Thomas Cromwell was born in London, in about 1485. His father, Walter Cromwell, was a blacksmith, fuller, and cloth merchant, as well as the owner of both a hostelry and a brewery.
Walter Cromwell's success in business resulted in him being appointed as a constable in Putney. "Walter Cromwell's modest success as a tradesman is reflected by his frequent service as a juryman and his appointment as constable of Putney in 1495. He secured good marriages to local men for his daughters: the elder, Katherine, married Morgan Williams, an aspiring Welsh lawyer; her younger sister, Elizabeth, married a farmer, William Wellyfed. Katherine and Morgan's son Richard changed his name to Cromwell and worked in his uncle's service." (1) Richard's great-grandson was Oliver Cromwell, the lord protector.
Walter Cromwell developed a drink problem and was fined 6d. by the manor court on forty-eight occasions for breaches of the assize of ale, and he was also often reprimanded for allowing his cattle to graze too freely on public land. On another occasion he was convicted of assault and fined 20d. This seemed to have an impact on Thomas and later admitted that in his youth he was a "ruffian" and was said to be imprisoned for a short while.
In his late teens Cromwell travelled to Italy. He became a soldier and fought at the Battle of Garigliano on 28th December 1503. The following year he joined the household of the merchant banker Francesco Frescobaldi. (2) The Italian novelist Matteo Bandello tells how the destitute Cromwell confronted Frescobaldi in Florence, begging for his assistance. "Frescobaldi is said instantly to have taken pity on him and invited him to stay in his household, where he provided clothes and money. Bandello also records that when Cromwell decided to return to England, Frescobaldi gave him sixteen gold ducats and a strong horse." (3)
Cromwell did not go home and instead went to the Netherlands, where he worked as a cloth merchant. Over the next couple of years Cromwell certainly visited leading mercantile centres as Antwerp and Bruges. There he learned his trade living among the English merchants and was able to develop an important network of contacts, as well as learning several languages, including German, French and Italian. (4)
Cromwell returned to England and worked as a cloth merchant. He also studied law during this period. (5) Wolsey married Elizabeth Wykys in about 1515. Over the next few years she gave birth to three children, Gregory, Anne and Grace. (6) Cromwell's father-in-law, Henry Wyckes, had served Henry VII as a gentleman usher. He was also a good business contact and was a significant figure in the cloth trade in London. By 1520 Cromwell was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles. In 1521 he was employed by the London bakers' guild to draft petitions to the government. (7) A contemporary described him as a "a short, stoutly built man, with a large face, smooth shaven, with close-cropped hair, and a heavy double chin, with a small and cruel mouth, an extraordinary long upper lip, and a pair of gray eyes set closely together, and moving restlessly under his light eyebrows." (8)
In 1523 Cromwell became a member of the House of Commons. In one speech he advises against war against France. He argued that he is as committed as anyone to reclaiming France for the king, but claimed that the venture would be too expensive. He pointed out that the cost of the previous French War (1512-1514) had been enormous. It is estimated that most of the wealth Henry VIII inherited from his father had been used to finance the war. This had resulted in Parliament having to grant a tax upon every adult male, a measure that proved unpopular and difficult to collect and had caused public disorder. (9) Instead he suggested conquering Scotland, whose union with England will in turn make France more submissive.
