As we approach a general election, Thomas Cromwell is exactly who we need on our screens

Power needs a myth, and the new BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall gives us the perfect one in Mark Rylance’s Cromwell.

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Power always needs a myth. The Tudors had a legitimacy problem, and the solution for it was a legend – the strange, flawed legend of England’s strange, flawed King Arthur, who is confirmed as ruler by the land itself when the stone gives up the sword to him. Henry VII wasn’t subtle about it. He had a round table of his own painted, with himself in the place of Arthur; then in 1486, a year after the first publication of Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian cycle, he named his first son after the once and future king. Unfortunately, myths aren’t always propitious. Prince Arthur died before he could come to the throne, making him a not and never king.

As well as inconveniently undermining his father’s propaganda, Arthur’s death broke a diplomatically important union with Spain: his widow Catherine was later remarried to his brother, Henry VIII. And this set the scene for “the King’s great matter” (Tudor court speak for “the King’s wanting to bone Anne Boleyn”) and Thomas Cromwell’s rise – fictionalised in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, and now dramatised for BBC 2 (the first episode goes out tonight). In episode two, Henry VIII (played by Damian Lewis) wakes up in the middle of the night wracked with conscience about his place as king and his (strictly speaking incestuous, though papally dispensed) marriage to his sister-in-law. Mark Rylance’s Cromwell, newly in the royal confidence, is called to the king’s bed chamber.

“My dead brother came to me,” explains the harrowed king, and Cromwell listens – patient, lawyerly – before giving his patient, lawyerly reading of the dream. “Listen to me. You know what’s written on Arthur’s tomb?” (Cromwell means the Arthur of myth, not the real one.) “Rex quondam, rexque futurus. King once, and king to be,” says Henry. And then Cromwell makes his case: “If your brother comes back and seems to say that you’ve taken his kingdom, taken his place, it’s because he wants you to become the king he would have been. He can’t fulfil the prophesy – a prince come out of Wales – but he wills you to do it.” Power needs a myth, and Cromwell had one to hand, perfect for his purposes. It’s a crucial moment because it secures both Henry’s trust in Cromwell and Cromwell’s place in Henry’s political plans.

After this point, Cromwell isn’t the low-born “butcher’s dog” usefully intimidating the aristocracy on Wolsey’s behalf – he’s Henry’s man. But what kind of man? The problem the Arthurian myth is always trying to work out is this: what makes a good king? Arthur’s chivalric model is an ideal and a disaster, and the king commits a dreadful crime by having sex with his sister, which he compounds by murdering all newborns in an attempt to extinguish his incestuous issue (although he manages to miss his son, who inevitably grows up to take him down). Ultimately, he makes such a horrible job of it all that T H White’s 1958 version, The Once and Future King, ends with Arthur accepting that everything he’s done was for the benefit myth, so future generations could learn from his errors.

Mantel’s Cromwell circles the same question: how should a ruler be? In a lot of ways, he’s a consummately modern figure, easily recognisable as a spin doctor – even more easily in the TV adaptation than in the novels, actually. Intimately framed tracking shots give the show the look of a more courtly The Thick of It, and even though Rylance as Cromwell holds more in reserve than Peter Capaldi does as Malcolm Tucker, he’s still got the heft to impose himself on recalcitrant noblemen and bring them snivelling into line. (It probably says a lot about my general attitude to inherited wealth that these are some of the most satisfying scenes.) Is might right? Brutality is something this Cromwell deplores (especially when he sees it in the person of Thomas More, played by a hideously bloodless and grinning Anton Lesser),  and the more he uses it, the more it blurs the edges of his moral clarity, and hints towards his fall.

But that comes later. For now, Cromwell tells us much about how we’d like to see our leaders reflect ourselves: dartingly intelligent, meritocratically promoted, loyal, and loving too. One of the great joys of seeing Wolf Hall on TV is that the medium has the space and range to linger over Cromwell’s domestic life (something that was understandably trimmed for the excellent RSC stage adaptations), and we see his hopes for his daughters, his closeness to his wife, his contentment at the hearth. He’s at his best in the world of women, especially when he’s squaring up to Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) – the only character to offer him anything like a match in terms of intellect and political savvy. Power always needs a myth. In these strange shapeless days approaching May 2015, with soggy democratic deadlock hemmed by hectoring zealots, Cromwell – bright, sharp, principled, self-interested Cromwell, relieving the impasses and aggrieving the indulged – is exactly the myth we want to see.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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