Funny how, following the popularity of Hilary Mantel’s fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell and their TV and stage dramatisations, the religious wars of the 16th century are being fought all over again. As one with no sectarian axe to grind and having enjoyed a secular education in Tudor history, it’s all rather bemusing.

For example, in Holbein: Eye of the Tudors, shown on BBC 4 in January, Waldermar Januszczak suddenly went off on one, arguing that Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell is an accurate representation of a man who had ‘a hard and charmless presence’. ‘Look’, said Januszczak, ‘at those piggy eyes, that blank expression: Cromwell is surely the least attractive sitter in the whole of Holbein’s art.’  Then he recalled his own Catholic education:

When I was at school Cromwell was portrayed by everyone as a terrible man. Henry VIII’s enforcer, the destroyer of the monasteries, in recent years there has been a big reassessment and the modern image of him, the one you find of him in books, plays, as a decent and brilliant man, trapped in a difficult situation. Cromwell we are now told was an early civil servant who channeled power away from the monarchy and the man who invented the bureaucratic modern state. These days we are encouraged to see Cromwell as a good guy, but in this film I am not going to do that…

Hans Holbein, Thomas Cromwell,

But, as Hilary Mantel pointed out in an article for the Telegraph in October 2012, ‘It is as a murderer that Cromwell has come down to posterity’:

The man who tricked and slaughtered the saintly Thomas More, the man who ensnared and executed Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn; who turned monks out on to the roads, infiltrated spies into every corner of the land, and unleashed terror in the service of the state. If these attributions contain a grain of truth, they also embody a set of lazy assumptions, bundles of prejudice passed from one generation to the next. Novelists and dramatists, who on the whole would rather sensationalise than investigate, have seized on these assumptions to create a reach-me-down villain. Holbein’s portrait is both the source of their characterisation, and a reinforcement of it.

I studied the period for A-level History back in the early sixties, when Geoffrey Elton’s revisionist interpretation England under the Tudors was the key text. So I was pleased to be offered the loan of a copy of Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII, a recently-published book by David Loades, a historian who has written extensively on Tudor history and once studied under the tutelage of Geoffrey Elton.

Loades’ book will interest anyone whose curiosity about Cromwell has been piqued by Hilary Mantel’s books. At the outset he asks, ‘So who was Thomas Cromwell?’ Loades’ answer, after 300 pages and copious references, is that, although Cromwell left behind voluminous official papers, they reveal little or nothing of the inner man.  He left no personal documents, no memoir. So Mantel’s portrait, which Loades considers at the very end of his book, operates ‘in the interstices of the established evidence’. Mantel is essentially concerned with his private life, ‘about which the authentic record is usually and infuriatingly silent’.

Loades is a serious historian: his account of Cromwell’s life and career eschews speculation and is based on his meticulous reading of documents in the historical record (all his references are shunted to the end of the book, however, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in Loades’ narrative).

Loades’ account begins with a chapter devoted to ‘The Making of a Man’ in which he states that Cromwell’s origins are ‘wreathed in obscurity’. Cromwell’s father, Walter, was something of a rogue; he ran sheep on land in Wimbledon, and enters the records largely because of his misdemeanours. Often coming before the courts, he is described in some of the records as a ‘shearman’. But he also ran at least one alehouse, and often fell foul of the law for ignoring regulations governing the sale of beer, for which numerous fines were imposed. Often in court for for drunkenness and brawling, Walter was clearly not an easy man to live with, and when he was 15 or 16 Thomas ran away, probably stowing away on a ship bound for the Low Countries.

What he did abroad remains largely unkown, though one later story had him enlisting in the French army.  He made his way to Italy and was present at Battle of Garigliano in December 1503, at which the French were defeated. Thomas next appears on the streets of Florence penniless, where he was picked up by Francesco Frescobaldi, member of a prominent Florentine banking family, and taken into his service. It was presumably there that Thomas developed his knowledge of Italian and his business skills.

Although Cromwell was in Florence at same time as Niccolo Machiavelli was active in the service of the republic, Loades disposes of the idea, first put about by Reginald Pole – who had an axe to grind –  that they ever met, or that Cromwell was ‘a Machiavellian’. Loades concludes that Cromwell was a practical man; he ‘was not an intellectual and wrote nothing specifically directed to any theory of the state’.  Even supposing he had read The Prince when it was published in England in 1532, the book ‘is not so much a work of moral philosophy as a presentation of things as they are … it would be hard to find any competent statesman of the sixteenth century who did not follow its advice at least to some extent’.

At some point after his sojourn in Florence, Cromwell travelled to Antwerp (there were close trade connections between two cities at time) where he managed to establish himself as trader dealing in English cloth, as well undertaking some legal work. He was now in his early twenties, spoke several languages (including Latin that he taught himself by reading Erasmus’s version of the New Testament), and was skilled in trade.

