Lives go in a straight line, and in that way biography is easier to write than most forms of history. You have a person in the middle of it; you start at the beginning and go to the end. That sounds ridiculous, but you can really do that with Cromwell, because the Victorians arranged his archives in day order. They thought they could date them, and they printed summaries of that vast archive in a huge collection, 55 volumes. The archive starts when he was in his mid-20s, so you have to reconstruct the early life from various fleeting sources, because he was so unimportant when he was a young man and a boy.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
It came right toward the end. A local historian of the place where Cromwell was born, a place called Putney, which is now a suburb of London, wrote to me and said, “I’m writing a pamphlet about Cromwell and his family; would you like to see it?” And I said, “Yes, I certainly would.” He’d been through lots of the things I’d been through, but what he found was that many stories about the family had been made up in the late 19th century by another local historian; for no reason, apparently, except to show off. It’s very strange. Once you discard that fake news, another possibility emerges: Walter, Cromwell’s father, might have come from Ireland. There were curious comments from a couple of contemporaries that he had come from there, but no one had paid any attention to them. That of course makes the other famous Cromwell, Oliver, Irish too, and he’s the biggest villain in Irish history. I told that to an Irish audience on the day of the book’s launch there, and it took them aback. It usefully complicates a lot of narratives the Irish have about themselves.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
The story which emerged for me that really changed the central narrative was of one relationship, between Cromwell and one of the other great figures of the early Tudor period, and that’s Anne Boleyn. From the late 16th century on, they’ve been seen as allies. And I assumed that, but it became clear to me that they weren’t, and that the opposite was true. They hated each other. He absolutely adored Cardinal Wolsey, and even took his coat of arms, a really strong gesture. And Anne was a hater of Wolsey. So that makes their relationship utterly different. They’re both pushing forward the Protestant Reformation in England, but they’re not going about it as allies or friends. One of the great puzzles of his life was why he participated in the fall and death of Anne Boleyn, so this actually simplified the story for me. He regarded her as an enemy, a threat, a rival; and the memory of what she had done to his beloved former master drove him.
I was given encouragement in this by Hilary Mantel’s wonderful novel “Bring Up the Bodies,” the second in her series. She tells the story of the revenge Cromwell had on those who humiliated the cardinal. Hilary got it right with her novelist’s instinct, and the record backs her up. She’s got such a wonderful instinct for history.