The Beheading of Thomas Cromwell

Recently, I finished the final book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life and career of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). Mantel won the Man Booker Prize with both of the other books, and hopefully she will be the first ever triple winner with The Mirror and the Light. It is as hefty and well researched as the other two in the series.

How people saw Cromwell’s work depends on their religious views. He could be brilliant or too smart for his own good, shrewd or manipulative, ambitious or power hungry- you get the picture. Henry on the other hand was a bit of a whiny baby who would behead, burn or otherwise torture those who tried to make him do right. For years it was Cromwell’s job to carry out the King’s death sentences. And then it became Cromwell’s turn. As it turned out Henry wasn’t pleased with Cromwell’s choice of Anne of Cleves as a royal bride and future queen. Henry thought her boobs and tummy were too saggy, and he couldn’t do the deed. Henry wanted out of the marriage contract because he already had his eye on a flirty teenager named Katherine Howard- who ends up losing her head too, but that is another story. Cromwell fell from Henry’s graces and found himself in the Tower of London waiting on the ax. Cromwell had many enemies in the royal household who were able to get in Henry’s head, and next thing you know Cromwell has lost his.

Cromwell was quite a complicated man in his time. He was born a commoner in Putney who left home very early to escape an abusive father. After rising above his station in life in Italy, he returned to England and began practicing law. He quickly rose in the ranks of Henry’s advisors. Cromwell helped Henry VIII divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, behead his second wife Anne Boylen, marry his third wife Jane Seymour, but Cromwell’s undoing was arranging his fourth marriage to German-born Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was focused on making her royal brother a steadfast Protestant ally of Henry’s since the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the Pope and the King of France were hinting of war with Henry because he left the Roman Catholic Church. Of course Henry had to leave the Church. You can’t divorce and murder wives without being accountable to the Pope! Here enters Cromwell who is firmly a Protestant but maybe not quite a vocal Lutheran. He is now known as one of the biggest advocates in the English Reformation. He did a lot of Henry’s dirty work in moving England away from Catholic practices to Protestant practices, including dissolving all the abbeys and monasteries. Cromwell put those out of business and distributed the land and the earnings to his cronies and himself. He did use the distribution of some of the richer abbeys as bribes to his Catholic enemies.

Henry later regretted killing Cromwell because he was a brilliant advisor and was effective in keeping Henry from acting rashly. There are questions about Henry’s rashness and cruelty. Some historians think he changed into a monster after a head injury from falling off a horse. Others think it was the result of syphilis. Interestingly enough, Cromwell was lost to history until the 1950s. He was thought only as a political hack of Henry’s. Geoffrey Rudolph Elton wrote a history of Tudor history which brought Cromwell out of the shadows of time. Mantel’s work is brilliantly researched which is why it’s been eleven years since Wolf Hall was published. The Mirror and The Light is also a long detailed book like the previous books in the trilogy. I admit about two-thirds of the way through the book, I thought ‘Geez, be done with it…off with his head!’ But this book is definitely worth the time required to read it.

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