Loades recounts a telling story of how Cromwell was hired by the representative of a Lincolnshire church guild to travel to Rome in order to obtain an indulgence from the Pope. Rather than queueing with other suitors in the papal audience chamber, young Cromwell somehow learned of the Pope’s weakness for certain delicacies and succeeded by and then lying in wait until the Pope returned from a hunting trip and plying him with choice sweetmeats.

At some point between 1512 and 1514 (when he was in his late twenties) Cromwell returned to England established himself as a lawyer in London though still maintaining his commercial ties with the Netherlands. By 1522 he was being referred to as a gentleman, and had moved into the substantial house at Austin Friars which he would occupy until his downfall (situated near to where the present-day Stock Exchange and Bank of England now stand).

‘So what manner of man was Thomas Cromwell by 1522?’ asks Loades at the conclusion of his opening chapter. He was a young man knowledgeable about banking, the cloth trade and the law, and he had a most unusual command of languages. His skills were largely self-taught.  Though his trips to Rome had alienated him from the papacy, he was not a closet Lutheran, but probably sceptical about such things as the veneration of relics. His will, made a few years later, reveals ‘a man of conventional piety’. Apart from the fact that he was highly intelligent and adaptable in his approach, there is no evidence of his personality, other than that he had a great capacity for friendship.

About his family life we know next to nothing.  His wife and daughters are mere names. […] That he was a hard man of business may be deduced from his growing prosperity, but of the ruthless ideologist of later legend there is no trace.

Loades’ succeeding chapters continue the plot the course of Cromwell’s rapid ascent into the King’s Household and his sudden fall with the same careful focus only on what the historical record can tell us.

In 1523 Cromwell entered Parliament.  By this time he was gaining traction in the service of cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, and Loades considers it likely that Wolsey placed him in one of the boroughs whose patronage he controlled. Loades quotes a letter written to a friend by Cromwell at the end of that parliamentary session which might have been written by yesterday by any current MP:

With others I have endured a parliament which continued by the space of seventeen whole weeks, where we communed 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, and also how a commonwealth might be edified and also continued 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.

By 1529, Cromwell was one of Wolsey’s most senior and trusted advisers. In what was to prove to be trial run for something much bigger, Cromwell had assisted in the dissolution of nearly thirty inefficient monasteries in order to raise funds for Wolsey’s pet project to establish a new college -Cardinal College – in Oxford. It was during this exercise, rather than later in the King’s service, that Cromwell was labelled ‘the most hated man in England’.

Then, in October 1529, Wolsey suddenly fell from the King’s favour, leaving those in his service in limbo. Another member of the cardinal’s household later recalled Cromwell lamenting, ‘I am likely to lose all that I have laboured for all the days of my life…’

But, Cromwell was a survivor, and, Loades suggests, would by tghis time have gained a reputation as for expertise in law. Henry VIII would have known him slightly, through his service to the fallen minister. With the assistance of the Duke of Norfolk, the king’s chief councillor after Wolsey’s fall, Cromwell was chosen for a seat in what is known now as the Reformation Parliament. There he employed his legal expertise so effectively that within a couple of years he had been appointed to the king’s council as a legal adviser. Sifting through the recorded opinions of the time, Loades finds him trusted as ‘a man who could get things done’. He was also good company – and Henry liked good company.

So it was that  Cromwell was able to show the king how to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and to achieve the desired union with Anne Boleyn. Crucially, he did this by using the legislative power of Parliament to break with the papacy, and set up the Royal Supremacy. With some qualifications, Loades leans towards Geoffrey Elton’s case that Cromwell was the author of a modern, bureaucratic approach to government which replaced medieval, household government. By steering through parliament legislation to legitimise Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, break with Rome, and dissolve the monasteries, Cromwell radically altered the role of Parliament and instituted the supremacy of statute law.

Loades argues that ‘Thomas Cromwell… had a vision of state as a sovereign nation living under a law which was controlled by Parliament.’ At the same time, however, he regarded the king as the head of the executive, ‘whose pleasure and honour had always to be respected, but within the boundaries laid down by the law.’

What Cromwell brought to the Gordian knot of the King’s marriage problem was the concept of the king as emperor, an idea that was most fully declared and expounded in the preamble to the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome, passed by Parliament in April 1533:

Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of spiritualty and temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.

The idea wasn’t new, but as Loades points out, what was new was the application of that idea to a country, the creation in effect of a national sovereign state. Cromwell now used the idea to justify the denial of papal
authority: that was Cromwell’s originality.

In terms of political philosophy this was a statement of constitutional monarchy, but also one of the division between legislature and executive – in the exercise of executive powers the king would remain supreme, ‘which is why Cromwell’s papers are so full of memoranda ‘to know the king’s pleasure’ about everything from decisions in foreign policy to the exercise of patronage’, writes Loades.

Thomas Cromwell therefore saw the king as head of the executive, whose pleasure and honour had always to be respected, though within the
boundaries laid down by the law. In Cromwell’s eyes, Henry was also responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of his people, which included protecting the vulnerable (Loades argues that Cromwell’s hand is clearly visible in the 1536 Poor Law Act which imposed a legal obligation on each parish to care for its own poor.

