The Mirror and The Light, Hilary Mantel’s fictional take on Thomas Cromwell – now in the running for a third Man Booker Prize – is just the latest attempt to take the events of the English Reformation and turn them into fiction. In this edited extract from his forthcoming book, A People’s Tragedy: Studies in Reformation, Professor Eamon Duffy considers some of the best.
Among early Catholic novelists of the Reformation, a key figure is Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, now a niche interest, but one of the best-selling novelists of Edwardian England. The youngest son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, he converted to Catholicism in 1903 (an event which his family felt made him “smug and insufferably pontifical”). Wildly eccentric and notoriously unkempt (he wore pyjamas under his cassock to an audience with Pope Pius X), Benson wrote a stream of entertaining didactic novels designed to present a Catholic corrective to Protestant fiction about the Tudor past.
The best of them is Come Rack! Come Rope!, published in 1912, a complicated romance set against the background of the mission of St Edmund Campion, and the plot led by Anthony Babington to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. Robin Audrey and Marjorie Manners, star-crossed Catholic lovers, are children of Derbyshire recusant families. But in the face of mounting persecution, Robin feels a call to the priesthood. Marjorie heroically relinquishes her lover and turns her home into a safe house for fugitive priests. Robin departs for Rheims, is ordained, and returns to a clandestine ministry in England in the course of which he visits Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay: he is eventually arrested by his own father, who has conformed to Anglican- ism out of cowardice.
Robin is tortured by the sadistic pursuivant Richard Topcliffe, condemned for treason, and hanged, drawn and quartered at Derby. On the scaffold his final act is to absolve his now penitent father, who has been brought to witness his son’s martyrdom by the ever-faithful Marjorie. Come Rack! Come Rope!, though a good read, was blatant sectarian propaganda. Benson’s Protestant villains are hiss-boo bad, his Catholic heroes virtuous.
Altogether more interesting was the almost contemporary trilogy of romances by another eccentric, though far from devout, Catholic convert, dealing with Henry VIII’s fifth wife. Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy explored the relationship between Katherine Howard, an earnest, energetic idealist, devoutly committed to “the Old Faith in the Old way”, and the ageing Henry, who represents the world of power, force and moral compromise. Behind Henry stands Thomas Cromwell, universally feared and hated, but genuinely devoted to “kingcraft”, and seeking to establish a rational secular political order, whatever human casualties that might entail. They are surrounded by vividly drawn supporting characters – Nicholas Udall, Mary Tudor’s tutor, a spy for Cromwell, Mary herself, consumed with hatred of her father, Thomas Culpepper, Katherine’s besotted cousin whose relationship with her, presented as unconsummated, led to his and her executions.
Ford’s idealist Katherine is remote from the cheerful, flirtatious, luxury-loving teenager who emerges from the historical sources. Here she marries Henry because she believes she can lead him back to the Catholic faith. Henry is won over by her idealism and is ready to repudiate his past if only Katherine will “wed me to keep me in the right way”. It is not of course to be, and Katherine finally acknowledges her disillusionment: “I was of the opinion that in the end right must win through. I think now that it never shall, or not for many ages – till our Saviour again come upon this earth with a great glory …”
The Fifth Queen trilogy has had distinguished admirers – among them Joseph Conrad, who called it “a noble conception … the swan-song of historical romance”, and Graham Greene, who described it as “a magnificent bravura piece”. But the 1950s saw two versions of the Henrician Reformation which were unequivocal masterpieces. The better known is Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, which began life in 1954 as a radio play, was adapted in 1957 for television, moved to the West End as a stage play in 1960, and finally became an Oscar-winning film in 1966. Bolt’s play followed a long tradition in which More was idolised as the wisest and best man of his age, an urbane and kindly humanist. Bolt’s More is not a martyr for religious truth, but a 20th-century liberal born before his time, dying in defence of the rights of the individual against a coercive regime. Bolt offered a seductive but radically misleading picture of More, as a liberal individualist concerned above all with personal integrity.
The historical More did not place this kind of absolute value on the individual’s integrity: as a good medieval Catholic he insisted on the primacy of the objective truth, witnessed to by the community of the Church, whatever the individual did or didn’t believe about it. That was why he was so implacably opposed to heresy, and why in the 1520s More became the most active agent in Henry and Wolsey’s campaign against heresy and banned books. Yet Bolt’s brilliant picture of More as the advocate of individual conscience caught the public imagination.
The other great and unjustly neglected work of that decade was the 700-page novel The Man on a Donkey, published in 1952. It dealt with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the rebellions in Northern England which the Dissolution helped trigger in 1536 and 1537, dubbed the Pilgrimage of Grace. The author was an Oxford-trained historian, Hilda Prescott, a committed Anglican. The Man on a Donkey has been largely ignored in accounts of the modern English novel, but I’m by no means alone in believing it to be one of the greatest historical novels, on a par with the work of Scott and Manzoni.
It is written in the form of a series of parallel chronicles, tracing the history of five key characters – some real historical personages – over the 30 years leading up to the Pilgrimage of Grace. At its heart is the figure of Robert Aske, the ebullient one-eyed Yorkshire lawyer who became the Grand Captain of the Pilgrimage, and was excruciatingly executed in York by hanging from a church tower in chains until he died of exposure and starvation.
Weaving through the story are the gnomic utterances of a mysterious female visionary, an idiot serving-woman named Malle, whose pacifist visions of Christ, the eponymous Man on a Donkey provide a mystical commentary on the violent upheavals which form the main story. That story is framed, like an illuminated book of hours, by a series of lyrical descriptions of the changing seasons and the labours of the rural year.
Formally, the novel is genuinely innovative, written in hundreds of often very short sections which cut back and forth cinematically between the main characters: the pace of the story is leisurely, but inexorably moves towards the climax of the Pilgrimage and the story’s harrowing end.
Prescott’s novel has its flaws. But in its combination of historical accuracy with vivid and complex characterisation, cumulative narrative power and imaginative empathy, it represents a high point of fictional treatments of the Tudor Reformation.
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