Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister

Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister

by Robert Hutchinson


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The definitive biography on the most powerful man in King Henry VIII's court and the protagonist of Hilary Mantel's bestselling series, Thomas Cromwell.

The son of a brewer, Thomas Cromwell rose from obscurity to become the confidant of the King of England—and ultimately one of the most influential men in English history. Cromwell drafted the law that allowed Henry VIII to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn, setting into motion the Protestant Reformation, which left Britain in turmoil for centuries.

Over the course of his controversial career, Cromwell amassed a fortune through bribery and high-interest loans to members of the Tudor court and created many enemies along the way. He became the most hated man in England. His execution was spectacular—beheaded outside the Tower of London, his boiled head was placed on a spike above the London Bridge.

Rich in incident and colorful detail, Robert Hutchinson's narrative history gives readers the real inside look into the life of the protagonist of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312577940
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/15/2009
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.19(d)

About the Author

ROBERT HUTCHINSON is the author of the acclaimed The Last Days of Henry VIII and Elizabeth's Spymaster. He lives in England.

Read an Excerpt



The Most Hated Man in England

The Cardinal of York, seeing Cromwell’s vigilance and diligence, his ability and promptitude, both in evil and good, took him into his service and employed him principally in demolishing five or six good monasteries.


Tantalisingly little is known about Cromwell’s early life: even his date of birth remains uncertain. He was born in or just before 1485, the son of Walter Cromwell, alias Smith, a failed small-time Tudor entrepreneur, of Putney, Surrey, south-west of London. Thomas’s mother was the daughter of a yeoman called Glossop, and was living at the home of local attorney John Welbeck, possibly as a servant, when she married Walter in 1474.2 Years later, Cromwell claimed his mother was aged fifty-two when he was born.3

Thomas’s uncle was cook to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. His grandfather, who had migrated from Norwell, Nottinghamshire, to Wimbledon, Surrey, in 1461, was probably involved in the cloth trade as a fuller, preparing wool in vats of human urine. Walter followed his father into the business, although he may earlier have been apprenticed to William Smith, who made armoured coats, called ‘jacks’, locally.

Probably because of declining demand for such warlike apparel after the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1487,4 Cromwell’s father moved into general blacksmithing and later owned both an inn, called the Anchor, and a brewery. These were built on a few acres of agricultural land west of Starling Lane, now Oxford Road, between today’s Putney rail and East Putney District Line Underground stations. The family’s cottage home and brewery were opposite the entrance to the aptly named Brewhouse Street, which still runs the short distance from Putney Bridge Road down to the River Thames, where a fishery existed in Cromwell’s day.5 An earlier home and Walter’s smithy in Wandsworth Lane were pulled down in 1533.

Walter Cromwell was a drunken, quarrelsome scoundrel, always keen to challenge the authority of local government and, if possible, cheat his neighbours. Forty-eight times between 1475 and 1501 he was fined sixpence, or £10 in 2006 monetary values, for evading the Assize of Ale – the official method for testing the quality of all brewed beer before it was sold. He was probably watering it down. He also appeared in court several times, accused of overgrazing public pastures on Putney Common with his cattle and cutting too much furze and thorns for his fuel from the land there. In 1477 he was fined twenty pence for assaulting and drawing blood from William Michell.6 Today, he would be a prime candidate for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order. Despite all these misdemeanours, Walter surprisingly became constable of Putney in 1495 and served many times as a juryman.

However, with old age his temper became more peevish. In October 1512 he was accused of leasing one virgate of land (up to 30 modern acres or 12.2 hectares) belonging to his brewery without permission and a year later, he lost his property in the adjacent parish of Wimbledon when he appeared again before the manor court, accused of fraudulently erasing evidences and terriers – property marker posts — of the local lord ‘to the disturbance and disinheritance of the lord and his tenants’. The parish beadle was instructed to ‘seize into the lord’s hands all [Walter’s] copyholds and tenements held of the lord … and [he had] to answer to the lord about the issues’.7 Walter Cromwell was clearly the neighbour from hell.

Cromwell had two sisters: the elder, Katherine, probably born around 1477, and Elizabeth. Katherine married a Welshman called Morgan Williams8 who came from a prosperous family who had settled in Putney. His brother John was a lawyer, accountant and steward to the local landowner, Lord Scales. Their son, Richard, was to legally change his name to Cromwell and work for his uncle, mainly in the suppression of the monastic houses in the 1530s, as well as becoming an unlikely soldier, chasing rebels in the North of England. Elizabeth married a sheep-farmer, William Wellifed, who folded his business into his father-in-law’s. Their son Christopher was later financially supported by his famous uncle and educated alongside his own son Gregory.

