A Man It Would Be Unwise to Cross

Stephen Alford

  • Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Allen Lane, 752 pp, £30.00, September 2018, ISBN 978 1 84614 429 5

In 1517 a fierce commercial struggle broke out in England between two enterprising competitors in the busy trade of saving souls. The English Province of Austin Friars and Our Lady’s Gild of Boston, deep in the Lincolnshire fenland, went to law over the sale of indulgences, those pardons, common across the whole of Europe, offering remission for souls in purgatory. Since 1500 Our Lady’s Gild had built up what was probably the largest indulgences business in the kingdom. The friars pursued the same trade with equal vigour. The collision of interests was not surprising – big money was at stake. Far away in Saxony, Martin Luther, a brother Augustinian, was about to open heavy fire on what he saw as the whole worthless racket.

Our Lady’s Gild threw its considerable resources at the case. It appealed to Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s indispensable right hand: cardinal, archbishop, lord chancellor, Wolsey was a formidable broker of power. And it also bought the services of a clever (and therefore expensive) attorney. This was Thomas Cromwell, who in early 1519 went to Rome to make his client’s case at the pope’s court. He journeyed via Calais, was away on his mission for 26 weeks, and as he travelled read Erasmus of Rotterdam’s New Testament in Greek and Latin. Erasmus, the most brilliant scholar of the age, got him thinking.

Cromwell loved books. He was a talented linguist and his Italian in particular was excellent. But he wasn’t a secluded intellectual. He hadn’t studied at a university, and the law he picked up in London he used to make a good living for himself. Intelligent and restless, he had knocked around a bit in his time. Teenage wanderlust had taken him as far as the Mediterranean, and in his twenties he was in Antwerp, the greatest European entrepôt of its day, a magnet for merchants and high financiers. He was comfortable in mercantile company and he liked money. Socially it was tricky to pin him down. His father was a yeoman with a substantial interest in brewing, his mother was a gentlewoman. He was thus himself a bit of a hybrid, and would always remain so. The accounts of Our Lady’s Gild of Boston gave their comfortably middle-aged attorney (he was now in his thirties) the gentleman’s title of master. Cromwell was the boy from Putney who rose and fell at the court of Henry VIII with, as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography shows, spectacular unobtrusiveness.

A man who in life strenuously resisted easy categories, Cromwell has been forced into the competing roles of hero and villain many times over. Neither quite fits him. To his enemies, of whom by the late 1530s there were many, he was an abominable heretic. Even today it can seem that every ruined monastery south of Carlisle and Berwick was somehow pulled to pieces by Cromwell personally. Reginald Pole called him a Machiavel, and the label, seemingly congruent with the Frick Collection’s famous portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, has stuck: Cromwell’s intensely focused stillness suggests a man it would be unwise to cross. Even for those who lionised him as a champion of the English Reformation, there were bits of his life which didn’t quite fit. The story of attorney Cromwell’s mission to Rome was first told by John Foxe in Actes and Monumentes, the ‘Book of Martyrs’. Foxe had to rescue his hero with some deft literary footwork, turning on its head the uncomfortable tale of Cromwell’s journey to the heart of Roman superstition and error. Elizabethan Protestants could thank providence that Erasmus’s New Testament had spoken to Cromwell’s spiritual sensitivity in those weeks of travel and given him a ‘better understanding’ of God’s truth.

Over the centuries great claims have been made on Cromwell’s behalf. One is that he helped to bring the ‘true religion’ of Protestantism to England. Another is that he revolutionised and modernised the functioning of the English state. Both rest their weight on an individual whose life story is full of question marks. There is no tidy box of historical explanation into which we can put him. The brisk judgment of Hugh Trevor-Roper was that Cromwell ‘was a freak in English history’. It has always been easier to fall back on broad-brush assertions or to dismiss him with an adjective: ‘sinister’ and ‘Machiavellian’ used to be two of the most common. As Geoffrey Elton wrote in 1953, ‘We do not call a man sinister whom we know well, whether we like him or not.’ But Elton merely restates the problem. How do we get to know Thomas Cromwell in the first place?

