Born in the mid-1480s to a lowly blacksmith, Cromwell left home at eighteen to make his fortune abroad. He served as a mercenary in the French army, worked for a powerful merchant banker in Florence at the height of the Italian Renaissance, and became a promising young cloth merchant in the Netherlands, then the mercantile capital of the world. But Cromwell decided to return to England and there built a flourishing legal practice. It wasn’t long before Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was the Archbishop of York and the King’s closest confidant, took note of Cromwell’s immense intelligence, resourcefulness, and wit, turning him into his protégé. When Wolsey was put under arrest for overstepping his bounds, Cromwell both protected his mentor and supplanted him. And he accomplished what Wolsey never could: Henry’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon and a revolution in Britain’s religious life.
As Henry’s top aide, Cromwell was at the heart of the most momentous event of his timefrom funding the translation and dissemination of the first vernacular Bible to legitimizing Anne Boleyn as queenand wielded immense power over both church and state. The impact of his seismic political, religious, and social reforms can still be felt today. Grounded in excellent primary source research, Thomas Cromwell gives an inside look at a monarchy that has captured the Western imagination for centuries and tells the story of a controversial and enigmatic man who forever changed the shape of his country.
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'A great traveller in the world'
The man who would one day become the most powerful in England was of such humble origins that nobody can be sure when or where he was born. In his famous account of sixteenth-century martyrs, John Foxe described Thomas Cromwell as 'a man but of a base stock and house'. The likeliest date for his birth is 1485, which, if true, would be satisfyingly appropriate for it was in this year that the Tudors came to power. Henry Tudor's victory over Richard III at Bosworth Field has been hailed ever since as one of the momentous dates in history. It brought to an end the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet (York and Lancaster), which had torn England apart for more than three decades. But, at the time, nobody could have predicted that this obscure Welshman, a Lancastrian with a dubious claim to the throne, would establish a dynasty that would dominate English and European politics, religion and society for more than a century.
Significant though it was, the dawn of a new dynasty, which took place on a remote Leicestershire field in August 1485, must have seemed a world away to the inhabitants of Putney, where Thomas Cromwell's family lived and worked. It was probably either in this small village to the west of London or in nearby Wimbledon that Cromwell was born. John Foxe noted that Cromwell was born 'of a simple Parentage, and a House obscure ... at Putney or thereabouts'. Tradition has it that his birthplace was at the top of Putney Hill, on the edge of Putney Heath – a notorious haunt of highwaymen.
The Cromwells were not originally from this corner of southwest London, but from Norwell in Nottinghamshire. They were then a family of wealth and status, and John Cromwell (Thomas's grandfather) was both well-known and highly respected. By 1461, he had moved with his family and brother-in-law, William Smith, to Wimbledon, where he was granted the lease of a fulling-mill and house by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His eldest son, John, moved to Lambeth and became a prosperous brewer, later securing the position of cook to the archbishop. His second son, Walter, meanwhile, remained in Wimbledon and was probably apprenticed to his uncle because he took the name Smith.
The records suggest that Thomas was the youngest of three children, and the only boy, born to Walter Cromwell and his wife Katherine née Meverell. He may have been an unexpected child since he was considerably younger than his sisters. In the only recorded reference to his mother, Thomas made the unlikely claim that she was fifty-two when she bore him. The only details that can be found about Katherine in the contemporary records were that she was the aunt of Nicholas Glossop of Wirksworth in Derbyshire, and that she was living in the house of a Putney attorney, John Welbeck, at the time of her marriage around 1474. The fact that Nicholas was more than thirty years older than his cousin adds weight to the theory that Thomas was the youngest of Katherine's children.
Walter Cromwell, meanwhile, was an enterprising man with a number of different but presumably complementary professions, as a blacksmith, brewer and fuller (cloth dresser). According to contemporary sources, Walter had served as a farrier in Henry Tudor's contingent at the Battle of Bosworth. As such, he would hardly have been in the thick of the battle, but the fact that he chose, or was chosen, to serve the invading army, rather than the superior force of the reigning king, Richard III, is interesting. That the Cromwells should be in the Tudors' service as soon as they landed on English soil seems very apt given the career of Walter's son.