Thomas did not get on with his father and, as he later admitted to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, had behaved like ‘a ruffian … in his early days’.9 Like father, like son. Eustace Chapuys, the gossipy Spanish ambassador, claimed in 1535 that in his youth Cromwell was ‘ill-behaved and after an imprisonment was forced to leave the country’.10 Whether it was this spell in jail or yet another quarrel with his malicious father that forced him to depart England’s shores some time around 1502 is uncertain, but he certainly visited Flanders, Rome and elsewhere in Italy during his early travels.

There are several stories about Cromwell’s wanderings around Europe, some probably apocryphal. The contemporary Italian author Matteo Bandello11 recounts in his Novelles how Cromwell, now aged around eighteen, ‘fleeing his father’, joined the French army under Charles, Eighth Duc de Bourbon, to fight the Spanish as a mercenary foot soldier.

He had picked the wrong side.

A French advance in central Italy was halted at the Garigliano River, near Cassino, and on 28 December 1503 superior Spanish forces, commanded by Gonzalo Fernandez Cordoba, bridged the river upstream and surprised their enemies, miserably encamped on the marshy land on its west bank. In the ensuing battle the French troops were routed, losing their artillery, and the survivors (including Cromwell), now half-naked and starving, fell back to Rome.12 In one daring stroke, the Spanish had captured control of southern Italy.

Cromwell eventually found his way to Florence and, still destitute, shrewdly sought help from the Anglophile merchant banker Francisco Frescobaldi, who kindly provided him with shelter and new clothes. After six months spent in his household as a clerk, Cromwell was generously given sixteen gold ducats, worth nearly £11,000 at 2006 prices, and a strong horse for his further adventures. Other versions of his early life maintain that he then worked as an accountant for a Venetian banker and as a merchant for a short period.13 He was now fluent in Italian and French, well versed in Latin, and possessed a smattering of Greek.

He ended up in Antwerp sometime before 1512, working as a secretary or clerk for the English merchants based there, who sold their goods in the Flemish markets of Ghent and Bruges. Amongst some of these religiously nonconformist traders, he may have acquired ideas for the church reforms he put into practice in later life. He also moonlighted as a cloth merchant: in June 1536, George Eliot, an English mercer in Calais, recalled that he had experienced Cromwell’s ‘love and true heart’ — friendship, that is – ever since they both attended the Syngsson Mart at the port of Middleburgh, 113 miles (182 km) south-west of Amsterdam in 1512.14 He reportedly saved the life of Sir John Russell, later Earl of Bedford and Comptroller of the Royal Household, by rescuing him from French forces during the siege of Bologna the same year. He returned to Rome to pursue his commercial interests early in 1514 and the archives of the English Hospital record his stay there that June.

Cromwell then returned to London and by 1516 had married Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Wykes, another shearman, or cloth-worker, of Putney.15 His brother had served as a gentleman usher to Henry VII. Elizabeth was the well-off young widow of Thomas Williams, a Yeoman of the Guard, and the couple settled in the eastern part of the City of London in a house in Fenchurch Street, with Cromwell becoming an agent, or ‘fixer’, for businessmen, as well as dealing in cloth himself, with a number of servants working for him.

He was now building up a useful network of contacts, and one of them, John Robinson, an alderman of the prosperous port of Boston, Lincolnshire, commissioned him in 1517—18 to travel to Rome to seek two indulgences from Pope Leo X16 to relax the Lenten observances required by the Guild of Our Lady attached to St Botolph’s Church, today still a towering landmark in the town.17 Together with Geoffrey Chambers – ironically later to become one of the visitors charged with the task of destroying religious images – Cromwell travelled to Italy again, wearily prepared for the inevitable lengthy wait before being honoured by an audience with the pontiff.

Cromwell was ever the man of action. Unwilling to wrestle with Vatican bureaucracy, he tracked Pope Leo down on one of his hunting trips outside Rome. John Foxe, the Protestant polemicist, later described the meeting:

At length, having knowledge that the Pope’s holy tooth greatly delighted to new-fangled strange delicacies and dainty dishes, it came in [Cromwell’s] mind to prepare certain fine dishes of jelly, after the best fashion, after our country manner here in England which to them of Rome was not known nor seen before.

That done, Cromwell observing his time accordingly, as the Pope was newly come from hunting into his pavilion, he with his companion, approached with his presents brought in with a three man song (as we call it) in the English tongue and after the English fashion.18

The Pope, suddenly marvelling at the strangeness of the song … asked them to be called in. Cromwell there showing his obedience and showing his jolly junkets, such as kings and princes only, he said in the realm of England, used to feed upon, desired to be accepted in benevolent part.19

The way to a pope’s heart was clearly through his stomach. A convenient (and presumably expendable) cardinal tasted the strangers’ sweetmeats and pronounced them not only safe to eat but entirely delectable. The Pope then consumed the delicacies and, enchanted by their flavour, ordered the indulgences to be approved by his personal signet stamp without further ado. On the tediously long journey back to England, a triumphant Cromwell is said to have learnt by heart the entire text of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus’s Greek-Latin translation of the New Testament, first published in 1516.20

Back in London, Cromwell extended his business interests into money-lending at exorbitant rates and the law, and soon built up a client base amongst the rich and famous as both an open-handed creditor and a shrewd and perspicacious advocate.

