Thomas Cromwell was born in obscurity, the son of a blacksmith, sometime in the 1480s. In 1540 he was executed for treason by his master, King Henry VIII. In between, he achieved one of the most impressive feats in the history of English politics: he successfully transformed England from a Catholic kingdom into a realm where the church came under the law of the king, and the king alone. Cromwell engineered the annulment of Papal authority and the establishment of the Church of England, and he did it so well that his creation survived the next several decades of feuding and backsliding by England’s demented Tudor kings and queens. He was the father of the English Reformation, the man responsible more than any other for the form that English Protestantism would take. Strange, then, that popular histories of Cromwell’s era have for so long cast him as a villain.
It is well to reflect on how history becomes coloured in most of our eyes by the narratives and the character schemes that our culture imposes on it. Until the late twentieth century, almost every educated person in Britain knew the history of Henry, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and the English break with Rome. The story of what happened in the 1530s was as widely known and as vividly remembered as the stories of the Battle of the Somme or the life of John Lennon. For many, it remains a point of common knowledge to this day. History that lives in the public imagination in such a way has an unpredictable life of its own. The key players can be re-aligned and re-imagined so that the story remains relatable and dramatic; equally, they can endure stubbornly in roles that may bear little resemblance to any scholar’s understanding of who these people actually were.
The Cromwell that has lived for so long in the public imagination is a shady figure indeed: a scheming political cut-throat, power-hungry and unscrupulous. Just about every popular retelling of his history, be it in literature, film, or television, has conformed to this characterisation. A prime example is Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, in which Cromwell is the chief villain opposed to the play’s protagonist, the saintly Thomas More, who opposes the break with Rome and is duly executed for treason. More was canonised by the Pope and continues to be hailed as a martyr for the Catholic Church, but the Anglican churchgoing English are, if anything, even more proud of him than are the Catholics. A BBC poll on the “Greatest Britons” in 2002 ranked More in 37th place. Thomas Cromwell, who sent More to the executioner, did not make the list. Children raised with stories that cast More as a good man and Cromwell as a villain have retained those perspectives, and thus has the pattern endured.
But this particular scheme of roles may well have reached its dying days. In 2009 there appeared a retelling of the Cromwell story that stood out from the crowd (and there is a very big crowd to stand out from). Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall has been called one of the best English novels of the 21st century, not to mention one of the finest works of historical fiction ever written. It and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the Booker Prize, have had almost every critic in the nation swooning with giddy admiration, and Mantel has swiftly become one of Britain’s most revered living novelists. “The greatest modern English prose writer working today,” she was called by the 2012 Booker chairman, Peter Stothard. They are the kind of books that you open to find several pages of critical extracts so superlative and so inventive in their praises that you feel the reviews have got to be better written than the actual book.
The upshot of all this is that over the next two or three decades, young people being introduced to the story of the English Reformation are mostly not going to read A Man for All Seasons or sit through any of the innumerable television dramas on the Tudors. They are going to read Wolf Hall. And this will mean that the popular perception of what happened in England in the 1530s is deeply altered, for Mantel’s novels offer a radically different interpretation of the drama: they make Cromwell the hero. Mantel’s Thomas More is a perverse religious hypocrite who tortures prisoners into confessing to heresy. Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is a smart, sensitive, pragmatic lawyer who sees through the false piety of his society and recognises the need for change. He is properly sceptical of Catholic mythology: he has read his Bible, and he asks, “Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory’. Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says ‘Pope’.” More crucially, Mantel’s Cromwell is a businessman. He tells Henry that the French king is too keen on war and not keen enough on trade; he pays close attention to the state of the English treasury and is careful to consider the economic dimensions of whatever advice he gives the king. In other words, Mantel’s Cromwell is a Cromwell for 21st-century Britain: a man impatient with Christian hypocrisy, and alert to the financial implications of the doings of government.
Mantel has not invented or omitted any of the key facts in order to give us this new Cromwell, just as Robert Bolt did not invent or omit any key facts when he wrote A Man for All Seasons. It’s all a matter of emphasis and perspective. To the modern reader, Mantel’s version of the Reformation story is a version that rings true. Once you have read it, it becomes hard to take seriously any of the older tellings, with their villainous Cromwells that now seem cartoonish and their saintly Mores that now seem too good to be real. So the old paradigm of Tudor history is being displaced, and popular culture is beginning to assimilate what we might call the Mantel paradigm. The English Reformation is being recoloured. British people in thirty years will understand their history differently. Such is the power of the storyteller.