Book Corner – February 2019 (4)

Thomas Cromwell – Diarmuid MacCulloch

Apart from the two World Wars is there an era of history that has been racked over so often and so extensively as the Tudor period? I can imagine that in a couple of decades or so there will be myriad books exploring how the hell we got into the Brexit mess but that is another story. The story of Henry VIII and the main characters of his reign are so well known, at least we think they are, that it is a brave writer who sets out to put a fresh spin on hackneyed material.

Not only is Diarmuid MacCulloch brave but on the whole he pulls it off, giving us a fresh and more complete perspective on Henry’s go-to-man of the 1530s. It is a massive and magisterial book and MacCulloch wears his scholarship lightly. But it would be wrong to suggest that it is a light read for the general reader. It is witty and acerbic but there are turgid passages when the historian explores the dynastic and genealogical complexities of the Tudor court and there is more about Tudor sewerage systems and navigation channels than you would care to shake a stick at.

Cromwell is a difficult character to rehabilitate. MacCulloch makes a brave attempt but I’m not entirely convinced by his case. Yes, Cromwell was brutal but, by the standards of the day, no more brutal than anyone else, given the chance. Part of his problem was that his boss, Henry VIII, changed policy and direction as often as he changed codpieces, perhaps more frequently. There is more than a hint of Trump in MacCulloch’s portrait of the monarch. Just to remain in post, Cromwell had to be nimble on his feet and not too fixed in his policies and trenchant in his views.

Cromwell’s chameleon-like political persona owed much to his religious stance. He was what MacCulloch describes as a Nicomedian, a term drawn from Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to see and learn from Jesus at night. After all, in his early years he defended the Boston guild’s right to sell indulgences. In later years Cromwell was, probably, a revolutionary Protestant, more inclined sympathetically to the teachings of Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich than Luther, but one who was able to hide his true sympathies behind conventional religious practice until the time was right. So turbulent were the times that the wisest counsel was to follow this course.

Irrespective of your view of Cromwell, it is incontrovertible that he played a major part in fixing the Catherine of Aragon problem and in the dissolution of monasteries and the expelling of the most egregious and usurious practices of an outmoded and corrupt Churches. But, MacCulloch argues, Cromwell was not the architect of the policy, more the organising genius who enabled what seemed to be a worthwhile (and immensely profitable) policy to be implemented. It was interesting to read that the origins of the policy dated back to Wolsey’s dissolution, Cromwell did the dirty deed, of a couple of monasteries to fund the building of a couple of colleges to commemorate the Cardinal.

MacCulloch argues, convincingly, that Cromwell and Ann Boleyn were always daggers drawn, Cromwell’s animus due to the part that Boleyn and her supporters played in the downfall of his master, Wolsey. The second half of the 1530s saw Cromwell almost fall from power following the Pilgrimage of Grace, effectively a civil war in the northern parts of England fuelled by opposition to his religious reforms, and hanging precariously on to power, defying the machinations of his foremost enemy, the Duke of Norfolk.

What did for Cromwell was his advocacy for Anne of Cleves as Henry’s fourth wife, prompted mainly by his reluctance, once his son had married into the Seymours, to see another English family usurp his position by marrying their daughter to the King. Those who live by the sword die by the sword and Cromwell’s downfall was swift and brutal.

But Cromwell’s legacy remains with us. He did much to fashion the Protestant church in England, even as it exists today.

I’m glad I read the book but would not recommend it to the general reader.