The Fall of the House of Laity: the Church of England and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

What does the House of Laity have in common with Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall?

On Tuesday, the draft Measure for the consecration of women bishops was defeated in the House of Laity. The arguments against the Measure were complex. Some were concerned with the terms of the legislation, and some were made on theological grounds. But whatever the views of the debaters and of those who voted, if the discussions that I have followed on Facebook and Twitter are anything to go by, the overall public perception is that the Church of England is a deeply misogynist institution, steeped in old fashioned traditions, and out of touch with contemporary society.

A longer view of the history of the English Church provides us with a different picture. In the earliest English church, women exercised tremendous authority. A key figure in the establishment of the church during the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was Hild, founding Abbess of Whitby (614-680). The Venerable Bede writes about her career in the fourth book of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731). Yet even this early and hugely influential work of scholarship tends to underplay Hild’s role as a politician. Hild presided over the famous Synod of Whitby of 664, but Bede chooses to minimize this, despite describing the debates themselves in some detail. In the later Anglo-Saxon period, the abbesses lost much of their political and cultural power when double monasteries governed by women were replaced by separate religious communities for monks and nuns.

Nevertheless throughout the Middle Ages, exceptional women could and did yield considerable influence. Double Man Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel writes about one of these women in her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall. Elizabeth Barton, the so-called ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, is a minor player in the book, but she was far more significant in her own time. Barton was a young nun and mystic who was executed in 1534 after she prophesied against Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and against his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Mantel’s story is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, who engineered these events for the king. In Wolf Hall, as in the propaganda that surrounded Barton’s execution, Barton is represented as a foolish, malleable young woman, manipulated by Cromwell’s opponents and, ultimately, by Cromwell himself. However, an understanding of traditions of medieval mysticism throws a very different light on Barton. In later Medieval Europe, there were a number of powerful women visionaries who used the authority that they claimed had been given to them directly by God to intervene in political affairs at the highest level. One of the most famous of these women was St Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), who admonished King Magnus of Sweden about his failings and gave warnings to Pope Clement VI. Even Barton’s enemies acknowledged that Bridget was an important role model for her. The surviving historical records indicate that Cromwell took Elizabeth Barton very seriously indeed: when her supporters tried to print 700 copies of a book of her revelations for distribution around the country, he had his spies seize and destroy every copy. Not one survived. Mantel makes no mention of this in her novel.

What does the House of Laity have in common with Wolf Hall? Both underestimate the authority, whether God-given or not, of powerful women.

Diane Watt’s essay ‘Literature in Pieces: female sanctity and the relics of early women’s writing (500-1150)’ will be published next month in The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature, ed. Clare A. Lees (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). She has written about Elizabeth Barton in Secretaries of God (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997).