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The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell
By John Schofield
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Schofield
All rights reserved.
In My Lord the Cardinal's Service
Well might many a famous individual from the past, were he able to read history's verdict on him, echo the cry of Shakespeare's Cassio: 'Reputation, reputation, reputation! I have lost my reputation'.
In our times – despite the sterling labours of the late Professor G.R. Elton – the very mention of Thomas Cromwell's name is likely to conjure up a baleful spectre in the minds of many. He was, we are repeatedly informed, the chief destroyer of a vibrant, idyllic English medieval church, the man who plundered the monasteries and consigned to oblivion centuries of pious, devotional tradition, imposing in its place an alien creed of justification by faith alone; the prime instigator and enforcer of harsh Tudor treason laws; a ruthless, sinister, unsmiling Machiavellian who cynically cut down Anne Boleyn and all others who dared oppose him, before finally receiving his much deserved deserts when he overreached himself and lured King Henry into an disastrously unsuitable marriage with Anne of Cleves.
I do not remember for sure what made me first begin to wonder whether all of this might be largely fanciful, and whether the real Thomas Cromwell, if only we could meet him and become better acquainted, might take on a less fearsome and altogether more agreeable aspect. It was not a craving to be novel just for the sake of it, but what began as no more than a hunch quickly developed into a conviction. Readers will be able to decide for themselves if they care to go down the same route.
Like many substantial and controversial men in history, only patchy details about Cromwell's early life are known. The main sources are Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador to England during much of the 1530s; Reginald, later Cardinal Pole; Matteo Bandello, the Italian writer who became bishop of Agen in France; and John Foxe, the Elizabethan historian and martryologist. Of these four Chapuys knew Cromwell best, but even he is frustratingly brief. Cromwell, says Chapuys, was the 'son of a poor blacksmith who lived and is buried at a small village' near London. His uncle was cook to Archbishop Warham. In his youth Cromwell was somewhat 'ill conditioned and wild' (mal conditionné), and he spent some time in prison before travelling in Flanders, Rome and throughout Italy. The reason for the imprisonment is not stated.
Reginald Pole also knew Cromwell personally, though not as well as Chapuys did. Pole confirms Cromwell's birth near London, but calls his father a cloth shearer. Cromwell, Pole continues, then became a private soldier in Italy before pursuing a more secure, if less adventurous, way of life as an accountant in the service of a Venetian merchant.
The Italian connection is taken up by Bandello, with his engaging story of the wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco Frescobaldi, chancing one day to meet 'a poor youth' (un povero giovane) in the streets begging alms 'for the love of God'. Seeing him 'in a bad condition though gentle in appearance' (mal in arnese e che in viso mostravaaver del gentile), Frescobaldi was moved to pity, especially when he learned that the youth hailed from England, a country he knew and loved. He asked him his name. 'My name is Thomas Cromwell', he replied, 'the son of a poor cloth shearer' (d'un povero cimatore di pan ni). He had escaped from the battle of Garigliano in Italy where he served as a page or servant to an infantryman, carrying his pike. Frescobaldi invited Master Cromwell into his house as his guest and offered him shelter, food and clothing. After a short stay he gave him money and a new horse. Thus refreshed and replenished, the grateful youth set out to return to England.
These accounts complement rather than contradict each other, though with one interesting exception. Cromwell's father was a 'smith' (Chapuys) but a 'cloth shearer' (Pole, Bandello). Foxe clarifies the matter with the information that Cromwell 'was born in Putney or thereabouts, being a smith's son, whose mother married afterwards to a shearman'. So the smith was Cromwell's natural father and the shearman (or shearer) the step-father. Foxe gives no reason why his mother married again, but the only obvious one, unless the second marriage was illegal, is that his father, the smith, died shortly after Thomas was born. So it is not certain whether Cromwell was the name of the father or step-father.
Foxe also disagrees with Chapuys and Bandello on Cromwell's youth. Bandello has Cromwell arriving in Italy after 'fleeing from my father' (chefuggendo da mio padre), which Foxe, in a curiously slanted translation, renders as 'straying from my country'. Elsewhere Foxe, still on the subject of the young Cromwell, tells us that 'a great delight came into his mind to stray into foreign countries, to see the world abroad and to learn experience' – quite a different reason for leaving England than the one given by either Chapuys or Bandello. At first it seems that Foxe might have wanted to cover up the youthful waywardness of one of his greatest heroes. However, this explanation will not do, because later it is Foxe who tells us that Cromwell, as Wolsey's agent, long before he became a Lutheran, was very active in procuring bulls and pardons from Rome. Foxe also quotes Cromwell telling Cranmer that he had been a bit of a 'ruffian' in his younger days, though Foxe includes this in his discussion of Cromwell's pre-Protestant years, not his actual youth.
Fortunately these small variations are not very important. They can easily be explained by the fact that none of these witnesses knew all the details of Cromwell's birth and youth at first hand. Besides, no comprehensive records of births, marriages and deaths were kept until an act of parliament prepared by the adult Cromwell in 1538 required them.
