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THE ROYAL SOAP OPERA that is the life and reign of Henry VIII evokes endless fascination both in the realms of scholarship and the popular imagination. Erudite tomes heavy with footnotes, racy novels the size of toaster ovens, and sumptuously staged television miniseries pour forth in a steady stream. And what’s not to like? For most of us, sex, power, intrigue, and those exquisite costumes are irresistible.

And yet, in all but the most superficial treatments of the period, there is a sense, whether inchoate or sharply defined, that there is more to this story than whispered betrayals in the alcoves of great halls and energetic coupling in the royal bed. “The king’s great matter,” as it was known in his own time—the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his wedding and beheading of Anne Boleyn, and the drawn-out saga of further marriages and mayhem—strike us as something familiar, recognizable, perhaps even modern. We know these characters in a way that we do not know Charlemagne or Eleanor of Aquitaine.

This came home to me as I watched the cable series The Tudors. The casting of a lithe young hunk as Henry had me nonplussed at first, but then I saw it. As Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the king—lusty, charming, paranoid, and hypochondriac—I felt I could be looking at the behind-the-scenes antics of some celebrity: A-list actor, CEO, basketball star, rock legend. You can almost imagine Meyers’s Henry smashing the royal furniture, if it wasn’t built of solid oak.

But the resonance we feel with this saga goes deeper still. I would hazard that Henry’s “great matter” takes its place alongside the fictional tales of Faust and Frankenstein as a parable of modernity, with the twist that it is grounded in historical fact. Here passion and power intersect with religion and political philosophy (the Reformation and the rise of the modern nation-state), as well as basic questions about law, freedom, and individuality. Like Faust and Victor Frankenstein, Henry is a monster of ego who is willing to transgress ancient traditions to fill the maw of self.

What’s fascinating about the many dramatic and scholarly renderings of Henry’s soap opera is that while dukes and lackeys, prelates and ladies-in-waiting move across the stage, the ultimate conflict comes down to a duel between two lawyers: Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. More was a consummate writer in both Latin and the vernacular, the author of the enigmatic masterpiece Utopia, and friend to Erasmus and his circle of humanist intellectuals throughout Europe. Cromwell rose from even humbler origins to become the trusted councilor of Cardinal Wolsey and, in due course, to King Henry himself. He had traveled in Europe as a young man, fought as a soldier and gone into business, and eventually came to sympathize with the Reformation.

By and large, history has been kinder to More, whose refusal to endorse Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn cost him his head; canonized by the Catholic Church, More is regarded by many as a saint and a martyr or at the very least a hero of conscience. Cromwell, on the other hand, has been seen as a ruthless enforcer of Henry’s will, a master manipulator and spymaster.

The conflict between these two men remains central to any understanding of the period, but their reputations have changed significantly in the last few decades. An increasing number of writers began pointing to More’s role in the hunting down, torture, and execution of Protestant “heretics.” It has also been noted that More’s many polemical works against the reformers were characterized by vitriolic, scatological language—a ferocity at odds with the playful humanist rhetoric of earlier works like Utopia. At the same time detailed studies have demonstrated that Cromwell was a highly competent bureaucrat who crafted much legislation that improved the governance and living conditions of England.

The shift in standing of these men has only recently emerged into the larger culture. For example, the opening essay in literary critic James Wood’s highly regarded book The Broken Estate consisted of his own furious attack on More. It concludes that More was “cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics.”

But the publication of a new novel has brought the debate to a much wider audience. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, in 2009, has become a bestseller, praised in reverential tones by nearly all its reviewers. The hero of Wolf Hall is none other than Thomas Cromwell, and its villain is Thomas More.

The reviewers focus their attention on Mantel’s mastery of dialogue, deftly rendered scenes, and large but sharply delineated cast of characters. At the same time, they seem to accept her premise about More and Cromwell without acknowledging that it might be controversial. Whether this is historical illiteracy or a measure of how far the changing reputation of the two men has permeated the culture is hard to say.

Wolf Hall is not frothy historical fiction, but it is more simplistic than its surface sophistication would lead one to believe. It also demonstrates that the very modernity of Henry’s story makes it difficult for contemporary readers to understand what was at stake. In a very real sense, we are all Henry VIII today: autonomous individuals who fear the claims of tradition and transcendence as inherently repressive.

Wolf Hall is a radically flawed book—a sustained act of aggression that conceals its didacticism and sentimentality under a cover of toughness. The problems begin with Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell, who is made into a figure of the Enlightenment avant la lettre. As Michael Caines wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, Mantel’s Cromwell is “a skeptic, a modern: more our contemporary than More’s, a believer in rational light…. He speaks of all things, from royalty downwards, with something like post-millennial skepticism, if not downright anachronistic irreverence. It seems only natural that his thoughts sometimes seem to merge with those of the narrator.”

