Sunday 20 January 2019

Will the real Thomas Cromwell please stand up?

History: Thomas Cromwell, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Allen Lane, hardback, 752 pages, €42

Sympathetic: Mark Rylance as Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Mantel's Wolf Hall
Sympathetic: Mark Rylance as Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Mantel's Wolf Hall
Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch

The problem with writing a biography of Thomas Cromwell, Diarmaid MacCulloch once noted, is that "he is a relative of Macavity the cat". The self-made son of Putney who rose by his own will and talent to become Henry VIII's most powerful servant is the hidden paw behind the English Reformation. We know Cromwell was there at the very centre, and we can be sure enough he was instrumental. But he always seems to end up a goodly distance from any infamous act, and all the footprints between have been fanned away with a whisk of his tail, or at least by friends and family seeking to preserve his reputation after his execution.

Between the guarded character of the man himself, the normal regrettable losses of history, and deliberate destruction of evidence, there are so many lacunae in Cromwell's life that the doyen of Tudor history, Sir Geoffrey Elton, once described him as simply "not biographable".

Mystery is as much a temptation as a challenge, though, and MacCulloch is far from alone in taking on this particular one. Lives of Cromwell run all the way from the Protestant hagiography of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563), via the less sympathetic sketch in William Cobbett's History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1824), right up to more recent, more deliberately balanced studies such as Tracy Borman's Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant (2014) and Michael Everett's The Rise of Thomas Cromwell: Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII (2015). And, of course, over all of these loom Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) - the books that have done more than any other to body Cromwell forth for modern readers.

Though Mantel's singularly sympathetic Cromwell has come to dominate the popular imagination, verdicts on him have historically been split. For Foxe, he was a man of "synguler excellencie of wysdome and counsell", a committed "shield" of the true Gospel. For Cobbett he was, after his father's supposed trade, a "brutal blacksmith [...] for whom ruffian is too gentle a term".

Modern commentators have tended to see him as varying shades of constitutional hero, who - whatever his motives - reshaped the machinery of the English state so efficiently that it remained little changed until the late 19th Century. As to his faith, between his closeness to Thomas Wolsey - opulent Catholicism's best-dressed English avatar - and his iron-fisted suppression of the monasteries, many have found it hard to tell exactly what he believed.

This is one of the reasons, of course, that Mantel's psychological reconstruction lingers so long in the memory: it has the ambiguity and the humour of the real. When he sees his own intimidating 1532 portrait by Holbein, her Cromwell exclaims: "Christ, I look like a murderer." He is not wrong, either visually or historiographically. But Mantel's achievement is to make him attractive all the same, more hero than antihero, even if, in her memorable description, he looks like he is "throttling" that document in his hand.

Though he pays a gracious compliment to Mantel in his introduction, MacCulloch's is a different enterprise altogether. He admits that one of the singular achievements of her soon-to-be-completed trilogy is to create from her deep knowledge of the period a Cromwell so lifelike that it is easy to forget, "as Mantel herself has frequently (and with mounting weariness) emphasised", that he is fictional. But fictional he is, and MacCulloch aims for the real, much more elusive, "true Thomas Cromwell of history" whose ghost flits through "the maze" of surviving papers in the National Archives and British Library.

If anyone is qualified for the task, it is MacCulloch, who has spent a distinguished career illuminating the history of the church and the English reformation over the course of a dozen books, sundry documentaries, and too many articles to count. With authoritative studies of Cromwell's unpredictably pious and concupiscent overlord under his belt, MacCulloch brings to his work a probably unequalled knowledge of the Tudor age. Perhaps more importantly, MacCulloch brings intimate knowledge of the reformation's cross-currents, and rare patience for the niggling details on which the future of an entire continent hung. In other words, while it is unlikely at this point that any biography will displace Mantel's Cromwell from most readers' minds, MacCulloch's is the one that historians have been waiting for.

The Cromwell that emerges, reconstructed in snatches from letters, laws, and court documents, has, it turns out, plenty in common with Mantel's. Like hers, MacCulloch's is superabundantly talented, ambitious - what else could explain his rise from Putney commoner to king's right hand? - and, like hers, he is personally loyal beyond the bounds of his religious convictions and his own best interests.

He is, however, more explicitly committed to the evangelical revolution than any Cromwell since Foxe's: a man whose desire to foster the "true religion" often outran political expediency, and in the end contributed to his downfall and execution at the hands of his paradoxically conservative master.

The general reader should be warned that this is not Tudor biography of the sensationalising and journalistic type, but of the slow and dense mode favoured by the specialist. In some sense - and wisely - MacCulloch takes Mantel's brilliance as letting him off the hook: with her work in the world there is really no need for him to enter into the quasi-novelistic flights of fancy that Tudor biography is wont to inspire. Though he writes in his accustomed fine, wry style, it is the wit of the don speaking to other dons.

Instead this is careful stuff, evidenced to the hilt - there are some 150 pages of notes, bibliography and index alone. When MacCulloch makes statements about his players' characters, he is more likely to be talking about their handwriting than anything else, and his reliance on original documents rather than modern commentators or edited editions is absolute. And though his preference for the rather modest formula 'A Life' gestures to a sense that he knows that this is unlikely to be the final word on Cromwell, it is hard to see how it could be surpassed.

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