Shown from left: Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII and Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall.” (Giles Keyte/Playground & Co. Pictures for Masterpiece/BBC)

When the BBC miniseries “Wolf Hall” debuts on Masterpiece tonight, the American public will once again be enthralled by a superb British costume drama. Think “Downton Abbey” and “House of Cards” with a King Henry VIII twist.

Based on award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, the series chronicles the political and religious intrigues surrounding King Henry VIII’s effort to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in “Wolf Hall.” (Giles Keyte/Playground & Co. Pictures for Masterpiece/BBC)

This is well-worn, if fertile, ground for historical drama. What makes “Wolf Hall” fresh and distinctive, however, is its choice of protagonist —Thomas Cromwell, who rises from humble origins to become Henry’s chief minister.

Before you watch the show, you need to know about three historical figures hotly debated among scholars, because all three were embroiled in one of the fiercest church/state battles of all time: Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More and Cromwell.

The pope’s refusal to grant Henry’s request for an annulment of his marriage puts him on a collision course with Rome. More, lord chancellor to the king and a devout Catholic, decides that he must resign when it becomes clear that Henry intends to pass a bill naming him as supreme head of the church in England, breaking his allegiance to the pope.

But because of More’s reputation as a brilliant writer and legal scholar, Henry won’t allow him to retire from the public stage; he insists that More sign a public oath stating that he agrees to Henry’s divorce from Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn. To force More to do this, he enlists the services of  Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell vs. Sir Thomas More

In Mantel’s version of the story, Cromwell — formerly thought of as a ruthless Machiavellian who would stop at nothing to give Henry precisely what he wanted — has been transformed into a hard-nosed but ultimately sensitive soul. Even while preoccupied with royal matters, he works quietly but persistently on behalf of the burgeoning Protestant Reformation.

Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, becomes in Mantel’s imagination a champion of the common man, a pragmatic businessman who eschews religious fundamentalism and fear-mongering.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall.” (Courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for Masterpiece/BBC)

But what makes for great drama may not make for good history. And, in fact, “Wolf Hall” has stirred considerable controversy among historians and critics, many of whom have wondered what responsibility novelists who write about the past have toward history.

Mantel has made no secret of her desire to overturn the traditional understanding of “the king’s great matter.” One of her stated goals in writing “Wolf Hall” was to take on Robert Bolt’s 1954 stage play, “A Man for All Seasons.”

The hero of Bolt’s play is More, and it concludes with his execution for treason when he refused to sign the oath Henry put before him.

Bolt’s More is a hero of conscience — very like the martyr whom the Catholic Church eventually canonized as a saint — a man who goes to the scaffold saying, in accordance with the historical accounts, that “I die his Majesty’s good servant but God’s first.” In Bolt’s play, the man who suborns perjury to obtain the verdict of treason against More is Cromwell.

Critics have pointed out that the author’s liberties with the historical record demonstrate a clear ideological bias. Mantel was raised Catholic but is now a vocal critic of that church, which she has said “is not an institution for respectable people.”

Historians debate over ‘Wolf Hall’

Questions about “Wolf Hall” have been raised not only by the Catholic faithful but also in the academy. Professor David Starkey, a historian and president of Britain’s National Secular Society, said there is “not a scrap of evidence” for the narrative and describes the plot as “total fiction.”

Simon Schama, the respected Jewish historian and veteran television presenter, writes in the Financial Times that while he believes that historical novelists should have some leeway for invention and imagination, Mantel has gone too far.

“It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks who got precious little thanks for doing Henry VIII’s dirty work,” Schama writes. “When I was doing research for ‘A History of Britain,’ the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.”

The question arises: Outside of ivory tower debates, what do these warring versions of the story mean to you and me?

Mantel’s version could obscure important lessons from that dark period that have continuing relevance for the present moment.

Where the author goes wrong

Mantel demonizes More, turning him into a pinched, pedantic prig, ready to torture heretics at the drop of a hat. She seems to imply that he represents little more than religious violence and fanaticism.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall.” (Giles Keyte/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)

But the truth is that More and his fellow Christian humanists such as Erasmus were not only harsh critics of the Catholic Church but also ardent reformers. They were proponents of an educational program that relied less on abstract theology and more on great literature that renders the ambiguities and conflicts between competing claims to truth in experiential terms. The humanists of that era, including More, saw Europe succumbing to increasing polarization and “culture wars” and held out a vision of dialogue and slow, steady change.

The Cromwell depicted in “Wolf Hall” is also a man seeking to avoid conflict, but he goes about it in an entirely different fashion. He supports the efforts of William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English (something More also wanted) but becomes frustrated when Tyndale, like More, opposes Henry’s divorce.

Mantel’s hero, in the end, turns out to be less interested in reforming religion and more interested in minimizing possible religious objections to personal self-interest.

Starkey criticizes Mantel for “compounding the erroneous approach of seeing history in the light of subsequent events by her eagerness to set More against her hero, Cromwell, to make the latter appear a ‘herald of the future.’ ”

Where Henry VIII fits into the story

Perhaps the real “herald of the future” in this slice of history is Henry VIII himself, the figure who tends to get lost in the More vs. Cromwell debate. Henry was the most truly modern man in that era: someone who was willing to abandon the claims of history and tradition in favor of immediate personal satisfaction.

Even in Mantel’s version, Cromwell’s primary mission is to sweep aside anything that comes in the way of Henry’s desires. It’s a doomed policy, as Cromwell’s own eventual execution attests. But whereas More went to his death with dignity, Cromwell begged his king for “mercy mercy mercy.”

In his piece on “Wolf Hall,” the British historian Eamon Duffy compares More and Bible-translating Tyndale, enemies of each other who were executed by Henry VIII.

“They died for opposing understandings of the Gospel,” he writes. “But both died as witnesses that truth mattered, that in a truly human society both law and liberty must be rooted in something deeper, more objective and more enduring than personal preference, political expediency or naked power. Neither would have looked to Cromwell for a soul-mate.”

Gregory Wolfe is the editor of Image, a journal of contemporary art and literature that engage with the faith traditions of the West. He serves as writer in residence and director of the low-residency MFA in creative writing program at Seattle Pacific University. Wolfe is the author of several books, most recently “Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age.”

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