By Rebecca Davis
Until recently, Thomas Cromwell didn’t seem like much of a hero, unless you were a hard-core academic such as the late G.R. Elton. Though he had been called a “valiant soldier and captain of Christ” by martyrologist John Foxe, popular history had turned against Cromwell, with most stage and screen depictions portraying him as a heartless, scheming Machiavellian.
With Hilary Mantel’s best-selling Wolf Hall, however, Cromwell’s image is changing. Her dramatized version of his story, first in book form, then as a television series and onstage rendition, brought its inspirational aspects to light. His rise from an impoverished, obscure background to political success, and the humanitarian aspects of his personality, have become key factors in the rethinking of his life and career. Wolf Hall has helped his image evolve from that a villain to a sort of antihero, for some a hero without qualification.
The Hero’s Journey
The heroism of Wolf Hall and Thomas Cromwell can be seen through the lens of the Hero’s Journey theme. A ‘monomyth’ made famous by American scholar Joseph Campbell, its basic storyline has been retold in a variety of forms throughout many eras and world cultures. Modern exponents include the Star Wars franchise and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It has served as a touchstone of creative inspiration to many, as well as a mirror for personal growth.
The classic Hero’s Journey contains twelve core steps which are reflected in Cromwell’s vibrant life. Here we shall explore them briefly.
1. ‘The ordinary world’ is our hero’s origins. Mantel conveys Cromwell’s roots via the brutality of a young ruffian’s Putney childhood. Though it’s uncertain whether his father Walter was abusive as depicted in Wolf Hall, there is no doubt that Cromwell originated from the lower economic classes, something that his political foes always held against him.
2. The ‘call to adventure’, in Wolf Hall, comes when Cromwell is beaten nearly to death by Walter. He chooses to leave home as a result, venturing overseas. The story of the beating was created by Hilary Mantel. However, historians know that Cromwell indeed ventured to Europe as a young man, for reasons unknown. His activities on that extended visit are likewise uncertain.
3. In the ‘refusal of the call’, the hero attempts to turn back from his impending adventure. This is rather difficult to pinpoint in the life of Cromwell, who does not seem to have suffered from a lack of self-confidence at any point. However, his return to the familiar home of England, circa 1515 when he would have been about 30, might represent this step, as a retreat to a familiar and perhaps more secure environment.
4. Next, the hero meets a ‘Mentor’, or guru of sorts, who will train and advise. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker finds his mentor in Obi-Wan Kenobi. For Cromwell, this relationship is symbolized by his association with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who served as Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor throughout the 1520s. Wolsey mentored and inspired Cromwell, who would later step into a similar role with the King.
5. ‘Crossing the Threshold’ signifies the hero’s commitment to leaving the ordinary world, like Frodo’s acceptance of his fateful journey in Lord of the Rings. Entry to a new realm of adventure brings wonders along with dangers. For Cromwell, we can see this exemplified by his 1529 entry into Parliament, which would lead to a first-hand working relationship with Henry VIII and appointment to the Privy Council in 1530.
6. ‘Tests, allies, and enemies’ will now appear along the path. In the early 1530s, Cromwell discovered allies that he could rely on, like Thomas Cranmer, as well as oppositional characters such as Bishop of Winchester Stephen Gardiner and Duke of Norfolk Thomas Howard. He is also tested by Henry VIII’s need for an annulment from the Katherine of Aragon marriage and his associated royal supremacy over the Church of England.
7. ‘Approach’ involves preparation for the major thematic challenge. Cromwell does this by networking with the allies he has discovered, as well as learning to deal with – and even manipulate – his foes. A consolidation of power around him, and an increasing royal reliance upon him, marks his approach.
8. An ‘Ordeal’ is typically faced partway through a Hero’s Journey, representing struggles prior to the story’s culmination. Before fulfilling his destiny, a Hero must face and overcome his greatest fears. The downfall of Anne Boleyn, and her execution along with several associated men, surely represents this point for Cromwell. Historians are not in agreement about his exact role, or the guilt or lack thereof of the accused, but there can be no doubt that this was a turning point for everyone at the court of Henry VIII.
9. A ‘Reward’ involves the hero taking possession of a treasure won through the Ordeal. For Cromwell, this is signified by his 1535 appointment as Vicegerent in Spirituals, in July 1536 as Lord Privy Seal, and an increasing spectacular ascendancy in the English political world. Next to the King, he became quite possibly the most powerful man in England.
10. The ‘Road Back’ leads the hero to bring the treasure back to his original realm, the Ordinary World. For Cromwell, his own success became a way to feed great crowds of London’s poor every day outside his own home, and assist many people who wrote to him seeking various kinds of help. He has also been noted for his kindness to widows and women in general. Most famous are his efforts toward an authorized English Bible, so that more people could access holy scriptures. In many ways, his work would affect the humble lives of commoners, whose world he knew so well as a young Putney rascal.
11. The ‘Resurrection’ is the story’s climactic moment, with the Hero facing death. As in the story of Jesus Christ, for Cromwell this step involves the actual sacrifice of his life. He stepped over the threshold of death on 28 July 1540, executed by a capricious king who was unhappy about his fourth marriage which Cromwell had helped to facilitate, and who was influenced by political factors including Cromwell’s envious enemies. It may be difficult to see a gruesome decapitation leading to anything but an end to one’s story, but for a hero, especially one who qualifies as a Protestant martyr, there is another step yet.
12. The ‘Return with the Elixir’, for Cromwell, is represented by his continuing postmortem influence. Specifically, this can be seen in his 1539 victory of the Great Bible, the first authorized English version whose availability was mandated in parish churches throughout the realm, and the continued progress of the Reformation in general. With the work of Hilary Mantel, his ghostly presence can be felt in our modern realm. She has resurrected him in a sense by reclaiming his memory, rescuing him from the distorted perspectives found in so many fictionalized depictions and pop history presentations.
Around the time of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall, Cromwell famously declared, ‘I will either make or marre.’ As hero, he certainly did make – good for himself, for his King, and all those who wished to read the Bible in the English tongue. Henry VIII, who had Cromwell executed, would later rue the error of putting to death his most faithful servant. He didn’t realize that the resurrection of Cromwell would come much, much later, and that his greatest servant’s legacy would in its way outlast that of the Tudor dynasty itself.
Borman, Tracy, Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant (Grove Press, 2014).
Elton, G.R., Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558 (Harvard University Press, 1977).
Mantel, Hilary, Wolf Hall (Picador 2009).
Mantel, Hilary, Bring Up the Bodies (Picador 2012).
Schofield, John, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Crowell, Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant (2nd edn, The History Press Ltd, 2011).