This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
What first drew you to Cromwell?
I think it was the trajectory that fascinated me: from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex. This is the story of a boy who leaves home and can’t go back, so he must go forward but what can he go forward into? How far will his talents carry him? What enemies and friends will he meet? It has the shape of a classic adventure story.
As a piece of history it appealed to me because he was an interesting man in an interesting era. It is an era that has taken a very firm grip on our imaginations, as well as being intellectually fascinating. Thomas Cromwell was central to the Tudor court and that pivotal decade of the 1530s and if you can look at it through his eyes then this familiar story defamiliarises itself. It becomes a new story. So if you are looking for a subject as a historical novelist, it seems to me that this is a pretty obvious one.
In fact I thought of writing this book 40 years ago, right at the beginning of my career as a novelist but I knew I wasn’t ready to write it then. I fully expected somebody else to come along and do it. However, for some reason Cromwell didn’t hold the appeal for other novelists that he did for me.
Did you find that the historical accounts of Cromwell made it harder or easier to create a fictional portrait?
The biographies tend to be unsatisfactory in some way, either because of their bias or their technique. John Schofield’s very interesting biography came out more or less as Wolf Hall was going to press. It was strikingly sympathetic to Cromwell; it’s as if a shift in attitude was due. Reading it was a relief to me.
It was GR Elton who defined Cromwell’s importance, and he, being one of the greatest Tudor experts, went on to influence the two generations of scholars who came afterwards. So no one is in any doubt about Cromwell’s centrality but there is a doubt about how it can be explained to people and there’s been a gap between the academic work and Cromwell in popular perception.
I think the difficulty that faces all biographers is the extent and the scope of his work. The whole business of England passed across his desk and much of the business of Europe. How do you sort it out? If you sort it out under topics: finance, religion, social policy etc, then you lose the sense of there being a human being in there but if you try to approach it chronologically, the complexity is such that you lose the reader. Elton himself thought Cromwell was unbiographical. I hope that is not true because Diarmaid MacCulloch is working on a biography and I think if anybody can do it, he can.
For me the biographies were neither helpful nor unhelpful. They were something that had to be considered and evaluated but there was always the sense of having accidentally fallen into a filing cabinet and somebody having slammed the drawer on you. These books tend to be airless and you cannot find a sense of the flow of real life in there, still less the intellectual and other excitements that sustained that decade when Cromwell was the second man in England.
You draw Cromwell in a more sympathetic manner than many previous writers. Have they treated him unfairly?
I don’t think it is a question of unfairness so much as laziness. It’s always easier to adopt received opinion than to go back to the records and work for yourself and historians are as guilty of that kind of intellectual shoddiness as people in any field of endeavour.
Cromwell hasn’t always been a villain though. In Elizabethan times in the popular perception he was a hero. Elton thought that the Victorians had a great deal to do with his incarnation as a villain and that social snobbery was part of the reason why they couldn’t come to grips with this idea of a man who came from nowhere.
All the same, I am not writing in order to whitewash Cromwell’s reputation. Why would I do that? If I had wanted to whitewash Cromwell, I could have done so while remaining intellectually respectable, because if you look, for example, at the fall of Anne Boleyn, where he is commonly considered to have played a very destructive role, it is possible to write an account which exonerates him and puts the blame entirely on Henry VIII. You could see Cromwell simply as a man who does what he’s told. Now I didn’t choose to do that and my reading of events was different; I did put him very much at the centre of the plot.
I haven’t aimed to be original or contrary. It was a case of ‘I speak as I find’ and when I began on this I had accepted the conventional estimate of Cromwell. I thought that he was bad but interesting. However once I had got into my reading I began to revisit this and to think that actually he was a complex, flawed human being but in many ways a much better man than contemporaries such as the Duke of Norfolk who are not bywords for ruthlessness, but maybe should be. Cromwell was a better man in many ways than Henry himself. He was a stronger man than the king. So I suppose a re-evaluation began in my own mind and what I have tried to do is present a picture that is calling on imagination to fill the gaps but is still grounded in the sources.
What do you think it was about Cromwell that enabled him to rise to such heights despite being born a commoner?
He had a most capacious mind and a creative intellect. It was a kind of creativity that is very rare in politics. He was someone who could see the big picture and yet be effective in the real world because he also knew how to take care of the details. He was a master of executive action; he knew how to delegate and he knew how to get other people working for him so he could do in a few months what ought to have taken years.
Also important was his tenacity, his determination and a certain fearlessness. His contemporaries said he had ‘plenty stomach’ meaning he didn’t back away from confrontation. He had to have a good intuitive faculty as well because you weren’t going to get anywhere with Henry without making a big effort to understand him, and making a fair success of that. We tend to focus on Cromwell’s ultimate failure in regard to Henry but we really ought to regard the years when it worked.
Cromwell was very much a man suited to his era but I think he had the qualities that would have made him a success in any time or place. But of course the question about time or place is a question of opportunity as well. A man like that in another time and place becomes not a politician but a warlord or a master criminal.
Why do you think Henry valued Cromwell so highly?