In October 1520, Nicholas Cowper, Vicar of Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, sued Margaret Chawry, prioress of the neighbouring Benedictine nunnery, in a disagreement over tithes on a farm leased from her twelve years before. After hearings in the Consistory Court of Bishop of London Richard FitzJames, Cowper appealed to Rome,21 and this brought the powerful Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, papal legate and Lord Chancellor of England, into the case. Wolsey requested that Cromwell assist in his judgment on the complex rights and wrongs of the dispute and the documents contain his precise annotations. It was the first time that they had dealings with each other, and it was the start of a fruitful relationship for the son of the Putney blacksmith and shearman.

In 1521, Cromwell acted for Charles Knyvett, who had the misfortune to resign as surveyor to Edward Stafford, Third Duke of Buckingham, just before he was executed by Henry for treason on 17 May that year. Knyvett now sought to recover the offices he had lost and forgiveness of £3,100 of debt he had been forced to incur on his master’s behalf. Cromwell’s carefully drawn up petitions pressing Knyvett’s suit were dispatched both to the King and to Wolsey.22 Unfortunately the plea was rejected, but Cromwell’s name and the quality of his work had become known in government.23

The death of Buckingham also created other opportunities for Cromwell to exploit. He plainly snapped up some of the attainted noble’s possessions, as eleven years later, in 1532, Robert ap Reynolds of Calais claimed with ‘naughty words’ that these had been bought from him, but that Cromwell still owed him 47 angels (or £17 13s.) for the goods. As the lawyer had by then risen in the world, Reynolds believed he now possessed ample wherewithal to pay him – with generous outstanding interest. Otherwise, he hinted darkly, he would have to reveal some unpleasant truths about him to the King and the Duke of Norfolk.24 Blackmail was a tactic Cromwell understood very well and used frequently himself, but history is silent on the result of Reynolds’s threat. He probably discovered, to his cost, that Cromwell was not a man to cross lightly.

By September 1522, Cromwell was prosperous enough to move house to larger premises ‘against the gates’ of the Priory of Austin Friars in Broad Street.25 He was quickly elected secretary of the local ward committee that reported to its alderman on the workings of local government in the area.

Precisely how and when Cromwell first met Cardinal Wolsey face to face remains a matter for conjecture. It may be that Lord Henry Percy, a former member of the Cardinal’s household who had borrowed substantial sums from Cromwell, was the conduit in arranging such a meeting.26 Alternatively, the introduction could have come via Thomas Grey, Second Marquis of Dorset, who seems to have used Cromwell’s legal expertise, or his continuing interests in the cloth trade,27 and, moreover, employed Richard Williams, Cromwell’s nephew, as one of his servants.28 A third means may have been an introduction from the Italian merchant Antonio Bonvisi of Lucca, whose circle of affluent customers included Wolsey. Finally, there was Robert Cromwell, vicar of Battersea and overseer of the Cardinal’s building works there,29 who was a cousin to Thomas Cromwell, and it is entirely plausible that family affiliations could have been exploited.

The meeting probably occurred some time in late 1522 and, doubtless through Wolsey’s influence, Cromwell was returned to Parliament the following year for an unidentified constituency, although Bath looks the most probable seat.30 A draft of a speech by Cromwell – it is uncertain that he ever made it – contains an attack on proposals to invade France as logistically too dangerous, although it is hedged around with the prudent caveat that Cromwell was, of course, as committed as anyone to reclaiming the lost lands in France for the King. Loyally, he also harboured terrible fears about Henry’s safety in leading the English host overseas:

Only one thing … puts me in no small agony. I thought I heard my Lord Cardinal’s grace say that our most gracious sovereign, more dear to any of his subjects … intends to go over [to France] in his royal person … Which thing I pray God for my part I never live to see. Most humbly beseeching his abundant and tender benignity of mercy and pardon of this my saying, for the humble and obedient love I owe unto his noble person, causes me in this case to forget obeisance … I cannot consent to obey … this his pleasure, wherein lies the hazarding of this, his noble realm, and upon the which might follow (which God defend) the greatest calamity and affliction.31

Humble, obsequious Cromwell! To modern eyes, his words look uncomfortably fawning and cringing. But why shouldn’t they have been? He knew his words would be read by Henry and that the King, whose household suffered under his uncertain temper, was always quick to take offence. Hence his flattering fears that his sovereign could fall sick or victim to the ‘thousand dangers which chance in war’. Instead, he suggested, why not invade France’s staunch ally Scotland and unite that kingdom with England, rather than wage war overseas, with inevitably vulnerable supply lines stretching across the English Channel? His sharp merchant’s mind clearly saw less risk and more profit in this enterprise.

