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Inspired by Hilary Mantel and intrigued by Hans Holbein and aided and abetted by her new publishers Hodder and Stoughton, Tracy Borman has written a biography of Thomas Cromwell. This lively account threads its path through the thickets of myth, murder and mayhem that surrounded the court of Henry VIII to find a more humane, if not more driven character in an examined life of Thomas Cromwell.
scan0024 From his portrait in The Frick Collection(New York) painted by Hans Holbein shortly after having been made Keeper of the Jewels, so in about the middle of his career, Tracy Borman finds a face of a serious, steady, well-fleshed man with no apparent cruelty about the mouth or eyes. I would agree with this. The two Hans Holbein in The Frick face each other across the divide of the fireplace, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell – colleagues and then enemies in the King’s “Great Matter”. I pay these two a visit every time I go to New York (along with all the other treasures: three beautiful Corot and countless Whistler portraits and much else besides), Cromwell was not there last time I went but I understand that the other inspiration for the new book, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have led to an increase in the visitors to that room.

Of course, a biography takes us beyond the point we have reached in Bring up the Bodies, so forgive me if you think there is a spoiler alert due here.

After having Anne Boleyn summarily executed, Henry VIII went on to wife number three, the lovely Jane Seymour, who’s family actually lived at Wolf Hall and then four, Anne of Cleves, who by the magic of Hans Holbein’s paintwork appeared delightful and turned out to be less that wholesome, earning the unkind nickname The Flanders Mare.

At it was at this point that Thomas Cromwell’s star began to wane, though Henry VIII was nothing if not fickle, so this was not a gradual decline, Thomas still had his uses. There were still moments of great honour but Thomas should have been aware that these honours did occasionally presage dishonour, as the royal temper flared and his enemies pounced.

What Tracy Borman uncovers, though, is a man of prodigious energy, mindfulness and foresight.

Thomas Cromwell changed the landscape and the religion of England, by persuading Henry to throw off the shackles of Papal Fealty he open the gate to the English Reformation, and while his Lutheran zeal may have been too strong for his royal master it led the way.

It was Thomas Cromwell who saw to it that every church in England should have a copy of The Bible in English (Coverdale’s translation) as well as Latin .

Though as every English school-child knows, Thomas Cromwell was also responsible for the Dissolution of the Monasteries. When it began it was probably a wise and necessary move, there was a decreasing number of people entering monastic life and there were many smaller houses that were run uneconomically, not to say wickedly – so appropriating their lands and income had the advantageous effect of increasing the royal coffers while not greatly inconveniencing the inhabitants who could go to the larger houses. It did however greatly affect the poor, sick and needy – many of whom faced a life of greater deprivation on account of this loss. Further depredations on these monasteries and convents, especially the larger ones was a more fundamental and deleterious loss to the whole country. You only have to read HMF Prescott A Man on a Donkey to learn how bad it was.

Still it is also evident from the many letters expressing gratitude that still survive, that Thomas Cromwell personally assisted many people who applied to him for help, and quite clearly the poor people of London held him in great respect.

It was also Thomas Cromwell who engineered a more systematic approach to the ordering of Parliament and the increasing of its powers, so it is worth remembering this when considering his great-grandson, Oliver.

It was towards the end of his life that things begin to drift towards the Thomas Cromwell of history, a man so hated and with a reputation so blackened that it took Hilary Mantel’s novels to drag his reputation out of the mire. There is no doubt that Thomas used his influence at court to have certain people disposed of, some of them genuine enemies of the Crown, no doubt, but equally some of them simply standing in his way. Which is not to his credit, obviously, but it is no less what others did to him once his power had waned sufficiently for them to reach the King’s ear.

Calumnies were the order of the day. Injudicious remarks in private could cost you your neck, if it meant a gain to someone else more powerful. Thomas Cromwell used it against Anne Boleyn and the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk used it against him and Henry VIII was willing to act…and many people died as a result.

Both Hilary Mantel and Tracy Borman show a man of humble origins, who against all the odds rose to the highest and most influential position in the country, the King’s right hand. Both authors show that it was his humble origins that most riled the nobles, that he should have positions of influence that they regarded as theirs by right of birth. After his death, Thomas Cromwell was not replaced, his positions were filled by many different people and Henry himself lived to regret his death.

Contemporary writers and historians alike were quick to remember the bad things he did, and it was not until Geoffrey Elton, the Cambridge historian in the twentieth century began his research into Thomas Cromwell that the tide began to turn towards a more measured view of this extraordinary man.

The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant is a book I would strongly recommend, as to Hilary Mantel, I can hardly wait for the next and final volume of her trilogy – meanwhile CJ Sansom has brought out a new Shardlake novel Lamentations which is sitting near me…just finish the book I am reading now and then…

Rather presumptuously I have added a poem I wrote on visiting the Tate Britain exhibition of Hans Holbein’s paintings a few years ago.

An afternoon with Holbein at the Tate

The sheer joy of it! The splendour and the thrill!
His economy of line, drawings so spare on detail
Yet, as rich in character as are renaissance jewels.
Lined up, wall upon wall:
Commoners, queens, princes, merchants and The Mores –
Owned now, by Queens, merchants and the rest.

How to absorb it all, and hold in the memory?
To see history now, that was his own today.
The immediacy of it, the immaculate photography of it,
The camera is not made that, for example, Erasmus could portray.

Mentor and friend; sitter and thinker,
With what hair brush did he, the fur sublime,
Painstake to paint each fulsome fleck
A furrier’s feast, frozen skin
Frozen in space and time, that yet, with the mind’s eye,
We softly stroke the paint-worked pelt.

With what skill, marked he the velvet of a prince’s cap
How did he do that? Out-damasked damask, outshone silk?
Or how, with charcoal and paint in twenty strokes
Create a person, or with a single squirrel’s hair create a brow?

The tragic Mores, Thomas and family, sketched separate and then grouped
How did he do that, in lines a Hockney might employ, deliver a family?

So looking, and looking back
We see history enfleshed in paint, mother, father, son –
Queen, King and Prince all there – the living dead –
Seen, all in an afternoon.

DJS 16.10.2006


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