What attracted Henry to him in the first place was his loyalty when Cardinal Wolsey fell [the powerful lord chancellor was arrested for treason in 1530 having failed to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon]. Wolsey was Cromwell’s great mentor. When he fell from grace, the smart thing for Cromwell to do would have been to desert him as everyone else did. Instead, he spent considerable energy, a lot of money and a lot of time in trying to fight off the cardinal’s enemies. When Henry saw that he realised this was someone who would show that same loyalty to him, not simply out of a self-serving impulse. That was what got Cromwell his break.
Then there was the fact that Cromwell was so knowledgeable, so practical, and so effective and that he simply made things work for Henry. The king was very intelligent but he didn’t concern himself overmuch with detail so he needed someone who would take care of that. Henry was shrewd. He was a very good judge of people and he saw that Cromwell had what he needed.
What did Cromwell hope to achieve once he had become such a powerful figure? Did he have a vision for England?
Yes I believe he did. Here you have to think about his failures as well as his successes. In 1534 he tried to bring in a radical poor law. A self-interested parliament passed it only in a mutilated form, but he and the thinkers about him did not give up the hope of real reform. His exact religious views are a matter of dispute, but he succeeded in his great cause of making the English Bible legal and accessible.
What Cromwell stood for in general was something that I think is very appealing to people today: the idea, simply, that the country could be better. His contemporaries didn’t think that way. They thought that being the same was the great virtue. They were suspicious of change, valorisers of tradition; ‘modern’ wasn’t a term of praise for them. I think for Cromwell it was different. He was an innovator. In more peaceful times he might have brought about great and lasting change. But then, in more peaceful times, he might not have found his talents called on.
One of the crucial parts of Bring Up the Bodies is the fall of Anne Boleyn. Do you think Cromwell himself believed the charges against her?
Oh I doubt it, although it is difficult to say. The book deliberately doesn’t pronounce judgment on this. Nowadays most people think that the charges against the queen were outrageous but I don’t think people at the time were as outraged as we are. It didn’t seem as implausible to them. I fear we’ll never know whether Anne was simply fitted up or whether one or more of those men were her lovers – or indeed whether other men were her lovers who were not charged.
What it was, it was a coup d’état. It was achieving a political end by judicial means and one can’t guess Cromwell’s private opinion. As a lawyer he would have probably said his private opinion didn’t matter. What mattered was what the court found.
Was there an element of settling scores in Cromwell’s bringing down of Anne Boleyn and her faction?
That is a design I impose on the novel, but I also make clear that while the past may have had some influence on what Cromwell did, the present day realities of politics probably had more to do with it. From his point of view it was partly a question of breaking the power of the Boleyns, giving a knock-back to the Duke of Norfolk, who was Anne’s uncle, and removing some of the big players in Henry’s privy chamber – important and influential men who controlled access and communication with the king. It was a clear signal that Thomas Cromwell was in charge.
So there were layers and layers of motivation. When you look at a young man like Francis Weston [executed for committing adultery with Anne Boleyn] you wonder what Cromwell could possibly have had against him because he was not really a big player politically. Perhaps the answers lie outside the remit of the historian, so it is somewhere where you can allow yourself a bit of imaginative reconstruction.
One interesting thing about mounting this coup was that Cromwell entered into an alliance with his natural opponents: the conservative, papist faction constellating around Princess Mary. They thought that they were using him while he thought that he was using them.
Considering that Cromwell was such a skilled political operator, how was it that his relationship with Henry broke down? Did his luck just run out?
In a sense I’ll have to tell you when I have completed the third book, because I try not to let the dead hand of determinacy into my fiction. It would be wrong to make up my mind at this point as to the cause of his downfall.
It is often considered that it was the failure of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves that was the end of Cromwell, but actually if you look at the chronology that was not quite so. The failure of the marriage certainly destabilised him and knocked him back in a very big way, but just as his opponents predicted that this was the end for Cromwell, Henry turned around and made him Earl of Essex, putting him back on top of the situation.
You could posit that there is a pincer movement, from two old enemies: Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk. However I can’t quite see at the moment what weight to give all the different factors in his downfall. And of course much of the third book is about the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell. His fall occupies only the end of it because it begins at the point where Anne Boleyn is executed in May 1536 and so we have another four years to cover.
Do you have a completion date in mind yet for the final book: The Mirror and the Light?
I am writing very hard at the moment but I have also been diversifying because I have been working on the two plays that are at present in the West End. The new book has become a very unpredictable creature and the thing is that I never write chronologically, so I can never tell you that I am up to, say, 1538 because I’m always up to six different points simultaneously. I have stacks and stacks of notes and I’m not lacking in either ideas or energy. The only thing I am lacking is the time I need at my desk to stitch it all together.
These books have become the central piece of work I shall do so, although it’s lovely to see that readers are eager for it, I’m not going to short-change anyone. I need to get this as right as I can within my powers and of course with a trilogy it becomes ever more complex because you are carrying such a lot of back story. I have to find a way of creating a book that contains all that history and yet at the same time relentlessly moves forward.
Hilary Mantel is a novelist, best known for her acclaimed Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Her next book, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, will be published by Fourth Estate in September. She will be one of the speakers at our History Weekend festival: historyweekend.com
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2009)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2012)
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by the Royal Shakespeare Company are being performed at Aldwych Theatre until 4 October: rsc.org.uk
The television adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is due to air on BBC Two in 2015