Hilary Mantel tells a great tale but ruined abbeys tell a different one, says expert

<span>Photograph: John Snelling/Getty</span>
Photograph: John Snelling/Getty

The staging of the final novel in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy has, arguably, been the flagship theatrical event as the West End re-opens after lockdown. One critic described The Mirror and the Light, which chronicles the downfall of Thomas Cromwell, as the completion of a “magnificent hat-trick”.

But Dr Michael Carter, the senior properties historian at English Heritage, will not be buying a ticket. Carter, whose role means he is responsible for curating the stories of the ruined monasteries, abbeys and priories of England, is not exactly a Mantel-sceptic. But he is desperate for another set of stories to be told about the events with which she deals.

“She’s brilliant, of course,” he acknowledges, “and I consumed the books with huge enjoyment. They are intended as works of fiction, not academic history, and naturally I get that. But her vision has been filtered through historiography which takes its cue from the biased records of post-Reformation Tudor times. The Dissolution of the monasteries – the ruin of places such as Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx in Yorkshire – has become part of a narrative which is somehow about saving England and putting it on an enlightened path to what will eventually become secular liberal democracy.”

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. It was destroyed during the Dissolution of the monasteries.
The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. It was destroyed during the Dissolution of the monasteries. Photograph: Alamy

In The Mirror and the Light, as in the preceding volumes, Mantel projects herself into the mind of Cromwell as he brings to an end a 1,000-year tradition of religious houses in England and deals with the Pilgrimage of Grace, a northern rebellion against Henry VIII’s rule. As Cromwell moves to shut down places such as Fountains, drive out the monks and nuns and seize their assets for the state, his strategy is presented in a context of monastic decline, easy living and resentment at widespread corruption.

Filtered through Mantel’s Cromwell, the traditional devotion to relics and sacred imagery – all destroyed during the Dissolution – become signs of theological backwardness, soon to be superseded by a Reformation emphasis on the sacred word of the Gospel.

But according to Carter, who writes the guide notes and texts for museums at monasteries and abbeys such as Rievaulx, the narrative essentially echoes a self-serving Tudor rewrite of tumultuous times. “I’m utterly unconvinced that dissolution was inevitable, nor am I convinced that it was popular. Right up to one minute to midnight before the process began, these institutions are an integral part of the religious, political, social and economic fabric of their local environment.”

Hilary Mantel on a beach
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy has fired the public’s interest in the Tudors. Photograph: David Levene/The Observer

The importance of such places – and the prayers that were said there – to local communities, says Carter, was reflected in the vast numbers that joined the Pilgrimage of Grace, a revolt which represented the greatest threat to Henry’s rule and was brutally suppressed. In The Mirror and the Light, a character describes the rebellion as fuelled by nostalgia for a golden age that never was and the affection for saints’ days is lightly dismissed as a pretext for days off work getting drunk. “When I got to the Pilgrimage of Grace bit of The Mirror and the Light, I was wondering how Mantel would treat it. I think the answer is not very sympathetically. Protecting the monasteries was a major part of it, regardless of what people with agendas were saying at the time. Richard Aske [the leader of the rebellion who was hung, drawn and quartered] was explicit about this. He talked about their importance and great usefulness to the land. It’s moving coming from a man facing a horrible death.”

In A People’s Tragedy, a recent book of essays on Reformation England, the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy writes: “We mark some events and forget others, depending on how those events contribute to our own priorities and sense of identity.”

It would be fantastic were an alternative trilogy written – I wonder what kind of reception it would get?

Dr Michael Carter

Carter believes the standard history of England’s journey from the Reformation through to the present is distorted by a Tudor bias that is reflected in Mantel’s novels. “I don’t want to ignore or negate what she has presented, but it is only one side of the story.”

He dreams of an alternative trilogy telling the monks’ and nuns’ point of view. “I wonder what kind of reception it would get. The dominant narrative of what was going on is so entrenched. It would be fantastic if it was written. John Paslew, the last Abbot of Whalley Abbey, would be a great character for it. He was executed in Lancaster for high treason in 1537, after lending a horse to the pilgrims. I think he may have sacrificed himself to save the other monks from harm.”

In the absence of an alternative Mantel, though, Carter intends to carry on putting the other side of the story when it comes to the epoch-defining events of the 1530s. “Everything I do,” he says, “from scholarly articles to the texts I write for English heritage, is trying to think about how we should interpret and understand these monasteries. If you can tell a good story, you’ve got it made and Hilary Mantel tells a brilliant story.

“If it makes more people visit our monasteries to encounter our history, then that’s fantastic. But I think that, when they get there, they will find rigorously researched evidence that will tell them a more nuanced, complicated – and dare I say it – contrary history.”

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