Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell, and the Power of Popular Fiction

Mark Rylance portrays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC

Mark Rylance portrays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Photograph: BBC

It is fascinating to see the effect that a popular work of historical fiction can have on revising the public’s beliefs about a traditionally reviled figure like Thomas Cromwell.  Of course, one would like to believe that the average everyday reader of historical novels knows the difference between fact and fiction – and the reality is that most of us do.  Nevertheless, popular novels, such as Wolf Hall and The Da Vinci Code, do have a profound impact on how once settled history is perceived by both the general public and even by some historians and scholars.

Wolf Hall Cover

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, 2009.

Since the publication of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall in 2009, there has been a profusion of non-fiction books published about the life of Thomas Cromwell.  To set the record straight, you might suppose.  You would suppose wrong.  The majority of these books, many by professors and other scholars, endorse the Mantel view of Cromwell.

Published in 2014, Tracy Borman’s biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, promises to reveal Cromwell as “a caring husband and father, a fiercely loyal servant and friend, and a revolutionary who helped make medieval England into a modern state.”

Published in 2015, Michael Everett’s biography, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII, 1485-1534, promises to depict Cromwell “not as the fervent evangelical, Machiavellian politician, or the revolutionary administrator that earlier historians have perceived” but as “a highly capable and efficient servant of the Crown, rising to power not by masterminding Henry VIII’s split with Rome but rather by dint of exceptional skills as an administrator.”

Permission Details This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: The copyright of this work has expired.  This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less. To the best of my knowledge, this file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

Thomas Cromwell, Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532-1533.

There are more post-Wolf Hall Cromwell biographies, all in the same vein.  One purports to be “The True Story of Wolf Hall.”  Another is endorsed by Hilary Mantel herself.  At face value, it seems that these writers are simply capitalizing on the popularity of Mantel’s novel, much in the way that many did after the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code when countless nonfiction books (and documentaries, too) appeared in support of Dan Brown’s fictional narrative about the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene.

I explored a little further back to determine the tenor of Thomas Cromwell nonfiction pre-Wolf Hall and was not at all surprised to find that the majority of older biographies were more in line with the version of Cromwell most of us grew up learning about – the cruel, calculating, and ambitious man who “amassed a fortune through bribery and theft” and went to his death begging the king for “mercy, mercy, mercy.”

This raises the question: Is history an organic thing that changes every few generations to render itself more palatable to the modern masses?  Something influenced by entertaining narratives, popular opinion, and bestselling novels?  Or is history a series of proven facts which cannot be altered or disputed?

Barring new evidence – newly discovered documents, for example – I tend to lean toward the latter view.  However it is important to consider that many of the records of history that we look to as fact are themselves simply matters of opinion such as letters, journals, and even contemporary accounts written by the prevailing parties after a war or a religious fracture.  Documents that often suffer from bias and are, in and of themselves, subject to interpretation.

Foxe's Book of Martyrs 1570

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, woodcut. (Image courtesy of the British Museum)
Illustration shows Henry VIII on his throne, with Thomas Cranmer to his left, presenting him with a Bible, while Pope Clement VII is prostrated at his feet. Thomas Cromwell is behind Cranmer.

So taking into account all of the above, and acknowledging that at present the true character of Thomas Cromwell is very much in dispute, what can I tell you about him?  I can tell you that he was born at Putney in 1485.  I can tell you that his father was a common man – a brewer, a smith, and apparently a “riotous and quarrelsome” figure.

But wait!  Even his parentage is now a subject for debate.  Some biographers posit that the man bearing the surname of Cromwell was actually Thomas Cromwell’s stepfather.

In searching through various sources for some common thread, some settled facts which would help to establish an accurate view of the man that was Thomas Cromwell, the only thing that all of the biographers could agree upon was that Cromwell was ambitious.  This seems to be a safe enough truth to trust in, for who but an ambitious man could have risen from such poor beginnings to become first a lawyer and then chief minister to the king?

Plaque at Scaffold Site on Tower Hill

Thomas Cromwell Plaque at the Ancient Scaffold Site on Tower Hill
(photo by Bryan MacKinnon, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Whether Cromwell’s ambition was of the unscrupulous kind is arguable.  Many of the pre-Wolf Hall historians seems to think him a Machiavellian figure (see the quotes about Thomas Cromwell in my article Wolf Hall and Sir Thomas More: Historical Fact vs. Historical Fiction HERE.)  Most of the post-Wolf Hall scholars are generally of the opinion that his ambition was in no ways unreasonable.

Thomas Cromwell was executed for Treason on the 28th of July 1540. A portion of his final speech to the crowd, made from the scaffold moments before he was beheaded, reads as follows:

“Many have slandered me, and reported that I have been a bearer of such as have maintained evil opinions; which is untrue: but I confess, that like as God, by His Holy Spirit, doth instruct us in the truth, so the devil is ready to seduce us; and I have been seduced.”

