Cromwell the Magnificent

Today I watched the BBC’s Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, presented by Professor Diarmaid McCulloch. I know more about the other Cromwell than old Tom – in fact, I often shy away from TV close to my own area – so I can’t query the interpretation. McCulloch, Oxford don and author of some excellent scholarship, undoubtedly knows what he’s talking about. He talks it well, too, throwing the odd witty turn of phrase into his descriptions.

The show certainly had some nice elements. A map of England, covered in crosses, conveyed powerfully not only the wide presence of monasteries but also how the impact of their dissolution must have been felt everywhere. The almost obligatory footage of sixteenth-century architecture was there, but used sparingly, and to make a point, as with the stone cardinal’s hats still to be seen on Christchurch College, Oxford. There were some pretty atmospheric shots of McCulloch walking around a misty Hampton Court, too. One of the most visually striking ideas was the use of short, cartoon-like scenes based on what looked like contemporary engravings and paintings.

My favourite were the moments when McCulloch contemplated replicas of original sources (at least, I think they were replicas). I am often dissatisfied when public history skates around the evidence straight to the ‘story’. Archaeology shows like Time Team and Meet the Ancestors are much better at bringing the interpretation in as part of the story. They do have the advantage of visually tangible evidence, though, whether visceral bones, glittering jewelry, or everything in between. It is, I imagine, much harder to convey excitement from paper documents, especially when they are written in a language and/or handwriting many of the audience cannot decipher. McCulloch makes a good go of it: particularly enjoyable was his scene in a pub, sipping a pint and reading through court records in which Cromwell’s father, Walter, was fined for selling bad beer.

So far, so good, but taking the programme as a whole, there was more than a whiff of whiggery about it. McCulloch began by pointing out that Cromwell has often been seen as a ‘thug’, a reputation he (McCulloch) doesn’t really feel he (Cromwell) deserves. McCulloch presents Cromwell as a ruthless but, at least until he pushed his luck too far, clever and successful political operator. This story is even more compelling because Cromwell was a publican’s son made good, not a powerful aristocrat by birth. As I said at the start of the post, I am in no position to argue with the good professor, but I wonder why he feels that now is the right time to give Cromwell his due, apart from coinciding with the BBC’s season on the Tudor court.

So McCulloch wants to be seen as a daring revisionist, a role many historians like to inhabit (and to which McCulloch perhaps actually has a claim). Yet the narrative is not so unfamiliar, especially because of the recent very sympathetic interpretation of Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s extremely popular books. McCulloch is, in fact, very nuanced in his arguments. When examining Cromwell’s legacy for English parliamentary democracy – including the first statutory law against buggery – he carefully points out that Cromwell did not want, and would not recognise, our idea of ‘parliamentary democracy’. His legacy was in many ways accidental or at least unintended. Nevertheless, especially at the opening and end of the program, McCulloch does push a strong line celebrating Cromwell as the man who ‘remade’ England through the Reformation.

What is behind this, when so much scholarship (including McCulloch’s own work; for an overview of Reformation historians, see this article by Lucy Bates, though you will need a login or subscription) now sees the Reformation as a long, slow, complicated process involving participants at all levels of society, not just the governing elite? Is it that history programmes are felt to need a clear and strident narrative to be entertaining? Is it that Reformation history, despite the scholarly advances, has not quite moved past the confessional lines (i.e. Reformation great progress, or Reformation great catastrophe, depending on which side of the font you sit) which characterised its original historians, some of them during the Reformation itself? Probably something of both, and it left me feeling slightly uneasy about these unspoken positions, even though the program was thoughtful, entertaining, and well worth a watch.

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