Thomas Cromwell: A Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Life

by Diar­maid MacCul­loch

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Keith Thomas

Thomas Cromwell: A Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Life by Diar­maid MacCul­loch. Vik­ing, 728 pp., $40.00

“Thomas Cromwell... Thomas Cromwell? I thought his name was Oliver!” This was the ini­tial reaction of a young Har­vard grad­u­ate in 1897 to the topic as­signed to him for his B. Litt. the­sis by Ox­ford’s Regius Pro­fes­sor of Modern His­tory, Fred­er­ick York Pow­ell.1 Over a cen­tury later, the rel­a­tive fame of the two Cromwells has, at least tem­po­rar­ily, been re­versed. The bril­liance of Hi­lary Man­tel’s nov­els Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bod­ies (2012), with a third, The Mir­ror and the Light, promised for next year, and the daz­zling suc­cess of their adap­ta­tions to stage and tele­vi­sion have made the name of Henry VIII’s min­is­ter bet­ter known than that of the Lord Pro­tec­tor. Af­ter re­cov­er­ing from his dis­con­cert­ing in­ter­view with York Pow­ell, Roger Bigelow Mer­ri­man went on to pub­lish an in­dis­pens­able edi­tion of Thomas Cromwell’s sur­viv­ing let­ters, pref­aced by a much less sat­is­fac­tory as­sess­ment of the man him­self. He then gave up the Tu­dors and be­came a dis­tin­guished his­to­rian of the Span­ish Em­pire.

It was fifty years be­fore the next se­ri­ous at­tempt to study Cromwell ap­peared. This time Ge­of­frey El­ton com­bined an un­equaled grasp of the vo­lu­mi­nous archives of the pe­riod with a pow­er­ful in­tel­lect, a tren­chant prose style, and supreme self-con­fi­dence. His book The Tu­dor Revo­lu­tion in Gov­ern­ment burst upon the scene in 1953. It por­trayed Cromwell as the dom­i­nat­ing fig­ure in the royal gov­ern­ment of the 1530s: his achieve­ments in­cluded the break with the pa­pacy, the recog­ni­tion of Henry VIII as the supreme head of the English church, and the dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies. Ac­cord­ing to El­ton, Cromwell also rev­o­lu­tion­ized the English state by re­plac­ing the per­sonal gov­ern­ment and fi­nan­cial man­age­ment based in the royal house­hold with for­mal­ized bu­reau­cratic in­sti­tu­tions based in West­min­ster.

In many sub­se­quent pub­li­ca­tions El­ton en­larged upon Cromwell’s legacy, cred­it­ing him with the doc­trine that the king’s sovereignty was best ex­er­cised through Par­lia­ment, the con­sol­i­da­tion of Eng­land and Wales as a uni­tary state, and the en­force­ment of the Henri­cian Re­for­ma­tion upon an un­will­ing peo­ple through press cen­sor­ship, pro­pa­ganda, new trea­son laws, the care­ful in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a flood of un­so­licited de­nun­ci­a­tions of those hos­tile to the royal supremacy, and, oc­ca­sion­ally, the ex­e­cu­tion of re­cal­ci­trants. He also re­vealed Cromwell as an in­tel­lec­tual with schol­arly in­ter­ests in his­tory and lit­er­a­ture and a tire­less de­viser of schemes to re­form the law, the econ­omy, and pro­vi­sions for the poor. El­ton’s view of Cromwell’s sig­nif­i­cance pro­voked in­tense dis­cus­sion and came un­der in­creas­ing at­tack, not least from some of his nu­mer­ous doc­toral

1Gar­rett Mat­tingly, “The His­to­rian of the Span­ish Em­pire,” Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (1948), p. 33.

stu­dents. In his later years he re­tracted some of his bolder claims for a Tu­dor revo­lu­tion in gov­ern­ment. One of his last state­ments on the sub­ject, a book­let pub­lished in 1991, made so many con­ces­sions to his crit­ics that in its mix­ture of re­pen­tance and de­fi­ance it bore some re­sem­blance to the speeches made on the scaf­fold by some of Cromwell’s vic­tims.2

