Thursday, June 25, 2015

Two Sides to Every Story

I'm currently in the unique position of reading two books from quite different perspectives. Both books are fabulous and convince the reader that the protagonist is in the right and that history dealt them a savage blow. The problem? The hero of one is the villain of the other.

Nancy Bilyeau's The Tapestry is the third book in her series featuring Joanna Stafford. Joanna was a novice at Dartford Priory before Henry VIII was convinced that closing down the monasteries was a good idea by everyone's favorite bad guy, Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell is the beloved Master Secretary of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall. Though the historical fact regarding Cromwell is not sugarcoated, Mantel somehow convinces the reader to fall in love with him just as thoroughly as the London women who are lining up to become the next Mrs. Cromwell.

While this is one of the things that I love about historical fiction, it makes me wish more than ever that there was a way to transport in time to learn the truth. I have the feeling that some of the truth lives in each of these stories.

Mantel's Cromwell is disgusted by rich monks that he sees spending more time with their mistresses than the poor. His analytical mind quickly tallies up what good could be done with the treasure stored up by these religious houses that he is convinced do more harm than good for the people of England. The Dissolution of the Monasteries is designed to reallocate dollars to enrich education, provide jobs, and, of course, line Henry VIII's pockets.

Bilyeau's Joanna is crushed when her way of life is decimated. The path that she felt God had called her to is not only destroyed but mocked. She sees Cromwell as a manipulative, greedy courtier who would sell his own mother to ingratiate himself to the king. (Well, maybe he would sell his father in either portrayal.) My heart swells as Joanna witnesses walls of ancient religious houses thoughtlessly torn down. King Henry first tells her she cannot be a nun, then tells her that former nuns and novices cannot marry. She is left undefined, God's path for her life blocked by Thomas Cromwell.

Both of these pictures of Tudor times have elements of truth in them. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, approximately 12,000 people lived in various religious houses. There were bound to have been some like the decidedly un-pious monks that Cromwell despises and others like the devout Joanna Stafford. As with most stories there are two sides that each carry their own amount of truth.

Despite how much I may adore Mantel's Cromwell, I still can find little excuse for the widespread destruction of historic buildings, documents, and treasure that occurred by his order. Did he truly hope to reinvent a system that would have worked better for the welfare of the general population? If he did, his hopes were not realized. Thousands of those who had devoted their lives to God would go on to starve or live in poverty after their homes were taken away, while those enriched turned out to be Henry and his cronies much more than the poor. There are indications that this wasn't Cromwell's intent, but it was the result.

One thing that each of these book series makes clear is that Thomas Cromwell is a multifaceted person who had a significant effect on events of his time. If it were possible to choose someone from history to sit and have lunch with, wouldn't he be an intriguing companion?


  1. I am not the biggest fan of Cromwell myself but it is rather interesting to see him portrayed as this sympathetic object of desire haha
    I feel like most of the historical figures from this time period deserve perspectives from both sides. As you said "Two sides to every story." Like the novel "The Autobiography of Henry VIII". After reading it I was still like "Eh, you're still awful Henry." But it was interesting to read things as he may have seen them. Recently, I've been reading a lot of WOTR era fiction but everything seems to have a Ricardian leaning. Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort, Margaret of Anjou, those on the Lancastrian side, often come off as complete villians. I'd really like to read something that has a more balanced perspective where they are concerned. I mean, none of them were all good nor were they all evil.

  2. I should have added Elizabeth Woodville to that list although she normally doesn't get it quite as bad as the other Grandma Tudor ;)

    1. Thanks for your insight! A great WoTR themed series that features a Lancastrian family while giving a balanced view of all those effected is David Pilling's White Hawk series. It is gritty and realistic, not romanticized at all. Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses series is a more balanced characterization as well.