Saturday, June 18, 2011

Life and Times of Thomas Cromwell

In the Living Hall of the Frick Collection in New York, on both sides of a fireplace one would encounter portraits of Thomas Cromwell and his arch enemy, Sir Thomas More (both by the same painter, Hans Holbien). Pictures speak for themselves – often more effectively than a thousand words – Cromwell in this portrait looks like a big built menacing man (a murderer, someone says in the novel) and More, a gentle, always politically correct sort of a minister. Hillary Mantel tries to change this general impression to a large extent in her novel, Wolf Hall. But for me, this book starts with a completely different picture – in our class room in Presidency College, there was a framed map of London painted on cloth. For me the most uninteresting paper of our History syllabus was Tudor and Stuart England – only saving grace was that my favourite teacher used to teach the Tudor part. For once I was reading history only with the aim of clearing the exam and honestly even today I know next to nothing about the Stuart period and the Civil War. Even for the Tudor period, I don’t remember reading anything but SC’s notes and Elton. I encountered Master Thomas Cromwell for the first time in that classroom. 

Thomas More                              Thomas Cromwell

It was Elton, who for the first time portrayed Cromwell as the man behind the Tudor Revolution in Government, who not only liquidated the Catholic Church but also founded a modern bureaucratic structure and injected a spirit of modernism in the English political system. However a number of historians have differed with Elton on the exact role played by Cromwell in Tudor Revolution. In this Booker Prize-winning novel, Hillary Mantel draws a most sympathetic portrait of Thomas Cromwell – a crafty lawyer and negotiator, maverick financier, reliable friend and a smooth talker; a person, who could be trusted under any circumstances to deliver – Cromwell is an absolute hero here.
The book starts with a dramatic description of young Thomas being beaten up by his rogue father Walter, a blacksmith. Then we find lawyer Cromwell aged around 35-40, at the service of Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England. In flashbacks, we learn about his exploits in the Continent, where he fought for the French, worked in a Florentine bank, gained knowledge about textile trade in different cities of Italy and the Low Countries and made love to a lady named Anslema in faraway Cyprus. Cromwell survives the loss of his beloved wife Liz Wykys and young daughters and then the fall of his mentor, Wolsey but rises to become the top adviser of Henry VIII.
Henry, without a legitimate male heir from his queen Catherine of Aragon, is desperately seeking a decree of divorce from the Pope, so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Pope under the protection of the Emperor simply cannot do anything to harm the interest of Catherine, who is Emperor’s aunt. To establish their case, both the sides argue on finer points of Christian law as well as minute biological details (Catherine was earlier married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur, who died shortly after marriage, if it could be proved that Arthur and Katherine had sex then even after 15 years as man and wife, Henry’s marriage to Catherine could be still nullified!!). Hidden behind this volatile admixture of marriage and diplomacy is a struggle for enormous resources controlled by the Church in England – questions are raised, why every year so much revenue should flow out from England to Rome?
Brilliant Wolsey failed to secure the divorce and fell out of favour. Same thing happened with his successor Sir Thomas More. Cromwell, who broke almost all the rigid rules of English Upper Crust in his rise to power, rides roughshod over Parliament, ignores Pope and secures Henry’s marriage to Anne. He also improves Henry’s finances to make him a wealthy King, almost at par with King Francois, if not the Emperor. And much of this wealth comes from dissolution of the monasteries. Cromwell is hated by Catholic clergy, who is not only forced to give up their resources but also to swear allegiance to the King as the head of Church of England instead of Rome. Though Anne fails to produce a male heir, Cromwell cements his position as the second most important person in England. The novel ends with Cromwell at the height of his power - he drafts all the legislations, is in charge of King’s finances and occupies an unprecedented position of Vice-regent in matters related to Church.
Through its 650 pages of dense prose, this story unfolds almost like a movie - such is her gift of storytelling and eye for details. You can almost visualize its rich cast of Kings and queens, Lords and soldiers, poets, artists and diplomats as they move in circles around the absolute hero, Cromwell. In so many places, Cromwell is simply “he” – even at times creating confusion about who says what – such is the centrality of Cromwell in the narrative. It is questionable whether in real life Cromwell was so central to the events, which were later to be described as Tudor Revolution. Cromwell’s home at Austin Friars comes alive with its medley of characters and the same is true about the royal court. Main characters are drawn with close attentions even though questions can be raised about the qualities she bestows upon some of them – apart from Cromwell and More, I do find it difficult to accept Henry as such a humane character. Henricus Rex, the King, who kills or causes death to almost all his main advisors (starting with his father’s advisors Empson and Dudley, immediately after accession; Wolsey –dies of illness after being thrown out and humiliated; More and later even Cromwell - it falls beyond the timeline of the book) and wives, including Anne Boleyn – it is difficult to accept him as such a warm person as seen in his visit to Austin Friars. Though it manages to catch the spirit of a pre-modern state in the first half of the 16th century, the book fails to capture the big picture of history. A reader without any background of Tudor History will not have an idea about the greatness of diplomat Wolsey or the significance of the historical context of Reformation against which the rich cast of Wolf Hall plays out their parts.
It is also a deeply psychological novel and Hillary Mantel explores the depth of human nature with a practiced ease. In so many ways this novel poignantly fleshes out the main characters of the Tudor Revolution that it actually complements our reading of Geoffrey Elton. And it goes to her credit that even after 650 pages, almost every reader is now looking forward to her sequel on Cromwell.
I have never gone back to either Elton or to Tudor history once my Part II exams were over. In a remarkable coincidence, a day after I started reading Wolf Hall, I happened to meet SC and asked him whether he has read the book. He was surprised and told me that he has also just started reading it. While reading the book, so many times I remembered a particular event or the significance of it – the way SC had described it and compared it with the novel. So many times (like the dissolution of monasteries), I distinctly felt that Mantel has not done justice to the event and similarly so many times I felt elated in discovering something significant, which either I did not know or had completely forgotten. We did not have internet to complement our readings and class notes. I am sure this book will someday be turned into a wonderful movie and that will help the students even more, but I am not sure whether future students will have such astonishing teachers. My gratitude to Hillary Mantel for bringing back those wonderful memories. I wish just for once I could go back to that room with large windows and the map of London on the wall and listen to SC’s analysis of Wolf Hall and Elton.


  1. Well written, as a historical novel, even if the allusions are deliberately obscure. Guess one needs to be a history buff or a history student to understand the history against which this is played out.

  2. I did not study history in college, so I don't have the same perspective. As a layman, I still found it an interesting read.

  3. I agree about the confusion with using 'he' I had to back up several times to make sure what was what and who was whom.A thoroughly entertaining read, I would love to have visited Austin Friars house, and sampled some of the interesting cuisine! It was an unexpected aspect to find the sainted Sir Thomas more being depicted as a thoroughly unpleasant human being, and good old Thomas Cromwell, as a really rather humane sympathetic character