Commonly, a book or a play about a historical character follows on from what historians have had to say about him. Think of the musical Hamilton, based on Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father.
In the case of Thomas Cromwell, the chief author of the English Reformation under Henry VIII, the reverse is true. There has been no really good biography of him, though there have been many studies of his policies, because, following his fall, so much of his private correspondence from his side was destroyed by his own people.
And unlike Thomas More, his greater contemporary, he left no writings of his own. Cromwell the man remains curiously opaque, though we can deduce a good deal from his effects and from those telling portraits of him by Holbein. So, when Hilary Mantel wrote her extraordinary novels, beginning with Wolf Hall, with Cromwell as their unlikely hero, followed by their dramatised versions, she was writing in the absence of a really good account of her subject. She managed, triumphantly, though the trouble is that so many people have taken her imaginative, partisan take on history as fact.
Now, finally, matters have been remedied, with a biography of Cromwell by the distinguished historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch. Hilary Mantel is quoted on the cover of Thomas Cromwell (Allen Lane) saying that “this is the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”. You can’t do much better than that by way of a blurb. I may say at the outset that I know Professor MacCulloch and like him very much. And, indeed, the scholarship is so careful, so meticulous and so clever that this book is unlikely to be displaced as the magisterial account of Cromwell in our lifetimes. However we may detest Cromwell for his ruthlessness, avarice and his sheer efficiency in bringing about the Reformation project – and I loathe him – we can only be grateful that the man himself is revealed more clearly than ever.
This is not, I think, a book for the general reader; we may need to wait for an easy version of this biography. What’s interesting is that some of Hilary Mantel’s insights are borne out by the facts, notably that one of the primary motivations for Cromwell’s actions, paradoxically, was his loyalty to Thomas Wolsey. Indeed, as in Wolf Hall, Cardinal Wolsey emerges as one of the most attractive characters on the Tudor stage. He was an orthodox Catholic, of course, but he was a man of his age, a humanist in the era of Erasmus. There were no burnings in his time in charge and no political executions. He was, like so many humanists, a man for whom education mattered hugely.
What’s interesting is that the first dissolutions of the monasteries and religious houses that Cromwell presided over were of very small houses, with the proceeds going to his pet projects, his school in Ipswich and his college in Oxford, formerly Cardinal College, now Christ Church. The tragedy of the era was what might have been, that the humanist project might have taken the place of the Reformation revolution, with the reform of the Church and the education of the laity happening in a Wolseyan, eirenic fashion, rather than through the violent rejection of the old order and of popular religion. In short, had it not been for Anne Boleyn, and the King’s Great Matter, there could have been a Catholic reformation in England.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection