Henry VIII’s master of bureaucracy and propaganda

A master statesman? Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein

Thomas Cromwell: A Life
by Diarmaid MacCulloch,
Allen Lane, 730pp, £30

This new biography is so prodigiously thorough and clever that it is difficult to imagine there will ever be more than titbits added to this portrait of the man who did much to change the life and face of Britain.

Of course, decades ago Cambridge historian Geoffrey Elton showed how Thomas Cromwell transformed England’s government and masterminded Henry VIII’s religious revolution. Not a few scholars have since landed serious blows on “Eltonism”, as McCulloch carefully shows – and he adds an astute blow of his own by suggesting that the final establishment of the Privy Council in 1536, for Elton a crucial step in taking government out of the royal household, was not Cromwell’s masterstroke but a device of his opponents to “contain” an increasingly over-mighty minister.

Dom David Knowles’s magisterial account of the dissolution of the monasteries undergoes a similar reshaping. There is now much more muddle in the story of how hundreds of abbeys, priories, friaries and nunneries disappeared off the face of the land. Thus, until the very last minute, it was expected that many of the larger houses would survive as communities of secular priests dedicated to praying for the dead and doing some teaching (like Oxbridge colleges).

Cromwell’s political apogee came in 1536, when he got the Privy Seal, a peerage and a Garter. Indeed, there were even better things in the offing – in early 1537 his son married the sister of Henry’s third queen, the amiable but short-lived Jane Seymour. So Cromwell became a member of the extended royal family (briefly).

Moreover, it seems that the widower of six years was “sweet” on Henry’s only legitimate daughter (and heiress) Mary, and that she would not have said no – in which case, Cromwell would have become the king’s son-in-law.

No wonder that the old guard, led by the redoubtable Duke of Norfolk, thought that the base-born lad from Putney had become far too big for his boots and should be “rubbed out”. They got him eventually with the help of the monster-king whom he had served ruthlessly.

Cromwell loved his wife, who died in 1530, and his sons. But he persecuted Anabaptists (religious radicals who were feared as today’s jihadists are). He also employed torture regularly. His 1534 Treason Act was an instrument of tyranny. With the vengeful king’s connivance, he had those two great Englishmen, John Fisher and Thomas More, judicially murdered.

Cromwell apparently loathed Anne Boleyn (and she him) and helped to get her to the scaffold. He tricked the peaceful, loyal protesters of the Pilgrimage of Grace into surrender and betrayed them. He lapped up bribes and amassed a huge
portfolio of properties, including a splendid residence in Mortlake (filched from the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, by the Supreme Head of the Church). He presided over mass destruction of (often magnificent) buildings built over centuries by monks and nuns, rich libraries, and famed shrines. He brought trumped-up treason charges against abbots such as Richard Whiting of Glastonbury, who refused to surrender their houses, and had them brutally executed.

Was Cromwell a great statesman? No, he was instead the ultimate bureaucrat: one who had his fingers in every pie, “memoed” everything, required parishes to record all births, baptisms and deaths, more or less gave Wales its English-type shires and tried (but predictably failed) to do the same to rebellious Ireland.

Moreover, he was a master of propaganda: the first to harness the printing press and even the primitive theatre to serve his political ends.

MacCulloch insists that Cromwell was a serious “evangelical”– without ever defining that term clearly. Yes, he patronised some of England’s earliest Protestants and entertained Luther’s lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon. He organised Henry’s fourth – and disastrous – marriage to the “evangelical” Anne of Cleves. He increasingly befriended Protestants of Strasbourg and Zurich. And yes, he sponsored publication of the first complete English Bible – for Protestants, a major triumph (though, ironically, something for which Thomas More had yearned).

Yet it is still difficult to believe that he was a deeply religious person. Was he not a “political” Protestant: God’s good servant, but the king’s first?

McCulloch is himself stoutly Protestant. And this shows. He does not understand the Mass. Though prodigal of capital letters, he denies one to Mass and to Purgatory. But these are small, if silly, blemishes. This book is beautifully written and full of wit and delicious asides. It is none the less not an easy read, because it is so rich. Like Christmas cake, it should be taken in dollops with an occasional light beverage.