‘Make something of me’: creating Thomas Cromwell

by
02 August 2019

At an event at Launde Abbey, Hilary Mantel and Diarmaid MacCulloch reflected on the Putney boy who became Henry VIII’s chief minister. This is an edited record of their talks and conversation. Transcript by Serena Long

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Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1532)

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1532)

THE novelist Dame Hilary Mantel and the historian the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch came together at Launde Abbey last month to discuss the life of Thomas Cromwell, and his place in Reformation England.

The event was held to mark the 900th anniversary of Launde Abbey, which Cromwell was fond of visiting.

Dame Hilary’s novels about Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate), have each been awarded the Booker Prize. The final book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is due to be published in March 2020. Professor MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell: A life was published last year by Allen Lane, to critical acclaim (Books, 28 September 2018).

HILARY MANTEL: There has always been a mismatch between what Thomas Cromwell has meant to historians and what he has meant to the general public — and that’s the case whether they’re novel-readers or theatregoers or filmgoers. For some academics in the past, Cromwell has been nothing but a cynical hatchet-man: clever but destructive. There is a far more interesting, vital, creative figure that the great Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton uncovered — or, some people say, created. . .

There are several problems with a biographer, which the novelist also shares. Cromwell’s early life is mostly off the record, and it exists as a set of interesting traditions and almost folk tales rather than a set of verifiable facts. And, in the second phase of his life, when he’s working for Cardinal Wolsey, he begins to come on the record; and then, in the third phase, as secretary to the King, and in effect Henry VIII’s first minister for almost a decade, he doesn’t just come on to the record, he is the record: his work is everywhere; his eye, his hand are everywhere.

Paradoxically, that makes it difficult, because it’s too big to pin down. He ranges across every department of government. Accordingly, biographers have tended to think of him in compartments; so, there’s Cromwell and the Church, Cromwell and finance, and Cromwell and Parliament. And you readily see what happens. You can’t section a human being like that. So, a sense of a man being in there vanishes.

Hilary Mantel, at Launde Abbey

Now, to create a human being, you have to be on top of a huge amount of detail — I should say, to recreate a human being. You need a grasp of the detail, but you have to be able to see the wood for the trees. And this has alluded a lot of biographers, but not this one [Diarmaid MacCulloch]. In some respects, my task as a novelist has been easier because, where the facts run out, I could build something in the gap, and I could create for him an inner life, a memory, a conscience, a set of hopes and fears. He wasn’t self-revelatory: he didn’t leave us writings that illuminate the state of his soul. In his letters, he stuck to business; just occasionally, passion breaks through, and those moments are really worth waiting for.

And then you think of Holbein’s portrait. . . That massive hulking presence in the dark wool and furs. It’s closed, it seems to repel the light, it’s as if he were bodily present but mentally somewhere else. So, where was he? And where was he when he was being painted? Where did his thoughts wander?

And it was the deficiencies of that portrait, so dead if you compare it, say, to Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More: so swift, so fierce, so intellectual, so alive that he almost comes out of the canvas. And there Cromwell sits and defies you: “Make something of me.” But it was the deficiency of the portrait that pushed me on. I thought, “I’ll try and find him.”

My three books, written over 12, 13 years now, take him from his days of obscurity to his end on Tower Hill, in 1540. For me, though, he’s still a work in progress. And, at the moment, because I only finished my [latest] book [The Mirror and the Light] about a month ago, swirling around in my head are all the books I could have written. . . When the book is out, I hope you will think I have done justice to this remarkable life.

DIARMAID MACCULLOCH: If you try and research Thomas Cromwell, you have an archive of thousands of items. It took me five years to go through the manuscripts. They are difficult because of the volume, but also because of the oddity of the archive. It’s what in these days of email we’d call the inbox: it’s all the things sent to him, and the sent mail, his letters, are virtually missing. Thousands on thousands of items; only about 300 letters of Thomas Cromwell himself.

So, the voice is difficult to get. And the fascination of the project was to see how I could recall the man from this archive without the genius of a novelist, without the freedom that a novelist has to fill in the gaps. . .

