Thomas Cromwell is the beloved Master Secretary of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall. Though the historical fact regarding Cromwell is not sugarcoated, Mantel somehow convinces the reader to fall in love with him just as thoroughly as the London women who are lining up to become the next Mrs. Cromwell.
While this is one of the things that I love about historical fiction, it makes me wish more than ever that there was a way to transport in time to learn the truth. I have the feeling that some of the truth lives in each of these stories.
Bilyeau's Joanna is crushed when her way of life is decimated. The path that she felt God had called her to is not only destroyed but mocked. She sees Cromwell as a manipulative, greedy courtier who would sell his own mother to ingratiate himself to the king. (Well, maybe he would sell his father in either portrayal.) My heart swells as Joanna witnesses walls of ancient religious houses thoughtlessly torn down. King Henry first tells her she cannot be a nun, then tells her that former nuns and novices cannot marry. She is left undefined, God's path for her life blocked by Thomas Cromwell.
Both of these pictures of Tudor times have elements of truth in them. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, approximately 12,000 people lived in various religious houses. There were bound to have been some like the decidedly un-pious monks that Cromwell despises and others like the devout Joanna Stafford. As with most stories there are two sides that each carry their own amount of truth.
Despite how much I may adore Mantel's Cromwell, I still can find little excuse for the widespread destruction of historic buildings, documents, and treasure that occurred by his order. Did he truly hope to reinvent a system that would have worked better for the welfare of the general population? If he did, his hopes were not realized. Thousands of those who had devoted their lives to God would go on to starve or live in poverty after their homes were taken away, while those enriched turned out to be Henry and his cronies much more than the poor. There are indications that this wasn't Cromwell's intent, but it was the result.