Thursday, February 7, 2013

This Day in British History (Thomas More, Saint and Richard III ‘Biographer,’ Born)

February 7, 1478— Sir Thomas More (left), a witty intellectual who rose to the heights of English law and politics, was born just down the street in London from Thomas Becket, another commoner martyred and canonized (three centuries before) for defying a monarch named Henry.

Two recent events have thrust More—already powerfully etched in the history books, especially as hero of the play and film made from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons—once again into the public eye:

*The Royal Shakespeare Co. has announced that it will mount a stage version of two novels spotlighting Thomas Cromwell, one of More’s chief antagonists in the struggle arising from Henry VIII’s attempt to make his mistress Anne Boleyn the queen: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. (Previously, the BBC had announced separate plans for a mini-series based on these works.)

*Scholars announced that, after digging beneath a parking lot, they had discovered and positively identified the skeleton of Richard III, the king that More had immortalized, in an influential tract, as the epitome of treachery and tyranny.

More, Cromwell and Richard have a couple of things in common. First, all are connected, in some way, to the Tower of London—More and Cromwell as prisoners, and Richard as a monarch who ordered his enemies there (several of whom famously died untimely deaths). Second, all three ran afoul of the Tudor dynasty—More and Cromwell, executed on orders of the King they served as counselors, Henry VIII, and Richard killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, by troops under the man who took his throne, Henry VII, father of the fellow with six wives.

This particular blog post, in considering these three figures, is, in a real sense, concerned with reputation and revisionism. It’s about how history obscures lives, attempts to compensate by wiping the slate clean—and, in the process, continues to mess matters up, albeit differently.

Take Richard III, for instance. The man who overthrew him to end the War of the Roses, Henry Tudor, received an honored resting place in Westminster Abbey, even though his life didn’t really measure up to that hallowed institution. (He grasped money as tightly as power.) In contrast, Richard was dislodged from what was believed to be his original resting place, a church in Leicester,100 north of London, by what historian Eamon Duffy has called “The Stripping of the Altars,” i.e., the dismantling of England's churches and monasteries as part of Henry VIII’s effort to bring the Roman Catholic Church to heel. Then, the last of the Plantagenets had to endure lying underground, without any known shroud or coffin, for centuries--as we know now, more recently, even beneath a parking lot.

But, long before piles of dirt obscured the site of his remains, metaphorical ones had already been heaped on his reputation, courtesy of William Shakespeare. And one of the Bard’s major sources for his tragedy is More’s History of Richard III.

More’s work about the monarch is especially curious, given its influence on histiography and theater, for several reasons:

*It was never published in More’s lifetime—and in fact, according to the statesman’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd, it may have been intended more as a grammatical and rhetorical exercise for students that More was teaching at Oxford around 1513;

*More never completed the work, not getting close to what should have been its climax—Richard’s defeat and death at Bosworth;

*Other writers of the Tudor period incorporated More’s work into their own, and these latter materials were ultimately what Shakespeare saw when he wrote his play;

*More freely invented entire speeches for his characters, a practice almost no modern historian uses (this was before tape recorders or even stenographers), though such reputable ancient chroniclers as Thucydides and Tacitus had done likewise;

*It is unknown how many eyewitnesses More interviewed (one likely source: the Bishop of Ely, who had known the young More, and may have related to him Richard’s request for flowers—an anecdote that Shakespeare picked up on, too);

*More got some dates and names wrong, so he was not particularly accurate;

*Most tellingly, More may well have exaggerated Richard’s physical imperfections (the scoliosis of the spine present in the discovered skeleton) into the “croke backed” usurper we know, and he gave full credence to the part of Richard’s reign that weighs most powerfully in Shakespeare’s indictment: that he had his two young nephews killed while they were in the Tower of London.

Speaking of the Tower of London…Nearly two weeks ago, on the tail end of a business trip, I saw it at the start of a bus tour of Britain’s capital. It was hard to believe that the place I saw, albeit from a slight distance, on one sunlit morning, was a savage place once, but it was—a relic of a time of civil unrest and moral darkness.

This was the universe of what is now projected as Hilary Mantel’s historical trilogy on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. I am halfway through the first of these three works, Wolf Hall, and Mantel’s ability to evoke the atmosphere of Henry VIII’s time—and to penetrate Cromwell’s psyche—are masterful. She is fully deserving of the critical acclaim (including receiving the Man Booker prize, Britain’s highly touted literary award, twice) that has come her way.

The most often used literary device of More's was irony. Now, in an ironic turn of events, the man who helped darken Richard’s character in the eyes of posterity is seeing his own reputation called into question. Mantel’s More suffers in constant comparison with her protagonist Cromwell, a figure long derided as ruthless. While she depicts Cromwell as accepting a new religion (Protestantism) based on individual interpretations of the Bible, More is rendered as a relentless heretic-hunter and book burner.Cromwell is shown as a loving widower; More, as a prude with no affection for his (second) wife, Alice. Cromwell might be tough, even ruthless, when he has to be, but he's a proto-democrat who's risen from common origins (a blacksmith-brewer father who mercilessly beat him) to take down entrenched, privilege nobility and clergy of England.

The beauty of Mantel’s style make all the more seductive a portrait of More with virtually no redeeming qualities. Even More did not deny Richard’s courage in battle, but in Mantel the only hint of the wit so often remarked upon in More is a scene where he mocks the intellectually inferior wife. Even one of the aspects of More’s private life most attractive to modern readers—his pride in his  daughter Margaret, easily one of the most learned women of the Tudor Era—comes off in Mantel’s depiction as incestuous.  

The practice of source-based, dispassionate history as we know it did not exist in More's time. But he was no mere Tudor propagandist (otherwise, he would have finished his history of Richard, and made sure it received the widest possible circulation). He did not have the benefit of distance from the events he describes, nor the freedom to tell about it--but, again ironically, he also did not mix rampant speculation and extensive historical research into his account as the presumably more reality-based Mantel did. 

Mantel was right, as she wrote in an account in Britain's Telegraph of how she came to write Wolf Hall and its sequels (the third installment of the trilogy, taking Cromwell up to his own execution, is in the works), that the confrontation between More and Cromwell was "more nuanced than the one familiar to us from A Man for All Seasons." But it is also more nuanced than the one she has presented. A figure who had a spy network everywhere, who exploited a time of uncertainty to overturn the civil society of his time,who ordered the rampant seizure of others' properties that created for his ruler a source of wealth independent of the long-established pillars of society, who himself became powerful in the service of a capricious authoritarian, would, under normal circumstances, be seen as the harbinger of a 20th-century apparatchik for a totalitarian regime. It is the seductive power of Mantel's work this same figure--Cromwell--becomes, in her view, a gregarious, humane man who met a brutal world on its own terms.

Shakespeare's (and, it might be said, More's) Richard III sought to "set the murderous Machiavell to school," but it might more truly be said that Cromwell (who knew The Prince quite well) succeeded in applying its lessons more thoroughly.

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