I found one thing which Hilary also found illuminating in a curious way: that portrait, the Holbein portrait. It’s in a room in the Frick Gallery, in New York, with another Holbein, either side of a fireplace, and the other Holbein is Sir Thomas More. There is Sir Thomas More, looking noble and thoughtful, and a bit like the martyr he would become. And there is Thomas Cromwell, looking like a puffy bureaucrat, within a minute of losing his temper. . .

The Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch at Launde Abbey

There’s one rather interesting thing about these pictures: the More, we now know through minute analysis of it, was much altered while it was being painted. . . whereas the Cromwell portrait was not altered while it was being painted. . . I thought, how interesting: Thomas is a man easy in his skin. . . This is a man who is perfectly happy with who he had been and who he now was. And that is one of the reasons that so many of the nobility of England loathed him, because he was cleverer than they were, and he was just a brewer’s son from Putney, in the manor of Wimbledon.

All that began to interest me. It began to suggest that the bureaucrat, the arch-bureaucrat, the author of the Tudor revolution in government, that Sir Geoffrey Elton had rediscovered in his books was something more than that: something interesting, personal. And you could squeeze the archive, squeeze the evidence to find that the person, the real Thomas Cromwell, would begin emerging.

Another very powerful visual image conveyed some of this new story to me straight away. Hilary also spotted this. Working independently, we came to the same point. . . His coat of arms, his heraldry.

Heraldry in the 16th century . . . conveyed meanings. What does the coat of arms, matriculated or formally registered by Thomas Cromwell in 1532, signify? Anyone would look at it and say, “Ooh. . . this is the arms of Cardinal Wolsey.” He’s taken the top of Wolsey’s coat and he’s made it the middle of his; he’s changed what’s technically called in heraldry language a ‘chief’ into a [‘fess’]. And on it are the same things: Tudor rose, two Cornish chuffs, those black birds. . .

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What he’s saying in this coat of arms is: “I am Thomas Wolsey’s man.” Just to emphasise when this coat of arms was registered: 1532 — two years after the Cardinal was in his grave and disgraced and a non-person. There is a message for the court of Henry VIII: the new coming minister, the man taking over [roles] of power, is saying: “I’m Wolsey’s man, don’t you forget it.”

There were many people who would find that intensely irritating. The Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard. But also the Duke of Norfolk’s niece: the coming lady not yet Queen, but on the way to it, the Lady Anne Boleyn. She would have been furious, because she was the chief person to have destroyed the Cardinal; she had decided that he was her chief enemy, the man in the way of getting rid of Catherine of Aragon, the obstacle for Anne to take over that role. And here is the minister saying, “I’m the Cardinal’s man.”

That has a corollary: it shows us that Thomas Cromwell was not a friend of Anne Boleyn: he was her enemy; he probably hated her as much as he loved the Cardinal.

Now, this is a surprise, because, since the 1560s, the picture has been of these two people — Anne and Thomas Cromwell — as the great heroic allies of the Protestant Reformation. And Protestants they were, in later language: they were both people of the Reformation. So it was natural to suppose that they were allies.

It would be very untidy for the story, the heroic narrative of the English Reformation, for them to be enemies — but they had been. And it was chiefly Thomas Cromwell who had destroyed her in 1536, made sure that the King’s rage with her, his disappointment at not getting a son, was turned into a will to destroy her — that was the doing of Thomas Cromwell. . .

The story had been simplified, deliberately simplified, since the 1560s, because it was just too complicated to think of these two Protestant champions hating each other. . .

In 1524, Thomas Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey. Why did this apparently obscure moneylender — a trader in London — why did the Cardinal pick him out from everybody else?

The answer is . . . back story. The boy who fled Putney . . . he went past London to Italy, to Florence, and made his career there. He came back mysteriously well-educated in his early twenties, speaking several languages — of course, the main one being Italian. Now, that’s what the Cardinal noticed in 1524. He found the best Italian in Tudor England, for a very particular purpose: to negotiate with the Italian sculptors who were making his tomb. . .

That’s why he entered the Cardinal’s service. And around the tomb were things which were the industry of prayer for that tomb. The chantries, the prayers of priests going up from two great colleges: one in Ipswich, one in Oxford. And these would be the most expensive and splendid colleges anyway.

