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.
One legacy of Wolsey’s relationship with Cromwell remains. The bronze angels that were intended to top the magnificent tomb he planned for himself are a survival of the most important project that Cromwell undertook for Wolsey; it would have been one of the great works of the Renaissance in England. Rather tellingly, the angels ended up decorating the pillars of Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, lost their wings in the 1970s, and only recently were acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
There’s one interesting legacy of Thomas Cromwell that is still very much with us. The reordering of the Ten Commandments in The Bishops’ Book of 1537 was undertaken under his protection. It was, says Prof MacCulloch, “the high watermark of evangelical doctrinal change in Henry VIII’s church”.
You know the way Protestants order them, with the prohibition against graven images the Second Commandment, separate from the First Commandment, “I am the Lord they God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me”? Well, that was a calculated choice, as opposed to the Catholic ordering of them, which separates out coveting your neighbours oxen from your neighbour’s wife as the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, and the effects of that were to be all too evident in the iconoclastic project which saw the destruction of most medieval devotional art in England. So, the wall paintings of the saints were replaced by the Decalogue, with the commandments against graven images in second place.
Cromwell changed England. And the effects are still with us.
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