Thomas Cromwell was appointed a subsidy commissioner in Middlesex. In 1524 he carried out legal work for John Aleyn, a London alderman and a senior member of the Mercers' Company. During this work he came into contact with Thomas Heneage, a close associate of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Heneage was impressed with Cromwell and recommended him to Wolsey and later that year he was carrying out work for the king's Lord Chancellor. (10)
Thomas Wolsey decided in 1525 to establish Cardinal College (now Christ Church) in Oxford. In order to pay for this he dissolved twenty-nine monasteries on the grounds that they were greedy and uncaring landlords. It was also claimed that the monks had been corrupted by the wealth obtained from renting their land. The college was built on the land owned by the Priory of St Frideswide. (11) Wolsey selected Thomas Cromwell to arrange the selling the lands and goods owned by the monasteries. (12) Cromwell wrote to Wolsey praising his achievement: "The magnificent buildings of your noble college... in every man's judgement has never been seen." (13)
In 1528 Thomas Cromwell's wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters, Anne and Grace, died during an epidemic of sweating sickness. Peter Ackroyd has pointed out: "Sweating sickness... was a fever, accompanied by a profuse and foul-smelling sweat, began its progress. It was accompanied by sharp pains in the back and shoulders before moving to the liver; lethargy and drowsiness ensued, with a sleep that often led to death. Swift and merciless, it became known as the sweat or the sweating sickness." (14)
Cromwell was now recognized as one of the cardinal's most senior and trusted advisers, as well as managing to maintain a prosperous private legal practice. However, Wolsey was having serious problems with his relationship with Henry VIII who wanted a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. The historian, Eric William Ives, has argued: "At first, however, Henry had no thought of marriage. He saw Anne as someone to replace her sister, Mary (wife of one of the privy chamber staff, William Carey), who had just ceased to be the royal mistress. Certainly the physical side of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was already over and, with no male heir, Henry decided by the spring of 1527 that he had never validly been married and that his first marriage must be annulled.... However, Anne continued to refuse his advances, and the king realized that by marrying her he could kill two birds with one stone, possess Anne and gain a new wife." (15)
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was given the task of arranging the divorce. Henry sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. Henry relied on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to sort the situation out. During negotiations the Pope forbade Henry to contract a new marriage until a decision was reached in Rome.
After two years of careful diplomatic negotiation a trial opened at Blackfriars on 18th June 1529 to prove the illegality of the marriage, presided over by Wolsey and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio. Catherine made a spirited defence of her position. George Cavendish was an eyewitness in the court. He quotes her saying: "Sir, I beseech you, for all the loves that hath been betrayed us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right. Take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman and a stranger born out of your dominion. I have here no assured friend, and much less indifferent counsel. I flee to you as the head of justice within this realm. Alas, Sir, where have I offended you? Or what occasion have you of displeasure, that you intend to put me from you? I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife, ever conformable to your will and pleasure. I have been pleased and contented with all things wherein you had delight and dalliance. I never grudged a word or countenance, or showed a spark of discontent. I loved all those whom you loved only for your sake, whether I had cause or no, and whether they were my friends or enemies. This twenty years and more I have been your true wife, and by me you have had many children, though it hath pleased God to call them out of this world, which hath been no fault in me." (16)
The trial was adjourned by Campeggi on 30th July to allow Catherine's petition to reach Rome. This caused serious problems for Wolsey: "This instantly and considerably weakened Wolsey's position, giving the hostile coterie of courtiers who flocked around Anne the leverage they needed to topple him. Nevertheless he fought hard to retain office, and the king's evident reluctance to lose his services enabled him to cling to power until the autumn. It was not until 18th October that Wolsey resigned the great seal, and even then Henry protected him against complete ruin." (17) With the encouragement of Anne Boleyn, Henry became convinced that Wolsey's loyalties lay with the Pope. (18)
Thomas Cromwell feared that he would suffer for being so closely associated with Wolsey. He received a letter from his friend, Stephen Vaughan, who had written to him from Antwerp to console him following Wolsey's fall from power, assuring him: "You are more hated for your master's sake than for anything which I think you have wrongfully done against any man". (19) However, he still had some good contacts and with the help of Sir William Paulet he managed to obtain the seat for Taunton in the House of Commons.
Wolsey's palaces and colleges were confiscated by the crown as a punishment for his offences, and he retired to his home in York. He began secretly negotiating with foreign powers in an attempt to get their support in persuading Henry to restore him to favour. Thomas Cromwell, warned him that his enemies knew what he was doing. He was arrested and charged with high treason. Wolsey died on 29th November 1530 before he could be brought to trial. (20)
Cromwell still had friends who were close to Henry VIII. This included Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Heneage. The attorney-general, Sir Christopher Hales, was also a great admirer of Cromwell and suggested to the King that he could be of use to the government. By 1531 Cromwell had taken control of the supervision of the King's legal and parliamentary affairs. His work included the sale and receipt of land for the king; the supervising of building works at Westminster and the Tower of London; and involvement in various matters of law enforcement, such as hearing appeals and deciding the fate of prisoners and felons brought before him. (21)
Thomas Cromwell made contact with Robert Barnes, a close associate of Martin Luther in the summer of 1531. Cromwell asked him to discover Luther's opinion on the divorce proceedings between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Luther's response was unfavourable to the king, but Barnes's seemed to be willing to compromise his views in order to return to England. He produced Supplication unto King Henry VIII and sent a copy to Cromwell who then showed it to Henry.