De­spite his unique knowl­edge of Cromwell’s life and works, El­ton res­o­lutely re­fused to write a life of his hero. He de­spised biog­ra­phy as a genre and he claimed that Cromwell was “not bi­ograph­able.” His rea­sons for that view are not recorded, but the most likely one is that the ev­i­dence re­quired for a truly com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy does not ex­ist. When Cromwell’s ca­reer was abruptly ter­mi­nated by his ar­rest and ex­e­cu­tion in 1540, his vo­lu­mi­nous pa­pers were seized by the Crown. Di­vided to­day be­tween the Na­tional Archives and the Bri­tish Li­brary, they were listed chrono­log­i­cally and sum­ma­rized by nine­teenth-cen­tury his­to­ri­ans in twenty-one enor­mous vol­umes of Let­ters and Pa­pers, For­eign and Do­mes­tic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, and the orig­i­nals are now avail­able on the web­site State Pa­pers On­line, 1509–1714.

Yet though there are thou­sands of let­ters to Cromwell, there are rel­a­tively 2G. R. El­ton, Thomas Cromwell (Head­start His­tory, 1991). In his The English (Black­well, 1992) his treat­ment of Cromwell is dis­tinctly less re­pen­tant.

few from him. In his new biog­ra­phy, Thomas Cromwell: A Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Life, Diar­maid MacCul­loch sug­gests that the copies of his out­go­ing let­ters were sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroyed by mem­bers of his house­hold in a vain at­tempt to save their mas­ter (and per­haps them­selves) from de­struc­tion. What­ever the rea­son, the gap in the ar­chive is a huge one, and it means that any­one writ­ing Cromwell’s life of­ten has to choose be­tween un­doc­u­mented spec­u­la­tion and si­lence. This is what gave Hi­lary Man­tel her op­por­tu­nity. She re­spected the known his­tor­i­cal facts, but filled the la­cu­nae in the story with her own cre­ative imag­i­na­tion.

MacCul­loch comes to the sub­ject as an out­stand­ing au­thor­ity on the his­tory of six­teenth-cen­tury Eng­land, par­tic­u­larly its re­li­gious his­tory. He is the au­thor of a prize-win­ning biog­ra­phy of Cromwell’s clos­est ally in the l530s, Arch­bishop Thomas Cran­mer. He has also writ­ten pen­e­trat­ing works on the Euro­pean Re­for­ma­tion and the his­tory of Chris­tian­ity. His hugely im­pres­sive life of Cromwell is ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of Ge­of­frey El­ton, his for­mer doc­toral su­per­vi­sor, whom he equals or even ex­ceeds in his mastery of the rel­e­vant archives and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to read the doc­u­ments them­selves rather than re­ly­ing on the printed sum­maries, whose mis­read­ings, misiden­ti­fi­ca­tions, and mis­dat­ings he fre­quently points out. He em­ploys these sources with an im­mensely painstak­ing con­cern to re­con­struct the ex­act or­der in which events oc­curred and to as­cer­tain who was where at any given time. He is also able to draw upon an abun­dance of schol­arly writ­ing on the pe­riod, much of it of very high qual­ity. In 120 pages of densely printed end­notes, he passes un­in­hib­ited judg­ment on his fel­low his­to­ri­ans, prais­ing the work of some as “ex­traor­di­nar­ily il­lu­mi­nat­ing,” “masterly,” “metic­u­lously re­searched,” or “in­ci­sive,” and de­nounc­ing that of oth­ers as “unim­pres­sive,” “un­con­vinc­ing,” “wildly un­trust­wor­thy,” or “just silly.” Although his own writ­ing is lu­cid, witty, and acer­bic, MacCul­loch’s ex­tremely de­tailed book—with its care­ful ar­gu­men­ta­tion, its large cast, and its in­tri­cate re­con­struc­tion of the net­works, con­nec­tions, and affini­ties at the court of Henry VIII—makes heavy de­mands on the reader’s mem­ory and pow­ers of con­cen­tra­tion. MacCul­loch knows his char­ac­ters intimately. He can re­fer ca­su­ally to the “char­ac­ter­is­tic pre­ten­tious­ness” of the Greek scholar Richard Croke or dis­miss the king’s fa­vorite, Charles Bran­don, Duke of Suf­folk, as lack­ing “the ad­min­is­tra­tive abil­i­ties re­quired for cel­e­bra­tions in a brew­ery, let alone gov­ern­ing a king­dom.” But un­like a nov­el­ist, he can­not make things up when the ev­i­dence is not there. As a re­sult, his nar­ra­tive abounds in fas­ci­nat­ing prob­a­bil­i­ties, most of them highly plau­si­ble but none of them cer­tain. All too of­ten he has to use words like “maybe” or “likely” or “pos­si­bly” or “per­haps.”

