Paul Jesson as Wolsey and Ben Miles as Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Wolf Hall (Photo by Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Thomas Cromwell’s reputation

MacCulloch and Mantel have revealed a better side to the controversial Tudor statesman

The panoply of British history doesn’t include too many monsters. The nation was founded more on meetings than massacres, and other than the usual round of chronic blood-letting in the Middle Ages, and a civil war in the seventeenth-century, the English have left it to the French, the Russians, and the Germans to provide the mass murderers and the genuine villains. But if anyone was generally regarded as being unscrupulous, with a touch of the devil always around his character, it was Thomas Cromwell, the main fixer for Henry VIII in the 1530s, and according to the Oscar-winning movie A Man for all Seasons, the dark politician who had hagiographical Thomas More executed. For decades both on British television and in Hollywood epics it was this self-made man who was willing to smash the monasteries, torture innocent witnesses into giving false evidence, and assemble lies to have that nice Anne Boleyn beheaded.

This was the dictatorship of reputation. Historians provided the framework, and popular entertainment dressed it all up in countless Tudor biopics. But then it all began to change.

The first person to seriously challenge the caricature was himself a victim of lies and hatred. The revered Cambridge historian GR Elton was born Gottfried Rudolf Otto Ehrenberg, son of a German Jewish family of noted scholars, who fled to Britain shortly before the Holocaust. He’s also, by the way, the uncle of the comedian and writer Ben Elton. GR, Geoffrey Rudolph, was one of the dominant post-war historians, and insisted that modern Britain, with its secular democracy and parliamentary system, was very much the child of Thomas Cromwell the gifted administrator and political visionary.

So we had the Cromwell wars. On the one side were the traditionalist, often Roman Catholic, writers who insisted that Cromwell was a corrupt brute and a cruel tyrant; and the rival school that regarded him as the first modern leader of the country, setting it on a road that would distinguish it from the ancient regimes of the European continent. But there was more. While previous political leaders – the term “Prime Minister” didn’t develop until the early eighteenth-century – had sometimes been of relatively humble origins, and Cromwell’s mentor and predecessor Thomas Wolsey was the son of a butcher, they were invariably clerics. Cromwell wasn’t only from rough Putney on the edge of London, and the son of a blacksmith, but he was a layman, and someone who had lived abroad, even fought for foreign armies.

Here was have the embodiment of the great change: the autodidact who was multi-lingual, well travelled, reformed in his religion and politics, and prepared to rip the country out of its medieval roots. Yet no matter how many historians might believe and write this, the culture is notoriously difficult to change, and understandably indifferent to academics. Not, however, to novelists. And in 2009 the award-winning author Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Cromwell’s life from 1500 to 1535. Three years later came the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. Both books won the Man Booker Prize, an extraordinary achievement for two separate works. The trilogy was completed recently with The Mirror and the Light. The first two volumes were turned into an enormously successful stage play and a six-part television show. Forget noble academics working away in relative obscurity, this was sophisticated work watched and read by tens of millions of people. Cromwell was back.

“It is as a murderer that Cromwell has come down to posterity: who turned monks out on to the roads, infiltrated spies into every corner of the land, and unleashed terror in the service of the state”, wrote Mantel in the Daily Telegraph back in 2012. “If these attributions contain a grain of truth, they also embody a set of lazy assumptions, bundles of prejudice passed from one generation to the next. Novelists and dramatists, who on the whole would rather sensationalise than investigate, have seized on these assumptions to create a reach-me-down villain.”

But as she researched and wondered, Mantel was pulled in other directions. “The picture changed. My character scraped himself up from the ground and staggered into his future. From behind those small eyes, the sharp eyes of a good bowman, the Tudor world looked complex and unfamiliar. The angles were different. Light and shadow fell in unexpected places.”

Cromwell was quintessentially practical, willing to trim his views when needed

Then, in 2018, and with exquisite timing came what is almost certainly the definitive biography of Cromwell, by one of the most respected historians in the English-speaking world. Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, the author of a number of seminal books and host of several television series about history and Christianity, gave us Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life. It was the book waiting to be written, and in 700 pages MacCulloch put flesh on the body that the novelist Mantel had resurrected. Five years ago in the BBC History Magazine he wrote that, “We need to put Cromwell back in the centre of Tudor England’s picture”, and described him as “a cool, self-contained idealist who wanted to shape the kingdom of England in the name of a new religion – the re-maker of this realm.”

When I spoke to MacCulloch in Oxford last summer, he said the challenge was that so much of Cromwell’s personal correspondence was destroyed when he was arrested in 1540 – he would be beheaded shortly afterwards by a Henry VIII who was infamously fickle but would soon come to regret the loss of his great minister. The enormous archive contains countless letters written to him but hardly any written by him, “the out-tray, the sent e-mails as it were” says MacCulloch. He’s sure that this was the work of Cromwell’s people, anxious to destroy any potentially harmful evidence. It didn’t do any good.

But in spite of that, the book roars Cromwell’s personality, without ever excusing him from some genuine crimes – there were certainly unjust arrests and executions. It was, of course, a harsher age, with harsher expectations. It was also in many ways a more intellectually engaged age, especially when it came to politicians.

Cromwell was quintessentially practical, willing to trim his views when needed, and operated in an era that lacked formal political parties – although it was nevertheless profoundly and often bloodily divided between conservative and reforming. But he was always connected to the intellectual and scholarly class, familiar with the latest works and ideas, and a reader of the humanism that so dominated thinking in the sixteenth-century. He had a hunger for knowledge, as an end in itself. Compare that to modern politics, where even beyond the obvious, screaming barbarism of a Donald Trump, those politicians we consider to be intellectually curious seldom pass the litmus test.

Another aspect of the era is that whatever we may think of the violence of the Tudor age, its monarchs and politicians always placed religion at the centre of whatever cause they pursued. This didn’t guarantee compassion – sometimes the direct contrary – but it did mean that there was something more substantial going on than the banality of pure ambition. Alastair Campbell famously told an American journalist interviewing Tony Blair, “We don’t do God.” Cromwell did do God, as did Thomas More, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and everybody else at the time. That can be a good thing – Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or William Wilberforce – or a very bad one – Iran’s theocracy and the Spanish Inquisition.

With Thomas Cromwell, it was a mingling. It led him to introduce poor laws where people were treated with dignity, to oppose medieval superstition that led to ignorance and intolerance, and to embrace the new, post-Catholic understanding of scripture that encouraged discussion and learning. On the other hand, it justified callousness and oppression. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, wrote of MacCulloch’s book: “Cromwell was not a monster by any means: he was not a sadist or a coward (not a Beria to King Henry’s Stalin, as some have made him), he was remarkably loyal (to his old master Wolsey and to a number of lesser figures), and he was capable of real friendships.” Within fifteen years of his death the English would be burning each other at the stake for heresy. They “did God” in the worst way possible.

The pendulum has already begun to swing back against Thomas Cromwell and it’s beginning to become fashionable to criticise Hilary Mantel as well. No matter, the words and the works are now able to speak for themselves.

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