As I’ve observed, Peter Kosminski’s wonderful adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels has lots of contemporary resonances. In today’s Guardian the paper’s Economics Editor, Larry Elliott, picks up on some of the points the series makes about economics and social mobility. Sample:
What the small screen adaptation can’t really capture from Wolf Hall and the follow-up volume, Bring Up The Bodies, is the book’s broader themes. Mantel’s Cromwell tells us a lot about power and intrigue at the Tudor court. But he also tells us about class, the rise of capitalism and an economy in flux.
The period of transition from feudalism to modern capitalism was long. Economic growth in the 16th century barely kept pace with the growing population. The economy had its ups and down but broadly flatlined between 1500 and 1600. More than two centuries would pass before the advent of the wave of technological progress associated with the start of the industrial revolution.
Even so, the economy was gradually being transformed. Cromwell was not a member of the old aristocratic families: a Suffolk or a Norfolk. He was a blacksmith’s son from Putney made good. Like his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, he did not have a privileged upbringing but had talent and ambition. Karl Marx would have seen Cromwell as a classic example of the new bourgeoisie. Mantel draws a contrast between the fanatically devout Thomas More and the worldly wise Cromwell: the one settling in for a day’s scourging, the other off to get the day’s exchange rate in the City’s Lombard Street, where all the big banking houses had their home.
The inference is clear. Men like More are the past. A new breed of men, pragmatic and servants of the state not the church, are on the rise. “He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can better keep their head, when markets are falling and weeping men are standing on the street tearing up letters of credit.”
This, of course, is fiction not fact. But the challenge to the status quo from men like Cromwell was real enough…
A key factor in the story, of course, is the fact that Cromwell was an early Protestant. Elliott goes on to draw on the work of David Landes who argued in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, that the challenge to the Vatican from the new religion was a major influence because it signified the dawning of a more secular age.
Once he had made Henry supreme over the Church of England and disposed of Anne Boleyn, he set to work on the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Rather like the privatisation programme of the 1980s, the main reason for the assault on the monasteries was financial: Henry was short of money and wanted the funds to fight his expensive wars. Cromwell could justify what was effectively the enforced nationalisation of church lands by pointing to the corruption of the monastic ideal, but this was of secondary importance.
Nothing really changes. Governments always seem to be short of money. A modern Cromwell charged with sorting out the public finances might conclude that the financial sector – rich, arrogant and with a lamentable record of corruption – was ripe for the picking. No question: if Cromwell was alive today, the former chief executive of HSBC, Stephen Green, would be in chains in the Tower and the Dissolution of the Banks would be in full swing.