The Crusades (Jenny Benham)


The Templar Knight by Jan Guillou (tr. Steven T. Murray)
Harper Collins: London, 2010; ISBN: 9780007285860; 480 pp.; Price: £7.99.

The Crusades: A Short History by Jonathan Riley-Smith
Athlone Press: London, 1987 (2001 ed.); ISBN 9780826459541; 336 pp.; Price: £18.99.

Jan Guillou is a well-known Swedish author, journalist and political commentator. Anyone who has spent time living in Scandinavia since the 1970s will be familiar with his novels about the spy Carl Hamilton, including the titles Coq Rouge (1986), The Democratic Terrorist (Den demokratiske terroristen, 1987) and Enemy’s Enemy (Fiendens fiende, 1989); his many high-profile investigative documentaries and articles, including one exposing the Swedish secret intelligence agency, Informationsbyrån (The Information Bureau); his outspoken views on a number of political issues; and his own alleged involvement in espionage. With such a background, some eyebrows must have been raised, I’m sure, when Guillou published a trilogy of historical novels set in the high Middle Ages.Known in English as the ‘Crusades Trilogy’ it is really the second book in the series, The Templar Knight (Swedish: Tempelriddaren), that deals with events in the Holy Land in the lead up to the Third Crusade. It follows the fate of the fictional Swedish noble Arn Magnusson and his beloved Cecilia, who have been penalised for prematurely consummating their anticipated marriage, resulting in Arn having to spend 20 years as a templar knight defending the kingdom of Jerusalem against the Saracens while Cecilia languishes in the convent of Gudhem in western Sweden under a vengeful abbess.The book opens with Arn pursuing a band of Saracen thieves thereby saving the lives of a merchant and his brothers. The merchant invites Arn to supper as mark of gratitude and during the evening not only is a friendship forged between the two men but the merchant is also revealed to be the crusaders’ fiercest enemy, Saladin, who is preparing an attack on the kingdom of Jerusalem (pp. 17-38). These opening pages present an Arn who has already spent ten years in the Holy Land – a veteran among the Knights Templar and commander of the important fort at Gaza. Following his encounter with Saladin war comes upon the crusaders and Arn himself, who can speak Arabic and has studied the Muslim way of life by employing locals in various positions around his fort, finds himself increasingly at odds with the intrigues and behaviour of the crusader lords in Outremer. Having defeated Saladin’s army at the Battle of Montgisard by taking it by surprise in dense fog, the jostling for power among the political factions soon leads to murder, the disastrous Battle of Hattin and ultimately the fall of Jerusalem, in which only Arn’s friendship with Saladin spares the inhabitants of the city. It is also Saladin who ‘persuades’ the Grand Master of the Templars, Gerald de Ridefort, to release Arn of his vow so that he can begin his long journey back home to the northern edge of Europe.There is much in this book that will be familiar to readers. The meeting and friendship between Arn and Saladin is similar to the storyline in Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman and the book as a whole has much in common with the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, although Guillou’s book was of course published prior to the film, in 1999. Guillou also weaves other familiar legends and stories into his narrative. For instance, anyone au fait with classical literature will recognise the scene in which Arn attempts to mediate in a dispute between two local men over the ownership of a horse, a case which the knight settles by cutting the horse in two and giving the men each a half (p. 235). Guillou furthermore follows a well-known theme throughout the book of the crusader states being run by power-hungry individuals, supported by an incompetent Latin Church. Jonathan Riley-Smith is just one of many scholars to have built up this theory and his The Crusades: A Short Historyexplicitly spells this out in several places (p. 55, 60, 85).Guillou is the master of political intrigue and he has done his research well. One of the ways in which the author quickens the pace and heightens the suspense of The Templar Knight is to alternate the chapters so one follows Arn and events in the kingdom of Jerusalem while the next covers Arn’s beloved Cecilia and the civil war over the Swedish crown. Furthermore, while Arn himself may well be a fictional character, those around him are usually not and the author paints realistic portraits of historical figures such as Count Raymond of Tripoli, Gérard de Ridefort and Arnoldo de Torroja. Guillou also shows that not only has he done his research on the characters, but his account of the settlements and the daily life in and around the fort of Gaza reflects in the main what historians know. For instance, chapter four of Riley-Smith’s The Crusades details life in countryside and town, explaining how each village was run by a council of elders presided over by a headman, the workings of the Muslim tax, the diversity of indigenous communities in towns, and the adaptations of local government (pp. 61–9). Riley-Smith also discusses the use of turcopoles, mercenaries fighting with Muslim equipment, and the fact that the number of Latin fighting men in the East was never particularly high. Such details are fully visualised in Guillou’s work and a large part of the book is dedicated to showing Arn learning and adopting these practices in government and as military tactics. In addition, like any scholar, Guillou has consulted the primary sources. Thus for the crusading part, there is much that will be familiar to those with an acquaintance of William of Tyre’s History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, while events in Sweden and the main characters are largely recognisable from saga material. Here, however, Guillou has been hindered, or possibly helped, by the fact that there are scarcely any contemporary Scandinavian sources detailing the events of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Nevertheless, the author has used what few short annals, brief mentions in Danish sources, papal letters, and later legends available to great effect.

In many ways, then, The Templar Knight is underpinned by rigorous research, which is what one would expect from someone who previously earned his keep as an investigative journalist. Of course, like most works of fiction it is not necessarily the historical accuracy that keeps the reader hooked. Instead, it is Guillou’s ability to construct likeable, or not, characters, and their interlinked relationships with and to each other that fascinates. Often, the author says just enough to make the reader want to find out more and while reading this I continuously found myself looking up the various characters in academic books. Furthermore, the main character’s main attraction, to me anyway, rests not with being the best warrior, which the author portrays him as being, but rather in him never being quite clever or power-hungry enough to partake in the wildest political intrigues of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Though this is on the one hand annoying, it is also what makes this particular ‘hero’ human. He does not always do or say the right thing, but it is his integrity which makes Arn so appealing because he is that ideal to which everyone (or maybe just me!) aspires; that is, he has convictions which he obeys not just for reasons of personal gain or glory. Guillou shows this in many ways. For instance, when Arn has to fight three newly-arrived Franks to stop them crusading against an innocent Bedouin village, he only wins at great personal cost as one of the Franks thrusts his sword into Khamsiin – the Arabic horse Arn has ridden since a young boy (p. 280).

