The tragedy of power: how Thomas Cromwell engineered his own downfall

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s superb biography explores the motives of Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

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The Thomas Cromwell of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – self-contained, clear-sighted, sceptical and unexpectedly vulnerable – has gained quite a hold on the popular imagination. Especially as embodied in Mark Rylance’s magnificent performance in the BBC television adaptation of the novels, Mantel’s portrait is a brilliant counterweight to that other classic among modern dramatisations of the Tudor age, Robert Bolt’s Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Both are seductive anachronisms – More as a martyr for liberal freedoms, Cromwell as the wry, self-aware soul among obsessives and absolutists.

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s superb biography gives a generous nod to the Mantel/Rylance picture but does not allow it to capture the field. The book helps us see a Cromwell who is as much a three-dimensional figure as Mantel’s version, but resists any temptation to make him do a 21st-century job. Drawing on an impressive range of closely focused scholarship – extensive archival work, analysis of contemporary correspondence, critical engagement with pretty much all the pertinent secondary literature, and a thorough and confident knowledge of the wider historical and ecclesiastical scene – MacCulloch sets out to understand exactly the job that a 16th-century Cromwell did. And he succeeds, in a biography that balances a wealth of particular detail with a consistent grasp on the larger story, and holds the attention for the whole of its formidable length.

So what did Cromwell do? The general reader will know that, as Henry VIII’s most important adviser, he was behind the dissolution of the monasteries, and will perhaps have a vague picture of a Machiavellian figure supervising the downfall of Thomas More, before finally meeting his nemesis as a result of his brokering Henry VIII’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves. Those with a bit more acquaintance with modern historical scholarship will be aware of the great Geoffrey Elton’s thesis about the constitutional and gov-ernmental revolution supposedly overseen by Cromwell – the creation of a newly centralised and incipiently bureaucratised state. MacCulloch generously acknowledges Elton’s influence and importance, but sets out to tell a rather different story; and in doing so, he also has some fresh perspectives to challenge the mytholog-ised Cromwell of the textbooks and his-torical dramas.

Three things emerge clearly. First, from very early on, Cromwell had a coherent diplomatic perspective on European affairs. Sceptical of the possibilities of a dependable French alliance, he devoted a great deal of energy to relations with the Holy Roman Empire, then at its extraordinary peak of European power, controlling Spain and the Netherlands as well as Germany, Austria and parts of Italy. Hence his – at first sight – surprising intimacy with the imperial envoy, Eustace Chapuys (for many years his close neighbour in London); hence too his lukewarmness about the Boleyn marriage, developing into open hostility to Queen Anne, and later his complex and risky negotiations with assorted German rulers and coalitions of rulers of varying degrees of loyalty to Emperor Charles V.

The roller-coaster of Anglo-French relations – vulnerable to the whims of unusually flamboyant royal egos in this period – offered far less political advantage in Cromwell’s eyes. And also Germany provided the possibility of alliances that would both shore up the cause of religious reform in England and push back against internal pressures in the empire threatening the progress of reform in Europe.

Second, Cromwell must be credited with an equally consistent approach to the religious issues of the day. MacCulloch underlines the seriousness of Cromwell’s engagement with humanist scholarship and its interest in deploying biblical and early Christian ideas or vocabulary as a critical weapon against church practice that seemed impervious to challenge and change.

How far Cromwell became directly familiar with Martin Luther is hard to say. I suspect MacCulloch may slightly overestimate the degree of familiarity and sympathy, and Cromwell’s recorded dismissiveness about Luther (during his earlier days on the staff of Cardinal Wolsey) may be more than tactical diversion. Cromwell’s affinities are (ironically, given his political suspicions of the French) more with the cultivated and learned styles of Reformed thinking that flourished in the French circles around Queen Marguerite of Navarre, (and with some of the Swiss reformers) than with Luther’s passionate focus on the raw extremes of spiritual struggle.

