Thomas Cromwell has become Tudor England’s leading man. Henry VIII has been upstaged, and Putney’s guttersnipe now takes centre stage with Anne Boleyn. In fact, Cromwell conquered the theatre five years ago when the RSC dramatised the first two volumes of Hilary Mantel’s monumental reimagining of his rise and fall. This autumn he takes to the field again for the fatal climax of his tale.
Cromwell’s usurpation has been as fast and firm as his original swipe at power. Mantel’s trilogy has built him a towering platform: nearly 2,000 pages. Historians have taken it higher still. Three blockbuster biographies have been published since 2015; no monarch or statesman of any age, not even Churchill, has attracted such attention.
It has often been said that the appeal of Mantel’s books is their realism: the sights, sounds and scents of 16th-century England are shared. The streets are shit-strewn, just as any serious student of the period would expect. Her Cromwell displays a humanity that is recognisable; disarmingly so.
But this may be misleading. Repeat performances of this same drama of Cromwell, Anne and Henry – have by degrees detached it from its original setting. The vivid colours in which they and their world are shown are not taken from a 16th-century palette; the ideas and impulses they are made to act out in fact incline towards our own. Cromwell is a moderniser: gunpowder, print and the wide spread of the English language will replace the old ways of his world. For our own age, which accepts – indeed desires – a permanent revolution of technological innovation, this portrait is instinctively plausible.
However, to his contemporaries, and arguably to Cromwell himself, it would seem quite wrong-headed. New discoveries would enhance this old world but they were not expected to dismantle its entire foundations.
That this is a Tudor England redesigned for 21st-century tastes is most conspicuous in the treatment of religion. Remarkably, given the main business of Cromwell’s two decades of government service, in this new drama the Church is largely left standing in the wings. Having just journeyed through Henrician England myself, to give a new account of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, I have been struck by how much of church-history is now written out of this new Tudor narrative. It is the one feature of her landscape that Hilary Mantel has not lovingly painted in. In fact, in the whole of her trilogy her dramatis personae hardly ever pass into the places of worship, and monastery precincts, that held a gravitational pull on daily life, as much for the political nation as its subjects. Almost always they are shown only in a fleeting backward glance. In the few moments when the scene is laid in these places – just twice, in The Mirror & the Light – the sight is of religion at its most dysfunctional: Cardinal Wolsey’s bastard daughter Dorothy cast into the convent at Shaftesbury, where Cromwell comes a-wooing; and tearing down Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, its monk-custodians grabbing at the broken jewels while their idle prior retires to his comfortable bed.
These are rare glimpses of regular religion. The Church that Mantel has left is stripped back to a secular hierarchy of archbishops and bishops and, of those, only the political animals whom she cannot deny a part. In the RSC adaptations, the presence of the Church has been cut further still. Yes, in the original staging of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies the backdrop was a back-lit cross. But this too indicated an idea of an institutional church born of a 21st-century Britain: a source of authority that threatens to blot out the light.
There were more than 800 religious houses for men and women in England in 1535. Perhaps as many as 15,000 lived there under vows solemnly professed; and their numbers were rising. New novices were admitted even as late as the spring of 1540 when the last of the monasteries were being shut down. It would be wrong to assume this was a cynical move to catch one of the pensions on offer: pensions were allocated according to years of service, so if you had only just arrived you received almost nothing at all.
In these new Tudor scenes of page and stage there is no chance to meet this large and lively community of the faithful. The occasional cameos offered up bear all the hallmarks of the caricatures current before and after the Reformation: the typical monks are pudgy and pink-faced, “like fat rats”; their way of life the peddling of “ghost stories to frighten poor folk into paying for prayers”; their cloisters an arcadia where “bees murmur over the herb garden” that is irrelevant and unreal.
These are not the monks, friars and nuns who played a central role in the affairs of Cromwell and Henry, during the dramas of the 1530s and beyond. They were diverse, in age and origin (some were from overseas) and they were close to the regime because of their religion not in spite of it. The king himself was born to a family whose interest in monastic religion grew in intensity with every passing year. His father, the first Henry Tudor, planned the grandest memorial of any of our medieval monarchs, commemorative masses syndicated nationwide through a network of 30-odd religious houses. Henry was still touched by his influence 30 years later when, notwithstanding the closure of others, he set up new monasteries at Bisham and Stixwould. It was not blind faith that caused the monks of Canterbury to order new habits from their tailor in January 1540 but calm, political calculation. In the end their corporate bodies did not survive the fresh political manoeuvres that spring but their leadership did. By the time Henry died in 1547, his Church, in the hierarchy and in the rank-and-file, was filled with former monks and friars.
This is why we cannot present our new, popular Tudor history with only a cardboard cut-out Church. Mantel’s stories of Wolsey, the King’s Supremacy and the Pilgrimage of Grace in which clergy are little more than agents of government and the religious orders remain “noises off” are distortions of the Tudor drama. Britain in the 21st century may struggle more than ever to come to terms with the potency of religious life in the 16th century but it is no solution simply to remember it differently. Looking across the globe, this would seem to be a pressing moment to try to understand.
By James Clark, a Professor of History at the University of Exeter. His new book, The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History is published by Yale (£25)
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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