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Wednesday 10 September 2014

Thomas Cromwell Revised

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick C...
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick Collection. Oak panel, 76 x 61 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
"The ambitious have no friends" - Brian Taggert and Faustus Buck

Thomas Cromwell seems modelled for the role of the devious and manipulative power behind the throne. He is depicted as a ruthless and power-hungry man of ambition who destroyed several notable figures on his ascent to the position as Henry VIII's chief minister. Virtually every portrait I have seen of the man is unflattering. He scowls from his seated position with cold eyes over a long and sharp nose. Danny Webb's depiction of the character in the TV series, "Henry VIII",  takes this image and runs with it in perfect style. He is seen as a scheming and overly-ambitious man. Yet his latest biography challenges this view, presenting a man who was loyal to his family and loved by the common people. He was the most hated man in England, but this may have been as much to do with the influence of his aristocratic enemies, led by Duke of Norfolk as it was to do with his ruthlessness.

The fascinating thing about history is that, like science, there are no absolutes. We not only uncover new evidence, but new perspectives too. I recently read "Dracula: Prince of Many Faces" in my pursuit of sifting out the bloody propaganda surrounding Vlad Tepes  and in hope of finding the real man. It always interests me to see challenging and compelling evidence that shifts an accepted perspective of an historical figure. History is all about storytelling and it is only natural that humans feel secure using a simplistic moral approach, and this is often actively encouraged either by political powers of the day or partisan revisionists.

On that note, being a critical thinker, I am not easily swayed on a controversial viewpoint. Conspiracy theories and pseudohistory must be given no quarter in our condemnation, and their relegation to the faction or outright fiction sections of our libraries. This is why I thoroughly enjoyed Ian Mortimer's "1415: Henry V's Year of Glory", which did an incredibly thorough job of re-evaluating the character of Henry V. Mortimer's account of Henry V. Mortimer's conclusion was certainly controversial and challenged an English view of Henry V that seems to have been held since his lifetime. Yet Mortimer's primary sources were excellent and thorough. He had access to royal archives few others could obtain. His researching methods were those of a disciplined and dispassionate historian. He was fair with his subject and his conclusion was very convincing. Likewise, Tony Thorne's even-handed account of Countess Elizabeth Bathory does touch upon the possibility of a conspiracy. However, this is based on established conspiracies at the time and also is not presented as the only conclusion on the Bathory case. Again, Thorne appears to be fair to his subject and this was no blatant lionization.

Now Thomas Cromwell, a man who is often cast as Henry VIII's most despised advisor, seems to be receiving a much needed review. Tracy Borman's new biography on the chief minister argues the case for a man who was vilified due to his low birth. He is revealed to being loyal, a strong family man and extremely charitable. He was not only one of the main driving forces behind the English Reformation, but also proved to be just as influential over the creation of modern Government as his latter day namesake was over Parliament. However, she doesn't dismiss his ruthless ambition, for which has earned him his reputation as an amoral schemer. The execution of Anne Boleyn was the result of Cromwell's handiwork. He had a network of spies to rival that of the great spymaster, Walsingham, who would be at Elizabeth I's side. Nevertheless, Borman puts forward the persuasive argument that Cromwell's tactics and attitude were little different from anyone who moved in his circles. Ambition and ruthlessness were the order of the day. The son of blacksmith, Cromwell climbed from poverty, even begging in the street, to a position of extreme influence in the Royal Court. Along the way he made enemies, which is inevitable, but by lacking a noble background he had a distinct disadvantage compared to the other power-hungry aspirants.

Cromwell's reputation seems to have followed a similar course to his life in some respects. Up until Geoffrey Elton's study of the Tudors, Cromwell was downplayed as a mere agent of the overbearing tyrant, Henry VIII. Since then evidence reveals how massively instrumental he was in the King's affairs, the running of the country and the reforms that have shaped modern England. This may have elevated the collective opinion on his abilities and strength of personality, but it only blackened his image. Now Henry VIII's acts of tyranny were shared more fully by his chief minister. The deaths of Sir Thomas Moore and the aforementioned Anne Boleyn are undeniably lain at the feet of Cromwell. He was often portrayed in novels, plays, such as Robert Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons" and other works of historical fiction universally as a conniving Machiavellian villain. However, Hilary Montel rode against this image in her Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel, "Wolf Hall". This depicted the rise of Cromwell as that of a talented pragmatist. The sequel in her Cromwell trilogy, "Bring up the Bodies" also won the Booker Prize. Tracy Borman cites them as inspiration for her own research and the subsequent biography. Yet again history proves itself to be very much about people and stories.

As an icon, Cromwell seems to be the prototype of the Machiavellian schemers we were to see in Shakespeare's plays. He is the ambitious and cruel sidekick of many a fictional villain. He could be the wily Mafia consigliere or the ambitious military lieutenant or the devious henchman we see perched at the side of any proverbial or literal throne. In recent times we might find him in the form of Lord Petyr "Little Finger" Baelish in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy saga (televised as the hugely successful "Game of Thrones"). The stories here are noted for the moral ambiguity running throughout, where the most noble are dispatched and only those who learn the rules of power play can thrive. Baelish, like Cromwell, rose from a low rank, cultivated a network of informers, and controlled the lives of many by using ruthless tactics.  However, here and there he missteps and his own mortal weaknesses are revealed. He boastfully tells the mother of the King, Cercei, that "knowledge is power" only to be quickly shown that "power is power". Later his desire for Sansa, daughter of the woman he loved, places him directly in Sansa's power. In an over-reaching attempt to solidify the Protestant Reformation in England, Cromwell set Henry VIII up to marry the German Anne of Cleves. The disastrous matchmaking humiliated the king and it gave Cromwell's enemies, in the form of Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner, to pounce. It wasn't difficult to have Cromwell sent to the Tower on a list of trumped up charges that saw him being beheaded without a trial. According to Tracy Borman's research, Cromwell was very popular amongst the commoners and was known to be very charitable and Henry VIII regretted having his close friend executed.  


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