Catholic bishops and fair-minded historians in England protested against the inaccurate portrayal of Sir Thomas More in the BBC miniseries based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall when it made its debut in January this year. Since Thomas Cromwell, one of King Henry VIII’s advisers, is Mantel’s hero, Thomas More must be her villain. Mantel and the BBC portray More as cruel, bigoted, fanatical, misogynistic and sado-masochistical.
Viewers of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, whether the 1963 film or the stage play, won’t recognize the witty, intelligent family man and friend if they watch Wolf Hall during its run on PBS’ Masterpiece starting Easter Sunday, April 5, through the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 10.
Mantel writes historical fiction, so she has the artistic license to interpret historical characters in her novels.
What readers and viewers have to remember is that Mantel’s More is not the real Thomas More; her version of his character does not resemble the description contemporaries like Desiderius Erasmus have left us of a humble, loving, humorous and honest man. Bolt didn’t tell the whole story of Thomas More either, when he made him a hero of individual conscience; Bolt did at least get More’s character and personality right.
If Mantel’s More were the real Thomas More, viewers might be horrified that the Catholic Church has honored More by canonizing him (in 1935 — 80 years ago this year), including him on the universal calendar of saints on June 22 (with St. John Fisher, the great bishop of Rochester, who also opposed Henry VIII’s supremacy and was beheaded) and proclaiming him the patron saint of politicians and statesmen (announced by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000).
St. Thomas More faced charges of treason for opposing Henry VIII’s desire to get a divorce in 1535. In 2015 (480 years later), he now faces charges of being “fussily pious, stiff-necked and unnaturally fond of torturing heretics” (according to Charles McGrath in The New York Times), “with a penchant for self-punishment and a misogynist to boot” (according to Vanessa Thorpe in The Guardian). Since he is not here to defend himself, here are some facts to represent the real Thomas More:
Thomas More was not “fussily pious” or “stiff-necked” — one person who would have called him out for such faults was Erasmus, the Dutch humanist and critic of Church abuses. Erasmus wrote of More that he was “sweet-mannered” and “delighted in merriment,” and if someone was melancholy, More could always cheer him up. Erasmus summed up More as being “born and framed for friendship,” and he mentions how well More adapted to different personalities and how graciously he responded to criticism.
More certainly did not display fussy piety when on trial for his life or on the scaffold: He hoped to meet his judges in heaven, and he joked with the headsman about helping him up while he could manage his way down. More was resolute in his opposition to Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church in England, but he was following his conscience, not just being stubborn.
More believed that Christ’s Church should be one and died defending that unity.
John Foxe’s infamous Book of Martyrs is a chief source of the accusation that More tortured heretics. More denied similar charges in his lifetime, and historians like G.R. Elton, who is no great fan of More, also denied them. John Guy stated that they are “unsupported by independent proof. ... None has ever been substantiated” (The Public Career of Sir Thomas More, pp. 165-166).
In the 21st century, we don’t understand how a state power like England could be involved in the suppression of religious heresy, but in the late Middle Ages, religious unity was important to the monarch. As Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, More was enforcing the heresy laws passed by the English Parliament. He investigated charges of heresy and questioned the accused — but he did not torture them.
More’s so-called “penchant for self-punishment” is certainly a strange charge in a culture that is currently reveling in the torturous “romance” of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. More did practice use of the discipline, scourging himself. He wore a hair shirt, and he devoted Fridays to prayer and meditation on Our Lord’s passion. More, however, kept these things secret: There is the famous anecdote of his daughter Margaret noticing the hair shirt peeking out under his clothing; at her hint, he stuffed it back down so no one else would see it.
During his time in the Tower of London, More prepared for death by writing about the Agony in the Garden (The Sadness of Christ), and he prayed to give up all worldly desires and treasures. He practiced self-denial as strictly as any saint — and yet, as highlighted by Erasmus in the description above, he took great delight in company and friends. When he faced death, however, he desired even to forget innocent pleasures. He sent his hair shirt to his daughter, whom he often called Meg, just before his execution with his last letter to her, praising her public display of affection for him on his way back to the Tower of London after he was condemned to death.
More was not a misogynist; he treated women with respect, love and kindness. When he searched for a wife, he was at first attracted to Jane Colt’s younger sister. Realizing that the oldest would be embarrassed by the younger marrying first, he asked for Jane’s hand in marriage. Following the death of Jane, More also treated his second wife, Alice, with respect, knowing that she, a widow, knew how to manage a household. He educated his daughters as well as his son; he encouraged their learning according to the latest humanist standards. His loving relationship with his eldest daughter is well-described in Guy’s A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg (2009).
More was traditional in his views of men and women; while encouraging Margaret’s erudition, he did not think she should write and publish a book (her translation of Erasmus’ commentary on the Our Father). But when Margaret and other members of the More family went into exile in present-day Belgium after her father’s death, she prepared his works for publication and left his hair shirt to Meg Clement, one of More’s wards; it has been preserved at Syon Abbey in England.
Consequently, the version of Thomas More in the BBC’s Wolf Hall should not confuse Catholics.
The Church canonized St. Thomas More because he was a martyr for the faith; his life and works demonstrate great devotion to Jesus in the Bible and the sacraments; at the same time he defended the Church, he also argued for her reform and renewal. While he was not perfect — no saint now in heaven was while on earth — he was not the villain we’ll see on the TV screen this Easter season.
Stephanie A. Mann writes from Wichita, Kansas.
She is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation,
available from Scepter Publishers, and blogs at SupremacyandSurvival.blogspot.com.