Monday, 27 May 2013

Henry VIII's "Enforcer": Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell has never been so famous. With the BBC's program on Cromwell given by Dr Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford University, this intense interest in Henry VIII's 'enforcer' has continued to develop, enhanced particularly by Hilary Mantel's sensationally successful trilogy, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies achieving international acclaim. Yet Thomas Cromwell, while certainly formidably intelligent, cunning, and shrewd, is somewhat of an enigma. But, as MacCulloch forcefully argues, it is he who the English people must thank for setting in place the initial processes which have led to the modern state of Britain as we know it today.

Before the phenomenal success of Hilary Mantel's novels, it's fair to say that Cromwell only inspired interest among Tudor academics within universities, or amongst historical novelists and dramatists dedicated to portraying the story of Anne Boleyn in their respective mediums (Cromwell, of course, playing a central role in both Anne's rise and fall). But many see, and continue to see (probably especially due to Mantel's characterisation), Cromwell as being 'a scheming, rapacious vulture'. Yet MacCulloch, in both his BBC program and in an article published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine, challenges this view.

Thomas Cromwell's rapid rise was nothing short of incredible. As MacCulloch puts it:

'Cromwell emerged from the back alleys of rural Putney (his father really was a thug) to become Earl of Essex, one of the oldest noble titles in the realm - yet in the moment of this greatest triumph, he was destroyed'.

Cromwell's birth date is unknown but it is likely to have been around 1485. He was born in Putney as the son of Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith, fuller and cloth merchant. Cromwell's notoriously low birth provided useful ammunition for his many enemies, instigating jealousy and hatred amongst the nobles who resented this low-born servant who had become the king's closest adviser. Cromwell's early life is very unknown, although he later informed his contemporary Archbishop Thomas Cranmer that he was a 'ruffian... in his young days'.

Cromwell's father was violent and an alcoholic, being fined by the local manor court on 48 occasions in the period 1475-1501. He was also later convicted of assault. Thomas left his family to travel in Europe and likely first joined the French army before fighting at the battle of Garigliano in 1503. He later joined the household of the merchant banker Francesco Frescobaldi, already establishing useful connections with international personages. In her books Mantel contends that Cromwell became fluent in several languages, which due to his extensive travels in Europe seems likely. Cromwell probably travelled next to the Netherlands where he may have worked as a cloth merchant.

Cromwell later, at an unknown date, returned to England where he married Elizabeth Williams, with whom he had his only surviving son Gregory (who would later marry the sister of Queen Jane Seymour). She died in 1527. At this time, according to Howard Leithead, 'Cromwell was... becoming established as a business agent', leading him into law. Consequently, 'by 1520 Cromwell was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles'. During the next few years Cromwell acquired frequent contact with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. In 1523 Cromwell entered the House of Commons, and a year or two later was made a member of Gray's Inn following his appointment as a subsidy commissioner in Middlesex; demonstrating his great success in law. By 1524 Cromwell had joined Wolsey's service due to his closeness with Thomas Heneage, another who served the cardinal.

In the early years of his service to the cardinal, Cromwell was involved in the suppression of religious houses which is surely ironic considering his later central role in leading the dissolution of the English monasteries. However, the suppression of religious houses in the 1520s occurred due to Wolsey's personal building projects (Cardinal College of the University of Oxford, and the founding of a grammar school in his hometown of Ipswich). Cromwell became very close to Wolsey through his personal skills, being appointed to the cardinal's council after 1526. Thus Cromwell 'increasingly supervised Wolsey's legal affairs and exercised considerable ecclesiastical patronage'.

At this momentous time, the King, disillusioned with his first marriage due to his queen's failure to bear a son, had fallen in love with a lady of the court, Anne Boleyn. However, Wolsey's failure to provide an annulment of the marriage to Katherine effected his downfall in 1529. According to George Cavendish, Wolsey's personal servant, Cromwell was distraught, fearing his own downfall as a result of his closeness to Wolsey. Yet this was not to be. Cromwell became greatly involved in the Reformation Parliament and may have taken a leading role in the Commons' campaign against the English clergy, leading to the Supplication of the Ordinaries in 1532.

According to Leithead:

'Cromwell's entry into the king's service is shrouded in myth. He has been credited with whispering into the king's ear a blueprint for all the revolutionary developments of the 1530s, whereupon he was immediately offered the task of putting his grand scheme into action. In reality his progress into the royal service was somewhat more prosaic'.