According to Merriman, a certain Walter Cromwell was Thomas's father. As Merriman notes, however, this name appears in records of antiquity from 1475 right up to 1514, so he could not have been the natural father, who, unless Foxe is greatly mistaken, must have died sometime before 1500. It is just as unlikely that Walter was the stepfather, because he is described in the Close Rolls as a brewer of beer ('berebruer'), not a shearer. He was also a man of some means. As well as his beer business he kept sheep and cattle, he became Constable of Putney in 1495, and he owned lands and property in Wimbledon. This information fits neither the description of Thomas's father as a poor smith, nor his step-father as a poor shearer. Walter and Thomas Cromwell may have been related, but it is difficult to see how they could have been father and son.
Cromwell's mother came from Derbyshire or Staffordshire. Her maiden name may have been 'Meverell'. According to Cromwell himself, in a conversation with Chapuys, she was fifty-two years old when he was born. The mother's age suggests that Thomas was the youngest child and perhaps an unexpected one. If, therefore, the father died soon after the birth, and the mother married again to a shearer, as Foxe says, it is quite plausible that tensions soon arose between the poor shearer and his energetic and perhaps unruly stepson. A troubled and unhappy childhood, therefore, provided the impulse for the young Thomas to seek his fortune abroad.
A sort of reverse reasoning dates Cromwell's birth to around 1485. Time is needed for him to become old enough to do a spell in prison, as Chapuys says, before venturing out on his own. The battle of Garigliano was fought in late December 1503, so it would have been sometime the following year, maybe spring, before he could have reached Florence and met Frescobaldi. That would put him in his eighteenth year, still young enough to be called a 'youth'.
The matter is, however, somewhat complicated by Stephen Vaughan, a close friend of the adult Cromwell, who knew him better than any of the witnesses named so far. In the middle of a long letter on various points, Vaughan urged Cromwell not to wear himself out through overwork, warning enigmatically that 'half your years be spent'. This letter is dated December 1534. It is not clear how long Vaughan expected Cromwell to live. If he meant the biblical 'three score years and ten ... or four score years' for those who have the strength (Psalm 90:10), then Cromwell would have been thirty-five or forty at the time. This gives two alternative dates for his birth – 1499 and 1494. The first is far too early for Garigliano in 1503, and even the second would make Cromwell only eight or nine when he fled from England and joined the French army. Vaughan may have meant Cromwell's years of discretion, normally regarded as beginning at around the age of twelve, which would take us back to approximately 1485. However, it may well be that Vaughan was simply using a figure of speech, never imagining that anyone would try and calculate the time of Cromwell's birth from it. As Vaughan merely blurs an already indistinct picture, the traditional date of 1485 should suffice until or unless some more positive evidence turns up.
Nothing is known about Cromwell for some years after his meeting with Frescobaldi. However, despite the lack of a formal education, the adult Cromwell was a proficient linguist – he was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek – so it is likely that he travelled extensively across southern Europe. His adventures there remain a mystery.
Around 1510 it so happened that the town of Boston in England needed to renew two papal pardons, and one Geoffrey Chambers and a companion were sent as messengers to Rome with provisions and money. Chambers met Cromwell in Antwerp, and because Cromwell could speak Italian, he was persuaded to accompany the two Englishmen to the eternal city. At that time Cromwell had 'no sound taste or judgement of religion', sighed Foxe, the source for this story. Cromwell showed an inventive streak, however, in his plan to persuade Pope Julius to grant Boston's requests speedily. Cromwell prepared 'some fine dishes of jelly ... made after our country manner here in England'; he then waited patiently until Julius returned from a hunting expedition before approaching him with presents and a 'three man's song', again in the 'English fashion'. The dainty jelly dishes so delighted the Vicar of Christ that he authorised the pardons with little more ado.
By 1512 Thomas Cromwell, with mind broadened and horizons widened by his foreign travels, had settled in England. In November that year, in his new career as a lawyer, he endorsed a legal document entitling one Thomas Empson to lands. He had not given up his interest in commerce, however, and two years later he again paid a visit to the great trading city of Antwerp. Around this time he married Elizabeth Wykys, the daughter of a shearman, and apparently a fairly well-to-do shearman for she descended from an ancient family, one of whom had served as gentleman-usher to King Henry VII. Practically nothing is known about Cromwell's marriage except that at least two daughters and one son survived infancy. Merriman's idea that Cromwell married mainly for money is no more than an uncharitable guess, and there is no reason to doubt that Thomas and Elizabeth Cromwell were a happy couple.
Possibly in 1514, definitely by 1516, Cromwell became part of Cardinal Wolsey's household. He went to Rome a second time in 1517–18, again for reasons connected with the Boston pardons. Cromwell, notes Foxe disapprovingly, was a 'great doer' with Chambers 'in publishing and setting forth the pardons of Boston everywhere'. But Foxe also tells us that Cromwell, seeking to advance simultaneously in learning and piety, learned by heart the recently published Latin New Testament of the great Dutch humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, and the evidence suggests that he did so while on this journey. If this is true, then it is a delicious historical irony that the first faint seeds of Cromwell's future Protestant faith would have been sown during a visit to the Roman See, about the same time that Martin Luther was protesting against the abuse of indulgences in his native Wittenberg.