Representing character and emotion in this way is usually where academic historians fail their readers, primarily because the sources rarely tell us much about people’s motivations and emotions. This, and plentiful and lengthy footnotes and bibliographies full of titles in several modern and ancient languages, tend to make academic history books rather dry. The footnotes, perhaps rightly, are usually the first thing to go in history books aimed at a more general audience, as is the case with Riley-Smith’s The Crusades. This particular book is furthermore extremely informative while written in a simple prose free from academic jargon with any foreign words given a short explanation. As Guillou alternates his narrative by moving between Outremer and Sweden in each chapter, Riley-Smith, rather than giving just a chronological account of each crusade, has inserted chapters on related matters such as ‘The holy places and the Catholic patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch’ (chapter three) and ‘The Latin East’ (chapter eight). Each chapter is, moreover, divided into several sub-chapters so that the reader is never presented with several pages of factual text without any breaks. The bibliography is short but contains the most useful works and there is also a list of primary sources in translation. One particular highlight, I feel, is that The Crusades also has no fewer than nine maps, allowing the reader to follow the events closely. Here, Riley-Smith’s book has a distinct advantage over the novel because while the original Swedish version of The Templar Knight contains a map of the Holy Land detailing the most important forts, cities and battles, the English version has no map of the Kingdom of Jerusalem nor of Sweden in this period. This is particularly regrettable since parts of Guillou’s narrative are dependent on an understanding of the lie of the land.

The Crusades: A Short History is easy and good reading and provides not only an insight to the crusades as a movement but also an excellent format for writing history aimed at a more general audience. By contrast, The Templar Knight is a good story but it is not the best book in the trilogy. At times it is plodding, primarily because as a historian I found that the crusading events are just too well-known and thus the plot is predictable. This series has obviously been translated into English as ‘The Crusades Trilogy’ because the crusades mean sales. However, it is not really about the crusades but about the formation of the kingdom of Sweden. As a whole, the trilogy traces how the experiences of Arn and Cecilia enabled them to build up the social, military, commercial and legal framework within which their dynasty finally assumes power. Like so many historical novels, the books in the trilogy are not meant to conform exactly to current historical research or offer new interpretations, but to affirm popular beliefs about the creation of a nation, religious beliefs, and well-known individuals and events. The trilogy does exactly that. It follows the legendary Folkung (lit. ‘folk king’) dynasty and their loyal support for the Erik clan in their battle for the crown against the backward Sverker clan, who are supported by the ‘wicked’ and more advanced Danes. It reaffirms many commonly-held beliefs and plays on feelings of ‘Swedishness’ by presenting certain events, such as the famous battle of Gestilren, as a triumph of Sweden over Denmark. Hardly surprising then that the trilogy has sold over two-and-a-half million copies just in Sweden – a country with a population of around nine million – and that its popularity has resulted in a surge of public interest in the history of medieval Sweden and also in historical novels about Scandinavia as a whole.

Having said all this, the first and the third book in ‘The Crusades Trilogy’ are extremely readable and the first book, The Road to Jerusalem (Vägen till Jerusalem, 1998), detailing Arn’s coming of age at a monastery under the tutelage of a Cistercian and former knight, and the third, Birth of the Kingdom (Riket vid vägens slut, 2000), charting Arn’s return to Sweden and his efforts to build a lasting peace, have both received critical acclaim. Each book can be read as a standalone, but as a whole the trilogy is an epic tale of intrigue, faith, and struggle. But then, as a Swede, I would say that.


The dark side of Victorian London (Kaye Jones)


London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City by Drew D. Gray
London, Continuum UK, 2010, ISBN: 9781847252425, 280 pp, Price £20

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
London, Canongate, 2002, ISBN: 9780857860019, 838 pp, Price £9.99

‘I am what you would call a Fallen Woman, but I assure you I did not fall – I was pushed’ (Faber, p. 336).

Meet Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute and protagonist of Michel Faber’s novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. Forced into prostitution at the tender age of 13, Sugar plies her trade at Mrs Castaway’s, a brothel in the St Giles area of London. Set in 1875, the fictional Sugar exists in a world that has not yet witnessed the brutality and depravity of Jack the Ripper – the focal point of London’s Shadows by Drew Gray – the second book of this review.

Gray begins London’s Shadows by stating that he is neither a Ripperologist nor does he intend to contribute to this already vast body of work. Instead, Gray uses the Ripper murders as a focal point for his investigation, arguing that this spate of brutal murders refocused public attention, primarily within the urban middle class, to the social problems of poverty and vice that existed on the streets of London’s East End.

Defining this area of London is not an easy task; contemporary social commentators and modern historians, like Paul Begg and Alan Palmer (1), disagree over its exact geographical boundaries. Gray overcomes this difficulty by arguing that we should focus less on these details and more on the ever-changing and evolving social construction of the East End. From industrialisation to EastEnders, Gray argues that the East End, like Jack the Ripper, has evolved into a semi-mythological entity, coloured by images of the ‘plucky cockney’, rhyming slang and the music hall. For the middle classes, it was here in the East End – amid the hotchpotch of cultures and races, the smog and the slaughterhouse – that crime, poverty and sexual deviance, including incest and prostitution, festered and flourished.

Working-class neighbourhoods were the subject of numerous articles, investigations and exposes (Gray, p.1) from as early as the 1830s. In London’s Shadows, Gray relies heavily on such reports, like The Bitter Cry of Outcast London by the Rev. Andrew Mearns (1883) and East London by Charles Booth (1889), but warns against taking these sources at face value. Instead, Gray argues that these reports should be seen as evidence of a cultural, social and economic chasm that existed between the middle and working classes, characterised by ignorance and notions of superiority. This also manifested itself in the social construction of the working class as a ‘different race’ (Gray p. 125).

