Twin pillars of the English Reformation, though neither of them knew it at the time. Diarmaid McCulloch has written two magisterial biographies, first Thomas Cranmer and just lately Thomas Cromwell.
Thomas Cromwell, A life was published last year and I was given it for Christmas. While I did need some light relief between sections, I found the whole book an astonishing glimpse into a world so distant, and yet still affecting life today.
What everyone knows about Thomas Cromwell is that he destroyed the monasteries, this of course, is wrong. That is to say, an oversimplification of his intentions and his actions. The initial move towards reducing the monastic life in England was Cardinal Wolsey’s, and Thomas Cromwell was his agent. The movement started by closing the houses that has fewer than 12 inhabitants; this seems reasonable enough. After Wolsey’s fall from grace, the process continued with what were called “visitations”. These were undertaken all over the country to assess the religious practices in each house.
But with the dramatic events in Germany, the new thinking of Martin Luther and others, there came a slow recognition that relics, idols and images were probably deviations from true religion. The net result was a mass confiscation of such things, and destruction of statues of veneration – probably the worst act of vandalism this country has ever seen, possibly not even dwarfed by the more recent activities of the Taliban and ISIS.
Diarmaid’s book fills in all the gaps left by Hilary Mantel, Tracy Borman and Michael Everett; these three have each approached Cromwell’s life from a different angle. Mantel notoriously and brilliantly making it a novel, so filling in the inevitable gaps and silences with imagination; Tracy Borman looked at the context of his life as a faithful servant of King Henry VIII and Michael Everett looked at his life through the lens of politics and power. What Thomas Cromwell, A life does is to look forensically at each year of Cromwell’s life more or less from the moment he joins the household of Cardinal Wolsey, from near disaster to a meteoric rise to power until he was closer to the king than anyone else in the land.
The most revealing moments are the times when his grasp slips, not once but several times Thomas is on the very brink of annihilation, but manages to slip away unhurt. Until finally…
We know the ending: short, brutal and profoundly sad. Such that even the mercurial Henry, only months afterwards was railing against the decision – as if he had nothing to do with it.
The equally enthralling book Thomas Cranmer, A life, fills up the remaining gaps in the story of the Anglican Church. This too, is filled with details that come to the surface in surprising jolts. These two Thomases, both from quite humble backgrounds, between them caused a seismic alteration in the destination of England and the English way of religion.
There are so many “what ifs” in these two volumes that it is hard to pick out one or two illustrative examples. But one stand out case is the direction of travel away from the pure Lutheran austerity towards a softer, but manifestly different catholicity which came from the influence of the Swiss theologians – Huldrych Zwingli and the Swiss/French theologian John Calvin.
Both Thomases ended their lives hideously and one cannot help wondering what would have happened if either one had lived a full life to its natural end. But they lived in turbulent times, and in many ways were directly responsible for the schisms, the brutal and bloody retributions that followed from the English Reformation and which carried on killing and torturing dissenters from the regal norm, long after their deaths.
These are very serious books but utterly readable, enthralling and enlightening for anyone wanting to know more about where we are now and how we got here.
Who knew, for example, that the voting divisions on acts of Parliament into the “ayes” and “nos” lobbies, which we have just seen profoundly shake the country, were an idea of Thomas Cromwell’s to wrest from the ducal landlords the power to make decisions and towards a more equitable contribution from all members.