THE ORIGINAL PRINCE OF DARKNESS; This Week a Work of Historical Fiction about One of the Most Ruthless Men in British History Won the Booker Prize. So What's the Truth About

Article excerpt

Byline: by C J Sansom

HIS BIRTH was humble in the extreme, something that would haunt him as he ascended the greasy pole of power and influence, and moved more and more among the scornful aristocrats of the court.

Thomas Cromwell might have been born the son of an alehouse keeper, but he rose to become Henry VIII's chief minister -- one of the most ruthless and powerful operators ever to dominate the politics of this country.

His mastery of the black arts of spin and propaganda, of flattery, patronage and sudden betrayal, make the most ruthless modern politicians seem mild by comparison.

He ran a spy network that was the nearest thing a 16th-century regime could get to the Stasi, saw off his foes with trumped up charges of adultery and revelled in the torture of his enemies.

In a reign of unadulterated terror against the Church, he masterminded the dissolution of the monasteries and the biggest land grab since the Norman invasion of 1066 -- seizing one-sixth of the nation's wealth and turning it over to his master, the King. He was a man whose private life was filled with tragedy, who ultimately went to the scaffold when he put his religious convictions above his Machiavellian politics.

Now, Thomas Cromwell -- not to be confused with the better known Oliver Cromwell of the following century -- is back in the news.

He is the brooding subject of Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning novel, Wolf Hall, which delves deep into the psychology of his pathological lust for power, and his total absence of scruple in attaining it. Yet it is also a book which manages to find humanity and heartbreaking pathos amid the brutality of his turbulent life and tragic fall.

However, we must remember that Wolf Hall, though an excellent book, is a work of fiction. So who was the real Cromwell? And what was it that drove him to such appalling, inhuman excesses?

Not surprisingly for someone of such humble birth, we have no records of how Cromwell's early life was spent, nor whether he had any schooling. We can only guess at the grinding poverty of young Thomas's boyhood, the sparse, miserable diet, the bitter cold of the Tudor winters and the stench of the Thames in high summer.

It was a world in which the weak died, and only the strongest survived. Thomas, with an iron will and an almost limitless ambition, was a survivor.

He would become a master of languages, speaking Latin and Italian fluently, though whether he was taught these at school seems unlikely. More probably, with his quick, brilliant brain, he picked them up on his mysterious travels, on which he embarked some time in his teens.

We know that he fought as a mercenary in the savage Italian wars of the early 16th century, as the Spanish, French and Venetians fought bitterly for power and territory. One shrewd and cynical observer of these ruinous wars was Niccolo Machiavelli, a brilliant Florentine who would go on to write the book The Prince, one of the most notorious works of all time, giving us the word 'Machiavellian'.

The Prince describes with unflinching candour the grim truth about how power is actually seized and held on to in the world of men. Machiavelli observed that: 'A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.'

Likewise, he said that while it is important for a successful ruler to appear honest, merciful and humane, in reality he should eschew these qualities as they will only make him weak. Small wonder that the Catholic Church had The Prince banned. Yet it circulated widely, and Thomas Cromwell certainly knew it and seems to have taken its lessons to heart.

Here was the New Learning of the Renaissance at its most ruthless and worldly.

Cromwell would also have encountered the first stirrings of Protestantism on his travels. Armed with such dangerous ideas, he went on to the Netherlands, where he established the beginnings of his own personal fortune as a merchant, probably in the lucrative wool trade. …