If London’s Shadows exposes these problems then it is Michel Faber’s novel, Crimson Petal, that truly brings them to life. Rightly considered as a ‘Dickensian novel for our times’ (2), Faber’s descriptions of Victorian London are about as vivid as they come. St Giles, for instance, is described as a place at the ‘very bottom’ where ‘prosperity is an exotic dream’ (Faber, p. 8), where hansom cabs are looted by children (Faber, p. 10) and the ground is covered in human and animal excrement.

While the residents of St Giles can only dream of escape, there are some men, like William Rackham, that just can’t keep away. Heir to the great Rackham Perfumeries, William reads about Sugar in the pamphlet, More Sprees in London, an extensive guide to the capital’s ladies of the night. Described as an ‘eager devotee of every known pleasure’ and ‘a fit companion for any True gentlemen’ (Faber, pp. 83–4), Sugar, it seems, is worth navigating the filthy streets of St Giles for.

Just as the More Sprees pamphlet drives the plot in Crimson Petal, the media also played a role in fuelling middle-class anxieties about poverty and vice in the real East End. The last quarter of the 19th century witnessed the emergence of sensationalism – a new style of journalism (Gray, p. 95). Under intense competition to attract readers, editors needed to find new ways of presenting stories that would keep the public hooked. Crime reporting, in particular, was one way that newspapers could achieve this aim. Focusing less on information and more on entertainment, this ‘new journalism’ became a powerful force in society (Gray, p. 115). Using Stanley Cohen’s theory on moral panics and the garrotting scandal of 1862, Gray convincingly demonstrates the power of the late Victorian press. From a few cases of wildly-exaggerated street robbery came soaring arrest rates and changes in penal policy (the Security Against Violence Act of 1863) (p. 114). Could Cohen’s theory be applied to the Whitechapel murders? Gray thinks not and urges us to remember that the Ripper was so brutal, media exaggeration was unnecessary. Furthermore, despite the public outrage and significant police investigation, the murders never resulted in additions or changes to criminal legislation.

But there were many journalists in Victorian London that were not just interested in boosting sales figures through sensationalist reporting. Away from the authoritative, patriarchal and often judgemental tone of newspapers like The Times, Gray draws our attention to William Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who believed that the influence of the press could be harnessed and used for the greater good. The ‘Maiden tribute of modern Babylon’, for example, was Stead’s attempt to uncover child trafficking in the capital and force parliament to raise the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16. In 1885, with the help of a former madam, Rebecca Jarrett, Stead procured a young girl, the 13 year-old Eliza Armstrong. Although Stead’s intention was to show that he could easily buy a child for the ‘purposes of sexual exploitation’ (Gray, p. 155), the breaking of the story resulted in scandal, public outrage and Stead’s imprisonment in Holloway for three months. It did, however, contribute to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and a series of measures to protect young women and girls from exploitation. Gray places the Maiden campaign in the context of an ongoing class war, characterized by the gulf between the middle and working classes. Like the treatment of working women by the CDA, Stead’s campaign began from the viewpoint that women were the passive victims of lustful males instead of ‘a consequence of a deeply unequal capitalist society’. As a researcher interested in female sexuality in this era I would like to have seen more on the trafficking of young women both in and out of the capital, but coverage of the ‘Maiden tribute’ is a welcome addition nonetheless.

Crimson Petal does not shy away from the issue of trafficking and under-age sex either. Prior to his first meeting with Sugar, William heads to the ‘good, cheap brothels of Drury Lane’ to meet Claire and Alice, the twins recommended by More Sprees. After arriving in London ‘as innocents’ and promised help with securing lodgings and employment, the girls were robbed and installed in a brothel (Faber, p. 70). Faber presents the encounter with no holds barred but dispels the myth of young women as sexually passive victims when the twins refuse to succumb to William’s unconventional requests.

In agreement with Judith Walkowitz’s landmark study into Victorian prostitution, both Gray and Faber view sex workers as ‘independent and assertive’ women. Rather than portraying prostitutes as the victims of their male seducers, the authors see them as victims of circumstance. Caroline, the first character that we meet in Crimson Petal, for example, turned to prostitution as a means of paying for her dying son’s medical care (Faber, p. 15). Similarly, Jack the Ripper’s victims generally fell into prostitution as a result of ‘failed marriages, lost children’, or the inability to find paid work in a more respectable profession (Faber, pp. 164–5). Attempting to reconstruct the experiences of these women and understand city life through their eyes is a highlight of both books, especially considering the scarcity of primary source evidence.

That prostitutes were frequently targeted by Christian reformers, missionaries and do-gooders has been well-documented.(3) The middle-class need to ‘raise up, rescue and reform’ these fallen women led hundreds of individuals, particularly women, to enter the slums, roll up their sleeves and attack this Great Social Evil (Gray, p. 62). Reformers weren’t always sure how best to tackle the issue and Gray deals with this dilemma in chapter five. He identifies individualism and collectivism as the two competing reform ideologies of the later Victorian era. Espoused by the likes of Beatrice Webb and Helen Bosanquet, he makes no attempt to tell the story of this ‘intellectual war’ in any great detail. Rather, Gray places this ideological battle in the context of the country’s journey towards the welfare state. His comparison between this Victorian reform dilemma and the modern preoccupation with ‘benefit scroungers’, notably within the tabloid press, is an interesting point. Returning to prostitution, the one criticism of this section is that Gray could have focused more on specific prostitution reforms, outside of the Contagious Diseases Acts which have been extensively documented.

The devout widow, Emmeline Fox, is Crimson Petal’s spirited reformer. Working daily with the Rescue Society, Fox views reform as a crusade to cleanse the streets and save the souls of the fallen women of St Giles. Armed with her Bible, Fox is driven by apocalyptic fears where the souls of St Giles become the property of the devil. Technological progress, like the factory or the Underground, has moral consequences and is responsible for tempting people away from God. But Fox and her mission are rarely taken seriously by others of her class. Even Henry Rackham, her confidante, is more interested in forming a romantic liaison than in her work at the society. Despite her efforts, Fox encompasses the ignorant attitude described by Gray – that judges and condemns the behaviour and culture observed in St Giles rather than attempting to understand it.