The model was another King Henry: King Henry VI, who had created colleges in Cambridge and Eton for his soul. Well, the Cardinal’s colleges were going to be much more splendid and expensive than Henry VI’s colleges . . . and that would be very expensive. Many institutions would have to be dissolved in order to create the funds. So that’s the second part of Thomas Cromwell’s job for the Cardinal: it is to dissolve little monasteries for a better, higher, godly purpose: to pray for the Cardinal’s soul.

And that’s what he did, in the Cardinal’s service. I call it the legacy project. And it also explains how he entered the service of King Henry VIII, because when the Cardinal was disgraced for not solving the Catherine of Aragon problem, [and] sent up to York . . . Henry was determined to humiliate his former friend and also confiscate his estates — and his tomb. This would now be the tomb of the King. . . Still being worked on . . . [to create a new sculpture in place of the Cardinal] . . . and Cromwell was there to do the same job. It’s a curious way into a career over nine years as the King’s chief minister.

PUBLIC DOMAINSir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527)

Now think of the oddness of the story I’ve just told you. It sounds very Catholic. Here is the man who hates Anne Boleyn, loves a Cardinal, the Pope’s representative in England, who spends his time building up chantry colleges for the Cardinal, who is very pally with the Lady Mary. How does this square with the man who is the creator, in many ways, of the English Reformation? Well, it does. It does for the simple reason that human beings are complicated, and often a bit devious.

From the early 1520s, it is quite clear that Thomas Cromwell was a man of the Reformation. His friends were the future stars of the Reformation: Myles Coverdale, for instance . . . He used his job under the Cardinal to further reformation. He used the Cardinal’s dissolutions to put in place in those colleges people who would later be called Evangelicals or Protestants. The Cardinal’s college in Oxford was suddenly revealed to be a nest of Reformers, Lutherans, and, worse still, Cambridge men in Oxford. Who had recruited them? It was Thomas Cromwell, this underling, the tomb-maker, the dissolver: he had done all this.

And when he entered the King’s service he did exactly the same thing. He went on subverting the King’s purposes towards the Reformation. The most startling example was a plan which I could only recover by fragments on fragments on fragments to see the jigsaw, and the plan was to give England links to a foreign city with which it had no previous links: the Swiss city of Zurich, by then one of the great centres of the mainland European Reformation. [It was] far more radical than Luther’s reformation and far more hated by Henry VIII for its heresy.

And yet Thomas Cromwell quietly put in place what can only be described as a student exchange: young Oxford dons went to Zurich, and the adopted son of the Chief Pastor of the Reformed Church of Zurich came to Oxford: an extraordinary thing, this young Swiss going to the place at the other end of the world. . .

If the King had known what this was about, he would have been furious. I wonder if one element in Thomas Cromwell’s fall was simply that some enemy of Thomas whispered to the King: “Your minister is a heretic.” And, of course, that was one half of the charges against Thomas in the Act of Attainder: he is a heretic, as well as a traitor.

But traitor? How is he a traitor? Well, here is one of the other startling things. . . The marriage of his son Gregory. Who did Gregory marry in 1537, at the age of about 17? He married the Queen’s sister, Beth — Elizabeth Seymour. Think of it: the brewer’s son from Putney has a son, and that son marries the King’s sister-in-law, which makes Gregory the King’s brother-in-law; and it makes Thomas Cromwell, in an informal sense, the King’s uncle.

Now, picture yourself as Henry VIII in the watches of the night. . . What does it mean that Thomas is now there, so close, when my dynasty, the Tudors, if I’m honest, had so little claim to the throne when we came? What is that? And you can see the way in which all those enemies — the Duke of Norfolk downwards, through the nobility — what they would make of that when Thomas Cromwell made that fatal slip of marrying the King to a lady who looked perfectly pleasant, as far as we can see, but somehow repelled the King.

And the only way that Henry could get rid of poor Anne of Cleves was by the process of annulment, and that annulment could only be on one ground of the many grounds of annulment: non-consummation, which meant impotence. The King was forced to stand in front of a row of po-faced senior clergy and tell them that he could not get it up [laughter].

