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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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue