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Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein. The Frick Collection

The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel gets as close to the real Thomas Cromwell as any historian

Thomas Cromwell has had a remarkable and lasting impact on English history. The role that Henry VIII’s chief minister played in the country’s break with Rome and Catholicism and the focusing of power in the hands of the king’s government continues to have repercussions today as modern states debate their place in the world.

The question of Cromwell’s influence on the king and his role as backroom mastermind continues to fascinate modern audiences, holding up a mirror to more recent discussions over the role in today’s political sphere of special advisers such as Dominic Cummings or Alastair Campbell and their influence on modern-day leaders.

Cromwell’s life was lived largely in the shadows, so what can we make of his character and what is the truth of his existence? Historical evidence is limited and we catch only glimpses of Cromwell’s inner life in his own letters and the words that others said and wrote about him.

The basic skeleton of the historical record gives us a remarkable life, and yet it is a life that has – until relatively recently – been little discussed beyond the historical arena. Historians never anticipated that they would be able to capture a richer sense of Cromwell as a human being, so the publication of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall in 2009 came as something of a shock to the world of Tudor history.

To suddenly encounter a fully realised individual, reliving the experiences of his childhood and violent father and grieving the shocking and sudden loss of his wife and daughters, formed a remarkable intervention in our understanding of a man who was described by Geoffrey Elton, the historian who admired him most, as being “unbiographical”.

The subsequent publication by Bring up the Bodies, which won Mantel a second Booker prize, and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2018 biography completed Cromwell’s rehabilitation as someone we can make sense of when placed within his time and the events in which he took such a central role. But it has taken until now – more than seven years after volume two – for Mantel to tell the final phase of the story that she has transformed.

Mantel has firmly stated that it was not her aim to write a history. Yet her Cromwell is so real, so compellingly lifelike, that it has become very difficult to think about him without her interpretation coming into mind. For historians it is an important reminder that the figures we study were real people who lived and died – often in painful, even horrific, circumstances.

Mantel’s small world

It is easy, of course, for historians to find problems with Mantel’s account. Mantel telescopes some events and adds to others for dramatic effect, providing Cromwell with motivations and a rich emotional inner life, all of which remains within the fictional realm.

What she really gives us is a version of what may have been possible. Just as historians disagree over the reading of a particular letter or incident, so we are free to engage with Mantel’s version of Cromwell. Her books are – and will continue to be – vital to the teaching of the subject and to the development of our understanding of Cromwell and his world.

Historians have been increasingly drawn to thinking of the past not only in terms of the textual, material and visual records that survive, but also in terms of the architectural and geographical worlds in which people operated. The Tudor court was a small world of confined spaces and intimate relationships – an intense environment in which remarkable events took place. We can now add an imaginative reconstruction of that world, grounded in careful detail accrued from the years of research carried out by Mantel.

It is about as realistic a depiction as we could hope for and it provides a valuable frame for understanding how a whispered exchange might carry vital information or how Henry VIII’s sudden anger might terrify his subjects into compliance. While we can never be certain of the precise nature of Cromwell’s relationship with the king, we can now offer a range of possible interpretations, from shared memories of early military campaigns to a monarch requiring effective service of his subject, finding him wanting and therefore disposable.

Decline and fall

The question of Cromwell’s fall is one that has troubled historians. How did a man so immersed in the Tudor court, who had witnessed the destructions of Thomas Wolsey and of Anne Boleyn, miscalculate badly enough to end up on the scaffold?

Mantel offers us some possible routes into making sense of Cromwell’s miscalculation. The courtly world that Mantel depicts is acutely dangerous. From the start of The Mirror and the Light we see Cromwell surrounded by rumours of his fate in the aftermath of the fall of Boleyn – someone to whom he had been so close. Later on he squabbles with her uncle the Duke of Norfolk and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer – ignoring the latter’s warning not to get too deeply involved in the matter of the king’s marriage after the death of Jane Seymour.

Henry VIII remains the object of fascination in Britain, nearly 500 years after his death. Lauren Hurley/PA Archive/PA Images

Cromwell’s trust in Henry, and his belief that the king will stand by his assertions of loyalty and the signs of warmth that Henry gives, prove to be his downfall. In the face of the warnings from those around him, Cromwell follows his role to its natural end. Elevated to become Earl of Essex, Cromwell holds “the shining bowl of possibility … all is mended” – a final cruel miscalculation.

When it comes, Cromwell’s enemies physically closing in on him to strip him of rank and title, this provides a fundamental truth about power and about the reality of being a king’s councillor or special advisor: in the end, everyone falls.

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