Merging the themes of gender, sex and religion, it is with the character of Agnes Rackham that I became most intrigued when reading Crimson Petal. In complete contrast to other female characters in the novel and to contemporary domestic ideologies, Agnes is the mad woman locked away in her bedroom and hidden from public view.  While the omniscient narrator informs us that Agnes’ mental health problems are caused by a brain tumour the size of ‘quail’s egg’ (p. 218), Dr Curlew has identified her troublesome womb as the culprit. Though Agnes has no idea about the internal workings of her body, she is still expected to perform as a wife through intercourse and bearing a child. Ironically, it is these acts that have caused much of her psychological damage. For Dr Curlew, Agnes is, for the most part, a lost cause. Along with leeches, laudanum and internal examinations, his advice to William is to pack Agnes off to the asylum – lest her madness infect the rest of the household.

Faber should be applauded for bringing Victorian constructions of female sexuality, reproduction  and mental illness into the wider public arena through his characterisation of Agnes. While she retreats deeper and deeper into her imaginary world (where she is cared for by nuns from the Convent of Health), Faber draws the reader’s attention to the patriarchal ideas and practices, from rape to the ‘wandering womb’, that have controlled and determined the fate of her life.

Returning to London’s Shadows, Gray tackles the Victorian construction of the so-called criminal class in chapter 7. Standing below the respectable working class and existing entirely from crime, this underclass first emerged in the writings of Henry Mayhew. This idea was further developed by the prominent psychologist, Henry Maudsley, who argued that ‘heredity and environment’ were factors in determining deviant behaviour rather than an individual choice. This belief was also echoed on the Continent where Cesare Lombroso began developing a criminal classification based on physical features. This biological theory of crime affected the way that contemporaries viewed and dealt with the criminal, from the old days of reform, through education and religion, to a new era of taking photographs and measurements to determine the specific attributes that made him behave in this way (p. 200). But what sort of crimes did this class commit?

To answer this question, Gray has compiled criminal statistics from London’s Central Criminal Court between 1850 and 1899. The historian’s work in compiling this type of data is made far easier with the Internet’s greatest resource on the history of crime, the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. From his analysis, theft, including burglary and simple larceny, was the most commonly committed crime at 49 per cent. Gray brings this section of the book to life by recounting tales from the proceedings that give some idea of the opportunistic nature of these crimes.  (Faber also echoes this sentiment of opportunism in his description of the hansom cab looting in Crimson Petal). As ideas about criminals changed and the keeping of records and statistics increased, it was much easier for the authorities to identify and label habitual offenders. Running parallel to these developments came debates about the nature and purpose of prison, most notably the introduction of a more regimented system, led by Edmund Du Cane. Despite these changes, Gray believes that internal management issues and ever-increasing costs prevented the Victorians from successfully dealing with recidivism. Furthermore, the concept of a criminal class prevented them from ever truly understanding the motivations of offenders.

In chapter eight Gray deals specifically with the police hunt for Jack the Ripper. Although the failure of the police to catch the killer has attracted criticism, both in the past and more recently, Gray takes a more sympathetic view of the Victorian police. With limited resources and criminal detection techniques still in their infancy, it is hardly surprising that they were unable to bring Jack to justice. Added to this were a number of hoaxes, false leads and other crimes to attend to.

Like the Ripper’s victims, there is no happy ending for the women in the Crimson Petal. Without revealing too much, Sugar may have escaped St Giles but she find that life is no more pleasurable as William’s mistress or as governess to his daughter, Sophie. Extremely well-researched, clearly informed by current historiography and described in almost painstaking detail, this tragic story keeps the reader hooked to the very last page. Combined with the recent BBC television adaptation, Crimson Petal should be applauded for bringing to life and into public focus the harsh realities of this period.

Gray is not the first historian to investigate the darker side of Victorian London but his book is well-researched and accessible, making it a welcome addition to this existing historiography. Both Gray and Faber highlight the tremendous social cost of industry that contemporaries recognised but could not remedy. Though the streets of London may be cleaner and the slums replaced by modern redevelopments, the then-and-now approach of London’s Shadows offers a stark reminder that poverty, deprivation and inequality are as problematic today as they were in the 1880s.

1                    See Paul Begg, Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History,(London, 2004) and Alan Palmer, The East End: Four Centuries of London Life, (New Jersey, NJ, 2000).

2                    Kathyrn Hughes, ‘Whores, Porn and Lunatics’, The Guardian, 28 September, 2002 <> [accessed 8 August 2011].

3                    See, for example, Paul McHugh, Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform, (London, 1980), Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, (Cambridge 1980) and Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860–1914, (London, 2000).

The many faces of Thomas Cromwell (Mark R. Horowitz)


Reform and Renewal, Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal by G. R. Elton
CUP: Cambridge, 1973; ISBN: 9780521098090; 188pp. £27.99

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
London: Harper Collins, 2009; ISBN: 9781861975966; 672pp. £5.99.

When a late-medieval or Tudor historian is asked to compare and contrast a historical novel with a scholarly book that both take as their subject Thomas Cromwell, and the latter work has been written by the late G. R. Elton, the inevitable disclaimer becomes compulsory unless that historian has spent several decades inhabiting a historiographically-isolated cave during the rise and fall of the Tudor revolution in government. In the present case, I must submit that I knew Sir Geoffrey during his last 15 years at Clare College, Cambridge and I still retain a cache of our letters. I read his publications and the numerous reviews of them, and I on occasion disagreed with the perspicacious Regius Professor verbally in conversations and once in print with regard to his view that Henry VIII’s principal minister, Thomas Cromwell, was the mastermind behind the inchoate modern English state as first described in Elton’s magnum opus on a Tudor revolution.(1)

That written wallop, relevant to this present assessment, occurred when I was asked to write an article on a book he co-wrote with the future Nobel laureate, Robert Fogel. I began by briefly summarizing each author’s past work. I ended Elton’s by positing the query of whether it was Thomas Cromwell behind the Henrician revolution in government or G. R. Elton behind the Cromwellian revolution in history. Upon completing the piece, I asked both authors to read the final draft before submission in case of any factual errors and with the understanding that in effect the article itself was cast in stone. Although neither found any glaring mistakes and thanked me for the endeavour, I must believe that Elton displayed a bent eye as he read my Cromwell quip. With this in mind, I have approached the present dual review from the narratives and conclusions offered by the respective authors, and not from what others have thought of them or written about their books.(2)

Thomas Cromwell is a good subject for fact and fiction. He was and remains somewhat of an enigma both as a visionary for government efficiency and as an ambitious ‘new man’ rising from the obscurity of a blacksmith’s son to perhaps the most powerful man in England save his king, Henry VIII. Moreover, much like his mentor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – the son of an Ipswich butcher – Cromwell’s descent was as spectacular and dramatic as his climb. For both men, historians have tried to untangle how much influence they had over Henry VIII and whether they were the puppet-masters or the puppets in the monarch’s affairs of state and of the heart. Regardless, the arcs that were their lives remained dependent on the whims and commands of a Tudor king.