Cromwell’s opposition both to the invasion of France and the cost of the war may appear strange for an ambitious man anxious to climb the ladder to fortune. But he may have been a player in a bigger, more devious plan either simply to halt approval of a new tax to pay for the war, or to lance the boil of opposition to the conflict within Parliament. Was he speaking as a surrogate voice, advocating Wolsey’s personal opposition to Henry’s foreign policy without risk to the Cardinal himself?

Parliamentary life did not appeal to Cromwell, which is surprising given his later skill at manipulating both Houses. He wrote a cynical, sneering letter on 27 August 1523 to an old friend, the merchant tailor John Creke, then staying in Bilbao in northern Spain, in which he passed on news of the debates within the Commons. He clearly viewed the fruitless proceedings with utter contempt:

You shall understand that by long time I have endured a parliament which continued … the space of seventeen weeks,32 where we communed [talked] of war, peace, strife, contention, debate, murmur, grudge, riches, poverty, penury, truth, falsehood, justice, equity, deceit, oppression, magnanimity, activity, force, moderation, treason, murder, felony, conciliation.

Also how a commonwealth might be edified and also contained within our realm.

Howbeit, in conclusion, we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do — that is to say, as well we might and left where we began.33

Cromwell added ruefully that Parliament had granted the King ‘a right large subsidy [tax] the like of which was never granted in this realm’. It probably amounted to £800,000 for the royal exchequer, or £319 million at today’s prices, to fund an invasion of France.

In 1524, Cromwell was appointed a subsidy commissioner to the Hundred of Ossulton, in Middlesex, a post that involved assessing the values of land and goods for taxation, and in the same year, his legal acumen was recognised by his election as a member of Gray’s Inn. That February, he acted for the London alderman and mercer John Allen, who sold the manor of Kexby, 5 miles (8 km) east of York, to Wolsey. The lawyer’s skills in conveyancing property were appreciated and he entered formal service with the Cardinal34 some time later that summer. Within a year, he had become indispensable and was addressed as ‘Councillor to my Lord Legate’ and ‘The Right Worshipful Mr Cromwell’. He had finally slipped into the shadows behind the seat of power.

There were similarities between the two men, although more than a decade separated them in age. Both came from modest roots: Wolsey was the son of a reasonably prosperous butcher in Ipswich. Both were ambitious and rapacious. Wolsey, however, had been educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, was made a Bachelor of Arts at the age of fifteen and was nicknamed the ‘Boy Bachelor’. Cromwell, as we have seen, learnt his lessons in the University of Life with no formal schooling. He had received the toughest education of all: experience had taught him the mistakes to be avoided and the lessons to be applied later.

For his part, Henry, always apprehensive of the power of his turbulent and ambitious nobility and bored with the day-to-day business of running his realm, deliberately appointed commoners to the highest administrative posts in the land. Wolsey and Cromwell had no allegiance to any aristocratic power bloc and therefore appeared expendable without causing disruption to the delicate political balance between England’s noble families. The King’s Tudor low cunning ensured that, ostensibly at least, their loyalty would be to the sovereign who had created them and daily provided them with the enviable trappings of authority. But, inevitably, their influence and enrichment caused festering resentment amongst the nobility, who saw them as coarse, low-born usurpers of the power that, by rights, ought to have belonged to them. That snobbish animosity and hatred was to bring both ministers down.

Cromwell kept on his burgeoning legal practice, much of the business emanating from the English-held town of Calais on the north-west coast of France.35 A number of illustrious England-based clients also came Cromwell’s way, including the head of an increasingly influential clan, Thomas Boleyn, Viscount Rochford. His sister, the wife of Sir Robert Clere, retained Cromwell in 1527 in a dispute with Lady Feneux, the widow of a former Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, over outstanding debts of £400. Cromwell told Boleyn that there was no remedy remaining in common law

unless your lordship will move my lord’s grace [Wolsey] to grant an … injunction to Lady Feneux [to] no further prosecute the [writ] of execution [repayment] and to allow no writ of liberate36 to go out of Chancery until the whole matter be heard37 … Your lordship thus doing, shall do the thing in my poor opinion which shall stand with reason and good conscience as knows the Holy Trinity, whom I most heartily beseech to preserve your lordship in long life, good health and much honour.

