Sir Thomas More loses his head in this Sunday’s episode April 26 of the acclaimed PBS historical drama, Wolf Hall, which is not much of a spoiler since that’s what infamously happened to More in 1535 at the hands of King Henry VIII.
The real suspense now is whether More will also lose his halo.
Not officially, of course: Thomas More remains a Roman Catholic saint by dint of his refusal to accept Henry’s plot to have his first marriage annulled. The onetime Lord Chancellor of England also opposed Henry’s power play against the pope, which led to the establishment of the Church of England.
More was formally canonized in 1935, on the 400th anniversary of his execution.
But in these past decades the secular world was also burnishing More’s reputation by turning him into the contemporary standard-bearer of the righteous man, wielding only his conscience and religious principles against the power of the state — the Man for All Seasons, as the 1966 Academy Award-winning film (and earlier play) depicted him.
“I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first,” More declares in playwright Robert Bolt’s famous line, a riff on More’s own last words.
Yet what Wolf Hall does — and the reason such an intense debate has erupted over the series — is to engage in some bold revisionism by depicting More not as a saint but as “a heresy-hunting, scrupulous prig,” as the Catholic writer George Weigel put it.