“Beneath every history, another history,” remarks Thomas Cromwell in Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. On page, stage, and screen Henry VIII’s chief minister has become an iconic character of historical fiction, but he has often eluded historians: “he is not biographable” declared Geoffrey Elton. Now Diarmaid MacCulloch - once Elton’s student - has produced a biography that Mantel generously says “we have been awaiting for 400 years”.
Cromwell is enigmatic because only the inbox of his correspondence survives, and without his outgoing letters, MacCulloch notes that “the man’s own voice is largely absent”. Into this gap has poured fiction, fear, and fantasy: Cromwell has been called “the Isis of his day”, a “Tudor Stalinist”, the man who made modern England. “It’s the living that chase the dead,” muses Mantel’s fictional version.
MacCulloch does not chase, but instead leads us through the “maze” of surviving documents, meticulously piecing together the puzzle of how an obscure Putney blacksmith’s son revolutionised early modern England. The dramatic backstory of an abusive father is “Victorian fantasy,” but Cromwell famously described his younger self as a “ruffian”: he left home, fought as a mercenary in Italy, learned multiple languages, and worked his way up the greasy poles of continental commerce.
Back in what was then a “provincial little England,” cosmopolitan Cromwell was in demand as “the best Italian” around, a “freelance consultant” and fixer who got things done for everyone from indulgence-selling monks to alum smugglers defrauding the Pope. Working for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey propelled Cromwell into the king’s “Great Matter,” his desire to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey’s failure led to the Cardinal’s downfall, but Cromwell’s determination to “make or mar” impressed Henry. “This realm of England is an empire,” declared the parliament that Cromwell carefully managed, establishing the king as head of the church and breaking with the “pretended power of the Bishop of Rome”.
MacCulloch convincingly shows that Cromwell was guided by more than cynical political machinations: “enthusiasm for the Reformation” was a “constant thread” in his actions and policies, and while he often kept his views private - “deceitful, certainly; hypocritical, perhaps” - no secular politician would have taken the risks Cromwell did for the evangelical cause. Queen Anne was also a true believer in reform, but MacCulloch is not convinced by those then or since who consider him “Anne’s right hand”: they had good reasons to detest each other and the evidence for an alliance between them “hardly exists”.
Indeed Anne’s attempts to “wrest leadership of reformation” led to conflict. Henry’s obsessive desire for a son led him to turn on his wife, and Cromwell took advantage of his “roller-coaster collaboration with the King’s tempestuous emotional appetites”. The minister unmade the queen with incredible allegations of adultery and incest, and 11 days after Anne was beheaded, Henry married Jane Seymour who soon gave birth to the son he craved. Cromwell’s own son Gregory married Jane’s sister, making Thomas sort-of “the king’s uncle” and creating a Seymour-Cromwell alliance that MacCulloch argues “might have carried all before it”. But Jane’s death from post-natal complications would create a problem Cromwell could not solve.
MacCulloch painstakingly charts the spread of Cromwell’s tentacles through politics, property and patronage. He headed not a revolution in bureaucratic civil service but a web of parliamentary and personal power: “to know what things that I do lack warrant for,” runs one of his few to-do notes, “and to cause a warrant to be made thereof to sign”. He took interest everywhere, from the dissolution of the monasteries - a complex, uncertain process - to the reform of waterways and drainage (“the hammer of the weirs”, MacCulloch dubs him, elegant prose sustaining through the hundreds of pages of historical detail).
MacCulloch notes that Tudor governance in Ireland generally displayed 'all the finesse of knitting in boxing gloves'
A persistent thorn was “the graveyard of English statesmanship”, and MacCulloch notes that Tudor governance in Ireland generally displayed “all the finesse of knitting in boxing gloves”. In 1535 Cromwell penned a memo on the island asking “whether it shall be expedient to begin a conquest or a reformation?”. With Anglo-Irish and Gaelic lords alike persistently “papalist” and rebellious, English money and men were “haplessly sucked into the Irish morass”. Cromwell saw full English rule as the solution, and he set the scene for Henry to be crowned King of Ireland with an enhanced parliament in Dublin.
In England Cromwell pushed to accelerate religious reform, despite the king’s traditionalism. While Anglicanism was initially cobbled together like a “pantomime horse,” Cromwell plotted a course towards the Reformed Protestantism of Zürich, a move that MacCulloch deems “perhaps the most important story in Cromwell’s career”. Popular uprisings and noble opposition tried to curtail the minister’s power and reform, but he was ruthless in punishing the king’s enemies. Guilty men were to be both “tried and executed”; confessions could always be obtained “by pains”. He was, one pamphleteer wrote, “the cutter down of trees,” labouring in “the wood of Antichrist”.
After Jane’s death Cromwell pushed the king to pursue a marriage alliance with German Protestants through Anne of Cleves. Henry was unconvinced by his minister’s strategy, calling him “a good manager, but not fit to meddle in the concerns of kings”. When Anne arrived in England Henry was not attracted to her, and the marriage quickly became a fiasco for which the minister took the blame.
Cromwell’s enemies sensed their moment, painting him as a corrupt, radical traitor. “I have meddled in so many matters under your highness, that I am not able to answer them all,” Cromwell wrote to Henry of the many allegations; “I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!” he added desperately. He was beheaded on the same day Henry married his fifth wife, Katherine Howard. The king regretted his decision, reportedly lamenting that the “false accusations” of his Council had forced him to “put to death the most faithful servant he ever had”.
Henry’s reign ended in drift, but Elizabeth I would become Cromwell’s “most accomplished imitator,” firmly establishing a Protestant England; MacCulloch’s suggestion that his legacy extends to the eventual emergence of “that still-Protestant power, the United States of America” feels more strained. At his execution Cromwell reminded the crowd that “I have been a great traveller in this world, and being but of a base degree, was called to high estate”. There is certainly no more definitive guide to that extraordinary journey than MacCulloch’s excellent biography.
Dr Christopher Kissane works for the Royal Historical Society in London, and is the author of “Food, Religion & Communities in Early Modern Europe” (Bloomsbury, 2018).