Sunday, October 06, 2019

Diarmaid MacCulloch - Thomas Cromwell: A Life

I have long anticipated Diarmaid MacCulloch new biography of Thomas Cromwell and there is no doubt that it is a masterpiece of research and writing. It is no easy read, not least because its' great length and weight preclude taking it with you on the bus. But it is rewarding, insightful and almost certainly one of the most definitive biographies of any figure in the reign of Henry VIII.

MacCulloch, it must be acknowledged, is an absolute master of the material. Cromwell's archive of letters is a rich source of information about the day to day activity of the man who became Henry VII's chief adviser. As MacCulloch points out though the archive is deficient in one crucial regard - the vast majority of Cromwell's own letters are missing, presumed destroyed when he fell from grace and material that might be incriminating to him, or those around him, was spirited away to prevent others sharing his fate. We must instead rely on the letters he received from others, for all the limitations that brings.

It is a major problem. Because, for all the detail about the life of Cromwell, there is a very large Cromwell-shaped hole in the biography. All too often this becomes an account of what happened, and how Cromwell made it happen, but lacking any personal detail of Cromwell - his motivations, his thoughts, his plans. On occasion we do get a glimpse, usually when a letter survives, or some other source gives us a glimpse into Cromwell's mood. A classic example is of course, the event that was the immediate cause of Cromwell's fall - his breaking of the King's great secret about his impotence with Anne of Cleaves. Here we feel Cromwell's alarm about the future.

Most importantly we lack any great insight into Cromwell's motivation for driving through change. His rise to power in the early 1530s is, it must be said, surprising. Cromwell didn't come from the sort of family that would have led him to be assigned key administrative roles in Henry's government. MacCulloch himself describes the sudden rise to the corridors of power as "furtive". Implying, though not deliberately, that Cromwell slunk into the inner reaches of the court through subterfuge. Once in a position of power Cromwell lost no time in using his roles to enact change, and to gather more wealth and power himself. For instance, he became known as the "hammer of the weirs" for his systematic destruction of barriers on the rivers. Cromwell even prepared a legislation for the February 1536 Parliament that would have banned any weir or water-mill anywhere in the realm, though this was never passed. This, together with Cromwell's better known work in preventing unnecessary enclosures of land seems surprising given the way enclosure forms such a central part of post-Tudor agrarian history. It must be understood, however, in the context of the government's desire to protect the status-quo - in this case, feudal relations. As MacCulloch explains:
Tudor people were more ready to judge problems in terms of morality than economics. Just like enclosure for sheep-farming, the matter of weirs took on moral dimensions: it demonstrated human greed and selfishness, which threatened to damage a frail social fabric by endangering food supplies. In Tudor society, famine still loomed, with all its capacity to poison human relations and cause very public suffering, let alone riot and rebellion; the moral outrage was not some academic debate. Weirs had been the subject of moral outrage long before Cromwell's years of power, when he was just a boy living in a Thames-side village... there was repeated agitation in the Parliaments of Henry VII about them.
Such economic and social context to Cromwell's behaviour is important in understanding his role. But it is less obvious in MacCulloch's account of later aspects of Cromwell's role. For instance, his role in driving forward the Reformation, which is clearly a very personal project.

MacCulloch digs out a series of expeditions to one of the continents centres of Protestantism, Zurich by people aligned to Cromwell. These mutual exchanges facilitated the development of the "crystallising identity of that form of Protestantism later called Reformed". The detail doesn't matter here, though its worth noting that MacCulloch sees this part of Cromwell's life as "perhaps the most important story in Cromwell's career." I just want to note his further comment that "Cromwell was deliberately laying foundation for a Protestant future". Yet nowhere are do we get any sense of why Cromwell was doing this. This is not to doubt reality. Cromwell did peruse this as a very personal project.

In the sections on the 1536/7 Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace, rebellions against the King that shook the North of England and involved tens of thousands, MacCulloch demonstrates just how much those rebels blamed Cromwell personally. Having studied these rebellions myself I'm not sure I'd appreciated quite the extent to which they targeted the King's minister. Though it is also worth noting that MacCulloch writes that these rebellions were not simply about rejection of reform in religion; but had other causes too.

It is this lack of clarity about the motivations of Cromwell and other principal figures in the machinations at Court that means the downfall of Cromwell becomes simply about different factions taking sides over Reform. Again why they took those positions is much less clear and so it ends up feeling like Cromwell was the victim of personal dislikes. MacCulloch notes the longstanding feuds between Cromwell and his enemies, but other than personal choices about religion I felt the book had little to really explain these events. Of course you can try and explain these faction fights in simple terms of the desire for wealth and power (and Cromwell was certainly guilty of that!). But that's just superficial.

This limitation is also, I would argue, present in another recent block-buster of a tome about the English Reformation, Peter Marshall's Heretics and Believers and certainly in MacCulloch's earlier book on the European Reformation. I won't rehearse my arguments further, but I think any biography of Thomas Cromwell must try and clarify his motivations and sadly I think that MacCulloch doesn't quite get to the heart of it here, though he is far better than most, particularly in his look at Henry's foreign policy.

Henry VII once said to the French ambassador of Cromwell  that he "was a good manager, but not fit to meddle in the concerns of kings". There is no doubt that Cromwell was a "good manager", but he did meddle in the concerns of his king a great deal, and he was very good at it. When he came unstuck in late 1539 he likely did so because he failed to appreciate the way his personal enemies had mobilised against him. But Cromwell had engaged in a deeply personal project of Reform, one that had a profound impact on England's subsequent history. It is thus noteworthy that, at his execution, Cromwell made no attempt to deny, back-track or beg forgiveness. He was, in his own way, dying for his beliefs, and it is fair to say that this biography gives him his due.

Related Reviews

MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700
Fletcher & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Wilson - The People and the Book
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Marshall - Heretics & Believers: A History of the English Reformation
Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars
Duffy - Voices of Morebath

No comments: