Thomas Cromwell

A Closer Look in The Mirror (and the Light)

Some thoughts and lessons for church leaders to take from the long-awaited conclusion to the Wolf Hall trilogy of novels.

I don’t make a habit of reviewing fiction books for the FIEC website, but this one got me thinking about lots of things to do with faith and so I thought “strange times, why not?”

The book is Hilary Mantel’s third volume in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy: The Mirror and the Light. Given that the first two won the Booker Prize, perhaps this is a shoo-in for the 2020 award?

Before I comment on some issues the novel raised for me, it’s worth pausing and saying something about it as a work of fiction.

First: it’s big, really big. If I was playing the sceptic, I might imagine that Mantel’s editors have given way to her in the same way JK Rowling’s seemed to have done. Like Henry VIII himself in later life, there are times when the book feels as though it has a flabby midriff and a gammy leg.

Second, it’s a work of historical fiction - which can mean all kinds of things. In Mantel’s case, it seems she is fairly accurate with the facts: she gets past the GCSE trope, for example, that Anne of Cleeves was a lot uglier in the flesh, and that was Cromwell’s downfall. In fact, life at court was a lot more complicated.

Moreover, there are obvious fictional elements which Mantel admits to - for example, a fictional daughter born out of wedlock (Jenneke). Mantel is a Cromwell fan which means that even the most historical of sections are inevitably seen through rose-coloured specs.

Nevertheless, you do get a sense of balance reading it and as Cromwell nears his death you cannot, as one Christian friend put it, ‘stop thinking about him.’ That means the author has done her job.

As I read, three things struck me in particular.

The Reformation was Hard-Won

The story of the Reformation is different depending on which country you are in. Each sovereign nation has its own tale to tell. The English Reformation is no different, but you are left under no illusion reading this novel of one historical fact: our own freedom to embrace true faith was hard-fought and hard-won.

Cromwell comes across as the stronger of the Cromwell/Cranmer partnership - which reading various biographies seems to be about right in this book.

Cranmer was a quiet scholar, Cromwell is often described as the ‘bruiser’. He certainly got things done and perhaps the most significant project he pursued was the English Bible, which had a lasting and profound legacy.

I’m sure we understate his contribution to the English Reformation project, perhaps because his cause is so wrapped up with Tudor politics. Which makes me thankful for something else.

Convictions Confirmed in Independency

I’m an independent by conviction. I don’t believe the new covenant way is to establish a theocracy and I am against the establishment of the Church of England. These are positions I’ve arrived at by persuasion and experience; though I greatly value brothers and sisters who are ministering out of an Anglican context, I could not do so myself.

Cromwell’s story is a great example of the confusion that arises when national politics are mixed with spiritual endeavours. Those who take a different position from me would argue, I concede, that it was only because he had this power that he was able to influence the Reformation as he did. Maybe so, but the fact that God providentially used him in this way does not grant a divine endorsement.

I’m glad that our church is free from national direction and interference. I’m glad that the Monarch is not the head of our church as well as the State. I’m glad that our by-laws are not passed in Parliament.

Because, for every Cromwell, there is a William Laud (look him up!)

Change Needs Patience

Finally, I was struck by the way that Mantel writes Cromwell as a patient character. He plays the long game as he tries to cajole, persuade, and sometimes plot subterfuge to get the Reformation established. He makes sacrifices along the way, sometimes of people (Tyndale is one example).

Perhaps this is because he is a schemer, but on many occasions in the book Mantel has him saying that patience is always necessary to effect change - even when delay seems outwardly costly.

I think that’s a good lesson for church life. Making changes overnight can be risky. If you are particularly keen to bring a congregation with you (as Cromwell was), then a longer-term plan needs to be in place other than simply ‘let’s do it, and never mind the consequences.’

However, this patience is not inexhaustible. Sometimes Cromwell does take large steps (though not always wisely - closing Thetford Priory turned the Duke of Norfolk against him, leading to his downfall). He recognises that patience must be matched by wise action at the appropriate time.

A Real Hero?

In the 1966 film version of Robert Bolt’s play of the same name, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is the eponymous Catholic hero who is envied by Cromwell (written as the villain) who contributes to his downfall.

Hilary Mantel has done much to recover Cromwell’s reputation. Indeed, from an evangelical point of view, I can’t help thinking that he is much more deserving of the title than the tragic Cardinal.

Like my friend, I can’t stop thinking about him.

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