I have not read Hilary Mantel's two novels on the life and times of Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies) and I don't have immediate plans to do so, either. In History Today magazine, however, Derek Wilson acclaims her work and the rehabilitation of Cromwell's reputation:
‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’ The accolades – and two Man Booker prizes – won by Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the published parts of her fictional trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, draw attention to one of the more remarkable rehabilitations in modern historiography. It is half a century since some of us were privileged to sit at the feet of Geoffrey Elton as he lectured on the ‘Tudor Revolution in Government’. Hitherto Thomas Cromwell had been, for many, a rather shadowy, sinister figure and certainly a minister who bore no comparison with the more flamboyant Thomas Wolsey or the saintly Thomas More. Now he is acclaimed as the architect of the English Reformation and the brief era of his ascendancy (1532-40) is portrayed as one of the most formative in the nation’s history.
The last 50 years have seen great shifts in the reputation of this man about whom, despite his importance, we still know remarkably little. Indeed it is the enigma behind the public figure which provides such rich pickings for novelists. Elton’s presentation of Cromwell as an administrative genius who single-handedly transformed a ‘medieval’ system of household government into a ‘modern’ bureaucracy was vigorously (in some cases bitterly) challenged by his peers. This somewhat esoteric debate over the nature of institutional change was significant in that it served to highlight the importance of the 1530s. England on the day after Cromwell’s execution, we now realise, was a vastly different place from the England that had awoken to the news of Cardinal Wolsey’s death.
Read the rest here.
Derek Wilson attempted to contribute to this re-evaluation of Thomas Cromwell, the Earl of Essex in his book, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, a book I attempted to read ten years ago:
In the Lion’s Court is an illuminating examination of the careers of the six Thomases--Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton---whose lives are described in parallel. Wilson traces their family and social origins, their pathways to the royal Council chamber, their occupancy of the Siege Perilous, and the tragedies that, one by one, overwhelmed them. By showing how events shaped and were shaped by relationships and personal destinies, Derek Wilson offers a fresh approach to the political narrative of a tumultuous reign.
When I tried to read the book, I found that Wilson lost the focus on the six Thomases--he proposed an interesting thematic device and then just wrote a straightforward biographical narrative that needed an editor's help to tighten up the story. "Sudden Death"? No one dies for chapters and chapters! Wilson certainly displayed great disdain for any other interpretation of the English Reformation than the Whig view that it was necessary and inevitable for English freedom and progress. He would like Mantel's depiction of Thomas More as a radical zealot!