Thomas Cromwell – a maligned figure of English history
Until the success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, focussing on the life of Thomas Cromwell, few would have recognised his name, and even fewer would have had an inkling of the key role he played in English history. He was one of the leading forces in the English Reformation and laid the basis for the modern state.
His relative eclipse is undoubtedly also associated with the very class-based historical research approach of previous historians who were unsympathetic to the idea of ‘ordinary men’ making history. Cromwell is often described as ‘the most hated man in England’ A recent Guardian piece labelled him ‘the ruthless master politician’. However, a more contemporary evaluation written by Thomas Fuller in his Church History of England in 1655 said: ‘This was the cause why he was envied of the nobility, being by birth so much beneath them and by preferment so high above most of them…’
Cromwell was a poor boy, the son of a Putney brewer and blacksmith, who rose to become one of the most powerful men in England, mixing as an equal with the aristocracy. He was hated by many of the aristocrats as an upstart of low-breeding. They also recognised the danger he posed as an outsider with no tribal interests to defend. He was undoubtedly Henry VIII’s most loyal public servant and rose to become his chief minister, in which role he served from 1532 to 1540, before a conspiracy of his aristocratic enemies persuaded a volatile and increasingly fractious Henry to arrest and execute him.
How did this man of such humble birth become, for a short time, the most powerful man in England?Unfortunately we know little about his early life. Mantel imagines a miserable childhood as the son of a violent, drunken father. It is reasonably certain that he ran away as a youth and spent a number of years on the continent, where he learned several languages, diplomatic and financial skills and forged valuable contacts. He learned about politics, economics and met some of the leaders of the Luther-inspired Protestant revolution then sweeping through Europe. His life-shaping experiences in France, Italy and the Netherlands undoubtedly gave him the necessary credentials for his later career. He had been a soldier, a merchant and an accountant for a Florentine bank. Importantly he had clearly been impressed by the Protestant reformation.
In 1527 he was back in England, a little over forty years old and already a trusted agent of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel portrays Cromwell as possessing an all-round competence: ‘at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.’
Cromwell was not only one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation, he was also in a position to do something about it. His helping to engineer the annulment of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that Henry could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, gave him the key to push reform further. He realised before many others that without a break from Rome and a curtailment of the powerful and wealthy monasteries in the country, England would never be a truly independent, powerful and sovereign nation. Supremacy over the Church of England was officially declared by Parliament in 1534. Cromwell, particularly after his experiences in Italy and elsewhere in continental Europe developed a healthy disgust of the waste and superstition of the Catholic Church, and he took a very materialist view of relics and indulgences.
Today, he is largely remembered for the key role he played in Sir Thomas More's conviction and execution for treason in 1535 – he is portrayed as the villain and More the hero in Robert Bolt’s film A Man for all Seasons. But More was rather the victim of his own stubbornness than of Cromwell’s ire – he several times gave More the opportunity to change his opposition to Henry’s marriage annulment. He recognised that More’s intransigence on this issue, if allowed to go unchallenged, would jeopardise the necessary reform of church and state and a break with Rome which he so assiduously sought.
He should be remembered primarily as a remorseless reformer and legislator, unblinkingly opposed to an old religion that ‘keeps simple people in dread’ and that was, moreover, sitting on a fortune that could be put to better use. He tells More in a key remark that, ‘among the ignorant it is said that the king is destroying the church. In fact he is renewing it. It will be a better country, believe me, once it is purged of liars and hypocrites.’ For the first time in history, Englishmen were able to read the Bible and prayer book in their own vernacular.Mantel's relatively sympathetic interpretation in her novel owes much to the German-born Tudor historian, Geoffrey Elton, who portrayed Cromwell as the prime mover behind the Tudor revolution in government – the first glimmerings of the modern English state. In Mantel's hands, this picture of Cromwell as a reforming legislator acquires new life, as he meditates on how the state can offer work to the unemployed:
‘We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would have all the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat.’Its hardly surprising that the England of Mantel's Cromwell, a nation in flux and turmoil, should resonate with our own. It is a world seemingly suspended between an old order past its sell-by-date and a new order waiting to be born. Cromwell was the man for those times. He realises that England will never be great unless it breaks with a corrupt and over-wealthy Roman Church. Given the era he lived in, he could see that the only way to achieve these reforms was by empowering the monarch and winning his support. He was a fervent believer in a well-run state and he set about constructing one on his sovereign's behalf and with the common wealth in mind. He knew what needed to be done and how to do it. To accuse him retrospectively and anachronistically of brutality and scheming, is to use a contemporary yardstick, rather than the bloody and opportunistic measures of Tudor times.