Mantel pursues segments of the lives of Wolsey and then Cromwell, beginning in 1527 amid the rising turmoil of the Great Matter (Henry’s annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to make Anne Boleyn his queen and progenitor of a male heir) and leading up to the execution of Sir Thomas More in 1535. Elton focuses on Cromwell and his legislative roots and actions during the 1530s within the environment of Protestant evangelicalism, humanistic writings and verbal discourse. The authors necessarily pursue different genres and disciplines for their accounts. Mantel constructs lives, images and conversations from what is known about her characters; Elton seeks to establish Cromwell as a thoughtful, purposeful and results-oriented minister based on interpretation of surviving documentation. It is therefore perhaps best to discuss three topics where the paths of the authors intersect. The first centers on the personality of Thomas Cromwell. The second involves the religious and humanistic nature of Cromwell’s beliefs and their effect on his actions and life. The third entails his accomplishments and acumen at survival as the chief minister of Henry VIII. However, the style, format and themes followed by the respective authors will be addressed first to understand better where they are coming from and, if it might be suggested, where they intended to go.

Elton decidedly positions himself as the master of the manuscripts, in this case contemporary documents and parliamentary records from the statutes and the journals of the House of Commons. He comes close to chastising those historians pursuing the history of ideas – he is not a fan – believing that all is for naught unless such ideas can be traced to actions beyond the mental exercise. Indeed, he has little time for More’s Utopia because no proposals were put forth to better the commonwealth, only ‘remedies in the fictional realm of the unattainable’. Elton’s goal is to demonstrate the translation of ‘aspiration into achievement’ and how ‘thought yielded results in deed’. This of course provides a theme and path for his discussion of Thomas Cromwell as the exemplar of a Tudor action hero of sorts, and he takes his readers on a legislative journey portraying a practical minister’s transition into a proficient planner stoked by the reformist fervour of the day.

Elton accomplishes this first by examining three members of Cromwell’s reformist group – Stephen Vaughan, Thomas Starkey, and Richard Morison – although he takes pains to convince that none were part of an official body but rather a ‘company of like-minded men’ who were ‘haphazardly brought together and always on their own initiative’. This may seem to some as flying in the face of the adage that coincidences take a lot of planning. Nonetheless, Elton insists they were not recruited by the minister but simply thought much as he did, although they are labeled ‘Cromwellians’ by the author because they believe Cromwell would reform England along humanistic, Protestant thinking. Then true to Elton’s mission, any contemporary rivals to the man behind reform and renewal are summarily dispatched. He quickly marginalises Cromwell’s predecessor and mentor Wolsey as never doing anything, completely ‘useless’ to a generation of intellectuals and reformers, and the poster child for the old clerical order they deplored. He then finds time to stomp on Thomas More as missing the boat to becoming the Erasmian humanist reformer in favour of concentrating on heresy and the maintenance of the church. This provides a segue to the actions of the minister who got it right – Thomas Cromwell – and what he did during the parliamentary sessions of the Henrician Reformation. Because the book is a compilation of Elton’s Wiles Lectures presented at Queen’s University, Belfast in 1972, they fall under topic headings although Cromwell’s legislation agenda is placed in somewhat chronological order.

The tone and style exhibited by Elton are that of a constitutional scholar in the know, lecturing other historians (often by name) on where they were misled – or failed to lead at all – while forcefully demonstrating Cromwell’s modus operandi through the use of parliamentary documentation. The general public might not grab on readily to the scholarly story being told, but Elton has a self-assured way with words that are understandable and on occasion clever and humorous: Cromwell as the ‘pragmatic prophet’ who receives letters in Latin ‘with Greek bits in them’; propagandist preambles to parliamentary bills embodied with ‘standard commonwealth stuff’. Few would argue at the time of his lectures that Elton contributes to a clearer understanding of how bills were initiated, their chances of passing based on origin (Commons, Lords or support from the king) and the nuances involved in the role of politics and religion, which from a modern perspective were hopelessly intertwined. It remains not so much winning a legislative initiative, which will be addressed later, but the intent and purpose that is at the heart of Elton’s narrative and thesis. The medium Cromwell utilizes, with far-reaching effects for the development of the modern English state, is parliament, through which the laws of England are guided with his steady if not always successful hand.

Mantel proffers a Thomas Cromwell confident in his own thinking and actions regarding the law, a posture developed early on through the reactions of a young boy to his physically-abusive father. This situation is introduced on the first page when as a 15-year-old Cromwell is almost throttled to death – occurrences that later shape his views towards legal reform to protect the helpless. Through intermittent flashbacks and intriguing dialog with key players in the era of Henry VIII, the author constructs a self-made, self-educated man unafraid to face the unknown: living and learning business in Northern Europe, fighting in Continental wars. Both Mantel and her Cromwell are cynical about Roman Catholicism, which she views as a corrupt business founded on practices not mentioned in the New Testament – for this is the time when translations into the vernacular by the likes of Tyndale and Luther unmask the deceptions of the popes and their biblical foundation for authority and practice.