Rochford was, of course, the father of Anne Boleyn, and a few years later, Cromwell’s final words to him were to take on a terribly hollow ring.38

Cromwell also developed his business as a money-lender, apparently specializing in loans to the gentry, merchants or those associated with the court. Thus, on 10 July 1527 a £100 mortgage was granted to Sir John Hussey, with ‘certain parcels of plate’ handed over as collateral.39 That September, John Smith sought Cromwell’s forbearance for ‘a little while’ in paying off his loan. He admitted he had been ‘bolder’ with him ‘than with any friend and will [work] to deserve it’ and sounded as if he was struggling financially. He thanked ‘God for the fat oxen in the stall’ but admitted he could have made more of his corn had he sold the crop at the beginning of the year.40 Much later, in 1535, Cromwell wrote to his friend Thomas Allen at Rayleigh in Essex requesting the return of the £100 he had lent him:

I looked to have heard from you and trusted not only to have … received from you now at Midsummer last past my £100, which of gentleness I lent you, but also sufficient bonds and surety for your brother the Archbishop of Dublin concerning the payment of 700 marks [£470] which he owes to the king’s highness … For lack and default thereof, you have forfeited to the king’s highness the sum of 1,000 marks [£670], which I think you ought to substantially look upon, for the king is no person to be deluded or mocked withal.

Considering that for your sake, I so gently parted with my money, it seems to me that reason and good honesty requires [that] you should see me paid again.

Praying that I may be advertised [informed] by this bearer what you mean and intend to do in the promises … And so heartily fare you well.


Friendship could only mean so much: business, after all, was business.

Whilst still active in his own right as a lawyer and money-lender, Cromwell’s work for the Cardinal as a legal adviser and councillor revealed to him a new, undreamt-of world of riches. Wolsey’s opulent lifestyle, wealth and love of pomp must have astonished Cromwell.

The Cardinal’s household numbered nearly 500 members, including ‘the tallest and [most] comely yeomen that he could get in all this realm’. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman usher, relates that the Cardinal had three dining tables daily in his hall, presided over by three principal officers: a steward (always a dean or a priest) a treasurer (a knight) and a comptroller, who all carried white staves as badges of office. His kitchen staff was legion and included two clerks, a surveyor of the dresser, a clerk of the spicery, a yeoman of the scullery and three yeomen and two grooms of the cellar. There were also forty cup-bearers, carvers, waiters and sewers – who tasted Wolsey’s food in case of poison. His two master cooks wore damask satin or velvet, with gold chains around their necks. Clearly someone else did the dirty work in the kitchen. Then there were the officers of his privy chamber and the fifty-four staff attached to his personal chapel: the private masses regularly included forty priests dressed in very rich copes, or Eucharistic vestments, accompanied by Wolsey’s own choir of twelve boys and sixteen men. The Cardinal blatantly copied the uniforms of Henry’s royal bodyguard, the Yeomen of the Guard, for those of his personal servants, who wore tunics of crimson velvet with the letters ‘TC’ — for Thomas Cardinalis — embroidered in gold, back and front.42

Cavendish describes Wolsey’s daily procession to Westminster Hall from his palace at York Place to hear legal cases in the Chancery Court:

After mass he would return to his privy chamber … and would issue out, apparelled all in red, in the habit of a cardinal, which was either of fine scarlet or else of crimson satin, taffeta or caffa,43 the best he could get for money. Upon his head, a round pillion;44 he also had a tippet [cape] of fine sable around his neck, holding in his hand a very fair orange, [with] the … substance within taken out, wherein was vinegar and other confections against the pestilent airs, the which he most commonly smelt unto, passing among the press [of people] or … when he was pestered with suitors.

His procession formed up, led by a page bearing the Great Seal of England and another his cardinal’s hat, and these were followed by tall priests carrying two large silver crosses, one symbolising his role as Archbishop of York and the other, a double cross like that of Lorraine, his position as papal legate, and two pillars of heavy silver. Then came his personal herald or pursuivant of arms, carrying a ‘great mace of silver gilt’. Wolsey himself was humbly mounted on a mule, but this was richly trapped out in crimson velvet with gilt stirrups, and he was surrounded by his own foot guards, armed with gilded poleaxes.45 His gentlemen ushers continually cried out: ‘On, my lords and masters, on before – make way for my Lord’s grace. Make way for his grace, the Cardinal Legate of York, Lord High Chancellor of this realm.’ Quite a mouthful for those trying to clear a path through the great unwashed for their master.

He was indeed a prince of the Church – ‘the proudest prelate that ever lived’ – and the richest man in England after the King himself. Wolsey pillaged the goods of every bishopric he took over and even managed to extract financial profit from the treaties he negotiated. As Lord Chancellor, he received a commission for every favour conferred and levied a shilling in the pound on the value of all the wills proved by his administrators.46 His annual income before he fell from power in 1529 is estimated at an incredible [50,000, or £17,500,000 in 2006 monetary values.

