John Green reviews Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of historical novels. The above image is Hans Holbein's 1530s portrait of Thomas Cromwell
Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Henry VIII’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell (1485 –1540), has been widely praised, and the first two volumes each won the Booker Prize for fiction. Thomas Cromwell was Henry’s Lord Privy Seal, Vice-Regent and Secretary. In one capacity or another, he was the king’s closest adviser for 7 years. Cromwell has been much maligned by historians and invariably portrayed as a ruthless, Machiavellian manipulator who got his just deserts when Henry had him beheaded in 1540.
Mantel’s fictional biography has helped place him in a more differentiated and positive light, and rightly portrays him as the chief instigator of the English Reformation. For most of us who learned our history in the school classroom, the reign of Henry VIII is indelibly associated with his several wives and having two of them beheaded. England’s break with the Roman Catholic church in 1534 during his reign has also been framed in the context of the Pope’s refusal to sanction the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. This over-simplification of history has dominated the narrative of this key period in English history for generations.
Mantel is a skilled writer who knows how to tell a tale in a gripping and absorbing way. Her scrupulous research and eye for detail, together with great imaginative flair, give her books their magnetism. In her telling of Cromwell’s life, she emphasises the embedded class system of feudal England, and how it impacted on Cromwell’s own life.
He was born in London’s docklands, the son of a brewer and blacksmith, and grew up in relative poverty. He had no formal education but managed to survive those hard knocks in early life to rise and become one of the most powerful men in the country. As a young man, he had run away from home to Europe, where he slowly managed to escape his allotted place in life, overcoming the handicaps of his background and emerging as a successful, wealthy and intellectually capable citizen.
After his return to England in around 1515, he managed to obtain employment with the all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey, who immediately recognised his talents and nurtured them. Henry eventually fell out with Wolsey because he felt he had amassed too much power and wealth, and expelled him from his court. Wolsey died before he could be imprisoned – or worse. Despite his intimate association with Wolsey, Cromwell was left unscathed.
He progressed from serving Wolsey to serving the king, embarking on a rise so unremarked that few potential rivals in that greedy and thuggish court realised the threat he posed, until it was too late. As a ‘common man’ he had been largely ignored or dismissed by his ‘betters’.
Henry noted his abilities early on and appointed him as Chancellor of the Exchequer, one the most powerful positions in the country. Later he was appointed Lord Privy Seal and then Vice-Regent. This meteoric rise of a lowly plebeian boy to become the most influential man at the royal court was not viewed with equanimity by the aristocratic families of the day, who spared no effort to have him deposed. His humble background was continually raised by the blue-blooded in order to insult and demean him. Those of higher estate found the rise of a brewer’s son to the heart of government difficult to stomach. Still, after the carnage of the Wars of the Roses, many of the noble houses were not particularly ancient and Henry VIII’s England did offer unprecedented opportunities for a new breed of men, willing to risk all for the chance of power and wealth.
Mantel tells Cromwell’s rags-to-riches story eloquently and engagingly, providing the reader with a vivid portrait of Tudor court life. So why am I left disappointed by her trilogy?
I believe the popularity of her fictional biography lies largely in the detailed court goings-on, the gossip and intrigue that she describes so exquisitely and that permeates her narrative. But at no point is the reader helped to understand what the English Reformation meant in terms of the life of the country, international relations and the politics of power. After all, Cromwell was at the centre of this great historical process and, indeed, was very much its motor – but he didn’t work alone.
Democratising the church
What motivated Cromwell to pursue the reformation of the church, and to destroy the power of Catholicism? We know that Henry’s chief reason for breaking with the Roman Church was to get his hands on as much of the enormous wealth in the church’s possession as he could, and gain absolute power. He utilised Cromwell for that purpose. While Cromwell helped fulfil his desires, his own motivation went far beyond merely satisfying Henry’s greed and vanity. He saw the vital need to destroy the church’s absolute power, to democratise it, to make the scriptures available in English rather than in Latin for the first time and tackle church corruption. He was strongly influenced by what had been happening in mainland Europe in the wake of Martin Luther’s challenge to Catholic hegemony, and the writings of Erasmus, Tyndale, Melanchthon and other religious dissidents. This was the period of emerging humanism which would later develop into the 17th century Enlightenment.
