Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell is primarily remembered for the dissolution of the monasteries and for his (probable) hand in Anne Boleyn’s fall. This programme presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch was a biography of the man which discussed how there was more to him than a cynical destroyer. It also featured footage from 3 of the 4 towns I’ve lived in – Cambridge & Oxford weren’t exactly surprises, and Ipswich shouldn’t’ve been but somehow was and it was a bit of Ipswich that’s only a 10 to 15 minute walk from our house too.

I know the overall shape of the Cromwell story but there are a lot of details I didn’t already know (I’d’ve enjoyed watching it anyway, but it’s nice to also learn stuff). It was good to see MacCulloch showing us so much of the primary sources for things, the actual documents that the information for these events comes from, right from the very start of the story. Cromwell was born in poverty, in Putney in London. His father was a brewer, and pub landlord, and MacCulloch described him as running the sort of pub you wouldn’t go to twice. He then showed us the court records for the region, which include 48 occasions where Walter Cromwell was fined for watering his beer. Thomas Cromwell left home and the country around the age of 17 (his date of birth isn’t known for sure, but a good guess is 1485). The next 14 years are unclear, later sources suggest he spent some time as a mercenary fighting for the French and subsequently working for a banker in Florence. Whether this is right or not when he returned to England he’d acquired an education (in languages & law) which allowed him to mix with a much higher social class and to marry up (to the widowed daughter of a financier, pretty good for a brewer’s son).

After Cromwell’s return he acquired a reputation as a man who could fix things. An important step in this was work he did for a Guild in Boston, Lincolnshire. The main income of this Guild (I forget which one MacCulloch said it was :/) in Boston was from the sale of Indulgences – they had a licence form the Pope to do so which was due to expire soon. So the Guild employed Cromwell to head a delegation to Rome to negotiate with the Pope for a renewal of the licence. MacCulloch showed us the documentation of the expenses that the Guild paid to Cromwell for this undertaking – he said it was the equivalent of £600,000 in today’s money, which both shows the trust they were putting in Cromwell and also how important this income was to them. Cromwell did his job well – and in a style that would characterise his future dealings. Instead of following the rules & protocol & joining the queue for an audience with the Pope he engineered a “chance meeting” – as the Pope was returning from a hunting trip he came across Cromwell & his entourage who were singing. Once he’d met once with the Pope Cromwell then at future meetings catered to what he knew as the Pope’s weaknesses – he was known to have a sweet tooth, so English delicacies were offered to him. Cromwell’s methods worked, he returned to Boston with a new (and extended) licence for the sale of Indulgences – the Guild’s income was assured. MacCulloch didn’t spell it out, but I was amused to note how ironic this was given Cromwell’s later evangelical zeal.

Cromwell now got himself into the employ of Wolsey & this is where Ipswich came into the programme. Wolsey was also of low birth (in Ipswich) and had risen to the rank of Cardinal in the Church – and had also become Henry VIII’s “man who got things done”. MacCulloch said that when Henry took the throne he wanted the glory & prestige of being King, but was less keen on the work that was needed to actually run the kingdom and Wolsey became the man who did the work. So Cromwell became the fixer for Henry VIII’s fixer. One of the jobs that Cromwell did for Wolsey was to do with the establishment of Wolsey’s two colleges. Wolsey had benefited from an Oxford education and wanted to make sure more of his home town’s people would have this opportunity, so he established a college in Ipswich (which no longer exists, only the chapel remains – the church of St Peter’s at the Waterfront which J & I actually visited the other day) and a college in Oxford (now Christchurch College). Cromwell was involved in the actual set up of these, and presided over the dissolution of several monasteries which paid for these colleges – an act that resonates with his later career.

Wolsey fell from power with his failure to negotiate the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Eventually he was charged with promoting the rule of a foreign power and removed from power – effectively he was charged with doing his job as a Cardinal aka the representative of the Pope in England. Which as MacCulloch pointed out wasn’t exactly fair. Cromwell feared that his time in the sun was over because his career was tied to Wolsey’s, but still he continued to do his duty to Wolsey and also ameliorated some of the effects of Wolsey’s fall (in particular ensuring that Ipswich still had a school even if not the grand college Wolsey had envisioned).

The King’s Great Matter (his divorce from Catherine) was still not solved, and here is where Cromwell managed to put his talents for organising things to use and get himself into Wolsey’s old position as Henry’s fixer. Cromwell went through old histories of England to find some precedent that Henry could use to ignore the Pope (effectively), MacCulloch was saying that the King had to have come up with this idea but Cromwell was the man who implemented it. The legal fiction they used was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Britain, where King Arthur is said to have authority over the Roman Empire. Complete myth, but a useful one – if Arthur was an Emperor then so is his successor Henry and Emperors do not answer to anyone, not even the Pope. Cromwell now set about making this have some legal standing – he was by now a Member of Parliament (and had been for a while) so he was able to engineer the passing of an Act of Parliament that stated that Henry was (and always had been) an Emperor. MacCulloch said this had greater significance even than in the King’s Great Matter. Previously Parliament had only had two functions – passing on petitions from the people to the King and raising taxes. But with this Act for the first time Parliament had created a part of the constitution of the country, so MacCulloch was saying that this was the first step towards our current political system. And also that other European countries were gradually losing their councils and concentrating power with the monarch, but by solving the King’s Great Matter in this way Cromwell had ensured that the English Parliament continued to be relevant & powerful. I had the feeling that MacCulloch was overstating things here to make his point, but then again he’s the historian here not me 🙂

