You are here:   Reputations >  Overrated > Overrated: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell: "Wolf Hall" has a lot to answer for (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Thomas Cromwell ruined the Church in England and reinvented it as the Church of England. He thereby imposed his adopted Protestant faith on his countrymen, while  destroying the Catholic faith of their fathers — and, incidentally, of his master Henry VIII. The King rejoiced until his dying day in the Papal title of defensor fideii, Defender of the Faith, and executed “Sacramentarians” (those who denied the Real Presence in the Eucharist) as heretics. Ironically, his minister Cromwell was one of them.

His Protestantism seems to have been of a more radical kind than that espoused by his ally and fellow architect of Anglicanism, Archbishop Cranmer. Whereas Cranmer equivocated, Cromwell deliberately demolished as much as possible of a millennium of Catholic Christianity in a decade of hyperactivity. He thereby enhanced the power and prestige of “this realm of England”, enabling Henry to crush popular uprisings, even the 40,000-strong Pilgrimage of Grace.

Such frightening efficiency has earned Thomas Cromwell many admirers in recent times, beginning half a century ago with the late Sir Geoffrey Elton, and culminating in the bestselling novels of Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, which were adapted for television with Mark Rylance as Cromwell. Now the distinguished Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has become his latest champion, with Thomas Cromwell: A Life (Allen Lane, £30), which Mantel describes as “the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”.

MacCulloch’s scholarship is impressive and he succeeds triumphantly in overcoming the main obstacle that has always inhibited Cromwell’s biographers: the destruction of all copies of the minister’s letters by his faithful amanuenses, once his loss of the King’s favour became clear. This resulted in the survival of only one side of his correspondence, what MacCulloch calls Cromwell’s “in tray”. The absence of a large corpus of his writing explains why he has seemed a shadowy figure. Yet that very impersonality has been a gift to Hilary Mantel and Mark Rylance, who are able to impose their own interpretations.

Perhaps the most personal document we have is Holbein’s masterly portrait, which evokes the saturnine, even sinister air that inspired such fear. Cromwell read his older contemporary Machiavelli in the original, having travelled extensively in Italy as a young man; and he certainly put the Florentine philosopher’s principles into practice with consummate skill.

But for his aristocratic rivals at court, the blacksmith’s son, now Lord Privy Seal, was always too clever by half. Unlike the notoriously flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves, Holbein’s depiction of Cromwell shows, along with the acuity and authority of the politician, a man consumed by ambition. His hatred of the hereditary nobility, above all the leader of the ultra-Catholic faction, the Duke of Norfolk, boiled over in a moment of rage that was later used against him: “If the Lords would handle him so, [. . .] he would give them such a breakfast as was never made in England.”
View Full Article
Rob Johnston
October 19th, 2018
4:10 AM
Errr.... Daniel Johnson fails to address the object of his article -- exactly HOW is Cromwell "Overrated"!? Johnson rehearses the bare facts of his office and downfall then concludes that -- maybe -- Cranmer was a little more responsible for English Protestantism than Cromwell. I don't think I have read a more halfhearted "Overrated". A case of "praise by faint condemnation"?

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.