History is full of interesting stories, but few rival those surrounding the court of Henry VIII. Henry’s court was a place of intrigue and full of interesting characters but none so interesting as the king himself. Who could forget the king that had six wives and a penchant for chopping people’s heads off? A quick glance at the history section of any bookstore attests to the popularity of all things Henry VIII. Television has also gotten in on the Tudor dynasty fad. On Showtime the popular series The Tudors ran from 2007 to 2010. Now PBS is getting in on the action and last night aired a new Masterpiece theater series centered on Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor court appropriately named Wolf Hall. On Tuesday (April 7) PBS will also air a documentary Inside the Court of Henry VIII (I can’t wait!). Thomas Cromwell is not as well-known as his great-great-grandnephew Oliver Cromwell, but the role he played in Henry VIII’s court had important implications for English history. He was central in steering England toward Protestantism despite the King’s continued sympathy for Catholicism.
Cromwell is somewhat of a controversial figure, but few doubt his Machiavellian nature. This probably accounts for his current rise in popularity. As Jim Dwyer notes in The New York Times: “this is high season for him and his ilk. Dirty things done dirty, clean things done dirty — people who get stuff done, somehow or other, now rise in glory on stage and film. Perhaps the long stall of Washington politics has made us yearn for those grease-stained mechanics whose unseen guile, we imagine, would protect the engines of power from seizing up. Says Henry: ‘I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents.’” Unfortunately today dirty tricks are put in the service of making sure nothing gets done. This all leads to cynicism and perhaps this is why we are attracted to the dirty politics of Henry’s court.
For an overview of Cromwell’s life see: Who was the Real Thomas Cromwell? BBC