And then we wonder why Thomas Cromwell fell: he had humiliated the King, and the one thing that these busy ministers, like Wolsey and Cromwell, could not do was fail — and he had failed in the most spectacular way possible. That is why the King believed all the nonsense about heresy and treason. The enemies of Cromwell had successfully played on the King’s psychology, the King’s weakness.

And so it was all over. And, in a curious way, that’s the most traditional bit of the story — Anne of Cleves — and it’s true. Occasionally, the clichés are right. But a lot of the time, fascinatingly, they are not; so read on, dear readers. . .

JOHN HOLBROOK (Bishop of Brixworth): Reference has been made to Cromwell’s faith. Is there evidence of what he actually believed, rather than a kind of political expediency?

Hilary Mantel: I have taken him from the beginning of my work to be a real Evangelical — not disparaging his faith for simple political expediency because it would have been more expedient to do the other thing. He took risks, he didn’t make his life easy. . .

Diarmaid MacCulloch: The important thing, as Hilary said, is that Cromwell did things which no cynical, calculating politician would do. He took risks for the sake of religion. . . The link with Zurich is an extraordinary thing to do. England had no political contacts with Zurich, no trade links; there was nothing expedient in that, and a huge amount of danger. . .

The Reformation had two great Protestant strands, which disagreed with each other vehemently. One was Lutheran and the other is what has become Reformed, with a capital R. And so you can either have a Lutheran Reformation or a Reformed Reformation. And England’s Reformation was Reformed — no Lutheran lasting element in it at all. That is thanks to this Zurich link.

The Bishop of Brixworth, the Rt Revd John Holbrook, moderates the conversation between Hilary Mantel and Diarmaid MacCulloch at Launde Abbey

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And it is so dangerous to go down that path in the reign of Henry VIII, because Henry loathed Zurich for what he would regard as heresy, which is to say that, when you take bread and wine and do the right things and say the right actions over them, they do not become the body and blood of Christ: they are symbols only. And Henry burned people for thinking that. And Thomas Cromwell linked this country to the people who thought that. So, in that sense, Henry killed him for the right reason: he was a heretic.

HM: Yes, he was. Bang to rights, there.

DM: Bang to rights! But he also left people in place who would take it on. First, those young men; some of them became bishops in the Church of Elizabeth I, and kept the Zurich link going until their deaths in the 1580s and ’90s. That’s one big link, and that young man who came to Oxford from Zurich, Rudolf Gwalther by name, became the next Chief Pastor of the city of Zurich, and survived until 1575.

That really embedded the Church of England into the Reformed Reformation. Then, lots of other things happened . . . to create Anglicanism. But Anglicanism is not the English Reformation: it’s about a century later. So, Thomas Cromwell’s Reformation is this really quite hard-nosed Reformed Protestant Reformation.

Bishop Holbrook: And at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, there was a rediscovery of and re-emphasis on the scriptures. Can either of you comment on Cromwell’s view of the English scriptures and the project to translate it into understandable English?

DM: I think you’d start with the rather embarrassing beginning of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’ biography of Thomas Cromwell, which begins with Thomas Cromwell going to Rome on a mission to the Pope for the Guild of Our Lady of Boston. It’s a picturesque story, and he gets a new indulgence from the Pope for the Guild, by bringing some musicians along, and some English jellies, and giving them to the Pope. The Pope’s charmed; so he signs the indulgence — or sticks his seal on it — and that’s it.

And, of course, Foxe is very embarrassed by this story; but, to get him through the embarrassment, he says that Archbishop Cranmer’s secretary told him that Cromwell, during the course of the long journey to Rome, had taken up Erasmus’s new Latin translation of the New Testament, and that’s what started him on the Reformation road.

I think that’s probably true — there’s no reason for Cromwell to make this up — and that begins the fascination with scripture translation, because Erasmus’s translation is the new way of looking at the Bible; it’s a new way of looking at the Latin, which can then be translated into English, in which his mate, Myles Coverdale, is one of the crucial people involved. William Tyndale is another friend of Thomas Cromwell, and Cromwell tried to save him from his death in the Low Countries.

So, you can see him building up to the biggest deceit for Henry VIII of all Cromwell’s deceits, which is to get an official translation of the Bible, promulgated by the King’s authority, and it is mostly by William Tyndale, at whose death the King had connived — and the King clearly never realised that. Extraordinary.

