Wolf Hall and the Birth of Modern Philanthropy

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540).

The BBC’s eagerly-anticipated adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall begins tonight, and seemingly every columnist and commentator has penned an article outlining “what Wolf Hall can tell us about X”. On the basis that if you can’t beat them, join them, I though I would have a look at what Wolf Hall can tell us about philanthropy…



Interestingly, a comment piece in the Evening Standard touched on this question, asking what the current “Tudor mania” could tell us about the role of the super-rich in our society. The conclusion was that these super-rich should be “Victorian rather than Tudor”, partly because the Victorians were more philanthropic. Having recently written a book looking at the role of philanthropy in UK society from a historical perspective (due out later this year) this struck me as a bit odd. Although the Victorians may be more famous for their philanthropy, the Tudors were just as generous. They were in fact responsible for the creation of what we would recognise as philanthropy, and also for bringing it into its first “Golden Age”.



Thomas Gresham (1519-1579)

Men like Thomas Gresham and Thomas Sutton founded institutions such as Gresham College and the Charterhouse in Tudor London, which are still with us today. And they were not alone; philanthropy became just as much a competitive activity for the Tudor Merchant classes as it was for the later Victorian middle classes. By the end of the Tudor era, philanthropy was rife in London. WK Jordan, who wrote Philanthropy in England 1480-166o (which remains the most comprehensive analysis of Tudor giving, even if some of his calculations are disputed), explained that:


Thomas Sutton (1532-1611)

Thomas Sutton (1532-1611):

“…[I]n the early seventeenth century the failure of a London merchant to settle some substantial and conspicuous charitable trust or gift was generally regarded as little short of shocking unless there had been a grievous wasting of the estate because of age, ill-health, or commercial misfortune.”



This upsurge of generosity was arguably driven in part by pragmatism, as growing concerns about inequality leading to unrest meant that philanthropy was seen as one way of soothing the restless masses. As WK Jordan again explains:


“…[T]heir steady concern with the eroding poverty of their age proceeded not from any sentimental concern for the poor but rather from an astute understanding that unrelieved uncontrolled want constituted a grave threat to the stability of the realm. It is not too much to say that the Tudors viewed charity as a necessary aspect of public policy rather than as a requirement of Christian morality.”



If one is looking for lessons from the history of philanthropy that are relevant for the present day, then this seems particularly apt. Growing inequality is once again a concern that is high on the political agenda, and whilst philanthropy cannot be the whole answer, we certainly need to give more thought to how it can be part of the solution.



Anne Boleyn (1501-1536)

But the other major factor that shaped Tudor philanthropy was religion. And it is here that Wolf Hall can actually tell us a lot. Charity played an important part in the lives of many of the characters in Wolf Hall, and in particular in the lives of two of its central protagonists, Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. Their approaches to charity although different in many respects, share similarities that help to explain the origins of modern philanthropy.



Anne Boleyn, who for so long saw herself as the “Queen in Waiting” was renowned for her generosity. John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, declares:


“Also, how bountiful she was to the poor, passing not only the common example of other queens, but also the revenues almost of her estate; insomuch that the alms which she gave in three quarters of a year, in distribution, is summed to the number of fourteen or fifteen thousand pounds; besides the great piece of money which her grace intended to impart into four sundry quarters of the realm, as for a stock there to be employed to the behoof of poor artificers and occupiers”


Historians have pointed out that the sum of 15 thousand pounds seems fancifully high, but other contemporary sources verify the picture of Anne as genuinely concerned for the welfare of the poor and extremely generous in giving to them.



Charity even played a part in the growth of the enmity between Boleyn and Cromwell that forms the backdrop to much of Wolf Hall. They quarrelled fiercely over the issue of what to do with the money raised from the dissolution of the monasteries. Anne believed that the money should be put to charitable uses, while Cromwell had earmarked the funds to bolster the king’s coffers.



But we shouldn’t conclude from this that Cromwell himself was uncharitable. The recent rehabilitation of his reputation, of which Wolf Hall has been an important part, has included an acknowledgment of the great generosity he showed to many. Historical evidence, which is reflected in Mantel’s novel suggests that Cromwell daily fed over 200 poor people from his kitchens, and often showed great kindness to individuals in need, offering them accommodation or employment.



At the centre of Wolf Hall is the story of how Cromwell helped Henry VIII to justify breaking England away

Henry VIII (1491-1547)

from the Catholic Church in order to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn. And this schism between Catholicism and Protestantism was also one of the main factors in the birth of what we might call modern philanthropy. Whilst traditional Catholic doctrine had emphasised the importance of alms-giving as a way of securing the donor’s immortal soul, Protestant teaching demanded that people began to give with a worldly purpose in mind. As WK Jordan once again explains:


“Protestant charity, it was held, was characterized by modesty and by the effective concentration of resources on pressing areas of human need, as contrasted with the vainglory and the great but empty monuments of the Catholic past. Catholic charity was fabricated of stone, whereas the charity of men of true faith gives men bread…”



Wolf Hall does a great job of bringing to life the story of a period of our history that reshaped our country forever, through the eyes of the individuals involved. And although it may not be explicit in the book or the TV adaptation, one of the results of the monumental change effected by Henry VIII (with Cromwell’s help) was to lay the foundations for modern philanthropy and the eventual development of the rich and diverse charitable sector we have today. Perhaps it is worth taking a moment as we all watch Wolf Hall to reflect on the fact that more than 400 years later, the culture of philanthropy is still alive and well in our society, which is surely testament to its enduring appeal as an idea.



Rhodri Davies


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