The Cromwell family had owned a fulling mill at Putney for fifty years. Walter also owned a hostelry, called the Anchor, and a brewery, along with two virgates (sixty acres) of land. In the Close Rolls of Henry VII's reign, he is listed as a 'bere-bruer'. His success as a local tradesman was recognised by regular calls to serve as a juryman, and then his appointment as constable of Putney in 1495. He also rapidly acquired new land, and by 1500 he owned eight virgates (an amount of land that could be ploughed by two oxen). The family home and brewery were opposite the top of the appropriately named Brewhouse Lane, which today still runs the short distance from Putney Bridge Road to the River Thames. At the river's edge was a landing site for river-borne craft, and this was a common stopping place for people on their way from London to the towns and villages of west Surrey and the counties beyond. A house by the river in modern-day Putney would demand a premium, but the area was a good deal less salubrious in the sixteenth century. A fishery stood at the other end of Brewhouse Lane, so the Cromwells' home would have been constantly assaulted by the pungent smells emanating from it.
There is no record of what the house was like, but given Walter's status in the local community and his various business interests, he could probably have afforded a home with rather more comforts than most other residents of Putney. The majority of houses were built with timber and wattle and daub, rather than bricks. The timber frames were often coated with black tar to prevent them from rotting, and the walls in between were whitewashed. The predominance of wood made these houses susceptible to fire, and if Walter Cromwell's smithy was close to the family home, theirs would have been at greater risk than most. It was common for ordinary houses to have just one room, which would serve as a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room. Some of the larger houses, such as the Cromwells may have owned, would have had one or two partitions to separate these functions, and an outdoor privy was usual for most dwellings. The Tudor period saw the widespread introduction of fireplaces and accompanying chimneys in more affluent households, replacing the open hearths in the centre of the room that were normally found in medieval and poorer dwellings. Even so, houses of both classes were generally cold and draughty, and many people brought their animals inside to help generate warmth in the winter months. Furniture would be sparse and simple, such as benches, stools, tables and chests. People slept on mattresses stuffed with straw and ridden with vermin of all kinds. Carpets were the luxury of the rich, and ordinary people strewed the floor of their home with rushes, reeds and sweet-smelling herbs. The herbs were required to cover a variety of unpleasant aromas, including the tallow candles and rush lights that were made from animal fat, not to mention the smell of the infrequently washed occupants.
The London that Thomas Cromwell would have known as a youth was described by Andreas Franciscius, an Italian visitor, in November 1497: 'Its position is so pleasant and delightful that it would be hard to find one more convenient and attractive,' he wrote. 'It stands on the banks of the river Thames, the biggest river in the whole island, which divides the town into two parts.' Franciscius estimated that the city itself was no more than three miles in circumference, but added: 'Its suburbs are so large that they greatly increase its circuit.' He went on to describe some of the more notable landmarks:
It is defended by handsome walls, especially on the northern side, where they have recently been rebuilt. Within these stands a very strongly defended castle on the banks of the river [the Tower of London], where the King of England and his Queen sometimes have their residence. There are also other great buildings, and especially a beautiful and convenient bridge over the Thames, of many marble arches, which has on it many shops built of stone and mansions and even a church of considerable size. Nowhere have I seen a finer or more richly built bridge.
Unencumbered by modern flood barriers, the daily coming in of the tide was a spectacular event: 'The ocean is sixty miles from the city, but notwithstanding this, its high tide is so strong and flows up the Thames with such power that it not only stops the river's current, but even pushes it back and forces it to return upstream, which is a wonderful sight.'
Franciscius went on to describe the 'many workshops of craftsmen in all sorts of mechanical arts', including blacksmiths, like Cromwell's father. Even the food met with the visitor's approval.