So when in 1527 Wolsey’s trip to France includes granting throngs of people remission for their sins, the author throws out an observation by no one in particular: ‘That’s a few thousand Frenchmen free to start all over again’. Mantel also confides Cromwell’s knowledge that to obtain the right scriptural interpretations or permissions from the pope for marriages or divorces, every ‘opinion’ must be paid for in cash. It is this disdain for the church and its reliance on cash payments from countries in need of capital – such as England – that fuels Cromwell’s search for reform and solvency for his king and country. However, to dispel the irony of a future principal minister cutting his political teeth in the household of a cardinal, Mantel’s Wolsey – a very rich character in the story and in many respects more interesting than Cromwell – shares some of the cynicism of the day against Rome.

It is Mantel’s dialog between Cromwell and major characters and the development of their personas that drives her story. Because of the abundance of personages, a glossary is provided for those unfamiliar with the period. This is not a bad idea because in many respects the reader waits in anticipation for the next tête-à-tête between Cromwell and a variety of people besides important figures such as Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, the duke of Norfolk (an avowed enemy turned self-interested ally), Thomas More (portrayed as more of a Torquemada-on-the-Thames when it comes to heretics than even Elton suggests), Bishop Stephen Gardiner, and Jane Seymour and Mary Boleyn (targets of Cromwell’s affections and perhaps more). Historians do not have the luxury of making up dialog – although mental attempts often occur once years are spent studying an individual – and Mantel is wonderfully adept at coloring her characters with attributes well-known to aficionados of Tudor history. Hence, when Anne Boleyn speaks the reader is already aware that when Cromwell gives her a present of silver forks with rock crystal handles one Christmas he notes that ‘he hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people’. To make the point stick further, so to speak, on another occasion when thinking about Anne he confesses ‘you wouldn’t trust her near a sharp knife’. It is largely through these conversations, and the musings of Cromwell, that the theme of a rapidly-ascending powerful and shrewd minister amid court intrigue develops.

While such interplay between people helps advance the story of the rise of Cromwell, the stylistic use of the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to him is both confusing and momentum-halting. Indeed, on several occasions it was necessary to reread a few lines just to determine who was speaking. This uncertainty of voice is compounded by an occasional shifting into first person singular or plural: Cromwell, after being referred to as ‘he’, suddenly says ‘I dry my eyes’; an abrupt shift from being ‘he’ to a new scene beginning ‘October, and we are going to Calais’; a conversation between Cromwell and Henry VIII includes the narrative ‘He watches Henry’s face. He is alive to anything that concerns honour’. Presumably it is Henry alive with the notion of honour. Presumably, if in fact the reader is aware of the king’s obsession with honour as explicated in such historical works as Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book on Henry VIII.(3) While experimentation in writing style is the artist’s prerogative – from Dorothy Parker’s ‘stream of consciousness’ dialog with oneself to the frenzied episodes that comprise James Joyce’s Ulysses – it serves little purpose to push Cromwell away by becoming ‘he’ through most of the book just as the reader tries to get closer to him.

Mantel is intent on staying fairly true to what is known about Cromwell and his life, such as information gleaned from Cavendish’s book on Thomas Wolsey.(4) She also hints at events or attributes that the knowledgeable reader will enjoy but the neophyte might miss unknowingly. So when it is suggested that Anne Boleyn has a ‘deformity’, many readers may be unaware that she has been attributed to having, among other things, six fingers on one hand – an improbability given Henry’s superstitious nature that nonetheless has brought about much discussion, including an essay in a medical publication.(5) The king of England’s trip to the Field of Cloth of Gold near Calais in June 1520 to meet with the king of France is mentioned several times but without the visually-interesting story of Henry VIII being thrown to the ground in a wrestling match by his regal cousin Francis I: fodder for further character development of a Tudor king Mantel portrays as paranoid, constantly hunting and bedding, and doubting of his abilities and his future. Those aware of these inside stories will gain a greater embellishment of the world of Thomas Cromwell and how he acts and reacts within it.

Elton’s Cromwell is a far-horizon thinker and it is through the minister’s surviving papers that the reader encounters a man jotting down ideas for future actions: improving the system of taxation (clearly an age-old problem for king and commoner alike); addressing the enclosure of pasture and farmland by sheep owners at the expense of farmers. While ignoring Wolsey and the possibility that many such reforms were first addressed by the cardinal without follow-through or result – a circumstance similar to many of Somerset’s non-starters under Henry’s son, Edward VI – Elton sees Cromwell as a visionary bent on converting ideas into actions that succeed. Part of this image stems from an innate work ethic and drive, and Elton relates that Stephen Vaughan tells his friend Cromwell that he is overworking as the king’s minister. Moreover, to support the idea that having what we would call a Type A personality and being a workaholic are forces for Cromwell’s personal mission, Elton paints a portrait of an erudite analyst with an eidetic gift that allows him to memorize Erasmus’ Latin version of the New Testament – no mean feat. He is also represented as an intellectual equal to the Oxford man and humanist Thomas Starkey, for whom Cromwell obtains a position as a chaplain to Henry VIII. Indeed, Elton argues that Starkey’s writings are influenced by discussions with Cromwell, more often at the minister’s house with other reformers at what is referred to as a ‘learned salon’. Cromwell’s view of pursuing a middle way (via media) is part and parcel of the like views held by these men. The minister thus avoids the extremes and this possibly is a reason he was able to survive throughout the 1530s amid social and religious upheaval in England.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Cromwell’s personality and political outlook is, according to Elton, a belief and reliance in the efficacy of the law and its use to reform and transform England. Cromwell’s vision of a self-contained realm – the phrase ‘this realm of England is an Empire’ illuminates the preamble to the 1533 Act of Restraint of Appeals that removed papal authority from England – becomes a focal point for laws that encourage growth and stability internally and commerce with Europe. In spite of his often grandiose schemes, Elton notes that Cromwell is nonetheless a realist aware of the opposing forces to change: the church, the nobility, the gentry and often the king himself. This is perhaps why Cromwell relies on couching bills in rhetoric pointing to precedents and age-old practices: a means to demonstrate what has always been, not what must now become.

