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.

What Elton saw as a revolution in government was thickly entangled with a less disputable revolution in the church, the relations of church and state, and in the religion of the English people. The question posed in an early article, ‘King or Minister? The Man behind the Henrician Reformation’ (1954), was answered with an emphatic ‘minister’, mainly on the basis of Cromwell’s evident responsibility for the drafting, revision and promotion in Parliament of the bills that provided a drastic, unilateral solution to the king’s marital difficulties, and effected those seismic changes in the politico-religious landscape which, by inventing the royal supremacy and defining it in parliamentary law, amounted to the closest that this country has ever come to a constitution.

Elton remained unrepentant in his admiration for Cromwell’s achievement. In an unscripted address in 1985 he confessed: ‘I would no longer stand quite by the picture I presented thirty years and some ago, in which Cromwell is the éminence grise of everything. I now think that he was the éminence grise of about 98 per cent.’ ‘What he started became the essential character of the English state and commonwealth’; and, more than that, given Cromwell’s ambitious social vision, ‘if you want to be quite extravagant, Cromwell was the first architect of the welfare state.’

But long before that, Elton’s grand thesis had been subjected to revisionist attack from several directions. Medievalists accused him of a naive misrepresentation of the governance of England before the so-called Tudor revolution. (It is always risky to claim a historical first.) As for bureaucracy, what could be more mindlessly bureaucratic than the medieval Exchequer, which never forgot a debt unpaid? It was not the case that the kings of England before the Tudors had kept all their money under the mattress. As for the Henrician Reformation, kings had long enjoyed a greater practical influence in the affairs of Ecclesia Anglicana than the pope.

But the most telling criticism of the grand thesis came from among Elton’s own Cambridge pupils. David Starkey rediscovered the world of the royal court, thus restoring the element of personal interaction to politics, and to government too. John Guy and others subjected the ideology and praxis of the Cromwellian reforms to detailed scrutiny. Insofar as English government was reinvented, anticipating and partly realising the emergence of the state as a public thing, the whole credit was not Cromwell’s. Other names and other minds were brought into the equation, not least those of the formidable lawyer Christopher St German. Insofar as the Privy Council was a new creation, it was not Cromwell’s, and its very name and title, as Starkey demonstrated, emphasised its physical proximity to, and dependence on, the person of the monarch. Others had urged the merits of a council representative of, and answerable to, the commonwealth or the leading nobility. But these were some of the rebels who looked for Cromwell’s head in the insurrections of 1536. The Privy Council that emerged after 1536 actually undermined Cromwell’s authority, and it did not acquire its own bureaucratic machinery until after his fall. As for the new financial departments set up in the time of his ascendancy, they were a transient phenomenon insofar as they were presently resubordinated to the Exchequer. Guy declared that the whole kerfuffle over the Tudor revolution in government was ‘old hat’.

Oxford never cared very much for Elton’s version of Tudor history, and Elton had no love of Oxford. A conference devoted to ‘The Eltonian Legacy’ by the Royal Historical Society was so critical of his achievements that many described it as ‘Oxford’s revenge’. In 2005, George Bernard published an immense tome on what he called The King’s Reformation which supplied a different answer to Elton’s question of 1954 (I wrote about it in the LRB of 22 June 2006). It was, Bernard argued, all down to Henry VIII, who always knew what he wanted, and got it, having no need of Cromwell to tell him how to disentangle himself from his marriage and make himself not only Supreme Head of the English Church but the personal arbiter of what that church should teach and its people believe. As a mere functionary Cromwell would never have dared to have had ideas of his own about these matters. Bernard’s book has not been well received by his peers, or its overarching argument accepted. A toned down, less teleological Eltonianism seems to be the current orthodoxy. However, if Bernard tends to perverse opinions there is no doubting his learning, authorised by many thousands of footnotes. So the moral must be that it is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Because, of course, 99 per cent of the evidence, above all unrecorded speech, is not available to us.