The answer is by a painstaking forensic recovery of every surviving piece of evidence and then letting the completed dossier speak for itself. MacCulloch’s biography is itself an exercise in Cromwellian rigour. Nothing here is rushed, no detail overlooked. Care and precision are everything. Later reminiscences of Cromwell are positioned and repositioned, the chronology tested, every particle sifted and cross-referenced. We need to know before we can judge. We feel by the end of MacCulloch’s formidable book that we know Cromwell very well indeed.

The Cromwell of this Life seems at times to be a watcher more than an actor, purposeful and busy yet somehow also passive. He had a strong sense of family and kinship, and a gift for making friendships durable enough to survive the later painful upheavals in religious belief. He understood the obligations of courteous reciprocity in a society whose mechanisms were lubricated by patronage. MacCulloch’s Cromwell is a collector and a reader of books. Italy is his passion, Italian the shared language of his friends and colleagues. He read Machiavelli (History of Florence as well as The Prince), Petrarch and Castiglione’s manual for the courtier, Il Cortegiano – important reading for the attorney from Putney. He was on equal terms with university scholars like Cranmer, a don to his fingertips. But Cromwell never lost the self-containment and self-reliance of the autodidact. He was a man of the world, a pragmatist whose preoccupations were with the possible; it just so happened that for Cromwell the scope of possibility was so much greater than it seemed to be for other people.

Yet he was a believer too, from at least the 1520s an enthusiast for Reformation. After 1537, as secure as he was ever likely to be politically, he began to pursue with a single mind an evangelical agenda. But he was also cautious. As Foxe described it (and his description seems to fit the man), Cromwell’s conversion was a process, not a spasm of Damascene revelation. In reading the Erasmian New Testament, as Foxe put it, Cromwell ‘began to be touched and called to better understanding’. In the always unpredictable and often dangerous religious landscapes of the 1520s and 1530s he played his faith very close to his chest. Spared the agony and ecstasy of a public spiritual crisis, he left prophecy and martyrdom to others.

Striking in the world MacCulloch builds around Cromwell is its sense of order and routine, its reasonableness, its gentleness even. The fractures of the 1530s, the consequences foreseen and unforeseen of Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ – the problem of Katherine of Aragon and the break with the Church of Rome – are all the more shocking because the bonds of social and political solidarity which pushed Cromwell up the ladder of preferment and promotion had once been so resilient. He had no grand plan for greatness. To talk about his ‘rise to power’ after 1530 feels almost like bad form; however true, the cliché, which suggests the energy of personal ambition, doesn’t quite fit. Though he was ever the sharp-eyed attorney, it was his grasp of minutiae, his gift with a pen, his ability to persuade others, his patience, that really marked him out. He had an instinct for the right move to make at the right time, offering a masterclass in the softly, softly approach to the acquisition of authority. In his life, routine and process counterweighted those moments in Henrician politics when the blade of the executioner’s axe met the neck on the block or the fire was lit under the prisoner bound to a stake. Volatility in this book is left to King Henry, tantrums and petty revenge to Anne Boleyn, sulks and tactlessness to Stephen Gardiner, fuming at upstart nobodies to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk. Cromwell, without title and for a long time without proper position, moved quietly ever forward.

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It all began in Putney, a few miles upriver from London, where he was born and from where he escaped probably as soon as he was able. Born around 1485, he was a teenager at the turn of the new century. His father, Walter Cromwell alias Smith, was a more or less successful businessman whose brushes with manorial justice were practically routine. His mother’s name may have been Katherine, and her origins can be traced with some close detective work to the Meverell family of the Staffordshire Peaks.

The mature Cromwell looked back to his own wild youth, ‘as he himself was wont oftentimes to declare unto Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, showing what a ruffian he was in his young days’ (the words belong to John Foxe). We shouldn’t take him too seriously here; it is easy to overlook his wry sense of humour. He was a wanderer and a traveller, and gave himself an education in the world so very different from the suffocating discipline and narrow curriculum of a university. What historians and biographers can’t fix with the certainty of fact and evidence offers the novelist the rich and necessary space of imaginative possibility. This has been true of Cromwell’s life since the 16th century. A novella by the Italian author Matteo Bandello, printed (naturally) by John Foxe, interpreted Cromwell’s adolescent travels in Europe as an escape from the violence of his father, a story with shaky foundations that was taken up with enthusiasm by the Victorians. Our first meeting with a young Thomas felled and bloodied by the calculated savagery of Walter Cromwell’s kicks in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is viscerally memorable.