HM: So, it is necessary to put another name on it, to disguise the fact that it is basically Tyndale’s work. And this whole story of the printing of the Bibles is intensely dramatic. They were printing in Paris because the printers there were so good, they were so fast, and then the French swoop in and confiscate the sheets. That’s a disaster, and then there’s all sorts of intrigue to try and get them back. And Cromwell’s own money is in this, isn’t it?

DM: And he uses the fact that the English had confiscated a French ship and the French were desperate to get it back. And he kept hanging on and hanging on and hanging on until he got those Bible pages. And then [he] completed it very symbolically in the former dissolved Franciscan friary in central London. What a symbol of Reformation that is.

HM: I had great difficulty grappling with this very, very complex affair of the French ship. And, in the end . . . it came down to a paragraph. I spent weeks trying to understand it, and then I thought, “Well, in the end, even if I understand it, my reader won’t.” And sometimes I think that’s what a novelist has to do — you have to cut through, somehow. . .

Bishop Holbrook: When we were having coffee earlier, we had a wonderful piece of historical detective work, regarding an illegitimate daughter. You make something more of this in your book.

HM: She’s a shadowy presence, Jane. She dates very probably from the period after his wife’s death, which would be the late 1520s. Very unusually for a man with a young family, he didn’t marry again. But, somewhere, there’s a liaison, and there’s Jane; just this little fugitive presence on the record. A historian can say, “We know this, this, and this about Jane, and that’s all we know.” But a novelist can’t not know who her mother is, because Cromwell knows! And I have to know what he knows. And there’s no technical way . . . there’s no sleight of hand that can remove that problem from me.

I thought, these are my choices: he can’t have a daughter without a mother; so I can omit her altogether, which would be the simple thing . . . but, then, this is a man who had three children, he lost his two daughters to the sweating sickness, he lost his wife. Gregory remained. And he’s got this shadowy little daughter. Am I going to be so heartless as to excise all daughters from the record? I thought: Right! Make a plot. For once, put aside your conscience and act as a novelist; make something up. So, I placed a liaison back in the time he spent in Antwerp, before he came home to England.

PUBLIC DOMAINPortrait of a Lady, Probably a Member of the Cromwell Family, c.1535–1540, Hans Holbein the Younger, on display at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

So he has in effect an “Antwerp wife”, as they called them later. And, in my fiction, he comes home to England, he doesn’t know Anselma is carrying a child, and then, at a crucial point much later in the narrative, she turns up: a young woman, she’s come to look up her father. She’s heard that he’s in a spot of trouble, and she wants to see him before it all goes pear-shaped. So, in she walks, with — handily for me — a set of very dangerous religious opinions.

I made her, as it were, serve a purpose, and this is my boldest and biggest invention in the course of the three books. But I think you will readily understand why I needed a mother.

DM: I think that’s one of the best illustrations of the difference between history and novels — and I say that in all seriousness. It shows you the difference of our crafts. They overlap, but on the extremes of the overlap, you’re doing two different things. The fragments you talked about, I had to place those chronologically, which led to something rather interesting. I think there’s an emotional wobble in his life — after Wolsey’s death, after his wife’s death — and it’s in that period that this daughter fits, chronologically.

I can’t say who the mother is; I simply don’t know. I can say something much more complicated . . . [which] is that this daughter actually married a Roman Catholic recusant in the 1540s, after Cromwell’s death. And I don’t think it’s anything to do with the Cromwell story, but that’s something else in the story which I had to throw in, because it’s true, which a novel would find complex.

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You can do the far more interesting thing of placing this phenomenon, this daughter, in a bit of the story which is vacant anyway. You can make something of that vacancy, and that’s a glorious freedom which you have. And I’ve always got to say “might have, could have”, to show that that’s a health warning; to say, ‘You don’t need to believe that.’ You could never do that, could you? It sounds feeble in a novel to say “might have, should have”; you wouldn’t.

Bishop Holbrook: Diarmaid, can I push you into the “might have, may have been” arena? One of our questions asked essentially what might have happened if Jane Seymour had survived the birth of Edward.

DM: If Jane Seymour survives, then the Seymour-Cromwell nexus is absolutely all-powerful. They are behind the beloved Prince Edward, they go on, they forge forwards past the King’s death, they run everything. . .

