A Man for Changing Seasons: What Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell Teaches About Power

The protagonist of Hilary Mantel's trilogy—the first two books of which have now both won Booker prizes—weaves together complex narratives of politics, power and modernity

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School of Holbein / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Power is less a thing than it is a relationship, French philosopher Michel Foucault taught us — not just a relationship, but a very complex set of interlocking, constantly shifting relationships. And it was an innate awareness of the matrix power relations in which he operated in early 16th century England, together with his instinct for incrementally altering its balances in ways that enabled profound social changes of which the actors in those dramas were barely conscious, that make Thomas Cromwell such a fascinating historical figure. Not even a second Booker Prize can do justice to the service British author Hilary Mantel has performed in breathing life and emotional and moral complexity into the First Minister to King Henry VIII, a character usually rendered as a one-dimensional villain in most tales of 16th century England and its break from the Vatican.

Through Mantel’s Cromwell, in Wolf Hall (awarded the Booker in 2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (this year’s honoree, announced Tuesday), we are invited to imagine and reimagine the dialectics of power in and around the Tudor court at the defining moment of England’s declaration of independence from Catholic Europe. “Historical novels” though they may be, Mantel’s Cromwell tales are rendered with an improbable tension and uncertainty, and sense of the possibility of alternative outcomes. Obviously, the reader knows how the story progresses and ends, but — as Mantel likes to point out in interviews — Cromwell doesn’t. She writes great historical novels precisely because she writes great novels.

(MORE: Top 10 novels of 2009—Wolf Hall)

In a contemporary American political culture in which proclaiming humble origins has become so de rigeur as to make nominating conventions echo the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” skit, there would be nothing exceptional in the tale of a blacksmith’s son rising, on his wits, guile, and strength of stomach and purpose, to be an Earl and right hand man of the King. But such a trajectory, in 16th Century England, was nothing short of astonishing — social mobility was unheard of until four centuries later. Then again, everything from Britain’s post-World War II social mobility to the irreverent, egalitarian Anglicanism of the Monty Python oeuvre arguably owe some small debt to the religious rupture overseen by Henry’s ruthless enforcer.

Cromwell had certainly signed the death warrants of many of his contemporaries. In a popular culture that has lionized the Catholic zealot Thomas More as a man (“For All Seasons”) of noble principle and an exemplar of embracing martyrdom over compromise, Cromwell had been painted as a monstrous thug, destroying countless lives in pursuit of his own aggrandizement and to enable the id of an amoral sovereign. Mantel sees a different story, in which More is a dangerous extremist willing to rationalize the torture and murder of hundreds of Christians in order to ensure doctrinal purity. Mantel doesn’t soft-pedal Cromwell’s own capacity to achieve his ends through violence, and its threat: Having written an earlier historical novel about the authors of the “Terror” that followed the French Revolution, she may embrace a sense that many of history’s most nutritious omelets could not have been concocted without breaking their share of eggs.

And as the late Christopher Hitchens wrote in praise of her work — referring to Hans Holbein’s painting of Cromwell, and of the latter’s battle of wills with Thomas More — “this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.”

Mantel’s Cromwell is a hard man, to be sure, his hide toughened by the fists and boots of a brutal father; his willingness to inflict pain and even death on challengers established on the mean streets of Putney, and then on the battlefields of Italy where he had fled to earn a living as a mercenary fighting for France. But he emerges as a Renaissance man, in every sense:

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed.

Not only that. Cromwell is a European — in the sense of the European Union, celebrated just last week for its historic role in ending hundreds of years of quotidian bloodletting that defined the continent’s politics for the past millennium. He is a transnational wanderer at a moment when burgeoning transnational commerce is bringing people and commodities from different cultures and histories across Europe into one another’s proximity, and exposing them for the first time to new ideas and possibilities. He becomes Thomas Cromwell, first as a result of his birth into a striving lower middle class whose denizens prosper on their awareness of what lies beyond the next hill, and of the changing needs and follies of those in power — an ingrained, healthy contempt for his hereditary betters, and an outsider’s ability to read the balance of forces among them. His travels have given him a granular understanding both of the brutal folly of war, and of the fact that the key to overall victory lies more in the hands of the quartermasters than it rests with the field captains. His administrative service to a merchant family in Italy, and his own commercial dealings in Antwerp, have intimately acquainted Crowell with the economic and political forces emerging across Europe that will shape a new era.