Here was a role model and mentor whom Cromwell, in all his grasping venality, could surely look up to.

Cromwell by this time was preoccupied with a rather vain pet scheme of Wolsey’s: to build and endow two new secular colleges, one in Oxford and a second in his birthplace Ipswich, both to be called Cardinal’s College. To provide the cash to fund these projects, Wolsey cast around for financial resources to avoid dipping into his own well-filled purse. He hit upon the alien and minor monasteries47 and quickly obtained a papal dispensation from Pope Clement VII to suppress those said to be in decay. There were handy precedents for such dissolutions: Bishop Waynflete of Winchester had acquired two priories to support Magdalen College, Oxford, in the second half of the fifteenth century, and, as recently as 1524, Bishop Fisher of Rochester had seized two religious houses for the benefit of St John’s College, Cambridge. Now Wolsey claimed that these small monasteries were ripe for suppression, as ‘neither God was served, nor religion kept’ within their crumbling walls.

On 4 January 1525, Cromwell and Sir William Gascoigne were instructed to investigate five monasteries and their wealth to establish their value.48 Their commission named the first casualties amongst the minor religious houses – at Tickford,49 Ravenstone and Medmenham in north Buckinghamshire, Poughley in Berkshire and Wallingford in Oxfordshire. The same day, Cromwell and John Smythe were appointed attorneys for Thoby, Stanesgate and Tiptree, all in Essex, which had already been granted to John Higden, the new dean of Cardinal’s College, Oxford.

Eventually, twenty-nine religious houses were to be suppressed on Wolsey’s orders; a total of around eighty monks, canons and nuns were all evicted without ceremony. The dissolutions yielded a net income of approximately £2,000, or nearly £700,000 at present-day prices, to fund the Oxford college alone.50

The prime agent in this plunder was Cromwell, who had fully demonstrated his skills at conveyancing properties and his remarkable attention to detail. He had to survey and value each monastic property, list its possessions and put them up for sale, then arrange for the disposal or lease of its lands. He was normally present at the surrender of each religious house. Moreover, he acted as a progress-chaser in the construction of the two colleges.

Of course, there were always opportunities for making money on the side for Cromwell and another of Wolsey’s agents, Dr John Allen.51 Some religious houses offered generous bribes to be spared from the indignity and inconvenience of suppression. Properties could also be rented out at a higher price than officially agreed, and the difference pocketed. Some of their choice goods and chattels could be appropriated and sold off for private profit. It is not surprising that Cromwell abandoned his clothtrading business around this time: there were easier pickings and more lucrative methods of accumulating wealth.

Such under-the-table deals were not unusual in Tudor times, but the scale of the corruption caused ripples of disquiet, if not disgust. Sir William Knight, secretary to the King, wrote to Wolsey from Beaulieu in Essex in August 1527 to warn him that Henry shared that uneasiness: ‘I have heard the king and noble men speak things incredible of the acts of Mr Allen and Cromwell – a great part whereof it shall be expedient that your grace do know, as at your coming, you shall, not only from me but by other faithful and loving servants.’52 The constant temptation must have been irresistible, but Wolsey appears to have done nothing to stop the sleaze. He may have believed that the attacks on his servants were merely a weapon to discredit the suppressions; in any case, he was more than satisfied with the progress on his two colleges.

Cromwell was constantly beset by those wanting to cash in on the dissolutions. For example, Thomas Canner wrote to him on 14 January 1528, seeking the bells of Wallingford monastery for the people of Basingstoke in Hampshire, where he had been brought up. He enclosed a set of ‘Oxford gloves’ as a token for Cromwell’s pains.53

The other side of this corrupt coin, of course, was that Cromwell became unpopular. The local gentry at Bayham, on the borders of East Sussex and Kent, assembled in disguise and temporarily forced the reinstatement of the ten Premonstratensian canons there. At nearby Tonbridge, the townsfolk petitioned against the closure of the Augustinian priory there, rejecting soothing promises of scholarships at the Oxford college. The new landlords of the monastic properties were more interested in profit and the tenants found themselves living under a harsher, more demanding regime. In August 1527, a ‘sanctuary man’54 was reported to be lying in wait to murder Cromwell, and Cardinal Pole later maintained that people thought Cromwell was in prison and would be punished for his crimes as Wolsey’s agent.55 Security precautions were needed and Cromwell fitted a strong chain to the front door of his home at Austin Friars so that ‘no man not well known might enter’.

