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Thomas Cromwell: A life, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

28 September 2018

Alec Ryrie praises the unravelling of Thomas Cromwell’s skeins

DIARMAID MACCULLOCH’s definitive biography of Thomas Cromwell, the Putney boy who became Henry VIII’s chief minister and led England into its distinctive Reformation, inevitably invites comparison with Hilary Mantel’s recreations of Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

For all the differences between literary imagination and historical rigour, they have this much in common: like Mantel, MacCulloch’s purpose is not to vindicate Cromwell, but to inhabit him. There is no effort to play down his ruthlessness. But he admits that “after a day spent with Cromwell’s papers, I have often felt alarmingly like Master Secretary.” For “a day”, in MacCulloch’s case, read “more than four decades”. The result is an utterly compelling portrait of the world as seen through Cromwell’s eyes.

By the disarming technique of simply reading all the sources in chronological order, and listening attentively both to what contemporary chroniclers said and to what they did not say, MacCulloch is able to dismantle some hoary myths about Cromwell and replace them with facts that have been hiding in plain sight — most importantly, that Cromwell’s first master was Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey hired him chiefly for his knowledge of Italian and of Italians, but quickly found that he was both indispensably good at getting things done, and also that he was genuinely loyal. That enduring loyalty is, as Mantel intuited, a key to Cromwell’s entire career.

But his years in Wolsey’s service had practical consequences too. A great many of Cromwell’s supposed innovations in government are traceable back to Wolsey, whose role as papal legate functioned very like Henry VIII’s later Royal Supremacy over the Church.

Wolsey’s readiness to seize monasteries’ property to fund his projects was a sometimes startlingly precise anticipation of Cromwell’s later dissolutions; moreover, in the course of managing those early seizures, Cromwell made it his business to get to know England’s ecclesiastical landscape intimately.

Private Collection Christie’s/ Bridgeman ImagesA portrait, less known than Holbein’s of 1532, of Cromwell at the end of his career, with his coat of arms as augmented in 1537: one of the book’s 45 plates

The Wolsey connection irons out a great many puzzles about Cromwell. He and Anne Boleyn shared some religious views, but they were never allies. She hated and he loved Wolsey; they never trusted one another; she blocked him from receiving so much as a knighthood as long as she lived, even though he was in practice Henry’s chief minister; when he helped the king bring her down in 1536, he was dispatching a dangerous and capricious enemy, not betraying a friend.

In contrast, Cromwell was genuinely warm towards Princess Mary, not knowing that in twenty years she would be burning people like him. One of his more endearing features is his accumulation of “waifs and strays”, a ragtag collection of friendless individuals for whom he felt some duty of care and whom he protected as best he could without any obvious benefit to himself.

He lavished far more attention on his only surviving child, Gregory: previous biographies have unaccountably overlooked this overriding priority for Cromwell, partly owing to some unfortunately misdated documents. Gregory’s education, career, and marriage were rarely off his father’s mind for long. In 1538, when newly married and set up in high style in Sussex society, young Gregory did, and refused to apologise for, something so scandalous that the bishop did not even dare write it down. His indulgent father simply moved the entire household to Kent and set him up again.

So, Cromwell was a proto-Protestant and a visionary Reformer, but he was also a politician; a man who cared about honour and reputation, as well as about laws and doctrines; a man with friends and relatives and obligations and ambitions; and a father and grandfather who hoped to leave a dynasty behind him. He was, in other words, a 16th-century Englishman.

But still, he was rather an extraordinary one. According to the RSV, God sends his people “administrators” as well as prophets, miracle-workers, and healers, and Cromwell’s administrative omnicompetence does indeed seem almost supernatural. This book’s rigour and delight is its reconstruction of Cromwell’s improvised games of multidimensional political chess, played by a man who knew everyone, had been everywhere, remembered everything, understood which parts of the overgrown English State worked and which didn’t, and could balance personal grudges, Evangelical zeal, and a persistent interest in making sure that landowners did not block watercourses with unauthorised fishing weirs.

Narrating that kind of chess-game is a challenge in itself. MacCulloch does not dumb it down. “The connections ramify,” he says, and they certainly do: the word “skein” occurs several times as we trace Cromwell’s relationships. This is rigorous stuff, leavened alternately by compassion and a waspish humour. There is no dramatis personae at the start, for the simple reason that the cast of characters would be far too large: you will want to use the index as you read.

Still, one character looms over all: the charismatic, monstrous man-child Henry VIII, who destroyed Wolsey but liked Cromwell for being loyal to the fallen cardinal, whose murderous caprice Cromwell some times soothed or directed but never controlled, and who inevitably, at the end, destroyed the man he had raised up.

The immediate cause of Cromwell’s death, MacCulloch makes plain, is that he manoeuvred Henry into a marriage (to Anne of Cleves) that the King found himself unable to consummate. The situation was so intolerably embarrassing that someone had to die. But, in truth, Cromwell’s luck had simply run out. He had survived several narrow brushes with the King’s switchback rages before.

Since 1529, he had known that politics at Henry VIII’s court was a game of double or quits, “make or mar”. A widower from Putney with nothing to lose but his head, he played anyway. Like him or loathe him, few kings have deserved a minister like him; and few ministers have deserved a king like Henry VIII.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.

Thomas Cromwell: A life
Diarmaid MacCulloch
Allen Lane £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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