In early 1532 Barnes travelled to London under the protection of Cromwell and was granted a private audience with the king. As David Loades, the author of Thomas Cromwell (2013) has pointed out: "Although his supplication was offensive to the monarch in the sense that it advocated justification by faith alone, it also explained a number of Lutheran tenents in terms which were acceptable to his sovereign. The king would have been looking for some endorsement of his position on his marriage, and over that it is likely that Barnes was non-committal." (22)
Sir Thomas More considered Barnes a heretic and protested about his meeting with the king. He pointed out that in Barnes's writings he had said that if his king ordered him to violate God's law, he must disobey and passively suffer martyrdom, though even then he must not resist the king by force. Barnes had also said that if the king ordered a man to burn his copy of the Bible, he would be justified in disobeying. More argued that Henry had ordered the burning of Bibles in English and therefore he was acting in a seditious manner. Barnes was in danger of being arrested and so he returned to Antwerp. (23)
Thomas Cromwell developed a reputation for the leading expert in drafting legislation in Parliament. In January 1532 Cromwell called into question the right of the Church to make laws of its own. His main opponent was Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who argued that the Church's right to make its own laws was "grounded upon the Scripture of God and determination of Holy Church, which must also be a rule and square to try the justice of all laws, as well spiritual as temporal." (24)
John Guy, the author of Tudor England (1986) has argued that Cromwell was a natural orator. "He made a formidable adversary in debate, sharp enough to defeat More, John Fisher, and Stephen Gardiner in verbal tussles. But his manner was usually relaxed and always engaging. When speaking, his face lit up; his conversation sparkled; and he cast roguish oblique glances when striking aphorisms. Most important, his talent for managing men and institutions was instinctive. Of course, for all his ease of manner, accessibility, and capacity for friendship, Cromwell had a dangerous edge. He was a politician who got things done. A degree of ruthlessness was the corollary of his single-mindedness." (25)
Henry VIII insisted that the Church should abandon its claim to make laws without royal permission. Thomas Cromwell fully supported the king in the House of Commons and successfully manipulated the mood of the members by encouraging their anti-clerical grievances. "There is little doubt that in his support for the royal supremacy Cromwell was influenced by genuine evangelical convictions. He was probably also acting with the enthusiasm of a recent convert." (26)
William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made comments suggesting that he was willing to follow the example of Thomas Becket, and resist the king's demands. However, he was now over eighty and lacking in both health and strength, and eventually submitted to the king's will. Sir Thomas More, the man who replaced Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor, remained opposed to the idea and resigned from office.
Archbishop Warham died in August 1532, and was replaced by Thomas Cranmer. He was the ideal man for Henry, since he believed in royal supremacy over the Church. In March 1533, Cranmer was formally consecrated, but immediately before the ceremony he read aloud a statement declaring that while he was willing to take the customary oaths of allegiance to the Pope it would be with the reservation that his duty to the King came first. Cranmer obtained a licence from Henry authorising him to try the case of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He set up his court at Dunstable and on 23rd May pronounced judgement that Henry's so-called marriage with Catherine had never been valid and that the King must stop living in sin with this woman who was not his wife. (27)
Cromwell was rewarded in his role in acquiring the divorce by being appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He also arranged for the arrest of Elizabeth Barton and her supporters. Barton had been having visions of the future since 1525. Her predictions were popular and she developed a large following. However, in 1532, she began claiming that if Henry remarried, he would die shortly thereafter, and said she had seen the place in Hell where he would go. Barton was later executed to show the English public that Henry would not allow any dissent concerning his marriage. (28)
Anne Boleyn was pregnant. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead. Anne was crowned queen on 1st June, 1533. It was very important to Henry that his wife should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England.
