Professor Richard Rex of Queen’s College, Cambridge, addressed a packed University Church in Dublin last week on the topic: The Two Thomases, namely Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. In particular, he examined the portrayal of both in Hilary Mantel’s best-selling and widely-praised novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Professor Rex, who lectures in Reformation and Tudor history, offers a wry, learned and ultimately devastating analysis of how Mantel essentially reversed the personalities and characters of both men.
As Professor Rex . . . says: “They are two of the emblematic figures of English history: More, the defender of the Catholic Church in England against the tyrannical pretensions of Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England; and Cromwell, the pliant instrument of tyranny. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons cast More as a liberal hero of freedom of conscience and Cromwell as the ruthless agent of State pragmatism. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has reversed those polarities for a new age, with Cromwell now the apostle of humanist tolerance and More the hate-filled prophet of religious fanaticism. My aims this evening are to investigate and document this reversal, to show how it was achieved, and to speculate on why it has enjoyed so much success. The key to this final aim is the idea that Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell have, in one little cultural niche, served to embody or represent the changing position of the Catholic Church in modern – or postmodern – western culture. But before we come to that we must unpack and unpick the role reversal and comment on its rationality and plausibility.”
Or as Professor Rex says elsewhere in his address: “To destroy More, the symbol of Catholicism, More must be diminished to the scale of an ant, that Cromwell may trample upon him. Mantel’s fiction shows us a nasty man getting his Tudor come-uppance. History shows us something rather different.”
You may watch video of the presentation here. The Iona Institute website also provides a link to the text of the presentation (which contains some additional material). One of the more interesting insights to me was Professor Rex's analysis of how "Thomas More changed the course of the narrative" that is, changed what Hilary Mantel planned to write:
The bold emphasis is in the text as downloaded. He later comments:
And Rex concludes with Mantel's own comments about Holbein's portrait of Cromwell at the Frick:
And in the case of Cromwell and More, the pictures are there for us to see. They can be seen in the Frick Collection in New York, where More and Cromwell gaze at each other across a fireplace, captured by the hand of the sixteenth century’s greatest portraitist, Holbein. The author of Wolf Hall herself describes his Cromwell as an ‘incredibly dead picture’. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak more memorably labels Cromwell ‘the least attractive sitter in the whole of Holbein’s art’. The picture is the evidence. A great painter, they say, paints not just the face but the soul. And Holbein’s More is famously and sublimely living. This is the evidence: Cromwell – dead, dull; More – alive, alert. Holbein got it. Seeing is believing. But there’s none so blind as them that will not see.
A full quote of Waldemar Januszczak on the contrast between the portraits:
That is why I recommend a visit to the Living Hall at the Frick Collection, and a good gawp at Holbein’s portraits of More and Cromwell. Holbein was there. He knew them both. So what does he make of them?
Of More, he makes one of the most noble presences in the whole of British portraiture. Determined. Handsome. Resolute. With his velvet sleeves and his gold chain, More is a man of rank, but there’s something kindly about his face, too. And in the exact capturing of his five-o’clock shadow, Holbein has produced one of his finest records of the true textures of humanity.
On the other side of the fireplace, the new hero of Wolf Hall, Cromwell, has none of those qualities. Indeed, with his piggy eyes and his veal-like complexion, he is one of Holbein’s least appealing sitters. He’s shown at a desk, writing. A death warrant, perhaps. Or further instructions for the destruction of a monastery. As soon as I saw him, that famous observation by Hannah Arendt about the “banality of evil” flashed into my thoughts.
So, who to trust? Holbein, who was there? Or Hilary Mantel, who is a great writer, and a worthy winner of the Booker prize? Over to you.
"Over to you" is a weak conclusion!
Rex, in contrast, presents a devastating critique of Mantel's vaunted historical accuracy and how people have fallen for her anachronistically "nice" Thomas Cromwell.