Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Book Reviews: 'Thomas Cromwell: A Life' by Diarmaid MacCulloch

By Melanie McDonagh
27 September 2018

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There is, alas, no way that any review of this book can live up to the blurb on the back from Hilary Mantel: “This is the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years.” And this meticulous work of scholarship will almost certainly be seen as the book of the telly series — that is to say, the history to flesh out Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall novels and their spin-offs, from which so many of the middle classes derive their Tudor history.
Yet this biography is so at ease with the sources, so effortlessly scholarly, it deserves more than to be seen as Wolf Hall: the history. It is a feat. Diarmaid MacCulloch (whom I know and like) recalls the great Sir Geoffrey Elton saying of Thomas Cromwell, “He is not biographable.” Well it turns out he is, though there remains all manner of aspects of his life that are stubbornly unknowable.
This is not a book for the general reader. It will, or should be, cited as a book of the year, but most readers will find themselves bogged down by the wealth of necessary detail, by the intricacies of the web of Tudor connections on which he is brilliant: back then the personal was political. If MacCulloch has sense, he’ll follow this with a slim popular paperback. 
This isn’t to say it’s not terrifically readable, because it is. It’s witty — there are acerbic asides at every turn — but this is the work of a scholar.
The author himself, writing about the book, says that he didn’t find in Cromwell “a pantomime villain”. Well no, he wouldn’t, but what we still get here is Cromwell the complete bastard. That is, a man who was the greatest fixer of his age, who combined ideological commitment to Protestantism and the interests of his capricious master with an unholy zeal while enriching himself and his family (son Gregory got the plum priory site at Lewes) from the spoils of the monasteries.
The list of his victims is too long to cite (by way of balance, they included Anabaptists, the Islamic State of the age, as well as Catholics) but in the name of king and Reformation he pursued young and old, elderly monks and friars as well as young women: killed horribly, most of them. In the case of the London Carthusians, his line is that the Carthusians were “victims of the King’s savagery”, rather than Cromwell’s. Yet MacCulloch says nothing about Cromwell’s deliberate and sadistic prolonging of their agony on the scaffold, and he glosses over the starvation and chaining of the others (in their own excrement), which he must have authorised.
In the case of the most prominent victims, Thomas More and John Fisher — whose executions shocked Europe — the most he can say is Cromwell kept them in decent food and drink in the Tower. 
He was, mind you, a family man; the reason he never remarried after his wife died was, says the author, almost certainly because he couldn’t bear to. He did have an illegitimate daughter, Jane, but that was no big deal. It was his promotion of his son — whom he married to the sister of Jane Seymour — that expedited his downfall.
It seems his commitment to the Protestant project really was a motive force, and started early. Thus, hatred of Cromwell and his works (iconoclasm, dissolution of the monasteries) was a clear element in the Pilgrimage of Grace popular uprising, and he duly reacted with efficient savagery and treachery. 
But, as Mantel cleverly intuited, loyalty to his early master, Cardinal Wolsey (another self-made man and one of the most sympathetic characters here) was another motivating force. As MacCulloch makes clear, Cromwell’s legacy is still with us, in the Protestant character of the CofE. And if this excellent biography doesn’t, for all its best effots, rehabilitate him, it does him more justice than he deserves.
Review: Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch — what Wolf Hall didn’t tell you

By Dan Jones
16 September 2018
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Thomas Cromwell, c. 1530, Holbein School

