All is True: The Iron Lady, the Butcher’s Cur, and Representing Historical Figures


Margaret Thatcher

With discussions of the death and legacy of Margaret Thatcher overwhelming the internet and news media, I can admit to jumping on the bandwagon here.  But I’d like to pick up on a theme that I’ve been thinking about (not least of all thanks to Sheffield’s own Caroline Pennock:  Caroline’s post raises an interesting point: how do we present ourselves to the world?  How much control do we have over that image?  As any viewer of, say, The Thick Of It will know, politicians have to ‘manage the message’, and their public image is foundational to any message.  Yet many politicians (and other public figures) are unable to do so: Thatcher may have consciously portrayed herself as the Iron Lady (itself an appropriation), the destroyer of the unions and Argentinean insular ambitions alike, but critics have (and will continue to) appropriated that characterization to portray Thatcher as inflexible, detached, inhuman.  But is this fair?  Is this a true portrayal?  How can we understand who Thatcher—or any historical figure, as she is now— was with any claim to accuracy or authority?  At what point do real people pass into history and become characters in a historical narrative, and how does this process work?

This is, of course, not a new question, and if you would like to get to grips with it properly, I recommend Hayden White’s The Fiction of Narrative (ed. Robert Doran).  Fair warning: you are entering a terrifying world where everything is ‘meta’ and the F-word is dropped with alarming regularity (that would be ‘Foucault’, of course).  I won’t bore you with too much theory; rather, I’ll discuss how this question is at the heart of my own research.  My PhD thesis looked at sixteenth-century literary representations of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1515-1529, and many of the same issues surrounding the public images of public figures surfaced during my research.

Cardinal Wolsey, Christ Church College, Oxford

Wolsey is often remembered today as an obese and Machiavellian politico extraordinaire, the hedonistic suppressor of monasteries and vastly ambitious acquirer of wealth and power, a “disgustingly plump slug” (as Telegraph theater critic Charles Spencer described Ian McNeice’s Wolsey at the Globe in 2010).  Throughout most of the sixteenth century, Wolsey was often considered in much the same terms.  Wolsey, the son of an Ipswich tradesman (and sometime butcher, a point of scorn to his enemies) rose to prominence with almost unthinkable rapidity.  Born in or around 1472 and educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, Wolsey’s first major court appointment was to the royal almonership (which brought with it a seat on the Privy Council) in late 1509.  This was a junior position, won perhaps due to influence marshalled while Wolsey was a royal chaplain to Henry VII.  It was extraordinarily unusual that by 1515, Wolsey had been appointed Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor, and subsequently given a cardinalate by Pope Leo X.  In 1563, martyrologist John Foxe described Wolsey as having “b[ore] all the rule about the king” as early as 1514: a testament to the ambition and ability of the son of humble Ipswich.  This rapid accumulation of ecclesiastic and secular power did not go unnoticed, of course: as Wolsey rose, so too did satires and warnings about the new cardinal.  The early Tudor laureate John Skelton mounted a campaign of increasingly vitriolic satire against Cardinal Wolsey, who he called a “butcher’s cur”.  One of the complaints against Wolsey was that he maintained too grand an image, particularly when his base birth was taken into account (and we can safely assume it was always taken into account).  Skelton criticized Wolsey for attempting to supplant the king’s court in his poem Why Come Ye Nat To Courte? (c.1522):

Why come ye nat to courte?
To whyche court?
To the kynges courte?
Or to Hampton Court?

This poem was written before Wolsey was compelled to sell Hampton Court to Henry VIII, and neatly encapsulates Wolsey’s major public relations problem: he was too powerful, too wealthy, and too close to the king in all respects.  Indeed, when Wolsey was arrested in 1530 for treason, the fourth article of his arrest was that he had considered himself in terms equal to the king:

For having in divers letters and instructions to foreign parts used the expression, “the King and I,” and “I would ye should do thus,” “the King and I give unto you our right hearty thanks,” using himself more like a fellow to your Highness than a subject.