Leithead clearly disagrees with the famous theories propagated by Geoffrey Elton in 1953, who argued that Cromwell was essentially the author of modern, bureaucratic government which replaced the household nature of medieval government; in effect bringing about a 'Tudor Revolution in Government'. Reforms were introduced into the administration in the period 1532-40 which delineated the king's household from the state; while Cromwell drastically altered the role of Parliament. Yet Elton's theories have been intensely debated and criticised.

At the end of 1530 Cromwell became a member of the Council. He acted as Receiver-General and Supervisor of the acquired college lands from early 1531 and was officially appointed to these roles in 1532. He also supervised building works and was involved in law enforcement. Cromwell was extensively involved in drafting legislation related to the King's 'Great Matter' (his attempts to achieve an annulment of his first marriage). Soon 'Cromwell had taken control of the supervision of the king's legal and parliamentary affairs', working intimately with Thomas Audley (later Lord Chancellor of England). Around this time, Cromwell probably became closely involved with Anne Boleyn and her supporters due to their mutual evangelicalism, desiring to assert the Royal Supremacy over the English Church as a means of attaining the annulment. Yet, as Retha Warnicke stresses, any notion of an 'alliance' between Anne and Cromwell must not be taken too far.

Left: Anne Boleyn. Initially Cromwell's 'ally'; he played a central role in Anne's downfall in 1536.
Right: Anne of Cleves, the bride favoured by Cromwell as a means of strengthening England's alliance with a Protestant nation. Yet the king was personally repulsed; this failed marriage led to Cromwell's execution.

Cromwell played a critical role in bringing about the annulment. A fervent evangelical reformer with close contacts with reformers such as Miles Coverdale and Stephen Vaughan, Cromwell encouraged the king to favour religious reform. Cromwell became increasingly wealthy and influential from 1532, particularly due to Thomas More's resignation from the Council in May. He became Master of the Jewels in April of that year and became Chancellor of the Exchequer in April 1533. With Cranmer's appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, it can be argued that 'they were... a team'. (MacCulloch) They exerted considerable influence on Henry VIII, and, together with the evangelical Anne Boleyn, a definite atmosphere of religious reform developed in the English court.

In 1533 Henry VIII finally married Anne and her daughter Elizabeth was born that year. Cromwell was heavily involved in introducing a new bill curtailing the right to make appeals to Rome. The Act in Restraint of Appeals was passed in April 1533, ensuring further drastic reform of the Church. Cromwell also played a major role in making sure that the Pope was viciously attacked in official propaganda; and was involved in further measures such as the Act of Succession (which he strongly enforced throughout the country), the Dispensations Act, the Act for the Submission of the Clergy and the Act in Restraint of Annates.

Cromwell's power and influence increased dramatically when he was appointed principal secretary and chief minister in April 1534. Less well known perhaps, but which MacCulloch emphasises, was Cromwell's powerful involvement in social reform during these years, intending reforms in education, agriculture, trade, industry, poor relief and the common law (or 'common weal'.) Cromwell took action against enclosures, a particular agricultural method which aroused widespread resentment and opposition. The poor relief legislation of 1536 was notable, making parishes responsible for measures to combat local poverty. Cromwell is perhaps best known, however, for his ruthless enforcement of the Acts of Succession and Supremacy, punishing harshly those who refused to swear the oath. 'He was prepared to crush anyone who was perceived to be a significant threat', and in November 1534 Cromwell guided through the Treason Act which made it a crime to speak rebellious words against the royal family, insult the king, or deny their titles. Most incidents which came to his attention involved ordinary people's insults levelled at Queen Anne.

Cromwell's power within the Church also escalated, becoming royal vicegerent or vicar-general in January 1535. This saw him becoming actively involved in religious reform, leading to monastic visitations. Visitations of religious houses took place and from the spring of 1536 religious houses with an income of less than £2000 per annum were to be dissolved. Yet this caused a fall-out with Queen Anne, who resented the fact that the proceeds of the dissolved religious houses were to be paid into the coffers of the king and not instead be used on education or for charitable purposes. Anne's almoner at Easter denounced Cromwell publicly as her enemy and as an evil councillor. Historians fiercely dispute whether Cromwell 'masterminded' Anne's downfall in order to save himself, as she was a very real enemy due her opposition in religious affairs and matters of foreign policy (this view propagated by Ives and Weir). Others, such as Warnicke and Bernard, disagree for various reasons. It was probably Henry VIII's increasing disillusionment with his wife and love for Jane Seymour which led him to consider marrying again. Whatever the case, Cromwell promised his support to the so-called 'Aragonese' faction supporting Jane, and was involved in interrogating the Queen's supposed lovers and developing a case based on this. On 19 May the Queen was executed, along with the five men accused with her, and 11 days later the King married Jane.

