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Hans Holbein: Thomas Cromwell, 1532–1533

“Thomas Cromwell…Thomas Cromwell? I thought his name was Oliver!” This was the initial reaction of a young Harvard graduate in 1897 to the topic assigned to him for his B. Litt. thesis by Oxford’s Regius Professor of Modern History, Frederick York Powell.1 Over a century later, the relative fame of the two Cromwells has, at least temporarily, been reversed. The brilliance of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), with a third, The Mirror and the Light, promised for next year, and the dazzling success of their adaptations to stage and television have made the name of Henry VIII’s minister better known than that of the Lord Protector.

After recovering from his disconcerting interview with York Powell, Roger Bigelow Merriman went on to publish an indispensable edition of Thomas Cromwell’s surviving letters, prefaced by a much less satisfactory assessment of the man himself. He then gave up the Tudors and became a distinguished historian of the Spanish Empire.

It was fifty years before the next serious attempt to study Cromwell appeared. This time Geoffrey Elton combined an unequaled grasp of the voluminous archives of the period with a powerful intellect, a trenchant prose style, and supreme self-confidence. His book The Tudor Revolution in Government burst upon the scene in 1953. It portrayed Cromwell as the dominating figure in the royal government of the 1530s: his achievements included the break with the papacy, the recognition of Henry VIII as the supreme head of the English church, and the dissolution of the monasteries. According to Elton, Cromwell also revolutionized the English state by replacing the personal government and financial management based in the royal household with formalized bureaucratic institutions based in Westminster.

In many subsequent publications Elton enlarged upon Cromwell’s legacy, crediting him with the doctrine that the king’s sovereignty was best exercised through Parliament, the consolidation of England and Wales as a unitary state, and the enforcement of the Henrician Reformation upon an unwilling people through press censorship, propaganda, new treason laws, the careful investigation of a flood of unsolicited denunciations of those hostile to the royal supremacy, and, occasionally, the execution of recalcitrants. He also revealed Cromwell as an intellectual with scholarly interests in history and literature and a tireless deviser of schemes to reform the law, the economy, and provisions for the poor.

Elton’s view of Cromwell’s significance provoked intense discussion and came under increasing attack, not least from some of his numerous doctoral students. In his later years he retracted some of his bolder claims for a Tudor revolution in government. One of his last statements on the subject, a booklet published in 1991, made so many concessions to his critics that in its mixture of repentance and defiance it bore some resemblance to the speeches made on the scaffold by…

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