Tracy Borman: pic © Hachette UK • Photographer Libi Pedder

Uncovering The Real Cromwell

31st October 2014

Ahead of Chorleywood LitFest, 10 to 16 November, Kathy Walton talks to Tracy Borman about her new book.

Historian Tracy Borman admits that when she was asked to write a biography of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s controversial right hand man, she was terrified. “There is so much interest at the moment, thanks to Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies [Hilary Mantel’s two prize-winning novels on Cromwell] and my publisher wanted to give people who love the story ‘the real’ Wolf Hall,” she explains. “I was only given eight months to research and write it, but this lent an intensity to the process and it turned out really well.”

The result is a 460 page volume that promises to give readers ‘the untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant’. Visionary, hard-working and generous – or bloody-minded, ambitious and callous? Your call.

Borman takes us through the life of the man who rose from humble beginnings as the son of a sometime innkeeper and blacksmith, to find work as a mercenary in the French army, as a secretary to a Florentine banker, as a merchant, lawyer and Parliamentarian and eventually, to be appointed Vicar General to Henry VIII – and who was, arguably, one of the most powerful advocates of the English Reformation.

It’s a fascinating insight into the character of one of the Tudor period’s most influential figures, written from a perspective that lies somewhere between Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, which positively vilified Cromwell, and Mantel’s much rosier view, which Borman concedes is “possibly too sympathetic”.

However, if you were hoping for an ‘authors at dawn’ spat between Borman and Mantel, you will be disappointed. “Hilary and I get on really well,” says Borman. “I am so inspired by her books.”

Borman’s aim was to reveal “the private man behind the public life”. She immersed herself in his vast correspondence and pored over his accounts, which she says proved to be “some of the most illuminating documents, not at all dry.”

For instance, the ruthless plotter who thought nothing of stitching up former ally Anne Boleyn when she ceased to be useful, was apparently something of a party animal. “Cromwell would spend lavish sums on his guests, importing pears, quinces and figs for his parties. In one year alone, he spent the equivalent of £120,000 on wine, and kept singing canaries to entertain his guests and ‘a strange beast’ in his garden, possibly a leopard, with a jewelled collar. He was not just the humourless bureaucrat he is made out to be,” insists Borman.

Instead, she finds him a devoted husband and father and an early champion of women’s rights. Brought up by his mother and older sisters, Cromwell went out of his way to help women throughout his life, giving daily alms to the poor, offering financial assistance to widows and, in one case, intervening between a long-suffering noblewoman and her violent husband.

Even so, Borman does not shrink from portraying him as a wily manipulator who succeeded for years in beating the ruthless royal household at its own game. “Cromwell was a level headed thinker, but he never acted out of spite or revenge, just political expediency,” she says. “He protected his own interests, but he was exceptionally loyal and let Henry’s will dictate everything. It was like the relationship between an indulgent parent [Cromwell] and a spoilt child [Henry].”

Borman loves Cromwell’s “irreverence and his fearlessness towards those in authority”. She describes Henry VIII as “a natural bully” who respected Cromwell for standing up to him. It was Cromwell who engineered the King’s divorce from Katharine of Aragon to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn, but who, according to Borman, achieved “the masterstroke” of never deceiving Henry into thinking that a divorce from both his Queen and the Church of Rome would be easy.

Cromwell was also an innovator; he introduced parish records for births, deaths and marriages and produced the first English Bible, the fulfilment of his passion for giving ordinary people access to the word of God for the first time.

Ultimately, however, as Borman explains, his enthusiasm for the Reform church went too far for Henry’s liking. When Cromwell persuaded the King to marry the ugly, ‘evil smelling’ Anne of Cleves in order to strengthen England’s alliance with Protestant Germany, a furious Henry was only too willing to believe Cromwell’s detractors and see him executed for treason and heresy in July 1540… “Ludicrous charges,” says Borman – and Henry himself later expressed regret at the loss.

Tracy Borman will be talking about ‘Thomas Cromwell: the untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) on Wednesday 12 November at 7.30pm at the Russell School, Chorleywood.

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