THOMAS CROMWELL was among the most ruthless and manipulative men ever to hold office in England, a death merchant for the deranged, fickle Henry VIII, who killed and persecuted thousands of innocent men for obeying their conscience and the tenets of their religion. Indifferent to truth and a stranger to mercy, this political animal was rightly executed for treason in 1540, proof that those who live by the sword, die by it.
Thomas Cromwell rose from a poor, modest background to become the engineer of great religious and social reform in England, shining light into the last few corners of its Dark Ages. A champion of education and spiritual transparency, he fought Catholic corruption and had an English translation of the Bible installed in churches for the first time, strengthening the nation and equipping its people with the means by which to take charge of their souls and salvation.
While both accounts of King Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1530 to 1540 contain elements of truth, both reduce him to a caricature without nuance or subtlety in order to serve a particular version of history. The first finds corroboration in a contemporary portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger that shows a heavyset, jowly Cromwell clutching a piece of paper (a death sentence? a promissory note to Satan?) and staring off to his right with reptilian stoniness, whereas the second reflects our modern sympathy for anyone whose success is based more on talent and skill than on heredity and fortune. It’s Cromwell the Executioner versus Cromwell the Industrious Everyman. What both versions agree on is his importance in steering England at an epochal moment, when a system of order and legitimacy based on fealty to a foreign power, Rome, gave way to one of greater self-sufficiency and autonomy.
For close to 500 years, however, Cromwell was considered just one tool in the king’s administrative arsenal, an effective but interchangeable political operative. In Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII, he’s a minor character who does little more than swell the scene, in every way less impressive than his master, Lord Chancellor Wolsey. It took British historian Geoffrey Elton’s seminal 1953 book, The Tudor Revolution in Government, to establish Cromwell as more than that — as, rather, a primary architect of the British government’s evolution from a household-based system to the vast bureaucracy it is today. Since then, he has been portrayed as the uncomplicated villain of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons and the complicated hero of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books.
That a man can be understood so differently by writers acting in good faith is due to a number of factors: his distance from us in time, our incomplete record of his correspondence, the nature of politics, and the nature of observation. Looking at the undisputed facts about Cromwell, historians like Elton can argue safely that he amassed and wielded an unprecedented amount of political control. When it comes to his psychological make-up, they must stop short of making claims unsupported by documents from the period. It’s as frustrating as it is fascinating.
To get a sense of Cromwell’s character, therefore, we must turn to dramatists and novelists who aren’t afraid — and who assume the poetic license — to look at his actions through an interpretive lens. The trial of Sir Thomas More provides a prime example of how differently the scene can thus appear. Cromwell presided over More’s trial, wherein the accused was sentenced to death for refusing to sign an oath recognizing the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Was Cromwell’s part in this trial cynical or sincere? In A Man for All Seasons, Bolt depicts him as a cold, calculating man who jerry-rigs the trial so that pure, incorruptible More is found guilty by a bunch of toadying jurors, whereas in Wolf Hall Mantel paints More as a hypocritical pseudo-saint whose fidelity to Rome, violence against heretics, and snobbery toward the unflappable, morally mysterious Cromwell are despicable. It’s impossible to say which Cromwell — or which More — is closer to the real one, but we can note that Bolt wrote his play at the height of Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt, when standing up for one’s convictions against the rabid paranoia of politicians defined courage, and that Hilary Mantel, who was raised in the Catholic Church before undergoing a major apostasy, has attacked the Church’s “cruelty” and “hypocrisy” and called it “not an institution for respectable people.”
Before further considering the claims for and against Cromwell, we should look at the events preceding his rise to power. 40 years earlier in 1485, England emerged from its War of the Roses, an epic struggle for royal supremacy fought between two families, the Lancasters and the Yorks (followers of Game of Thrones will recognize these names as the inspiration for the Lannisters and the Starks), when a Lancastrian named Henry Tudor assumed the throne and christened himself Henry VII. He and his son, who would grow up to be Henry VIII, were acutely aware of their position’s fragility, it being new and open to challenge from a galaxy of aspirants with legitimate or semi-legitimate royal claims, and therefore eager to get rid of anyone who threatened their dynasty.
By 1529, Henry VIII was worried that his wife of 20-some years, Catherine, would never give him a son. With the Tudor line of succession in danger of ending so soon after it began, he instructed his chief advisor, Wolsey, to procure a papal dispensation for his divorce — Rome acted as a kind of toll-collector-cum-lawyer for England at the time, taking its money and serving as its final arbiter on important legal matters — which would free him to marry a younger woman, Anne Boleyn, and try again for a male heir. When Wolsey failed, Cromwell, his secretary, helped to devise a brilliant solution: England would break away from Rome to form its own church, the Church of England, and Henry, as its head, would grant himself the permission that the pope had withheld.
Cromwell’s role in this radical change was surprising for a number of reasons, not least of which was his humble background. Born the son of a blacksmith into a rigid class society, when sons were expected to follow in their father’s professional footsteps, he showed great intelligence and independence from an early age. As a teenager, he went to Europe to work first as a mercenary for the French army, then as a businessman in Italy. He returned to England a decade later knowing several languages and supposedly having memorized the New Testament. In addition to building a thriving law practice, he began working for Wolsey and gained a reputation for brilliant tactical thought that allowed him not only to survive his master’s disgrace, but to replace him in the King’s confidence.
Cromwell’s success over the next 10 years can be measured by the heights he reached at court, from his early appointment to the Privy Council to the final offices he held, as the Earl of Essex and the Great Chamberlain. It can also be measured by his many powerful enemies. Courtiers and aristocrats resented that a commoner enjoyed such great favor with the King — Mantel skillfully uses this class prejudice to build readers’ and viewers’ sympathy for Cromwell — and disliked his advocacy of the English Reformation and the Protestant cause.
And so we return to the question of whether he was, as his detractors have claimed, an opportunist who used Catholic abuses as an excuse to suppress England’s monasteries and redirect the flow of money from Rome to the King, or whether, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, he was genuinely appalled at what the Catholic Church did to maintain its wealth and power (inventing purgatory, controlling the Bible’s message, selling indulgences, etc.). There is no doubt that he opposed many Catholic practices, and that he was instrumental in establishing the Church of England. Beyond that, nothing is certain.
Whether a hero or a villain, Cromwell was extraordinary. As Elton writes, “It was not the sudden inspiration of a great and detailed plan (though he was in time to produce that), nor yet the hidden machinations of Satan, that gave Henry the second great minister of his reign. Cromwell had to prove himself by hard work and administrative efficiency, by showing himself to be a skillful and swift agent of the royal will to whom gradually more and more work came to be entrusted.” That we can’t assign his diligence and talent to good or evil is a blessing for anyone who enjoys the shape-shifting nature of history, or who finds his malice in A Man for All Seasons as intriguing as his inscrutability in Wolf Hall. Though we will never find him, let the search for Cromwell go on.