He does, how­ever, dis­pel much of the mys­tery that pre­vi­ously sur­rounded Cromwell’s early life. Born in Sur­rey around 1485, the son of a Put­ney yeoman farmer-cum-brewer, he left home in his teens and trav­eled ex­ten­sively in Flan­ders and Italy. In 1503 he fought with the French army at the Bat­tle of Garigliano, near Naples, and in Florence he formed a con­nec­tion with the great busi­ness­man Francesco Frescobaldi. Lack­ing a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion, he had an ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pac­ity to teach him­self. By the time he re­turned to Eng­land around 1515 he had be­come a gen­uine cos­mopoli­tan, flu­ent in French and Ital­ian, com­pe­tent in Latin and Span­ish, ex­pert in the de­tails of trade be­tween Italy, the Low Coun­tries, and the ports of London and Southamp­ton. In the 1520s he com­bined a suc­cess­ful busi­ness as a money­len­der with a prac­tice as a self-taught but knowl­edge­able Chancery lawyer and le­gal con­sul­tant.

MacCul­loch be­lieves that in 1523 Cromwell, though keep­ing up his pri­vate busi­ness, en­tered the ser­vice of Thomas Grey, Mar­quess of Dorset. If so, he did not stay long, but he re­mained on fa­mil­iar terms with the Grey fam­ily long af­ter­ward, for his as­ton­ish­ing so­cial as­cent owed ev­ery­thing to his abil­ity to make in­flu­en­tial friends and keep them. MacCul­loch stresses his “club­ba­bil­ity” and “con­sid­er­able charm.” Cromwell, he says, “had a way with dowa­gers.” But this in­cor­ri­gi­ble net­worker was also supremely com­pe­tent: a busi­ness­man, a lawyer, an MP in the 1523 Par­lia­ment, and, as it turned out, an ad­min­is­tra­tor of ge­nius.

It was above all his rep­u­ta­tion as the man best qual­i­fied to deal with Ital­ians that made pos­si­ble his ap­point­ment

in 1524 to the house­hold of Car­di­nal Thomas Wolsey, arch­bishop of York, lord chan­cel­lor, the pope’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Eng­land, and, next to the king, the most pow­er­ful man in the coun­try. Cromwell’s job was to over­see what MacCul­loch calls Wolsey’s “legacy project,” which in­volved found­ing two new “Car­di­nal Col­leges” at Ox­ford and Ip­swich, and con­struct­ing a grandiose tomb for him­self, to be made by the Floren­tine sculp­tor Benedetto Rovez­zano and gilded by a crafts­man pro­cured by the king’s agent for gilt work, the Luc­ch­ese mer­chant An­to­nio Caval­lari. Cromwell’s later re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­cluded dis­solv­ing some small monas­ter­ies in or­der to raise funds for Wolsey’s col­leges and bro­ker­ing the elec­tions of sundry ab­bots and pri­ors. Wolsey’s fail­ure to se­cure pa­pal ap­proval for Henry VIII’s di­vorce from Katherine of Aragon in or­der to marry Anne Bo­leyn led to his down­fall in 1529 and his ar­rest the fol­low­ing year for trea­sonous deal­ings with for­eign pow­ers. He died shortly af­ter­ward, thereby prob­a­bly avoid­ing ex­e­cu­tion. Cromwell, who had be­come an MP again in 1529, loy­ally de­fended Wolsey in Par­lia­ment and man­aged to save Car­di­nal Col­lege, Ox­ford (to­day’s Christ Church). But the Ip­swich col­lege did not sur­vive, and Wolsey’s ex­trav­a­gant tomb was com­man­deered by the king. To­day it houses the re­mains of Ad­mi­ral Lord Nel­son in St. Paul’s Cathe­dral.

