Ruthless, businesslike and pragmatic: detail of painting of Thomas Cromwell, c 1530. Photo: Getty
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Behind the Mantel: in search of the real Thomas Cromwell

To capitalise on the success of Wolf Hall or perhaps to offer an accurate historical account of Cromwell, there have been four recent or reissued biographies of Henry VIII’s first minister. Borman’s narrative adds a fifth.

Thomas Cromwell: the Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant
Tracy Boorman
Hodder & Stoughton, 464pp, £25

The Hollow Crown: the Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors
Dan Jones
Faber & Faber, 480pp, £20

It cannot have gone unnoticed by any careful observer that the history of five centuries ago has become part of the cultural zeitgeist. Hilary Mantel’s two Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, have been produced as sell-out stage plays and are being filmed for television with Damian Lewis and Mark Rylance in the lead roles. The epic, gorgeous sweep of the US TV series Game of Thrones has, at its core, the rivalry between two families whose names, Lannister and Stark, patently echo their real-life 15th-century counterparts, Lancaster and York. And just as history has informed fiction, so now, in a pleasingly circular fashion, fiction has inspired history.

To capitalise on the success of Wolf Hall or perhaps, less cynically, to seek to offer an accurate historical account of Mantel’s fictionalised character, there have been four recent or recently reissued biographies of Henry VIII’s first minister, Thomas Cromwell (by Robert Hutchinson, John Schofield, David Loades and J Patrick Coby), and Tracy Borman’s narrative adds a fifth.

She tells the story of a “man of wit”, whom Cardinal Thomas Wolsey thought “deep of understanding” and whom the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys considered more talented and more able than Wolsey. This Cromwell is garrulous, irreverent and loyal, but also ruthless, businesslike and pragmatic.

Borman writes admirably; her prose trips along merrily and is full of intriguing titbits: he spelt his surname “Crumwell”; this man of virtue loved to gamble and suffered huge losses at dice; he worked, if his assistant Ralph Sadler’s schedule is anything to go by, 20-hour days.

It is an uphill battle to humanise Cromwell – by an accident of history (or possibly by deliberate intention), most of the sources that would have given historians a sense of his interior life have not survived. He must be constructed from his deeds, from the words of others, and from scraps of memorandums in his archive. A great strength of the book, then, is that Borman dissects sources such as inventories and account books to endeavour to round out our picture of the man. She explores both his house and household – furniture, clothing, what he liked to eat, his lavish hospitality to his guests – adding a profusion of detail that places Cromwell in his domestic setting.

Strangely, she also chooses to flesh out her account with a gossipy, anonymous source known as the Spanish Chronicle, which she owns to be full of wild inaccuracies and imagined situations, though occasionally credible. It certainly adds colour and spice to her narrative, but the decision to relay its contents – especially when the context makes it obvious that, say, the given dialogue cannot have been heard by the chronicler and must have been concocted – unhelpfully blurs the line between history and fiction, and obscures our sight of what is fact. So, too, does the suggestion of “the appearance of a sixth finger on one of [Anne Boleyn’s] hands”, when Borman’s endnotes explain that this was only a small second nail growing on the side of one of her fingers; or the dissonance created by indicating that Cromwell was passionately interested in advancing evangelical Protestant reform – to the point of committing £400 of his own money to ensure the Great Bible, the first authorised edition in English, was distributed to the parishes – but that “fragments of evidence” suggest he “privately preferred the traditional faith” of Catholicism. Other slips and discrepancies are similarly dislocating and rather bewildering.

There is, of course, much that historians can learn from novelists. The tradition of great literary narrative history, which can rival the best fictional account of a period for readability, yet remain true and verifiable, has had woefully few champions since the days of G M Trevelyan and T B Macaulay. Step up, Dan Jones, whose latest work, The Hollow Crown: the Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors, challenges established histories on many fronts.

For a start, Jones tackles the common account of the War of the Roses. This tells us that the deposition of Richard II threw the country into a near-century of warfare between two rival houses, and all was healed only by the arrival of the saviour of the realm, Henry Tudor. Jones debunks this version of events as a product of Tudor propaganda and goes about setting the record straight. He alters the temporal framework of the wars, explaining that to understand this “ruthless, pitiless age” one cannot date the beginning of the wars to 1455; one must begin with the death of Henry V in 1422. Most historians stop the story in 1485 or 1487, but Jones stretches up beyond the Battles of Bosworth and Stoke, to the death of Richard de la Pole, the last White Rose, in 1525, and Margaret de la Pole, among the last Plantagenets, in 1541.

This is all significant, but it is in his style and narrative that Jones really lays down the gauntlet. He is an extraordinary storyteller whose scene-setting is intensely visual and whose characters spring from the page. He has a gift for an arresting turn of phrase (he “strained every fibre of his formidable being”; this was “no arbitrary clutch of estates”). And, like Borman, he highlights engaging details: that coronation rituals often bred head lice, and that Henry VI was shocked by, and abhorred, nakedness. Finally, he is comically wry: Richard III’s “attitude towards members of his family had proven to be anything but sentimental” (though there is much to please Ricardians here: Jones is scrupulously fair, even flattering, to the king, describing him as being of “sharp wit” and courage). This is narrative history at its most brilliant.

Fifteenth-century history is highly contested, and much of what Jones must navigate his way through has been the subject of intense historiographical debate: how much was William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk, chief minister to Henry VI, to blame for what went wrong in the 1440s? Jones does not interrupt his narrative to introduce the disputed nature of events, but he does give a strong line of argument, and those who wish to know the terms of the argument must head to his notes. This is not to suggest any antithesis between history as research and narrative: one paragraph, about the library of Katherine de la Pole, abbess of Barking Abbey, struck me as taking a phenomenal amount of research to construct, but Jones rises elegantly to the challenge.

A Milanese ambassador in 1471 likened the task of describing the ever-changing nature of events in England to suffering torture. With history in such skilful hands as these, reading about them is anything but. 

Suzannah Lipscomb is a historian and broadcaster. Her most recent book is “A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England” (Ebury Press, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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