Tuesday, 27 January 2015
Thomas vs Thomas. Who was the Wolf?
Hilary Mantell’s historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell, and the current BBC dramatisation of Wolf Hall, present us with rather counter culture versions of both Cromwell and Thomas More. I am sure that most people of my generation saw More as The Man for All Seasons in David Lean’s 1966 film, and of course More is now a Catholic saint, but what was he really like?
Of course we can never know. He lived in times of sharp religious and political divisions and literally deadly rivalry. To some he will always be a saint, to others a much darker character. I am a Protestant priest, trained in an Anglican Seminary, and studying Church history through Protestant eyes. More is seen by Protestants as a zealous prosecutor of those who believed
(1) that Holy Scripture should be available to every person in their own language, and
(2) that we all have a God given – natural – moral conscience. We must, of course, pay heed to the moral teachings of the Church, but not subjugate our conscience to the authority of the Bishops or Pope.
More had been taught by the church to regard both of these beliefs as heretical, and ordered the execution of those who translated, published, transported or held English language Bibles, or refused to recant their Protestant belief in God’s direct access to his people. Today, of course, the Catholic Church embraces both of these ‘Protestant’ doctrines. The Catholic Church of the 20th century is much closer doctrinally to the Protestant Church than to the 16th century Catholic Church. More could be seen therefor as faithful, obedient and zealous, but ultimately wrong. Of course he paid for his unwavering obedience to the Pope when it brought him into opposition with his King.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of church history at Oxford University, wrote that there is no denying the appeal of More’s mind.
“I have seen some of the new series and More comes across as a desiccated fanatic. Well, that would be one take. It is true he has always been a controversial character partly because he became such a plaster saint, seen as unassailable in the Catholic church. But like Cromwell he was a complicated humanist, as well as a great stylist and the author of the wonderful Utopia. For More, I think, the whole of the late 1520s became resolved into a life and death struggle for his world. We all have our priorities and for him a united Christendom overrode his concern with mercy or with pity.”
The question is, how did this priority, which overrode his concern with mercy or with pity, affect his actions as Lord Chancellor?
Rumours circulated both during and after More's lifetime regarding his ill-treatment of heretics when he was Lord Chancellor. In his defence of his faith he engaged in spying on and ‘investigating’ suspected Protestants, especially publishers of the English Bibles. Did his investigations include torture?
What do other historians say?
‘Peter Ackroyd’s dignified, often eloquent biography offers a picture of More which is a combination of Catholic admiration and scholarly determinism.’ (James Wood’s review) But in it Ackroyd still writes that
“More approved of burning. In total there were six burned at the stake for heresy during More's chancellorship. After the case of John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller found guilty of harbouring banned books and sentenced to burning for refusing to recant, More declared: he "burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy.”
Of course Thomas Cromwell also oversaw executions. I know of four, but they were all beheaded for treason, not burnt for heresy. As every theological advance throughout the history of the Church starts as heresy (a minority view not yet shared by the orthodox majority) I approve of it, if not always of individual heretics!
Brian Moynahan, in Thomas More and the Writing of the English Bible, criticised More's intolerance, and it was said the he had John Bainbridge ‘whipped in his own garden’. I do not know if the garden was Bainbridge’s or More’s!
John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs (1563) claiming that More had often personally used violence or torture while interrogating heretics.
Jasper Ridley goes much further in his dual biography of More and Cardinal Wolsey, The Statesman and the Fanatic, describing More as "a particularly nasty sado-masochistic pervert”
Even John Paul 2, recognised that More’s zeal could take him too far – at least by today’s standards,
"It can be said that he demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience... even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time".
Of course standards change. It is beyond doubt that More used foul and scatological language that no one would tolerate today from a churchman. But he was not alone in this. Although he educated his favourite daughter in Latin and Greek (as did Cromwell) he refused to let his wife learn to read and write. But these were misogynist times when wives were chattels with no rights.
So I suppose the jury will always be out, and divided. But after Robert Bolt’s hagiographic portrayal of More and vilification of Cromwell in ‘A Man for All Seasons’ it is good to have alternate views of both men, remembering that both of them fell under the executioner axe. One for serving his God - and Pope – to well, the other for serving his God and King too well – and making deadly enemies in the court as he did so. At least More got a trial.
I loved the first two volumes of Mantell’s trilogy, and I am enjoying the Beeb’s version, surprised but persuaded by the casting of Mark Rylance as Cromwell. I had thought that some one with more physical heft might get the part, maybe Dominic West. But that might have really confused those who get all their history from the tv and had seen West playing Thomas’s distant relative Oliver Cromwell in the excellent Channel 4 Civil War production ‘The Devil’s Whore.’
Thomas or Thomas as hero or villain? I suspect it all depends on which religious or historical lens you are looking through.