Cromwell was in tears at his mas­ter’s fall and fear­ful for his own safety. But by Jan­uary 1530 he had some­how man­aged to trans­fer to Henry’s ser­vice. The am­bas­sador of the Holy Ro­man Em­pire, Eus­tace Cha­puys, later re­marked sar­don­ically that “he must have promised to make him the rich­est King that Eng­land had ever seen.” But if it was his fi­nan­cial acu­men that rec­om­mended him to Henry, it was his skill in draft­ing leg­is­la­tion and see­ing it through Par­lia­ment that made him in­dis­pens­able.

As Hi­lary Man­tel grasped, Cromwell never aban­doned his loy­alty to Wolsey’s mem­ory. He re­garded the car­di­nal’s ene­mies as his ene­mies, with Anne Bo­leyn, the pri­mary cause of his down­fall, high on the list. One might have ex­pected them to be close al­lies, for Cromwell had worked to se­cure the king’s di­vorce from Katherine and they were both sup­port­ers of re­li­gious re­form. But their mu­tual an­tipa­thy was ex­ac­er­bated by dis­agree­ments over for­eign pol­icy, Anne fa­vor­ing an al­liance with France, where she had grown up, and Cromwell want­ing closer ties with the Holy Ro­man Em­pire. MacCul­loch is con­vinced that it was Cromwell who or­ches­trated the forces lead­ing to Anne’s ex­e­cu­tion in 1536. An­other en­emy was Thomas, Lord Darcy, ex­e­cuted in 1537 af­ter his in­volve­ment in the Pil­grim­age of Grace, the north­ern re­bel­lion that nearly per­suaded the king to drop his prin­ci­pal min­is­ter. In Cromwell’s eyes, how­ever, Darcy’s real crime was to have as­sisted Anne in her cam­paign against Wolsey.

As a royal ser­vant, Cromwell be­gan by man­ag­ing his for­mer mas­ter’s con­fis­cated es­tates. But by the late sum­mer of 1531 he was on the king’s in­ner coun­cil. There­after his rise was re­lent­less: mas­ter of the jewels in 1532; chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer in 1533; prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary and mas­ter of the rolls in 1534; vice-ger­ent in spir­i­tu­als and chan­cel­lor of Cam­bridge Univer­sity in 1535; made a baron and Lord Privy Seal in 1536; knight of the Garter in 1537; chief noble­man of the privy cham­ber in 1539; and fi­nally, in March 1540, three months be­fore his ex­e­cu­tion, Earl of Es­sex and lord great cham­ber­lain. Each ap­point­ment meant an in­crease in wealth and pa­tron­age as well as in sta­tus and power. It was a re­mark­able as­cent, in many ways re­sem­bling that of Wolsey, who was the son of an Ip­swich butcher. Un­sur­pris­ingly, these two mer­i­to­crats aroused the envy of the es­tab­lished no­bil­ity, who re­garded them­selves as the king’s right­ful coun­selors and re­sented the two men’s rise.

Henry’s court was a fear­fully dan­ger­ous place where courtiers jos­tled for the fa­vor of a capri­cious monarch. When ex­e­cu­tion was the fate of the losers, the sur­vivors would rush to fill their places and claim their goods. MacCul­loch por­trays the king as “ter­ri­fy­ingly un­pre­dictable,” given to “de­struc­tive whims” and “ha­bit­u­ally er­ratic” de­ci­sion­mak­ing, “a thor­ough coward when it came to per­sonal con­fronta­tions,” and “al­most im­pos­si­ble to serve suc­cess­fully.” He tact­fully de­clines to draw an anal­ogy with any modern head of state, though some of his Amer­i­can read­ers may be tempted to do so.

