This is why the TV series Wolf Hall on Masterpiece Theatre, based on the Hilary Mantel books, although it is well written and stars some fine actors, has me shaking my head. The protagonist of the series is Thomas Cromwell, who was the mastermind of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and many of the other religious upheavals of that era. His treatment of those who resisted the reformation was famously brutal. Yet in this series, Cromwell is humane and empathetic, a family man –literally cuddling kitten-- who is disgusted by torture. This would come as news to the group of Carthusian martyrs who died, horribly, after being starved and tormented on Cromwell’s watch. They refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy that meant acknowledging Henry VIII was the spiritual head of the kingdom.
Instead, Wolf Hall creates an alternative reality. In Episode Five, Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, says disapprovingly to Cromwell, “I heard you’re going to put all the monks and nuns out on the road.” This prompts a self-righteous response from Cromwell of “Wherever my commissioners go, they meet nuns and monks begging for their liberty and after the scandals I’ve heard, I’m not surprised.”Share
But this is not what I learned in my research into the monastic world of the early 16th century. After the nuns were ejected from their homes with small pensions, they often banded together to live in community, trying to stay true to their vows. When Mary I ascended the throne, they joyfully returned to their priories, only to be thrown out a last time when she died and her half sister Elizabeth I succeeded. There were instances of fraud and corruption in the abbeys, but nowhere near the level that Wolf Hall assumes. A growing number of historians believe that the “corruption” found in Cromwell’s investigation was a foregone conclusion—and a pretext for the legal seizure of the vast amount of land owned by the abbeys. After all, most were endowed by pious kings going back centuries.Wolf Hall is not alone. The C.J. Sansom Tudor mystery series also takes the position of Catholic decay and corruption, with a main character who is a Protestant lawyer (who initially works for Cromwell). When I attended the play Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2011, I felt uncomfortable when all around me, the audience laughed at a joke about debauched monks or nodded approvingly when a heroic Tyndale entered the story, to be opposed by dimwitted enemies.There are historians such as Eamon Duffy who’ve written brilliant books challenging the accepted wisdom that Protestantism replaced a dying and corrupt system, and thanks to them, perceptions are changing. In the English media, there was a storm of protest—small but loud—over the distortions in the story of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall. (Read more.)