Curiously missing from Elton’s portraiture is a discussion of the Great Matter or even Cromwell’s involvement with the monumental affair. This is perhaps because the core concerns of Elton’s Cromwell are reforms through parliamentary action, rather than the larger issues of cause and effect during the break with Rome. However, Cromwell could hardly ignore the fact that his mentor Wolsey fell from grace over his failure to achieve the ‘Divorce’. Nor could he fail to understand that much of the legislation he proposed dealt with the severing of financial and religious relations with the vicar of Christ, once Henry VIII moved from a wayward Roman defender of the faith threatening papal authority to an independent head of his own church and state. One can say that keeping all the money destined for the church or making the bible more accessible to the populace were reforms long overdue (or more likely long in the making). But it is difficult to ignore the trigger for this flurry of legislation in parliament: Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn. It takes away little to realize that Cromwell and his king could each have their cake and eat it too by abandoning Rome – one seeking to reform age-old or emerging iniquities, the other desperately in need of an unquestionable male heir.

Mantel, of course, can paint broad strokes on a large canvas that is the Cromwell in her mind’s eye, and it is most enjoyable to view. She does an admirable job of bringing in contemporary stories and historical sketches concerning Cromwell’s traits, including much that is in common with Elton. When Cromwell talks about a book of mathematics and its lesson of balance, Mantel is echoing the via media views often expressed about the minister. She notes that when Cromwell writes ‘this realm of England is an empire’, he does so almost in passing – it is obvious to him and it is a means to an end. As Cromwell reflects on parliament and drafting bills, he says ‘like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world’. Nevertheless, because the minister realizes that it is difficult to implement ‘new things in England’, he says ‘there can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old’. Mantel carries this English viewpoint to other characters: when Cromwell tells Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary Tudor that Henry’s rule over the English church is based on ancient precedents, Mary replies such precedents were ‘invented these last few months’.

Where her tones and colors for individuality resonate are in the personal qualities of Cromwell. For one, he is a clever, ambitious man with a quick mind bordering on the cynical and the brazen. When a self-righteous Thomas More tries to bait him into heresy, Cromwell dodges and parries verbally with great effect. Mantel uses his famous portrait by the court painter Hans Holbein (also a character) as a means to reference the ‘hard Cromwellian stare – the equivalent of a kick’ that many fear once he becomes the king’s chief advisor. This goes hand-in-hand with a self-assuredness not often seen in a Tudor courtier. His first long conversation with Henry VIII reveals an almost flippant Cromwell, and although his stark honesty no doubt brings him into Henry’s trusted graces one wonders if he truly sparred with words in his meetings with the combustible king. Mantel, like Elton, recognizes Cromwell as the chief architect of many statutes of the realm. When Katherine of Aragon introduces him to her daughter, Mary, she says ‘This is Master Cromwell. Who now writes all the laws’. Near the end of the book it becomes clear that ambition is part and parcel of Cromwell’s persona. In thinking of his various properties he muses ‘all this is small stuff. It’s nothing to what he intends to have, or to what Henry will owe him’.

Cromwell is also a vindictive man with a long memory and the patience to wait for the right time to bring down an enemy – Mantel says he keeps a mental enemies list of those who have crossed him. When his mentor Wolsey is arrested by Henry Percy, the author writes of Cromwell: ‘God need not trouble, he thinks: I shall take it in hand’.  On another occasion, when he hears rumors of Anne Boleyn having an affair with Tom Wyatt, Cromwell overlooks it but notes that he will ‘bear it in mind’ for the future. He also places people in his debt, running the gamut from merchants and clerks to nobles and queens and the king himself. He pays for the installation of his nemesis, Stephen Gardiner, to become the bishop of Winchester, creating a future accounting for the prelate.

There is a sensitive side to Mantel’s Cromwell not usually considered by historians of the period. Cromwell cries in talking about the loss of his wife and two daughters to the periodic sweating sickness that killed those of low and high birth with impartiality. He is compassionate for the poor, feeding vagrants at his gate and bringing a poor mother and her two children into his household – but telling her she must learn to read. He also has an affair with Johane, the sister of his dead wife, and he is portrayed as possessing strong feelings for the likes of Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn and the king’s future wife, Jane Seymour – two very risky attractions considering they at various times are placed in Henry VIII’s bed during the story.

Cromwell’s religious beliefs and humanistic opinions are of import to both authors and are seen as driving forces in his actions.  Elton tells of a Cromwell who is patron to scholars and a ‘man of the gospel’. Reformers wanted new laws, and Elton describes a process where experts in Cromwell’s employment discuss reforms, draft them as laws and encourage their master to bring them to the king and council for promotion to parliament. A slight glitch in this analysis is noted: Elton admits it is difficult to ascertain if Cromwell was annotating a private petition to reform something he believed in, or whether he was merely helping a private interest.  Although unemployment is identified as the main target for reform (high rents, enclosures, loss of trade opportunities), Elton sees four areas Cromwell pursues for his reformist program: the church, removing special privileges and constitutional diversities such as in Wales and Ireland, overhaul of the central administration of state to make it less personal, and socio-economic problems. However, while these areas are targets for both commonwealth reformists and Protestant adherents, many of them had been addressed in varying degrees before – Elton observes that impeding enclosures dated back to a statute in Henry VII’s reign and the subsequent 1517 Enclosure Commission spearheaded by Wolsey. The impression given is that Cromwell hopes to succeed where others failed, and he could attempt to do so within the maelstrom of the retreat from Rome and a willingness for parliament to take bold actions for the king and their own self-interests.

Mantel places Cromwell and his beliefs in a world where Christianity and pagan practices are balanced to hedge one’s bets. Henry VIII is a good Christian son who believes he rules by divine right and is in touch with the Supreme Being. But he also keeps astrologers close at hand and listens to the rantings of a so-called holy woman who predicts the future. Cromwell is religious in the sense that he compartmentalises what may be divine from what may be politically useful. He can therefore seek religious reform, including getting rid of the non-biblical concept of Purgatory, yet at the same time pay for seven years’ worth of masses for his deceased wife while his nieces pray with rosary beads. Where there is no compromise to him is the law. To Cromwell, Christ did not bestow lands and property on people – that is done through earthly authority and none higher than parliament. Indeed, Cromwell believes that the king derives his power from the people and the laws of parliament – if Henry VIII did not at least recognise this in practice, Cromwell would not follow him.