For all his af­fa­bil­ity, Cromwell too had some unattrac­tive qual­i­ties. He had a “fierce tem­per” and was ca­pa­ble of “tow­er­ing rage.” He had no com­punc­tion about or­der­ing sus­pects to be tor­tured and, like most of his con­tem­po­raries, could with ap­par­ent equa­nim­ity bear the prospect of peo­ple be­ing burned alive or cut down from the gal­lows and mu­ti­lated while still con­scious. He could be as ruth­less in his pri­vate life as in pol­i­tics. On one no­to­ri­ous oc­ca­sion he en­larged his prop­erty by build­ing a wholly unau­tho­rized bound­ary wall twenty-two feet in­side his neigh­bors’ gar­dens and then dig­ging up one of their houses and mov­ing it on rollers to the other side of the wall. As the son of the ag­grieved neigh­bor later com­mented, “The sud­den

ris­ing of some men causeth them to for­get them­selves.”

Cromwell was not con­tent with suc­cess­fully climb­ing the greasy pole. MacCul­loch ar­gues that he had two other pri­or­i­ties. The first was the fu­ture of his dy­nasty, with which he was pre­oc­cu­pied “at least as much as the King was with his.” He mar­ried a lo­cal girl and had three chil­dren, but only his son, Gre­gory, sur­vived into adult­hood. Cromwell, a de­voted fa­ther, sent him to Cam­bridge, pre­pared him for life as a courtier by board­ing him out in aris­to­cratic houses, and, tri­umph of tri­umphs, in 1537 se­cured his mar­riage to El­iz­a­beth Sey­mour, the king’s sis­ter-in-law, thereby mak­ing Gre­gory the king’s brother-in-law. He dis­solved a monastery to ease the process of set­ting Gre­gory up as a Sus­sex landowner, only for the boy to get in­volved in an undis­closed but ev­i­dently se­ri­ous scan­dal that made nec­es­sary his move to a new res­i­dence in Kent. When Gre­gory was nine­teen, Cromwell ob­tained a seat for him in the 1539 Par­lia­ment. Six months af­ter his fa­ther’s ex­e­cu­tion, the king, in re­sponse to a well-cal­cu­lated let­ter from Gre­gory’s wife, El­iz­a­beth, made the boy a peer, and the Cromwell barony lasted into the late seven­teenth cen­tury.

Cromwell’s wife had died in 1529 and he never re­mar­ried, though he fa­thered an il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter; and in 1536 there was an as­tound­ing ru­mor that he might be about to wed Mary, the king’s daugh­ter by Katherine of Aragon and the fu­ture queen. His sis­ter mar­ried into a Welsh gen­try fam­ily, one of whom be­came Lord Wil­liams of Thame. When her hus­band died, Cromwell vir­tu­ally adopted her son Richard Wil­liams, who later took his un­cle’s sur­name and would be­come Oliver Cromwell’s great-grand­fa­ther. As dy­nas­ties go, this is un­doubt­edly im­pres­sive. Cromwell’s sec­ond ob­jec­tive was to ad­vance the cause of evan­gel­i­cal re­form. (MacCul­loch be­lieves that “the term ‘Protes­tant’ is best put aside in deal­ing with the very early stage of the English Re­for­ma­tion which Cromwell did so much to ad­vance.”) Iron­i­cally, he had trav­eled to Rome in 1518 to se­cure the re­newal of a wealthy Lin­colnshire guild’s li­cense to sell pa­pal in­dul­gences, at the very time when Martin Luther’s at­tack on the in­dul­gence trade was launch­ing the Ger­man Re­for­ma­tion. But by the late 1520s Cromwell seems to have moved to a de­ci­sive, though clan­des­tine, com­mit­ment to re­li­gious re­form. He was a pa­tron of evan­gel­i­cal clergy and filled Wolsey’s Car­di­nal Col­lege with them. But his out­ward pos­ture was that of Catholic ortho­doxy; he even urged Wolsey to purge the realm of hereti­cal books, be­cause if they were “scat­tered among the com­mon peo­ple” they would “de­stroy the whole obe­di­ence and pol­icy of this realm.” His form of re­li­gion was “de­ceit­ful cer­tainly, hyp­o­crit­i­cal per­haps,” says MacCul­loch, who la­bels Cromwell a Ni­codemite, af­ter the Pharisee who dared to visit Je­sus only at night.