(MORE: E.U.’s Nobel Prize sows discord and laughter.)

By the time Mantel begins to chronicle his tale, Cromwell is a middled aged proto-bourgeois revolutionary in an age of waning feudalism, working as bagman and troubleshooter for Cardinal Wolsey, First Minister to the King — a job he eventually acquires himself. The insults over his lowly birth and the petty humiliations hurled at him throughout his political life by the noblemen who stood in his way never trouble Cromwell much. He has seen the writing on the wall and in their account books; their blue blood will count for little in the power games of an emerging Europe driven by commerce and credit. His historical purpose is to use his perch of authority, while he holds it, to grease the wheels of progress and enlightenment.

Cromwell is also a product of the first information age, enabled by a device invented by the German goldsmith Gutenberg that facilitates the rapid dissemination of thousands of copies of any written tract. By the dawn of the 16th century, printing presses across Europe had already turned out more than 20 million volumes — a development deeply threatening to a Catholic Church whose temporal power was based, in no small part, on its monopoly of (divine) information. Some of the most widely read authors of this new European information surge were Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus, religious reformers challenging the very basis on which the Vatican claimed authority over Christendom. Perhaps, the most explosive text of all in Tudor England, was William Tyndale’s 1525 translation of the Bible into English.

“There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible,” noted former head of South Africa’s Anglican church and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2009. “If you want to keep people subjugated, the last thing you place in their hands is a Bible.”

(MORE: Desmond Tutu tackles child marriage.)

The medieval Catholic Church seemed aware of the subversive power of the gospels, and vehemently forbade the translation of scripture into Europe’s vernacular languages. Possession, much less dissemination of an English-language translation was punishable by torture and death. And while Thomas More is best remembered as a victim, Mantel reminds us that he presided over the burning to death of scores of believers whose crime was simply to seek to read the scriptures upon which their faith was based.

Cromwell had read Tyndale — and Luther and Erasmus. And he was clearly, in Mantel’s portrait, sympathetic to their critique. He hoped to see ordinary Englishmen and women like himself liberated from the shackles of the venal and violently enforced obscurantism of the Mediaeval Catholic Church. And he understood the existential threat to Rome that would result from the faithful discovering that the Gospels made no mention of relics, monks, nuns or a pope, and no mention of “purgatory” — much less of the transactional role the clergy had claimed for themelves, of interceding, once remunerated to their satisfaction, to ensure the passage of departed souls from that grim waiting room through the portals of Paradise.

“A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old,” Cromwell thunders, in Mantel’s rendition of his showdown with More. “Your undivided church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will have only the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification.”

Cromwell has little time for martyrs, of course, even those in the reformers’ cause: Martyrdom is self-satisfying, but ineffective. He chooses, instead, to use his position inside the system to manipulate events, as best he can, to corrode and ultimately break the grip of Rome. Unlike his nemesis More, he prefers achievable gains to martyrdom in defeat.

Although he’s read Machiavelli and mastered the art of harnessing the ambitions and frailties of those with greater authority to greater causes than they know, Cromwell is not a cold and cynical manipulator. In Mantel’s telling, he has a moral core, not only a basic decency that compels him to help those he is able to help whatever their station, but also a deep and abiding loyalty to his patrons, Wolsey and then Henry Tudor. It is the coincidence of the King’s desires (and the obstacle placed in their path by Rome) with Cromwell’s own ideas on how England should be run, that enables him to orchestrate the rupture with the Vatican through which a new England can begin to emerge.

Cromwell prevails, while he prevails, by manipulating the balance of contending interests and petty rivalries in a matrix of power in which he had no place by birth. Because he understands the workings of power, he is keenly aware of his own limitations. There are, in Mantel’s portrait, plenty of occasions on which he would like to do more to help allies whose own actions have doomed themselves; often the best he can do is ameliorate the harshness of what they will have to suffer. He’s aware of the grinding of the wheels of history and power, and the toll it will extract. Surely, sooner or later, he will understand not only his own limitations, but his own vulnerability, given the caprice of his patron and the animus of the lesser potentates he has antagonized in pursuing Henry’s shifting agenda, and his own. We know how the story ends, though, and Cromwell doesn’t. Which is why so many of us would pre-order The Mirror and the Light — the final book in the trilogy — if only it were already available. Because Mantel has offered us an exquisitely intimate encounter with one of history’s greatest, and most understated, political operatives. It’s a messy business, which is why we find it so compelling.