Tomorrow morning, Anna Mitchell and I will continue our discussion of Hilaire Belloc's Characters of the Reformation on the Son Rise Morning Show, looking at his views of Thomas Cromwell and St. Thomas More, who had been canonized the year before this book was published.
Hilaire Belloc begins his discussion of Cromwell acknowledging his importance in a way that Hilary Mantel might agree with:
Thomas Cromwell is one of those figures in. history, not numerous, of which we may say that they are never presented in their full stature.
He was, in his own line, a genius of the first order, and fortune allowed him to play a part of the first magnitude. He is the true creator of the English Reformation, and therefore of the general catastrophe which overwhelmed the secure and ancient civilization of Christendom.
Yet for a dozen men who could tell you a fair amount about his master, Henry VIII, or about any other of the prominent figures of the time there is barely one who could give you much more than the name of Thomas Cromwell, or, perhaps, add to it the fact that it was he who undertook the destruction of the English monasteries.
Thomas Cromwell by the time all this was accomplished — that is, by the time Cranmer had pronounced the divorce between Henry and Catherine of Aragon, by the time Henry had married Anne Boleyn, by the time Anne Boleyn's child, Elizabeth, had been born and declared heir to the throne — was completely master of England and wholly controlled and managed Henry himself.
Cromwell was not only the lay head of the country — a despotic minister with absolute power doing what he willed — but he was also the spiritual head, for Henry delegated to him all his own spiritual power. And Cromwell exercised that spiritual power very thoroughly indeed. He made the Bishops understand that they were nobodies compared with himself, he sent his officials throughout their dioceses adjudicating and settling and punishing and the rest, as though he were a universal bishop whose power superseded that of all others. Yet all the time Cromwell was only a layman.
Within a year of Cromwell's having worked the schism with Rome — that is, in 1535 — he began two things side by side. One was a reign of terror, which was inaugurated by the arrest and at last the execution of very highly placed people, laymen and clerics, who withstood the schism; the other was the dissolution of the monasteries.
(Speaking of the dissolution of the monasteries, please note that tomorrow will also be the anniversary o the martyrdoms of six Benedictines who had refused to surrender their abbeys to Cromwell: the National Catholic Register will post my article about them here.)
One of the victims of Cromwell's reign of terror was St. Thomas More. Of More, Belloc writes:
As to the first point: He had the temptations which beset the intellectual man, the sensitive scholar, the successful worldly figure. To these temptations he was in danger of yielding, and had partly yielded. He triumphed over them, and that in a fashion quite peculiar to himself. That is why he is so glorious, and that is why he is so great an example. Sir Thomas More was not simply a Catholic withstanding a movement towards Protestantism. Had he been that he would have been like almost any other Englishman of his time. He was not simply a man determined on defending Catholic doctrine and boldly proclaiming it at all risks because it was his nature thus to challenge and to combat. Had he been of such a sort his victory over himself would have been far less than it was.
As to the second point: Let us note this all-important matter, which is the very core of his great sacrifice: he acted in complete isolation, and he laid down his life for one small strict point of Catholic doctrine only; and, what is more, a point of doctrine on which he had himself long doubted. He was not supported by the military spirit, the combative energy which delights in challenge and in counter affirmation. He was not supported by any sympathy for himself even among his nearest. He was not supported by the nature of his own mind, which had been hesitant and, even in essential matters, changeable. He gave him- self up as a victim in spite of all those things which would make nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand deceive themselves that they might be doing right in yielding.
This is the heroic and almost unique quality in More.
Belloc even notes that More had great ambition, just like Cromwell. More wanted to change the world, reform the Church, improve society--but he didn't want to destroy the world he knew, divide the Church, or rend the common good, which is what Belloc sees Cromwell as doing to fulfill his ambitions. If, at the Frick Museum in New York City, Henry VIII's portrait was between More's and Cromwell's instead of St. Jerome's (as it is on the cover of the Ignatius Press edition), it would be a perfect depiction of the different positions these men held in Henry VIII's Court. More wanted to make improvements in the Church and society based on Catholic and Humanist ideals; Cromwell wanted to make improvements in his own status based on what would please the King.
When Thomas More was beheaded in 1535, Thomas Cromwell seemed to have won the contest between them for influence on Henry VIII; but five years later, Cromwell stood before a block of wood on a scaffold just as More had.