Thomas Cromwell has had a remarkable and lasting impact on English history. The role that Henry VIII’s chief minister played in the country’s break with Rome and Catholicism and the focusing of power in the hands of the king’s government continues to have repercussions today as modern states debate their place in the world.
The question of Cromwell’s influence on the king and his role as backroom mastermind continues to fascinate modern audiences, holding up a mirror to more recent discussions over the role in today’s political sphere of special advisers such as Dominic Cummings or Alastair Campbell and their influence on modern-day leaders.
Cromwell’s life was lived largely in the shadows, so what can we make of his character and what is the truth of his existence? Historical evidence is limited and we catch only glimpses of Cromwell’s inner life in his own letters and the words that others said and wrote about him.
The basic skeleton of the historical record gives us a remarkable life, and yet it is a life that has – until relatively recently – been little discussed beyond the historical arena. Historians never anticipated that they would be able to capture a richer sense of Cromwell as a human being, so the publication of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall in 2009 came as something of a shock to the world of Tudor history.
To suddenly encounter a fully realised individual, reliving the experiences of his childhood and violent father and grieving the shocking and sudden loss of his wife and daughters, formed a remarkable intervention in our understanding of a man who was described by Geoffrey Elton, the historian who admired him most, as being “unbiographical”.
The subsequent publication by Bring up the Bodies, which won Mantel a second Booker prize, and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2018 biography completed Cromwell’s rehabilitation as someone we can make sense of when placed within his time and the events in which he took such a central role. But it has taken until now – more than seven years after volume two – for Mantel to tell the final phase of the story that she has transformed.
Mantel has firmly stated that it was not her aim to write a history. Yet her Cromwell is so real, so compellingly lifelike, that it has become very difficult to think about him without her interpretation coming into mind. For historians it is an important reminder that the figures we study were real people who lived and died – often in painful, even horrific, circumstances.
Mantel’s small world
It is easy, of course, for historians to find problems with Mantel’s account. Mantel telescopes some events and adds to others for dramatic effect, providing Cromwell with motivations and a rich emotional inner life, all of which remains within the fictional realm.
What she really gives us is a version of what may have been possible. Just as historians disagree over the reading of a particular letter or incident, so we are free to engage with Mantel’s version of Cromwell. Her books are – and will continue to be – vital to the teaching of the subject and to the development of our understanding of Cromwell and his world.
Historians have been increasingly drawn to thinking of the past not only in terms of the textual, material and visual records that survive, but also in terms of the architectural and geographical worlds in which people operated. The Tudor court was a small world of confined spaces and intimate relationships – an intense environment in which remarkable events took place. We can now add an imaginative reconstruction of that world, grounded in careful detail accrued from the years of research carried out by Mantel.
It is about as realistic a depiction as we could hope for and it provides a valuable frame for understanding how a whispered exchange might carry vital information or how Henry VIII’s sudden anger might terrify his subjects into compliance. While we can never be certain of the precise nature of Cromwell’s relationship with the king, we can now offer a range of possible interpretations, from shared memories of early military campaigns to a monarch requiring effective service of his subject, finding him wanting and therefore disposable.
Decline and fall
The question of Cromwell’s fall is one that has troubled historians. How did a man so immersed in the Tudor court, who had witnessed the destructions of Thomas Wolsey and of Anne Boleyn, miscalculate badly enough to end up on the scaffold?
Mantel offers us some possible routes into making sense of Cromwell’s miscalculation. The courtly world that Mantel depicts is acutely dangerous. From the start of The Mirror and the Light we see Cromwell surrounded by rumours of his fate in the aftermath of the fall of Boleyn – someone to whom he had been so close. Later on he squabbles with her uncle the Duke of Norfolk and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer – ignoring the latter’s warning not to get too deeply involved in the matter of the king’s marriage after the death of Jane Seymour.
Cromwell’s trust in Henry, and his belief that the king will stand by his assertions of loyalty and the signs of warmth that Henry gives, prove to be his downfall. In the face of the warnings from those around him, Cromwell follows his role to its natural end. Elevated to become Earl of Essex, Cromwell holds “the shining bowl of possibility … all is mended” – a final cruel miscalculation.
When it comes, Cromwell’s enemies physically closing in on him to strip him of rank and title, this provides a fundamental truth about power and about the reality of being a king’s councillor or special advisor: in the end, everyone falls.
Every year about 150 students enrol in the introductory English literature course at the Australian National University, which I teach. The course includes works by Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf and Dickens.
I know what these books did for me as a student 20 years ago, but times have changed. I am curious to discover what reading these old books does for young people today.
