The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Two Looks Back in Time

Thomas Cromwell: The rise and fall of Henry VIII's most notorious minister, by Robert Hutchinson

Irish Freedom: The history of nationalism in Ireland, by Richard English

Book Reviews


Dr John Coulter • 2 April 2007

Thomas Cromwell: The rise and fall of Henry VIII's most notorious minister, by Robert Hutchinson, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £20, ISBN-13 978 0 297 84642 0

The titles of two chapters summarise Hutchinson's 'no punches pulled' account of how Thomas Cromwell, the insignificant brewer's son, became one of England's most brutal tyrants since Bloody Mary.

They are: The Most Hated Man in England, and A Bloody Season. Born at Putney in Surrey, Cromwell was to bully and butcher his way through torture, political intrugue and convenient executions to become the mid 16th century's version of Josef Stalin.

In frightening detail, the author catalogues how Cromwell grasped a series of titles, such as Earl of Essex, Vice-Regent and High Chamberlain of England, Keeper of the Privy Seal, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in a reign of terror akin to Idi Amin in Uganda in the 1970s.

But this was England's green and pleasant land from 1525 until Cromwell's eventual execution at Tower Hill in July 1540.

While historians of this period tend to focus on King Henry VIII's battles with Rome, Hutchinson gives a vivid account of the brutalisation of English Catholicism. It is somewhat ironic that a century later, another Cromwell – Oliver – unleashed his anti-Catholic puritanism throughout the England of the 17th century.

Hutchinson's account of Cromwell, T leaves the reader posing a fundamental question – did Thomas's ruthless use of court intrigue, bribery and clearly psychotic personality weaken English Catholicism to such a degree it was powerless to resist the purges initiated 100 years later by Cromwell, O?

Much has been written about Henry VIII, a monarch just as notorious in his stupidly and self-belief, as Thomas Cromwell was hated for his single-minded political energy and distinct lack of subtlety. But in Hutchinson's rich narrative, we see a different Henry emerge – a bombastic fool who allowed one of his most cunning and dangerous ministers in Cromwell to constantly get the better of him.

But, as the author unveils through his indepth research, strict adherence to detail and, above all, his flowing writing style, Cromwell was a maniac who used the blunt intrument of his brutal personality to become a devastating political force in England.

Hutchinson's deliberate use of indecent and squalid description is at its most potent as the author recalls in graphic detail how Cromwell took a fanatical delight in engineering the judicial murder of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, after she had worn out her welcome beneath the royal sheets.

Equally, Hutchinson is very firm in his account of how Cromwell tortured the doomed Boleyn's servants and relations before instigating a 'show trail' with Stalinist proficiency. But Cromwell's biggest crime was not his destruction of the Henry's disgarded sex slave, but the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries across the land. Cromwell lined his pockets with the seized coffers to enrich the crown and cement the loyalty of the nervous nobility.

The author leaves no stone unturned in painting Cromwell as a tyrant who did not lack for ill-gotten gains himself, detailing in frightening language how the minister used the colossal bribes and loans he solicited to bind many of the noble families to him indefinitely.

Hutchinson leaves us with a terrifying image of Cromwell travelling home from court literally weighed down with monastic gold. It was not Henry who wrecked 16th century English Catholicism – it was the murderous, scheming Thomas Cromwell.

But like every tyrant, the old maxim holds true – what goes around, comes around. Hutchinson outlines how even Cromwell's purse was not enough to protect him from all his many enemies. The final two chapters, entitled No Armour Against Fate, and A Traitor's Cry for Mercy, unveil a political rat caught in his own trap. Cromwell was a self-made thug who paid the ultimate price for his destructive streak. This is a compelling 'must read' for anyone interested in religious upheaval in England.

Irish Freedom: The history of nationalism in Ireland, by Richard English, MacMillan, £25, ISBN-13 978-1-4050-4189-8

Irish republicanism is going through its single biggest political development since the blood sacrifice of the failed 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, which is the main reason anyone remotely interested in nationalism needs English's expertly researched and documented historic companion.

The Belfast-born scholar holds one of the most prestigious posts in Irish political academia – Professor of Politics at his home city's Queen's University.

This accolade alone – even before the reader has opened this impressive 620 page plus publication - has already given 'Irish Freedom' a strong degree of credibility and objectivity. Libraries are packed with books on Irish nationalism, but English's work is still unique in this realm for two specific reasons – timing and structure.

On timing, the storm of religious conflict in Ireland, which has raged for eight centuries, is set to enter a significant period of calm, which could last for at least a generation. English's efficiently written analysis make a terrific historical back drop to nationalist developments in the current Northern peace process.

One theme underpines the entire work, as English, notes: "Certainly, the idea of Ireland as a distinct political entity is evident from at least the twelfth century, and this included a sense that the place might require defence against outsiders."

However, there is no way English's work can be branded as 'yet another volume on nationalism'. What makes this work so compelling and vividly readable is not just his clever narration of events, but the sheer quality and depth of his analysis and explanation.

So often, historical evaluations of Irish nationalism can come unstuck because the author attempts to explain events by lumping them together in incorrect time spans. The uniqueness of English's work is that it tactfully avoids this fatal literary pitfall.

The author has organised his analysis into three clearly definable time spans, allowing his final and fourth section to be devoted entirely to concluding observations. Part 1 is Ireland before 1800, followed by The Nineteenth-Century Drama, with part three – The Long Twentieth Century.

In trying to successfully guide the reader towards grasping a clear understanding of why Irish nationalists believed and acted they way they did over the centuries, English takes us on an almost hypnotic journey historically from the Ulster Plantation to Home Rule; from the Famine of the 1840s to the IRA/INLA hunger strikes of the 1980s.

There is also an unbiased focus on key characters in this development – from the democratic dilemmas faced by Charles Stewart Parnell, to the blood sacrifice mentality of Patrick Pearse and the shelled streets of Dublin in 1916.

There is also the epic voyage nationalism has taken from Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen of 1798, to the rebirth of Sinn Fein under its current president and West Belfast Westminster MP Gerry Adams.

Poignantly, in English's analysis of the development of nationalism in the last century, readers are clearly allowed the freedom to ask themselves the telling question - how did nationalism attempt to heal itself from the destructive internecine slaughter of the 1920s Irish Civil War to the uneasy peace of the early 21st century?

The author himself forces readers to reach their own conclusions on another crucial question surrounding Irish nationalism – is it imaginable that Ireland might, as some have suggested, be about to enter a post-nationalist period, or will Irish nationalism remain the defining force on the island in future years?

The real power behind English's analysis is that he sees the Irish interpretation of nationalism not as a blunt 'Brits Out' mentality, but as one unique part of a wider global ideology, simply called nationalism, which has shaped the modern world, caused wars, stabilised and destabilised nations, and defined politics and culture across the world.

This is not just a superb insight into Irish nationalism; this is a defining chronicle on the theory of nationalism itself.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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9 April 2007

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