My attraction to history is very people-oriented. Political intricacies and military maneuvers are simply not my main focus, although I do realize the necessity of being able to have a broad understanding of these goings on to properly set the stage. And yet the stage is ultimately meant for people, and not the other way around. In my writings, I try to bring historical characters to life in all their complexity, as real human beings with warmth and color, depth and dimension. I love to explore the anecdotes that reveal the personality of the subject, and reveal intimate details about how their contemporaries saw them as well.
Always, it is vital to keep the given time period in mind, realizing that modernistic conceptions must not be foisted onto the past. It is also important to remember that human beings are each a unique combination of good and bad attributes and black-and-white portrayals often fail to take into consideration the fascinating gray areas. Two interlocking characters in the news recently are Sir Thomas More and King Richard III. I shall start with the former, and then connect back to the latter. Anyway, it all starts with a television series. Wolf Hall is a drama set in Tudor England which portrays Thomas Cromwell a hero of modernity and Thomas More a bigoted religious fanatic, masochist, prig, male chauvinist, and generally miserable person, refusing to let go of the old ways.
First of all, this is a horrendous mischaracterization of the historical More. He was the last person to indulge pompous pretensions, as was his friend the Dutch monk and humanist author Erasmus. Hypocritical displays of religiosity were anathema to them both, and they often made sport of it in their writings. More has left behind a vibrant legacy as a Renaissance man and all around lover of life. He was witty and warm, always ready to crack a joke even in the darkest of circumstances (British humor at its best!). His interests were broad and varied, including literature, science, astronomy, theology, philosophy, languages, politics, etc., and he threw himself into all of it with enthusiasm.
Sir Thomas loved people and being able to make merry with them at his home at Chelsea. Indeed, “making merry” was one of his favorite pastimes, and he heartily hoped that heaven would be a place where he could “meet merrily again” with even those who sentenced him to death. He loved giving his guests a tour of his home, showing off his many collections of odds and ends (including a zillion books and a giant hunk of amber with a bug stuck inside) and his menagerie of pets (he was an animal lover who held blood-sports in disdain). Does this guy sound like a prig to you? I certainly hope not! Just to put the nail in the coffin of this claim, the fact was he could even be a bit raunchy in his humor at times, and was not above “swearing like a Briton” with the best of them in his fired-up moments.
As for the claim that he was a male chauvinist, the fact is that for his time period he was quite enlightened in his treatment of women. His favorite person in the world was his beloved daughter Margaret, affectionately called “Meg”, and he made a point of educating both his son and his daughters. He also educated his first wife, Jane, and would have done so with his second wife, Alice, but she resisted tooth and nail. He was by all accounts a loving family man, caring for his biological children, adopted child, and step-child alike. Of course, he was a man of his age in many ways, and did not believe it was the place of women to publish books. But for his era, that certainly doesn’t make him a fanatical women-hater. These modern feminists have to get a life!
As for being a masochist…well, he did wear a hair shirt, if that’s what they’re alluding to, in order to prevent himself from letting all the outward finery of the royal court go to his head. Basically, he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t become a fop, and determined that the scratchiness should always remind him to stay humble. Is that really so criminal? It was a private practice which he kept strictly confidential, and Wolf Hall is completely off-mark by indicating Cromwell knew about it during his lifetime. Only his daughter Margaret was privy to the practice, and revealed it only after her father’s death. As mentioned before, More hated hypocrisy in all forms, and the day before his execution, he sent the hair shirt to Meg so it would not be discovered when he took off his outer clothes on the scaffold.