Thomas Cromwell – a very modern politician?

Painting of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

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Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) was Henry VIII's 'fixer' and right-hand man, one of the most influential figures in British history and arguably the first modern politician.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, of Oxford University, and Mark D'Arcy, the BBC's Parliamentary correspondent, consider how Cromwell's life as a Tudor politician compares to that of his contemporary counterparts.

Dealing with backstabbing and resentment

Cromwell was not born into a rich or influential family. But after years of trying various professions - from soldiering to accountancy - this brewer's son had a career breakthrough aged 35, when he became legal secretary to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey.

Cromwell key facts

Cromwell's career took another leap forward when he engineered the end of Henry VIII's marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after Henry became obsessed with his lack of a male heir. The fallout included England's religious and political break with Rome, and led to the closing of hundreds of monasteries, known as the Dissolution.

Politics is awash with strong personalities and Cromwell often clashed with his peers. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, resented Cromwell's low birth and was furious when Cromwell forced the destruction of Thetford Priory, his family mausoleum, during the Dissolution. And Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn started as an ally of Cromwell, but fell out with him over the wealth confiscated from the monasteries - she wanted it used for good causes rather than enriching Henry.

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Cromwell rose to the top from the back streets of Putney in London. He was a self-made man in a world of hierarchy, where nearly everyone believed God had put them in their place. It was easy to see someone who moved dramatically from one social place to another as defying God's will. In the end, Cromwell was destroyed by noblemen who considered themselves the natural rulers under the king.

Mark D'Arcy: The tribalism may take a different form today but the same dynamic is there. No-one in politics likes to see a favourite promoted, especially when they don't have the 'right' background. Currently, the muttering is aimed at "Etonians" promoted by David Cameron ahead of long-serving party loyalists. Similar resentments were directed at Peter Mandelson - a Blair favourite unloved by the Labour old guard. His elevation by Gordon Brown is one of the closest modern parallels to Cromwell's rise; installed as a powerful minister/fixer whose skills in presentation and intrigue made the government run more smoothly.

Henry VIII and Tudor England

Henry VIII

Navigating scandals

Few politicians stay completely beyond the tentacles of scandal. However, Cromwell initially dodged several, including the total discrediting of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, and the protests against the break with Rome. When Anne Boleyn fell out of favour, Cromwell encouraged charges of adultery and incest against her.

But two wives later, his star began to wane when he arranged Henry's disastrous alliance with Anne of Cleves. In 1540, Henry was persuaded by Cromwell's enemies to have him executed. Twenty years of plotting and scheming his way to the top of the Tudor court was at an end.

DM: Cromwell eventually fell victim to that commonest destructive fault of politicians, the belief bred by success that he was beyond harm, and no longer needed to listen out for trouble. His last years show all those signs: snubbing aristocrats, snaffling an ancient earldom and high office reserved for blue-bloods, and dragging Henry into a marriage with Anne of Cleves. Worse still, in order to have the marriage annulled, Henry had to give humiliating evidence of its sexual failings.

MD: Treason and heresy have been replaced by (in)credibility and avarice as the modern deadly political sins. Where Cromwell could help himself to the contents of abbeys, modern MPs can be sunk by excessive claims for expenses. It would take a pretty spectacular policy mistake to provoke an immediate sacking, but ministers who've stumbled tend to find themselves demoted or removed altogether come the next reshuffle. Still, it beats public decapitation.

Public relations

When it came to PR, Cromwell was a visionary. During the break with Rome, known as the Reformation, he encouraged printed propaganda against the pope and traditional religion, commissioned Hans Holbein the Younger to make anti-papal wood cuts, and subsidised playwrights to publicise the Protestant message.

DM: Although Tudor England had no kiss-and-tell press nor paparazzi, London was still a crowded, face-to-face society where most people lived under the constant eye of their servants. This was before the age of the diary, still less the blog, and Thomas Cromwell's servants made sure at his downfall that his personal papers went up the chimney before the King seized them.

MD: Under the merciless gaze of Twitter, any political mis-step, real or imagined, can trigger a career-ending avalanche of ridicule. Modern politicians know that an offhand comment or off-colour joke can destroy them. Yet they're expected to be spontaneous, to speak from the heart and to be 'authentic'. Very few have the combination of street-smart and charisma to carry it off.

Keeping the king/prime minister onside

Start Quote

Mark D'Arcy

The overwhelming power Henry enjoyed simply does not exist in a modern democracy”

End Quote Mark D'Arcy BBC Parliamentary Correspondent

As a politician, Cromwell knew that his survival depended on keeping the centre of power happy. This worked for a stretch - Henry made Cromwell the most powerful man in the kingdom (aside from himself), and gave him the ancient title of Earl of Essex. Unfortunately the Earl's luck ran out shortly after and he was executed for heresy, corruption and treason in July 1540.

DM: Given that his noble colleagues resented him, keeping Henry sweet was the only solution. Not easy: Henry was volatile, easily swayed from affection to furious, destructive hatred at any suggestion that allies were undermining him or not delivering the political goods. Henry consented to Cromwell's death, but a few weeks later lamented he had lost the best servant he'd known.

MD: The overwhelming power Henry enjoyed simply does not exist in a modern democracy. Ex-ministers can be separated from their office but not their heads - and then they lurk in the shadows, plotting vengeance. These were the folk who toppled Margaret Thatcher, destabilised Major, Blair and Brown, and who now nip at Cameron's heels. Tony Blair knew what a threat a sacked Gordon Brown would be, and endured years of provocation and snubs because he never quite dared to sack him.

Leaving a legacy

Modern politicians frequently talk about 'leaving a legacy'. Cromwell's not only outlived him, but still survives. He helped found the Church of England, with the monarch as head, set the precedent of using parliament to change the constitution, and introduced the first major secular laws over personal morality - normal practice today.

DM: Cromwell's innovations were considerable and, more than most politicians, he left permanent legacies. He instigated a Protestant England, launched the careers of Protestant politicians who, under later monarchs, put England on a dramatic new path across the whole world. He also ordered every English parish to keep a register of baptisms, weddings and funerals - the first time this had been a requirement.

MD: During the Reformation, Cromwell presided over a redistribution of wealth beyond the wildest dreams of Lenin. It's hard to imagine how any modern politician could have similar impact on national life. Thatcher's privatisations are the closest recent parallel although on nothing like the same scale. And the central legacy of his legislative genius remains; the monarch is still the Supreme Head of the Church of England.

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