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Thomas Cromwell: A Life
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If a picture is worth a thousand words, a great portrait must equal some 700 pages of print. Hans Holbein the Younger’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell – dark, brooding, sinister and suggestive – is the likeness that has shaped the tormented afterlife of Henry VIII's master secretary. That’s the image challenged by Hilary Mantel’s bestselling novels, and it also haunts every line of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s compendious work. Between Holbein on the one hand and Mantel on the other, there is plenty of room for an alternative version. This is the life that professor MacCulloch has set himself to write.
Except that it's not really a life, more a life and times, the fruit of many years in the archives, a history as much as a biography that weighs in with almost 30 pages of bibliography and 115 dense pages of notes. MacCulloch once sat at the feet of that fearsome medieval historian Geoffrey Elton and cannot quite forget his mentor's bristling moustache.
In the quest for 'the true Thomas Cromwell of history', this heavyweight volume is intended to be a knockout blow. Mantel's fulsome pre-publication puff ('the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years') certainly advertises one satisfied customer. A more dispassionate reading might find the historian-biographer, who must live and die by the written record, swamped by the teeming documents of Henry's reign. This was a pivotal moment between medieval and modern England to which the IT revolution of the Renaissance contributed a cornucopia of ink and paper. One of the many incidental fascinations of this book is its picture of Cromwell the bibliophile, and the role of print in stoking the furnace of Henry's extraordinary reign.
As generations of historical novelists, up to and including Mantel, have discovered, Henry VIII is box-office gold. The notorious scenarios of Tudor England remain as potent in our imaginations as the destruction of the Bourbons in the French Revolution or the rise and fall of the Third Reich. The thrilling story MacCulloch sets out subtly to reinterpret is a human drama replete with sickening bloodshed, intrigue, torture and treachery.
Small wonder, then, that even so compelling a figure as Cromwell occasionally gets lost in the maelstrom. This is not MacCulloch's fault, but the inevitable consequence of his determination to describe the political sacrifices of a great reformer and self-made man who flew too close to the sun. What is not in doubt, a judgment from which MacCulloch never flinches, is that Cromwell was as well equipped as anyone could have been to survive the terrifying unpredictability of Henry VIII and his uniquely toxic regime.
A self-styled 'ruffian', a brewer's son from Putney, Cromwell became the master of Tudor power politics. But his Achilles heel was his loyalty to the mentor who had first helped him step on to the tightrope of royal service. It was Cromwell’s touching devotion to Cardinal Wolsey, whom he served from his pomp in 1524 to his fall in 1530, that would prove his undoing.
The drama of this tragic career falls nicely into five acts. MacCulloch covers a lot of familiar ground in a fresh and deeply researched way. Cromwell was an old man in 16th-century terms when he first emerged from obscurity to become a royal councillor. His first 40 years become the curtain-raiser to his apprenticeship to Wolsey, his “'ear master'. It's then that he acquired his skills as a diplomat and fixer, with a genius for improvisation and clubbable instincts that served him well around Henry's court. The second act, his service with Wolsey, shows him at his most effective, taking on Anne Boleyn and her supporters as they plotted to destroy 'the Cardinal'. A lesser ruffian might not have weathered his master's demise.
Cromwell's dazzling performance in the 1530s is tantalisingly brief, a parable of his trade. The third act opens in 1533 when he becomes chancellor of the exchequer, and it runs to the execution of Anne Boleyn, a swift and savage reversal that MacCulloch shows to have been driven by Cromwell's need to avenge Wolsey's downfall.
No one at court - including the king himself - ever quite recovered from the death of Anne Boleyn. After May 1536 everyone had blood on their hands. In this fourth act, we find Cromwell at the height of his powers as a reformer and an innovator, carrying out, with speed and efficiency, the dissolution of the monasteries, part of an English revolution that shaped our society for ever.
Inevitably, as the wheel of history turned, there was retribution. The Pilgrimage of Grace (the revolt of the northern shires) should have given Cromwell pause. Instead, he carried on until his enemies struck. Arrested on 10 June 1540, with his enemy the Duke of Norfolk ripping the collar of St George from his neck, he was humiliated, entowered, tried, convicted and brutally executed within a month. While MacCulloch’s scholarship seems impeccable, his narrative line leaves something to be desired. He loves the byways of the past, but this does not always serve his main theme. Not only is the reader at the mercy of the minutiae of Cromwell's administration, Henry his royal master is strikingly absent. It was probably the right decision to keep this particular gorilla in the cupboard, but such a biography needs a bit more colour from the transactions of the king and his master secretary.
Cromwell offers the example of an ambitious figure who paid a terrible price for somehow, against the odds, staying on the high wire of absolute power at the peril of his humanity. Sadly, his character rather eludes our sympathy. At the end of this monumental monograph, the reader is left with a conundrum. We know about his achievements and his wiles, but - the vulgar question that stalks every biography - what was Thomas Cromwell really like? To which, the short answer is: go to the Frick Collection and look again at Holbein's portrait. Who’s to say the artist did not delve into his subject’s soul as deeply as anyone?
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