History Reinterpreted

For the past five Sunday nights, I have been glued to PBS for Masterpiece’s broadcast of Wolf Hall. Having read Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary and powerful books, Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, both Booker Prize winners, I just had to see how BBC along with Hilary Mantel translated the richness and intricacies of Henry VIII’s reign, along with the ascent and demise of Anne Boleyn, into six episodes.


Sir Thomas More

The Tudor period happens to be one of my favorites in English history, and I grew up believing that Sir Thomas More was a sainted hero who stood firmly by his principles. With his strong moral compass, More refused to sign the oath of supremacy, which would recognize Henry’s marriage to Anne and their children as heirs to the English throne, and he was beheaded on July 6th 1535. For his courage and commitment, More was sainted in 1935. A humanist and a friend to Erasmus, More was also author of Utopia (1516), a novel that pictured an ideal society founded solely on reason. More was a true Renaissance man, “a man for all seasons,” as Robert Bolt’s play portrays him.

Cromwell, on the other hand, was always portrayed as a scheming, self-serving, master manipulator–intelligent, powerful, and ruthless. Cromwell was a lawyer and statesman of humble birth, who achieved unprecedented power and rose to become one of the preeminent political figures of his day.

I love many things about Wolf Hall but among my favorites is how Hilary Mantel reimagines the characters of More and Cromwell. She plays with our long-held perceptions and gives us different and complicated interpretations of these two players in Tudor history, challenging our knowledge and beliefs, and even accepted historical interpretations.

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

As one review says of Mantel’s Cromwell, he is “the picaresque hero of the novel–tolerant, passionate, intellectually inquisitive, humane.” He is a family man, who marries, has children and watches helplessly as the plague decimates his family. He is generous and loyal to Cardinal Wolsey. “Cromwell learns everything everywhere, at a time when European knowledge about heaven and earth, via Copernicus and Machiavelli, is exploding.” As Mantel writes, “at 40, he can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury.”

It is More, on the other hand, who is shown as the “ruthless tormenter of English Protestants, using the rack and the ax to set the ‘quaking world’ aright.” More is depicted as self-important, in love with his own martyrdom, and intellectually vain.

In the Masterpiece series, through the chiaroscuro of Tudor rooms and palaces, Mark Rylance’s Cromwell observes, is quietly alert to all happenings, speaks carefully, guards his emotions, and is one main reason to keep glued to Sunday evening’s Masterpiece!

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