Saturday, September 6, 2014

Diarmaid MacCulloch on Borman's Cromwell

I cited Leanda de Lisle's take on the new biography of Thomas Cromwell by Tracy Borman yesterday. Here's Diarmaid MacCulloch's view of Borman's grasp of religious issues:

How does Borman measure up to the challenge? She has a tin ear for religion, which is fatal in understanding the motives of a man who permanently altered its official expression in this land; it shows poor judgment to speculate that Cromwell "privately preferred the traditional faith" on the basis that a possible illegitimate daughter of his in Cheshire (their connection is questionable) became a Catholic recusant under Elizabeth I. Cromwell was deeply ideologically committed to Protestantism, already quietly helping to move the reformation forward in his years serving Wolsey; in fact, once he got the chance, he began steering England decisively past the relatively moderate reformation that Martin Luther constructed in north Germany. In 1537, at the height of his career, he did something suicidally risky, for no political gain: he established semi-clandestine relations with the far‑away Swiss city of Zurich, simply because its thoroughgoing (and non‑Lutheran) version of the reformation was the one he wanted England to follow, despite the king's evident hatred of Zurich's brand of Protestantism.

He does praise Borman for seeing a significant detail, and in the context of reading The Last White Rose, depicting Henry VIII's paranoia that everyone was out to get him, I understand hos it contributed to Cromwell's fall and execution:

Borman has spotted the significance of something others have missed: I remember how it brought me up with a jolt when I first noticed it. Cromwell married his son Gregory to Queen Jane Seymour's sister, and thus made himself King Henry VIII's uncle by marriage. Henry made a speciality of killing people who were potential dynastic rivals to himself and his children, so even if Cromwell had not been a Protestant, he might have had his head chopped off to stop him taking the throne. You did not have to make the attempt, you just needed someone with a grudge to whisper to the king that you might try.

His review concludes with reservations about the quality of the author's research:

Borman has read an impressively wide range of modern historical literature on Cromwell, though you have to know that literature already in order to see how it shapes her account: neither her footnotes nor the text itself are forthcoming about those sources. The book contains far too many little slips or misunderstandings of the period to inspire confidence. Its story is slightly out of focus, as is bound to be the case if a biographer almost exclusively uses the printed editions and Victorian summaries of original documents rather than the Tudor manuscripts themselves.

I must say, with two very different authors making the same point about Tracy Borman's confusion about Thomas Cromwell's religious views, this books seems more like a 21st century interpretation of Henry VIII's vice regent than an effective representation of Cromwell in his own time.

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