Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of the new biography Thomas Cromwell: A Life, is speaking at the Yorkshire Museum, York, on Friday, 14 December 2018. Tickets are £12 and available on their website. The event is presented by friends of the HWA, the York Literature Festival.
Imogen Robertson, Chair of the HWA, spoke to him last week.
I’ve been working at Hampton Court Palace, over the last year, so I leapt at the chance to talk to Diarmaid MacCulloch in advance of his talk in York (see above) about his new biography of Thomas Cromwell. The court of Henry VIII was a stew of scandal, cruelty, luxury, renaissance learning and religious reform, and the thirty-eight years of Henry’s reign profoundly changed England, Wales and Ireland. We are still living in the historical wake of that reign.
For a crucial decade, the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell was at the centre of it all. He rose from humble origins to power under Cardinal Wolsey, but survived his master’s fall to help Henry declare himself Head of the English Church, and have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled. Cromwell, now Chief Minister, then engineered the downfall of her successor, and Cromwell’s fellow supporter of religious reform, Anne Boleyn.
This next bit contains spoilers for those still waiting for book three of Mantel’s trilogy: in 1537 Cromwell married his son to the sister of the next Queen, and mother of the future Edward VI, Jane Seymour, and it seems Cromwell even managed to consolidate his position after Henry’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves. But not for long. Having been made Earl of Essex in April of 1540, Cromwell was arrested in June that year when the religiously conservative faction in Court, led by the Duke of Norfolk, moved against him, and was executed on 28 July, the same day in fact Henry married Katherine Howard, the Duke of Norfolk’s young niece.
To John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, Cromwell was “this valiant soldier and Captain of Christ”; to Geoffrey Elton he was the the presiding genius of the Tudor age; but Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, fixed him for many years in the public mind as that spiteful chancer who did for saintly Thomas Moore and lined his pockets with money from the monasteries he shut down. That popular image of Cromwell has now been largely eclipsed by Hilary Mantel’s much more nuanced depiction of him in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and the work of another generation of historians provides a more subtle account of his life and influence.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s brilliant new biography of Cromwell portrays a man impossible to categorise in black and white terms, while exploring his profound and continuing influence both religious and secular. Thomas Cromwell does readers the courtesy of not trying to simplify the man or his times, instead rigorously interrogating the primary sources – MacCulloch discovered during his work that many had been misdated – to create a complex portrait of the man, the mercurial court of Henry VIII and the early reformation in England. It is also extremely readable, clear and forthright, and seasoned with a pleasing astringency.
MacCulloch has previously written a similarly in-depth study of Cromwell’s contemporary Archbishop Thomas Cranmer which won the Whitbread Biography Prize, the James Tait Black Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize; Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 (2004) won the Wolfson Prize and the British Academy Prize. The marvellous, and let’s go right ahead and call it magisterial, A History of Christianity (2010), which was adapted into a six-part BBC television series, was awarded the Cundill and Hessel-Tiltman Prizes. He’s also been a regular guest on In Our Time on Radio 4, and presented a number of other excellent documentary series, the latest being Sex and the Church. He is currently Fellow of Saint Cross College, Oxford, and Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, and was knighted in 2012.
Colour me intimidated.
When we spoke on the phone last week though, he was charming and friendly and even laughed when I asked if he played X-box and watched disaster movies in his free time. For the record, he enjoys running, music, Scandi-noir on TV and Ian Rankin novels. We discussed his own development as a historian, the role of the historian in society today, Hilary Mantel and, of course, Thomas Cromwell.
The transcript of our conversation had been edited for clarity and my questions and prompts for context and your sanity.
Professor MacCulloch was brought up in his father’s parish of St Mary’s in Wetherden, Suffolk and his career as a historian started early, inside and out of the church.
“It was a very happy childhood. My parents talked incessantly about history as other families talk about football. I became extremely nerdy very early about church buildings, and knew far more than was good for an eight year old… it just happened that particularly this church, Wetherden, was just a little text book of the things that change over the centuries and that fascinated me.”
And if being brought up in and around an interesting country church is a good start for a historian, then being trained by Sir Geoffrey Elton at Cambridge is an excellent next step. Elton was the author of the hugely influential The Tudor Revolution in Government, which argued Cromwell was the founder of modern bureaucratic government. He was obviously a huge influence on a whole generation of historians.
