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Thomas Cromwell: Brewer’s Boy Made Good

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Derek Wilson welcomes the emergence from the shadows of Thomas Cromwell, thanks to Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning historical novels.

Thomas Cromwell, after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1540‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’ The accolades – and two Man Booker prizes – won by Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the published parts of her fictional trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, draw attention to one of the more remarkable rehabilitations in modern historiography. It is half a century since some of us were privileged to sit at the feet of Geoffrey Elton as he lectured on the ‘Tudor Revolution in Government’. Hitherto Thomas Cromwell had been, for many, a rather shadowy, sinister figure and certainly a minister who bore no comparison with the more flamboyant Thomas Wolsey or the saintly Thomas More. Now he is acclaimed as the architect of the English Reformation and the brief era of his ascendancy (1532-40) is portrayed as one of the most formative in the nation’s history.

The last 50 years have seen great shifts in the reputation of this man about whom, despite his importance, we still know remarkably little. Indeed it is the enigma behind the public figure which provides such rich pickings for novelists. Elton’s presentation of Cromwell as an administrative genius who single-handedly transformed a ‘medieval’ system of household government into a ‘modern’ bureaucracy was vigorously (in some cases bitterly) challenged by his peers. This somewhat esoteric debate over the nature of institutional change was significant in that it served to highlight the importance of the 1530s. England on the day after Cromwell’s execution, we now realise, was a vastly different place from the England that had awoken to the news of Cardinal Wolsey’s death.

But who was responsible for this transformation? That was the next question exercising the minds of rival theorists. Were the royal supremacy, the extinguishing of monasticism, the stripping of the altars, the growing involvement of Parliament, the disposing of ecclesiastical lands to a rising ‘middle class’, the promulgation of vernacular Bibles, et al, all innovations springing from the creative mind of the Putney brewer’s son, or was the minister, at all times, carrying out the policies of his royal master? Can we even think in terms of ‘policy’. Once Henry had set in train his plans to divest himself of his first wife did all the other changes follow inevitably, like a line of collapsing dominoes?

No one was, rightly, prepared to accept the concept of the English Reformation as a haphazard series of events over which no one had effective control. Therefore there must have been a mind behind it. Either Henry VIII was working to a caesaropapistical schema or Cromwell had a vision for a new England which he tried, with considerable success, to manoeuvre his master into endorsing. But ‘vision’ implies religious conviction and there was always a school of thought that clung to the pre-Elton assertion that Cromwell was a ‘Machiavellian’, by which was meant that his actions were governed by realpolitik, with no regard for morality or human sentiment. Thus, for example, he only brought down the abbeys to enrich the king and he cunningly allied himself with the New Learning in order to give his policies an aura of intellectual respectability. Any attempt to defend Cromwell’s reputation was always hampered by the fact that he never declared a clear personal statement of his own convictions. Even so, there remain few historians who would now sign up to the Bismarckian stereotype. If Cromwell did not write his own apologia pro vita sua, there were friends and other contemporary chroniclers whose letters and books provide details of conversations and actions that reveal attractive facets of his character. Moreover Cromwell lived in an age when people did hold religious beliefs – often passionately. Were it otherwise there could have been no Reformation.

So we seem to be heading towards an understanding of Thomas Cromwell whom we can view as a rounded character, like his later and greater namesake, ‘warts and all’. It is for that reason that Mantel can achieve acclaim for a sympathetic portrayal of a subject few people would have wanted to read about only a few years ago. There can be few better testimonies to the value of well-written historical fiction.

Derek Wilson is the author of The English Reformation: Religion, Politics and Fear (Robinson, 2012)


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