In July 1536, the first attempt was made to clarify religious doctrine after the break with Rome. Bishop Edward Foxe, with strong backing from Cromwell and Cranmer, tabled proposals in Convocation, which the King later endorsed as the Ten Articles. Cromwell circulated injunctions for their enforcement that went beyond the Articles themselves, provoking opposition up and down the country. These widespread clerically-inspired uprisings were successfully suppressed. This success spurred further Reformation measures. In 1537, Cromwell convened a synod of bishops and doctors to prepare a draft document, The Institution of a Christian Man. Cromwell ensured that it was in circulation, even before the King had given his assent.
He was a reformer, not a zealot. He found old practices unsavoury – hairshirts, indulgences for relief from purgatory – but he was also, at times, exasperated by the obstinacy of those such as Tyndale, the translator of the Bible into English, on whose behalf he tried to broker a deal with Henry.Throughout 1538, Cromwell pursued an extensive campaign against idolatry by the followers of the new religion. Statues, roods, and images were attacked, culminating in the dismantling of the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. He also completed a new set of injunctions declaring open war on ‘pilgrimages, feigned relics, or images, or any such superstitions’, and commanding that ‘one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English’ be set up in every church. Moreover, following the surrender of the remaining smaller monasteries during the previous year, the larger monasteries were now also ‘invited’ to surrender throughout 1538.
As the reforms progressed, and despite the riches pouring into Henry’s coffers, he grew increasingly worried about the extent of change, and with the conservative faction at court gaining strength, he began to resist further Reformation measures. The King's anger at being forced to marry Anne of Cleves was the opportunity Cromwell's conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, needed to topple him. Cromwell had thought this marriage to a German would help cement Protestant reforms.
His life and legacy have aroused enormous controversy. However his effectiveness and creativity as a royal minister cannot be denied. During his years in power, he skilfully managed Crown finances and extended royal authority. In 1536, he established the Court of Augmentation to handle the massive windfall to the royal coffers occasioned by the dissolution of the monasteries. Two other important financial institutions, the Court of Wards and the Court of First Fruits and Tenths, owed their existence to him. He strengthened royal authority in the north of England through reform of the Council of the North, extended royal power and introduced Protestantism in Ireland, and was the architect of legislation, the Laws in Wales Acts, which promoted stability and gained acceptance for the royal supremacy in Wales. He also introduced important social and economic reforms in England in the 1530s, including action against enclosures, the promotion of English cloth exports, and the poor relief legislation of 1536. By master-minding these reforms, Cromwell was said to have laid the foundations of England's future stability and success.
Despite his widespread reputation as a cold-bloodied opportunist, he showed considerable generosity towards friends fallen on hard times and to the poor. He carried out a ritual distribution of food and drink to 200 poor Londoners twice daily at the gates of his residence. In his will he left monies to ‘penniless maidens on their marriages, money to be distributed to the poor and to prisoners of several prisons within the area where he had lived for much of his life. His accounts are littered with divers donations to the poor and needy.
He was a close friend and supporter of Thomas Cranmer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury and was a reformer like Cromwell himself. He published the first service in the vernacular and actively promulgated the new (Protestant) doctrines through the Book of Common Prayer and other publications.
Henry was never really interested in the ideas behind a modernised religion, but was happy to go along with Cromwell’s reforms as they helped consolidate his own power, brought him considerable wealth from the dissolved monasteries and, of course, allowed him to annul his several unsuccessful marriages.