“He was, and yet so many of his students have carefully dismantled so many of his claims. I think that’s a tribute to Geoffrey too, in that he bred people with an independent mind, and taught us, almost ordered us, to have independence of mind. And the big lesson that we all drew from the way he was as a historian, was always go back to the original sources, never trust a secondary authority because they may have got it wrong, misunderstood, and that’s a very good lesson to learn. Let the documents talk to you rather than imposing things. Of course, Geoffrey broke his own rule many many times. It’s the method which matters.”
At this point I have formed a picture of a sort of ivory tower idyll of Professor MacCulloch’s career in my head, but he obviously doesn’t see the role of the historian as working only in the confines of a university, as demonstrated by his TV, radio and publication history.
“My first job was in a theological college, a Methodist college training ministers, and I did all the church history and absorbed it all, and also absorbed a very useful lesson on sitting in front of a class, none of whom were necessarily interested in history at all. They were in this college to learn which way to hold the baby up at baptism and that sort of thing. They could’ve regarded me, and a lot did, as totally marginal to their interests, and I was determined to stop that. I learned ways of keeping them interested and keeping their eyes on me, and that was hugely useful. I think a lot of my colleagues who had a rather conventional historical training have never had that feeling, because their students are all people who have opted in to do history and that’s why they’re there.”
So how does his method of communicating history change given the variety of audiences he addresses, and why should we try and engage those not interested in history per se?
“It’s the same history, which you have to couch in different words, but the words must be true to the rigorous and pedantic way in which you might talk to colleagues. I just think it is the vital role of historians to do that. We are the guardians of sanity in society because we guard the story of the past, and we try to complicate it, in a good way. [We] stop simple stories being told, because simple stories are virtually always the wrong story, and bad ways of behaving in the present day are justified by such simple stories. So I’m extremely boastful about the historical profession. I think history is the conscience of society and it’s the bit of our culture which should stop us falling into barbarism.”
I asked what myths we were telling ourselves these days. I think I can hear a sigh at this point in the recording.
“But where do you start? There is the current national fixation with the Second World War, and coming out of the Second World War as the good guys, which means that the other side must always be the bad guys for ever and eternity. A favourite book of mine is Tony Judt’s book Postwar, which is the story of Europe from 1945. And I find it an enormously inspiring story, partly because I could put myself in to most of it, and remember it, then the brilliance with which it was told, but also the basic underlying message that in 1945 Europe was a continent of ruins, and the likelihood in such a situation was that poison and malevolence would prevail, and there would be more dictatorial regimes.
“Instead the story is one of solid, unspectacular, painful consolidation into democracies with all the rules which were broken being observed, and Europe becoming prosperous and checked and balanced. I found that hugely optimistic, and well, I read that five years ago, but that seems to me to be the great problem at the moment, we’ve forgotten that basic fact that things could be so different, so bad, and we shouldn’t cling like a comfort blanket to our own virtue.”
Ah, five years ago, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump. I have to ask about the parallel drawn every time anyone mentions Henry VIII these days between him and the current, I still can’t believe this, President of the United States, Donald Trump. Is it useful? Valid?
“In some ways it doesn’t work because Henry VIII was infinitely cleverer and more cultured than Trump. But the common factor is that ‘everything’s about me,’ and politics is all about the single larger than life character at the middle of it.”
And what about the paranoia and suspicion that characterised Henry’s reign? Is there a parallel there?
“Absolutely the insecurity in both cases – the desperate insecurity in Henry’s case is dynastic, for very good reasons. In Trump’s case it’s perhaps at some level a realisation that he’s hollow and has no talent.”
Of course, it was Henry VIII’s suspicion, paranoia even, which meant Thomas Cromwell ended up with his head on the block. I admit, I’d always thought that it was Cromwell’s role in the Anne of Cleves marriage which was his undoing, until Chief Curator of The Historic Royal Palaces, Dr Tracy Borman, reminded me that Cromwell was created Earl of Essex after that marriage.
Equally Professor MacCulloch pointed out that Cromwell had one of his key conservative rivals, Bishop Richard Sampson, arrested and sent to the Tower in May 1540, suggesting then it was not so much the Cleves marriage itself, as Henry’s continuing suspicion that Cromwell had been indiscreet about the King’s inability to consummate that marriage, which was the underlying cause of Cromwell’s undoing.
“You see the coup d’etat swaying backwards and forwards in those last months… but that does seem to be the best explanation [of his fall] when Cromwell had won all the previous moves… I think the pattern is that Cromwell’s enemies had been aiming poison into the King’s ear for eighteen months or so, but the king’s ear would only open to listen if he were inclined to destroy Cromwell.
