Wolf Hall: a eulogy of relativism

I avoided watching the BBC’s Wolf Hall for a long time, because I work on Reformation England and I was afraid of a crude, unhistorical drama similar to the diabolical The Tudors. But, I was told, “Wolf Hall is entirely different. It really captures the period.” So I caved. And, no, it does not.

It is unfortunate that my ire was instantly raised by the depiction of Sir Thomas More. Eamon Duffy (the expert on English Reformation Catholicism) dismantles the character assassination of More so well that I need add nothing: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/4525/more-or-less . Only, how could the close companion of the fun-loving Henry VIII, and one of Europe’s most popular satirists, be the dry, twisted man of Wolf Hall? Mantel’s More encapsulates both her lack of understanding of the period, and her anti-Catholicism.

It is not only More, however, that Wolf Hall attacks. Tyndale and More are together dismissed by Thomas Cromwell (the hero of the piece) as heartless men foolishly bound to unwavering principles. In contrast, much is made of the fact that Cromwell (like the probable heroine, Anne Boleyn), will compromise his religious beliefs to survive. Wolf Hall’s Cromwell is the model man of twenty-first century liberals. He is a scheming, clever, promiscuous, witty, sometimes charitable but ultimately self-serving, and, above all, a relativist. In Wolf Hall, the ideologues are pulled down from their pedestals, and the relativists are held aloft.

Long live those without principles… only, Cromwell and Anne Boleyn died younger than More and Fisher, an unfortunate historical detail. It is, I suppose, useless to protest that in Tudor England ideologues were admired, and relativism despised. See the criticism of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, for his flexible religious positions (which ultimately did him little good); see also that Henry did not laugh at the Holy Maid of Kent (who was not a young girl), he feared her and listened carefully to her warning, until time seemed to prove her prophecy wrong. Pseudo-martyrs were lambasted, but precisely because ‘real’ martyrs and ‘genuine’ holiness was universally valued; what was debated was where those martyrs, and that holiness, could be found.

Perhaps next time the BBC feel compelled to air a historical drama, a historian could be commissioned to write the script? But no, that would require a general popular interest in representative history. For once I agree with postmodernism, with a caveat: history is the history of the present, if it is to appeal. Mantel’s twenty-first century relativist hero, triumphing over twisted religious ideologues, attracts modern viewers.