Not Biographable

Patrick Collinson

  • Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister by Robert Hutchinson
    Weidenfeld, 360 pp, £20.00, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 297 84642 0

After the elimination of Beria from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia it was necessary to insert a section devoted to the Bering Straits. In the dozen or so years since the death of Geoffrey Elton, the Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s prime minister and plenipotentiary, has been similarly airbrushed out of history. Elton, as anyone who did the Tudors for A Levels or read history at Cambridge between 1950 and 1980 knows, made Cromwell the centrepiece of his account of English constitutional history. But in telling the story of the English monarchy, David Starkey found no occasion even to mention Cromwell’s name.[*] Now, with the publication of Robert Hutchinson’s biography of Cromwell, it is as if Beria has come back to haunt us, requiring a further revision of the Encyclopedia. And the analogy is not so far-fetched, since Hutchinson tells us that Cromwell was responsible for transforming the England of Henry VIII ‘into what we would now recognise as a totalitarian Stalinist state’.

It is not easy to love Thomas Cromwell. His contemporary Cardinal Reginald Pole called him ‘an agent of Satan’, while for William Cobbett he was ‘the most mean and dastardly’ of ‘all the mean and dastardly wretches that ever died’. He had, after all, overseen the dissolution of the monasteries, whose absence from the landscape Cobbett deplored. (Hutchinson calls the dissolution an act of ‘privatisation’. Surely it was, or ought to have been, the reverse?) R.B. Merriman’s Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (1902) was rather more generous: ‘I cannot agree … with those who have represented Cromwell as a purely selfish political adventurer, the subservient instrument of a wicked master, bent only on his own gain’ – which is more or less the way Hutchinson represents him. But Merriman, unlike Elton, did believe that Cromwell aspired to establish an ‘all-powerful kingship under the forms of ostensible constitutionalism’.

Thanks to Elton, Merriman is now rather unfairly forgotten. Elton never wrote a biography of Cromwell, holding the genre in contempt. He thought that the only Cromwell we could recover from the debris of the past was the public Cromwell, the man of action, and it is difficult to reconstruct a man from his public actions. Cromwell therefore was ‘not biographable’: ‘We know absolutely nothing about him until he was about thirty-five. Even without Freud, one would regard the first ten years as important in a person’s development’; ‘A biography would be an absurdity.’ The allegation that Cromwell is not biographable is supported by the universal lack of explanation, or even exploration, of the fact that he never remarried after the death of his wife in 1527, when he must have been in his early forties. (We have no record of his date of birth.)

Instead of attempting a biography, Elton mined the huge archival remains left behind by Henry VIII’s greatest minister in order to present Cromwell to the world as the architect of what his first book called a Tudor Revolution in Government. The essence of the alleged revolution was to bureaucratise processes that had been personal to the reigning monarch and his court, and were consequently subject to the vagaries of succession, human frailty and faction. Cromwell, especially in drafting and masterminding the laws which made the Church of England autonomous and subject only to the king as its supreme head, established for all time to come the sovereignty of statute law, and therefore of Parliament, the maker of statutes (not forgetting that the king was a member of Parliament, never, as Henry VIII himself said, standing so high upon his royal dignity as he did in that place). In respect of the revenues of the Crown (which were not yet properly public revenues) Cromwell created a number of ‘courts’ (effectively, ministries), specialised in function, which were independent of the Exchequer and equally symbolic of impersonal, institutional continuity. And he was more responsible than anyone else for the crystallisation of national government in a Privy Council: government by a collective, ancestral to the cabinets of more recent times.

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[*] Monarchy: The History of England and Her Rulers from the Tudors to the Windsors (HarperPerennial, 256 pp., £8.99, September, 978 0 00 724766 0).