Review: Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life (Penguin. Pp. 752. $40)
Review by Hannah Matis
Mary, Queen of Scots recently appeared in American theaters, starring the ever-compelling Saoirse Ronan in the title role, with Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I: proof that the Tudors continue to fascinate, mostly as operatic versions of themselves.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s new and gloriously magisterial biography of Thomas Cromwell takes aim at an equally melodramatic pairing in literature and film: that of Cromwell and Thomas More. If we were neither raised Catholic nor on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, many of us first encountered the duo through Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. While the play premiered in 1960, it was adapted into an award-winning film in 1966, and it can be no coincidence that the film found its audience in America at exactly the moment when questions of conscience and conscientious objection were at the forefront of people’s minds. Thomas More, played by a wry and limpid Paul Scofield, was, like the devil, given all the best lines, and generally it is a portrait of More, the intellectual, the family man, high-mindedly soaring beyond the avarice, corruption, and bestial passions of his king and of his chief minister. Cromwell is almost a cameo role, but he is played vividly by a taciturn Leo McKern, who would go on to become Rumpole of the Bailey, essentially a British bulldog in human form.
Hilary Mantel’s two novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), reversed this famous juxtaposition of earthbound and intellectual. More was transformed into a religious bigot, going about seeking whom he might torture and burn at the stake for heresy and alternately spouting scatological insults and the overarching claims of Rome. Cromwell, by contrast, is a self-made man, a traveler who has been everywhere and seen everything, a manager and a fixer, a family man with a cultivated sense of the comforts of life who, if it had not been for King Henry’s Lord of Misrule, would have quietly chipped away at religious bigotry and intolerance to bring about pragmatic enlightenment via good administration.
In the television adaptation of the books, the thug-like Holbein portrait is ignored, and Cromwell is played by Mark Rylance, who manages like no other actor I know to look simultaneously kind, remote, and pained while the chaos unfurls around him. The popular success of both novels surprised the literary establishment, which dubbed Mantel the resuscitator of the historical novel. Mantel’s writing, particularly her dialogue, is astonishingly vivid and her sense of period impeccable. But surely part of the appeal of the novels lay in the optimistically progressive portrait of Cromwell, who emerges looking like a civil servant of the Obama era. Mantel has not yet been able to bring herself to conclude her trilogy of novels, to kill off her hero, and to bring the dream crashing down.
Ironically, neither Bolt’s play nor Mantel’s novels portrayed their respective heroes primarily in terms of their religious belief. For Mantel, Thomas More the Catholic fundie is the most obvious point of caricature; she is an atheist, and only grudgingly admits to Cromwell’s evangelical convictions. Despite our saturation in all things Tudor, therefore, I found MacCulloch’s treatment of Cromwell, which places his evangelical convictions unavoidably in the foreground, particularly satisfying.
The Cromwell biography is a fitting bookend to Sir Diarmaid’s earlier biography of Thomas Cranmer, in both cases drawing out of the shadows a figure many had considered to be a political and religious cipher. Both biographies are works of painstaking reconstruction: MacCulloch gleaned significant personal insight about Cranmer’s beliefs from marginalia in those of the archbishop’s books that survived destruction. In the case of Cromwell, the biographer might have been stymied by the tactical shredding of the Tudor equivalent of Cromwell’s sent mail folder. Faced with Cromwell’s attainder and execution in 1540, his household sought to purge his letters, and these lacunae in the sources have contributed to the resulting picture of Cromwell as a remote and faceless agent of the Crown. There is, inevitably, much that we still do not know, and cannot know for certain.
What MacCulloch has done in this biography is to place Cromwell back in his natural 16th-century habitat: namely, at the center of a bewilderingly complex web of lordship, kinship, and patronage networks, amid a nest of servants, favors given and received, and overlapping regional identities. Although MacCulloch’s writing is as graceful as ever, the sheer thicket of names, places, and relationships he unearths militates against the book ever becoming a popular biography per se, and I found myself wondering what sort of prosopographical database he compiled while working on the book.
