Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell

Cromwell

What is it about Thomas Cromwell that makes him such a significant figure in our political history? Hilary Mantel summarises his story here.

For almost a decade, Thomas Cromwell was chief minister to Henry VIII, at the centre of his glittering and savage court and standing by his king, as David Starkey has said, 'like Alistair Campbell with an axe.'

Indefatigable propagandist for his ferocious master, he helped engineer England's break with Rome and made Henry head of the new church in England. He disposed of Henry's unwanted wives and organised new ones. His power in church and state was unprecedented. But his story had a most unlikely beginning.

Vanishing act
He was born in Putney around 1485, the year the Tudor dynasty came to power. His father was a brewer and blacksmith, a neighbourhood bully well-known in the local law courts. His mother's name is unknown and there is no record of his education.

By his own account a 'ruffian,' he quit England while still in his teens. When he returned after some 10 years he spoke several languages and had acquired expertise in finance and law. He had also, it was said, learned the New Testament by heart.

Rising star
For some years he was 'man of business' to Cardinal Wolsey, England's all-powerful Lord Chancellor. When the Cardinal fell, Cromwell moved into royal service. He was soon established as a master of parliamentary tactics and as a man who challenged and remade ancient institutions.

He was said to have promised the king he would make him rich, and he proceeded to do it, diverting church lands and treasures into royal hands. A religious reformer, he persuaded Henry to allow an English bible, but he could not turn the king's old-fashioned heart towards protestantism.

Magnificence
Cromwell accrued offices, titles and personal wealth. He was, an ambassador said, 'magnificent.' A patron of scholars and artists, his household was a magnet for the ambitious. His work schedule was unrelenting, his mind ingenious, and he managed his volatile monarch not only by producing quick results but also by what his opponents saw as self-serving ruthlessness and manipulative charm.

On the way to the top he made dangerous enemies, including Stephen Gardiner, the bishop known as 'wily Winchester', and the irascible magnate Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

Disaster
In 1540, to the fury of Cromwell's conservative opponents, the king made him Earl of Essex. But Henry was unhappy in his fourth marriage, which Cromwell had arranged, and while his position was destabilised his enemies moved in, accusing him of heresy and treason.

He was arrested in the council chamber, held in the Tower and beheaded in July 1540. Henry married his fifth wife on the day of Cromwell's execution. Within weeks he was lamenting the death of 'the most faithful servant he had ever had.'

The real Thomas Cromwell?
In my novels I see Cromwell as a vital force for change, but also as a human being intent first on surviving in a harsh world, then on reshaping that world to his will. Was he a statesman or a thug? An icy pragmatist, or an optimist with faith in a better world? The evidence is patchy, the defendant inscrutable, and the jury still out.

Aldwych Theatre
1 May – 4 October 2014

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