Cromwell was surprisingly pragmatic about the abolition of the monasteries (or at least until the king had settled on total destruction as his goal, mostly for financial reasons). Wolsey had long since begun the process of clearing dead wood from the monastic communities, and Cromwell had cut his teeth on a number of the Cardinal’s ambitious projects in transferring resources from failing monasteries to new educational foundations. Many large and still flourishing communities were keen to develop their intellectual and educational profile (MacCulloch notes the high numbers of Benedictine monks graduating from Oxbridge in the first decades of the 16th century), and Cromwell was evidently open to the idea that Reformed colleges of clergy might seamlessly replace the old monastic institutions as centres of education and hospitality.

In other words, his approach to the dissolution of the monasteries was far more nuanced than we might have thought. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the treatment of the details of the dissolution – which communities were most vulnerable and why, the immensely complicated role of patronage networks around many monasteries and convents and the difference between monasteries and houses of friars (the latter were less securely endowed and often less popular because of demands on local charity). This topic would make an invaluable study in its own right.

The third main theme is MacCulloch’s skilful dismantling and reworking of Elton’s thesis. Yes, Cromwell was responsible for major shifts in the governance of Henry VIII’s realm; but this was not through the creation of a “professionalised” privy council and a deliberately centralised administration. MacCulloch says, aptly, that Cromwell “thrived on indeterminacy in government”. His genius – not too strong a word – was in his capacity to orchestrate a wide variety of instruments of government and control, concentrating effectiveness here, neutralising or deflecting there.

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MacCulloch offers some major insights into what Cromwell actually did with parliament. Contrary to various other accounts, he neither despised it nor privileged it. Characteristically, he found a way to use it, more specifically to use it so as to create a myth of popular consensus. The Commons was cast in the role of a conscientious supplicant to royal authority, inviting the king to enact what his loyal subjects in solemn assembly discerned to be for his good and the good of the realm.

This meant that it was now important for new legislation to be initiated in the Commons – which in turn meant that control of the Commons, both through the electoral process (still in its infancy but much accelerated under Cromwell’s influence) and through the organisation of regular business, became a key element in national executive efficiency.

Cromwell’s own parliamentary experience as a burgess, and his early role as a manager of business in parliament, equipped him admirably for carrying through this substantial development in how parliament was seen, and, so MacCulloch suggests, helped to guarantee that the English parliament consolidated its identity and power at precisely the time when the role of such assemblies in most continental European contexts was shrinking fast.

Yet, as MacCulloch notes, this brought its own darker legacy. An ideology of national consensus, the loyal people petitioning their benevolent sovereign, took for granted an absence of meaningful dissent, and cast any such dissent in terms of hostility to the common good. Loyal opposition was unintelligible in such a framework. And Cromwell shared with almost all his colleagues in Reformed circles in England a conviction that the monarch was the only alternative to the Pope as a final court of appeal in religious matters – with the result that anything claiming to be conscientious dissent from the monarch’s theology was both treasonous and heretical.

Significantly, MacCulloch entitles his chapter on the mid-1530s, when executions for dissent began in earnest, “Touching Pitch”. There is no way of absolving Cromwell of responsibility for the corruption and distortion of the process of law in this period, a legacy that would survive well into the early 17th century. Evidence was manufactured, confession extracted by torture, and any pretence of judicial impartiality was abandoned in most trials for treason. MacCulloch does not mention the famous note made by Cromwell at the time of the dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey: “The Abbot of Glaston to be tried at Glaston and also hanged there.” Granted that the chances of an acquittal in such circumstances would undoubtedly be nil, the casual nature of the note speaks volumes.

Thomas More was certainly a merciless judge of heretics, and he has to share some responsibility for the creation of surveillance networks to detect heresy; but he was a fanatical upholder of due process and absolute impartiality in the law, and it is still possible to hear, in the transcripts of his own trial, the depth of his indignation at the confusion and abuse of process that was unfolding around him.

