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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage