The Unlearned Lessons of Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy passed away on September 22 at the age of 70, and perhaps you’ll forgive me if I find myself much more saddened by the loss of a critic of monarchy than the Queen who preceded her in death by a couple of weeks. I hope they are having a cage match in the afterlife and that Mantel has a shiv hidden in her boot.

Those who missed me on Facebook throughout a good chunk of September did so because I removed myself; I couldn’t bear it. It’s one thing, I guess, for inhabitants of Great Britain to have some sentimentality for some aspect of their lives that they’d always lived with, but the appalling idiocy of Americans, in particular liberal ones, blubbering about this event, and billing and cooing over the thousand hour, million pound funeral, was a profoundly alienating experience. Whether the monarchy continues to have political power or not is of no consequence. It is obscenity enough that it exists. That citizens of a 21st century First World nation are taxed to pay for the luxury of leeches, and that they live in a society where they must literally BOW before some randomly “sacred” individuals is mind-boggling. To learn that there are AMERICANS who are enthralled by this is stomach-turning information. If you don’t understand the concept that an absence of titled nobility is central to the idea of a democratic republic — sine qua non — or that class is inimical to democracy, or that tribalism is literally destructive to fairness in representation, what earthly GOOD are you in the struggle against Fascism? In America we are literally in a struggle against a faction that wants to elevate the Presidency to Kinghood, a form of government where rule happens by whim and decree, and it’s all been blessed by some supernatural God and no one gets to vote him out. You don’t see a parallel? You don’t perceive a relationship?

In the past several years there’s been this flood tide of movies and TV shows fawning all over the nobility and the monarchy. Wolf Hall was an excellent antidote to this servile worship of Rulers. It revealed Late Medieval Britain for the Rome-like bloodbath that it was. Apparently America’s culture of greed has reached the point where the populace now approves of a world where a handful have the power, and the masses get the privilege of watching aristocrats bask in glory whilst eking out their own livings on ever diminishing incomes and eroding framework of rights.

My fellow Americans, that is not what this is! That is not why this country exists, or why a Revolution was fought here! My ancestors were among those fought who the America Revolution, against their own blood kin, they had skin in this game, and so I take this personally. We are supposed to be free of tribes. I am a Stewart. The monarchy is LITERALLY (if distantly) my tribe, as is the nation they ruled. The first two King Charleses were Stuarts. As a child that enthralled me, but you know what? I am no longer a child. Children and animals value associations and pretty baubles over principles. My branch of the Stewarts crossed the sea, as did millions of others from all parts of the globe, to a place without Kings, where the people themselves are supposed to decide whom to show deference to, and where, by law at least if not in invariable practice, those who seize power, or obtain it by trickery, are brought down, or dethroned, or placed in the Tower. If we must have fantasies, let them at least be moral ones, rather than Fairy Tales populated by crowned heads we’re compelled to bend our knees to.

But to return to Hilary Mantel, haha. On my Puritan side I am also related to the Cromwells. While Thomas Cromwell (the Wolf Hall protagonist, chief minister to Henry VIII) was part of the ruthless universe of opportunism and power-mongering we decry, he rose from humble beginnings, and eventually got his head chopped off. His great-great grandnephew Oliver sought to end the monarchy’s absolute power and did a little decapitating of his own. So it is literally the case that one of my distant relatives beheaded another of them, in the name of eradicating absolutism. I choose that over fealty to some periwigged dude in stockings who gets to say who lives or dies based on whether he got up on the wrong side of bed that morning. If you think the contemporary British monarchy, or Trumpist America have nothing to do with that, think about it some more, and then think it over again.

We thank Hilary Mantel for her brand of historical fiction, and some of her public utterances against a certain sacrosanct British institution. May others take up the, well, mantle.