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Give Thomas Cromwell a Chance

February 24, 2011 by Reader's Connection

A Man for All SeasonsIf you’ve tuned in to the “31 Days of Oscar” that will wrap up next Thursday on Turner Classic Movies, you had a chance to watch A Man for All Seasons, in which Paul Scofield gave an Oscar-winning performance as the saintly Sir Thomas More,  and Leo McKern played the evil Thomas Cromwell.

Did you catch the movie? Did you enjoy it? Do you think it would be fun to turn the story on its head, and have More portrayed as a torture-loving religious fanatic, and the scheming Cromwell  portrayed as an immensely sympathetic guy? If so, read Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel, Wolf Hall.

holbeinThe story is told from Cromwell’s point of view and covers a broader canvas than the movie’s, but it deals with roughly the same period and the same crisis. King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) is desperate to sire a male heir, a prince. He wants to divorce his wife, Queen Katherine, and marry Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement and the Roman Catholic Church will have none of this. Cromwell wants to help Henry, and More is set against the divorce.


Wolf Hall Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell definitely goes against tradition. Here’s something from a review of Robert Hutchinson’s 2009 title, Thomas Cromwell : The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister: “Unlike contemporaries More and [Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas] Cranmer, Cromwell seems uninterested in religion, friends or family.” But Mantel’s Cromwell is deeply interested in all three. He can supposedly recite the New Testament from  memory (and notices the absence of the words “pope” and “purgatory”); and he gathers an extended  family around his biological  one.

By his own admission, he has the face of a murderer, and such a superb political manipulator is always likely to be cast as a villain; but in Mantel’s telling, Cromwell’s sleight of hand at court is a wise sort of housekeeping. He truly wants what’s best, as he sees it,  for England and its inhabitants.

Here’s an overly long quotation from the novel. Henry has married Anne, who has given birth to a daughter, which has  of course been a horrible blow to Henry. His first bride, Katherine, still thinks of herself as queen. Henry, a man given to moodswings, is in conference with Cromwell.

“I wish Pope Clement in his grave,” Henry says. “God knows he is a man of filthy life, and he is always ailing, so he ought to die. Sometimes,” he says, “I pray that Katherine might be translated into glory. Is that wrong?”

“If you snap your fingers, Majesty, a hundred priests will come running to tell you right from wrong.”

“It seems I prefer to hear it from you.” Henry broods, in a sulky twitching silence. “If  Clement dies, who will be the next rogue in office?”

“I’ve  put my money on Alessandro Farnese.”

“Really?” Henry sits up. “One lays bets?”

“But the odds are short. He has thrown about such bribes to the Roman mob all these years, that they will put the cardinals in terror when the time comes.”

“Remind me how many children has he.”

“Four I know of.”

The king is  looking into the tapestry on the near wall, where white-shouldered women walk barefoot on a carpet of spring flowers. “I may have another child soon.”

“The queen has spoken to you?”

“Not yet.” But he sees, we all do, the flare of color in Anne’s cheeks, the silk sleekness of her person, the tone of command ringing in her voice as she hands out favors and rewards to the people around her. This week, there are more rewards than black looks, and Stephen Vaughan’s  wife,  who is in the bedchamber, says she has missed her courses. The king says, “She has missed her . . . ” and then he stops, blushing like a schoolboy. He crosses the room, flings open his arms and embraces him, shining like a star, his great hands with their blazing rings seizing handfuls of the black velvet of his jacket. “This time for sure. England is  ours.”

Archaic, that cry from his heart: as if he were standing on the battlefield between the bloodied banners, the crown in a thornbush, his enemies at his feet.

He disengages himself gently, smiling. He uncrumples the memorandum he had clenched in his fist when the king seized him; because is that not how men embrace, they knead each other with big fists, as if to knock each other down? Henry squeezes his arm and says, “Thomas, it is like hugging a seawall. What are you made of?”

What, indeed? Read Wolf Hall for one woman’s fascinating answer to that question.



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