Showing posts with label WOLF HALL. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WOLF HALL. Show all posts

21 May 2015

Wolf Hall


by Eve Fisher

Like so many others, I was hooked by Wolf Hall, both the novel and the PBS Series.  I love both. My only quibble with the TV show was that the actors were so much thinner than the (overly?) well-known portraits of Henry VIII, Cromwell, and Wolsey - all of whom were EXTREMELY hefty men. But then, of course, times have changed. In the 16th century, physical weight proved power and privilege; today, thinness proves it, and Wolsey's massive weight would be considered proof of his lower-class origins...

Cardinal Wolsey Christ Church.jpg Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01.jpg 

Well, that's only my first quibble...  my real quibble was with the portrayal of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife.  By the time Anne Boleyn came along, Catherine had had at six pregnancies, five of whom were miscarriages, still births, or died in infancy.  Only Mary survived.  She was, by all accounts, at 45 years of age very stout ("as wide as she is high"), gray-haired, wrinkled, and not nearly as attractive as the lady who portrayed her (see right).  Once again, even historical women can't lose their looks in modern media...

But enough about that, let's get to the real danger:  politics.

Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Sir Thomas More
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Sir Thomas More, a/k/a St. Thomas More, was everybody's hero, thanks to Robert Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons". In that play More was presented as a married saint, a man of humor, humility, affability, intellect, education, and a keen sense of conscience. Thomas Cromwell was absolute evil, determined to ruin and destroy More - and does.  But then, all the people in power, from King Henry VIII to Cromwell to little Richard Rich, are presented as corrupt, expedient, power-hungry...  Only More is different, which is amazing when you consider that More was a politician from the time he was elected to Parliament at 26 until his resignation as Chancellor two years before his death.  It does raise the question how he, and he alone, managed to remain pure in the midst of all that fraud, double-dealing, dishonesty, unscrupulousness, corruption...

Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger - Portrait of Henry VIII - Google Art Project.jpgAnyway, today we have Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in which Sir Thomas More is less saintly and Thomas Cromwell less evil.  But there's nothing much you can do about Henry VIII.  The truth is, politics (not to mention marriage! is always a deadly game when you are dealing with an absolute monarch, who can have you killed at any moment, innumerable nobles who are all scrambling for scraps from said monarch's table, and a brewing religious war.  And the irony is that it didn't help that Henry VIII was an enlightened, extremely well-educated monarch:  the true philosopher prince everyone had always dreamed of.   Be careful what you wish for:  all that enlightenment, all that education, all that religious training combined with the divine right of kings meant that Henry thought he was always right about everything.  Especially when he wanted to get a new wife or more money, or be Head of the Church in order to get a new wife and more money.

When Henry made himself Head of the Church of England (with help from Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury), he put everybody in England on the spot:  who were you going to side with, Henry or the Pope?  Most sided with Henry because the Pope was foreign, so the hell with him.  But for many - most famously Thomas More, but also John Fisher, and 137 other priests, friars, and laypeople - it became a matter of conscience, and they were willing to die over it. And did.  Just as, later, Mary I ("Bloody Mary") executed almost 300 Protestants, including Archbishop Cranmer.  There is nothing worse than being in the middle of a religious civil war...
NOTE:  One of the problems with today's Middle East (which has one great big fat religious civil war right in the middle of it) and Middle Eastern politics is that too many Americans think the Sunni-Shiite split is much ado about nothing, and what they're really fighting about is us. (1) We have got to quit flattering ourselves and (2) think back to the Tudors.  Or, better yet, the European Wars of Religion of 1540s-1648.  
Back to Henry VIII:  one fairly unique thing that he did was change the government of England - briefly - when he made Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, Lord Chancellor of England.  This was pretty unprecedented.  Yes, there were low-born churchmen from time immemorial, mainly because the Church took everybody and anybody, and it was the one place where you could rise from peasant to Cardinal to even pope.  Pope Sylvester II, the peasant's son.  Thomas Wolsey, the butcher's boy. Thomas Becket, the merchant's son.  But that's the church.  For the real ruling of the kingdom, for office and money and lands and a king's favor, you had to be noble.  Until Cromwell.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Anne of Cleves
Henry VIII grasped, briefly, the great advantage of having his chief officer be a commoner, not a nobleman.  He made him, he could break him, and in between, he could work him to death, without any complaints.  Meanwhile, the nobility despised Cromwell.  He was a nobody, a peasant, a thing that was beneath them, but now they had to actually speak to him, listen to him, ask him favors. They wanted him dead, and eventually - when Henry VIII was furious at the marriage to Anne of Cleves - they managed to get him charged with a variety of improbable crimes (including plotting to marry Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's daughter) and executed before Henry cooled off.  When he did, he felt awful, awful, AWFUL about it, and never ceased bewailing the loss of the best minister he ever had.  He'd also felt the same about executing Wolsey, after the fact.  "Bureaucracy Can Be Deadly" should be the subtitle of Wolf Hall.  That and/or "Henry VIII:  A Kill for All Seasons."

The young Louis XIV
A hundred years later, Louis XIV made commoners bureaucrats, but as a matter of principle.  Whereas the nobility were Henry VIII's best friends and playmates, Louis XIV never trusted the nobility because, when he was 12 years old, the nobility rose up against the monarchy (The Fronde).  They lost, of course.  Actually, they didn't lose so much as just run out of steam...  But Louis never forgot or forgave them the fact that he - the Sun King! - had had to go on the run.

