Thoughts on PBS’S Wolf Hall

By October 5, 2017

Yes, I’m very late to the party, but I recently saw a few episodes of PBS’s Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell and wanted to comment. Though I did a reading exam on the English Reformation, my focus was more societal than on individuals, so my knowledge of the main characters in the story are somewhat impressionistic. I did see a few problems though.

First, I’ll say that the production is very good, and Cromwell’s character is very likable as a salt-of-the-earth, humble servant, caught up in difficult times. Clearly the intent is to overturn Man for All Seasons (1966) that makes Thomas More the hero of the story.

More’s character in Wolf Hall is an interesting one, and while many say he’s the villain, Wolf Hall’s More is much more three-dimensional than Man for All Seasons’ Cromwell. Things seem to go off the rails, however, in the lead up to More’s trial and execution, as the dialogue becomes all about justifying More’s execution, and Cromwell seems to shoot down all the great lines from Man for All Seasons. Ultimately, More’s prosecution, torture, and burning of Protestants justify Cromwell’s prosecution of More for his refusal to sign the oath of allegiance. 

Wolf Hall makes it sound like More was the only English magistrate who ever had anyone tortured. Though not technically part of common law, torture was used in the tower of London quite a bit, and Wikipedia says that the first rack went in there in 1447. So when Cromwell tells Anne Bolelyn, “We don’t do that,” when she demands that he make More talk, that just wasn’t true. Also, because of Oldcastle’s Revolt of 1414, led by the Lollards (precursors to Protestants), the English monarchy simply equated heresy with insurrection. The Tudors burned fifty Lollards between 1485 and 1536; More was simply doing his job by prosecuting Protestants.[1] This doesn’t mean what More did to Protestants wasn’t really bad, but this context is missing from Wolf Hall.

So in Wolf Hall, when Henry VIII insists that Cromwell convict More for treason, and Cromwell reluctantly arranges for Richard Rich to give a perjured testimony against More in order to condemn him, we’re not supposed to feel too bad for More or too negatively toward Cromwell. Cromwell seems to get the “just doing his job” pass that More does not.

But the real historical distortion has to do with the Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent. I loved that she was included in the story since I find her a fascinating character and blogged about her a few years ago. Barton’s movement was bigger than Wolf Hall suggests, and became a major political threat when she told Henry that if he married Anne “he would no longer be king … and was allowed to walk away.”[2] Henry went so far as to offer to make her an abbess in a later attempt to buy her off.[3]

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is skeptical of Barton’s claims, and as he investigates the matter, he quickly uncovers a conspiracy between Barton and some pro-Catholic lords. We then see Barton and an associate tied to some object, suggesting some kind of public humiliation as punishment. Not too severe by the standards of those days, and even Thomas More remarks to Cromwell that in that state Barton seems to be getting a lot of attention, which is what she wanted all along. Not too harsh, and the problem is fixed.

This portrayal is completely inaccurate. Cromwell had Barton and her close associates thrown in the tower where he extracted a supposed confession of her fraud. The legitimacy of that confession is seriously called into question by the fact that Cromwell got her and her close associates executed without a trial.[4] Barton was hanged and beheaded on the day Londoners swore the oath of succession. Ethan Shagan calls Barton’s execution, “a terror tactic; it would be difficult for people to refuse the oath while the head of one of the most prominent opponents of the divorce was displayed on London Bridge.”[5]

It’s important to keep in mind that Barton posed a serious political threat to Henry, and his regime (led by Cromwell) needed to act decisively. Still, that decisive action was pretty brutal, perhaps as much as anything More had done. So my sense is that instead of giving an accurate portrayal of the events, a more accurate telling lies somewhere between Wolf Hall and Man for All Seasons.

What this all has to do with Mormonism is the point I made in the previous post about William Tyndale’s quote, “When they cry, ‘miracles, miracles,’ remember that God hath made an everlasting testament with us in Christ’s blood against which we may receive no miracles.”[6] Going back over my notes, I saw that Tyndale made the comments specifically to refute Barton’s legitimacy. Protestants came up with cessation to refute the Catholics, and Elizabeth Barton seemed to have been the catalyst for cessation arguments in England. Barton could not be legitimate, said Tyndale, because miracles had ceased.

