The travel writer Colin Thubron once told me that to understand a country and its people he first asks, ‘What do they believe?’ This is also a good place to begin when writing about the past, not least when your subject is Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in the English Reformation. But Tracy Borman’s Cromwell doesn’t have beliefs so much as qualities: ones that will appeal to fans of the fictional Cromwell of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels.
Borman’s Cromwell likes women, and is nice to the poor. True he fits up Anne Boleyn on treason charges, and has the illiterate nun Elizabeth Barton executed without a trial. But then he is a ‘pragmatist’, and much of his killing, torturing and bullying is ‘self-defence’. He is a loving husband, or at least there is no evidence that he isn’t. He is also a ‘witty and generous host’, unless your name is Mark Smeaton. In which case, your arrival at Cromwell’s lovely home will be followed by your confessing to having had sex with Henry’s VIII’s wife. Your next meal will be in the Tower.
This Cromwell also dislikes many bad things. Neighbours, for example: at least those with possessions he covets. When he builds a new house he pinches the gardens of those around him (and there are other lapses of kindness to ordinary folk). But in particular he hates the ‘corrupt’ Roman Catholic church, its ‘medieval seven sacraments’ (don’t they still have seven?), and ‘idolatry’. Although (naturally) a great lover of art, this obliges him to order that ‘statues, rood screens and images be destroyed in churches and religious houses across the land’. And in the case of monastic land, it soon belongs to the king.
Between 1533 and 1540 Cromwell carried out Henry VIII’s will as his secretary, enforcer and vicar-general. In this, according to Borman, he was always ‘a pragmatist rather than an idealist’ and ‘Henry VIII’s most faithful servant’. Like the king, Cromwell remained a Catholic, just not a ‘Roman’ Catholic, we are told. Unfortunately, Borman is very confusing on the religious issues. One minute Cromwell is ‘ambivalent’ about the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone. Next he is a ‘radical’, pleased to see that the 1536 Ten Articles on religion have the words ‘justification’ and ‘faith’ used in close proximity. He is ‘frustrated’ that they continue to ‘assert that the body and blood of Christ were really present at the Eucharist’. Yet, we are reassured later, Cromwell believed firmly in the real presence.
‘Perhaps the word that best describes Cromwell’s personal faith was neither reformist nor conservative but rationalist,’ Borman suggests. Cromwell liked arguments based on ‘evidence and reasoning’ (which makes him sound like Richard Dawkins) and his ‘preference for moderation laid the foundations of the middle way so favoured by Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth’. I would think that Cromwell had more in common with her secretary of state, William Cecil, who was ever disappointed in the queen’s religious conservatism. Certainly Henry came to believe Cromwell was more radical than he.
Cromwell’s nemesis came in the form of Anne of Cleves, whose marriage to Henry VIII he had keenly encouraged. He hoped it would lead to closer religious as well as political ties with the reformist German states, but, according to Borman, the bride was ugly, with a face pitted by smallpox. The bad skin is, in fact, an invention of the Victorian writer Agnes Strickland. Contemporaries observed a pleasant-looking woman in hideous German dress. Henry, who had so admired the French chic of Anne Boleyn, was aghast.
Cromwell’s enemies, led by the Duke of Norfolk, seized the initiative and accused Cromwell of heresy and treason. Borman describes his downfall as the result of a class war, the key moment of his arrest being when Norfolk rips the ‘George’ from his neck (the Order of the Garter, not of ‘St George’ as she claims). The wicked toffs thus did for the Putney boy of humble birth. Yet Cromwell surely also died for being the energetic reformer he was. Henry, fearful of a growing religious radicalism in England, executed Cromwell not merely because he was annoyed about the Cleves marriage but to send a message: he was the sole arbiter on religious matters.
Borman is an engaging writer, but there is a failure to embrace fully the kind of character she tries to conjure — one that is both appalling and appealing (think Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey of The Shield). There is no clear vision to answer the question on the cover ‘Who was the real Thomas Cromwell?’ Perhaps it’s the biographer rather than her subject who lacks conviction.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20. Tel: 08430 600033. Leanda de Lisle’s books include Tudor: the Family Story, The Sisters Who Would be Queen, and After Elizabeth.