Hilary Mantel is not the first person to acclaim Thomas Cromwell as a hero; he was certainly regarded as such by Professor Geoffrey Elton, the Tudor historian, who saw Cromwell, rightly perhaps, as a capable royal servant who, more than anyone else before or since, increased the power and prestige of the monarchy. Thanks to Cromwell, Henry VIII probably was more powerful than any of his predecessors, though this was not a position he preserved, throwing away as he did huge amounts of money on his French wars in the last years of his reign.
What does this attitude to Cromwell tell us about Miss Mantel and his other contemporary admirers? Rather than try and determine the rights and wrongs of the controversies of five centuries ago, what can we deduce about our own century?
First of all, we know that Cromwell, though he claimed to die a Catholic, was a hardline Protestant, and anti-clerical. Miss Mantel has told us that she does not care for the Catholic religion, into which she, like Cromwell, was born. While I very much doubt that contemporary Cromwell fever has anything to do with a renewed appreciation of the theology of Luther, it is possible that people are drawn to Cromwell today because he gave the Church, and its monks, a hiding. To admire Cromwell now is a respectable way of covering up good old-fashioned anti-Catholic feeling.
All of this is part of the myth that Britain became great once it had ditched the Catholic religion and dominance by the clergy. Thus Cromwell can be seen as an architect of national greatness, a greatness that contrasts with the obscurantism and economic backwardness of priest-ridden Catholic Spain.
Secondly, Cromwell was undoubtedly an efficient man. He oversaw the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn and her friends, which, in that it overturned any need for a respectable burden of proof in treason trials, effectively smoothed the way for his own execution four years later. Nowadays we are understandably infuriated by the way that those who do not believe in the law nevertheless use the law, especially human rights legislation, to thwart natural justice. (Abu Hamza was a pretty good example of this.) Oh for a new Cromwell, a man of ruthless efficiency, who would get things done and sort things out. It is a tempting idea, but not a democratic one.
Thirdly, Cromwell was a man who rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in the kingdom after the King himself. We do not really like charismatic leaders – Tony Blair, Mrs Thatcher – but we have a sneaking love for power for its own sake. Cromwell is separated from us by half a millennium, which is a safe distance. He is not going to hurt us now, and we are safe from his capricious cruelty: so we can admire his exercise of power and feel mildly envious of it at this distance in time.
Stalin is back in fashion in Russia just at a time when most people who lived under him have died. It’s taken longer to rehabilitate the most unattractive of Tudor tyrants, Henry VIII, and his henchman, Cromwell, but it has happened. That we have done so reveals a not very admirable side of our national character.
I have read Miss Mantel’s novels, but I will be giving the television adaptation, which starts this week, a miss.