Thomas Cromwell: Rags to Riches to the Scaffold

Guest post by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Thomas Cromwell has rarely had a good press, even in Protestant England’s triumphant island story, in which the Pope’s deluded followers were repeatedly put in their place so that the British Empire could flourish and spread Christian civilisation far and wide.  In that tale, Henry VIII could take all the credit for making Tudor England walk tall, and he had the glamour which his most effective minister notoriously lacked.  Various surviving versions of Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell do not flatter this busy royal minister: even the one which hung in his own house – which I find in itself interesting and rather admirable.  

Roman Catholics have always hated Cromwell, and curiously, so have many Anglicans, as they turned away from their Protestant Reformation heritage and waxed sentimental about the ruins of England’s monasteries (you can’t deny Cromwell’s central part in destroying the monasteries).  Many politicians and notables at the time hated him out of sheer snobbery: how could talent and efficiency possibly be allowed to snatch power from good breeding and ancient pedigree?  So from several different points of view, Cromwell ends up being seen as a thug in a doublet doing the bidding of Henry VIII, the Tudor Stalin.

 



Hilary Mantel in two brilliant and widely-acclaimed novels, with another still to come, has done much to alter this dismal picture.  She has done precisely in semi-fictional style what I’ve also sought to do in my biography of Cromwell: recapture the complexity of this fascinating, self-taught man, who rose from the back alleys of rural Putney to become Earl of Essex, one of the oldest noble titles in the realm, yet who in the moment of this greatest triumph, was struck down and destroyed.

There is a difficulty in ever writing Cromwell’s life properly.  Cromwell’s papers survive in vast numbers, thanks to the political accident that they were seized from his filing-system at his arrest and have stayed in government hands ever since, but they amount to the contents of his in-tray, rather than his own letters out.  That I suggest is the result of a quick decision which his household made when he was arrested: they burned the out-tray, because that would be where the incriminating material would be.  It would be much less easy for Cromwell’s enemies around the King to build an accusation on what other people write.  So they handed over the in-tray, and that was huge.  A good try, though it didn’t work.  But it has largely deprived us of his voice.

Once we try to penetrate the silence, a rather different Cromwell emerges.  My aim has been to put Cromwell back in the centre of Tudor England’s picture, without the bias which led one of his most recent and crudest of biographers, Robert Hutchinson, to call him ‘an ambitious and totally corrupt statesman, … an opportunistic jack-the-lad, a ruffian on the make’.  Let readers judge!

Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church, University of Oxford

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