Undeterred, he continued with his duties – long hours in the saddle in all weathers, listing, verifying, evaluating. He wrote to Wolsey on 2 April 1528 from Oxford about his visit to Wallingford, reporting that all the goods and household implements had already been spirited away. More sanguinely, Cromwell described the progress in constructing Cardinal’s College in the university town:

The buildings of your college most prosperously and magnificently arise in such a way, that to every man’s judgment, the like thereof [has] never been seen nor imagined, having consideration to the largeness, beauty, sumptuousness … and most substantial building of the same.

Your chapel within the said college [is] most devoutly and virtuously ordered and the ministries within the same not only diligent in the service of God, but also the service done daily within the same, so devout, solemn and full of harmony that in my opinion, it has few peers.56

Cromwell regularly submitted his bureaucratic expenses for his work in setting up the new colleges. One claim, in April 1528, for his work in Ipswich included 56 shillings for vellum ‘for drawing and flourishing letters … for the king’s patents as [well] as my lord’s deeds and charters; two dozen parchments which cost six shillings and one ream of paper, three shillings’. His personal expenses then amounted to a total of £11 19s. 8d, including ‘my costs at Hampton Court and for my horses at diverse times in the sweating season’.57 In June, Cromwell wrote to Thomas Arundell, one of the gentlemen of Wolsey’s privy chamber, enquiring about the proposed constitution of Ipswich College and warning that it could not be formally established until legal matters had been cleared up in the Chancery Court: ‘I trust, by the assistance of my lord the chief baron [of the exchequer, a judge], unto whom I will resort from time to time for his good counsel, to perform, fulfil and accomplish everything according to [Wolsey’s] gracious pleasure in such ways as he should therewith be right well contented.’58

At last, William Capon, the first Dean of Cardinal’s College, Ipswich, was appointed and, on 26 September 1528, he reported to Wolsey the arrival of the ecclesiastical vestments and plate, brought there by Cromwell, who was ‘at great pains seeing [the] stuff carried hither safely and in preparing the hangings, benches etc. for the hall, which is now well trimmed’. Although building work was continuing, evensong was said in the college chapel, piously attended by Cromwell. The next day ‘it rained continually’, so the planned grand procession through the town had to be cancelled.59

On 18 January 1529, Cromwell wrote to Stephen Gardiner, Wolsey’s secretary but later an arch-enemy, explaining his absence from the Cardinal’s household, then at Richmond, as he was busy selling off Lesnes Abbey, at Bexley in Kent,

where I saw one of the most piteous and grievous sights that ever I saw … the breach out of the Thames into the marshes at Lesnes which be all overflowed and drowned. At the last change, the tide was so high that there happened a new breach which has done as much [damage] there as will cost £300 the new making of the same.

In so much that if my being there had not been to have encouraged the workmen and labourers, I assure you all the labour and money that has been spent heretofore, would have been clearly lost and cast away. And the workmen … would have departed and left all at chance which should have been the greatest evil that ever happened to the country there.

Cromwell immediately took charge and ‘with the advice of such wise men’ directed the repairs to the sea defences. ‘I trust all shall be well and the works there ended with good speed, God willing.’60

In addition to his work on setting up the colleges, as Wolsey’s secretary Cromwell now exercised patronage on the Cardinal’s behalf over ecclesiastical and official appointments. There was profit in this also. On 25 April 1528, Richard Bellyssis, master of Wolsey’s mint at Durham, wrote to Cromwell, seeking his help in appointing him to a vacant post there: ‘He had charge of the mint in his father’s life and is very expert in fining, trying and coining. There is no-one else in the country fit for the post.’ And if the appointment was made, Cromwell would have ‘the promised gelding’.61

Cromwell was also keen to have loyal men around him in whom he could place absolute trust. He had recruited Ralph Sadler 62 to help him with the construction of the cardinal’s colleges, and now wrote to Wolsey introducing Sadler and hoping he would be appointed to some post within the cardinal’s household: ‘I assure your grace, you are much bound to the gentleman, this bearer, for his good report in every place … He and such other[s] have done your grace much good. It shall be in my opinion therefore, right well done to give him thanks accordingly, for by my faith, he is right worthy.’63 Sadler became Cromwell’s clerk, and so began a distinguished career in government service.

But a family tragedy now intruded on Cromwell’s busy life, diligently spent hunting the crock of gold at the end of Wolsey’s rainbow.

Some time before 1529 his wife Elizabeth died, possibly from the fatal infectious fever called ‘the sweating sickness’ that swept England in 1528.64 She had borne him two girls, Anne and ‘little Grace’, who both died young, possibly during the same epidemic, and a son, Gregory. He may also have had an illegitimate daughter.65

Gregory’s education, at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, was a topic that constantly troubled his father, who was determined to provide the boy with the formal learning that had been denied him. He may also have nurtured ambitious dreams of marrying his son into a noble family, seeing him as another pawn in his driving mission to climb the social ladder. Gregory’s tutor, John Checking, frequently wrote to Cromwell with pleas for money. In May 1528, he sought compensation for ‘his pains, which he did not intend to seek until the whole year commenced at mid-summer’66 and on 28 June that year, he complained of being in debt ‘and pressed for money’. He insisted: ‘There is not a penny in the account but was not spent on your scholars.’

