A Tale of Henry VIII’s Other Thomas The new biography of Thomas Cromwell shows the fine line between loyalty, dissent, and treachery.

Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life

By Diarmaid MacCulloch (2018, New York: Viking/Penguin), 752 pages with index, endnotes, color plates, and black and white illustrations

Why should we care? In this multicultural age, why should The Common Reader commission a review of a 700-page biography of a 16th-century English politician and administrator written by Oxford University’s Professor of Church History? More to the point, why might transatlantic readers be expected to read a work that promises to be rather more taxing than the average BBC series? MacCulloch’s slightly awkward gesture on his final page to the relevance of Thomas Cromwell to America shows that he is not unaware of the question.

One answer may have something to do with the relation of life and art:  if not quite imitating it, something close to that. The reign of England’s Henry VIII has been well served by its image-makers. One of the first was an immigrant, the German portraitist Hans Holbein. He did much to make Henry’s courtiers—the young and the glamorous, even occasionally the old and the workaday—seem almost like people of our own time. Some of his images, in particular the charming and rarely seen likenesses of Thomas Cromwell’s son and daughter-in-law, appear as plates in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book. Another famous pair stare past each other across the fireplace at the Frick Collection in New York. The disposition there of Holbein’s two Thomases, More and Cromwell, one a Catholic saint and the other MacCulloch’s subject, servants and victims alike of their murderous king, catches the drama of the age. It certainly catches the eye.

There is no question that MacCulloch had Mantel in view, perhaps not when he set about his research on the biography years ago but certainly as he wrote. He tells us as much in his first sentence.

The two Thomases also tell stories, or perhaps they tell a single story. One of the portraits bedecks angst with the insignia of office, and it is a vision that animates The Man for All Seasons, the multi-Oscar movie of 1966 about the discomforts of the principled intellectual in government. His meaty companion seems the very type of the enforcer, a Soprano without Tony’s panache. The characterizations have shaped generations in their thinking, not just about Henry’s scrupling Lord Chancellor who died on the block but also about the man who helped put him there, Henry’s bustling chief minister, the supreme man of business, who himself ended on the block a few years later. And they have continued to shape image-making, not just the expansive Thomas More industry but also that great venture of our own time, the Thomas Cromwell novels of Hilary Mantel—at 1000 pages and counting (her third volume is at this writing still to come) monumental in their own way and certainly in terms of quality and prize-winning capacity overwhelming.

It would be a travesty to suggest that Mantel’s Cromwell is her counter to Holbein’s, but she had that figure in view. And there is no question that MacCulloch had Mantel in view, perhaps not when he set about his research on the biography years ago but certainly as he wrote. He tells us as much in his first sentence. Mantel’s name appears repeatedly in his index, and her words grace his book jacket: MacCulloch’s is, she tells us, a book that “we have been awaiting for four hundred years.” If this is not life imitating art, it is scholarship responding to the art of fiction.

So if we ask why common readers might read MacCulloch’s Cromwell, one answer would surely be Mantel: after all, the sales data and the literary prizes declare many of us have read (or at least bought) her work. At a trivial level, that answer is surely correct. A quick web search shows how widely MacCulloch’s book has been reviewed, and such currency is a testament to how much Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the BBC series based on it, with the lead superbly played by Mark Rylance, have raised Thomas Cromwell’s profile and behind it that of the whole Henrician world. If readers come to MacCulloch’s Cromwell with Mantel’s hero in view, it will be no bad thing. The one may not have quite the flair of the other, but MacCulloch’s prose runs it close.

To have the two portraits, the novelist’s and the historian’s, so close to each other in time, scale, and quality (and the authors declare their own friendship too), has more than market value. Not often do we have the chance or the incentive to compare the two crafts so directly. Mantel and MacCulloch were working from fundamentally the same long-available archive, Cromwell’s voluminous papers confiscated at his fall.  The novelist’s interest in the internal is greater and the historian followed the paper trail of externals more assiduously, but the novelist was scarcely a slouch. And they faced the same problem, the one-sidedness of an archive that consists essentially of just the massive in-box. (MacCulloch argues convincingly that Cromwell’s servants weeded out his copies and drafts for protection as the axe was being readied.) Mantel’s brilliant solution to the problem of the absent words of the man himself was to detach the voice and almost the person—the slippery “he” that can perplex the reader on first encounter with her pages. MacCulloch’s approach was to dig deeper and to triangulate as much as possible—who else was at that place when this plea or complaint seems to have been written? who later got a piece of property there at the grand shake-down when all the monasteries were dissolved?

