Thomas Cromwell, ‘Wolf Hall’, and the Hero’s Journey

By Rebecca Davis, copyright 2019, all rights reserved.

Until the 2009 publication of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, Thomas Cromwell would have seemed an unlikely subject for an article on heroes. Popular culture had not been kind to his memory. Productions like A Man For All Seasons and The Six Wives of Henry VIII tended to depict him as a scheming, heartless Machiavellian. His role during the reign of Henry VIII is often remembered for the dissolution of the monasteries, or the falls of those like Sir Thomas More and Queen Anne Boleyn.

Academic historians in the vein of the late G.R. Elton have long praised Cromwell’s accomplishments as statesman and reformer. However, these went unrecognized by the masses who were wont to obtain their information from mass-market sources or tawdry historical fiction. At times, popular commentators – one colourful example being television personality Waldemar Januzczak – have chosen to eschew hard facts in favour of disparaging Cromwell’s physical appearance as depicted by court painter Hans Holbein.

With Mantel’s books and the subsequent BBC television productions, however, Cromwell has evolved from villain to a sort of antihero. To some he is a hero without qualification. Martyrologist John Foxe was an admirer, calling Cromwell a “valiant soldier and captain of Christ”. For modern secular audiences, Mantel brought the positive aspects of his career to popular attention. Her books emphasize the humanitarian side to his political dealings and power-brokering. As for Cromwell’s personality, what little can be gleaned of it from historical records, correspondence, and the like, is reflected in Wolf Hall as well. In interview, Mantel has repeatedly indicated her commitment to building on historical details rather than fabrication for the purposes of storyline.

Popular reactions to Wolf Hall were admittedly varied, with some commentators accusing Mantel of an anti-Catholic bias. The relative merits of Cromwell and, say, Sir Thomas More remain a point of continuing debate among historians from varying schools of thought. Accusations of historical distortion have been leveled by the likes of historian David Starkey (who admitted that he had not actually read Mantel’s book). However, for the purposes of this exploration we will concede a pro-Cromwellian viewpoint, and indulge fans of Wolf Hall and King Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, Vicegerent in Spirituals, Lord Great Chamberlain, the Earl of Essex Thomas Cromwell, considering his life through the lens of the “Hero’s Journey” theme.

Made famous by American scholar Joseph Campbell, the concept of the Hero’s Journey is a touchstone of inspiration for many. Whether the story’s subject is seeking spiritual elevation or simply personal growth, exponents of the theme are varied with purported examples including the Star Wars franchise, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series. Campbell had conceived of the Journey as a monomyth or broad category of tales appearing in many world cultures. Therefore, it can be perceived in a variety of formats both old and new.

To summarize, primary to the Hero’s Journey is a loose template of a hero who emerges from a mundane environment to embark on an adventure. Typically there is some deeper meaning or higher purpose to this adventure; it is profound for the hero. Ultimately the hero attains victory after some decisive crisis (perhaps involving a struggle with evil or with a troublesome father archetype), then returning home transformed in some way. Often this has him bringing mystical knowledge or some other boon to his community or culture; in some instances his victorious adventure may have provided protection or salvation to “ordinary people”, or vanquished an oppressive figure.

The Hero’s Journey concept has been criticized for, among other issues, being too gendered in its approach which hinges upon a male hero. Others point out that it is an exceedingly broad concept which could cause mythologists, anthropologists, historians and others to think of varied groups of people in overly generic terms. Such a vague category may ultimately prove meaningless. However, some involved in the mythopoetic men’s movement, new age shamanism, and other modern movements have found great meaning in Campbell’s Journey.

What of Thomas Cromwell, Hero? In the monomythic Journey, there are twelve core steps. Some exponents have listed more, but here we shall stick with the basics, reflected in the mirror of Cromwell’s vibrant life.

The first step is the hero’s origins in “the ordinary world”; in Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s ordinary roots are made plain from the opening lines. Mantel conveys the brutality of a young ruffian’s Putney childhood, her words hammering down like so many blows delivered by Cromwell’s father Walter. The near-death experience of a severe beating was his “call to adventure”, as the Hero’s Journey commences. This father-son relationship was apparently the author’s creative extension of Walter’s historically documented escapades involving the local court system, which included breaking the assizes of ale and allowing his livestock to graze on commons.