The following month a progress report was written on Gregory, who was in the country, ‘where he works and plays alternatively. He is rather slow, but diligent.’ His previous tutor Palgrave had taught him badly, with the pupil ‘hardly [able] to conjugate three [Latin] verbs … though he repeated the rules by rote’. Checking would ‘have to unteach him nearly all he has learned. He is now studying the things most conducive to the reading of authors, and spends the rest of the day in forming letters.’67

In October, the tutor begged Cromwell to send ‘five yards of marble frieze68 for a gabardine’ for Gregory, ‘to keep him from the cold this winter’, and nine yards for his cousin Christopher Wellifed, who was studying with him; ‘also a bed and a pair of sheets’. Checking wrote of ‘various reports spread’ in Cambridge about Cromwell, which he was glad had proved false – presumably rumours of his imprisonment – and ended with another plea for cash: ‘The plague which sent us into the country has nearly consumed our money.’69 With colder weather in November, the scholars had cloaks to warm them and also ‘a blazing fire to keep them comfortable. Little Gregory is becoming great in letters. Christopher does not require much stirring up.’70 Then came a near disaster: Christopher Wellifed ‘did hinge a candle in a plate to look upon his book and so fell asleep and the candle fell into the bed straw’ and burnt the bed, pillow and three overlays or blankets. Had not the chamber been ‘ceiled and pargetted with plaster, we [might] have had more harm’, reported Checking, claiming 40 shillings compensation.

In July 1529, Cromwell was clearly complaining about his son’s lack of progress at his lessons and taunted Checking about his teaching skills. The tutor was incensed and protested that he had brought up many scholars, including six Masters of Arts and fellows of colleges. ‘I could have seven scholars for the one that I have at present, if I could be troubled by them.’71 Amid all this talk of education, Checking did not hesitate to seek Cromwell’s good offices in support of a relative ‘with my lord Cardinal’ and promised him ‘an ambling nag if successful’.72

The loss of Cromwell’s wife and daughters may have prompted a sobering realisation of his own mortality, for on 12 July 1529 he signed his last will and testament,73 describing himself proudly as ‘Thomas Cromwell of London, gentleman’. He left his son £660 13s. 4d — increased from £400 in the first draft – together with a similar sum for the purchase of property in London for Gregory to live in. Rental income from tenements should be used for his education until he reached the age of twenty-two, ‘during which time I heartily desire and require my said executors to be good to my said son and to see he lose no time but to see him virtuously ordered and brought up according to my trust’.

Cromwell may have harboured fears that he had sired a spendthrift and wastrel, and made provision accordingly. A further share of the Cromwell estate was to be trickled down to him: another £200 ‘of lawful English money’ was to be paid to him at twenty-four. Amongst the bequests of household stuff to Gregory, the plate and other valuable items were to be ‘put in safe keeping’ until his twenty-second birthday. If he died before reaching this age, the goods and chattels were to be sold and the proceeds divided ‘amongst my poor kinsfolk; that is to say amongst the children as well of my own sisters Elizabeth and Katherine, as of my late wife’s sister Joan, wife to John Williamson’.

His servants were not forgotten for their loyal service. Ralph Sadler was to receive 200 marks, together with ‘my second [best] gown, doublet and all my books’. Stephen Vaughan, ‘sometime my servant’, was bequeathed 100 marks and another gown, jacket and doublet. Cromwell added, in his own hand, bequests to other servants: William Brabazon, John Avery, Thurston ‘my cook’, William Body, Peter Mewtes, Richard Swift, George Wilkinson and John Hind, ‘my horse-keeper’.

Piously, he instructed his executors to ‘hire a priest, being a person of continent and good living to sing for my soul by the space of eight years next after my death and to give him for the same, £46 13s. 4.d, that is to say, £6 13s. 4d yearly for his stipend’. He gave £1 to every order of friars within the City of London in payment for them praying for his soul. Being a generous soul, Cromwell also bequeathed £40 to be given to penniless maidens on their marriages, and £20 to be distributed to poor householders so they, too, could pray for his soul. Finally, he gave £10 to the prisoners of Newgate, Ludgate, the King’s Bench Jail and the Marshalsea, across the river in Southwark.74

During his loyal service to Henry VIII, he was to fill some of those prisons with his own victims.

THOMAS CROMWELL. Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hutchinson. All rights reserved. of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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