This then is the decisive split of the English Church from Rome, and Henry appoints Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Who annuls Henry’s marriage to Catherine (on the basis of being illegal due to her prior marriage to Henry’s brother) and marries Henry to Anne Boleyn. We now come to the period of Cromwell’s life that he’s most remembered and vilified for. As Henry’s righthand man he presided over the dissolution of monasteries all across England. This wasn’t just done for the money, it was also done through a desire to reform the Church. The Reformation is sweeping across Europe at this time, and the wealth and corruption of the Church is one of the driving factors. Cromwell has, at some point previous to this, become a part of the Reform movement (I’m struggling with phrasing here – “movement” sounds a bit too organised, I mean this is where his religious sympathies lay and he was in contact with others in the court who also felt this way, like Anne Boleyn). So this is partly about cleaning up what Cromwell sees as the corruption of the English Church – some of the monasteries are dissolved after their “relics” are demonstrated to be false (and so the income they got from pilgrims is ill-gotten gains which they aren’t entitled to).

Henry, despite the break with Rome, isn’t really an Evangelical but he welcomes the extra money so is perfectly happy with dissolving the monasteries. However Anne & Cromwell fall out over where the money should go – Anne believes it should be used for good causes, Cromwell is the King’s man and believes it should go to the King to do with as he sees fit. Anne & Henry are also not on as good terms as they were, so Cromwell engineers the downfall and execution of the Queen. (Obviously MacCulloch is in the “Cromwell did it” camp (c.f. the Anne Boleyn programme that aired the day before this one for the other theories (post)). And MacCulloch admits that this is a pretty dark point in Cromwell’s career, hard to spin as anything palatable.

Now Cromwell is riding high. He’s made a Knight of the Garter & Earl of Essex (after the previous Earl died without an heir). He continues with his Reform efforts – he even gets the King to authorise an English Bible. This is a key part of the Protestant Reformation, it is a movement that wants to get back to the word of God as set down in the Gospels and to make that happen the Bible needs to be available to all worshippers, not just those that have learnt Latin. Henry has been against this in the past, and yet Cromwell still takes the risk & gives the King a copy of an English Bible. He’s counting on his popularity with the King and on the fact that with his third wife pregnant (hopefully with an heir) the King is in a generous mood. The risk pays off and the Bible is authorised, MacCulloch showed us the frontispiece of a copy of this Bible. King Henry VIII presides at the top of the page (below God but bigger than God) handing Bibles down to Cranmer & Cromwell who pass them along to the clergy (Cranmer) and the laity (Cromwell).

Cromwell is also the most probable hand behind another Reformist undertaking at this time. Zwingli in Switzerland is even more radical in his rejection of Catholic “superstition” than Martin Luther had been – he goes so far as to say that in the Mass (which he re-moulds as Holy Communion) the bread and the wine do not become the body & blood of Christ, instead they are a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the sins of mankind. Henry regarded Zwingli as a heretic, as did Archbishop Cranmer. Yet still an official looking delegation of Oxford graduates went to visit Zwingli & learn from him. MacCulloch points out that Cromwell is the only man with both the power & the inclination to send this delegation, and that this did in the end become the dogma of the Anglican Church.

It’s not just in matters of religion that Cromwell had a lasting effect on the country. As a result of the closure of the monasteries there was much higher unemployment in the country, and Cromwell took measures to counteract this. To our ears his laws about parishes being able to force able-bodied men to work doesn’t seem a good thing, but MacCulloch was presenting this as a necessary first step on the way to our modern welfare state – the previous “solution” would’ve been to just drive them out of the parish, which only gives the people involved more problems. Cromwell was also responsible for the law against homosexuality – MacCulloch showed us the document of the law against “the sin of buggery”. This had been one of the charges laid against the monasteries, part of how they were seen to be corrupt, and Cromwell was keen to make this forbidden even after the monasteries were shut.

So Cromwell is well established, and getting his own way even in matters of religion. But he fatally missteps when Henry is looking for his next wife, after Jane Seymour’s death. MacCulloch showed us a 17th Century summary of a now lost contemporary record of a conversation between Cromwell & Cranmer on the subject – Cranmer is urging Cromwell to consider the King’s comfort (that the woman should be someone he likes the look of & can talk to) but Cromwell wants the woman to be a proper Protestant Princess to further lock England away from the Roman Church. He sends Holbein off to paint Anne of Cleves, his preferred candidate for the next Queen – and looking at the portrait she seems a pretty woman, and Henry agreed so the marriage was arranged. Unfortunately the reality did not please the King as much as the portrait, and so he had this marriage annulled. This was easier than the annulment of his first marriage, but more humiliating because he had to publicly admit to impotence & an inability to consummate the marriage. Henry blamed Cromwell both for the failed marriage and for the humiliation and Cromwell had not enough friends in court to stick up for him. He was arrested, and executed. Henry is said to have regretted this later – to have said that he had put to death the most loyal servant he had. But a bit too late for Cromwell.

I was struck throughout this programme how much I recognised of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell (post about “Bring Up the Bodies”) – a sign, I think, that she did her research. I’m not sure I entirely agree that we should look at Cromwell as a principled statesman instead of a cynical thug. I think rather that he was both.