When it comes to accomplishments and the art of survival, each author takes a different route with varying results. Elton seems to see the act of proposing legislative reforms as both an end unto itself and an achievement. Yet he is hard-pressed to show that Cromwell overall was successful during the Reformation Parliament up until his execution in 1540. It is clear that this was a very busy minister, but the success rate getting reformist bills passed was not earth-shattering. The 1536 Enclosure Act he shepherds through the Commons loses much of its teeth along the way. Cromwell’s attempt at a Poor Law, part of the reformist agenda, is eventually watered down and fails. His efforts to limit sanctuary and benefit of clergy – the latter where men could easily claim the privilege to avoid common law prosecution – was addressed by Henry VII and subsequent statutes without Cromwell’s imprint. When Cromwell attempts to restrain sanctuary in a 1540 bill, it is defeated after his fall. Much of the legislation in the last years of the Reformation Parliament involve law enforcement, not law reform; those law reform bills initiated fail, including a bill to prosecute rigged juries. In all of this, Elton makes clear that Cromwell can only do so much to push through a bill, and fairly little if the king is against it.

Ironically, Elton undercuts his argument after outlining Cromwell’s legislative reform failures by noting that in the last four parliaments after Cromwell’s fall, 12, 13, seven and 14 acts deemed commonwealth bills actually pass. Nevertheless, Elton entitles his last chapter ‘The achievement’, although admitting that most plans for the common weal through Cromwell’s endeavors ‘came to little or nothing’. Some that succeed were for terms, lasting until the next parliament or the death of the king. One is left with the impression that a hard-working minister, undeterred by defeat and opposition, doggedly pushes bill after bill through an institution without result. Thomas Cromwell perhaps believed in parliament more than it believed in Thomas Cromwell and his purpose. His survival through these turbulent times is not directly addressed by Elton, nor are much of the politics beyond parliamentary procedures. Nonetheless, it is clear that Cromwell had the trust of the king during the uncertainty of Continental responses to the Henrician Reformation and the demise of three wives until both court intrigue and an unfortunate painting of Anne of Cleves cost the minister his life.(6)

Time and again, Mantel portrays Cromwell as adept at manipulating Henry VIII. There are many examples throughout her story: instructing Henry that it is the king who is now head of the church of England in place of the Roman church in England; ‘teaching’ the king to call the pope the bishop of Rome; interpreting Henry’s dream in the middle of the night as a call to take charge of the realm; telling Henry that the monasteries are corrupt and useless, and thus ripe for dissolution. It is, after all, the caprice of a ruler – yesterday and today – that determines the rise or fall of a minister. Cromwell is a master of his master, and therefore of survival amid court plotting, back-stabbing and the volatile nature of a king losing his youth, his health and his hold on a viable dynasty. Mantel has Cromwell play the game as well as anyone in the Tudor orbit. Moreover, because of his ability to accomplish what his monarch wants – and here she only mentions those laws that passed – this unlikely minister through tenacity and ruthlessness was able to survive and thrive until, ironically, the Reformation was legislatively complete and England was, indeed, its own realm.

Mantel’s book as a whole sets itself up for a sequel, and those familiar with the period have a sense of what will happen to many of the characters presented, including Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Thomas Cromwell. A word should be mentioned about the title, Wolf Hall, since it is more descriptive of what it portends than what it has to do with the present book. The Seymours live at Wolf Hall, and it will be Jane Seymour who succeeds Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII’s next wife and the one who fulfills his quest for a male heir. Other than mentioned in passing, it is only discussed briefly on the last page and in fact the last sentence. Cromwell, whom we know is emotionally attached to Jane Seymour, intends to visit her and the Seymour family. The book ends thusly: ‘Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.’ To the reader waiting for the relevance of the title, it is a long wait indeed and perhaps without any meaning for the entire story. It is the author, in her notes published at the end of the novel, who admits as much: ‘Wolf Hall, the Seymour house in Wiltshire, is where we’re going at the end of the book. But, of course, I chose it primarily for its metaphorical resonance: who could resist it? The whole of Henry’s court is Wolf Hall.’

It might prove useful to read both books, beginning with Elton’s, if the reader desires to understand first what it was that preoccupied most of Thomas Cromwell’s time before entering the social and political world he dealt with on a daily basis during his rise to become the chief minister of Henry VIII as narrated by Mantel and Cromwell himself. It is sometimes difficult to comprehend a life solely through a fictionalised account, no matter how well researched, without becoming grounded in how things worked, or why they did not. Both authors have a great respect for their subject, and together they have taken a lesser-known Tudor figure in the popular mind and created a major component in one of the great events of English history: the Henrician Reformation, with its cast of famous characters caught up in this uncertain time.

1    G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridg, 1953).

2    For a good summary of Elton’s thesis and a revision of his conclusions, see Ethan H. Shagan, ‘The Tudor Revolution in Government fifty years later: rethinking Geoffrey Elton’s vision of political modernization’, paper presented at The University of Chicago Nicholson Center for British Studies Conference: Modernizing Politics? (21–2 May 2005).

3    Lacey Baldwin Smith, Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty (London, 1971).

4    George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. Richard S. Sylvester, Early English Text Society, 243 (London, 1959).  Cavendish was a gentleman usher in Wolsey’s household.

5    Félix Martí-Ibáñez, M.D., ‘The “Anne Boleyn” syndrome’, MD Medical News Magazine, 18, 10 (Oct 1974), 11–16.  There are no contemporary descriptions of Anne’s deformities.  The notion of having six fingers (polydactylism), a goiter and ‘moles’ occurred years after her execution and most likely by anti-Anglicans seeking to portray the attributes of a witch who enchanted Henry VIII into his divorce from Katherine and the papacy.

6    It has always been my feeling that once Henry VIII viewed the unfortunate lady in person and recognized the disparity between pictorial rendition and reality, it should have been the artist, Hans Holbein, who went to the block and not Cromwell.  After Cromwell’s demise, Henry lamented the execution of his minister and might have come to the same conclusion.  Holbein died in 1543, possibly from the plague.

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