Fanfare for the common man

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

Thomas Cromwell was an extraordinary man living at a time when extraordinary qualities were beginning to count even in common men like himself, the son of a Putney blacksmith. Hilary Mantel’s novel presents him essentially as a product of Italian humanism, having spent his formative years on the Continent, first as a mercenary and then learning accountancy and law and generally soaking up the new ideas circulating in early modern Europe; indeed, Mantel’s Tomasso is never quite at home in cold, rainy England. He is a formidable intellectual and an accomplished politician, as well as being a convinced religious reformer and a genuinely charming man.

This is in sharp contrast to the traditional image of Henry VIII’s chief minister at the time of the English Reformation, notoriously described by David Starkey as ‘Alastair Campbell with an axe’. Mantel’s Cromwell looks like a murderer, and doesn’t mind too much that people speculate in whispers about his violent past. His nephew Richard observes: ‘you are practised at persuading, and sometimes it’s quite difficult, sir, to distinguish being persuaded by you from being knocked down in the street and stamped on’. But in Mantel’s telling, Cromwell is no cynical bully. He get things done because he believes in them, or at least, as in the case of the king’s divorce and remarriage, because he believes they serve a greater purpose. If Henry broke from Rome because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and plunder the monasteries, Cromwell facilitated the marriage because he wanted to break from Rome and plunder the monasteries. (The dissolution of the monasteries was a good thing.)

Mantel’s reappraisal of Cromwell is clearest in relation to his adversary Thomas More, traditionally regarded as a saint (literally for Catholics). More died for his faith, but Mantel makes clear that he’d already helped plenty of reformers do the same. While More still has the upper hand as Lord Chancellor, Cromwell’s sister-in-law Johane worries he will rack a suspected reformer and get more names out of him. Cromwell is unperturbed: ‘He already knows my name’. And when a boy brings Cromwell a letter from the exiled William Tyndale, sewn into his jerkin, and explains that he hasn’t read it for fear of giving away its contents if detained by agents of More, Cromwell makes a fist: ‘Let him come near my people. I’ll drag him out of his court at Westminster and beat his head on the cobbles till I knock into him some sense of the love of God and what it means’. Cromwell is a hard man, but a good one.

Mantel writes from Cromwell’s perspective, constantly returning from descriptions of events to his own thoughts; sentences frequently begin with an unannounced ‘He’, or occasionally ‘He, Cromwell’ when there’s too much competition. The effect is almost like being Cromwell, immersed in his way of thinking, enjoying his many subtle jokes from the inside. Early on, Cromwell watches helplessly as his then patron Cardinal Wolsey angrily harangues Thomas Boleyn about rumours that his daughter Anne is to marry a more important nobleman (Henry Percy), without the delicacy he might have employed had he known that Boleyn’s other daughter Mary was currently the king’s mistress.

The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it is so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for ‘Back off, our prince is fucking this man’s daughter’. He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on.

Unlikely. No detail is too small for Cromwell’s attention. He’s always giving people presents, he thinks about menus, he stops to help a pair of dim workmen manoeuvre a chest through a doorway. He even suggests leaving a little gap after the word prince as proclamations are prepared ahead of the birth of Anne’s first child; sensible as it turned out, but the clerks look at him like he’s a traitor. In fact, it is his practical attitude to things that makes him effective: he is unburdened by the superstitions and feudal ways of thinking that linger at court. And this gives him more than a political or religious incentive to help the king in his great matter: ‘A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell’.

The nobles constantly remind Cromwell of his humble origins, of course, out of a combination of simple snobbery and fear of his rise. But while they learn in time not to underestimate him, the representatives of the ancien regime have no idea how the world is changing, and how their underlings are rising. At a gathering of lawyers, aldermen and rather grander visitors at an Italian merchant’s house on Bishopsgate, the company switches the conversation from English to French for the benefit of the imperial ambassador Chapuys. When Chapuys wants to discuss a delicate political matter with Thomas More, then Lord Chancellor, he drops into Latin, much to Cromwell’s amusement.

The company, linguistically agile, sit and smile at him. He advises, pleasantly, ‘If you wish to be half-secret, try Greek. Allez, Monsieur Chapuys, rattle away! The Lord Chancellor will understand you.’

Later, he almost pities the bewildered Harry Percy.

