Monday, May 10, 2021

A Wolf for All Seasons

From Law and Liberty:

Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, based on Robert Bolt’s play by the same name, swept the Oscars. With Paul Scofield in the lead role of Sir Thomas More, the film depicts the martyrdom of a man whose conscience would not permit him to submit to the tyranny of an unjust law. The drama swirls around the contest of wills between Bolt’s hero—More—and Thomas Cromwell. In her Wolf Hall trilogy (now complete with The Mirror and the Light), Hilary Mantel rewrites the narrative of the same events and presents the world with a new hero for modern times: the now-rehabilitated Thomas Cromwell. No longer an amoral, conniving minister who orchestrated More’s death after he failed to break him, the new Cromwell is a thoughtful and visionary statesman with bureaucratic genius who aims to transform England into a free republic. If the Bolt version of the events warns that an over-powerful state may leave no space for an individual conscience, the Mantel version turns this perspective on its head. She contends that the common good needs no such conscience driven individuals and that true progress is accomplished when leaders force through necessary changes.

Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is not modest in its ambitions. The trilogy grapples with the major historical questions surrounding a critical historical juncture; it is correctly understood as a quest to define and characterize Parliament and the Church of England as they developed during Thomas Cromwell’s tenure as Henry VIII’s chief minister. Styling itself a novelized version of historical fact taking few liberties with the record, the account is positioned to be the best-known version of “the origins of modern England”—as the prize committee for the Man Booker put it when granting Mantel the prestigious award for her second volume. In studying this period, historians ask how we understand these two institutions. Was it papal oppression that drove England from Rome or did an egotistical King and his corrupt ministers join the Reformation to further their political power? Was it, instead, an ultimately tragic incompatibility between the temporal concerns of the state (Henry VIII’s quest for a son) with the spiritual concerns of papacy (the indissolubility of a marriage)? Questions surrounding the rise of Parliament are even more complicated since the institution was hardly independent of the Crown and its ministers and had existed for centuries before. Do we see here the rise of the gentry, or their coopting through generous grants of lands and royal bullying? Mantel purports to answer many of these questions in her books with reference both to the historical record and the works of pedigreed historians.

To provide a brief overview of the historical events covered in A Man for All Seasons and Mantel’s work: Henry VIII began his reign under a propitious star: he was charming and erudite, he had married a Spanish princess allying himself to one of Europe’s most powerful monarchies, and England was entering a period of economic growth. He was also profoundly conservative: in 1521, the King himself defended papal prerogative and traditional sacramental theology against Martin Luther in his treatise Defense of the Seven Sacraments. But the marriage produced only one daughter and by 1527 Henry had become persuaded that the marriage itself was invalid. Had the pope granted him an annulment, he could have married a younger woman—and he had his eyes on Anne Boleyn. The pope, however, refused to act on Henry’s petition. In 1531, after years of failed negotiations, Henry was declared head of the Church of England by act of Parliament and shortly thereafter married Anne.

In 1535, the King’s former friend and Chancellor Thomas More was executed under a novel law that required the population to swear their support for the new marriage. (Bolt’s drama and Mantel’s first volume end with More’s death.) Twelve months later, Queen Anne herself was executed (the conclusion of Mantel’s second volume). Martyrdoms followed which included both conservatives who had refused the King’s title and evangelicals who gave sermons that were too fiery for the King’s conservative taste. By 1540, all of the religious houses in England were marked for dissolution and their lands transferred to the Crown. That same year, Thomas Cromwell himself was executed (the conclusion of Mantel’s trilogy). By Henry’s death in 1547 it was clear that England would remain Protestant despite the general popular distaste for Reformation, but it was also clear that new laws would originate, at least officially, in Parliament. Identifying the agents who worked these tremendous changes has drawn historians to the period since before John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. (Read more.)
St. Thomas More



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