It was sometime in or just before 1519 that Wolsey – Cardinal, Lord Chancellor and chief minister to King Henry VIII – appointed Cromwell to his council. This did not interrupt Cromwell's legal work, and the following year he was involved in a suit concerning tithes between a vicar and a prioress. It did, however, inevitably raise his standing in society, and a year later comes a hint that Cromwell might have been known to the king: sometime in 1521 he corrected drafts of petitions from a certain Charles Knyvett to Henry, alleging that the duke of Buckingham had defrauded him of money and other entitlements. In January 1522, William Popley asked Cromwell to serve as attorney in a matter he had taken to the king's council. Cromwell's clients in his prospering legal business now included the marchioness of Dorset and Richard Chawfer, alderman of Calais and a wealthy merchant. Cromwell represented Chawfer in a legal suit to be heard in chancery, where Chawfer vowed he would sue his rival to 'the most extreme'.
In August 1522, William Popley reappears in the records asking Cromwell to find out where one Glaskerton was on the night of Lady Eve and on Lady Day. Whether this was a legal matter, or whether Cromwell's freelance activities now included services as a private detective, is not clear. Towards the end of the same year Cromwell was named in another suit, this time a merchant affair, with authority granted to him and others to collect outstanding debts. He also kept up his business interests in the cloth trade. Then in 1523 a new door was opened to him, and he became a Member of Parliament.
Like most late medieval parliaments, this one was summoned to raise money for war. Like many of his ancestors, King Henry dreamed of conquering France, and it seemed that his moment of glory might have come when he made an alliance with Charles V, the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor, against the dashingly adventurous King Francis I of France. This parliament, however, was not quite as obliging with funds as Henry and Wolsey hoped it would be, and one of its newest members – Thomas Cromwell – went as far as preparing a decidedly anti-war speech. Some doubt has been raised whether this speech was actually delivered; but it is still worth studying in some detail, because it is the first serious guide we have to the political philosophy and rhetorical style of Henry's future chief minister.
Cromwell began loyally. He proclaimed Henry's 'good and just title' to the throne of France – a most worthy cause, and 'who would not gladly give not only all his goods but also his life for it'. Cromwell appreciated the revenues that would stream into England if France were recovered, 'to the great enriching and prospering' of all the king's subjects. He powerfully extolled the king's goodness and virtue. Then the speech takes an unexpected turn. Cromwell looked ahead with dismay to the impending dreadful conflict among the rulers of Christendom, 'so great a number princes, noble men and other subjects', with 'swords in their hands, to try where the pleasure of God shall be to strike ... of which slaughter must needs ensue the most lamentable cries and sorrowful wringing of hands that hath happened in Christendom many years'. The heart and outlook of the speaker were surely forged by his personal experience, as a youth, of the horrors of war for ordinary soldiers and people.
Realizing the belligerent mood of many in the country, however, Cromwell accepted that now might not be the most appropriate time to talk of peace. So 'insatiable' was the appetite of the French to extend their boundaries 'to the great molesting and troubling of all the nations about them', that no remedy sufficed except they be 'scourged else they will surely be a scourge to others'. How righteous indeed, Cromwell admitted, was the anger of our dread sovereign and his ally, the emperor; how laudable were Charles's successes in Italy and elsewhere, and Henry's victories over France's ally, Scotland. Many loyal Englishmen would surely contend that the time was now ripe to press home the advantage, to attack France and 'vanquish him utterly and subdue him'.
At this point Cromwell digressed slightly. He had heard something that 'putteth me in no small agony' – our most gracious sovereign intended to take the field in person. 'Which thing I pray God for my part I never live to see.' Cromwell begged his audience's pardon, but he 'cannot consent to obey' for fear of the calamity that would befall the realm should any harm come to the king. For his subjects' sake, his kingdom's sake, and especially for the sake of his 'dear and only daughter' – for upon her, next only to the king, 'dependeth all our wealth' – Cromwell appealed to Henry to restrain his undoubted courage and zeal for a just cause, and remain within his own realm.
Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell by John Schofield. Copyright © 2011 John Schofield. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Rise to Power,
1 In My Lord the Cardinal's Service, 1485–1527,
2 To Make or Mar, 1527–30,
3 The Lutheran, 1530–32,
4 The King's Councillor, 1530–33,
5 Principal Secretary, 1533–35,
6 Vicegerent, 1535,
Part II: Cromwell and the Royal Ladies,
7 Her Special Friend, 1533–36,
8 In the Line of Duty, 1536,
9 Around the Throne the Thunder Rolls, 1536,
10 A New Queen of the Old Faith, 1536–37,
Part III: The King's Chief Minister,
11 The Administrator, 1536–39,
12 The Widows' Helper, 1536–39,
13 Patron and Persona, 1536–39,
Part IV: How Have the Mighty Fallen,
14 The Vicegerency in Eclipse, 1538–39,
15 The Affairs of Kings, 1538–39,
16 A Treacherous Place, January–June 1540,
17 The Pillar is Perished, June–July 1540,
List of Illustrations,