Elizabeth was born on 7th September, 1533. Henry expected a son and selected the names of Edward and Henry. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne. (29) Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has pointed out: "As the king's only legitimate child, Elizabeth was, until the birth of a prince, his heir and was to be treated with all the respect that a female of her rank deserved. Regardless of her child's sex, the queen's safe delivery could still be used to argue that God had blessed the marriage. Everything that was proper was done to herald the infant's arrival." (30)
In 1533 Hans Holbein painted Thomas Cromwell. The original is lost but a very good copy can be found at the Frick Art Museum. (31) Several critics have argued that Holbein has painted Cromwell in a very unsympathetic way. Joan Acocella has pointed out: "He (Cromwell) wrote the laws making the King, not the Pope, the head of the English Church, and declaring the English monasteries, with all their wealth, the property of the Crown. To achieve these epochal changes, he had to impose his will on many people, and that is clear in Holbein’s painting. Cromwell is hard and heavy and dressed all in black. His mean little eyes peer forward, as if he were deciding whom to pillory, whom to send to the Tower." (32) The authors of Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in Renaissance England (2000) agree and suggest that "of all the portraits that Holbein did at the English court, the portrait of Cromwell has always seemed the least flattering to it's subject, the most viciously mocking." (33)
Waldermar Januszczak has argued that the portrait of Thomas Cromwell is an accurate representation of the man: "When I was at school Cromwell was portrayed by everyone as a terrible man. Henry VIII's enforcer, the destroyer of the monasteries, in recent years there has been a big reassessment and the modern image of him, the one you find of him in books, plays, as a decent and brilliant man, trapped in a difficult situation. Cromwell we are now told was an early civil servant who channeled power away from the monarchy and the man who invented the bureaucratic modern state. These days we are encouraged to see Cromwell as a good guy, but in this film I am not going to do that... Holbein's portrait of him (Cromwell).... Just look at him. He has a hard and charmless presence. Those piggy eyes, that blank expression, Cromwell is surely the least attractive sitter in the whole of Holbein's art... Holbein was actually there, who happened to be the greatest portrait painter of his time." (34)
Hilary Mantel feels that Holbein has been unfair on Cromwell: "Thomas Cromwell had not yet acquired his status as Henry’s chief minister; as the paper on his desk informs us, he was Master of the Jewel House. A gregarious, cosmopolitan man who had spent time in Italy and the Low Countries, he was probably better placed to know Holbein’s worth than many of his courtier contemporaries. The politician and the painter, both due to rise rapidly at Henry’s court, were bound together by a network of shared friends and shared interests. But the portrait is not a friendly one.... There are no metaphors in his Cromwell picture. There is no echo of his portrait of Thomas More: none of that swift intelligence, intensity, engagement with the viewer. What you see is what you get. Cromwell looks like a man hard to reach and hard to impress. He does not invite you to conversation. His posture is attentive, though, as if he might be listening to someone or something beyond the frame. Of course, a Tudor statesman who commissioned his portrait didn’t want to look bonny. He wanted to look powerful; he was the hand, the arm, of the state." (35)
Henry VIII formed a high opinion of Cromwell's abilities. It has been argued that the king "had many able diplomats, he had no administrator and political manager of Cromwell's calibre." (36) In December 1533 Henry gave Cromwell permission to unleash all the resources of the state in discrediting the papacy. "In one of the fiercest and ugliest smear campaigns in English history the minister showed his mastery of propaganda techniques as the pope was attacked throughout the nation in sermons and pamphlets. In the new year another session of parliament was summoned to enact the necessary legislation to break formally the remaining ties which bound England to Rome, again under Cromwell's meticulous supervision." (37)
In March 1534 Pope Clement VII eventually made his decision. He announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In April 1534 Henry confirmed Cromwell as his principal secretary and chief minister, a position he had held in all but name for some time. In November 1534, Parliament passed an act that stated that Henry VIII was now the Head of the Church of England.
