The Cromwell enigma

As the BBC dramatisation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is about to air, the novels' author Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch share their thoughts on the upcoming series and its complex hero…

Thomas Cromwell, a prominent figure in the upcoming BBC dramatisation of 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up The Bodies'. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Why do you think Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have been so successful – both critically and commercially?

Hilary Mantel: They seem to have united two constituencies: people who read the literary novel, and people who like historical fiction as a genre. (I dislike the tag ‘literary novel,’ but no one has come up with a better one.) I think genre authors often condescend to their readers. I wanted to put something rich and complicated into play, and see if I could entice the wary. Some readers retired hurt, but many more have responded to a challenge. And of course people love to read about Henry and his wives; it’s one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ stories, deeply embedded in the national narrative, and it works at all levels. The books have gone beyond these islands, though, and into some 35 languages; that argues the presence of archetypal figures and universal themes.

Diarmaid MacCulloch: They’re great stories in themselves, and people vaguely remember a bit about them from school history and from our national fascination with the Tudors, which to my surprise (though gratification) never seems to wane. But to these basic assets, Hilary brings the skills of an exceptionally talented novelist, and a detailed knowledge of the period, which astonished me when I first began reading Wolf Hall.

What can the TV adaptation add to the story and what might be the biggest challenges of bringing Wolf Hall to the small screen?

HM: We have the dream team, I think: director Peter Kosminsky with his acute political sense and visual flair, plus writer Peter Straughan with his ability to cut through the most knotty plot complications and produce something clear, spare, witty. Their sense of the material is exactly my own.

The biggest problem (as with the theatre adaptations) is choosing which plot lines to pursue, and how to organise an intricate, self-questioning narrative, which loops back and retells itself even as it’s being written. Someone counted 159 characters in the books. Each has his or her part in the story. The way through is to remember who is central: Thomas Cromwell.

DM: The biggest challenge with TV is always that the pictures are going to take over, and thoughts go out of the window. The problem can be overcome. I look forward to seeing Hilary’s solutions.

Which other historical dramas on television have you admired?

DM: To be frank, nothing in recent years, but that is probably because I haven’t sought out even the better ones. I go back all the way to Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I. Or those most intelligent of spoofs: the four Blackadder series.

HM: John Adams, the HBO series about the American Revolution, is the best that I have seen. I liked its plain integrity, its commitment to storytelling.

Why does Thomas Cromwell – the central figure in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – work so well as a hero or anti-hero?

HM: You can’t add him up. He’s an enigma. He’s always, for me, a work in progress, and I think he becomes so for the reader and for the viewer.

DM: The genius of Hilary’s take on him both in the novels and the recent stage adaptations has been to make him an instinctive observer: hard work for Ben Miles as an actor [Miles played Cromwell in the theatre version], because it means that he’s hardly ever off stage. But Cromwell’s more than an observer for us, because we are observing him too, through Hilary’s device – so much commented on by readers – of referring to Cromwell as ‘he’ throughout the text. And who is the observer then? Us, the reader/audience? Or Cromwell, watching Cromwell as much as everyone else?

Would you agree that history has been unkind to Thomas Cromwell, and what do you see as his positive qualities?

DM: He’s been a Marmite figure. John Foxe in the Book of Martyrs made him a hero, but High Church Anglicans joined Roman Catholics in hating him, mainly for destroying the monasteries. The famous Holbein portrait now in the Frick Collection hasn’t helped, with its piggy, suspicious eyes. There is a Holbein miniature of him from 1537, which shows how the same face could look in affectionate mode – and we now know, thanks to brilliant detective work by an Australian historical enthusiast, Teri Fitzgerald, that that is because the miniature was designed as a pair with a portrait miniature of his much-loved teenage son, Gregory. The boy has the Cromwell face too, but delicate, thoughtful, indeed pretty. It’s a revelation.

HM: In popular history and in fiction and drama his reputation has been black. If you start out with the assumption that a man is bad, then every action is interpreted in the light of that assumption. Academic historians, thankfully, are less interested in issuing a moral report card, and yet unexamined prejudices about the man and his work have been casually passed down the generations. And because he was championed by the great Tudor historian GR Elton, later scholars who need to define themselves against Elton’s work have been tempted to diminish Cromwell’s role. So we have to ask, are we talking about Cromwell himself, or the internal politics of the discipline?

He’ll never be the romantic’s choice. If you’re sentimental about Roman Catholic England, you may regard him as a human wrecking ball. There’s ingrained misunderstanding about what happened to faith and practice and church institutions in Henry’s reign, and in religious and other matters Cromwell often carries the blame for what he didn’t do. Instead of rushing to judgment, I would like my reader to ask: ‘What would I do, in his place?’

Is it fair to say that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have significantly changed public perceptions of Thomas Cromwell?

DM: No question! My old doctoral supervisor, GR Elton, who deeply admired Cromwell and detested Thomas More, would have been delighted.