The question of responsibility matters in a number of ways. Most obviously, it matters for the many who are fascinated with Anne Boleyn.

If readers can spare the time, and I hope they will, it is worth testing the strengths of both portraits. Mantel’s, not surprisingly, is the more coherent, for she has a story (over which she has considerable control despite the archive) she wants to tell and characters she chooses to explore. The outcome is of course brilliant. But in the end, the absent voice that shapes her method shapes her characterization. We can best register that when we see what with some more research (and the endnotes show how extensive and intensive that was) MacCulloch makes of the same incidents and the same people. It is surely no accident that Mantel’s Cromwell comes across as pensive and slightly detached, the recipient of others’ words, the executor of designs others suggested and that surely needed to take effect—chiefly because they expressed the will or the wishes, all too often incoherent as well as vengeful, of King Henry. By digging deeper into the trails of patronage and association and by assembling circumstantial evidence with a skill worthy of the most industrious prosecuting attorney, MacCulloch shows (at least to the satisfaction of this reader) that often enough the designs were those of Thomas Cromwell. It can be no surprise that so much of the evidence is only circumstantial for on the bloody field of the Henrician court it did not take much of a scent to start the dogs barking.

The question of responsibility matters in a number of ways. Most obviously, it matters for the many who are fascinated with Anne Boleyn. Following the best scholarship of her time of writing, Mantel presented Queen Anne as the more or less hapless victim of King Henry’s unsteady lusts and loyalties and his paranoia. Cromwell was here the consummate facilitator and agent. But MacCulloch takes seriously his later claim to the Emperor’s ambassador that he did it all himself, and he shows not only how but also why the King’s henchman should have wanted to take down the King’s wife when she was at least as much a critic of the old Catholic Church as he. The “why” is both circumstantial—the conflicts unleashed by the first moves against the Church—and deeply personal. Most urgently, Anne seemed to be preparing to strike against Cromwell himself. As well, and of course, she had been decisive in the fall of his great patron, Cardinal Wolsey. Anne’s hatred for the man who failed to clear the way for her to marry the King was never in doubt, but MacCulloch goes further to show us just how devoted Cromwell was to Wolsey’s memory and how distant therefore he stood from the Queen.

Cromwell the torch-carrier for a dead cardinal of the Roman Church in England that he dismantled seems paradoxical enough, but MacCulloch has much more to make of the ecclesiastical upheavals of the 1530s. And it is here that once again the question of responsibility matters. For Mantel, whose main concern is the vicious personal and marital politics of the decade, whose main source was an archive generally silent on the dangerous matter of religion, and whose two volumes to date close just before the frontal attack on the monasteries and the plunder of the colossal wealth of the English Church, England’s break from Rome served as both necessary condition and momentous backdrop for the crises of the royal marriages. But by careful excavation of Cromwell’s patronage of preachers and printers and playwrights too and his efforts to ease the travels of English students to the Swiss Protestant bastion of Zurich MacCulloch, not for nothing the Professor of Church History, makes a convincing case for Cromwell’s deep and motivating commitment to a Protestantism that was definitely not Martin Luther’s. Still more certainly that vision was not King Henry’s, and one of the great achievements of this book is to show England being taken down a road not of its formidable ruler’s choosing. Cromwell duly got his comeuppance, but as MacCulloch points out Henry’s sexual humiliation (the Ann of Cleves marriage fiasco) was at least as instrumental there as his servant’s chutzpah. And on that explosive subject we await Ms. Mantel’s third volume.

