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Thomas Cromwell: 
A Revolutionary Life

by diarmaid macculloch
viking, 752 pages, $40

They said it could not be done. At least Sir Geoffrey Elton, to whose memory his former doctoral student has dedicated this book, said it could not be done. According to him, as Diarmaid MacCulloch reminds us, Cromwell was simply “not biographable.” And the authority of Elton, the doyen of Tudor historians in the later twentieth century, the man who “knew more of Thomas Cromwell than anyone since his execution,” was quite enough to keep most historians off this turf for a generation or two.

Since the surprising success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall back in 2010, of course, the name of ­Thomas Cromwell has become almost as well known as that of his collateral descendant, Oliver Cromwell (alias Oliver Williams), the man who briefly tore down in the 1640s the monarchy that the founder of his family’s fortunes had done so much to build up in the 1530s. That sudden rise in Cromwell’s stock elicited several attempts at biography, the best of them by another of Elton’s doctoral students, the late professor David Loades. But the appearance of MacCulloch’s magnum opus marks an epoch. Authoritative, enthralling, immensely learned, and deliciously written, it lays to rest Elton’s judgment on the viability of the exercise it undertakes, and forces upon our attention something that the author himself is too modest to point out, namely, that Elton’s knowledge of Cromwell has now been surpassed.

Who was Thomas Cromwell, and why does he matter? Born in Putney (near London) around 1485, his life is largely unrecorded until the 1520s. We know that he left home and England as a teenager and spent some years in Italy in mercantile and perhaps mercenary pursuits. (MacCulloch paints a wholly convincing portrait of him as inglese italianato.) Literate, and with some knowledge of Latin, he had presumably received some measure of formal education, and he picked up a range of European languages on his travels. Returning to England apparently in the 1510s, he was admitted to the trade guild of the Merchant Taylors in London, seems to have become something of a moneylender, and somehow picked up enough knowledge of the law to equip him for practice in that profession. By the end of the decade, he was reckoned a “gentleman,” and was happily married: His son, ­Gregory, was born in 1519 or 1520. In 1523 ­Cromwell clambered further up the social scale, entering the service of Thomas Grey, Marquess of ­Dorset, and it was probably through the ­latter’s patronage (MacCulloch points out) that he came to sit as an MP in the Parliament of that year—which he memorably summed up as seventeen weeks of talk about the common good which left everything exactly as it was before.

It was in the following year that his career reached its first pinnacle, as he transferred to the service of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister, becoming his indispensable man of business. Business included the closure of numerous monasteries and nunneries whose lands were annexed to Wolsey’s intended memorial institutions: Cardinal College, ­Ipswich (now long gone) and Cardinal College, Oxford (now trading under the name of Christ Church). Around this time, Cromwell was inducted into Gray’s Inn—recognition of his professional status as a lawyer—and before long he adopted a coat of arms that proclaimed his place in Wolsey’s household by borrowing his heraldic choughs (a kind of crow). But Cardinal Wolsey suddenly fell from grace in 1529, after even his renowned diplomatic skills had failed to secure Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This might have spelled disaster for Cromwell, whose role as hatchet man in the monastic closures had won him few friends. Yet while Wolsey’s other leading servants, especially his entourage of clerics, hastened to abandon ship, Cromwell stuck by his master with a loyalty that extorted respect even from his enemies. Apparently almost without trying, before long he was known to be the king’s servant. By 1531, his capacity and efficiency had advanced him to the King’s Council, and by the end of 1532, he was in effect at the helm of government.

The few years left to him were a period of frenetic activity and incalculable achievement. He masterminded the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the establishment of the royal supremacy over the Church of England, by which England was ­separated from the Roman Catholic Church. His was the hand guiding the ­coercion and propaganda which imposed the divorce and the supremacy on an unwilling nation, and the initiatives which ­ended with the complete suppression of English monasticism evolved under his aegis. As deputy to the supreme head, he stamped out pilgrimage to the shrines of holy relics and images, and steered Henry toward the epoch-making decision to authorize the publication of the Bible in English in 1539. Yet his efforts to lead Henry into an alliance with the Lutheran princes of Germany broke down that year, chiefly because the king remained so firmly attached to so many aspects of traditional Catholicism. This failure weakened his standing with his royal master, and his position was fatally undermined in 1540 by what turned out to be the fiasco of Henry’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, a marriage Cromwell had promoted as part of his religiously inflected foreign policy. On July 28, therefore, he became one more in the line of notable victims of Henry VIII’s tyranny, a line he had himself done so much to extend.