What actually sparked Thomas Cromwell’s departure from England, probably as a teenager, and subsequent largely veiled adventures in Italy and other European parts is unknown. The real adventure, however, was awaiting the hero Cromwell back in England. The typical third step of the Hero’s Journey is a “Refusal of the Call”, in which the hero, fearing the unknown, attempts to turn away from the impending adventure. Whether Cromwell actually ever felt such trepidation, we cannot really know. Depicted by Mantel, he is extremely self-confident as well as omnicompetent. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we could consider his return to England (circa 1514 or 1515) as symbolic of this step, in terms of it being a return to a familiar and perhaps therefore more secure environment.

Next in the Journey is the fourth step: a meeting with the “Mentor”, a guru of sorts who will train and advise. This may in some stories involve an inner source of courage and wisdom. For the hero Cromwell, however, the appearance of the Mentor is clearly symbolized by his association with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Serving as Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor, Wolsey mentored and inspired Cromwell, who would later step into much the same role with his king. This relationship is depicted poignantly in Wolf Hall.

After the Cardinal’s downfall, Cromwell stepped into the fifth phase of his Hero’s Journey, “Crossing the Threshold”, which signifies his commitment to leaving the ordinary world. In an epic like ‘Lord of the Rings’, it would be symbolized by Frodo’s acceptance of his fate being entwined with that of the One Ring. For Cromwell, this is exemplified by his November 1529 entry into Parliament, a continuation of his efforts to manage affairs on Cardinal Wolsey’s behalf. It was not Cromwell’s first stint as MP, but this time his work led to a first-hand relationship with Henry VIII. In 1530, he was appointed to the King’s Privy Council. With that, our hero enters a new realm, with new wonders but also new dangers, both in this case from the same source: an
unpredictable monarch.

The sixth and seventh phases typically involved in the Hero’s Journey are “Tests, Allies, and Enemies”, and “Approach”. These are fairly self-explanatory, in which the central figure discovers allies he can rely on, as well as oppositional characters; he may undergo tests preparative for the major thematic challenge. He and his allies prepare, preparation being the seventh step, for said challenge. In our hero Cromwell’s case this is a straightforward affair, with one clear ally including Thomas Cranmer and enemies being the likes of Bishop of Winchester Stephen Gardiner, and Duke of Norfolk Thomas Howard. Tests include Henry VIII’s annulment from the Katherine of Aragon marriage and his associated royal supremacy over the Church of England.

The eighth step in the classic Hero’s Journey is climactic, but is typically said to occur near the middle of the story, and is not a point of final culmination. It is, however, a moment of confrontation, “The Ordeal”, in which death is faced and the hero must overcome his greatest fears. Surely for Thomas Cromwell, the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the associated men executed along with her would represent this point, varied though historical interpretations are of how and why this downfall came to pass. Commentators are not agreed on his exact role, or on the guilt or lack thereof of the accused. If we are to take Hilary Mantel’s version of events, fit into this eighth step of the Hero’s Journey, Cromwell’s actions may end up casting him as a sort of “dark hero”. Depending on the light she shines on him in the third (upcoming) book, The Mirror and the Light, or conversely on the shadows in which she casts him, proponents of the Hero’s Journey theme may suggest that Cromwell is more Anakin Skywalker than Frodo Baggins. Those who prefer the hair-shirt clad virtue of Sir Thomas More, and deplore Cromwell for his role in the destruction of the monasteries, may see more truth in this reading of things.

We are not through, however, with Cromwell’s path on the Hero’s Journey. And hero he may be, for it could be suggested that Cromwell felt it necessary to sacrifice Anne Boleyn for the furtherance of the Reformation itself. Her role embodied the upsetting of the established norm via the King’s annulment from Katherine of Aragon, and though Boleyn may have had ideas about social justice and the proper distribution of the wealth stemming from dissolved monasteries, she might also have been seen as a hindrance to the “public face”, as it were, of the Reformation by the likes of Cromwell. By her disposition, then, it is possible that Cromwell’s higher goals (the ultimate victory, Elixir, or wisdom of the Hero’s Journey) were furthered: the cause of the Reformation and the bringing of the English Bible to the English people, a cause for which he fought and would be fulfilled in the law through his efforts.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel does not take this tactic, but she successfully evokes our sympathies for Cromwell. In her depiction, the Boleyns threaten Cromwell himself, and the others involved – including the king’s own Groom of the Stool – are guilty of other heinous crimes including the ill-treatment of Wolsey, the Mentor/Guru. She does portray Cromwell as passionate for the Reformation, and dismissive of practices that those of a Reforming mindset saw as superstitions and Papal corruptions. Either way, we see that the post-Anne Boleyn result is step nine of the Hero’s Journey, the Reward, in which the hero takes possession of the treasure won by having faced death in the previous step. For Cromwell, this is signified by his appointment as Lord Privy Seal in July 1536, replacing Anne Boleyn’s father Thomas, along with various other manifestations of his spectacular ascendancy in the English political world.