So my guess is that if presented with the data, Joseph Smith would have preferred More and Barton to Cromwell and Tyndale. Barton’s followers defended her claim with Amos 3:7 (they try to do that in Wolf Hall before Cromwell cuts them off) and as JS said in his last sermon, the “old Catholic church is worth more than all” the Protestants.[7]

[1] Richard Rex, The Lollards (Houndsmill, UK: Palgrave, 2002), 113.

[2] Ethan H. Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 72.

[3] Gwenfair Walters Adams, Visions in Late Medieval England: Lay Spirituality and Sacred Glimpses of the Hidden World of Faith (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 199.

[4] Adams, Visions, 200.

[5] Shagan, Popular Politics, 86. Apparently, Barton has the honor of being the only woman whose head has been placed on London Bridge.

[6] Shagan, Popular Politics, 80.

[7] Adams, Visions, 200; Joseph Smith, June 16, 1844, in Words of Joseph Smith, 381-82.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very interesting review and analysis. IT reminded me of this essay I read earlier this year:

    Mark Vos
    Rancho Cucamonga, CA

    Comment by Mark Vos — October 5, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

  2. Hilary Mantel, the author of “Wolf Hall”, has said that the Catholic Church is no place for respectable people. Ipso facto, loyal Catholics like Sir Thomas More can’t be respectable. The mincing, priggish, Church-Ladyish Thomas More portrayed in the PBS show is oddly missing from the biographies I’ve read by Marius, and Martz, and Guy, and Ackroyd.

    Comment by Chris — October 6, 2017 @ 11:10 am

  3. Yes, I’d heard she’d said that, and it’s interesting that she chose the English Reformation as a topic for historical fiction. Man for All Seasons is rather over the top the other way, I think, so perhaps we need something more balanced on More. But would that be entertaining?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 6, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

  4. Maybe it would be better to just go for an accurate history rather than an interpreted one. Of course, all history is interpreted to a great extent and has a viewpoint that depends upon the cultural expectations of the age in which it was designed.


    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — October 9, 2017 @ 4:52 am

  5. Right, but I wonder if a particular agenda is more a motivation to write these kinds of works than simply a desire for accuracy.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 9, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

  6. First-time commenter. I watched Wolf Hall alone because everyone around me found it slow and boring, but I was fascinated by the fictionalized history, and was captivated by the character of Cromwell created by Mark Rylance, and was gratified to see him nominated for awards in that role.

    And yet I took the rehabilitation of Cromwell with a grain of salt because of the ‘testimony’ of an eyewitness to both men– the painter Hans Holbein, for whom both men sat for portraits. We are lucky that both Holbein portraits hang together on either side of the hearth in New York in the Frick Collection. The portrait of More shows a human face that needs a shave, with thoughtful eyes, wearing simple clothing, except for the luxuriantly painted velvet jacket with fur collar, overlaid with a large gold chain of office. His post-portrait sainthood is made plain to see. Cromwell, in the facing portrait, looks more like a guy who runs a team of bookies, with sly, beady eyes and thin lips, and a messy desk of documents used as means to his ends. There is no connection to the venerable character we find in Wolf Hall in that painting.

    Comment by MDearest — October 19, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

  7. That’s interesting. I’ll admit that Cromwell in Holbein’s portrait does portray a different demeanor than Wolf Hall’s Cromwell. It’s interesting that the same painter captures such different personas.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 20, 2017 @ 8:46 am

  8. Very interesting, Steve. I have watched Wolf Hall with great interest, but also considerable shock at the level of self-preservationist tactics used by everyone to defend their interests. I want to throw the whole lot of them into the Thames. But, back to the point, why NOT portray Barton’s execution as it happened with more accuracy? What benefit did the author and/or fillmmakers get from showing a softer reaction to Barton?

    Comment by Andrea R-M — October 20, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

  9. My guess is that leaving out Barton’s execution makes Cromwell look a whole lot better. In the showdown with More, Cromwell tells him that he’s treating him better than More treated the Protestants. In reality, Cromwell likely had Barton tortured. But since Wolf Hall wants to make Cromwell the good guy …

    And I was really bugged that Wolf Hall left out More’s most famous declaration: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” So a lot of propaganda going on.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 20, 2017 @ 3:09 pm


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