The oddest thing about Elton’s account of the governance of England in the revolutionary and creative 1530s is that he seems never to have asked himself how much his sense of Cromwell’s centrality owed to the fact that, with his attainder and execution, Cromwell’s papers became the property of the state, and in such bulk as to constitute the major part of the national archives of that decade. Odd, since Elton’s life’s work was to reconstitute that archive in its original integrity, his guiding principle as a historian and mentor of historians being that one should stick as faithfully as possible to the primary historical record, which should make possible a history that is indisputably true, not the historian’s invention.

But not even the materials which the Victorian calendar called Letters and Papers, not even the original documents on which it was based, could contain all the truth about Henrician England. Most of Cromwell’s papers consisted of letters from the in-tray, not the outgoing correspondence. This gave the student the immense advantage of seeing exactly what Cromwell saw as he looked out from behind his desk. And that provided the raw materials for Elton’s best book, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (1972). But it is a fair question whether Cromwell, allegedly the spider in the web, actually ‘saw’ England as we see it, and even as his successors in government in the next generation or two saw it. Thanks to the brilliant cartography of Christopher Saxton and his patrons, collaborators and surveyors, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was to Elizabeth I what Cromwell was to Henry VIII, could see England as a whole, and as a collection of coloured counties, together with lines of communication and the seats of its more notable inhabitants. This resource was not available to Cromwell, which is a little like saying that government before the 1960s was government without computers.

Original sources need to be interrogated, not simply read and cited. How would our knowledge be affected if we had more of the contents of Cromwell’s out-tray or, more to the point, comparable material from some of the other players in Henrician politics? Or if Henry VIII himself had been a compulsive record-keeper of his designs and achievements? The paradox is that Elton, the archival positivist, was to a great extent the prisoner of the very evidence that he claimed to have at his command; and also that only Cromwell’s sudden fall from power and departure from this world made possible the legacy which Elton spent a lifetime exploiting.

None of this is in the least biographical. But now Robert Hutchinson rushes in where Elton chose not to tread. His is the first biography of Cromwell since Merriman’s, if we exclude Neville Williams’s Plutarchan double biography of Wolsey and Cromwell, The Cardinal and the Secretary (1975), a little book by A.G. Dickens, and, more recently, a very competent and balanced article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Howard Leithead. Naturally, Hutchinson’s readers are not expected to be interested in the Eltonian and post-Eltonian debates, rumbling on through a forest of monographs and crackling in the dense undergrowth of articles in the specialist journals. There is no engagement with the cluster of ranking Henrician historians, Starkey, Guy, E.W. Ives, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Susan Brigden, nor with Henry VIII’s biographers, J.J. Scarisbrick (here renamed ‘Scarisbrook’) and Bernard. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is tabloid history.

It is also the kind of biography which Elton might have written if half out of his mind. Everything, according to Hutchinson, was down to Cromwell. ‘In his podgy hands, he now tightly held all the reins of England’s government’; ‘He enjoyed (almost) absolute power.’ The answer to the question posed by Elton in 1954 is assumed, the question begged. However, Hutchinson differs fundamentally from Elton in telling us that the statesman whom Elton presented as a great parliamentarian and observer of due legal process had ‘a cynical contempt for Parliament and justice’. He was a Stalinist.

The book has been extensively researched, in Letters and Papers, or the originals in the National Archive and the Cotton MSS; as well as in lesser known and often revealing sources, such as J. Kaulek’s edition of the correspondence of the French ambassadors at the English court. This is to the author’s credit. But these sources are used uncritically, and contemporary participants and observers are quoted as if their views all have equal validity and can be taken as simple ‘evidence’. The imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, is trusted as if he had no axes to grind. George Cavendish, servant and biographer of Cromwell’s original master, Wolsey, certainly a source of prime importance for details of the way Cromwell conducted himself in the weeks of Wolsey’s fall from grace, is deployed without any consideration of Cavendish’s own retrospective motives and considerable literary artifice. The idea that Cromwell held Parliament in utter contempt seems to owe everything to a letter he wrote after his first experience as an MP in 1523, when, he jested, ‘we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do – that is to say, as well we might and left where we began.’ This suggests insensitivity to Cromwell’s use of irony, and to the conventions of familiar correspondence.