The account of Cromwell’s sense of religious mission justifies MacCulloch’s sub-title, “A Revolutionary Life.” In that age, to subvert and remodel the institutional Church and formal religion and to do so in conscious despite of the King was truly revolutionary. But the sub-title has a particular elegance in its guarded salute to MacCulloch’s Ph.D. adviser. The late Sir Geoffrey Elton, the authority on Tudor England for the middle and later 20th century, made his name with the argument that England’s one true revolution, its advance into modernity, was not the work of that collateral descendant Oliver Cromwell a century later as romantics and woolly Marxists assumed. Rather, revolution consisted in the bracingly formal governmental systems Elton supposed Thomas to have built. Like almost all historians now, MacCulloch has no truck with the details of his mentor’s argument, since for him, and wholly plausibly, Thomas was no system-builder but an improvisatory genius. Nevertheless, he retrieves Elton’s baby from the bathwater by leaving us with a revolutionary still—though, impatient of religious commitments, the master might have lamented his pupil’s imputation of zeal to his own sternly bureaucratic superhero. Perhaps he would have found almost as grating the fact that MacCulloch managed to deliver a life at all, for he had rashly proclaimed that the evidentiary problems meant that Thomas Cromwell was not susceptible to biography.

MacCulloch’s Cromwell is a man of the Tudor age, abidingly loyal to his patrons and usually to his clients too, capable of bursts of rage, preoccupied to the end with establishing and preserving his son in a dynasty of his own. And what a dynasty it might have been.

Cromwell was, MacCulloch shows, no shaper of modernity, and that surely will help make his book of interest to readers today. MacCulloch’s Cromwell is a man of the Tudor age, abidingly loyal to his patrons and usually to his clients too, capable of bursts of rage, preoccupied to the end with establishing and preserving his son in a dynasty of his own. And what a dynasty it might have been. Thomas Cromwell secured as bride for young Gregory Cromwell the sister of Jane Seymour, Henry’s favorite queen. Elizabeth Seymour seems to have been an impressive young woman, and that may make it even less surprising that this aspiring uncle-by-marriage to the King, born the son of a blacksmith on the southwestern outskirts of London, was by the end so generously hated.

But modern readers may pause over implications of MacCulloch’s insistence not on Cromwell’s agency—that would scarcely be news—but his responsibility. For what Cromwell did was often not very nice. On occasion, as MacCulloch notes though without comment, Cromwell ordered a prisoner subjected to what he called “pains”—torture. He tells us too that Cromwell dispatched religious dissidents of one sort or another to grim and sometimes lethal incarceration and others to more efficient and very painful deaths—and he makes clear that occasionally Cromwell did so in order to free religious dissidents of his own more mainstream variety from the tar of association. He was not quite as harsh to the other Thomas as some of his colleagues, and it may be the case that Thomas More did not hold a grudge. It is worth remembering too that (as Elton triumphantly demonstrated long ago) More was capable of his own grim doings, though in the name of truth—the resonance of that 1966 movie for the generation raised in the shadow of JFK’s Camelot is clear. Even so, it would have been good to see MacCulloch wrestle with More’s reported advice to his nemesis, that Cromwell should counsel the King not on what he could do but on what he ought to do. Despite or still more because of all that this study tells us, those two portraits in the Frick can set us thinking after close to 500 years.

Holbein and his subjects could have understood the key terms in the previous paragraph, though they would not have understood this reviewer’s regret at the way MacCulloch lets slide another question of responsibility that he raises. It was not just in Cromwell’s years but in his very papers that the crucial decisions were taken making Ireland into England’s technical problem to solve. And MacCulloch presents them pretty much as such. Given Henry’s psyche, will, ideology of kingship, it is difficult to see the drift of those decisions running any other way. But given all the blood and treasure that have flowed out of the decisions taken then and that still flow even up to the present when an Irish “backstop” haunts Brexit and likely enough promises real disintegration down the road, it would have been good to see the many English readers that will be won by this deservedly successful book brought to face the meaning of that history and who shaped it. Instead of the ornate fireplace that separates Holbein’s two Thomases, we should imagine a simple mirror.