Thomas Cromwell was sympathetic towards the radical reformers such as Robert Barnes and Hugh Latimer. (38) He had been prosecuted under Thomas Wolsey and had fled to Antwerp where he associated with Martin Luther. Cromwell invited him to return to England where he wrote pamphlets in the defence of the royal supremacy. "He also argued that the Catholic Church, with its elaborate hierarchy, its shrines, pilgrimages, relics and indulgences, was irrelevant to the human condition." (39)
In January 1535, Thomas Cromwell was appointed as Vicar-General. This made him the King's deputy as Supreme Head of the Church. On 3rd June he sent a letter to all the bishops ordering them to preach in support of the supremacy, and to ensure that the clergy in their dioceses did so as well. A week later he sent further letters to Justices of Peace ordering them to report any instances of his instructions being disobeyed. In the following month he turned his attention to the monasteries. In September he suspended the authority of every bishop in the country so that the six canon lawyers he had appointed as his agents could complete their surveys of the monasteries. (40)
The survey revealed that the total annual income of all the monasteries was about £165,500. The eleven thousand monks and nuns in this institutions also controlled about a quarter of all the cultivated land in England. The six lawyers provided detailed reports on the monasteries. According to David Starkey: "Their subsequent reports concentrated on two areas: the sexual failings of the monks, on which subject the visitors managed to combine intense disapproval with lip-smacking detail, and the false miracles and relics, of which they gave equally gloating accounts." (41)
A Parliament was called in February 1536 to discuss these reports. With the encouragement of Cromwell they agreed to pass the Act for the Dissolution of Monasteries. This stated that all religious houses with an annual income of less than £200 were to be "suppressed". A total of 419 monastic houses were obliged to close but the abbots made petitions for exemptions, and 176 of the monasteries were allowed to stay open. It is believed that Cromwell was bribed in money and goods to reach this agreement. (42) Monastery land was seized and sold off cheaply to nobles and merchants. They in turn sold some of the lands to smaller farmers. This process meant that a large number of people had good reason to support the monasteries being closed. Thomas Fuller, the author of The Church History of Britain: Volume IV (1845) has argued that dissolution of the monasteries was of great personal benefit to Thomas Cromwell, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley, Solicitor-General Richard Rich and Richard Southwell. (43)
Anne Boleyn was one of those who complained about Cromwell's treatment of the monasteries. As Eric William Ives has pointed out: "The fundamental reason for this was disagreement over the assets of the monasteries: Anne's support for the redeployment of monastic resources directly contradicted Cromwell's intention to put the proceeds of the dissolution into the king's coffers. The bill dissolving the smaller monasteries had passed both houses of parliament in mid-March, but before the royal assent was given Anne launched her chaplains on a dramatic preaching campaign to modify royal policy.... Cromwell was pilloried before the whole council as an evil and greedy royal adviser from the Old Testament, and specifically identified as the queen's enemy. Nor could the minister shrug off this declaration of war, even though, in spite of Anne's efforts, the dissolution act became law." (44)
Henry VIII continued to try to produce a male heir. Anne Boleyn had two miscarriages and was pregnant again when she discovered Jane Seymour sitting on her husband's lap. Anne "burst into furious denunciation; the rage brought on a premature labour and was delivered of a dead boy" in late January or early February, 1536. (45) What is more, the baby was badly deformed. (46) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine and married Anne.
