Thomas Cromwell – propagandist and PR man

Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his magisterial biography of Thomas Cromwell, at one point asks what differences Cromwell made – what were the innovations he was responsible for above and beyond what could be considered the regular part of his work or position? The first was water management but the second was what we would now call PR.

Now why would a young practitioner tear themselves away from a Twitter post to think about the PR innovations of someone from almost 500 years ago? Well mainly because the innovations employed a revolutionary new technology – printing – the impact of which was more profound than that of Mark Zuckerberg; and a dramatic new message framework – the language of the ordinary English people.

More importantly though was the fact that if the practitioner got it wrong back then they didn’t just get a ticking off, lose a client or their job but lost their head when, if they were lucky, a large man severed it from their body with a large axe; or, burnt at the stake if they were unlucky. They really did have an overwhelming incentive to choose the right strategy, messages and channels.

Interestingly the first innovation he lists is ‘sewers’ – a word which in Tudor times had a different connotation to today and instead related to a host of water management policies and practices ranging across transport, inland fishing, marsh drainage and flood defences. “In many ways, (this) work over several centuries from 1532 created the modern geography of rural England: less spectacularly or rapidly than the Industrial Revolution, but cumulatively just as important in effect”, MacCulloch writes. Indeed, contemporary Australians reading the descriptions of what Cromwell achieved in the area can only yearn for his reappearance and hope he could sever the National Party head from water policy; and, begin the restoration of the Murray Darling.

But the second innovation was “the development of official printed propaganda in English directed to a domestic reading public, followed by a keen interest in other varieties of mass communication such as drama.” MacCulloch concedes that Cromwell was, to a certain extent, following in Sir Thomas More’s attempts to support the traditional faith in the face of the propaganda of Lutherans and other Protestants as well as the formidable impact of William Tyndale’s vernacular Bible translation. He also recognises Cranmer’s role in prosecuting the King’s Great Matter (getting rid of Queen Katherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn) throughout Europe (in Latin) and Cranmer’s later creation of the Book of Common Prayer which did so much to shape the English language.

But it is really in the field of political propaganda that Cromwell excelled starting with the presentation of the King’s Great Matter “to a native public in the language most of them would find easiest to read” and going beyond Cranmer’s evangelical work to become a “vigorous impresario of many other voices, directing an increasingly formidable output of official propaganda not only in print, but in the pulpit and popular drama.”

These included the tracts, A Glass of Truth; Determinations (which included some details of Henry’s brother Arthur’s sexual exploits and thus sold very well indeed); and the hagiographic, The Manner of the Triumph at Calais and Boulogne, about the meeting of Henry and the King of France which was printed by a Cromwell protégé, John Gough, in partnership with the then veteran, and now famous, printer Wynkyn de Worde. This publication was carefully designed to overcome English distrust of the French (was it ever not thus?) and also win support for the Boleyn marriage.

Some years later, pursuing his evangelical agenda, Cromwell pulled off an amazing coup – the production of what is now called The Matthew Bible based on the Tyndale English version – despite the fact that More had convinced Henry that Tyndale was an unrepentant heretic. To a modern PR person this might sound strange as a propaganda achievement until one realises, as MacCulloch points out, that nine tenths of the 1611 King James Bible was in fact produced by Tyndale almost a century earlier, and that access to a vernacular version of Scripture was a revolutionary move which not only had contemporary impacts on religion, politics, literacy and public opinion but also influences the way we write today.

This impact on what became known as the English Reformation: advanced under the reign of Edward VI; interrupted by the Marian years;  furthered during the Elizabethan reign; and, was confirmed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the final ousting of the Stuarts – albeit this time without having to behead the outgoing monarch.

This was all supplemented by the funding of a playwright, John Bale, who toured with a theatrical company – Lord Cromwell’s Players – promoting the King, religious change and the break from Rome in a series of plays probably more topical than the average fare at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. They certainly used the f word less.

Much of the subsequent propaganda/PR story – supported by a wide range of pertinent images – was recounted by Professor Alex Walsham in the recent Kathleen Fitzpatrick Memorial Oration at the University of Melbourne. Arguably she did put more emphasis on Eamon Duffy’s views on the survival of Catholic beliefs in England than other historians and anthropologists who draw distinctions between elite religious hangovers and folkloric memories might have. But it was still a magnificent exposition of the interweaving of Reformation words and images.

Interestingly the theatre was packed – largely because the university’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies has just introduced a first year subject on early modern European history which features Reformation studies. Given the confessional impacts on the contemporary world it is a demonstration that academic historical studies are vital to an understanding of the world we live in and that people around the world are still being burnt, tortured and beheaded for religious reasons.

…..and, to recognise the contemporary relevance of Cromwell’s pioneering role in all of this historical propaganda and PR: how many of today’s practitioners are likely in half a century’s time to have two novels (with a third on the way); a TV series; and a biography by one of the leading historians of our day based on their careers?