For eight hectic, bloody years (1532-40), Thomas Cromwell dominated English political life. Prodigiously hard-working—he must have slept even less than did Margaret Thatcher—hyper-astute, and undoubtedly driven by a profound vision of what England could and (he believed) should become, he made a more enduring mark on the heart, mind, and face of his homeland than did perhaps any minister of the crown before or since. And because he left behind enormously more paper than any previous royal minister—a huge correspond-ence, memos galore, draft statutes, “remembrances” (to-do lists), etc.—we can watch him at work day by day and almost hour by hour.
That is what this accomplished book does. Its subtitle, The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, which one suspects was the product of considerable head-scratching, invites the retort that, to be fair, others have told—or have tried to tell—the story before, notably R. B. Merriman in two fat volumes published in 1902, and several others since. And even as this book was being written, Hilary Mantel was publishing her highly acclaimed, fiercely opinionated historical novels with Thomas Cromwell as the centerpiece.
What Tracy Borman has to offer is a long-overdue update on Merriman and his successors, and a much surer guide than Hilary Mantel provides. Borman has immersed herself in the sources, disentangled numerous knots, and let her dramatis personae speak for themselves. Her Cromwell is a complex character: cultivated and witty, devoted to his wife and family, capable of remarkable acts of loyalty to friends and kindness to individuals (especially widows in distress); yet power-hungry, paranoid, and ruthless, and a craven servant to his increasingly paranoid and ruthless master, Henry VIII.
He feathered his nest greedily, salting away huge wealth in cash and amassing an enormous amount of property. He masterminded the judicial murders of Thomas More and John Fisher, the only cardinal ever to be martyred. He hired assassins in unsuccessful attempts to get rid of another cardinal, Reginald Pole, who would become archbishop of Canterbury but was then a fugitive in Italy. With Henry VIII’s eager connivance, Cromwell also procured the first-ever execution for treason of a woman (one Elizabeth Barton, who had rashly prophesied Henry’s fall) and of an English queen, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded on trumped-up charges, together with her brother and four close friends.
He had monks and friars butchered, and was merciless in hunting down opponents, real or imagined, of the Henrician regime. By the time he himself was cast into the Tower of London, there were probably more political prisoners there, male and female (including Reginald Pole’s mother), than that grim prison had ever held.
Tracy Borman unravels the story of Cromwell’s rise to power skillfully. I think she gets Anne Boleyn right, even if the claim that she was a devout Protest-ant is a bit hard to swallow. Cromwell’s constant battle with other ministers, like the duke of Norfolk, who sneered at him for his low birth and fiercely resented his power, and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester (“Wily Winchester”), who loathed him for his assault on the old religion, is vividly dissected. As is the crucial role those men played in bamboozling a capricious, Stalin-like king into suddenly dumping Cromwell. They got him with wild charges of treason and radical heresy—just before he could get them into the Tower.
Cromwell was there only a few days, and his was a ghastly end: the once-mighty minister sobbing “mercy, mercy, mercy,” pleading “piteously on my knees prostrate . . . with heavy heart and trembling hand . . . a most miserable prisoner and poor slave”—but to no avail. On the day he was executed, a bloated, un-repent-ant Henry married his fifth wife, the niece of the duke of Norfolk. The latter’s victory was complete, but only for a while: That niece lost her head within 24 months, and Norfolk himself was in the Tower when Henry died.
So far, so good. The trouble is that this is essentially the inside story: the story of infighting and the cruel realities of Tudor politics. Borman is not interested in the larger picture. Leave aside the fact that theology is not her strong suit, or that she says such things as that Henry promised to build “many new churches and cathedrals” with the spoils of the monasteries (which he certainly did not) and that their lands were sold off to “nobles” (which is very simple-minded). Surely it is at least worth remarking on the cultural cost of the often-magnificent churches and other buildings that were torn down or gunpowdered, the countless statues and stained glass windows that were smashed, and the precious libraries that were gutted.