Anne Boleyn has left the building. In pieces. Wolf Hall has been a moderately engaging TV series, but the effusiveness of the reviews and the cultural reception has been way over the top. I shall try to provide a corrective. Some of this Mantel-mania is probably nostalgia for the half-remembered BBC costume dramas of the 1970s (a sexed-up Poldark is also in the offing), some is just National Trust lust (everything was suspiciously clean), and some may be the assumption that we are in the presence of Acting (sic).
I've not read Hilary Mantel's books, but I did see the two stage adaptations last summer, which made for an interesting contrast. Portraits of Thomas Cromwell show a bruiser in the mould of Ed Balls. Though leaner, Ben Miles was closer to this, with a loose-limbed gait and accent that suggested both the commoner and the soldier. In contrast, Mark Rylance was too feline, though the screenplay made the most of this in scenes where he quietly watches events, sometimes concealed or paused on the threshold, acting furiously with just his eyes. The moments when he threatened violence were unconvincing. Similarly Nathaniel Parker was a more robust and humorous Henry (like a psycho Sid James, though without the cackle), but Damian Lewis was better at conveying the frustration and capriciousness of the king through tightened lips and flared nostrils.
Though Mantel's tale is built on the manoeuvrings of men, the key theme is the constraints placed on women. Some of this is presented in the form of traditional tropes, such as the treatment of women as pawns in male power plays. In one scene, Anne is physically coerced on a chessboard-like dancefloor by her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. At her coronation, she is manipulated like a mannequin. When arrested, she is at a loss how to proceed until instructed by Cromwell. This lack of physical agency is sharpened by contrast with the trope of girls learning to read (the daughters of Cromwell and Thomas More), which represents female empowerment and self-worth. It also suggests the latent power of the next generation of women, which will see first Mary and then Elizabeth, Anne's flame-haired daughter, on the throne.
A second traditional trope is the idea of women's sexuality as destabilising and malevolent: Anne as a witch, Henry "undone" by her wiles, the final accusation of incest etc. Mantel introduces a third, more modern, trope: the sexually autonomous woman. Examples are Johane's initiative to take Thomas to her bed, Mary Boleyn's flirtation with him, and the frisson between Thomas and Anne. Cromwell is shown as attractive and congenial in the company of women, though there is no historical evidence for this. The irony is that the real-life Cromwell's lack of sensitivity to sexual attraction, specifically Henry's dissatisfaction with Anne of Cleves ("She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported"), led to his downfall.
Female sexuality, and particularly its association with blood, is centre-stage: the weak joke that Prince Arthur "had spent the whole night in Spain" brings to mind Catherine of Aragon's vagina; her daughter Mary cannot stand due to her period and is offered a chair by Cromwell (historically improbable - as a royal princess she would have sat anyway); Anne clothed only in a shift on her bed displays her first pregnancy to Cromwell (again, improbable), and her second pregnancy ends with the blood of miscarriage on the floor. On the scaffold, the hands of Anne's female attendants are smeared with her blood as they put her dismembered corpse in the coffin.
As heritage TV, it was inevitable that the series would be used to draw political parallels with the present day, thus continuing a postwar tradition. Geoffrey Elton's 1953 history, The Tudor Revolution in Government, cast Cromwell as a bureaucratic reformer and loyal monarchist, which suited the Butskelite consensus of the 1950s. The reign of ER2 has been marked by a fascination with the Tudors, largely because they are seen as the progenitors of the British Empire (the conquest of Ireland, the Navy Royal, the American colonies), and thus the other book-end. In the 1960s, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons portrayed Cromwell as a scheming and unprincipled parvenu, in contrast to the conscientious and anti-authoritarian Thomas More, which reflected both liberal shibboleths and the unspoken fear of social mobility among the upper middle-class. Bolt's More was cast in the mould of Dietrich Boehoeffer and Martin Niemoller: establishment anti-Nazis.
Today, Martin Kettle see's Mantel's Cromwell as a Machiavellian "fixer", a proto-Blairite navigating a middle road between the "pedestrians" and the "madmen" (it's worth recalling that the original third way, the via media, was the English solution to the conflict of Catholicism and Protestantism - i.e. the Anglican Church). The idea of Thomas More as a man of conscience also lives on, despite Mantel's less sympathetic depiction of him as a prig and a torturer. Trendy vicar Giles Fraser bizarrely claims "when More was declared a saint in 1935, it was partially a powerful and deliberate witness to German Christians to do the same" (i.e. defy power). It was not. More was canonised en masse with 53 other Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation. As the process of canonisation takes decades, the idea that this was a gesture of solidarity in the face of Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 is ridiculous.
