Tuesday, 28 April 2015


"WOLF HALL", the BBC TV series that has brought slander and the Oliver Stone style of history to new depths in its portrayal of St. Thomas More, is being called out by none other than Dr. Eamon Duffy, the celebrated historian and best-selling author of "THE STRIPPING OF THE ALTARS." 
His book has done more to dismiss "The Black Legend" than almost any other work of the past half century.

Before reading excerpts from Duffy's recent article though, have a look at the Holbein portraits below with a view to the fact that the artist had an intimate look at both men, their families and their work. 

I believe that Hans Holbein's powerful eye for conveying character in his portraits makes a compelling case in art for whom we could trust. Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

Which of these men would you like to stand before in the dock?
Thomas Cromwell

St. Thomas More

In a balanced, historically accurate and articulate article in THE TABLET, Duffy says:

" . . . it is perfectly true that as a Crown agent, and then as Lord Chancellor, More did pursue heretics. He never presided at a heresy trial (no layman could) and he never condemned anyone to death for their religious beliefs. In his autobiographical Apology, he refuted the charges of torture and maltreatment of suspects that Wolf Hall reports, accusations that, through John Foxe’s hostile elaboration in his Elizabethan propaganda work, Actes and Monuments, nevertheless persisted down the centuries. 
John Foxe, author of the notoriously and hysterically anti-Catholic "Book of Martyrs"
. . . when all but one of the bishops had perjured themselves by signing up to the Royal Supremacy, More died rather than swear an oath he did not believe. We can therefore trust his solemn insistence that no one in his custody for heresy had ever suffered “so much as a flip on the forehead," much less been tortured. Yet in the 1520s, he was undoubtedly the most active agent in Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey’s campaign against heresy. In collaboration with the gentle humanist Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, More led a series of nocturnal raids on London houses and warehouses in search of forbidden Lutheran books and, as was routine in that age, he imprisoned and interrogated suspects in his house in Chelsea.

. . . In the age of Islamic State and al-Qaeda, we are deeply suspicious of anyone who thinks God wants us to kill other people, whatever the motive. But More’s world was not our world. By the standards of his age, he was a compassionate and just man. But he never questioned a legal system that imposed the death penalty not only for heresy or murder, but even for quite minor thefts. And like most of his contemporaries, he believed that heresy was a kind of spiritual murder. 

He viewed the preaching of heresy as we do the peddling of hard drugs, a moral cancer that ruined lives, corrupted the young, dissolved the bonds of truth and morality, and undermined the fabric of Christian society. He was horrified by the religious wars tearing Europe apart in the 1520s, shattering the vision of Christian harmony that he and Erasmus had promoted in their writings. 
Like Erasmus, More blamed those wars on Luther and his followers, and he feared that the spread of Protestantism would wreak the same havoc in England [havoc which was unleashed in the English Civil War led by Oliver Cromwell - Can we never be rid of these Cromwells ? !] 

[Thomas More] believed he had a duty to persuade, coax and, if necessary, coerce heretics to abandon their beliefs – or at least to stay silent about them. A man must indeed follow his conscience. But if a misguided conscience led him to propagate evil opinions, he must either repudiate those errors when they were pointed out to him, or take the consequences.

Several recent biographers have found the apparent contradiction between the genial humanist and saint of tradition, and the implacable opponent of heresy, impossible to resolve. So they have cut the Gordian knot, rejecting as pious fiction the testimony of Erasmus and of More’s sixteenth-century biographers that he was as attractive as he was brilliant, and substituting instead the portrait of an unreconstructed bigot and sadist, in the words of  Thomas Cromwell [as written by the source for the B.B.C. Series] “a blood-soaked hypocrite”. 

But the portrait that emerges is too dark. It is impossible to imagine the sour-faced More played by Anton Lesser stepping in among the Christmas players at Cardinal Morton’s court – as the young More did – to improvise his own hilarious role; or writing the 100 “merry tales” that light up even the most serious of his English works; or cracking the last great joke of all, as he climbed the rickety scaffold to his death: “I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me safely up, and as for my coming down, you may leave me to shift for myself.”

More was neither blood-soaked nor a hypocrite, but he was a man of his times, not of ours. In the spring of 1535, while he languished in the Tower, William Tyndale was arrested in Brussels. A year later, Tyndale was strangled and burned as a heretic. 

More and Tyndale were old and bitter enemies. But like More, Tyndale was a man consumed by passion for the truth, and a scholar and translator of transcendent genius. Most of what we admire in the magnificent language of the King James Bible goes back to him. More too believed the Bible should be available in English. But Tyndale taught that the Pope was Antichrist and the Catholic Church a Satanic conspiracy against God’s work. More thought Tyndale’s Bible would poison the wells and corrupt the hearts and minds of innocent Christians. 

Yet the two men, so deeply divided in religion, were united in the conviction that truth was worth dying for. Both believed that society must be rooted in truth, and that God’s truth had to be defended against brute power and political expediency – even if it cost the defender their liberty and their lives. 

Tyndale’s vitriolic hatred of the papacy now seems unbalanced, just as More’s rejection of Tyndale’s sublime biblical work seems blinkered. They died for opposing understandings of the Gospel. But both died as witnesses that truth mattered, that in a truly human society both law and liberty must be rooted in something deeper, more objective and more enduring than personal preference, political expediency or naked power. Neither would have looked to Cromwell for a soul-mate."

Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and the author of "The Stripping of the Altars". 

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