I would like to follow up on Kate O’Hare’s post noting the negative presentation of Thomas More in Wolf Hall and linking to Travis Curtright’s excellent correction of the record at Public Discourse. I’ll just note two brief points.
In the first place, it is interesting to note the differences between the two authors involved, how those differences relate to their different portrayals of More, and what those differences might suggest about what they are saying. Hilary Mantel evidently intended her novel Wolf Hall as a response to Robert Bolt’s celebrated play about Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons. Bolt portrays More as an admirable, even heroic (although calm and unassuming) figure. Mantel portrays him rather more negatively, and makes a hero of his political enemy, Thomas Cromwell (portrayed by Bolt as a Machiavellian who will do anything to advance the wishes of his king). Judging from the introduction that Bolt wrote to his play, Bolt was not a Catholic and had no particular axe to grind for the Catholic Church. He just admired More for intelligently defending and courageously dying for his convictions. In contrast, Hilary Mantel does have an axe to grind. She is an embittered ex-Catholic who has said that the Catholic Church is not an institution “for respectable people.” So, to borrow an expression from the lawyers, Bolt’s portrayal of More is a kind of testimony “against interest”; while Mantel’s testimony (or creative revision of the record) seems to be based very much on her interest in making Catholicism look bad.
In the second place, it is interesting, and revealing of a certain kind of contemporary cultural leftism, that Mantel would actually make a hero out of Cromwell–the man who arranged More’s execution merely for what he believed. You would think that, say, a liberal would look at the contest between More and Cromwell and think: “There are no heroes here. All these guys believed in a state church and the use of political authority to protect it.” And this might be what a genuine liberal would think–although if he also had a good share of generosity of mind, like Robert Bolt, he would still appreciate More’s considerable virtues.
But Mantel actually presents Cromwell as the hero. What are we to make of that? That for a certain kind of leftist, it is not necessarily bad for the state to execute people for holding the wrong beliefs. State executions are OK if they are done in the service of “progress.” More was the bad guy because he was a defender of the old order. Cromwell was the good guy because he was willing to do whatever needed to be done to create a new kind of society.