In Mantel’s treatment, it is Cromwell who is the “man for all seasons”—the famous epithet given to Thomas More by Erasmus. Early on we hear that Cromwell “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury.” If this last ability gives you pause, it doesn’t appear to trouble the narrator, who has various characters speak of Cromwell as “the cleverest man in England…a person of great force of will…the steadiest hand I know…a man of good cheer, liberal, open-handed, gracious….” Perhaps the low point of the narrator’s valorization of her alter ego comes when Cromwell asks his wife: “I’ve never made you cry, have I?” Her response: “Only with laughter.”

On the other hand, “There is something sly in More, he enjoys embarrassing people… He respects neither ignorance nor innocence…. He would chain you up, for a mistranslation. He would, for a difference in your Greek, kill you.” Mantel’s More is a cross between the Grand Inquisitor and a snotty Oxford don. “You and God have always been on familiar terms…. I wonder how you dare,” Cromwell intones. The low point on this side of the ledger: “They say that Thomas More is in love with his own daughter.”

The sad thing is that a novel about these men could have explored the ambiguities surrounding them with much greater respect for the complexities of character and vision. They did, in fact, have much in common: both were reformers who felt that the worst excesses of the medieval church should be curbed; both believed in making education more available to the common people; both had large households that took in needy, struggling people and gave them hope. Though little is known of Cromwell’s inner life, it is likely that he has been overly vilified and made into a foil for More by dramatists down the centuries.

Wolf Hall may be an overrated novel, but the problem it illustrates—the contemporary inability to understand the modern reduction of our humanity to autonomous individualism—remains. It is precisely the enigma of Thomas More that can help us here. In one of his less extreme statements, James Wood provides the starting place for reflection: “It is difficult to reconcile the author of Utopia with the heretic hunter of the mid-1520s.”

It won’t do to point out that Cromwell sent more people to the stake than More did, or that Cromwell’s rationale for religious persecution had been subtly transformed from a theological to a political one (where heresy morphed into treason as the church was subsumed by the state). Nor is it sufficient to note that we should forego the anachronistic and self-congratulatory pleasure of hindsight about how sixteenth-century public servants should have avoided cruel and unusual punishments. Nor, finally, is it enough to say that the raucous style More employed in his religious polemics was part of a larger literary continuum that extends forward to writers like Milton, and that More often wrote wittily and ironically in this mode. These are worthy considerations but they don’t go to the heart of the matter.

The truth is that the project of Renaissance humanism, of which Utopia was a dazzling example, was itself a response to the kind of reductionism that rose to the surface in the king’s great matter. The late-medieval world had experienced its own crisis of faith in the sacramental nature of language and institutions. Anticipating the radical doubt of Descartes and Derrida, the medieval thinkers known as the Nominalists came to the conviction that words could no longer participate directly in the reality of things, but could only be arbitrary, isolated signs arranged in ways that we consciously will. Metaphor itself became suspect; plain, literal, and utilitarian words were better, surer things.

Humanists like More and Erasmus feared that the sort of rationalist abstraction emerging from this crisis would itself leave people lost in solipsistic individualism and the inevitable conflicts that would arise from this privatization of meaning. They perceived that the ancient vision of the primacy of contemplative “knowing” was being replaced by activist “making,” the restless activity of those who can only find meaning by imposing their will on the world.

That is why the humanists turned to literature: it offered a middle ground where knowing and making could meet—in the microcosm of art. Literature’s indirection—the centrality of context, layers of meaning, irony, and linguistic play—provided a space in which the madeness of the artwork could reach out to and reconnect with what-is, with being itself. In the well-wrought artifact, the active joins the contemplative; human making leaves room for mystery. But a mystery that is shared. That this was a direct analogy to what took place in the mass, where human artifacts—bread and wine—were lifted up in order to be touched by the uncreated presence of God—was not lost on the humanists.

Mantel makes her Thomas Cromwell an apostle of balance and proportion, but even in her telling he acts only at the level of expediency. Writers like Mantel and Wood forget that the Renaissance humanists were the true champions of balance, who struggled to keep faith and reason in a healthy tension. They strove against the ideological rationalism of both desiccated Catholic scholasticism and the literalism of the radical Protestant reformers. But the humanists were also the chief critics of anti-rationalism and in particular the superstitious, magical mentality of late-medieval religiosity. That was why More and Erasmus had genuine sympathy for—and were lionized by—many of the key figures of what would become the Reformation. Monks had plenty of reason to fear the withering wit of the humanists.