There is no clear vision of Cromwell until the age of forty, though by the 1510s he begins to come a little more into focus. He married his wife, Elizabeth, probably a few years after Henry’s accession in 1509. They had two daughters, Anne and Grace, and a son, Gregory, born in 1519 or 1520. At some point in the 1520s Elizabeth’s mother, Mercy (the Mistress Prior always popular with the family’s friends and handy with medicines), moved in. In 1523 the Cromwells took up residence near Austin Friars, in a grand house on Throgmorton Street. Thomas was doing well for himself. Nestled close to the beautiful Augustinian friary, his legal practice took him upriver to the Court of Chancery in Westminster. His Anglo-Italian business and legal connections were extensive. He counted as friends and clients merchants who went to the king’s court to trade their luxurious fabrics before Henry himself. Already Cromwell was on the fringes of power.

The big step up came in 1524, when he was recruited into the household of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey, prince of the Church and Henry’s man, wanted to build his legacy in stone. He planned two colleges, one in Ipswich (his home town) and the other in Oxford, as well as a tomb that would stand as a masterpiece to celebrate a masterly career. With his scrupulous eye for detail, Cromwell was perfect for the job of managing these considerable projects. This laid the groundwork for a later career that, had Wolsey lived years longer, might never have happened. Cromwell had the job of winding up some small religious foundations whose liquidations funded Wolsey’s colleges and tomb. Cromwell visited these houses and, with an improvisatory talent for handling the paperwork, oversaw the legal details. By the late 1520s few outsiders knew the English monasteries better than he did. He was given a job and got on with it, enjoying his freedom. In recruiting distinguished scholars for the Oxford foundation, Cromwell already had a good eye for university men sympathetic to Reformation ideas.

And so he prospered and he learned. Elected to the House of Commons for the Parliament of 1523, he saw for the first time from the inside a body he would come to manage in the 1530s with the same confidence he demonstrated in Wolsey’s service. He knew early on what he was up against, though he saw too the very human side of institutions. Of his 17 weeks in Parliament he wrote to a friend in 1523: ‘Howbeit, in conclusion, we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is to say, as well as we might, and left where we began.’ Even the frighteningly efficient attorney had a sense of humour.

The hardest year personally and professionally was 1529. Elizabeth, Anne and Grace Cromwell died and Wolsey proved unable to deliver what Henry VIII had demanded: a satisfactory conclusion to the Great Matter, the neat annulment of a marriage to Katherine of Aragon that had been no marriage at all in the eyes of the king. Wolsey – like everyone else – had failed to attend to his majesty’s delicate conscience. Yet Cromwell remained close to Wolsey. He stuck his neck out to defend the cardinal in the Parliament of 1529, where Wolsey’s many enemies were determined to bring him down once and for all. For most of 1530 Cromwell hovered uncertainly between loyalties. But he was Wolsey’s man still, handling his master’s business long after the cardinal’s fall.

Parliament had shown his capabilities. In early January 1530 he took a walk with the king in his majesty’s garden at Westminster during which, such evidence as there is suggests, he gave an expert’s view of how profit might be made out of Church reform. Henry, at a critical moment in his fight with Rome, saw the possibilities. But no deal was done. That summer Cromwell toyed with a plan to fall back on his private practice as an attorney. In August 1530 he laboured over the wording of a letter to his disgraced master, who seemed incapable of keeping himself out of the headlines. ‘Learn to experiment how ye shall banish and exile the vain desires of this unstable world,’ he wrote to Wolsey. Now with a decision to make for himself, Cromwell’s words may have spoken as much to his own situation.