Cromwell may have been shown to be biographable after all, but there are occasional false scents and missed tricks. Aysha ­Pollnitz’s penetrating account of ­Henry VIII and Erasmus might have modified MacCulloch’s understanding of Cromwell’s Erasmianism, which was perhaps more an ­expedient than a commitment. Similarly, the notion that Wolsey was somehow ­genially tolerant of, or at least indifferent to, questions of orthodoxy and heresy has been powerfully challenged in important work by Craig D’Alton which is not cited here. Recent work on Paul’s Cross (the outdoor pulpit at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London) has shown that the oft-repeated story that Thomas Cranmer inaugurated a series of set piece sermons by the English bishops there in the autumn of 1534 is a canard arising from the characteristic chronological imprecision of John Foxe, the Elizabethan martyrologist of the early Church of England. (Contemporary evidence shows that these sermons were actually delivered early in 1536.) The anonymous treatise on general councils published at London in 1538 was not by ­Cromwell’s client, Alexander Alesius, but by ­Christopher St. German, and the two documents offered as possible relics of a parliamentary propaganda campaign steered by Cromwell in 1531 are much more likely to date from 1536. Such slips, however, are few, and only over minor details, arising from the fact that no one can keep up with everything in this age of historical research on an industrial scale. They do not detract from the author’s monumental achievement, a triumph of formidable intelligence and scholarship.

What, then, to make of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal, vicar general (alias vicegerent) to the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and—bizarrely—dean of Wells Cathedral (this last a morsel swept up in 1537)? Second only to the king, he masterminded a restructuring of the entire English polity. Even if Mary I’s restoration of English Catholicism had endured, ­England would never have been the same again. Geoffrey Elton saw Cromwell as the architect of a “Tudor revolution in government,” a dramatic episode that, in less than a decade, transformed a ramshackle medieval monarchy into a modern nation-state. The Elton thesis may not have stood the test of time, but the events of the 1530s tick off quite a few items on the checklist we often use to identify revolutions: regime change (the overthrow of the papacy and of ecclesiastical autonomy); ideological change (a new religious settlement); a massive transfer of economic ­resources (the dissolution of the monasteries); and violence (a campaign of judicial terror, and the Pilgrimage of Grace, one of the largest rebellions ever to face an English king).

The thread linking these aspects of the revolution together is, of course, religion. And it is the overwhelming importance of religion in this revolution that puts paid to the Elton thesis of the birth of the modern nation-state. Elton’s modernity was very much a postwar modernity—meritocratic, technocratic, and above all secularist—and his Cromwell tends to reflect that. His analysis presupposed a division between religion and politics that is normative today, but completely anachronistic for the sixteenth century. One of the key elements of MacCulloch’s achievement is to put religion back where it belongs, at the center of the story. There were no atheists within reach of Henry’s axe. MacCulloch’s Cromwell is definitely a Christian. Indeed, through the crucial decade of the 1530s, Cromwell was what soon came to be called a Protestant. His Protestantism was eclectic, leaning variously toward the Lutherans of central and northern Germany and the more radical Protestants of the ­Rhineland and Switzerland. And for all his Protestant sympathies, ­Cromwell was too cautious to allow those sympathies to clash too overtly with the more Catholic elements in what MacCulloch calls the “jackdaw’s nest of Henry’s ­theology.”

It is in his account of Cromwell’s religious history that MacCulloch advances one of his most dramatic claims, namely, that Cromwell’s interest in Protestantism can be traced to an earlier stage in his career than has previously been realized. For ­MacCulloch has uncovered a range of contacts between Cromwell and religious dissidents in the later 1520s, when he was still in Wolsey’s service. He has even found Cromwell’s hand in a document making a settlement favorable to the woman in a matrimonial dispute involving a husband and his Lollard wife. The case rests on contacts between Cromwell and a group of disparate individuals who were, had been, or would later be in trouble for their religious views. Yet there is no specifically religious substance to these contacts, which are all explicable in terms of Cromwell’s role as Wolsey’s man of business. At best, this evidence establishes that Cromwell was in contact at that time with people who could have introduced him to heretical teachings and writings. Yet it may prove nothing more than casual encounters.