In the 1530s Cromwell played a cru­cial part in im­ple­ment­ing the dras­tic de­ci­sion to solve the king’s di­vorce prob­lem by declar­ing in­de­pen­dence from Rome and mak­ing Henry supreme head of the English church. He col­lected texts to but­tress the view that Eng­land had long been an “em­pire,” an in­de­pen­dent state with no earthly su­pe­rior, and that its monarch had al­ways ex­er­cised ju­ris­dic­tion over the English church. He pi­loted the Re­for­ma­tion leg­is­la­tion through Par­lia­ment and in 1535 be­came the first (and last) vice-ger­ent in spir­i­tu­als—that is to say, the king’s deputy head of the church. This was an ex­tra­or­di­nary ap­point­ment, never to be re­peated, for it placed Cromwell, a lay­man, above the two arch­bish­ops and the church’s assem­blies, the Con­vo­ca­tions of Can­ter­bury and York. It gave him pow­ers al­most iden­ti­cal to those en­joyed by Wolsey as pa­pal legate.

In that ca­pac­ity, Cromwell is­sued Protes­tant in­junc­tions for the re­li­gious life of the en­tire king­dom. He did not dis­guise his hos­til­ity to fri­ars, shrines, and pil­grim­ages or his com­mit­ment to read­ing the Bi­ble in the ver­nac­u­lar. He or­dered a visi­ta­tion of re­li­gious houses, which turned into a de­lib­er­ate dis­cred­it­ing of the monas­tic life by un­earthing sex­ual scan­dals, though MacCul­loch at­tributes this to Henry VIII’s “fussy prud­ish­ness.” Cromwell’s na­tion­wide sur­vey of the church’s fi­nan­cial as­sets, the Valor ec­cle­si­as­ti­cus, was “a stag­ger­ing achieve­ment,” com­pleted in nine months and com­pa­ra­ble in am­bi­tion to Domes­day Book. An even greater tri­umph was the pub­li­ca­tion in April 1539 of the mag­nif­i­cent “Great Bi­ble,” the first of­fi­cial English ver­sion, which Cromwell had com­mis­sioned and or­dered to be placed in ev­ery parish church.

As for the monas­ter­ies, Cromwell fa­vored piece­meal clo­sure or vol­un­tary sur­ren­der, rather than to­tal dis­so­lu­tion. But the king’s de­sire to sell monas­tic lands in or­der to fi­nance his ex­pen­sive project of coastal for­ti­fi­ca­tion took pri­or­ity. Even so, Cromwell in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion au­tho­riz­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of new cathe­drals, which he en­vis­aged as semi-monas­tic col­le­giate foun­da­tions. He him­self had been dean of Wells cathe­dral since 1537. As MacCul­loch has em­pha­sized in other works, the cathe­drals, with their res­i­dent canons, their cer­e­mony, and their mu­sic, would be­come a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the Church of Eng­land. Their sur­vival owed much to the in­flu­ence of pow­er­ful pro­tec­tors who, fol­low­ing the prece­dent set by Cromwell, be­came lay deans in sub­se­quent years.

It seems cer­tain that Henry VIII’s Supreme Head­ship would not have in­volved a turn to Protes­tantism had not Cromwell and Cran­mer grafted Evan­gel­i­cal­ism onto the breach with Rome. As well as ini­ti­at­ing the sup­pres­sion of the monas­ter­ies, they at­tacked the wor­ship of saints, relics, and re­li­gious im­ages. They also as­serted the supreme au­thor­ity of the Bi­ble and the need for Scrip­ture to be made ac­ces­si­ble to the laity. Rather than fol­low­ing Luther, Cromwell was drawn to the more rad­i­cal Protes­tantism of Zurich, which Henry VIII de­tested. Act­ing be­hind the king’s back, he risked his ca­reer by es­tab­lish­ing semi­clan­des­tine re­la­tions with the Swiss city, which had banned re­li­gious im­ages, for­bid­den church mu­sic, and re­placed the Mass, and its mirac­u­lous trans­for­ma­tion of the bread into Christ’s body and blood, with the Lord’s Sup­per, a sim­ple act of com­mem­o­ra­tion in which the con­se­crated el­e­ments re­mained un­changed. In MacCul­loch’s view he was “de­lib­er­ately lay­ing foun­da­tions for a Protes­tant fu­ture.” Cromwell also sought to coun­ter­bal­ance his re­li­giously con­ser­va­tive op­po­nents at home by es­tab­lish­ing closer re­la­tions with the Sch­mal­ka­ldic League of Protes­tant ter­ri­to­ries in the Holy Ro­man Em­pire.