Minutes before his head was struck off with an axe, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s disgraced former minister, made a speech. “I have been a great traveller in this world,” he said, “and being but of a base degree, was called to high estate and [since] the time I came thereunto, I have offended my prince.” He asked God for mercy, made some disingenuous remarks about the king’s grace, then went calmly to his death. Accounts vary as to the efficiency of the headsman, but as Diarmaid MacCulloch writes with the dry wit that characterises this triumphant and definitive biography, “even botched beheadings are soon over”.
Cromwell’s final inventory of his life is hard to fault. Born around 1485 and raised in Putney, he was a self-described “ruffian” in his youth, but picked up a legal education, roamed Italy and Flanders for several years, then returned to England and rose to political eminence: first in the service of Cardinal Wolsey and later Henry VIII. His value lay in his talent as fixer and problem-solver par excellence: a sort of 16th-century management consultant, albeit one who ended up issuing blithe, cruel instructions such as “pinch him with pains” when ordering the torture of a parson who had drunkenly complained about the government.
Installed from around 1532 as the king’s trusted factotum, Cromwell pulled the strings in the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, to Katharine of Aragon, freeing him to marry Anne Boleyn. He micromanaged the consequent “Break with Rome”, by which parliament declared England free of papal jurisdiction and appointed Henry Supreme Head of the English Church. When Anne, too, was cast aside (beheaded in 1536 on spurious allegations of incest and adultery), Cromwell boasted he had plotted the whole thing. He oversaw the dissolution of England’s monasteries and the atrocious programme of state theft, vandalism and judicial murder that comprised its means.
Preternaturally sure-footed and hardworking, Cromwell navigated Henry’s lethal lurches in mood, desire and interest for a decade. Then, in 1539 he overreached, ushering through the king’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves. Henry, obese, impotent and insecure, didn’t fancy Anne. Suddenly he didn’t fancy Cromwell, either. The boy from Putney was now Earl of Essex. Fat good it did him. When the king’s pleasure wavered, Cromwell’s enemies gleefully nudged Henry towards his extermination. Henry took little nudging.
The events of the 1530s were wildly dramatic and historically important and Cromwell (the name, MacCulloch writes, was probably pronounced “Crummel”) was at the heart of them. Still, he occupies historians and novelists to a remarkable degree.
MacCulloch knows this well. Today he is professor of the history of the church at Oxford University. As a postgraduate he was supervised by Geoffrey Elton, who proposed Cromwell as the architect of a “Tudor revolution in government”: the creator of modern bureaucracy out of the crabby and informal palace mess of the Middle Ages. Unpicking that ingenious thesis has provided a lifetime’s work for Elton’s most brilliant students (including David Starkey).
In a packed text, MacCulloch lays it finally to rest. He shows how, far from inventing a “modern” state, Cromwell built his power-base on the quiet accrual of quaint “medieval” posts that gave him maximum access to the king with minimum visibility, and the cultivation of 15th-century-style “affinities” of supporters. The signature reform of government process during his years in power, a move to rule through a formal Privy Council, actually stymied Cromwell — deliberately so.
These days, Elton’s Cromwell is less familiar than the fictionalised version found in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It is testament to Mantel’s deep understanding of the Henrician court and the popularity of her novels that most historians writing about Cromwell now find themselves in conversation with her work and anxious for her approval. MacCulloch is little different. His book comes Mantel-approved as “the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”. But this is not to say he supports everything she has written. To take one example: Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell’s father, Walter, as a brutalising bully, whom we meet beating his son in the searing opening sequence of Wolf Hall, is based, in MacCulloch’s view, on “Victorian fantasy”. In fact, the one relevant reference in Cromwell’s papers casts Walter in a pleasant light.
Does this matter? Only to readers who insist that historical fiction must unwaveringly follow fact. MacCulloch’s work has far greater value than a yardstick for Wolf Hall’s fidelity. It shows us a Cromwell who was an even more committed promoter of religious reform than is usually acknowledged; who shared nothing but this reforming instinct with Boleyn, who roundly despised him; whose thirst for revenge against those who brought down Wolsey ran to his marrow; who was capable of touching humanity and unbelievable, callous cruelty and fits of rage.

This is also a masterpiece of documentary detective-work, which buzzes with the excitement of a great historian immersed in archives, interrogating not only the thousands of papers Cromwell left behind, but also the gaps left by a (presumed) shredding of evidence as Cromwell’s partisans sought to save him from the king’s wrath at the end.
Most glorious are the sizzling put-downs MacCulloch regularly fires at Henry. The king, he writes, had the “ability to turn deep affection into deep hatred, and then to believe any old nonsense to reinforce his new point of view”. This is acute, elegant and devastating. Not much use to Cromwell, though. Before he was executed in July 1540, Henry carelessly described his most talented minister to the French ambassador as “a good manager, but not fit to meddle in the concerns of kings”. And that, as they say, was that.

Diarmaid MacCulloch delves deep into the soul of Thomas Cromwell – administrator, henchman and evangelical

By Marcus Nevitt
29 September 2018
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Mark Rylance as Cromwell in Wolf Hall © BBC

The final moments of Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall see its central protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, trying to banish ghosts. Assailed by memories of his orchestration of the execution of his rival Thomas More, the sight of his head on a block, the ‘sickening sound of the axe on flesh’, Cromwell turns to two sources of solace to improve his mood: the welfare of his household and — oddly, but characteristically —admin. In order to give us a Cromwell who is so much more than an insanely ambitious judicial murderer, Mantel leaves her readers with her protagonist fretting over the future happiness of his recently married secretary Ralph Sadler at the same time as he plots the precise detail of Henry VIII’s imminent progress to Bristol with real care and exactitude.
There is something of this determination to bring the quirks, warmth and light out of the dark material traces of Cromwell’s character in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s captivating and definitive new biography of Henry VIII’s most controversial of royal counsellors. Indeed, so nuanced and even-handed is his portrait that MacCulloch acknowledges that some might argue that he ‘underplays the… rapacity of Cromwell’s public career’.

