Suddenly, after 500 years of infamy and obscurity, here comes Thomas Cromwell: blacksmith’s boy, petty thief, visionary bureaucrat, shrewd banker, mercenary soldier, multilingual bagman, knife-flashing cutthroat, henchman to a cardinal and fixer for a king.
On Sunday, PBS’ “Masterpiece” begins its broadcast of “Wolf Hall,” a six-episode series on Cromwell, the chief minister under Henry VIII. On Thursday, a two-part theatrical production of the same name opens on Broadway. The theater and television series are both tributaries that flow from the same reservoir: Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies.”
If this Cromwell is not quite familiar — do not mistake Thomas for his great-great-grandnephew Oliver — here is a way to place him: Thomas Cromwell strode the same historical landscape as Thomas More, the hero of “A Man for All Seasons,” who would not yield his conscience for the king and stood on principle at the cost of his life. “I die His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first,” declares More, as rendered by Robert Bolt, author of the drama and screenplay.
In “Wolf Hall,” the villains and values are inverted. As Mantel draws it, Cromwell, with a soldier’s aversion to war, seeks equilibrium for England, and the zealotry of the hairshirt-wearing More threatens the common weal. Cromwell arranges his execution. More was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, mythologized in “A Man for All Seasons” in the 1960s, and proclaimed the patron saint of politicians in 2000.
No one is likely to push for Cromwell’s canonization. Even if he had remained faithful to Rome, there are few realistic prospects for a patron saint of realpolitik. Yet this is high season for him and his ilk. Dirty things done dirty, clean things done dirty — people who get stuff done, somehow or other, now rise in glory on stage and film. Perhaps the long stall of Washington politics has made us yearn for those grease-stained mechanics whose unseen guile, we imagine, would protect the engines of power from seizing up. Says Henry: “I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents.”
A few kindred figures might go in that same bag: Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Caro’s biographies; Doug Stamper, the aide to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” (not to mention Underwood himself); the William Seward of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a Cabinet secretary who hired lobbyists skilled in the hook and crook, in bribes and whiskey, to round up votes for emancipation.
You’d imagine that they would have relished the tactics of Cromwell as he marshaled support in the House of Commons for Henry’s split with Rome. On the day of one important vote, Cromwell instructs those in favor of a new act to stand on the right side of the chamber, and those against it on the left. When the opponents realize that Cromwell has exposed them with this maneuver, they shuffle across the aisle to join the backers of Henry, who is watching and “gives his councillor a grim nod of approval,” Mantel writes.
Never mind about cosmic destiny or purity in the work of the world, Cromwell advises a dinner guest: “It is not the stars that make us, Dr. Butts, it is circumstance and necessità, the choices we make under pressure; our virtues make us, but virtues are not enough, we must deploy our vices at times.”
Cromwell gets a law passed that says the king, not the pope, is head of the church in England, and Henry therefore can essentially auto-annul his marriage to Wife 1.0 (Catherine of Aragon). Cromwell gins up a case of adultery and incest against Wife 2.0 (Anne Boleyn), and chats with her executioner about the analgesic character of decapitation when swiftly and cleanly carried out. Meanwhile, he also arranges Henry’s schedule so that it includes quality time in the gardens with Jane Seymour, Wife 3.0 in waiting.
All of Cromwell’s current incarnations have strengths unique to their mediums. Inevitably, only in the Mantel novels is the map of his interior life so richly detailed that we see, at a glance, the world of the wealthy man and the lessons drawn from a penniless boyhood: “The eyes and ears of the unlettered are as sharp as those of the gentry, and you need not be a scholar to have a good wit. Horse boys and kennelmen overhear the confidences of earls. A boy with kindling and bellows hears the sleepy secrets of early morning, when he goes in to light afire.”
In modern times, More soared in secular public esteem during the 1960s, the Kennedy years, the age of another witty, handsome, Catholic martyr. More is enshrined as an intellectual holy man on Catholic college and university campuses, and is the namesake of law societies and chapels. His portrait used to hang on the walls of Mario M. Cuomo’s office when he served as governor of New York; he passed it along to his son, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who also has displayed it. (The elder Cuomo was famed for his oratory and the younger prizes his own “operational” abilities; it’s almost as if More had fathered Cromwell.)
Among others, Paul Scofield, Charlton Heston, and Frank Langella have portrayed More in “A Man for All Seasons” since 1960. Productions of the play are tailing off, though it is still mounted a dozen or so times a year by amateur groups, according to Abbie Van Nostrand, a spokeswoman for Samuel French Inc., the theatrical publishers.
In 1950, the Archdiocese of New York brought a disused Protestant church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and made it one of the earliest churches dedicated entirely to St. Thomas More. Though the parish is wealthy, the church is now on a list of those to be closed. It is a good piece of real estate.
Apart from his enmity with More, Cromwell the pragmatist would appreciate that. He would also know that whatever celebrity he enjoys now, no church will be named for him anytime soon. Shrewdness is its own reward, and curse.