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The King’s Justice

THE NAME OF Cromwell is indissolubly associated with political upheaval, religious radicalism, and regicide. Thomas Cromwell, an ancestor of Oliver, was a faithful servant first to Cardinal Wolsey, and after the Cardinal’s fall, to Henry VIII. Wolsey, as Cardinal, had failed to get Henry’s twenty-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled, and paid the price for that failure. By a series of legalistic maneuvers and dubious depositions, Cromwell, a smart lawyer with no ties to Rome, achieved the annulment, leaving Henry free to marry Anne Boleyn. He also—when the King tired of her and, his first wife dead, aimed for respect­ability—secured Anne’s downfall, trial, and execution (the main subject of Bring Up the Bodies). But Cromwell’s most lasting achievement, by taking advantage of the obvious corruptions in the wealthy monastic system of the Catholic Church, was to engineer the near-total dissolution of Britain’s religious houses. This both solved Henry’s second nagging problem—a chronic shortage of cash—and placated the nobility, many of whom benefited from royal largesse in the form of land-grants when the great religious estates were broken up.           

An autocratic self-serving egotist with his own theological notions, Henry VIII was obliged, in order to break free of his first marriage, to split from the pope, whom he saw as a political enemy rather than a religious superior. Threatened with excommunication and irritated by the taxes and other levies that went to Rome, he declared himself head of the Church in Britain, and required every citizen to accept, on solemn oath, his right to this position. By doing so he put himself in conflict not only with Rome, but also with a number of clerics and scholars in his own realm, headed by Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More, who could subscribe neither to Henry’s self-proclaimed religious authority nor to the largely secular casuistry that had cleared the way for his remarriage. But to refuse the oath was, as Henry saw it—and as new laws conveniently confirmed—plain treason. This was the material of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, and later for sections of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. As we know, both Fisher and More did refuse the oath, and were executed. The crucial problem, of course, lies in interpreting those events.         

On the one hand we have More’s Catholic view (accepted in this case by a good many non-Catholics): to swear to an oath that directly affronted one’s most deeply held religious beliefs was, quite simply, unthinkable. More refused, and was martyred and ultimately sainted for the stand he took. This, clearly, was Bolt’s position: it proved both emotionally satisfying and very popular. Against it we must consider the arguments of what is sometimes called the Protestant ethic, which challenges Catholic tradition on the basis of freely shared Biblical evidence. Where in the Bible, Mantel’s Cromwell wonders in Wolf Hall, does it speak of monks, nuns, relics, or the pope? Or, indeed, of Purgatory? Thus Henry’s oath can be seen as a mere political ploy couched in religious terms. More, in this view, could have sworn the oath without imperiling his immortal soul in the slightest. Reflecting on More’s death in Bring Up the Bodies (the title is Tudor legalese for ordering the delivery of persons in custody for trial), Cromwell opines: “If ever a man came close to beheading himself, Thomas More was that man.” And in Cromwell’s own terms, of course, this is exactly true.          

In the Author’s Note to her novel, Mantel records that “in this book I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.” His point of view as delineated here, and in Wolf Hall, is by and large that of the Protestant ethic. As a historical novelist, Mantel does not believe in re-writing history. Her advice to students when teaching a master class, which I recently read, was at the back of my mind while reading this subtle, gripping portrait of this smooth, powerful, enigmatic Tudor servant of the Crown: “Question every historical fact you think you know, and never take the word of a single source … Don’t pervert the values of the past. … Your characters … very likely believed in hellfire, beating children, and hanging malefactors. Can you live with that? Don’t rearrange history to suit your plot. Make a virtue of the constraints of the facts, or write some other form of fiction. Don’t show off. Your reader only needs to know about one tenth of what you know.”

As both her Tudor novels demonstrate on every page, Mantel practices what she preaches, and the result draws you in, irresistibly, to the intense and dangerously competitive life of Henry’s court. (She admires, and has learned a lot from, A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess’s brilliant fictional riff on Christopher Marlowe.) The narrator’s voice slides easily to and fro in the present tense between Cromwell’s quick diplomatic mind and anonymous omniscience commenting on the scene: this technique, a kind of literary 3-D, combines with reported conversation to create an instant realism that projects emotions—fear in particular—with extraordinary vividness. Just as Wolf Hall let us eavesdrop on Wolsey’s plans or the interrogations of More, so in Bring Up the Bodies we listen, sickened, as character after character is manipulated—their unwise casual remarks recalled in meticulous detail—into testifying against Anne Boleyn with charges of multiple adulteries, including incest with her brother, when it becomes clear that trying her on a capital charge is the only sure way of getting rid of her. “Mostly,” says Cromwell to his friend Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet, “he wishes her dead.” “Wishing is not doing it,” Wyatt replies. “It is, if you are Henry,” comes the response.        

Mantel’s novel revolves around the moods and whims of this domineering autocrat, physically huge, emotionally unpredictable, and capable of inspiring intense loyalty no less than craven terror and secret hatred, as does the entire political life of Tudor England. Mantel’s portrait of Henry is unforgettable. “What is there, without Henry? Without the radiance of his smile? It’s like perpetual November, a life in the dark.” So Cromwell meditates. “You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But … it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.” Yet this giant also needs constant reassurance that he is right, worries about his fading sexual prowess, exhibits a prissy distaste for coarseness, depends increasingly on Cromwell to find practical solutions to his political problems, and dreads damnation in the hereafter. As his passion for Anne Boleyn morphs into resentful hatred—her sharp, critical tongue, her inability to provide him with a male heir—he refashions his marital career: he is the victim always, his good intentions countered by womanly malice and blinded to reality until it is too late.          

In all this he has Cromwell’s unswerving support. The idiosyncratic scholar Kenneth Dover remarked in his memoirs that “there are few more potent generators of crime” than loyalty, so often misplaced, and this accurate judgment casts a dark shadow over Thomas Cromwell’s career. Christopher Hitchens was not alone in arguing (in a review of Wolf Hall) that More was a frigid fanatic and, ruthless bureaucrat though Cromwell may have been, “by the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.”

Perhaps. Yet Cromwell’s loyalty involves the conviction of innocent men. (“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”) At least four of these he nails in personal revenge for a long-ago court skit mocking the downfall of his master, Cardinal Wolsey; and the odds are very strong that Anne Boleyn, precisely because of her ruthless ambition, was innocent of the lurid charges brought against her, in which case Cromwell was arguably guilty of procurement to commit murder. Yet this does not stop him from being, overall, Mantel’s wise, witty, and hardheaded administrator.

There are strong hints that she is not through yet with Mr. Secretary (“sleek, plump, and densely inaccessible.”) As she plots his last years, from the Pilgrimage of Grace (where she will have strong competition from H.F.M. Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey) to Cromwell’s final destruction by the noble families who resented his power and despised him, in the last result, as a vulgar upstart, it will be interesting to see how she deals with the moral paradox of his loyalty. But since she is aiming throughout—and so far with remarkable success—to give us Cromwell’s own view of himself and the world he inhabited, the question may well not arise.          

Peter Green is a professional ancient historian and an occasional poet and novelist. Currently he is a member of the Classics Department in the University of Iowa.