The thrust of the argument, from first to last, is to demonise its subject. The young Cromwell was ‘an opportunistic jack-the-lad, a ruffian on the make’. Possessed of a ‘remarkable gift of low animal cunning’ and a ‘capacity for raw deceit’, the mature statesman was ‘ambitious and totally corrupt’; quite properly, ‘the most hated man in the kingdom’, not least among the ancient and not so ancient nobility. Every event from his entry into the innermost circles of royal service to his sudden fall and execution is dealt with on the assumption that his motives, not to mention his methods, were invariably unworthy.

The headline story of the Cromwell years, which historians somewhat inadequately pigeonhole as the Henrician Reformation, is told as nothing more than a bloody onslaught on the political and material fabric of the once proud English Church, motivated by pure greed and a no less selfish ambition to aggrandise Cromwell’s royal master. Almost nothing is said about Cromwell’s well-documented evangelical credentials, his close alliance with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, their dealings with the German Protestant reformers; or about the positive value of Cromwell’s activities as vice-gerent of matters spiritual (here misstated as ‘vice-regent’) in laying the foundations, especially the biblical foundations, for a new kind of national religion: on these matters, a couple of paragraphs. A sinister gloss is even put on the most important of the innovatory reforms contained in Cromwell’s Injunctions: the introduction in 1538 of parish registers of births, marriages and deaths. This measure meant that ‘the inquisitive fingers of state’ could probe ‘ever deeper into society’, the 16th-century equivalent of ID cards.

Carping academic criticism aside, Hutchinson’s book is sometimes enjoyable. The unedifying story of Henry VIII’s search for a fourth wife, culminating in all the fumbling with the belly and sagging breasts of Anne of Cleves (‘as I can judge, she should be no maid’), the king failing to rise to the occasion, is well told; and deserves to be, since Cromwell’s mistake over the Cleves marriage was the single most important factor leading to his downfall. And no one before Hutchinson has exploited the copious material in Cromwell’s confiscated papers that details his getting and spending in the years 1537-39: his household arrangements, sporting interests (‘innumerable entries concerning falcons and hawks, greyhounds, spaniels’), matters of health and medication, the money lost at gaming. If Elton had paid more attention to this evidence, he might not have said that the only Cromwell we can know about is the man behind the desk.

The accounts are supplemented by what we are told by the London antiquary and chronicler John Stow. Stow witnessed the generosity expected of a great man at a time when the social services were still, to use one of Hutchinson’s favourite words, privatised. There were twice daily distributions of meat and drink to two hundred poor people from the gates of Cromwell’s London residence. But when all was said and done, Stow agrees with Hutchinson that Cromwell (like all Tudor politicians?) was most generous to number one. His town house was separated by a garden fence from the Stow family property, and the antiquary remembered Cromwell helping himself, with no warning, to 22 feet from his father’s garden, demolishing the fence and arbitrarily moving out of the way ‘upon rollers’ an inconvenient little house.

This led Stow to pronounce the most appropriate epitaph for a man who began life as the son of a drunken Putney blacksmith and ended it as earl of Essex, on a scaffold: ‘This much of my own knowledge have I thought good to note, that the sudden rising of some men causes them to forget themselves.’ Hutchinson is always eager to find parallels between the world of Thomas Cromwell and the modern dysfunctional political scene. The ‘Stalinist’ label will not stick. But Stow’s verdict fits the purpose very well. Better known is Henry’s own summing up, as reported by the French ambassador. He had put to death ‘the most faithful servant he ever had’.

[*] 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).