Cromwell had also been influenced by the English theologian John Wycliffe (1320s-1384), whose ideas predated Luther’s by 100 years. Through his radical call for church reform and translating the Bible into the common vernacular, Wycliffe attacked the privileged status of the clergy, which had bolstered their powerful role in England and the luxury and pomp of local parishes. In 1382 Wycliffe completed a translation directly from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English - a version now known as Wycliffe’s Bible. Just like Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), Wycliffe argued that the Church had fallen into sin, that it ought to give up all its property, and that the clergy should live in complete poverty.
The tendency of the high offices of state to be held by clerics was not only resented by the lower orders but by many of the nobles too. Wycliffe regarded the Bible as the only reliable guide to the truth about God, and maintained that all Christians should rely on it rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics. He argued that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy.
In the midst of this came the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This revolt was sparked in part by Wycliffe's preaching, carried throughout the realm by ‘poor priests’ appointed by Wycliffe (who were mostly laymen). The preachers didn't limit their criticism of the accumulation of wealth and property to that of the monasteries, but included secular properties belonging to the nobility as well. Such views were, of course, incendiary. England’s peasant uprisings came 100 years before Germany’s Peasants’ Revolt.
William Tyndale (1494 –1536), an almost exact contemporary of Thomas Cromwell and someone who followed closely in the footsteps of Wycliffe, had been exiled to Antwerp for his ‘heretical views’. Here he came very much under the influence of Erasmus and published his own (incomplete) translation of the Bible, from Hebrew, into English. His teaching had a considerable influence on Cromwell and while Mantel mentions this, she does not give it much weight.
Cromwell was largely responsible for carrying out the dissolution of the monasteries and confiscating their properties and wealth. At the same time he attacked the industry that had grown up around the worship of relics, the selling of indulgences and other archaic practices which he felt had nothing to do with genuine Christian worship and belief in God. Unfortunately this church wealth, rather than being redistributed to ordinary citizens and peasants, fell into the hands of Henry and his chief nobles.
Mantel underplays this historical context and fails to penetrate the psychology or the thinking of men like Cromwell and his reforming supporters. Nowhere in her books are we made aware of the discussions, debates and disputes that raged at the time, in which Cromwell was very much involved. She fails to grasp the full historical dimension of the Protestant Reformation and gets lost in the minutiae of courtly behaviour, the king’s sexual problems and the machinations of the various noble figures jockeying for power. In all the individuals she portrays, both real and fictional, we are not made aware of any intellectual curiosity or depth. They are treated like chess pieces, to be moved within the confines of the board.
The interconnectedness of the political and economic background with religious reform is in Mantel’s book vague or non-existent. One of the main reasons that the Reformation was so successful in large parts of Europe and in England was because the rising merchant class, the bourgeoisie, wanted to throw off their feudal shackles and escape the church’s suppression of all radical ideas. The church was holding back economic development, stifling the freedom of thought and scientific investigation that were essential if capitalism were to emerge and flourish as it later did.
Even sections of the aristocracy had begun to question why they were still obliged to send large sums of money to Rome in order to support an overblown and largely corrupt clergy. At the bottom of the pile, the peasantry throughout the country were still living in abject poverty, as virtual slaves of the big landowners – including the church – and were burdened with increasing demands on their labour, higher taxation and church tithes. The new Protestant ideas were music to their ears, and provided a stimulus for rebellion.
In Germany these ideas led to the great Peasant War, from 1524 to 1525. In England peasant rebellion on such a broad scale was absent, although in East Anglia, Robert Kett, a Norfolk gentleman, led a rebellion against Henry’s religious policies, the dissolution of the monasteries and the very unpopular enclosure of common lands by greedy noblemen. The rebels were defeated at Norwich by an English army supported by foreign mercenaries. This kind of background, which underlies and determines the lives of the figures who appear in the books, is hardly apparent. I feel we still have to wait for a definitive historical novel of this crucial period in English history.
John Green is a journalist and broadcaster. He has authored and edited several books and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including political biographies, labour history, poetry, natural history and environmental affairs.