Tuesday, July 03, 2012


There is a moment in Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall -- which I have just finished reading –- when the venerable Sir Henry Wyatt says to his host Thomas Cromwell, "Thomas, how did I get so old?"

It is a question I have asked my spouse a number of times lately. Seems like only yesterday I was a young pup scampering up and down the mountains. And so that little note of humanity reaches across the centuries.

Sir Henry might well count his blessings. As a younger man he was cast into a dungeon by Richard Plantagenet, had his teeth pulled out and red hot knives applied to his flesh. He is lucky to be alive, whereas my life has been pretty much a bed of roses. Not least because I live in a time and place where religious or political non-conformity is not cause for torture. I just read in the paper the other day about two fellows in Iran who are being executed for consuming alcohol, an Islamic no-no.

Two famous Thomases in Henry the VIII's retinue: Thomas Cromwell, who is the chief protagonist of Mantel's novel, and Thomas More, Lord Chancellor. Saint Thomas More to Catholics. Canonized in 1935. Holy martyr, defender of the Faith.

Oh, yes, Faith with a capital F. The one true Faith, we were told as children. God's own and only Truth, and More was its champion. To this day, Thomas More is a holy icon to Catholic fundamentalists.

Mantel's Thomas More is a rather different fellow from the pious, kindly scholar we were offered as young Catholics. No doubt the real Thomas More had many virtues, but in Mantel's telling he was also proficient at burning heretics and putting dissenting Catholics to the torture. Possessing a copy of Tyndale's English translation of the Scriptures was sufficient ground for being burnt at the stake.

Ah, Truth. What mischief has been wrought in its name. Which Thomas More is True, the Erasmusian humanist or the zealot who turned the screws on the rack?

In lieu of considerable research, I would have to say, "I don't know." Even with research, absolute Truth would escape me. In any case, I wouldn’t send you to the stake for having a contrary opinion.

Science is the one great truth system that forgoes any claim to Truth. And out of the scientific tradition sprang those Enlightenment values that have let me, a religious dissenter, live to a fine old age with all my teeth and no worries about red hot knives.

(In the end, both Thomases lost their heads to the ax. A third Thomas, Archbishop Cranmer, met his end at the stake.)