Henry now approached Thomas Cromwell about how he could get out of his marriage with Anne. Cromwell decided to take this opportunity to remove the influence of Anne and her friends. Cromwell's biographer, Howard Leithead, has pointed out: "Anne Boleyn was well known for conducting herself with her courtiers in an informal and flirtatious manner, and Cromwell calculated that he could twist the language of courtly love to support an accusation of adultery." (47)
Cromwell suggested that one solution to this problem was to claim that he was not the father of this deformed child. On the king's instruction Cromwell was ordered to find out the name of the man who was the true father of the dead child. Philippa Jones has argued: "Cromwell was careful that the charge should stipulate that Anne Boleyn had only been unfaithful to the King after the Princess Elizabeth's birth in 1533. Henry wanted Elizabeth to be acknowledged as his daughter, but at the same time he wanted her removed from any future claim to the succession." (48)
In April 1536, a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the Queen's lover but later confessed, perhaps tortured or promised freedom. (49) Another courtier, Henry Norris, was arrested on 1st May. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King's Privy Chamber. Anne's brother, George Boleyn was also arrested and charged with incest. (50)
Anne was arrested and was taken to the Tower of London on 2nd May, 1536. Thomas Cromwell took this opportunity to destroy her brother, George Boleyn. He had always been close to his sister and in the circumstances it was not difficult to suggest to Henry that an incestuous relationship had existed. George was arrested on 2nd May, 1536, and taken to the Tower of London. David Loades has argued: "Both self control and a sense of proportion seem to have been completely abandoned, and for the time being Henry would believe any evil that he was told, however farfetched." (51)
On 12th May, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, as High Steward of England, presided over the trial of Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton at Westminster Hall. (52) Except for Smeaton they all pleaded not guilty to all charges. Thomas Cromwell made sure that a reliable jury was empanelled, consisting almost entirely of known enemies of the Boleyns. "These were not difficult to find, and they were all substantial men, with much to gain or lose by their behaviour in such a conspicuous theatre". (53)
Few details survive of the proceedings. Witnesses were called and several spoke of Anne Boleyn's alleged sexual activity. One witness said that there was "never such a whore in the realm". The evidence for the prosecution was very weak, but "Cromwell managed to contrive a case based on Mark Smeaton's questionable confession, a great deal of circumstantial evidence, and some very salacious details about what Anne had allegedly got up to with her brother." (54) At the end of the trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the four men were condemned by Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley to be drawn, hanged, castrated and quartered. Eustace Chapuys claimed that Brereton was "condemned on a presumption, not by proof or valid confession, and without any witnesses." (55)
George and Anne Boleyn were tried two days later in the Great Hall of the Tower. In Anne's case the verdict already pronounced against her accomplices made the outcome inevitable. She was charged, not only with a whole list of adulterous relationships going back to the autumn of 1533, but also with poisoning Catherine of Aragon, "afflicting Henry with actual bodily harm, and conspiring his death." (56)
George Boleyn was charged with having sexual relations with his sister at Westminster on 5th November 1535. However, records show she was with Henry on that day in Windsor Castle. Boleyn was also accused of being the father of the deformed child born in late January or early February, 1536. (57) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine and married Anne. (58)
Eustace Chapuys reported King Charles V that Anne Boleyn "was principally charged with... having cohabited with her brother and other accomplices; that there was a promise between her and Norris to marry after the King's death, which it thus appeared they hoped for... and that she had poisoned Catherine and intrigued to do the same to Mary... These things, she totally denied, and gave a plausible answer to each." She admitted to giving presents to Francis Weston but this was not an unusual gesture on her part. (59)
George and Anne Boleyn were both found guilty of all charges. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who presided over the trial left it to the King to decide whether Anne should be beheaded or burned alive. Between sentence and execution, neither admitted guilt. Anne declared herself ready to die because she had unwittingly incurred the King's displeasure, but grieved, as Eustace Chapuys reported, for the innocent men who were also to die on her account." (60)
On 17th May, 1536, George Boleyn and the other four condemned men were executed on Tower Hill, their sentences commuted from being hung, drawn and quartered. Boleyn exercised the condemned man's privilege of addressing the large crowd which always gathered for public executions. "Masters all, I am come hither not to preach and make a sermon but to die, as the law hath found me, and to the law I submit me."
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared Anne's marriage to Henry null and void on 17th May 1536, and according to the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, the grounds for the annulment included the king's previous relationship with Mary Boleyn. However, this information has never been confirmed. (61)
Anne Boleyn went to the scaffold at Tower Green on 19th May, 1536. The Lieutenant of the Tower reported her as alternately weeping and laughing. The Lieutenant assured her she would feel no pain, and she accepted his assurance. "I have a little neck," she said, and putting her hand round it, she shrieked with laughter. The "hangman of Calais" had been brought from France at a cost of £24 since he was a expert with a sword. This was a favour to the victim since a sword was usually more efficient than "an axe that could sometimes mean a hideously long-drawn-out affair." (62)
Anne Boleyn's last words were: "Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King, and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign Lord.... And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me." (63)
Under Henry VIII the Royal Council was at the heart of the administration. However, it was very large and Thomas Cromwell developed an inner circle that was called the Privy Council. It had nineteen members and including representatives of all the leading noble families and senior religious leaders. Henry and Cromwell decided matters of policy but it was the Privy Council that dealt with a wide range of government business - receiving ambassadors, drafting despatches, discussing foreign affairs and issuing administrative orders. Henry rarely attended these meetings and this gave Cromwell the power to run the government. Cromwell brought Ralph Sadler into the Privy Council to help him run the country.
