Overrated: Thomas Cromwell

The ruthless architect of the English Reformation

Daniel Johnson

Thomas Cromwell: “Wolf Hall” has a lot to answer for (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Thomas Cromwell ruined the Church in England and reinvented it as the Church of England. He thereby imposed his adopted Protestant faith on his countrymen, while  destroying the Catholic faith of their fathers — and, incidentally, of his master Henry VIII. The King rejoiced until his dying day in the Papal title of defensor fideii, Defender of the Faith, and executed “Sacramentarians” (those who denied the Real Presence in the Eucharist) as heretics. Ironically, his minister Cromwell was one of them.

His Protestantism seems to have been of a more radical kind than that espoused by his ally and fellow architect of Anglicanism, Archbishop Cranmer. Whereas Cranmer equivocated, Cromwell deliberately demolished as much as possible of a millennium of Catholic Christianity in a decade of hyperactivity. He thereby enhanced the power and prestige of “this realm of England”, enabling Henry to crush popular uprisings, even the 40,000-strong Pilgrimage of Grace.

Such frightening efficiency has earned Thomas Cromwell many admirers in recent times, beginning half a century ago with the late Sir Geoffrey Elton, and culminating in the bestselling novels of Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, which were adapted for television with Mark Rylance as Cromwell. Now the distinguished Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has become his latest champion, with Thomas Cromwell: A Life (Allen Lane, £30), which Mantel describes as “the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”.

MacCulloch’s scholarship is impressive and he succeeds triumphantly in overcoming the main obstacle that has always inhibited Cromwell’s biographers: the destruction of all copies of the minister’s letters by his faithful amanuenses, once his loss of the King’s favour became clear. This resulted in the survival of only one side of his correspondence, what MacCulloch calls Cromwell’s “in tray”. The absence of a large corpus of his writing explains why he has seemed a shadowy figure. Yet that very impersonality has been a gift to Hilary Mantel and Mark Rylance, who are able to impose their own interpretations.

Perhaps the most personal document we have is Holbein’s masterly portrait, which evokes the saturnine, even sinister air that inspired such fear. Cromwell read his older contemporary Machiavelli in the original, having travelled extensively in Italy as a young man; and he certainly put the Florentine philosopher’s principles into practice with consummate skill.

But for his aristocratic rivals at court, the blacksmith’s son, now Lord Privy Seal, was always too clever by half. Unlike the notoriously flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves, Holbein’s depiction of Cromwell shows, along with the acuity and authority of the politician, a man consumed by ambition. His hatred of the hereditary nobility, above all the leader of the ultra-Catholic faction, the Duke of Norfolk, boiled over in a moment of rage that was later used against him: “If the Lords would handle him so, [. . .] he would give them such a breakfast as was never made in England.”

His humble origins did for him in the end. Wholly dependent on Henry’s favour, despite his titles and wealth, Cromwell was damaged by the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, which he had promoted as part of his wider strategy to align England with the Protestant powers of northern Europe. But Henry was unable to consummate the marriage; after six months of misery, the “great matter” of the King’s impotence with Anne came to a head when he confided in Cromwell. Sick at heart, the Lord Privy Seal revealed the secret to his secretary, Thomas Wriothesley — an indiscretion tantamount to treason.

It was a fatal mistake. Wriothesley had learned his master’s lesson too well: abandon any lord, no matter how high and mighty, who loses Henry’s favour. In a matter of days, “those determined to foil the spreading evangelical coup said the right things to the King to achieve the desired result”. Cromwell’s fall was precipitate: Norfolk ripped the collar of St George from his neck, Admiral Southampton untied the Garter, and he was despatched to the Tower. Within days, Parliament had passed an Act of Attainder, saving the trouble of a trial, swiftly followed by Anne’s annulment. A few weeks later Cromwell was executed, on the same day that Henry married Katherine Howard.

Diarmaid MacCulloch gives Cromwell full credit, not just for the English Reformation, but for the British Empire. “That imperial story lies behind the formation of another world power whose time may similarly pass, the United States of America. This, and much more, for better or worse, remains the legacy of Thomas Cromwell.”

This is surely to overrate his achievement. It was Cranmer’s political theology, not Cromwell’s Swiss reformers, that shaped the Anglican settlement which emerged under Elizabeth I. What MacCulloch calls the “triumph of Cromwell’s campaign of evangelical Reformation” would have been unthinkable without Henry’s acquiescence, and only became irreversible after the brief but decisive reign of his sickly son, Edward VI. In the Tudor era, English history was ultimately determined not by ministers, but by monarchs.

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