One of MacCulloch’s central arguments is that Cromwell, born a commoner in Putney on the Thames, operated most effectively in the shadows behind the king and as an agent of the royal will. Paradoxically, the more visibility and royal recognition he received, the more vulnerable he became. Tracing the shape of Cromwell’s direct actions, agendas, and (particularly) actions carried out through others becomes a massive work of inference substantiated by MacCulloch’s intimate knowledge of the social and regional networks leveraged by any given person in Cromwell’s service and correspondence.
In place of the personality-less royal servant, then, Cromwell emerges as a speaker of multiple languages and a lover particularly of all things Italian, friend of Italian merchants, master of clubbability, a charmer of dowagers, a doggedly loyal servant to Cardinal Wolsey even after his master’s death, an unexpectedly kind patron to both Katherine of Aragon and the Lady Mary, supporter and friend of Cranmer, arch-maneuverer in Parliamentary procedure, nervous and tender parent to his hapless only son, patron of Oxbridge colleges, humanist in an Erasmian vein with an explosive and colorful temper, and as King Henry’s punching bag. Cromwell never let anything go — old friends, old offices, old grudges — until it was all too late.
MacCulloch pits Cromwell’s taste for administrative invisibility and ambiguity on a collision course with his sincere evangelical convictions. These did not necessarily endear him to Anne Boleyn or she to him. MacCulloch is clear: not all those of an evangelical bent were a unified party. Under Henry’s volatile and idiosyncratic rule, Cromwell was a Nicodemite in the manner of, say, Elizabeth under Queen Mary or Archbishop Cranmer, hiding his true opinions about the Eucharist until the end.
Before his execution, and conscious that his family’s survival depended on it, Cromwell claimed to die within the Catholic faith: what that consisted of or how that was defined, nobody asked. But MacCulloch assembles a formidable list of evangelicals protected, encouraged, or otherwise patronized by Cromwell, many of them recruited from the preaching orders.
Cromwell played a quiet but consistent role printing evangelical books and encouraging vernacular Scripture, and it would be under his direction that Greek began to be taught on the Oxbridge curriculum. Cromwell arranged for printing the Great Bible in Paris. When the press was seized by the Inquisition, he negotiated for 2,500 copies to be smuggled into England and reprinted in the erstwhile home of the London Greyfriars. According to MacCulloch, while printed in the name of the king, “it is Cromwell’s Bible.” The minister’s presence on the centerpiece of the later Matthew Bible was deeply embarrassing after his execution and had to be bearded and concealed in later editions.
MacCulloch’s attitude to Cromwell’s role in the dissolution of the monasteries is complex: he argues that the policy of closing small and failing houses (statistically, usually the communities with the laxest behavior) began with Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell simply continued the policy, and many aristocrats like the Duke of Norfolk participated in the process on their own initiative: they and other abbots began asset-stripping many of the properties before the Crown could intervene. Cromwell’s vice-gerency over the religious life of the realm was thus an uneasy blend of manager, caretaker, and proponent of reform in which he kept many communities alive — MacCulloch is particularly clear in his oversight of the London Charterhouse — even while he closed others, exacerbated by Henry’s occasional pressing need of money. Whatever Cromwell’s long-term plans, perhaps to convert many monasteries to colleges in the traditional sense, the dissolution was not his idea alone, and indeed, was never explicit royal policy.
Finally, it was partly Cromwell’s evangelical loyalties that led him, tragically, to continue to push for the continuance of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves even when Henry, panicking and raging in sexual impotence, refused: had Cromwell been as cynical a politician as he has sometimes been accused, he would simply have arranged for yet another royal divorce.
Cromwell would not live to see the lasting influence of his never-repeated vice-gerential office on the English Reformation, but MacCulloch is clear that it was significant. That legacy was not in property or money, but in people. Alongside Cranmer, the circle of evangelicals that Cromwell encouraged and patronized and sent abroad, particularly to Bullinger’s Zürich, would be the generation that would inherit the English church under Cranmer and Edward VI. They would not be German or Lutheran in outlook, but influenced instead by the Swiss.
This substantiates another of MacCulloch’s long-held arguments about the English Reformation and why, for all its contradictory and halting nature, it survived into Elizabeth’s reign for another long, slow simmer: that this same generation of evangelical preachers, Swiss-formed and Calvinist in outlook, took to the streets and preaching pulpits in Edward’s reign and effectively turned the capital for the evangelical cause. Cromwell’s Bible, Cromwell’s Reformation.