Cromwell's position became even stronger; he was made Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon in July 1536 and Lord Privy Seal. However, this also meant that he acquired more enemies at court who resented his unprecedented influence and power. Cromwell was involved in further radical religious measures including the Ten Articles and the Injunctions, which sought to enforce these Articles throughout the kingdom. However, a series of northern rebellions erupted that autumn in response to these religious measures, demonstrating hostility to the radical nature of the English Church. Cromwell was blamed, along with others, for being an 'evil counsellor'. One can only wonder how the King responded to such sentiments.

During this time, and during the next few years, the dissolution of the monasteries proceeded apace. Yet the emergence of the Privy Council in around 1537, around the time of Queen Jane's death in childbirth, may have weakened Cromwell's religious position and strengthened that of nobles such as Norfolk and Suffolk. This made him even more reliant on the personal favour of the King as a means of ensuring his position remained secure. Yet, in the summer of that year, Cromwell's influence increased through being promoted to the Order of the Garter, a very selective and prestigious appointment shared by only 23 others.

The death of the queen saw Cromwell promoting a marriage alliance with the Protestant German princes, in particular with the relative of the Duke of Cleves, the Duchess Anne. This occurred in context of increasing hostility from the French and Spanish to the English - due to what they perceived as the 'heretical' religious situation there - leading England to require an ally urgently. As MacCulloch writes:

'...He became a busy and effective promoter of the new religion and its enthusiasts... in his latter years, he became a discreet organiser of contacts with the most radical European mainstream Reformations, in Zurich and northern Switzerland - far beyond anything the king could have approved, and highly dangerous for him'. 

In view of this, it is not surprising that Cromwell favoured an alliance with the 'Lutheran' Germans against the Catholic superpowers who threatened England's security. The situation in England was certainly dangerous since there is evidence that Henry VIII was beginning to become uneasy and unhappy about the development of religious reforms - at heart a religious conservative, these measures were disturbingly radical, even heretical, in his eyes. In 1538-9, according to Leithead 'the conservative faction was becoming a stronger and more cohesive force' which threatened Cromwell's security, leading him to mastermind the deaths of conservatives Edward Neville, Nicholas Carew, and the marquess of Exeter.

In 1539 Henry agreed to marry Anne of Cleves and she arrived in England in December of that year. However, the King found her personally repulsive and lashed out at Cromwell, blaming him for this travesty. The King reluctantly married Anne but refused to consummate the marriage. Possibly, conservatives at court noticed this and began to plot Cromwell's downfall. He was reported to be 'tottering' in April 1540. Yet, despite this, Cromwell was made Earl of Essex at that time.

The King's infatuation with the young Katherine Howard, occurring in context of his failed marriage to the Queen, provided the conditions for Cromwell's downfall. But it was the charges of heresy which led to Cromwell's death. As has been noted, the reforms instigated had been too radical for the King, and Cromwell's known communication with radical Protestants on the Continent was eagerly utilised by his enemies as evidence of treason. It did not help that Cromwell had personally angered the Duke of Norfolk - who, coincidentally, was Katherine's uncle - through dissolving Thetford Priory, which was the family burial place of the Norfolk dukes. As MacCulloch convincingly states:

'He [Cromwell] also died because members of the English nobility were affronted that this talented upstart usurped what they regarded as their natural place in government'.

In a court in which social status, wealth and closeness to the throne were pivotal, Cromwell's low birth, his richness, and his powerful influence with Henry VIII aroused deep resentment and hostility, particularly among established nobles such as Norfolk. The King's love for Norfolk's niece led Norfolk to espy an opportunity to bring down the hated Cromwell. In June, Cromwell was arrested at a Council meeting for treason and heresy, with Norfolk personally ripping the Garter badge of St George from Cromwell's clothing. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and executed on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540 - coincidentally, the same day that his master married Katherine.

MacCulloch characterises Cromwell as 'a cool, self-contained idealist who wanted to shape the kingdom of England in the name of  new religion - the remaker of this realm'. 

Did Cromwell really enact a 'Tudor revolution in government'? Did he play a pivotal role in the eventual triumph of the modern nation-state, and a secular society in Britain?

Perhaps Leithead is most accurate in suggesting:

'...Thomas Cromwell remains strangely elusive... it was through a life of service that he was able to become one of the richest and most powerful men in England... both the life and legacy of Thomas Cromwell have aroused enormous controversy. While opinions of him vary his effectiveness and creativity as a royal minister cannot be denied.'

It is surely significant that, just months after Cromwell's execution, Henry VIII lamented that:

'under pretext of some slight offences which he [Cromwell] had committed, they [the nobles] had brought several accusations against him, on the strength of which he had put to death the most faithful servant he ever had'.

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