“It’s exactly the same mechanism as with Anne Boleyn, I think. Henry is in the middle of a slew of poison on all sides and it is up to him to choose which poison he will take, and his ears are open because of his Cleves humiliation. Suddenly, therefore, he needs any old nonsense to justify destroying Cromwell because of this visceral feeling of humiliation and rage, and so he’ll suddenly hear the Duke of Norfolk say Cromwell is a heretic, Cromwell is a traitor.”
But what about the suggestion that Cromwell was pushing too far in his attempts to reform the church, even while Henry remained very conservative in his own religious practice?
“No question. That would be pointed out to the king. ‘Look, he’s doing things which you didn’t want him to do. He’s taking powers which are yours, Your Grace,’ and of course the corollary of that is that Cromwell could do anything, and he could do all the drudgery which the King hated. And that’s what the king noticed when his anger cooled. Now there was no-one to do all the boring paperwork, hence his outburst in the autumn.”
The French Ambassador reported that within months of Cromwell’s execution Henry was reproaching his ministers, saying that “upon light pretexts, by false accusations, they made him put to death the most faithful servant he had ever had”.
Professor MacCulloch also points out that the once commonly agreed idea that Anne Boleyn and Cromwell were allies is a mistake. It’s fascinating reading this section of the book as he pulls apart and reexamines the evidence, and paints a convincing picture of Cromwell’s unwavering support for Anne’s old enemy Cardinal Wolsey, even after his death and the mutual antagonism between the Queen and the Chief Minister.
“It seems crucial to me that the coat of arms that Cromwell took – it’s a version of Wolsey’s arms. It was a very political statement when the cardinal was in disgrace, dead, and Anne the coming woman, to do that.”
So Hilary Mantel was right. I read a quote of Professor MacCulloch on the excellent QueenAnneBoleyn.com website, where he praised Mantel’s “formidable novelist’s intelligence [which] enabled her to spot patterns that historians hadn’t clearly seen.” Was he thinking about that relationship between Cromwell and Boleyn?
“Yes, I was. I was reading Bring up the Bodies and I thought – gosh yes, you’ve got it, and expressed it so beautifully. Our minds have been travelling along similar lines. And that’s what I mean by novelist’s intelligence, she’s taken the real situation and she’s created a novel out of it and it’s not history, but often it has those human insights, and historians might just hesitate to go there. They [novelists] are not trammelled by evidence, but they can use it as a springboard for going further than I might dare.”
So obviously I asked if he had ever thought about writing historical fiction. Which made him laugh.
“I tried for an hour and realised that it was embarrassing and toe curling and I would never do that again.”
I tried to persuade him we all have to get through that hour (and many more) to write fiction, but I’m afraid, historical fiction editors of London, he wasn’t persuaded.
“I just didn’t think it was worth it, know your limits! Florence Foster Jenkins didn’t know her limits, but I know I can never play my grand piano in Carnegie Hall, it just wouldn’t be right.”
Though I’m sure he’d do it rather well. Professor MacCulloch was an Organ Scholar at university, having played at his father’s church, and still plays piano. He has “a lovely Blüthner 1913 grand” on which he plays Poulenc and Satie. (Interviewer pauses to stare round one-bed flat in Bermondsey. Ponders life choices).
When we spoke about St Mary’s earlier in our conversation, I asked if there was anything in the church he particularly responded to as a child, and he spoke about the tombs of the Sulyard family. They were staunch supporters of the church and were obviously respected in the village from their first rise to prominence in the 1480s, through to the late eighteenth century, despite remaining staunch Roman Catholics after the Reformation. Professor MacCulloch has caught a lot of flak for suggesting that the concept of English tolerance is another myth which needs puncturing. Doesn’t the story of that Catholic family among whose tombs he was brought up suggest some degree of toleration?
“I think it suggests that history can be gloriously untidy. I don’t think it actually takes away the fact that England’s reformation was far more intolerant and violent than most. Of course, it shows that human beings can actually step out of their stereotypes, and that’s a rather cheering thing to think about these days.”
Amen to that.
Imogen Robertson is the critically-acclaimed author of the Crowther and Westerman series of historical crime novels, which includes Instruments of Darkness, Anatomy of Murder, Island of Bones, Circle of Shadows and Theft of Life. Her most recent novel is the international best-seller The Paris Winter.
Diarmaid MacCulloch: by Chris Gibbions
Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell: via Wikimedia
All other images supplied by the author