Literary festival: Tracy Borman investigates ‘family man’ image of Thomas Cromwell inspired by Wolf Hall

Thomas Cromwell. Picture credit: National Portrait Gallery London

Thomas Cromwell. Picture credit: National Portrait Gallery London - Credit: National Portrait Gallery London

In the last few years, Britain has fallen victim to medieval madness. With the success of George R. R. Martin’s historical fantasy novels, A Song Of Ice and Fire – and their TV adaptation Game Of Thrones – as well as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the zeitgeist has never been riper for Tudor historian Tracy Borman.

Tracy Borman

Tracy Borman - Credit: Archant

In fact, as the writer openly admits, it was her discovery of Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning stories, which fictitiously detail a softer side of Thomas Cromwell, that inspired her latest biography, Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant.

“It was Wolf Hall that got it started for me, because I’m a Tudor historian so I knew one side of Cromwell, but Hilary Mantel’s fictional portrayal made something else possible,” says Borman. “She created a completely different version of Cromwell and I was so intrigued as to whether this was backed up by any of the sources.

“He was history’s greatest villain and she made him into a hero of our time.”


Borman’s subsequent research saw her scour the statesman’s personal and public correspondence – as well as accounts by other writers at the time – to back up Mantel’s claims.

Initially she was “willing to be led in any direction” as to whether he was a monster or misunderstood family man, though eventually she found herself not only agreeing with Mantel’s portrayal, but even sympathising with the character who for centuries was universally hated.

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“It really did change my perception of Cromwell; he was funny, irreverent, highly intelligent and self-taught in language and law. He had this charm about him, so even though he was the lowly son of a blacksmith from Putney, he managed to charm Henry VIII and even the Pope into doing what he wanted, so he was obviously a very charismatic figure.”

When a writer comes across a character in history who is so well known and challenges the accepted perspective, Borman continues, they are always going to interest people. It is this curiosity that she believes Mantel tapped into.

There are limitations to Borman’s sympathy for Cromwell: her studies found that, while he loved and cared deeply for his children, there was little evidence to suggest he was the doting husband portrayed in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

Furthermore, even if history has been rewritten to remember this more personable version of Cromwell, does it really excuse the Machiavellian scheming he was undoubtedly guilty of?

“I did sit on the fence for a while about that, but concluded that there’s more to like than not about Cromwell,” argues Borman.

“Of course he had the ruthless side and dissolved the monasteries and probably masterminded Anne Boleyn’s downfall, but when you understand his motivations for wanting to succeed and protect his life and that of his family’s, then you look more sympathetically on him, I think.”

Tracy Borman will be at the literary festival on Tuesday, September 16 at 6.45pm. Tickets are £10.