But the curious thing is that that’s what happened, minus Thomas Cromwell, and it seems to me that you have to read the history of the reign of King Edward VI as the “Triumph of the Cromwellians”. They kick out all his enemies: Gardiner, Wriothesley, they’re all humiliated, marginalised. The reign is one of very rapid progress. In Elizabeth’s reign, there’s still the fading scent of Cromwell there in people like William Cecil, Lord Burghley; these are very minor Cromwell protégés who then become very powerful.

So that’s one of the reasons why I see Thomas Cromwell as really at the heart of the English Reformation, that it works. But the death of Queen Jane is a real setback, and that’s really what did for Thomas, I think.

HM: I would say the same. If Jane had lived, and perhaps had more children, then Gregory’s marriage to Elizabeth Seymour was obviously a roaring success, judging by the number of children and the rapidity with which they were produced. It would have entrenched the Cromwells — so not only Gregory Cromwell, but his nephew Richard Cromwell, quite a big player at court — and it would have made them dynasts, wouldn’t it?

DM: Well, they were dynasts. It seems to me that we have to read Cromwell’s career like Henry VIII’s. At the centre of it, they both want to found a dynasty, and they behave badly in the process, because this is the ultimate goal of the Tudor statesman.

HM: And Gregory, of course, has been horribly misunderstood through the years. Written off as a perfect fool, largely through misdating — people thinking that he was much older than he was, so taking the letters that he produced as a little child as the letters of a teenager. Does this go back to Merriman?

ALAMY/BBC TWOMark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC2 adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

DM: It’s before Merriman. It’s a mid-Victorian historian, who misdated the crucial letters and then actually recanted; but the mistake had already got in the historian’s memory and wasn’t corrected at all — frankly, until me [laughter].

HM: Again, this is interesting if you look at the way we work, because I began to find Gregory’s traces, and I began to come across him, and nobody says he’s a fool, everyone seems to like him; he’s always the gentle and virtuous Gregory; he crops up here, crops up there, even the Duke of Norfolk has a good word for him: “A wise quick peace”, he says.

DM: And Sir Thomas More.

HM: Indeed. So I began to think: we’re getting Gregory wrong. But I didn’t have the data to go on, to say to historians who included Merriman and the editor of Thomas Cromwell’s letters, who was quite hostile to Gregory. I didn’t have a place to stand, to say to them, “Look, you’re all wrong.”

So what I did was I very surreptitiously started reducing his age. But I didn’t quite have the courage of my convictions — I didn’t reduce it enough. If I had had the good fortune that Diarmaid had written before my novels, that would have been a big change, because I would then have had chapter and verse for my strong feeling that we were getting Gregory all wrong.

You see, after Cromwell’s death, he somewhat withdrew from public life, he came to Launde. But he appeared at court, he sat in Parliament; he was still a player. Gregory was educated like a prince. The boy’s education never stopped; he was here, he was there, he was going to learn this with such a gentleman, then he’s across the country following another gentleman. And he set up to follow his father.

DM: I don’t think he was that bright, but he wasn’t a fool. He was a sort of cheerful sportsman, utterly charming. And now we have two pictures of him. I thank two people in the introduction to my book; one of them is Hilary, and the other is a lovely Australian lady, Teri Fitzgerald, who I’ve never met, but we have corresponded. What Teri did — . . . she sits in a bungalow in Australia, and surfs the net. And, in the course of surfing the net, she found two Holbein miniatures: one in the Netherlands and one by a long story now in a vault in Moscow, both labelled “unknown Tudor young man”.

And it’s quite clear that they’re the same Tudor young man, and clues within them make it utterly clear that these are Gregory. Suddenly, we’ve got a picture of Gregory, who is like a pretty version of Thomas Cromwell. He’s got the same nose and the same curiously hooded eyes; so that’s a family thing. And yet we know, as Hilary said, that he was charming — too charming, there was some appalling scandal in 1538-39, which is again a major point in the biography, and yet Elizabeth took him back. The affectionate letters from Elizabeth are clearly genuinely affectionate, despite the appalling thing he’d done in Sussex in 1539.

