Hilary Mantel’s fictional accounts of the life of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have inevitably raised interest in the reality of Henry VIII’s right-hand man, and so Tracy Borman’s “untold story” follows fairly fast on the heels of David Loades’ Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII, published last year by Amberley.
That the epithet of “servant” should be attached to biographies of Cromwell is no mere coincidence. The word reminds us of his lowly position in society – the son of a fuller and brewery-owner, he rose through native wit, intelligence and sheer hard work to occupy a string of impressive jobs (vicegerent in spirituals being only the most abstruse, and most frequently misspelt). But more than that, the extent of Cromwell’s subjugation to Henry is central to any interpretation of him, and is a question over which historians continue to disagree. How much was he indeed the consummate servant, concerned only to do his monarch’s bidding, and how much was he really in control himself?
Borman plumps for Cromwell the manipulator, attributing to him the bulk of the responsibility for most of the controversial deeds of the 1530s, from resolving the king’s “great matter” so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, through to the framing of Anne for adultery and her beheading, via the imposition of the Royal Supremacy, the execution of Thomas More and the destruction of the monasteries.
This was certainly what many of Cromwell’s contemporaries thought. Borman writes of “the depth of popular anger and hatred for the king’s chief minister”, and that people believed “He, not Henry, was responsible for destroying the very fabric of England.” But this is hardly unusual for people living under an authoritarian regime in times of upheaval. One has only to think of letters written to Stalin by his victims.
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