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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era