 Though Wolsey’s many detractors accused him of vanity, Wolsey himself argued that his grand image was cultivated to reflect the glory of his king and Church, from whom he had all his worldly wealth.  In a 1526 disputation with Robert Barnes, a reformist later burned to death for heresy, Wolsey connected his image with his king by asking Barnes whether or not glory was done to Henry through the grandeur of his servants, given that the king must be a model of largesse to demonstrate his own power.  His stated motivation was to reflect the majesty of the king, from whom all Wolsey’s wealth derived.  Barnes didn’t agree and ended up faking his own death to flee England.

While Barnes was speaking about Wolsey’s shortcomings in a religious context, there was more to it, particularly in the secular realm.  First, there was the treasonous usurpation of the king’s authority; Wolsey’s unparalleled power came to be viewed as power over the king (which was treason).  Second, the aristocracy was quite literally losing its raison d’être to Wolsey’s influence over Henry.  In Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Jacobean collaboration, Henry VIII, the Duke of Buckingham complains that the entire court is shut off from the king (the font of all honor, privilege, and, in very real terms, power):


The devil speed [Wolsey]!  No man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger.  What had he
To do in these fierce vanities?  I wonder
That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’th’beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth. (1.1.50-57)

A keech, for those of you not familiar with early modern candle-making procedures (he wrote, with an air of self-satisfaction), is a lump of congealed fat.  Buckingham is therefore alleging that Wolsey’s vanity, ambition, and greed caused him to shut off the source of the aristocracy’s power.

Now, an essential point: one of the first things I tell students about Shakespeare is that he cannot be trusted.  His genius, in part, lay in his ability to write discrete and often oppositional viewpoints with consistency and verve, and we must recognize that not all of his characters are correct.  So, how does Buckingham’s anger relate to Shakespeare’s authorial techniques?  One of the key sources of tension in Henry VIII is figuring out who to trust.  As the play progresses, many of the nobles—including Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s famously divorced first wife—accuse Wolsey of a number of crimes and evil deeds, ranging from oppressive taxation policies to treason.  In opposition, Wolsey maintains his innocence with a wealth of accurate details (and some wonderful speeches).  Who to believe?  Katherine believes Wolsey sparked Henry’s interest in the divorce which would come to change so much; by contrast, we see that Wolsey himself is the last to know about Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn and recognized that the divorce would ruin him.  The Duke of Buckingham is called the ‘mirror of all courtesy’, but instead is typified by his angry bluster: he is literally discourteous.  How do we know who is speaking the truth?

This debate is further unsettled when we consider that the original title of Henry VIII was ‘All is True’.  But how can that be?  We’ve just seen that just in relation to Wolsey there are several distinct and opposing opinions; can they both be true?  This question gets straight back to the beginning of this post: what is true when discussing history?  And how do we represent that truth?  Wolsey cultivated a grand public image: we know this because we have contemporary documentary evidence of his grand processions and possessions, we have eyewitness testimony of his disputation with Barnes, and we have first-hand accounts of his household (and actions) from his own gentleman-usher, George Cavendish (whose Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey is one of the earliest examples of English secular biography and is a genuinely interesting read).  But how do we interpret those images?  Were they demonstrative of a man so evil that just after his death his body was so blackened and rotted that the monks of Leicester Abbey (where Wolsey had died) were obliged to bury him in the middle of the night, as John Foxe alleged?  That his body was so unnaturally heavy that it took six men to lift him?  Or do we instead believe Wolsey’s own opinion and that of his gentleman-usher Cavendish (who, incidentally, states with much greater authority that Wolsey died peacefully the morning of November 29th, and was revealed to have worn a hair shirt in secret under his finery)?  It is a truism that history is written by the victors, but as any student of history will tell you, it’s much more complicated than that.  ‘Truth’ is often nebulous at best, and ‘history’ itself is not a clear term: there are the res gestae (‘things done’), but we know about the ‘things done’ through documentary evidence.  Those documents might have a close relationship with the res gestae, but it’s rather difficult to discuss events exactly as they happened: this difficulty becomes an impossibility as soon as you start trying to add your own explanations or interpretations.

So, was Margaret Thatcher a tyrant who destroyed communities, or was she a heroine who made a floundering post-Empire Britain great again?  She can and will be both.  While the process of characterizing Thatcher has entered a new posthumous stage, it will certainly continue for a very long time.  Is this right?  Is this fair?  As Shakespeare tells us—and what better authority is there?—all is true: at least, for a given value of ‘truth’.

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