The real difficulty, though, is that an early origin for Cromwell’s “evangelical convictions” poses a major biographical problem in the form of evidence, substantive evidence, from 1529 to 1530 that shows him more as a religious conservative than as a proto-reformer—most tellingly, the will he drew up in summer 1529, just as Wolsey’s attempt to deliver Henry’s divorce was running into the sand. With its lavish provision for prayers and Masses for his soul, including generous donations to all the houses of friars in London, this will was anything but Protestant. Add in a couple of hostile references to ­Luther’s “sect” (the very phraseology Wolsey himself used on his deathbed) and an uncharacteristic display of Marian piety, and one is looking at a very Catholic Cromwell.

MacCulloch is far too good a historian to gloss over a problem such as this, and his solution is framed in terms of the psychological shock inflicted by the death of Cromwell’s wife and then the catastrophe of his patron’s fall in autumn 1529. These crushing blows put his own future and fortunes on the line, and temporarily threw him back upon the resources of his Catholic upbringing. If MacCulloch is right about his earlier evangelical sympathies, then this is the only story that makes sense. But it may be easier to assume that Cromwell, having of course begun, like most Protestants of those early years, as a Catholic, set foot on his path toward the “new learning” only in the troubled and traumatic 1530s, when the Supreme Head had started to shake the pillars of the Church, and not in the relative security and complacency of Wolsey’s hegemony as cardinal and chancellor, when the defender of the faith breathed fire against the foes of papal primacy.

Whatever one’s views of the English Reformation, it is important to recognize that there was a very dark side to Cromwell’s achievement. He may have stuck by his fallen master, the cardinal, when the rats were taking to the lifeboats, but that was probably the finest thing he ever did. If MacCulloch’s interpretation is correct (and here his portrayal parallels Mantel’s Cromwell), then he cooled his revenge for years before serving it to various of the cardinal’s enemies, most notably Anne Boleyn and Thomas, Lord Darcy. That may be going too far: The evidence produced seems to show that Anne had a grudge against Cromwell rather than vice versa. As for Lord Darcy, he was languishing in northern obscurity until the mischance of the Pilgrimage of Grace brought him back into view.

MacCulloch’s Cromwell is not the Cromwell of Wolf Hall, that East Coast liberal avant la lettre with his progressive views on education and the environment, and his knowing disdain for torture. Where Thomas More flatly denied, in print, the accusation that he had deployed torture against heresy suspects, Cromwell casually alludes to torture in his political correspondence, accepting its employment and utility alike as facts of life. His readiness to contemplate kidnapping and even assassination to deal with the king’s émigré cousin, Reginald Cardinal Pole (whom he said he would make “eat his own heart”), offers another insight into the character of a man whom ­Elton regarded as a sort of evangelist of legal propriety. MacCulloch successfully exonerates Cromwell from the oft-repeated charge of starving a group of Carthusian monks to death in prison in 1537. (To be fair, if you jailed anyone for a significant time in Tudor England, there was a good chance that disease would finish him off.) But his only regret at their death was that they had thus escaped the fate he had planned for them.

Cromwell’s expansion of the scope of “acts of attainder” to destroy enemies of the regime by simply declaring them guilty of treason without the bother of judicial process would be enough on its own to earn him a prominent place in the annals of infamy. So there is a shiver of schadenfreude to be had from the reflection that he was to be hoisted with his own petard, accused of treason on the basis of rash words allegedly uttered in a fit of temper. For all the special pleading of Elton and others on the subject of “treason by words” (which in some sense already existed in English law, though only in cases of what we would now call conspiracy), there is no doubt that the Act of Treasons of late 1534, which MacCulloch confirms was very much Cromwell’s work, was felt by its contemporaries (and not only by its victims) to have crossed some moral line. So when Cromwell himself was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason on June 10, 1540, his understandable anger provoked some of his fellow Privy Councillors to remind him that he would be judged by the laws he had himself made, which had turned idle words into high treason.

