The son of a brewer, Thomas Cromwell rose from obscurity to become the confidant of the King and one of the most influ ential men in British history. Cromwell drafted the law that allowed Henry VIII to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn, setting into motion the brutal Pro testant Reformation.
Over the course of his career, Cromwell amassed a fortune through bribery and theft, and created many enemies along the way. His fall was spectacular--beheaded out side the Tower of London, his boiled head was placed on a spike above the London Bridge.
Rich in incident and colorful detail, this is narrative history at its finest.
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Thomas Dunne Books
September 01, 2009
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Excerpt from Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchinson
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.
SPANISH AMBASSADOR EUSTACE CHAPUYS, WRITING OF CROMWELL'S CAREER, 21 NOVEMBER 15351
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 Pound10 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 Pound11,000 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 Pound3,100 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 Pound17 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 Pound800,000 for the royal exchequer, or Pound319 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 Pound400. 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 Pound100 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 Pound100 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 Pound100, 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 [Pound470] 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 [Pound670], 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.