Part and parcel of this Reward for Cromwell was step ten of the Journey, the “Road Back”, in which the hero finds it necessary to bring the treasure back to his original home. His own success became a way to feed two hundred of London’s impoverished individuals on a daily basis outside his own home, and assist many people who wrote to him seeking assistance. He has also been noted for his kindness to widows and women in general. In the public world, these have tended to be eclipsed by his work on behalf of the Reforming cause. However, they along with his continued efforts to have an authorized English Bible produced represent his road home from political success to the humble lives of folks like the rude boy he might have been in Putney so many years ago.

Step eleven, the Resurrection, is the story’s climactic moment in which the Hero faces
death. He may be called upon to make an ultimate sacrifice; typically this will include
some sort of rebirth or transformation. After undergoing this, he fulfills the twelfth and
final step of the Journey, the Return with the Elixir. For Thomas Cromwell, we can consider these symbolic steps in a couple of different ways. Clearly the Resurrection, step eleven, involves the sacrifice of Cromwell’s life itself. There is no way around this. He was executed on 28 July 1540, victim of a capricious king who was unhappy about his fourth marriage which the chief minister had helped to facilitate (and who may also have been influenced by other political factors including Cromwell’s envious enemies).

The hero is often said to be “purified” by his sacrifice at this step, to be reborn. How, then, does this occur; how can we see Thomas Cromwell’s gruesome decapitation leading into step twelve, Cromwell the Hero’s Return with the Elixir?

There are a couple of different ways to consider this. First there is the perspective of Cromwell’s sacrifice becoming a martyrdom, his death not impinging on his victory (represented by the 1539 publication of the Great Bible, it was mandated by Cromwell’s legislation to be made available in parish churches). The continued progress of the Reformation in general can be seen as his victory also, and indeed he is celebrated specifically as a martyr by Foxe. From this perspective his Return with the Elixir occurs, in part, posthumously, with the continued dissemination of the English Bible.

The work of Hilary Mantel, however, offers us another way to consider the Return of Cromwell the Hero. With her books she has, if not resurrected him, certainly made his ghostly presence felt throughout our modern realm. Certainly she has resurrected him in a different sense: though she rejects the idea of providing rehabilitation to the dead, she has reclaimed his memory, rescued him from the lopsided perspectives found in so many fictionalized depictions and distorted popular history presentations. In her way, Mantel could be seen as a Divine Feminine power; on the one hand we know she will kill our Hero Cromwell before our eyes in her upcoming third and final book; on the other she resurrects him for us, bringing him to life in our minds.

The Hero’s Journey is a broad enough concept that it could fit the pattern of many early modern lives. An argument can be made for the necessity of a Heroine’s Journey; some might see the life of Anne Boleyn or her daughter Elizabeth as fulfilling that potential. In any event, the inspiration of this theme has resonated through the lives of Joseph Campbell’s followers; just as strongly, the people, events and motifs of the Tudor era stir the hearts of historians and students. Those who prefer to see the Hero as Sir Thomas More, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, or others will find welcoming ground on which to tread the path of the Journey.

As for Cromwell, around the time of Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall he declared, “I will either make or mar.” As Hero, we can be sure that he did make – good for himself, for his King, and those English who wished to read the Bible in their own tongue. It was said that King Henry VIII, who had him executed in fulfillment of the heroic sacrificial step, would later rue his error in having put to death his most faithful servant. He didn’t realize that the Resurrection of Cromwell would come only much, much later, and that his greatest servant’s legacy would in its way outlast that of the Tudor dynasty itself.