The bad men of history and the women who save them
One of the arresting things about Wolf Hall (2009) was the way Hilary Mantel characterised Thomas More. The last time most of us had thought about him – maybe watching a repeat of A Man for All Seasons (1966), or reading Peter Ackroyd’s 1991 biography – he was being represented as a principled martyr, a prisoner of conscience. More was suited to the existential fistfight of the late twentieth century; determined to speak his truth to a tyrant, he was the sort of man who might have led a march on Washington or a strike in Gdansk. But suddenly, in Wolf Hall, More was the villain, shown as being stubborn and smug and bafflingly, cruelly ideological. Thomas Cromwell, previously regarded as Henry VIII’s craven and amoral enabler, moved into the spotlight. Cromwell was a hero for the early twenty-first century: an adaptable, relatable realist, a battler with a talent for realpolitik, pulling himself up to the top of the pile with his own bootstraps.
In pulling off this switcheroo Wolf Hall joined the small but notable list of historical novels that have sought to rehabilitate the reputations of long-dead villains. The writers of such novels tend to be women, and so do many of their fans. Perhaps that’s just because most writers of historical novels are women. And perhaps that is because women as a class have reason to know that history has never told the whole truth anyway. If people like you are almost completely missing from the historical record, it’s a license to rewrite.
Attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Thomas Cromwell had been made before. The celebrated historian of Tudor government, Sir Geoffrey Elton, arrived in Britain as an 18-year-old refugee, an outsider willing to interrogate the accepted narrative. In the 1950s Elton built a towering reputation by reappraising Cromwell, showing that there was more to him than slick self-interest. But while Elton made waves in academia, ordinary people did not read his books and he did not overturn the dim but deep impression of Cromwell in the public’s mind. The settled popular narrative remained: that Cromwell had been a corrupt and thuggish consigliere, brutally suppressing the monasteries in order to enrich himself.
A caricature as dramatic as this could only be effectively countered by fiction. It took Mantel to spin narrative gold out of Elton and more recent work by historians such as Diarmaid MacCulloch. Now, because of Wolf Hall, everyone in your book group thinks Cromwell was a sexy proto-feminist underdog with a marvellous sense of humour.
Mantel’s repositioning of empathy and viewpoint - away from More, towards Cromwell - infuriated some of More’s partisans (including devout Catholics who still regard him as a saint), but there’s a nice irony to it. Thomas More wrote popular narrative history himself, and used fictionalised elements to demolish people’s characters. His chief target was Richard III, whose death on the battlefield at Bosworth in 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses and allowed the Tudors to take the crown.
Richard was subjected to an astonishingly effective black propaganda campaign after his death. More’s History of King Richard III and Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses history plays are historical fictions, and they shaped public perceptions for centuries. They established Richard in the public mind as a villain who not only murdered the Princes in the Tower (which he almost certainly did), but who also had a crooked back, a filthy temper, a lifelong addiction to scheming, and a terrified, unwilling wife.
In the last 70 years Richard III’s public reputation has been dramatically altered by the tender ministrations of women novelists and activists, driven onwards by the whiff of conspiracy. They point out, correctly, that Richard was framed. More and Shakespeare relied on the patronage and good opinion of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James VI/I. These monarchs held the English throne fairly unsteadily, with a dynastic claim that was no better than it ought to be. It was in everyone’s interests to distract the audience with terrifying portraits of the deposed Plantagenet, but the dishonesties and exaggerations of More and Shakespeare were begging to be discovered and unpicked, because they are so manifestly unfair. It’s one thing to kill a man in battle; it’s another to have your flunkies take the piss out of his scoliosis after he’s dead.
When Richard’s bones were found beneath a Leicester car park in 2012, it became apparent that his popular reputation had been transformed. From the breathless tabloid spreads to the frankly weird televised re-interment at Leicester Cathedral, he was treated with respectful reverence. Beginning with Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), women novelists had supercharged a movement of modern Ricardian defenders. Tey’s novel, which is barmy but much-loved, argues that Richard was framed for the killing of the Princes in the Tower. It is cited by the Richard III Society as a motivating force for many of its members. (No proper historian, however open-minded about Richard, believes he can be absolved of killing his nephews.)
Novels about Richard don’t only defend him against specific charges: perhaps more importantly, they restore him to living colour. Sharon Penman’s tender bromance The Sunne in Splendour (1982) and Philippa Gregory’s White Queen series (2009-14) tell us things we hadn’t known about Richard – things that are ‘true’, in the sense there is plenty of evidence for them (he was a skilled soldier and a loyal brother), and things that are evidence-free (his marriage was a love match, he attempted to make peace within the warring factions of his family). In the TV adaptation of The White Queen Richard is played with a boyish smoulder by Aneurin Barnard. (Mantel adheres to the classic version. Her Richard III lurks at the Tower, directing the torture of his opponents.)
Wolf Hall is a toweringly great book, but its mixture of evidence and pleasant fantasy binds it tightly to the tradition of historical novels. Mantel’s characterisations of Cromwell’s wife and daughters are crucial to her sympathetic portrait of the man, and her unsparing imaginings of their deaths are the emotional hinge on which the novel swings. The historical record contains very little information about Cromwell’s wife, and nothing at all about his daughters except their names and the year they died. We do not know what killed them.
Such emotional reconstructions are, of necessity, largely invented – Mantel describes this as ‘making the reader an offer’ – but if they work, it’s because they feel true, and they can humanise almost anyone. (In her previous work A Place of Greater Safety Mantel made us feel sorry for Robespierre and Danton.) Formal history, meanwhile, must conscientiously record what it knows to be true, but cannot tell us why people acted as they did. It has to tell us that Richard III stole the throne from his nephew without a shred of justification; it has to show us the black-and-white evidence that Cromwell stitched up Anne Boleyn like a kipper. But it can’t tell us what was going on in these men’s heads.
As the German poet Novalis explained, ‘Novels arise from the shortcomings of history.’ Plantagenet princes and Tudor courtiers did not leave records of their private thoughts, unless they were using a language of faith that is incomprehensible now to most of us. Academically respectable writing about this period is necessarily thin on personal motivation; the evidence for what these people were thinking simply does not exist. A novel, though, can give us a plausible, rounded psychological account of the decision-maker, offering excuses for their conduct, disarming the reader and provoking empathy. (‘Possibly it’s something women do,’ muses Cromwell in Wolf Hall, ‘spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other.’)
Why are these rehabilitations so compelling? As the proliferation of conspiracy theorists demonstrates, there a thrill in believing you have stumbled over a previously concealed truth. Maybe, too, we are fearful of being unfairly persecuted ourselves, of dying alone and friendless. There is also a powerful human drive for fairness and redemption. (I’m waiting for the novelistic rehabilitations of King John and Henry VIII: they must surely be coming.)
As with any fandom, it’s easy to poke fun, but the emotions provoked are powerful. Mantel says she found it very difficult to write about Cromwell’s downfall and execution. In The Mirror and the Light she writes right through to the last moment of his dying consciousness, so that he is not alone at the end.
This emotional punch is significant, because as 1066 And All That sagely notes, history is ‘what you can remember. All other history defeats itself.’ The narrative drive and rich characterisation of fiction means that it is, for most people, far more memorable than anything they learn at school. History is a body of stories that we tell about ourselves; the trick is to make your version catch the light.
For more fictionalisations of history, take a pew for the sermons of Hanks & Spielberg