Even more bizarre was Larry Elliott's attempt to explain the Eurozone crisis by quoting the economic historian David Landes: "The Protestant Reformation changed the rules. It gave a big boost to literacy, spawned dissents and heresies, and promoted the scepticism and refusal of authority that is at the heart of scientific endeavour. The Catholic countries, instead of meeting the challenge, responded by closure and censure". As Elliott sees it, "Northern and southern Europe started to go their own ways in the 16th century. They had different beliefs, different ways of doing things, different cultures. Half a millennium later this gulf has yet to be bridged: witness the strong sense of protestantism that informs Germany’s attitude towards Greece." Not only does this simplification ignore the common beliefs and methods of contemporaries like Kepler and Galileo, but it also ignores the lasting predominance of Catholics in Bavaria and the Rhineland, the economically most advanced areas of Germany.
In fact, there is ample evidence that the structural differences between Northern and Southern Europe were already entrenched long before the Reformation. As Comin, Easterly and Gong conclude: "Technology in 1500 AD is associated with the wealth of nations today". As Fernand Braudel pointed out, the major determinant in European history has been the differences between the geography of the North European plain (which includes the bulk of England and Southern Scandinavia) and the North Mediterranean littoral. One could argue that the value-system we call Protestantism grew out of and reflected the economic advantages this geography bestowed - i.e. it was ideological - but to suggest that the wealth of London, Amsterdam and Hamburg arose from their rejection of transubstantiation, rather than their access to sea-lanes, would be nonsense.
Elliott continues: "But these were not the only changes happening. The voyages of discovery by Columbus and Magellan meant the known world was expanding. It was an era of globalisation, with new products available for import and fresh markets opening up". You may have spotted that these voyages were funded by closed and censorious Catholic Spain. The two hundred years between 1400 and 1600 saw the centre of the global economy shift from the Eastern Mediterranean to North Western Europe. The latter was not only best placed for Atlantic trade, but provided access to the Baltic and to Northern European coasts and rivers. This benefited England and The Netherlands most, not just because of their ideal position but because they did not divert significant resources to the now less-rewarding Mediterranean, unlike Spain and France.
Elliott, echoing Landes, believes the mechanism for this bifurcation in economic performance was literacy, as a result of the spread of bible-reading, rather than any intrinsic Protestant work ethic. This is a variation on the human capital theory of economic progress and so reflects modern assumptions. In fact, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that mass-literacy became a factor in economic growth, hence the introduction of universal elementary education in the UK in 1870. From the 16th to the 19th century, few jobs required reading skills and those that did were adequately supplied by the "middling sort" (e.g. Grammar school boys like William Shakespeare). If you were a land-labourer or a mill-worker, being able to read conferred little economic advantage.
Now into his stride, Elliott cannot stop seeing parallels: "Rather like the privatisation programme of the 1980s, the main reason for the assault on the monasteries was financial: Henry was short of money and wanted the funds to fight his expensive wars". Despite his fondness for the joust, Henry was not particularly martial, with wars restricted to short periods at the start and end of his reign. Though these stressed the treasury, this was because of the already high level of expenditure by the spendthrift king on his bloated court and palaces. The dissolution of the monasteries dates to the mid-1530s and was triggered by the Act of Supremacy and Henry's subsequent excommunication by the Pope. There was no pressing military need for cash at the time, though later dissolutions would help fund his 1542-4 campaign in France. The pressure for "privatisation" came from the aristocracy, who wanted to acquire monastic land, and from wealthier merchants seeking social status through the purchase of manorial estates.
The goal of privatisation during the first two Thatcher administrations was not to raise cash - supposedly to pay for unemployment and the Falklands War - but to give the private sector a free-hand in rationalising industries such as steel, shipbuilding and car manufacture (unemployment was paid for by higher tax, chiefly VAT). This changed after the 1987 election as financialisation started to influence policy. During the 1990s there was a clearer parallel with the dissolution of the monasteries as utilities, such as water, energy and the railways, were privatised. This is because the utilities provided guaranteed economic rents, in the same way that land did in the 16th century. The earlier 1980s programme was more akin to asset-stripping, hence the sensitivity of the "selling off the family silver" jibe by Harold Macmillan.
As a tale of sexual and power politics, Wolf Hall (on stage and small-screen) is little more than a superior version of The Tudors. The sense of profound historical change, such as the social ramifications of the dissolution of the monasteries or the economic and geopolitical pivot from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, is entirely absent from the confined world of the court. History is reduced to the conservative notion of inter-generational debt: Cromwell's filial-like loyalty to Wolsey and his paternal concern for Gregory are contrasted favourably with the dynastic instrumentalism of the aristocracy. The hint of a Hobbesian cynicism - man is a wolf to man - is reduced to a tale of justified revenge (against Wolsey's persecutors) and the king's increasingly dangerous delusions. The attempt to draw parallels with modern government and economics, to find significance in the drama of jealousy and ambition, is just a way of excusing a secret pleasure. It's the costumes and the candlelight and the tapestries that we'll remember. And the blood. It's the bling and the terror of power.