Last year, 2019, saw the first cohort of students who were born in or beyond 2000 – the so-called digital generation. These students have grown up in a world where you can read a book without holding the physical object.
I decided to introduce the option of a bibliomemoir – an increasingly popular form of creative non-fiction – into their final year assignment. This would allow me to tease out the particular connections students were making between literature and their own lives.
The idea for a bibliomemoir was sparked in a workshop run by our then writer-in-residence, celebrated Australian teen novelist and author of Puberty Blues, Dr Gabrielle Carey.
Carey described bibliomemoir as a piece of writing that shows literary criticism is “best written as a personal tale of the encounter between a reader and a writer”.
Written with flair and precision the students’ bibliomemoirs revealed the formative effects of reading on their lives. Many of their insights related directly to challenges of growing up in the digital age.
They wrote about responding to distraction and cultivating compassion, connection, concentration and resilience.
Why a bibliomemoir?
A bibliomemoir might be an account of how one book or author has shaped a person’s life. Or it might be the memoir of a life structured by reading books. In Outside of a Dog, for instance, Rick Gekoski tells his life story through 25 books that have influenced him, including authors from Dr Seuss to Sigmund Freud.
Gekoski pointed out in an interview that bibliomemoir reveals the formative effects of reading. I saw immediately that I could adapt bibliomemoir to help me understand how my students saw books as shaping their lives.
So, for the final essay of the introductory English course, Carey and I designed a new essay question. It invited students to write a brief bibliomemoir based on one of the novels in the course. Like a traditional essay this would allow me to evaluate their skills of written expression, argument and technical analysis of literary language.
Unlike a traditional essay, it would allow me to see inside their individual reading experience. I would be able to understand how these books were influencing my students’ view of the world and their understanding of themselves.
Here’s what the students wrote
One student shared how reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway prompted a conversation with his flatmate about experiences of digital distraction and strategies for concentration:
Soon we came to the subject of Big Ben, which Woolf uses as a motif through the book. [My friend] said that the way Big Ben interrupted the characters’ thoughts reminded her of how a notification from your phone can interrupt your stream of thought.
I had also noticed the motif of Big Ben, however I appreciated it as an element of structure and pacing in a book that had no chapters, in fact I had sometimes structured my reading sessions around the ringing of Big Ben in the book.
Another student, reading of the mental torment experienced by the returned soldier Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, gained a new perspective on people who don’t seem to fit in. Reflecting on her initially judgemental perception of a dishevelled man boarding her bus the student asked: “was he so different from Septimus? Wise and lost?”.
She then explained she gained a new and unexpected perspective on life:
[Woolf] gave me glasses I never knew I needed – lenses smeared with multiple fingerprints that enhanced rather than hindered the view.
She concluded that
to be a reader is to suspend rigid views, to consider and honour the perspectives of the characters one meets.
A third student reflected on the challenges of reading itself, and on the rewards of persisting when structure and characterisation are unfamiliar. The student said she set out wanting to be an “inspired reader” but confessed to feeling “frustrated” by Woolf’s “merciless indifference” to her characters in Mrs Dalloway.
In noting this frustration, the student had registered the novel’s lack of clear protagonist or plotline. The novel is difficult to read because, while we do see individual characters trying to interpret their lives as coherent stories, Woolf refuses to impose an artificial grand narrative.
After sticking with it, however, the student recognised the novel’s achievement:
There lies the beauty of it: the ordinary day captured in time and words as a novel.
This student’s bibliomemoir was a story of the dividends paid by sustained concentration and a flexible mindset.
A fourth student used the bibliomemoir to analyse how Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey showed her the value of observing people closely, and has equipped her with resilience as a student facing the challenge of dyslexia:
I could not work out how to do the exact things my teachers wanted me to do. What I could do was learn to understand my teachers. By learning to watch them, like Austen watched people, and learning to understand them as people, I began to understand how to jump through their hoops.
While she couldn’t quantify the competencies reading books had given her, the student said she just knew books had formed who she was:
I cannot list the strategies that I employ when reading and writing […] I give all the credit to reading literature, to books like Northanger Abbey and writers like Jane Austen and so volunteer myself as an example of how reading literature is valuable in our era.
These examples revealed some of the many reasons new readers, even of the digital age, return to old books and old ways of reading them. The readers expressed an urgency for connection with narratives more complex than a news feed.
They recognised that truthful self-reflection can be prompted by sustained engagement with fiction. They proved that connection with others, compassion and resilience are nurtured through a deepened understanding of story in the study of literature.
I can only conclude that for this group of readers, taking a book into their hands is a very deliberate act of identification with the bigger, shared story of reading.