Wolf Hall and the evolution of ‘civilised’ values

I’ve been watching Peter Kosminsky’s terrific adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and thinking how much its portrayal of the Tudor court, with its intrigues, back-stabbing, arse-licking and capriciousness reminds me of British newspaper offices in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s a good deal of callous savagery also, most of it discreetly off camera. This was an era, remember, when people were routinely tortured for their religious beliefs, and executed using a variety of technologies.

All part of Britain’s fabled ‘island story’, so beloved of Michael Gove. How nice, then, to see this observation in John Sutherland’s review of the third episode of the series:

This paper called the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh “a new depth of depravity”. One agrees. But, as Mantel chronicles, if you take the long view, it’s as British a depravity as roast beef. How much foundational cruelty does a proudly “liberal” civilisation such as ours require in forming itself? This is something explored in Mantel’s trilogy. “Quite a lot” would seem to be her answer.

State cruelty has different values, and different expressions of itself, over time. Michel Foucault has taught us that. Videotaped beheading is currently regarded as “vile”; in Henry VIII’s day, beheading was, on occasion, a privilege for the blue-blooded when condemned. Since the charge against him was treason, More should, by law, have suffered that most horrible of punishments – hanging, drawing and quartering. The sentence was commuted by the king. More’s noble head was lopped off in one clean stroke. He was dead before he felt the cut. “A moment’s pain,” he tells Cromwell. Aristocratic euthanasia. “Master” Bainham was less lucky.*

[James Bainham was burned alive as a heretic after being tortured by More.]