As regards Cromwell’s treatment of More, MacCulloch offers a little in mitigation. Cromwell seems to retain an awkward respect for More (and More makes courteous remarks about Cromwell’s family); there is no personal vendetta involved, and it is possible that Cromwell secured for More slightly better conditions in prison than might have been expected. But it is impossible to believe that the evidence supplied by Richard Rich at More’s trial (that More had, in conversation, denied the king’s legitimacy as head of the Church) was not edited and doctored under Cromwell’s direction. By this point, Cromwell knew what the king wanted, and that was the end of the matter.

Like so many revolutionaries, Cromwell created the mechanisms by which he himself was eventually condemned. In the wake of the failure of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, he went to the block after the same kind of lethally streamlined legal process he had perfected to dispose of others. To understand him fully, we need a general view of how revolutions work. The determined reformer has to decide at what point to make peace with morally ambiguous methods for bringing about the desired changes. What is at stake at this moment is the very idea of a “rule of law”, something that insists on what is due to citizens, irrespective of their convictions or of the convenience of government. Once it is granted that someone has the right – in the language of some modern political philosophers – to declare an indefinite “state of emergency” in which the rule of law is suspended, no person or institution is safe.

And there is another aspect to this, which MacCulloch touches only obliquely. Revolutions need a variety of political personalities; they need theorists and managers, but they also need enforcers, people with less intelligence or conscience than their colleagues. To some extent one can assess the moral jeopardy of revolutionary movements by the ease with which such figures rise to the top.

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Cromwell was not a monster by any means: he was not a sadist or a coward (not a Beria to King Henry’s Stalin, as some have made him), he was remarkably loyal (to his old master Wolsey and to a number of lesser figures), and he was capable of real friendships. But his impact has to be judged by those whom he protected and promoted – conscienceless opportunists, liars and bullies such as Richard Rich, Thomas Audley and Thomas Wriothesley, not to mention Bishop Rowland Lee, president of the Council of Wales and the Marches (MacCulloch seems ever so slightly charmed by Lee’s persona as a bluff northcountryman and refers more than once to his “brisk efficiency” in Wales – a regime described as a “reign of terror” by a modern Welsh historian). These are the careers Cromwell made possible; judgement of them has to be in some degree judgement of him.

MacCulloch suggests in his conclusion that part of Cromwell’s legacy is the laying of the foundations for England’s future as a major Protestant power in the next generation – and thus also laying the foundations for the eventual emergence of the United States as a global force. This feels a bit strained: it was precisely to escape the Cromwellian fusion of church and state that many settlers left England for the Americas, and it is an eloquently dissident Protestantism that pervades so much of American national myth.

It might be more helpful to think of Cromwell as the inspirer of both sides in the English Civil War. It was said that the Reformation was a conflict between St Augustine’s doctrine of the Church and his doctrine of grace and freedom; the Civil War was arguably a conflict between Cromwell’s doctrine of the monarchy and his doctrine of parliament. A parliament empowered by Cromwellian reforms was not long going to be satisfied with being a legitimising vehicle for royal executive decision, and the tension already visible at points in Henry VIII’s reign (and Elizabeth’s) was bound to become unsustainable. Cromwell reinforced the role of parliament to serve an autocratic agenda; he would have been taken aback at what his kinsman Oliver made of this.

Thomas More’s son-in-law, William Roper, records that More once advised Cromwell “ever to tell him [the king] what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do”. Cromwell might have replied that for the king to do what he ought, he needed to know what he could do. But it was a Faustian bargain, as always with a ruler or leader who is unaccountable and – like Henry – childishly paranoid and volatile. Cromwell’s failure has a tragic flavour to it, and MacCulloch’s brilliant book, a model of classical historical biography at its finest, gives us plenty of material for thinking about how to diagnose (and protect ourselves against) absolutisms that depend on denying human dignity and legal right to strangers and questioners.

Rowan Williams will be in conversation with John Gray at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 24 November

Thomas Cromwell: a Life
Diarmaid MacCulloch
Allen Lane, 752pp, £30

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left