So, when he came to full age and power, Louis decided that the only purpose of the nobility was to praise and support him, so he took away every shred of power from them.  His cabinet was almost entirely of (often brilliant) bourgeoisie, especially
Colbert mg 8447 cropped.jpg
Colbert

  • Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister, who actually managed to keep Louis XIV solvent despite his royal tendency to spend money like water on everything from royal mistresses, royal chateaux, and piss-ant wars.
  • Michel Le Tellier, Chancellor of France, who nationalized the army.  Pity it was for Louis XIV.  
And I have to say, on Louis XIV's behalf, that he never executed any of them.  And yet, he only increased in power: absolute monarchy would remain in France for another 150 years, admittedly limping towards the end.  Meanwhile, by the time Louis XIV came to power in the mid-1600's, the English House of Commons had become the greatest force in the English Parliament and, hence, of the English government - doing everything from passing laws and raising taxes to executing Charles I in 1649 and setting up a Commonwealth. When Charles II was "restored" to the throne in 1660, he walked very, very carefully, doing nothing to upset Parliament.  And, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, the monarchs of England were all constitutional monarchs, firmly under Parliament, and not the other way around.

Today, of course, we take it for granted that bureaucracy is done by, of, and for the commons.  But it's still deadly.  Disgruntled office workers lead to regular crime scenes on the national news.  And there's more than one way to skin a cat:  if you don't want to risk murder, there's always slander, and in today's age of cyber-bullying, it's easier than ever to destroy someone's reputation and career.

Anne Boleyn would be smeared in every chat room; Cromwell would be trashed on the Drudge Report or Daily Kos and perhaps both; Cranmer would be the idol of Patheos until he wasn't; the tweets would have been nonstop about Jane Seymour; the cyber-whispering would be constant, and at the heart of it all would be the King, strutting and posturing without pause, even when his footsteps walked through blood.
"Kings are earth's gods; in vice their law's their will."  Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre
— or  —
“You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it's like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you're thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.” Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

08 April 2015

The Wolf at the Door


by David Edgerley Gates


I was a big fan of the first two books in Hilary Mantel's trilogy, WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, but I'm an easy mark for that kind of stuff. Historicals have always been high on my list - Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, Norah Lofts - in part because you get to inhabit a foreign world, the past, and in part because they so often turn on the hinge of Fate, or a transforming moment: think Alexander the Great, the fall of the Mongol Empire, the Black Death.

The television adaption of WOLF HALL began its run on PBS this past weekend, and I'm queer for it already. Not that it's easy, mind. (Neither were the novels.) A broad canvas, a raft of competing characters, a complex political dynamic.


To cut to the chase, the Prime Mover of the narrative is Henry VIII's pursuit of a male heir, and everything follows from that. The rise and fall of favorites, Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Cromwell, depend on the king's goodwill, and how effectively they manipulate the machinery of power, to get what he wants. When they don't, or can't, they're cast aside, left naked to their enemies, in Wolsey's phrase.  

The interesting thing to me about the Tudors - not Henry VII so much, but Henry VIII and Elizabeth I - is that they're about to step over the threshold of the modern age. Richard III, the last Plantagenet, was the last British king to die on the battlefield, and in a war of succession. This goes some way toward explaining Henry VIII's fierce obsession with generating a son. His pursuit of a divorce leads directly to his break with Rome, and the English Reformation. (Henry's place in folklore comes from sending two of his wives to the block.) The fracturing of the Church, and the authority of the Pope, erodes secular authority, as well. There is no Divine Right, and in two generations, Charles Stuart will meet the headsman. The religious issue becomes worldly. Henry creates this, He's a touchstone for the fall of kings. 

Another point WOLF HALL underlines is the rise of a commoner - Cromwell a blacksmith's son - to the office of Lord Chancellor. This is an enormous shift. promotion on merit, not the accident of birth. Ambition the spur, and Cromwell does make love to this employment, but he's neither a prince of the Church or a noble. He's nobody in the food chain, and beneath notice. A private secretary, Wolsey his patron. How he survives, and thrives, is in itself the story, that a man of mean antecedents can win the
king's confidence, not because he was born to it, but by his wits.  Not that he's entirely a ruthless bastard, either. He simply knows which side his bread is buttered on, and the currency he trades on is his service to the king, in all things. It gains him preferment, it lines his pockets, and it becomes his only purpose. He lives alone for it. This hasn't much changed, today. The difference is that Cromwell can even be chosen, in an earlier age.

WOLF HALL, the adaption, isn't for the faint of heart, any more than the books were. It helps if you know the basic storyline, and what's at stake. The politics, religion and its discontents, the maneuvering for advantage. You could get lost, and Cromwell himself is an unreliable narrator, a shape-shifter. You don't really know whether to trust him or not, and neither does anybody else. He seems all things to all men, but once you understand that what lies beneath is the fury of the king, and whether onstage or off, that it's Henry who whips the horses, then if they die in the traces, he's been well-served, at whatever cost. We hang on princes' favors, Wolsey says. (I'm quoting Shakespeare, here.)
     " ... I have ventured, 
     Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
     This many summers in a sea of glory,
     But far beyond my depth."

Is it a cautionary tale? Not exactly. It's about dangerous men in dangerous times, and treading water in the deep end of the pool.   



DavidEdgerleyGates.com