They delight in banquets and variety of meat and food, and they excel everyone in preparing them with excessive abundance. They eat very frequently, at times more than is suitable, and are particularly fond of young swans, rabbits, deer and sea birds. They often eat mutton and beef, which is generally considered to be better here than anywhere else in the world. This is due to the excellence of their pastures. They have all kinds of fish in plenty and great quantities of oysters which come from the sea-shore. The majority, not to say everyone, drink that beverage I have spoken of before [ale], and prepare it in various ways. For wine is very expensive, as the vine does not grow in this island.
Not everything was to Franciscius's liking, however.
All the streets are so badly paved that they get wet at the slightest quantity of water, and this happens very frequently owing to the large numbers of cattle carrying water, as well as on account of the rain, of which there is a great deal in this island. Then a vast amount of evil-smelling mud is formed, which does not disappear quickly but lasts a long time, in fact nearly the whole year round. The citizens, therefore, in order to remove this mud and filth from their boots, are accustomed to spread fresh rushes on the floors of all houses, on which they clean the soles of their shoes when they come in.
He was also shocked by the 'fierce tempers and wicked dispositions' of the Londoners, and abhorred the contempt and neglect they showed to their children.
Walter Cromwell seemed to conform to this stereotype, particularly in his relationship with his son Thomas. He did at least secure good marriages for his daughters, although this may have been more to consolidate his own social standing than out of concern for their happiness. The elder, Katherine, married an aspiring Welsh lawyer named Morgan Williams, whose family had moved to Putney from Glamorganshire. Morgan's brother was an important man in Putney, being the steward to John, Lord Scales of Nayland. Katherine's younger sister Elizabeth married a sheep farmer, William Wellyfed, who later joined his business to that of his father-in-law.
Despite being a man of some standing in the local community, Walter was often in trouble with the law. He was fined six pence by the manor court on no fewer than forty-eight occasions between 1475 and 1501 for 'breaches of the assizes of ale', which meant that he had been watering down the beer he sold. Such offences had become increasingly common as the fifteenth century progressed, which prompted the Brewers' Company to issue a set of stringent ordinances to ensure that all those 'occupying the craft of brewing' should make 'good and hable ale, according in strength and fineness to the price of malt'. Official tasters were appointed to carry out random checks on the city's brewers, so Walter's attempts to increase his profits in this way were soon discovered. It is possible that he had been assisted in this business by his wife: brewing was one of the few professions in which wives were actively encouraged to participate. The poet John Skelton created a satirical portrait of a harridan ale-wife, whose drunken antics won such women notoriety – often ill-deserved. Although there were local entrepreneurs like Walter and his wife, it was England's monastic communities that were the real centre of brewing excellence. It is ironic that the son of a brewing family would orchestrate their downfall, which in turn had a devastating impact upon the country's brewing industry.
Brewing was not the only activity that landed Walter Cromwell in trouble with the law. He was frequently reprimanded for allowing his cattle to graze too freely on public land. His most serious conviction came in 1477 when he was found guilty of assault. He had 'drawn blood' from a man named William Michell and was fined twenty pence. Walter and his father John were also regularly brought before the local court on charges of 'overburthening' the public land in Putney with their cattle, and cutting more than their share of the furze and thorns there. Increasingly unpopular with the local community, Walter was finally evicted from his manorial tenancy in 1514, after 'falsely and fraudulently' altering documents concerning his tenure. All his lands were forfeited, and the fact that he is mentioned no more in the records suggests that he may have died shortly afterwards.
An intriguing remark made by Walter's son Thomas many years later hints that he had inherited some of his father's less admirable traits. He would confide to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer what a 'ruffian he was in his young days'. The Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, claimed that 'Cromwell was illbehaved when young, and after an imprisonment was forced to leave the country.' Although there is no other evidence to corroborate this, it was possible for a father to have his son imprisoned without legal process in this period.