By 1539 Cromwell was los­ing his in­flu­ence. It was then that he made his fa­tal mis­take: in or­der to ce­ment the re­la­tion­ship with the Ger­man Protes­tants, he en­cour­aged the king to marry Anne of Cleves, sight un­seen. On her ar­rival in Eng­land at the be­gin­ning of 1540, Henry took one look and re­coiled in hor­ror. The mar­riage was never con­sum­mated, and Cromwell’s re­luc­tance to sup­port its an­nul­ment lost him the con­fi­dence of the king. The re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives—his old ene­mies—moved in for the kill. They were led by the Duke of Nor­folk, who was Anne Bo­leyn’s un­cle, and Stephen Gar­diner, bishop of Winch­ester, who had been the king’s prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary un­til he was re­placed by Cromwell in 1534, and a privy coun­cil­lor un­til he was ejected at Cromwell’s re­quest in 1539.

On June 10, 1540, Cromwell was ar­rested, stripped of his Garter dec­o­ra­tions, and sent to the Tower. Six weeks later he was be­headed. He had been con­victed of heresy and trea­son, not af­ter a trial in a court of law but by sim­ple par­lia­men­tary fiat in an Act of At­tain­der, a tyran­ni­cal pro­ce­dure that he and Henry had used against Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher, and some other op­po­nents of the royal supremacy.

MacCul­loch does not ex­ag­ger­ate his sub­ject’s achieve­ments. He states at the out­set that “the lead­ing ac­tor in the 1530s was not Cromwell but his king.” For­eign pol­icy was ex­clu­sively Henry’s busi­ness, while at home many of the im­por­tant de­ci­sions were made on his ini­tia­tive and hardly any with­out his as­sent. Anne Bo­leyn, for ex­am­ple, would never have been ex­e­cuted had not Henry VIII trans­ferred his af­fec­tions to Jane Sey­mour.

Cromwell was above all the king’s faith­ful ser­vant, one of the great­est civil ser­vants Bri­tain has ever known. He was in­du­bitably a cen­tral fig­ure in “a decade of revo­lu­tion.” But this biog­ra­phy will not end de­bate about the pre­cise sig­nif­i­cance of his re­mod­el­ing of English gov­ern­ment or his con­tri­bu­tion to the English Re­for­ma­tion. MacCul­loch rightly stresses the im­por­tance of his con­cern to base the Re­for­ma­tion on par­lia­men­tary statute, but he passes too quickly over his bill of 1539 au­tho­riz­ing the king to by­pass Par­lia­ment and leg­is­late by procla­ma­tion—the so­called Henry VIII clauses, un­der which it now ap­pears likely that if Bri­tain leaves the EU, the de­ci­sions as to which Euro­pean laws are to be kept and which dis­carded will be made by min­is­te­rial fiat. MacCul­loch makes a good case for Cromwell’s post­hu­mous in­flu­ence upon both church and state. But it is surely a step too far to claim that his legacy “shaped much of the modern world, not least that still-Protes­tant power, the United States of Amer­ica.”

Still, it is hard to imag­ine that Thomas Cromwell: A Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Life, based on re­search spread over sev­eral decades, will ever be re­placed. The way is still open, how­ever, for the gaps in MacCul­loch’s story to be filled by in­ge­nious his­to­ri­ans or imag­i­na­tive nov­el­ists. Hi­lary Man­tel’s many ad­mir­ers will be fas­ci­nated to see what in­flu­ence his mag­is­te­rial book will have on The Mir­ror and the Light.

Hans Hol­bein: Thomas Cromwell, 1532–1533

Henry VIII

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