Cromwell was not only Lord Chancellor but was the King's Secretary (Secretary of State). This gave him control of every aspect of government. The most important of these was the royal finances. This included the Exchequer, which collected and controlled the revenues of the crown as well as the profits of justice. Roger Lockyer has pointed out: "While he was a man of an orderly cast of mind, who enjoyed tidying up the royal administration and creating new institutions where necessary, he never intended that any institution, old and new, should become a barrier to the exercise of his own power." (64)
In this position Cromwell had to deal with a serious political crisis. In 1536, a lawyer named Robert Aske formed an army to defend the monasteries in Yorkshire. Another outbreak of public disorder took place in Lincolnshire. The rebels were joined by priests carrying crosses and banners. Leading nobles in the area also began to give their support to the rebellion. The rebels marched to York and demanded that the monasteries should be reopened. This march, which contained over 30,000 people, became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was sent to Lincolnshire to deal with the rebels. In an age before a standing army, loyal forces were not easy to raise. (65) "Appointed the king's lieutenant to suppress the Lincolnshire rebels, he advanced fast from Suffolk to Stamford, gathering troops as he went; but by the time he was ready to fight, the rebels had disbanded. On 16th October he entered Lincoln and began to pacify the rest of the county, investigate the origins of the rising, and prevent the southward spread of the pilgrimage, still growing in Yorkshire and beyond. Only two tense months later, as the pilgrims dispersed under the king's pardon, could he disband his 3600 troops and return to court." (66)
Henry VIII's army was not strong enough to fight the rebels in Norfolk. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, negotiated peace with Aske. Howard was forced to promise that he would pardon the rebels and hold a parliament in York to discuss their demands. The rebels were convinced that this parliament would reopen the monasteries and therefore went back to their homes. (67) However, as soon as the rebel army had dispersed. Cromwell ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace. During his interrogation on 19th April 1537, Thomas Darcy accused Cromwell of "the very original and chief causer of all this rebellion and mischief". (68) About 200 people were executed for their part in the rebellion. This included Darcy, Robert Aske, William Thirsk and Lady Margaret Bulmer, who were burnt at the stake in June 1537. Abbots of the four largest monasteries in the north were also executed.
Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the leading religious conservative in the Privy Council, accepted these decisions but suggested that Henry followed a new policy of making concessions to his subjects. Cromwell disagreed and so did Henry. He accused Gardiner of returning to his old opinions, and complained that a faction was seeking to win him back to their "naughty" views. (69)
Thomas Cromwell continued with his religious reforms. He decreed that every church must possess and display a copy of the Bible in the native tongue and it had to be chained in an open place, where anyone could consult it. The edition used was that of Miles Coverdale, an edition that was a reworking of the one produced by William Tyndale. Therefore, the man who had been denounced as a heretic and ordered to be burnt at the stake by Henry VIII eleven years before, was now one of the most important figures in English religious life. (70)
In January 1538 Thomas Cromwell turned his attention to religious shrines in England. For hundreds of years pilgrims had visited shrines that contained important religious relics. Wealthy pilgrims often gave expensive jewels and ornaments to the monks that looked after these shrines. Cromwell persuaded Henry to agree that the shrines should be closed down and the wealth that they had created given to the crown. Commissioners were sent round the country to seize relics and shrines.
The Pope and the Catholic church in Rome were horrified when they heard the news that Henry commissioners had destroyed St. Thomas Becket's Shrine in September. It is claimed that chests of jewels were carried away so heavy that "six or eight strong men" were needed to carry each chest. (71) The previous year Henry VIII had visited the shrine in order to pray for the birth of a healthy son. (72) On 17th December 1538, the Pope announced to the Christian world that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic church.
