Chapter 1: Saint or Sinner?
For almost 500 years, Thomas Cromwell was the man who everyone loved to hate. A Machiavellian schemer without heart or scruples, he brought down everyone and everything in his path. He destroyed the monasteries and lined his own pockets in the process, and was also the nemesis of the saintly Thomas More, who bravely stood out against his sweeping reforms – and paid the ultimate price.
This version of events was reinforced by the various screen portrayals of Cromwell that have appeared over the years.One of the most influential was A Man For All Seasons, in which Leo McKern plays a downright evil Cromwell.He who preys upon the weakness of his fellow courtier, Richard Rich, in order to secure the condemnation of Thomas More, played by Paul Schofield.The audience is left in no doubt who they should be rooting for.
All of this changed in 2009, thanks to Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies. Taking one of the most unlikely heroes in history, Mantel transformed him into a character that we all fell in love with. No longer the one-dimensional bureaucrat, he was now a tender husband and father, charming and self-deprecating, a self-made man and – as Mantel put it – ‘clever as a bag of snakes’. This image has been reinforced by the sell-out RSC productions, which have recently moved to Broadway, and by the BBC’s lavish 6-part adaptation, which is also moving to the States.
But should we have so willingly accepted this dramatically different view of Cromwell, or was he really guilty of the crimes that have been laid at his door for centuries? In researching my biography of Henry VIII’s chief minister, I had to set aside both the traditional view that he was one of history’s greatest villains and the arguably more compelling version provided by Hilary Mantel. Guided only by the primary sources (of which there is a staggering number), I focused upon those that revealed Cromwell the man, not just the politician well known to history.
What emerged was a picture far closer to the Cromwell we have all come to know (and love) through Wolf Hall than that accepted by historians for so many years. Here was a man who was intensely loyal to his family, friends and above all his king. Just a few short months after having him executed, Henry was lamenting the loss of ‘the most faithful servant he ever had. ’Even at the height of his powers, Cromwell never ignored any plea for assistance and was greatly mourned by the ‘common people’ of London when he died. A genial host who would lavish thousands of pounds every year on the finest food and wine for his guests, he was renowned for his sharp wit and phenomenal intellect. Neither does the image of him as a cynic who destroyed the monasteries for personal and political gain stand up to scrutiny.
Cromwell was intensely pious and genuinely committed to reform, as evidenced by the fact that he took great risks to protect his reformist friends and kept numerous religious books in his library that, if discovered, would have had him condemned for heresy.
But for all that, there is no doubt that Cromwell was ruthless.To succeed – or even survive – at the court of Henry VIII, he had to be. Otherwise, his noble rivals would have had him thrown out, or worse, before he had set foot in court, particularly as he had no right by birth to be there, being merely the son of a blacksmith from Putney.