HM: They certainly have. When I began, and would tell people my subject, they would say: “Don’t you mean Oliver?”

Considering the source material available, how difficult is it to get a sense of the ‘real’ Cromwell?

HM: You must accept that your man is a representation, one of a long chain of representations. His actions – though sometimes ambiguous and well disguised – are there to be examined, but his private thoughts are lost to us. The world of motive is murky, and one in which novelists move more easily than historians. He wasn’t self-revealing, like Thomas More. His letters are official letters; but the man shows through the paper. You try to work out what happens when the ink has dried and the man rises from the desk. You get a sense of the impression he made from what others say about him, but you must be aware of who is saying it, and when it is said.

DM: There’s a big problem. The archive is vast, but most of his own letters and writings are lost, the records of them probably destroyed by his household when he was arrested, to try and complicate the investigation of him by his enemies. So you stumble through a cacophony of other voices, trying to hear echoes of what he said.

What sources would you most like to discover to add to our understanding of Cromwell?

DM: I’d like to find the files kept by his great friend Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, which would have included dedicated letter-books for their correspondence, copied by Cranmer’s clerks. We know that they existed from the chance survival of one of Cranmer’s letter-books, which has his correspondence with everyone else, but hardly a peep of the letters to and from Cromwell. They must have been in a separate series of books (that shows how special the relationship was), and they’ve vanished.

HM: The single thing I’d like most is another portrait. No disrespect to the masterly Holbein, but another artist, another day… that might be interesting.

How closely does the Henry VIII of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies match the historians’ view of him and is he also ripe for a reappraisal?

HM: Henry is always being reappraised. I would be suspicious of any consensus about him. I never try consciously to match up my characters with the work of historians. I read everything I can, as near to source as I can, then I try to imagine freshly. With Henry as with Cromwell, I would like to ask my readers, not to concur with my vision, but to think again, question what they think they know, and look at the sources of their information.

DM: I don’t believe he is ripe for reappraisal. Hilary’s novels get him right. He was a selfish monster who, like most successful selfish monsters possessed of power, had a dangerous charm, and was no fool. That’s the man you meet in Hilary’s re-creation.

The coup against Anne Boleyn is perhaps the most hotly debated incident from the Tudor court in this period. What do you see as the most likely cause of her downfall?

HM: I see a multiplicity of causes. That’s how life works. To blame ‘faction’, or find the cause in the court’s sexual politics, to adduce that regime change is steered from abroad, or to ask, ‘Is it Cromwell or is it the king?’: this approach leads us further into a maze of unknowability. I take it as axiomatic that most of the time, when we look at the past, we know what happened but not why. My job as a novelist is to try to work out how it might have felt to be part of those events.

DM: She had been fun as a mistress, but as a wife, she was too clever and spirited. So her enemies could play on Henry’s disillusionment – and Cromwell, who had never been a soulmate of hers despite their shared evangelical religion, joined the pack, for his own reasons.

And was this Cromwell’s most dishonourable act?

DM: It certainly was.

HM: In Bring Up the Bodies I’ve gone with a version of events which does give him a large measure of responsibility for Anne’s fall; but when he tells Eustace Chapuys [the Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador in England] that she is threatening to take his head off, we believe him. Whichever version of events you adopt, Anne was not a victim. She was a player in a harsh political game. She had staked everything and won a crown. At a certain point she lost: as Cromwell himself lost, a few years later.

You are both currently working on new books on Thomas Cromwell. Have you been able to assist each other on those and what do you think a historian and historical novelist can learn from each other?

DM: Yes, I’ve hugely enjoyed our conversations, and exchanging ideas with Hilary, confident that her soaring imagination can reach parts of the past which historians can’t or shouldn’t.

HM: I owe everything to the historians who have cut a path for me, even if the crooked path sometimes leads me to the wrong destination; rage and despair are great fuel. What I provide isn’t a supplement to history, or an enrichment or impoverishment of it, or a contrarian’s version. A novelist is concerned with the part of human experience a historian cannot process: the unconscious motive, the random event.

When I began work on my Cromwell books I knew no Tudor historians. Their welcome has surprised me. Almost everyone has proved open-minded, few have been dismissive, and sometimes I’ve been helped towards startling illuminations. Only this morning, Diarmaid sent me something I thought didn’t exist: a portrait of an ‘unknown young man’ who, as he mentioned, is quite likely to be Cromwell’s son, Gregory. These are the moments you live for: the face forming in the air, the lost thing finding itself.

Hilary Mantel is a novelist, best known for her two Cromwell novels, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, 2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, 2012), both of which won the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Fourth Estate, 2014)

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Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch is a historian based at the University of Oxford, specialising in Christianity and the Tudor period. He is also a regular presenter of BBC TV series. He is currently working on a new biography of Thomas Cromwell