By Chet Yarbrough
Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant
Written by: Tracy Borman
Narrated by: Julian Elfer
While Hilary Mantel wets American appetites for Thomas Cromwell with “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, Tracy Borman offers a more British perspective.
“Thomas Cromwell” is shown by Mantel and Borman to be a commoner with an uncommon intelligence. He rises from a blacksmith’s son to become among the most powerful government administrator of the 16th century. Cromwell is the consummate power behind the throne of King Henry VIII. He manages to reform the Roman Catholic church in England, the power of aristocratic government, and the wealth of the British throne; all the while placating a volatile and often shallow King.
In the 21st century, one wonders if there is an American equivalent to Thomas Cromwell in President Trump’s administration. Is it John F. Kelly? Whether there is a person behind Trump’s erratic pronouncements, Borman shows that a modern American Cromwell is a mixed blessing.
Borman characterizes King Henry as one who seeks wealth, power, and prestige in every government policy and action. Wealth is drawn from confiscation of Roman Catholic Church’ land and wealth. Power is taken with the King’s appointment as head of a newly formed Church of England. Prestige is pursued with King Henry’s six marriages–meant to preserve his royal lineage. It is Borman’s contention that each of these pursuits are largely accomplished through the machination and administration of Thomas Cromwell.
As a commoner, Cromwell is a consummate go-between. With Cromwell’s personal experience and innate intelligence, he caters to aristocracy while placating, and sometimes aiding English commoners. Cromwell is tutored by Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry’s former administrator who is also a commoner. Wolsey is a trusted aide and Roman Church Cardinal who acts as a go-between for the Roman Catholic Church and the King. Wolsey sets the table for Cromwell’s rise to power as King Henry becomes disenchanted with Wolsey’s failure to convince the Pope to annul Henry’s first marriage. Though Cromwell does his best to protect Wolsey from the King, Wolsey loses his position, and dies on his way to the Tower of London.
Cromwell cleverly maneuvers his way into the King’s grace by creating a legal justification for the creation of the Church of England. The King becomes the Catholic Church’s sole leader in England. With that religious schism, the reformation of Catholicism begins. On the one hand, Cromwell exhibits the quality of a true believer in denying the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church; on the other, he hugely increases the wealth and power of King Henry. Henry can have his first marriage annulled. He marries Anne Boleyn and becomes one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world. As reward, Cromwell not only becomes wealthy, he is given license to reform English Catholicism.
Cromwell is shown to be enlightened and parochially narrow-minded at the same time. Cromwell believes the bible should be available to all. He endorses Tyndales’s New Testament as the first printed edition of the scripture in the English language. Cromwell disavowed Roman Catholic Church indulgences that imply followers may buy their way into heaven. At the same time, Cromwell believes torture reveals the truth and uses it to convict innocent citizens who justify government policies desired by King Henry. Anne Boleyn is beheaded based on torture induced confessions and false testimony. Through Cromwell’s catalogue of lies, King Henry is able to divorce Boleyn and marry for a third time.
However, Borman notes that Cromwell is a protector of women even though he is the perpetrator of injustice to Boleyn. Borman recounts letters of appeal that acknowledge help given by Cromwell to women abused by men, or left poor by death or divorce of their husbands.
With the death of Henry’s third wife, Cromwell arranges a marriage for the King to a German Princess, Anne of Cleaves. This becomes, in Borman’s history, the beginning of the end for Cromwell’s tenure as the force behind the throne. King Henry is no longer young, and his physical being has diminished by less exercise and greater weight. His new queen is not to his liking. Though there may have been some political value to the marriage, there is no physical attraction. These negatives are compounded by evidence that Queen Anne had been married before and her former husband is killed to facilitate her marriage to Henry. Cromwell is alleged to have knowledge of the previous betrothal before Anne’s marriage to Henry.
King Henry becomes enamored with a potential fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who is the niece of the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke of Norfolk is a bitter enemy of Cromwell. Though King Henry soon divorces Catherine Howard (she is beheaded for adultery), the Duke of Norfolk begins a campaign to unseat Cromwell from his favored position with the King. Though not mentioned by Borman, Henry marries for a sixth time but dies before finding cause to pursue a seventh wife.
In Borman’s final assessment, Cromwell is convicted of treason for failing to protect the King from his marriage to Anne of Cleaves. However, Borman suggests the underlying cause for Cromwell’s demise is that he was a commoner among aristocrats who resented his power. In an epilogue Borman notes that history has pictured Thomas Cromwell as villain and savior in different eras. He is a villain for destroying the power of the Roman Catholic Church. He is a savior for reforming the transgressions of the church.
Borman’s history of Cromwell resonates to some because it reminds one of Trump’s ascension to President of the United States. Though Trump is no King, he is an aristocrat of wealth surrounded by many billionaires of the same aristocracy. Trump seems to have some of the same shallow characteristics of King Henry. If there is a “Cromwell” in Trump’s administration, he/she should appraise King Henry and his emphasis on loyalty of class. King Henry, like Trump, seems to care little about commoners; except as they benefit his wealth, power, and prestige.