In Cromwell’s view, the King had also to guide his people in the ways of
religious truth, and that meant ‘not only ruling the Church … but issuing articles and injunctions controlling the lives of the clergy and the practices of worship’. It was this that led to Cromwell’s downfall, argues Loades.

Cromwell was committed to the English Bible, and saw the evangelicals as the best protectors of the Royal Supremacy, but on that last point he differed from the king, and that eventually led to his ruin.

For several years, Cromwell was the king’s supreme counsellor, running the administration and advising on foreign policy. In 1540 he was created Earl of Essex, but in that same year he overreached himself in his support for the reformers. He had once said that his religion was whatever pleased the king, but on this occasion he went too far, and forfeited Henry’s confidence. Like Wolsey before him he fell from power, but, unlike the cardinal, the Earl of Essex was indicted for high treason, and executed in July 1540.

Loades catalogues Cromwell’s achievements: committed to the centralisation of power and to efficiency in administration, he created new institutions to replace the somewhat ramshackle machinery of the royal household; he rescued the king from the dilemma caused by his desire to annul his first marriage, showing him the way to use existing institutions and laws for the unprecedented task of repudiating papal authority.

In Loades’ estimation, Cromwell was ‘clear-thinking and uninhibited by any sense of tradition’:

He was able to cut through the fog of Henry’s uncertainties, and to see what needed to be done to make the king’s will effective. Cromwell was a ways and means man. […] Although not an intellectual he was widely and deeply read and was able to promote the propaganda needed to win the hearts and minds of Englishmen in support of the king’s proceedings, a task in which he was only partly successful. Above all he was a man who understood the value of information, which he collected and processed assiduously from both overseas and home.

Loades concludes that it was not long before Henry was regretting his precipitate action in getting rid of him. ‘Policy continued to be in the king’s hands, but government would never be the same again’.

We end no clearer as to what kind of man Cromwell really was.  A close reading of Loades’ detailed account of his actions in Henry’s service does, however, suggest a man of great cultivation and hospitality who was efficient in everything for which he had responsibility. Interested in new ideas, a humanist in outlook perhaps, he was nevertheless ruthless in implementing the king’s will. In 16th century England that quite often involved bearing down on those who resisted the authority, extracting confessions by torture, and compiling evidence that would ensure guilty verdicts at law with death sentences as the consequence. A humane and thoughtful Mafia consigliere is a modern parallel that suggests itself.

This document-based biography is an excellent accompaniment to Hilary Mantel’s work for anyone curious about her sources and the extent to which her fictionalised account of Cromwell and his times can lay claim to being an accurate representation. The book ends with a very interesting and thorough historiography, in which Loades surveys the various interpretations of Cromwell’s career, beginning with 16th century accounts and ending with Eltons and more recent assessments.

Finally, let’s return to that Holbein portrait. In her article for the Telegraph in 2012, Hilary Mantel felt that Holbein had been unfair on Cromwell:

Thomas Cromwell had not yet acquired his status as Henry’s chief minister; as the paper on his desk informs us, he was Master of the Jewel House. A gregarious, cosmopolitan man who had spent time in Italy and the Low Countries, he was probably better placed to know Holbein’s worth than many of his courtier contemporaries. The politician and the painter, both due to rise rapidly at Henry’s court, were bound together by a network of shared friends and shared interests. But the portrait is not a friendly one…. There are no metaphors in his Cromwell picture. There is no echo of his portrait of Thomas More: none of that swift intelligence, intensity, engagement with the viewer. What you see is what you get. Cromwell looks like a man hard to reach and hard to impress. He does not invite you to conversation. His posture is attentive, though, as if he might be listening to someone or something beyond the frame. Of course, a Tudor statesman who commissioned his portrait didn’t want to look bonny. He wanted to look powerful; he was the hand, the arm, of the state.

It’s important, wrote Mantel, to realise that when we look at that painting what we are seeing is not what Holbein painted. It seems the original was lost. There are various copies, some better than others. ‘Copies, representations of a representation, may blur or coarsen or obscure’, she wrote. This is what happened to Thomas Cromwell’s reputation. Historians have been interested only in Cromwell’s record as a statesman. Cromwell left no biography, so the books about him are ‘records of a life’s work, not of a man’s life’.

I saw that the man in Holbein’s painting was a man inured to loss. He was in his late forties at the time of the painting. His wife and daughters were dead, gone most probably in the epidemics of the late 1520s. The loss was not, by the standards of the time, particularly remarkable, but he did not marry again or try to replace them. He had tied his fortunes to those of Thomas Wolsey, the king’s cardinal, the flamboyant and charismatic minister who dominated the political scene until Henry turned against him and broke him in 1529. It was a proceeding of craven ingratitude on Henry’s part, and Cromwell, who loved the cardinal, had to fight to survive him: a hard man, a determined man, and one with little to lose. He set out to win over Henry and to make himself indispensable.

See also

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