Something almost irresistible seems to be acting on Cromwell in the early 1530s, MacCulloch’s biography suggests, and the next step in his career happened as a kind of natural process, like the turning of the seasons. Somehow it was inevitable. Some people noticed it, some didn’t. By 1530 he had supporters at court, and they shared a common profile: they had been close to Wolsey, they didn’t like Anne Boleyn, but they were obeying as loyal subjects the king’s efforts to get rid of Queen Katherine, though with little enthusiasm. Just when few knew precisely how to give Henry what he wanted, Cromwell was the man being talked about. ‘And forasmuch as now his Majesty had to do with the Pope, his great enemy, there was (he thought) in all England, none so apt for the King’s purpose, which could say or do more in that matter than could Thomas Cromwell.’ So, in later years, said Sir John Russell, a court insider.

From 1531 Cromwell became the king’s fixer. In a sense he merely moved from one legacy project to another, for by now Henry was no longer content to play by the rules of Rome. His majesty’s cause had run into the buffers at the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529, precipitating the collapse of Wolsey’s power. Yet Henry refused to give up, and by 1530 a kind of royal think tank, of which Cranmer was a member, was beginning to suggest a radical change of strategy.

The King Henry of this biography is impulsive and unpredictable, with a short attention span and a consistently high regard for his own genius. In the Great Matter he knew what he wanted. When in late 1530 Henry read a dossier that set out compelling historical evidence of his own spiritual supremacy, he annotated it in 46 places. Even Henry’s normally dormant critical senses were alert enough to ask of key passages ‘Ubi hic?’ (‘Whence does this come?’). But naturally he was an enthusiast, for supposedly erudite scholarship by others told him what he wanted to hear. In his mind was the image that Cromwell and Cranmer were later able to transmit to all the king’s subjects by means of the title-page of the Great Bible: Henry at the centre of everything, beholden to no other human power, communicating with his God without the need for an intercessor.

It was Cromwell’s job to make something strong and meaningful out of this confection of royal ego, dodgy history, polarised court politics and happenstance. It was a task that involved facing down the elite of the English clergy, detaching England from the authority of the bishop of Rome by statutory means (while emphasising that the king was very firmly above any law), managing official propaganda, and breaking Henry’s opponents. Thomas More and John Fisher were two victims. In the final encounters with More we find in Cromwell the human face of a process the collateral damage of which meant almost nothing to the king; they were two servants of a royal master, bound by that commonality, who found themselves on opposite sides of his majesty’s will. Cromwell as ever got on with the job, roughly balancing duty and conscience, and smoothing to the best of his ability the sharper edges of Henry’s displeasure.

Closeness to the king himself mattered more for Cromwell than formal position. The later promotions – Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon in 1536, Earl of Essex for a mere two months in the year of his downfall, 1540 – look like overcompensations for a loyal servant snubbed early on. But the initial appointments, the earliest signs of favour, meant something. Master of the jewels (1532), chancellor of the exchequer (1533), master of the rolls (1534), vice-gerent in spirituals (1535): each of these gave access to the king and influence over the flow of paper, allowing Cromwell to expand his horizons and his control. Newly promoted, he quickly needed a portrait (hence Holbein’s extraordinary picture) and a coat of arms, for which he, daringly, chose to incorporate elements of Wolsey’s own. Always perhaps a little unpredictable, a bit of a hybrid, his standing was never quite fixed. In fact the new offices of vice-gerent and vicar-general, which gave him as the king’s deputy the authority to suppress the religious houses, produced a very English awkwardness over etiquette. How should one refer to the vice-gerent? ‘Your grace’ was out, ‘Your holiness’ a non-starter. One bureaucrat with a talent for flattery came up with the perfect title: ‘Your goodness’. Probably it spoke to Cromwell’s own genius for flexible improvisation, as well as to his sense of humour.

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The question that used to be asked of the huge upheavals of Reformation in the 1530s was ‘King or minister?' Henry or Cromwell? Whose responsibility was it all? Whose vision? Whose fault? These questions once made sense, based as they were on the belief that an individual alone might be masterful or visionary enough to direct the fortunes of a kingdom. We seem today to have lost that easy faith. In the 1530s there was a sustained effort at making the Henrician revolution work, at least in the interests of the king. That conversation between Cromwell and Henry in Westminster in early 1530 bore fruit. The king and his elite made a fortune out of the Church and its lands. Enforcement was tough, its instruments being a new treason law and propaganda and new agencies of government able to process a massive administration. There was of course a reaction from subjects who saw their world being ripped apart. In the great rebellion in the north of England in 1536 ‘pilgrims’ stood for the commonwealth against Cromwell and other heretics. And all of this from the king’s passion and scruple of conscience. There was little intelligent design here, at least initially. Henry was too flawed a leader to have thought very much or for very long about the consequences of what he began, other than for himself. Led by impulse from one moment to another, he put the allegiance of loyal subjects under immense strain. Disconnected from the human cost of his actions, he was a tyrant in the making.

Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell shows the ideal bureaucrat. Within reach are the implements of office: quill, book and papers. The steadiness of the gaze is what unnerves the viewer. Cromwell’s instinct for government and process, and his sense of balance, were impeccable, at least when he was at the height of his powers. He liked detail and he preferred neat uniformity. He understood possibilities and he worked with the realities of the moment. He was able to manage change on an immense scale. He shared with friends like Thomas Cranmer a reforming agenda in religion, and he had ambitions for his own promotion and the standing of his family. But even Cromwell could go only so far. He was human after all. Later portraits lack Holbein’s extraordinary precision but they succeed in showing just a little softening of that early hardness.

A Life of Thomas Cromwell is necessarily the study of a royal bureaucracy knocked into shape by the size of the job it had to deal with, as well as a close encounter with a Church remodelled in the 1530s in the image of a king. This is where MacCulloch’s passion lies: one feels his love of ecclesiastical process and order, his sympathy for spiritual men wrestling with the material realities of change and ambition. He has the pleasure in fine detail of an antiquary, the historian’s range and depth of vision and the biographer’s feel for his subject. This is a book about people, their friendships, alliances and obligations. As such it is inevitably a book about the forces in the 1530s that had the power to fracture all of those things. In it we never lose sight of Cromwell’s humanity. One strand of this is the protective eye he kept on wayward boys, the first of them Wolsey’s genially feckless illegitimate son Thomas Winter, the second his own son Gregory. An exquisite Holbein miniature of Gregory in 1537 shows a young man of about 18 with closely cropped hair. Lips pressed together, he looks down. There is something submissive in his attitude: the son of a powerful man with a certain weight of expectation resting on young shoulders. How different from the experience a generation earlier of that young ruffian who had knocked around Europe in the years after 1500, and who later made his own way up the ladder.

The end came in 1540. It was the strangest of years: an earldom, an English Bible, another neck on the block. The politics of the court finally caught up with Cromwell, as they had with so many others before. The debacle of the Cleves marriage, which was annulled after six months, left him exposed to enemies ready to take advantage of his having fallen from favour with the king. Of Cromwell’s arrest in early June we have a second-hand account by the French ambassador. Informed by the captain of the king’s guard that he was a prisoner, he ‘ripped his cap from his head and threw it to the ground in contempt, saying to the Duke of Norfolk and others of the Privy Council assembled there that this was the reward of the good service he had done to the king, and that he appealed to their consciences to know whether he was a traitor in their accusations.’ Norfolk’s response was to rip the Garter collar of St George from the prisoner’s neck. It’s likely His Grace rather enjoyed the moment.

In spite of his appeal to the loyal service he had given his majesty, he’d been around long enough to know that any minister was in the end dispensable. He served at his majesty’s pleasure, and his majesty’s track record spoke for itself. It was the same for everyone: once you were on the wrong side of Henry, he cut himself off completely, pulling down the shutters even on his closest relationships. In any case, Cromwell had never made Wolsey’s mistake of believing that he was the king’s friend. In some ways, oddly, Cromwell and Henry seem to have operated almost in parallel spheres. It was true at the very end. On the day of Cromwell’s execution, 28 July 1540, the king was otherwise occupied: that was the day he married Katherine Howard. With Cromwell on the scaffold there was no melodrama, only loyal submission to God and to Henry’s will. His thoughts in those few remaining minutes of his life were for the future wellbeing and security of his family.

In 1529, at the fall of Wolsey, Stephen Vaughan wrote to Cromwell: ‘You are more hated for your master’s sake than for anything else which I think you have wrongfully done against any man.’ We might ask ourselves whether Vaughan’s judgment is as true for the king Cromwell served, for that second legacy project he steered through to a conclusion of sorts – the heavy burden of a service from which he is only now being rescued.