Launde Abbey

Bishop Holbrook: You’re going to have to tell us what it was [laughter].

DM: Well the funny thing is, we don’t know [laughter].

Bishop Holbrook: Hilary, would you like to make it up? [laughter].

HM: Well, I imagine he was appallingly rude to a bishop and refused to apologise. [laughter]. But Diarmaid thinks there’s more to it.

DM: I think it’s sex. I think he had had a very torrid affair with a gentleman or nobleman’s wife. The reason we know about this is that it entered the Diocesan Court of the Bishop of Chichester; so it’s either got to be heresy or sex. And he shows no great sign of religious enthusiasm — so it’s sex.

HM: The portraits turning up; this was a great moment for me. I knew they must be there somewhere, but it’s like Australia — it was there all the time. Gregory was there all the time; it just took someone to say: “‘Unknown young man’? I wonder. . .” And then it all falls into place, it all fits. I think Ralph Sadler turned up as well, persuasively, while I was in the course of writing Wolf Hall. Again, that was a great moment, because, when I saw that pencil sketch, the Holbein sketch, I was just convinced.

DM: And then identifying the great portrait of Elizabeth Seymour in Toledo. It’s a wonderful Holbein. And you look at her, and she’s about 20 in the picture, and she’s married to Gregory already, and you think, “I’m not going to mess with you.” And I think Thomas thought, “Yes, this is an adversary worthy of my steel, this young lady.” And it just shouts out of the picture at you.

Bishop Holbrook: You’re very quick to credit each other. Diarmaid, you were saying earlier that you’re rethinking Anne Boleyn, largely owing to the inspiration of Hilary planting an idea that you’d not expected to see.

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DM: More that I’d had the germ of this idea; but what reading particularly Wolf Hall and then Bring Up The Bodies gave me was the nerve to follow it through, because it goes right against all the orthodoxy of historians I respect and admire, particularly Eric Ives, who wrote a brilliant biography of Anne about 20 years ago.

His Cromwell and Anne are still allies; there’s a chapter about it. And I thought, “I’ve got to tackle Eric, a man who I’ve respected all my life.” I went through the chapter and it just didn’t work; Eric had simply assumed the traditional story and made things about it. . . There’s one amazing footnote where he says, “Well of course there are not many letters between Anne and Cromwell, but that’s presumably because they chatted face to face all the time.” I thought, “No, that’s just squirming, that’s not the way. . .”

HM: Evidence from absence.

DM: Exactly, evidence from absence. It just doesn’t work. And then you see the real story, and just the big outlines of it, which should have been there for all of us; that Cromwell’s career is held back under Anne, it is not advanced. As soon as she’s dead, whoosh! He’s away! He’s a baron, he’s a knight, he’s Lord Privy Seal. That should have told all of us, and it didn’t.

Bishop Holbrook: We all know why Launde is so wonderful. What made it so attractive to Cromwell?

HM: I’m not sure we have the data on that. Wouldn’t anyone find it attractive? Even now we’re in this blissful countryside: the quiet, the calm.

DM: I’m sure you’re right. . . It still remains puzzling. Why Leicestershire? He had no connection with Leicestershire, except that his first major employer was not actually Cardinal Wolsey, but the 2nd Marquess of Dorset, Thomas Grey, who lived at Bradgates. So, for a brief moment, 1523 to 1524, Cromwell had been up here.

Then, of course, he went back to Launde . . . this famous “snow incident”, which is in his Wolsey employ. I just speculate — now I go beyond being a historian — that maybe precisely what you said: he wants a retreat at the end of his political career which takes him before the political career, when he was just moving wardrobes around for the Dowager Marchioness of Dorset. And it will all be simple: Gregory will have his castle down in Kent, Thomas will have his nice retreat in this beautiful place, and, perhaps, the old prior and canons about that he’d known in those innocent simple days back in 1520s.

alamyBen Miles plays Thomas Cromwell and Lydia Leonard plays Anne Boleyn in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Wolf Hall, adapted by Mike Poulton, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2014

HM: Yes, just as I say, in his fever he thinks, “That’s where I’ll go when all this is over.” As if it would ever be over! It wasn’t easy to retire from the service of Henry VIII. By 1540, I think, Henry had also become an impossible man to work for, would you say?

