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 U.S. 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 capitalize on the success of Wolf Hall or perhaps, less cynically, to seek to offer an accurate historical account of Mantel’s fictionalized 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 humanize 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 endeavor 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 color 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 authorized 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 savior 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 skillful hands as these, reading about them is anything but.