Friday, April 10, 2015

Watching Wolf Hall

Tudor-mania continues - further encouraged now by the new PBS Masterpiece presentation of Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel of the same name. And with the earlier airing on TV of the BBC series The White Queen, not to mention the recent reburial of King Richard II, even the events of the immediately pre-Tudor period seem to be getting unprecedented American attention.

All that is well and good. The more history that people absorb, the better informed we are about how and why we got to be the way we are. And no one can deny that - for better or for worse (mostly the latter) - the Tudor era was one of the most pivotal turning points in the history of the English-speaking world, and indeed the Western world as a whole. Certainly its impact on Western Christianity was as significant as it was disastrous.

Wolf Hall focuses on one of the nastier figures of the Tudor era, the political climber Thomas Cromwell, who rose (and finally fell) in the service of early modern England's proto-Stalin, King Henry VIII. Notably, he and Saint Thomas More were personal and political rivals at Henry's Court. Both rose to unprecedented prominence (given their non-noble birth and status) and both eventually lost their heads. No doubt there is a lesson in that about seeking or exercising power in the service of any tyrant - be that tyrant a king or a system or an ideology. But at least More managed to maintain his integrity and die for something worthwhile - the authentic constitution of the Church, its freedom vis-a-vis the State, and the indissolubility of marriage. Challenged by King Henry VIII (and his servile apparatchik Cromwell), those values remain very much out of fashion to this day. So it should come as no surprise to see Cromwell exalted over More on the contemporary screen.

Wolf Hall favors Cromwell, the anti-More, and tells the tale more or less from his vantage-point. So far, I have seen only the first episode. So at this stage I have no personal opinion to offer of its quality as a drama, its acting, etc., all of which have generally received critical acclaim.

One thing that was striking about the first episode was the relatively benign image it presented of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor who actually accomplished much for Henry and England but who fell from power when he failed to secure the annulment of the King desired of his marriage (and incurred the intense personal enmity of the malicious Anne Boleyn). In the history of the English Reformation, it has always seemed that both sides had little retrospective appreciation for Wolsey. Whatever Wolsey's many faults, it is nice to see him portrayed as a person rather than simply as a villain.

When it comes to the Tudors and the English Reformation, there is not likely to be any new news. We already know the story and the tragic way it all ends. But it is always interesting to see the story retold through the contrasting lenses of the different personalities who got themselves caught up in it.

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