The elusive ironies that make More’s Utopia such a difficult book to interpret exemplify the humanist literary vision. Does More endorse the utopian world he depicts or not? Are the jokes on the utopians or on us? The utopians consider gold and jewels worthless: that would seem to criticize us. But they also embrace euthanasia, which More could hardly have accepted. The answers to the questions above are both/and rather than either/or. The dance of irony keeps us on our toes.

In his book Cosmopoiesis: The Renaissance Experiment, Giuseppe Mazzotta discusses the creation of utopias in the Renaissance as a humanist response to the reductionism of the era. He singles out the secularized politics of Machiavelli, a writer who violently criticized utopian fictions:

Machiavelli’s desacralized, rational…understanding of power…also steers clear of the organization and containment of power made available by imaginary utopias, from Plato’s Republic to More’s Utopia…. This rejection of utopian visionariness is tantamount to a refusal of utopias’ underlying ethical imaginings…. Because power in The Prince is value-free, purposeless, and non-teleological, it comes forth as a never-ending drive that becomes concrete in the encounter of conflicting wills.

However terrible the abuses of churchly power may have been in the Renaissance, More read the signs of the time correctly: the Machiavellian politics of the absolute state were on the rise. In Wolf Hall Cromwell says openly of his relationship to Henry: “[I] open the way to his desires. That is what a courtier does.” Mantel’s Cromwell is ostensibly a proto-Enlightenment apostle of tolerance, as opposed to More’s oppressive Catholicism, but the reality is that the privatized, value-free Machiavellianism of Henry and Cromwell cannot organize and contain power: it can only become an endless war of “conflicting wills.”

For the humanists, literature and sacramental faith maintained the delicate balance between a universe of shared, purposeful meaning and the struggle to discover and agree upon that meaning. That is why they celebrated the element of play at the heart of the imagination. Mazzotta goes on to quote an important text from Plato that “identifies play with peace and rejects war, which is the radical consequence of a power-based vision…. Most canonical texts of the Renaissance explicitly reflect on play in its moral and metaphysical essence: from The Courtier to Utopia to The Praise of Folly…they all focus on play as the state of freedom of mind.”

What Henry and Cromwell could not abide was Thomas More’s freedom of mind. His silence in the face of the oaths the king wanted him to swear was rooted in a belief that this freedom could not ultimately be violated. For the lawyer Thomas More, law was like literature: it was a cultural artifact that depends on a long interpretive tradition to capture elusive truths. Law accumulates meaning—connects to its sacred source—the way a literary tradition does, through the play of interpretation within a shared universe of meaning. New laws cannot abrogate the tradition to invent out of whole cloth simply because one wants to exercise power. In Wolf Hall Mantel allows More to say something he is on record as having told Cromwell: “Now you are a member of the council, I hope you will tell the king what he ought to do, not merely what he can do. If the lion knew his own strength, it would be hard to rule him.”

The faithful imagination sees the world and its affairs with a double vision, as both sacred and purposeful and yet as something fallen and provisional—a child’s toy—in the light of its divine origin. Thomas More’s most recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd—no Catholic apologist—explains that this vision is “how he could combine ambition and penitence, success and spirituality, in equal measure…. More kept in fine balance these complementary vistas—of the hollowness of the world and of the delight in game. From this awareness of duality (and perhaps the duality within his own nature) springs his wit, his irony, and the persistent doubleness of his vision.”

While his friend Erasmus preferred to stay out of the political arena, and thought More mistaken in getting himself entangled in that way, More was actually fulfilling the Renaissance humanist vision, which emphasized the importance of civic engagement. He was not lusty for power but he did not shrink from exercising it within the bounds of law and tradition.

The outbreak of schism, war, and political absolutism brought the humanist dream to an end. Erasmus had to go on the run and died a broken man. When More sensed that a profound revolution was in the making, he reacted with fear and anger. Because he foresaw a world in which autonomous individualism would lead to an endless war of conflicting wills, he abandoned the humanist literary mode of Utopia and became a polemicist. Most of what he feared came to pass.

Should More have forgone jeremiads and written more Utopias in response to the king’s great matter and all its ramifications for church and state? Perhaps. But it is hard to believe that Henry would have been content with that either. The wrenching irony is that More’s critics, including James Wood and Hilary Mantel, demand that he should have acted with saintly detachment even while they deride his desire to become a saint. The one allegation that makes no sense, however, is the notion that More acted inconsistently. Few men in history have been as true to their visions as Thomas More.

The great matter of the present day is not whether we can return to Christendom but whether we are prepared to admit the failure of the world Henry VIII helped to usher in. The search for a social vision that moves beyond “value-free” power cannot be based directly on Thomas More’s faith, but that faith—especially as tempered by humanist balance and respect for culture and imagination—can become a force for good in the recovery of shared meaning and purpose.

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