Historians and Novelists on Thomas Cromwell (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Historians and Novelists on Thomas Cromwell

Q1: Study sources 3 and 5. Was Thomas Cromwell a supporter of Martin Luther?

A1: Both David Loades (source 3) and Jasper Ridley (source 5) both state that Cromwell was not a "Lutheran". However, Cromwell did agree with Martin Luther on certain issues such as the "need for vernacular scriptures" (the Bible being translated into the language used by ordinary people).

Q2: Sources 1 and 8 are contemporary paintings of Thomas Cromwell. Do you find one portrait more sympathetic to Cromwell than the other?

A2: There is no right or wrong answer to this question as it based on one's own interpretation of the pictures. In my opinion the artist who produced source 1 is more sympathetic to Cromwell.

Q3: Give as many reasons as you can why Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540. Sources 9, 10 and 11 will help you in answering this question.

A3: Peter Ackroyd (source 9) suggests several reasons for Cromwell's execution. Cromwell was "hated by many of the nobility who resented the fact that the son of a blacksmith should have risen above them". Catholics disliked Cromwell for "his destruction of their shrines and monasteries". These critics accused him of being a Lutheran and therefore a heretic. Some people accused Cromwell of taking bribes. Finally, he was blamed for the "bungled marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves".

Roger Lockyer (source 10) points out that when he was arrested Cromwell was charged and convicted of being "a heretic and traitor". David Loades (source 11) believes the main reasons for his arrest was "disrupting his Church" and the "Cleves marriage".

Q4: Writers have disagreed about the merits of Thomas Cromwell. Select three sources that are critical of Cromwell and three sources that praise him. Explain the reasons why you have selected these sources.

A4: Alison Weir (source 4) is critical of Thomas Cromwell describing him as having "a complete lack of scruple" and an "unattractive personality". She also blamed him for "his spy network" that "was to become a model for future governments".

Bishop Mark Davies (source 13) describes Thomas Cromwell as "the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history".

The journalist, Melanie McDonagh (source 12) compares Thomas Cromwell with Thomas More and argues that "Cromwell has had a longstanding reputation as a complete bastard. The tally of the executions over which he presided - including those for heresy - far surpassed More's. And unlike More, he was unlikely to have been swayed by the notion that what he was doing was for the good of souls."

McDonagh then goes on to attack Hilary Mantel's Tudor novel, Wolf Hall for having an influence on our image of Thomas Cromwell. It is "so readable, so convincing, it risks being taken as a true version of events. And that's scary. Because one of the things it does is to reverse the standing of two Thomases: Cromwell and More. The novel does a grave disservice to More who was, whatever else you say about him, one of the great men of the Renaissance....For the simple-minded dinner-party liberal, the Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight."

Hilary Mantel (source 14) defends herself against critics of her novel by explaining that she is attempting to balance the common view of Thomas Cromwell: "It is as a murderer that Cromwell has come down to posterity: as the man who tricked and slaughtered the saintly Thomas More, the man who ensnared and executed Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn; who turned monks out on to the roads, infiltrated spies into every corner of the land, and unleashed terror in the service of the state." She claims that she has not fully made up her mind about Cromwell: "He is a work in progress. I am not in the habit of writing character references for people I only half know. When I’ve finished, and he’s decapitated, and a year has elapsed, I might be able to tell you. I am not claiming that my picture of him has the force of truth. I know it is one line in a line of representations, one more copy of a copy."

Historians are usually more forceful in their interpretations of characters like Thomas Cromwell. John Guy (source 2) points out that he was a very talented "self-made man" who spoke several languages and who "patronized writers and commissioned paintings from Hans Holbein". He goes on to argue that "Cromwell... had a sure grasp of rhetoric and (like Wolsey) was a natural orator. He made a formidable adversary in debate, sharp enough to defeat More, John Fisher, and Stephen Gardiner in verbal tussles. But his manner was usually relaxed and always engaging. When speaking, his face lit up; his conversation sparkled; and he cast roguish oblique glances when striking aphorisms... Of course, for all his ease of manner, accessibility, and capacity for friendship, Cromwell had a dangerous edge. He was a politician who got things done. A degree of ruthlessness was the corollary of his single-mindedness".

Cromwell's biographer, David Loades (source 3) believes that many of his reforms made the country a better place. He protected Evangelical preachers such as Hugh Latimer and Robert Barnes and successfully encouraged Henry VIII "to accept an English translation of the Bible" and "consistently licensed Evangelical preachers to spread the word of reform."

Most historians, including Jasper Ridley (source 5) and Antonia Fraser (source 6), accept that Thomas Cromwell was a talented administrator. According to Ridley: "Henry VIII formed a high opinion of Cromwell's abilities, and took him into his service; for though Henry had many able diplomats, he had no administrator and political manager of Cromwell's calibre." Fraser comments on "his administrative and financial abilities" as well as his "reformist tendencies".