It is easy to see why rapacity might be thought to be the key to unlocking the enigma of Thomas Cromwell; in a period obsessed with the preservation of vertiginous social hierarchies, but also familiar with the troubling phenomenon of social mobility — Cardinal Wolsey himself was likely a butcher’s son — Cromwell’s rise was so spectacular that it seems to demand some sort of further explanation rooted in the psychology of extraordinary individualism or in Nietzschean ideas of preternatural will. Thus, in his lifetime, Cromwell went from describing himself as a ‘ruffian’ member of the Putney yeomanry, whose family farmed and brewed beer, to becoming the father of the king’s brother-in-law (through the marriage of his son Gregory to Elizabeth Seymour, sister of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII). In 1535 he became Chancellor of the University of Cambridge without ever having been to university himself. Along the way he also became Earl of Essex, Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Master of the Jewels, Vicegerent in Spirituals (i.e. the layman responsible for exercising Henry VIII’s powers as supreme head of the Church), and Lord Privy Seal; he also accumulated vast quantities of land and property and, by the end of his life, had amassed an immense arsenal of weaponry at his house at Austin Friars sufficient to make an already paranoid and impetuous king extremely twitchy. The arms cache gave Henry VIII yet another reason, following Cromwell’s advocacy of his disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, to sanction his execution for treason, heresy and corruption in 1540.
Instead of a one-dimensional caricature of Cromwell as an unscrupulous Machiavel, determined only to advance his familial interests and line his pockets — and such travesties are common in sources as strikingly different as Cardinal Reginald Pole’s contemporary defence of papal supremacy De Unitate (1536) and Robert Hutchinson’s Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister (2007) — MacCulloch gives us depth and perspective on the contradictions and apparent inconsistencies of a man who improvised just as much as he choreographed his way to power. Thus Cromwell was an evangelical who loathed monastic excesses and the superstitions of the old religion, but who began his career selling indulgences (pardons supposed to shorten the duration of Purgatory for purchasers and their families) at the Gild of Our Lady at Boston in Lincolnshire. Where a lesser historian would see here only cynical, secularist opportunism, MacCulloch sagely reminds us how ‘in the first stages of the English Reformation, religious boundaries were yet to be defined clearly, particularly when people balanced lucrative careers with sincerely held but evolving belief’.
It is the continued centrality of this question of religious belief in this assessment of Cromwell’s life and career that makes it so compelling and authoritative. Cromwell was, MacCulloch shows, an enterprising and committed evangelical; intimately acquainted with William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, he became a staunch advocate of vernacular Bible reading, authorising English translations of the Matthew Bible (1537) and the Great Bible (1539); he patronised a theatre company, the Lord Cromwell’s Players, who specialised in the performance of Reformist drama by the evangelical polemicist John Bale in the late 1530s. Given these credentials, how could so convinced an evangelical as Cromwell allow himself to be protected by and, in turn, do his utmost to defend, that most grandiose of late medieval churchmen, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey? ‘Nicodemism’ is MacCulloch’s brilliant answer, a willingness to subordinate true religious views and dissemble some degree of conformity to the official religion. While the apparent bad faith of Nicodemism concerned Reformers like John Calvin, a Nicodemite version of Reformed Protestantism actually became crucial for a later Elizabethan Church of England which needed to help large swaths of the conforming faithful negotiate the terms of their Roman Catholic past.
In putting religious belief at the heart of this biography, and in characterising Cromwell as a Nicodemite rather than a Machiavel, a secularist, or a devil, MacCulloch redefines his subject’s contribution to Tudor history. MacCulloch nowhere tries to exonerate Cromwell from his involvement in torture and judicial killings — one favoured piece of interrogation advice was to ‘pinch him [the prisoner] with pains’ — but as a man of evangelical belief as well as violence he seems less of an ahistorical monster and more like a recognisable but prodigiously powerful statesman of his period; Thomas More, as Lord Chancellor, too, of course, had his own record of burning heretics.
Making Cromwell a man of faith also enables MacCulloch to renegotiate his relationship with his own mentor, the biography’s dedicatee, Sir Geoffrey Elton (1921–94). Elton supervised MacCulloch’s PhD at Cambridge and for 45 years made Cromwell central to his writings and understanding of the Tudor age, transforming him from mere flunkey of Henry VIII to a harbinger of modernity itself. In Elton’s telling, most famously in The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953), Cromwell was primarily responsible for remodelling the ways in which English central government was administered, developing a governmental machine that turned from managing medieval households to bureaucratising the nation. There is little room for religious belief in this reading of Tudor government and the idea has had its critics from its first appearance — there are playful echoes of it, too, in Cromwell’s consoling turn to admin at the end of Mantel’s Wolf Hall. MacCulloch’s revision shows how the formation of modern administrative structures like the Privy Council was actually an attempt to limit Cromwell’s power, and the effect of his evangelical ideas, over the king, rather than being the ultimate expression of his dominating influence.
Elton famously refused to write a biography of Cromwell, despite multiple invitations to do so, proclaiming that a man who was less an individual personality than a figure representative of an entire age was ‘not biographable’. This meticulously researched, beautifully written and, it must be said, very long book — there are more than 100 pages of bibliographic and discursive endnotes alone — is MacCulloch’s wonderful rejoinder.

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