A man for all seasons
Sunday 04 August 2013
Thomas Cromwell may be a maligned figure of English history during the reign of Henry VIII but he’s given an engaging contemporary reappraisal in Hilary Mantel‘s novels
Until the success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies and The Mirror And The Light – few would have had an inkling of the key role he played in English history during the reign of Henry VIII.
Cromwell‘s relative eclipse is undoubtedly also associated with the very class-based historical research approach of previous historians who were unsympathetic to the idea of “ordinary men” making history.
He is often described as the most hated man in England. Yet a more contemporary evaluation, written by Thomas Fuller in his Church History Of England in 1655, said: “This was the cause why he was envied of the nobility, being by birth so much beneath them and by preferment so high above most of them.”
Cromwell was a poor boy, son of a Putney brewer and blacksmith, who rose to become one of the most powerful men in England mixing as an equal with the aristocracy. He was hated by many aristocrats as an upstart of low-breeding, but they also recognised the danger he posed as an outsider with no tribal interests to defend.
He was undoubtedly Henry VIII’s most loyal public servant and rose to become his chief minister from 1532 to 1540 before a conspiracy of his enemies persuaded a volatile and increasingly fractious Henry to arrest and execute him.
How did this man of such humble birth become, for a short time, the most powerful man in England?
Unfortunately we know little about his early life. Mantel imagines a miserable childhood with a violent, drunken father. It’s reasonably certain that he ran away as a youth and spent a number of years on the continent, where he learned several languages, diplomatic and financial skills and forged valuable contacts.
He learned about politics, economics and met some of the leaders of the Luther-inspired Protestant revolution then sweeping Europe. His life-shaping experiences in France, Italy and the Netherlands undoubtedly gave him the necessary credentials for his later career. Importantly he had clearly been impressed by the Protestant reformation.
In 1527, back in England, and a little over 40 years old, he was already a trusted agent of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey.
Mantel portrays Cromwell as possessing an all-round competence, at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.
One of the leading forces promoting the English Reformation, Cromwell also laid the basis for the modern state. He was not only a strong advocate of the English Reformation, he was in a position to do something about it.
He helped engineer the annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon – so that Henry could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn – and this gave him the key to push reform further.
He realised before many others that without a break from Rome and curtailment of the powerful and wealthy monasteries, England would never be a truly powerful and sovereign nation. Supremacy over the Church of England was officially declared by Parliament in 1534. Cromwell had developed a healthy disgust of the waste and superstition of the Catholic church, and he took a very materialist view of relics and indulgences.
He should be remembered primarily as a remorseless reformer and legislator, unblinkingly opposed to an old religion that “keeps simple people in dread” and that was, moreover, sitting on a fortune that could be put to better use.
In a key remark he made to Sir Thomas More, he declared: “Among the ignorant it is said that the king is destroying the church. In fact he is renewing it. It will be a better country, believe me, once it is purged of liars and hypocrites.” For the first time in history, Englishmen were able to read the Bible and prayer book in their own vernacular.
Mantel’s relatively sympathetic interpretation in her novel owes much to the German-born Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton who portrayed Cromwell as the prime mover behind the Tudor revolution in government – the first glimmerings of the modern English state. In Mantel’s hands, this picture of Cromwell as a reforming legislator acquires new life, as he meditates on how the state can offer work to the unemployed. “We could pay them,” he calculated, “if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would have all the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat.”
It’s hardly surprising that the England of Mantel’s Cromwell, a nation in flux and turmoil, should resonate with our own. It is a world seemingly suspended between an old order past its sell-by-date and a new order waiting to be born.
Cromwell was the man for those times. Given the era he lived in, he could see that the only way to achieve the necessary reforms was by empowering the monarch and winning his support.
He was a fervent believer in a well-run state and set about constructing one on his sovereign’s behalf and with the common wealth in mind. To accuse him retrospectively of brutality and scheming is to use a contemporary yardstick rather than the bloody and opportunistic measures of Tudor times.
A reformer, not a zealot, Cromwell was exasperated by old practices – unsavoury hairshirts, indulgences for relief from purgatory – but he was also, at times, exasperated by the obstinacy of Tyndale, the translator of the Bible into English, on whose behalf he tried to broker a deal with Henry VIII.
Throughout 1538, Cromwell pursued an extensive campaign against idolatry by the followers of the new religion. Statues, roods and images were attacked, culminating in the dismantling of the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
He also declared open war on “pilgrimages, feigned relics, or images, or any such superstitions” and commanded that “one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English be set up in every church.”
Following the surrender of the remaining smaller monasteries during the previous year, the larger monasteries were now also “invited” to surrender throughout 1538.
As the reforms progressed, and despite the riches pouring into Henry’s coffers, the king grew increasingly worried about the extent of change and, with the conservative faction at court gaining strength, he began resisting further Reformation measures.
The king’s anger at being forced to marry Anne of Cleves was the opportunity Cromwell’s conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, needed to topple him. Cromwell had thought this marriage to a German would help cement Protestant reforms.
Despite his widespread reputation as a cold-bloodied opportunist, he showed considerable generosity towards friends fallen on hard times and to the poor. He carried out a ritual distribution of food and drink to 200 poor Londoners twice daily at the gates of his residence. In his will he left money to “penniless maidens” on their marriages, money to be distributed to the poor and to prisoners of several prisons within the area where he had lived for much of his life. His accounts are littered with diverse donations to the poor and needy.
He was a close friend and supporter of Thomas Cranmer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury and was a reformer like Cromwell himself. He published the first service in the vernacular and actively promulgated the new (Protestant) doctrines through the Book of Common Prayer and other publications.
Cromwell’s life and legacy have aroused enormous controversy. But his effectiveness and creativity as royal minister cannot be denied. During his years in power, he skilfully managed crown finances and extended royal authority.
In 1536, he established the Court of Augmentation to handle the massive windfall to the royal coffers occasioned by the dissolution of the monasteries. He also introduced important social and economic reforms in England, including action against enclosures, the promotion of English cloth exports, and poor relief legislation in 1536.
By masterminding these reforms, Cromwell was said to have laid the foundations of England’s future stability and success.