Monday 1 April 2019

Thomas Cromwell by Mary Hoffman (review)

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger 1534
In Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell shows this portrait to his son Gregory. It has recently come from the painter, Hans Holbein the Younger. Cromwell tells Gregory that someone has told him he looks like a murderer. "Didn't you know?" the boy responds.

Holbein has not flattered his subject, it's true, but we see here the real man, with a firm grasp on his work, and on England. It is the man that Dairmaid MacCulloch gives us in his thorough biography, Thomas Cromwell: a Life.

Especially during the last decade of his life, while working for the king, Henry Vlll, Cromwell was everywhere, as a civil servant and politician, a man with considerable power both in secular life and over the church. He was incredibly hard-working, intelligent and with an impressive attention to detail. As one of his servants says on looking at the portrait earlier, according to Mantel, he was not and did not look like a man to cross.

What characterises his work and his personality is what MacCulloch describes as his "omnicompetence." That made me ache with longing for such a politician to take today's situation in hand. (Although it is unlikely he would have let us get into today's situation in the first place). At the height of his career, no-one bothered to write an address of correspondence to the king's secretary, later Lord Privy Seal: "His name would find him more easily than his exact location."

MacCulloch is generous in acknowledging the interest in his subject generated by Hilary Mantel's two novels. In a rare appreciation of historical fiction by a "straight" historian, he says, "to call them 'historical novels' does them an injustice; they are novels which happen to be set in the sixteenth century, and with a profound knowledge of how that era functioned.'

Coming fresh to biography from fiction, I was surprised to discover that Cromwell's father was possibly not a blacksmith but definitely a brewer and, though he was a bit of a thug, there is no evidence that he was brutal to his son. Thomas, as a teenager at the turn of the sixteenth century, took himself off to the continent, ending up in Italy, but not to escape his father. It looks more as if he was escaping Putney, in order to spread his wings and learn more about the wider world.

If that is the case, he succeeded brilliantly well; his facility with the Italian language and with continental mores came in very useful later.

MacCulloch has scrutinised what remains of Cromwell's vast correspondence. You might naturally expect that to consist of what was in his in-box but in fact in Tudor times it was customary to keep copies or at least drafts of letters out as well. In Cromwell's case, there are massive gaps, attributable to his loyal servants having hastily burned many documents at the time of his fall from grace in 1540. It must have been hasty as Cromwell's downfall unfolded as rapidly as any he had brought about for others.

For all of what is missing, MacCullough has meticulously sifted through whatever was available and constantly turns the figure of Cromwell round to cast light on unexpected facets. There is a salutary reminder that it was Cardinal Wolsey, not Cromwell, who started the programme of systematic dissolution of the monasteries, so closely associated with Henry Vlll and his right hand man.
Because Cromwell had been Wolsey's right hand man until the cardinal's fall, as inevitable as, though less speedy than Cromwell's own a decade later. Cromwell's loyalty to his former patron is as unshakeable as it is occasionally unwise. Take the coat of arms (above) he took up to reflect the importance of his position in court in 1532, when he was granted lands in Wales. If you compare it with that of Cardinal Wolsey (below) you will see the similarity.

Cromwell took the 'chief'  (the headband) of Wolsey's coat and made it his 'fess,' (central band). In both cases there is a red rose, symbol of the king, between two Cornish choughs. MacCulloch calls this "a defiant statement of support" for the cardinal. (The chough, with its heraldic associations with Thomas Becket, had become the appropriate symbol for all Thomases).

In spite of his competent organising of events like Queen Anne's coronation in 1533 or the meeting with the French court in Calais and Boulogne in 1532, Cromwell was not made so much as a knight until after Anne Boleyn's death. No glamorous titles and robes for him; instead he was put in charge of sewers.

That meant something different in 16th century England from what it does today. It included weirs and waterworks and Cromwell tackled the commission with the energy and attention to detail he seemed to bring to every project that passed through his hands. As well as becoming the most powerful and dangerous man in England, he was certainly one of the busiest in Europe.

But what we want to know about is his relationship with Anne Boleyn and her fate. In spite of the profound effect Cromwell had on the running of England, some of which is apparent to this day, it is his involvement in the king's marital affairs that dominate the life of this remarkable man.

MacCulloch says that Henry's first marriage was "for dynastic reasons," which is a bit harsh. It was honourable and conscientious of the teenage prince to take on his late brother's widow and it seems as if that was not in accord with his father's wishes, whose treatment of Katherine of Aragon was less than kind.

However, there was no doubt by the end of the 1520s that Henry had set his mind on a new young wife, to give him the longed-for heir and this time the match was not dynastically valuable. Cromwell was as energetic in pursuing ways the king could annul his marriage as he was about every task he was given. But he and Anne had a complex relationship.

For a start, Cromwell could not forgive her the role she played in the downfall of his old mentor Thomas Wolsey. Then there was the fact that in all political manoeuvrings she favoured France, where Cromwell leaned more towards the Holy Roman Empire. In the delicate seesaw of continental politics and with the history of Anglo-French hostilities, the queen's personal preferences sometimes caused Henry to be at odds with his Secretary's advice.

Nevertheless, Cromwell did everything he could to bring the king's first marriage to an end and to facilitate the new union with Anne Boleyn. This was Cromwell as fixer and he was of course successful. After a clandestine wedding in at the end on January 1533 (and possibly an earlier even more clandestine ceremony), there was a triumphant coronation for Anne in May. All organised by Henry's most efficient minister.

