Oliver Cromwell was not a direct descendant of Thomas Cromwell himself, but of Katherine, Thomas's sister, who married Morgan Williams, the great-grandfather of Oliver, after whom the family adopted the surname of Cromwell.
No one can be positive of the exact number, but we estimate that 97 percent of the English art in existence resulted in destruction and was legalized by Cromwell. They hacked statues down. They crushed the frescoes into ashes. They pulverized the mosaics. They shredded illuminated manuscripts. They disintegrated wooden carvings. They had melted the valuable metalwork. They turned the shrines into ruins. This vandalism has gone farther than for a religious change. It was a frenzy, obliterating the artistic legacy with a force of disdain for imagery of 'black' indigenous craftsmanship.
Wolf Hall is one of the UK's past prime-time TV fantasy blockbusters. Everyone loves costume drama, but between fictional history and historical fiction, there is a world of difference. One dramatizes actual individuals and incidents. The other is a story set in the past that is entirely made up. The current tendency is to blur the lines between the two as propaganda does. As a plucky, self-made Englishman, Thomas Cromwell, whose life he chronicles, comes across as being quite reserved and suggests an inner strength and personal nobility.
In reality, however, Cromwell was a "ruffian" (in his own words) turned sectarian militant back in the actual world, whose religious vandalism bears striking similarities with the Islamic State or the Afghan Taliban's iconoclasm.
Many people have now learned of Thomas Cromwell, thanks to Wolf Hall, and this is a positive thing. However, there is a historical guy behind his fictionalized depiction as Henry VIII's chief enforcer, and he is one whose record of murder, plunder, and ruin should have us apoplectic with rage, not scrambling for popcorn. Historians rarely agree on facts, so a lot about the inner life of Cromwell is still up for debate. But it's a very hard job to find something heroic in the legacy of cruelty and raw pride of an individual. The pathologically ambitious Cromwell single-handedly masterminded the split with Rome in order to hand the Church to Henry, with its all-important power over divorce and marriage, against the backdrop of Henry VIII's domestic discord.
Surely, there were small pockets of Protestantism in England, but every effort to cast the despotic acts of Cromwell as a legitimate theological reform was hopeless. Flushed with the prosperity of Catherine of Aragon's engineering divorce from Henry and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, Cromwell confiscated the money of the Church. He dissolved monasteries as soon as he could before long, which included seizing everything that had not been locked down and holding it for himself, Henry, and their circle of friends. It was English history's greatest land-grab and asset-strip, and Cromwell sat at the heart of the operation, at the center of a loathed, utter, and tyrannical government.
When Anne Boleyn found out that the money was supposed to go towards charity or charitable causes, he put her on adultery charges and saw her beheaded. Cromwell should have sought to steer the hot-headed king as an advisor to Henry, to tame his wilder desires, to counsel him with restraint, to preserve the many liberties enjoyed by his subjects.
But in moderation, Cromwell had little concern. He fulfilled all the ambitions of Henry, running roughshod over the rule of the land and whoever got in his way. Under his strongly politicized "treason" rules, he sent hundreds. (When his own time came, and the tables turned, he pled with Henry, "I cry for mercy, most gracious prince." But all the mercy he had shown others was given to him in return. Which was none whatsoever.
And then there is his influence on the cultural and intellectual heritage of this world. No one can be sure of the exact number, but we conclude that the devastation that Cromwell began and legalized amounted to 97% of English art than it was in nature.
They cut down the sculptures. They shattered the frescoes to pieces. Mosaics pulverized them.
They shredded manuscripts with illuminations. They had wooden carvings burnt. They burned down the valuable metalwork. They reduced the shrines to ashes. This vandalism has gone far farther than religious change. It was a frenzy, obliterating the artistic legacy with a force of disdain for imagery of millennia of indigenous craftsmanship and representing the sacred that today has clear and resonant parallels.
It can only be a good thing that individuals are thinking about Cromwell again. Because we can all draw the same inevitable conclusions about religious extremism at any age, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist, as we look to the east, to the fanaticism that is robbing the cultural heritage of other ancient societies.