DM: Completely, yes.

HM: People talk a lot about the mistakes that a figure like Cromwell made. But I always ask my reader to stand in his shoes and say, working for Henry, how would you avoid those mistakes? And under the pressure of events and without the benefit of hindsight.

Bishop Holbrook: A lot of the questions are around passion and motivation. What do each of you think really drove him? What were the passions of his life? What was he seeking to achieve?

HM: I think he was a bit of an education, education, education man. It seemed to be his belief — and, in fact, in his injunctions, he said that the clergy should preach that your children should be brought up in a trade or in good literature, and that would stop them from falling into criminal ways.

And what you’re beginning to get is the idea that that generation will improve on what your father had, and the next generation will improve on that. . . What would say about a sense of social justice? There’s Elton’s wonderful book Reform and Renewal. Some people think that Elton characterised him, but then, you see, Elton himself was a deeply conservative character, wasn’t he? The Cromwellian revolution in government isn’t a revolution in the political sense we generally mean it. But, nevertheless, you can see a certain Orwellian radicalism there, I think, with the eye of faith.

DM: I agree with all that. Three things: religious reformation. And I think, to start with, he thought Wolsey was going to be the way forward in the Religious Reformation. Then it is dynasty. So, Launde is the symbol of success. He left a Baron Cromwell here, and the barons Cromwell went on to 1680s. . .

And then something we’ve not mentioned that we ought to have done: Parliament. He’s the first English statesman-politician to start his career in Parliament; he’s an MP in the 1523 Parliament. All the English Reformation is carried through by Parliament, and that’s thanks to him.

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HM: Yes, you had a time when Parliaments were called infrequently. They lasted a matter of weeks, they raised some money for the King, and they all went home to their shires. But Cromwell made Parliament work hard. He kept it in session, and he drove through this enormous legislative programme, which constituted the break with Rome.

He therefore gave great authority to Parliament, with consequences that last to our own day. I think the whole question of authority. . . He was a King’s man, he believed in strong government, in the King’s government, in equality before the law, in good authority, which is the only guarantee of equity and justice in society. One of the things that brought Cromwell very much into conflict with characters like the Duke of Norfolk was this whole question of governance: who should run England? In particular, say, the north of England, which was in revolt during the middle of 1530s: who should actually govern? In my book, I put it very simply: Cromwell thinks that it should be clever men; the Dukeo f Norfolk thinks that it should be noblemen. I think that that is one of the ways in which he looks to the future. It’s a question of ability, not who your dad was.

Bishop Holbrook: Both of you are clearly fascinated by him, and have enjoyed engaging with him in different ways. Very last question: Can I ask each of you to tell your favourite Cromwell story?

The Gregory Cromwell memorial in the chapel at Launde Abbey

HM: I’ll tell you my favourite Cromwell letter. It’s when Henry’s searching for his fourth wife, scouring Europe looking at all available princesses, archduchesses, and so on. A young man, Philip Hobie, from the privy chamber, goes on mission to check out various princesses, and Cromwell tells him what he’s got to do when he meets these princesses. He obviously thinks Philip might mess it up; so he gives him precise instructions: “What you’ve got to do is make her think that you, Philip, have fallen in love with her. Because she will see the hopelessness of your passion, she will feel so sorry for you, you have ready access any time you like.” And it’s so clever. It’s so true, it would work. And you think, “You dog!”.

DM: I was racking my brains, there’s so much, isn’t there? But I think I’d go back to George Cavendish, and the night when it all looks desperate and Parliament is about to start, and the point of Parliament was to destroy the Cardinal. And Cromwell was determined to become an MP in that Parliament: it’s the 1529 Parliament. And he sets off in the driving rain on a November night to go to London from Esher, and he says: “I will make or mar this night.” And Cavendish says that this is a favourite phrase, and I thought of it as a subtitle to my book: “Make or Mar”. That tells you so much. “I will make or mar tonight.”

HM: “Which was ever his saying,” Cavendish says. So, in one little proverb, as it were, or motto, you have the man who will take a risk to gain his purpose.

 

Listen to the talks and conversation at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.

www.laundeabbey.org.uk/launde900

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