There was a blip in Henry's plans in September when his first child with Anne was a girl (not knowing that "blip" would be one of England's most successful monarchs).

But opposition to the marriage didn't stop with the coronation and it was Cromwell's job to make sure that everyone fell into line with the king's decision to place his position of head of the Church in England above any ruling from the Pope. He had been excommunicated in July.

The recalcitrant clerics Thomas More and John Fisher, who baulked at signing the oath of Supremacy, did not stand a chance against Cromwell. In early 1535 he had been made "Vice-Gerent in Spirituals (note: not Vice-Regent, though the anagram has had an irresistible pull over the centuries), which enabled him to act for Henry in church matters. And this he did by means "complex and crabwise."

Fisher and More were beheaded in the summer of 1535, only months after the new Pope, Paul lll, had made Fisher a cardinal. This seems to have incensed the king even more against the stubborn bishop.

So, now we come to the central event of Henry's downward spiral into tyranny and cruelty (my words, not MacCulloch's) and this where I feel there is a lack in this biography. Just one chapter of 24 pages and of those only 17 devoted to the the most tumultuous four months of the king's reign, dispatch Queen Anne almost as rapidly and cursorily as happened to her in real life.

So Anne's life comes to an end but not Cromwell's - not yet - and in the summer of 1536 he is made Lord Privy Seal, the pinnacle of his secular influence. Henry has already re-married, to quiet, compliant Jane Seymour and is once gain enjoying marital happiness. Cromwell is created a baron and therefore a knight; there are even rumours that he might marry "Lady Mary," the deposed princess, now declared illegitimate but with the blood of kings and queens in her veins.

But Cromwell was pursuing evangelical reformation rather than marriage. It was his son Gregory, now seventeen, who was on the market – and he made a match almost as daring as his father's to Mary would have been: he married the king's sister-in-law.

Elizabeth Seymour, Queen Jane's younger sister, aged about twenty at the time, had been married and widowed already and had two children. In one swift stroke, Thomas Cromwell had made himself part of the Royal Family, not exactly the king's uncle, but pretty close. Not bad for the brewer's son from Putney.

Holbein, portrait of a lady, possibly Elizabeth Cromwell
In October, Queen Jane gave birth to Henry's longed for legitimate son and heir, Prince Edward. (His illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, had died shortly after witnessing Anne Boleyn's execution). The general joy was soon mitigated by the death of the queen. It was a blow for the king but it put him back on the market as a still very eligible groom.

Perhaps the death of Jane Seymour marks the beginning of Cromwell's slide down the ladder of his considerable achievements? Although further ennoblement awaited, it was the negotiations for a fourth queen that began the process that would lead rapidly to his disgrace and death.

Cromwell favoured a foreign wife for Henry, Archbishop Cranmer an English one. As we all know from the endless Tudor studies in school curricula, Cromwell backed the wrong horse. It was an uncharacteristic false step for such a shrewd man. Henry did not like his new bride. More specifically, he didn't fancy her.

In mid-March 1537, Cromwell was created Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain but two months later he was in the Tower for treason. What happened? The unsuccessful marriage to Anne of Cleves was part of Henry's deep disappointment with his chief minister – the king launched an annulment in early July – but also significant was the build up of Cromwell's enemies at court.

The king was cracking down on evangelicals too, which made Cromwell's position vulnerable. And Henry was already eyeing up a fifth wife, making presents to a pretty young lady-in-waiting called Katherine Howard, another niece of the Duke of Norfolk, by now Cromwell's sworn enemy. In the hectic spring and summer months of 1540, Cromwell's fate could have gone either way, honours and titles one minute, imprisonment the next.

Holbein Henry Vlll in 1540
But once Henry did make up his mind against someone he was implacable, as Cromwell had good reason to know. In spite of begging letters from the man himself and a defence by Archbishop Cranmer, who had also argued in vain for Anne Boleyn's life, Cromwell was executed on 28th July.

On the same day the king married Katherine Howard.

Everything else is aftermath but MacCulloch certainly hurries the new queen Katherine off the scene, without discussing the causes of her fate, and turns to the "eirenic" Katherine Parr. (It means something like "seeking peace" but also has a technical meaning in church matters involving the reconciliation of different denominations).

Gregory Cromwell was made a baron and was one of the six stave-bearers who upheld the canopy over the king's coffin in February 1547 and was made a Knight of the Bath at Edward Vl's coronation, the flow of honours not halted by the fate of his father. Indeed there is evidence that Henry soon regretted getting rid of his most competent and diligent minister.

Diarmaid MacCulloch saves any summing up of Cromwell's life to the last page and a bit of this 552 page book but sees his legacy as the confirmed Protestantism of first Edward and then Elizabeth l. He even suggests that this paved the way for the birth of the British Empire. It seems that Thomas Cromwell has a lot to answer for.

(Many thanks to Ann Jungman for lending me her copy when I had to send mine back to the London Library).



1 comment:

Ruan Peat said...

As a child, I was made to study the play 'A man for all seasons' we analysed the play from front to back and inside out, but despite this valiant attempt I still have a fascination for this time period, for the ins and out of Henry and his collection of wives! Cromwell came off poorly in the play but I learned as I grew up that not everyone is as was painted. Thank you for this review I will be hunting a copy to read in my summer holidays I hope.