be perfectly simple (though again it may not be easy); the English Kingdom, his immediate society, was subservient to the larger society of the Church of Christ, founded by Christ, extending over Past and Future, ruled from Heaven. There are still some for whom that is perfectly simple, but for most it can only be a metaphor. I took it as a metaphor for that larger context which we all inhabit, the terrifying cosmos. Terrifying because no laws, no sanction, no mores obtain there; it is either empty or occupied by God and Devil nakedly at war. The sensible man will seek to live his life without dealings with this larger environment, treating it as a fine spectacle on a clear night, or a subject for innocent curiosity. At the most he will allow himself an agreeable frisson when he contemplates his own relation to the cosmos, but he will not try to live in it; he will gratefully accept the shelter of his society. This was certainly More’s intention.


Holbein’s Cromwell

But here’s the thing: neither Bolt nor Mantel portrayed the real Thomas More, because the real Thomas More was a medieval man, not a modern one at all. He was not a solitary figure occasionally flanked not by a wife and daughter, but also by a son, two additional daughters, a stepdaughter, and a ward or two, along with a jester, servants, and uncounted hangers-on. He was not a modern lawyer, in the sense that we usually mean that – with professional restraint and carefully parsed words. Medieval lawyers let fly. Consider his attack on Martin Luther, as described by More’s biographer Peter Ackroyd in The Life of Thomas More:

“Furfuris! Pestillentissimum scurram! Pediculosus fraterculus! Asinus! Potista! Simium! Improbe mendax! Martin Luther is an ape, an arse, a drunkard, a lousy little friar, a piece of scurf, a pestilential buffoon, a dishonest liar. ‘HA. HA. he, facete, laute, lepide Luthere, nihil supra … Hui.’  The unmediated demotic speech here will be of interest to anyone who wishes to know how the educated inhabitants of early sixteenth-century London actually sounded when they spoke in Latin, but More’s grasp of colloquialism went much further. Someone should shit (‘incacere‘) into Luther’s mouth, he is a shit-devil (‘cacodemon‘), he is filled with shit (‘merda‘), dung (‘stercus‘), filth (‘lutum‘) and excrement (‘coenum‘); look, my own fingers are covered with shit (‘digitos concacatos‘) when I try to clean his filthy mouth. This is not, perhaps, the normal language of a saint; but More’s scatological obsessions are shared by Luther himself. ‘I am like ripe shit,’ he once said, ‘and the world is a gigantic arse-hole. We probably will let go of each other soon.’ ‘A Christian should and could be gay,’ he said on another occasion, ‘but then the devil shits on him.'”


The terrifying cosmos

Put that in your historical pipe and smoke it. Certainly it’s closer to Mantel’s More than Bolt’s, but her More lacks all generosity of spirit, another attribute of the “real” more. Here’s Mantel’s neat sleight-of-hand, however: she took Bolt’s trick of turning a More into a modern hero, and turned his nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, into a modern hero instead. Both Scofield’s More and Mark Rylance‘s Cromwell are serious, humane men, both are fair, industrious, and unostentatious. Both are given to long, meditative silences; both are steely and unflinching. Both are family men, and both have humble origins. As Bolt’s play reminded us, More is the son of a lawyer. Mantel goes one up: Cromwell is continually reminded that he is the son of a blacksmith.

I was riveted to Wolf Hall for weeks, but I fell in love with Thomas Cromwell after the first episode, not More. As I realized later, as one of my TV companions this week also pointed out to me … I nevertheless fell in love with the same man.

Watch the film clips below, and see if you agree. (Don’t worry … my heart belongs to Scofield forever.)


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3 Responses to “Late reflections on Wolf Hall: will the real Thomas More please stand up?”

  1. Bruce Cole Says:


    This was a nice reminder of our conversation a couple months ago about More, Cromwell, Wolf Hall, etc. You are made of sterner stuff than I am – the first episode was about all I could stick, so I will gladly defer to your judgment on the series. I do have a couple thoughts about More and Cromwell more generally.

    You are right that More was a “medieval” figure in being a very social being, with retainers, and extended family, etc. But, of course, that illustrates the dangers of “periodization” – large groupings like that would continue for centuries, only slowly changing into greater individualization (“from status to contract” and all that). Something similar pertains, I think, to More the Polemicist: debates would stay pretty robust for a long time before devolving into whatever we have now (talk radio??? inserting statements into the Congressional Record?? academic conferences??)

    The second thing is that I find I am far more “bothered” by the white-washing of Cromwell than the attacks on More. How many people had to die during Cromwell’s decade as Chief Minister? (Also, how did the TV series treat that?) Thousands? And this compares how exactly to the six (6) heretics – the agreed upon number, I think – executed while More was Lord Chancellor? I think it is telling that in Britain not only Catholic historians like Eamon Duffy and J.J. Scarisbrick have raised their voices against Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell but so have historians like Simon Schama (who is Jewish) and David Starkey (a gay member of something called the British Secular Society). But, at time when too many people would rather have their buttons punched than actually earn an opinion on a subject, I suppose their voices come off as pretty faint.

    Anyway, I am glad you stuck with it and gave us your reflections. I hope some other readers weigh in on this one, too.

  2. George Says:

    I have about the house four biographies of More: Roper’s, in Yale’s Two Early Tudor Lives (with the life of Wolsey by George Cavendish); R.W. Chambers’s Thomas More; The Story of Thomas More by John Farrow; and Thomas More by Anthony Kenny in the Oxford Brief Lives series. (The purchases do not reflect an obsession, but amount to about one every dozen years–the Farrow was inherited.)

    Kenny gives several pages late in the book to the failings of Bolt’s depiction of More, the essential failing being in his view that More did not understand the conscience in the isolated sense that Bolt sees it, but as formed and guided by the consensus of Christendom. A point that I find odd about the movie is its depiction of William Roper as a hothead. He survived into Elizabeth’s reign, and I believe held office steadily. It is true that persons less prominent than More and Fisher were allowed to take the oath with the clause “so far as the law of God allows”; yet he can hardly have gone out of his way to seek trouble.

    Chambers is long and circumstantial, perhaps to some extent superseded. Kenny is concise, a couple of evenings’ reading.

    Jacques Barzun has written somewhere that invective of the sort quoted is not medieval so much as Renaissance. Medieval theologians tended to make their arguments technical and dry. Luther could give at least as well as he got.

  3. Linda Says:

    I came here from the link you left on the Guardian article.
    I think both you and that writer need to calm down and understand what fiction is.
    Hilary Mantel wasn’t attacking More, she was simply creating a possible innerworld for a man who did some terrible things and had to live with himself.