Seduced by ambition?  Perhaps.  Much like everything else about Cromwell at the moment, it’s subject to debate.  Just how much of that debate is the result of the popularity of a fictional historical novel, I will leave it for you to decide.


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

Borman, Tracy.  Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant.  London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Brown, Dan.  The Da Vinci Code: A Novel.  New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Everett, Michael.  The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII, 1485-1534.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Hutchinson, Robert.  Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Loades, D. M. Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII. Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2013.

Mantel, Hilary.  Wolf Hall: A Novel.  New York: Henry Holt, 2009.

Merriman, Roger Bigelow.  Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1902.

© 2015 Mimi Matthews

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6 thoughts on “Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell, and the Power of Popular Fiction

  1. The Exhibitionologist says:

    “This raises the question: Is history an organic thing that changes every few generations to render itself more palatable to the modern masses? Something influenced by entertaining narratives, popular opinion, and bestselling novels? Or is history a series of proven facts which cannot be altered or disputed?” – Both. (copout answer I know, but hell, both of those descriptions are true to a certain extent. I find it fascinating how particular periods of history become “fashionable” at one time, or fade into obscurity during another. And as they do, certain impressions of a particular event or person subtly change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Exhibitionologist! I don’t think your answer is a copout. I actually think you’ve hit the nail on the head. What was especially fascinating to me was how an incredibly popular work of fiction could be the catalyst for legitimate scholars and historians to view previously settled history from a different perspective. At this stage it’s hard to tell which is the right perspective on Cromwell. I tend to think it’s a bit of both – which is my own copout answer!

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  2. Angelyn says:

    “Or is history a series of proven facts which cannot be altered or disputed?” I agree with you, here. But what if proven facts are suppressed or erased–did that happen in Cromwell’s case? Who knows.

    I’m not sure a scaffold “confession” is evidence of a man’s/woman’s guilt because folks about to meet their maker via the ax tended to say ‘mea culpa’ in those waning years of medieval influence. However, deathbed confessions today are given a lot of evidentiary weight.

    Thanks for posting on this series again–

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks for the comment, Angelyn! I agree that what he said on the scaffold was not a confession, though some have interpreted it that way (especially his religious remarks made afterward, which I didn’t include in this article). I wish we had all the evidence related to the goings on at the court of Henry VIII. I think we’ll never know what was suppressed or erased, but considering Cromwell’s unpopularity, I would not be surprised if some things have been lost to history.

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  3. Monica says:

    An insightful post on a fascinating topic. I’d like to make a few additional points. Epistemologically speaking, I don’t think we can ever get at the whole historical truth of anything. So we’re left with the “historiographic” truth, or what historical research and the available documents can tell us. As you say, even the latter “often suffer from bias and … are subject to interpretation.” It doesn’t help that both scholars and readers seem to need heroes and villains, or that writers must sell their books to earn a living. This is where modern sensibilities come in: perhaps an enterprising man is more to the taste of contemporary audiences than a principled, holy one. Maybe we tend to take claims to sainthood with a pinch of salt – we’ve grown suspicious and critical, perhaps we ask ourselves more questions. Even Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell is more nuanced than Bolt’s More. On the other hand, if you want people to pay attention, you have to say something new.

    There are limits to this, however: as Jane Austen puts it, “Facts are such horrid things!” But of course, in writing a historical novel you can always stress some while virtually ignoring others, or construing them in a certain light to suit your purpose. In this respect Ms Mantel has certainly done her homework, and you can check her story – Dan Brown’s seems much more far fetched. Though I’m personally drawn to Thomas More as a humanist and a lawyer, I can see why her life experiences may have led the author of WH to debunk him: he’s her own personal villain just as he was Robert Bolt’s hero, Cromwell becoming, conversely, hers. Much as, in a different, though not completely unrelated, context, some of us are tempted, just out of contrariness, to vindicate Richard III, whom More and Shakespeare chose to vilify. He can’t have been that evil …

    Inevitably our judgments are coloured by our own experiences, values, and historical context. Is ambition a thoroughly bad thing? Should we take Cromwell at his word, or was he just a broken man about to die? He certainly wasn’t the only one “seduced by the devil.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Monica! I couldn’t agree more, especially with what you say about people needing there to be heroes and villains. It is too bad, really, because moral complexity in a historical figure can be both fascinating and relatable.
      It seems to come down to book sales and what narrative is most entertaining/engaging. Additionally, as with Richard III, there is always a market for new ideas/new interpretations of historical figures and events. I suppose no one wants to read a retelling of the same old facts that have been written about for the last 50+ years.

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