It is telling that most of these reviews begin, "I know nothing about this period of history, or Thomas Cromwell, but . . ." That, however, is the whole point of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies: as works of fiction they take complex and uncomfortable historical fact and make it subjective, fluid, accessible. Cromwell is given the same treatment: he is now a cuddly, devoted family man, self-made and generous with it. He works to make Parliament "see how it is the State's job to create work" and "that rich men might have some duty to the poor". He proposes income tax and believes that criminality is caused by poverty and unemployment. To say you don't like him is tantamount to opposing the welfare state. He holds up a mirror to a reader who wants to be identified with him as an urbane, liberal, egalitarian, fair-minded, tolerant citizen of the world.
"History is a mirror that flatters Thomas More," he says towards the end of Wolf Hall, "but I have another mirror." Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are mirrors that flatter Thomas Cromwell, but in looking into them we see something of ourselves and our current concerns reflected back. Mantel's Cromwell speaks to an intellectual climate immersed in moral relativism, in which potentially divisive truth claims and received doctrines are abandoned in favour of a doctrine of diversity and tolerance. Thomas More's refusal to sign the Oath of Succession presented a potentially divisive truth claim, hence the force brought by the state (represented by Thomas Cromwell) against him.
In Wolf Hall we are told that Cromwell never sees More without wanting to ask him:
Why does everything you know, and everything you've learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.
"Confirm you in what you believed before" suggests a closed-mindedness and unwillingness to learn from other cultures, which is naturally going to have readers who do not care to find out about Thomas More (and his reasons for not signing the Oath) thinking in ways that are unfair to the model of humanist scholarship embodied by More and Erasmus.