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of a gun but by the scrape of a pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

It isn’t Cromwell’s job to explain this, of course, to convince the nobility of their redundancy and the inevitability of change. But nor does he merely ride the wave of modernisation: he is an active agent, testing the boundaries of the possible, pushing, probing. Soon after Cromwell begins serving Henry, Norfolk relates how the king once fell into a ditch while out riding and had to be clawed out by a servant. ‘He thinks, that’s one question answered. In case of peril, you may pick him up. Fish him out. Whatever.’

Later, Cromwell is consulted by Henry after he is troubled by a vision of his dead brother Arthur. Cromwell sees that this is part of the king’s ongoing inner dialogue about his marital situation and the authority of the Pope, and does not hesitate to direct his thoughts in a reforming direction, even seizing the royal arm to drive home his point. Fellow reformer and soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer is impressed, but also disturbed by Cromwell’s ugly forcefulness. Cromwell says he can’t help his ‘sinner’s aspect’.  Cranmer agrees, and suggests God knew what he was doing when he made Cromwell:

‘He has arranged your face on purpose to disconcert our enemies. And that hand of yours, to take a grip on circumstances – when you took the king’s arm in your grasp, I winced myself. And Henry, he felt it. (…) You are a person of great force of will.’

Nonetheless, Cromwell’s pragmatism lends a more humane aspect to his forcefulness; in fact, humanity in this sense is only just on the right side of cynicism. Oddly this is something he shares with Anne Boleyn, despite her single-minded ambition. Anne too is a convinced reformer, but no fanatic. When she hears about the execution of ‘Little Bilney’, Anne is angry as much with the martyr himself as Thomas More: ‘People must say whatever will keep them alive till better times come. That is no sin. Would not you?’ Indeed, in the king’s service, and as long as the king opposes further religious reform, it is Cromwell’s job to enforce conformity, even at the expense of those with whom he sympathises. Taking another ‘heretic’ into custody, Cromwell pauses in the woods, allowing him ample time to escape; the young man declines to run. The similarly conflicted Cranmer later tells Cromwell regretfully that he cannot turn the young man from his path. ‘He should have run into the woods,’ Cromwell says, ‘That was his path.’

Cromwell’s pragmatism contrasts with More’s self-flagellating brand of religiosity, which Cromwell despises. At one point, he tells his sister-in-law about Savonarola’s notorious Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence a few decades earlier.

‘..and do you know what was worst, Johane – they threw in their mirrors. So then they couldn’t see their faces and know how they were different from the beasts in the field and the creatures screaming on the pyre.’

But then he remembers something even worse than that.

‘And you know the worst of it? They were sober. Last night they took their wine-skins…’ He turns his arm, in a mime of a man lobbing something into a fire. ‘So they were sober and their heads were clear, but they looked around and they had nothing to eat, nothing to drink and nothing to sit on’.

For Cromwell, the message of the gospel is not about self-denial and the celebration of suffering, but about an opening up, a blossoming of humanity. Till now the people have only been exposed to what the church chose to tell them about their own religion: their heads are filled with unscriptural ideas like purgatory, and they know nothing of the true riches of Christian teaching. Cromwell’s idea of reform is the people reading the scriptures in their own language, revelling in the good news as well as the bad: ‘The story is much bigger than they ever thought it was’.

Hilary Mantel’s story takes us to the height of Cromwell’s powers; we leave him as one of the most powerful men in England. The title refers to the seat of the Seymours, which he plans to visit because he has a crush on young Jane (we know something he doesn’t for a change). Never mind, by now he has learned to live with suffering, having lost his wife and young daughters to disease. Perhaps he would not be unduly perturbed by knowledge of his own impending grisly end. By now, unlike his former master Wolsey, Cromwell ‘is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament’: he doesn’t get upset. Rather than being affected by events, he shapes them as best he can. ‘He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world: this people, this dynasty, this miserable rainy island at the edge of the world.’

Dynasty, mind: not just king. Cromwell dreams of ‘building his own prince’ as Wolsey built Henry. We know of course that he never got the chance. But Cromwell’s part in the English Reformation was a significant contribution to the making of modern Britain, and Mantel’s rehabilitation of his reputation gives us a rich and sympathetic character to enjoy. The history of common men doesn’t have to be about little men.

First published on Culture Wars.