The deaths of three men define England in the 1530s: Thomas­ Cardinal Wolsey, who died en route to trial and execution in 1530; Thomas More, executed after conviction in a carefully staged trial in 1535; and Thomas Cromwell, bundled to execution without trial by virtue of an act of attainder in 1540. “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the king,” lamented Wolsey, “He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” And he went on to add a pointed warning to future royal councillors: “Be well advised and assured what matter you put in his head: for you shall never pull it out again.” Thomas More weighed things up a little differently in his final account, saying that he died “the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.” He also protested that he died “in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church”—and no one was in any doubt as to which church he meant. Cromwell was more guarded: “I intend this day to die God’s servant.” His protestation that he died “in the Catholic faith,” and his avowals of loyalty to its laws and sacraments were, as MacCulloch remarks, a touch ambiguous. Whose faith? Which sacraments?

This difficulty, even at the most solemn moment of his life, in determining the content of Thomas Cromwell’s religious convictions is of a piece with his career and character. His words were either a frank betrayal or a pitiful concealment of his convictions or policies. But this was his métier. Late in 1538, Cromwell was present at what MacCulloch rightly calls “the most high-profile heresy trial” of Henry’s reign, when John ­Lambert was tried by a team of bishops for denying the real presence in the sacrament of the altar. The king himself—clad in papal white—presided in person as Supreme Head, enjoying himself enormously. MacCulloch is not quite right to say that Cromwell’s “only substantial part was to house the condemned prisoner.” He was there as Henry’s vicar-general, and Henry delegated to him the grim duty of pronouncing the death sentence. If Cromwell really did incline more to the Swiss style of Protestantism, then he was condemning his coreligionist.

One wonders if he even understood the idea that, as More always knew and Wolsey belatedly realized, service to the king might clash with duty to God, that conscience might trouble the statesman. At the moment of his arrest, Cromwell appealed to his fellow councillors to say in conscience if they really thought he was a traitor. He should have known better. It may be the only time the word “conscience” ever crossed his lips. This would hardly be surprising, as it is far from clear that he had a conscience, or even knew what one was. He can hardly have believed, after all, the dossier of nonsense he concocted to secure the condemnation of Anne Boleyn. And his ten years in power were, from one perspective, simply ten years spent trampling on people’s consciences. One of his many victims was George Crofts, chancellor of Chichester Cathedral, who confessed under interrogation in 1538 that no “act or thing that ever he did more grieved his conscience than the oath which he took to renounce the bishop of Rome’s authority.” Thomas ­Cromwell shows no sign of having ever felt a moment’s discomfort at anything he had to do for his king.

There is in the end a nauseating quality in this dedicated servant of the crown, a sickening subservience. ­MacCulloch’s Cromwell, loyally working for and on his willful master in order to shape his agenda as best he could, is a far more persuasive figure than G. W. Bernard’s vision of a marionette dancing in the hands of an all-knowing and all-commanding monarch. The story of Henry cuffing his chief minister like a dog has always seemed slightly implausible. But ­MacCulloch tests the evidence, which passes the test despite having crossed the Irish Sea twice on its way to us. One cannot imagine Henry ever having treated Wolsey or More in that way. Wolsey might have knelt for hours before his king, pleading with him in vain to change his mind. But Henry would never have slapped him about. Henry, though, had the measure of the man he had made his tool in Cromwell. Ultimately, it is summed up rather well in the typically penetrating Holbein reproduced on the cover of this book, an image which offers such a sorry contrast to the crystalline intensity of Holbein’s More (which faces it across the fireplace at the Frick). Cromwell was indeed, as Waldemar Januszczak has tellingly observed, “the least attractive sitter in the whole of Holbein’s art.”

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written two definitive, and sympathetic, biographies of two profoundly ­unsympathetic men: Thomas ­Cranmer, a man who, by the time his last perjury failed to save his skin, must have lost count of the oaths he had broken, and Thomas Cromwell, a man who could have given ­Machiavelli a correspondence course in the dark arts of power. They were not monsters themselves, but they were fitting servants to Henry VIII, once pithily characterized as “the most contemptible human specimen ever to sit upon the throne of England.” How poignant is the irony by which the first authorized edition of the Bible in English had the portraits of this unholy trinity adorning its title page! 

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and author of The Making of Martin Luther.