There are no other details of Thomas's childhood and education. Given Walter's standing in the community, and his various sources of income, it might be reasonable to assume that he had invested in some schooling for his son. But according to an account of Cromwell's life published in 1715, 'this Great Man's Father, being of so low a Vocation, was not in a Capacity to bestow much on his Son's Education.' That Cromwell was self-taught is also suggested by the Elizabethan chronicler Ralph Holinshed, who claimed that he had a 'bely of knowledge, gathered by painefull trauaile'. It was common for children to leave the family home between the ages of seven and nine in order to enter 'hard service in the houses of other people'. These apprenticeships would generally last for a further seven or nine years, 'and during that time they perform all the most menial of offices'. There is no record of Cromwell having been an apprentice, but Holinshed records that 'few are born who are exempted from this fate.'
The records hint at a difficult relationship between the two male members of the Cromwell household. If Thomas was a chip off the old block, this apparently did little to endear him to his father, and it may have been a row between them that prompted his decision to leave Putney around 1503. The contemporary Italian novelist Matteo Bandello claims that Cromwell was fleeing from his father. John Foxe paints a rather rosier picture, claiming that 'in his growing years, as he shot up in age and ripeness, a great delight came into his mind to stray into forreign Countries to see the World abroad, and to learn experience.'
Not content with simply escaping the family home, Thomas left England altogether. In an age when people rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of their immediate locality, and those from other counties were viewed as 'foreigners', this was an extraordinarily daring and adventurous enterprise, especially for one of his lowly status. A play written about his life and published in 1602 has the young Cromwell already dreaming of making his fortune, and telling his father: 'The time will come when I shall hold gold as trash ... Why should my birth keep down my mounting spirit?' This image of youthful ambition is seductive. It is possible that Cromwell had already secured employment abroad before he left London. The capital was full of merchants from overseas, as Franciscius describes:
not only Venice but also Florence and Lucca, and many from Genoa and Pisa, from Spain, Germany, the Rhine valley and other countries meet here to handle business with utmost keenness, having come from the different parts of the world. But the chief exports from the island are wool and fabrics, considered the best in the world, and white lead, for the island is more freely endowed with these commodities than any other country. By sea and the Thames goods of all kinds can be brought into London and taken from the city to other destinations.
Cromwell may have made contact with one of these merchants through his father's businesses.
It is not clear how he raised the money for the voyage: the notion of him as a penniless young stowaway is appealing, but he might equally have taken a job on the ship. A large vessel, such as Henry VIII's ill-fated flagship, the Mary Rose, could have a crew of up to 400 men. This included servants, cooks, pursers and surgeons, as well as the sailors and officers. Cromwell could have secured one of the lowlier positions. As Foxe later observed: 'Nothing was so hard which with wit and industry he could not compass.'
Cromwell went first to the Netherlands, and travelled from there to France. The records provide little clue as to where precisely he lived, or how he earned money enough to survive. The first recorded mention of him is in late autumn 1503, when he joined an expedition to Italy as part of the French army. It is not clear how long he had served by this time. The fact that he would later demonstrate an unusually detailed knowledge of the French military system suggests that he may already have gained some experience by the time that he embarked for Italy. According to his future adversary, Cardinal Reginald Pole, Cromwell served as a 'gregarium militem' or 'common soldier'. Although Scottish soldiers often fought for France, it was very unusual for English ones to do so in this period. Cromwell may have been inspired by examples from the fourteenth century, when English mercenaries made their fortunes fighting in Italy. If he thought service with the French was a path to riches and glory, however, he was to be disappointed.(Continues…)
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Copyright © 2014 Tracy Borman.
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Table of Contents
1. 'A great traveller in the world',
2. The Cardinal,
3. 'Not without sorow',
4. 'Make or marre',
5. 'The frailty of human affairs',
6. The King's 'Great Matter',
7. 'The suddaine rising of some men',
8. 'Hevy wordes and terrible thretes',
9. 'Good master secretary',
11. 'A more gracious mistress',
12. 'The Lady in the Tower',
14. 'Some convenyent punishment',
15. 'These knaves which rule abowte the kyng',
16. The Flanders Mare,
17. 'Cromwell is tottering',
18. 'Mercye mercye mercye',
19. 'Many lamented but more rejoiced',
Epilogue: 'A man of mean birth but noble qualities',