Since the death of Jane Seymour in October 1537, Henry had shown little interest in finding a fourth wife. One of the reasons is that he was suffering from impotence. Anne Boleyn had complained about this problem to George Boleyn as early as 1533. His general health was also poor and he was probably suffering from diabetes and Cushings Syndrome. Now in his late 40s he was also obese. His armour from that period reveals that he measured 48 inches around the middle. (73)
However, when Thomas Cromwell told him that he should consider finding another wife for diplomatic reasons, Henry agreed. "Suffering from intermittent and unsatisfied lust, and keenly aware ofhis advancing age and copulence" he thought that a new young woman in his life might bring back the vitality of his youth. (74) As Antonia Fraser has pointed out: "In 1538 Henry VIII wanted - no, he expected - to be diverted, entertained and excited. It would be the responsibility of his wife to see that he felt like playing the cavalier and indulging in such amorous gallantries as had amused him in the past." (75)
Cromwell's first choise was Marie de Guise, a young widow who had already produced a son. Aged only 22 she had been married to Louis, Duke of Longueville before his early death in June 1537. He liked the reports that he received that she was a tall woman pleased him. He was "big in person" and he had need of "a big wife". In January 1538 he sent a ambassador to see her. (76) When Marie was told that Henry found her size attractive she is reported to have replied that she might be a big woman, but she had a very little neck. Marie rejected the proposal and married King James V of Scotland on 9th May 1538. (77)
The next candidate was Christina of Denmark, the sixteen-year-old widowed Duchess of Milan. She married Francesco II Sforza, the Duke of Milan at the age of twelve. However, he died the following year. Christina was very well connected. Her father was the former King Christian II of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Her mother, Isabella of Austria, was the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Henry VIII received a promising report from John Hutton. "She is not pure white as (Jane Seymour) but she hath a singular good contenance, and, when she chanceth to smile there appeareth two pits in her cheeks, and one in her chin, the witch becometh her right excellently well." He also compared her to Margaret Shelton, one of Henry's former mistresses. (78)
Impressed by Hutton's description, Henry VIII sent Hans Holbein to paint her. He arrived in Brussels on 10th March 1538 and the following day sat for the portrait for three hours wearing mourning dress. However, Christina was disturbed by Henry's treatment of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and apparently told Thomas Wriothesley, "If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England's disposal." (79) Wriothesley told Cromwell that he should look for a bride "in some such other place". Henry was very disappointed as he loved the painting and looked at it on a regular basis. (80)
In 1539 Thomas Cromwell sent Robert Barnes to Copenhagen to discuss Anglo-Danish relations, in particular the prospect of an anti-papal alliance that might involve Henry VIII marrying Anne of Cleves, the daughter of John III. (81) He thought this would make it possible to form an alliance with the Protestants in Saxony. An alliance with the non-aligned north European states would be undeniably valuable, especially as Charles V of Spain and François I of France had signed a new treaty on 12th January 1539. (82) In March 1539 Nicholas Wotton was one of a three-man delegation sent to Cleves, to negotiate a marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves and to establish a defensive league with the German princes. (83)
As David Loades has pointed out: "Cleves was a significant complex of territories, strategically well placed on the lower Rhine. In the early fifteenth century it had absorbed the neighbouring country of Mark, and in 1521 the marriage of Duke John III had amalgamated Cleves-Mark with Julich-Berg to create a state with considerable resources... Thomas Cromwell was the main promoter of the scheme, and with his eye firmly on England's international position, its attractions became greater with every month that passed." (84)
John III died on 6th February, 1539. He was replaced by Anne's brother, Duke William. In March, Nicholas Wotton, began the negotiations at Cleves. He reported to Thomas Cromwell that "she (Anne of Cleves) occupieth her time most with the needle... She can read and write her own language but of French, Latin or other language she hath none... she cannot sing, nor play any instrument, for they take it here in Germany for a rebuke and an occasion of lightness that great ladies should be learned or have any knowledge of music." (85)
Cromwell was desperate for the marriage to take place but was aware that Wotton's reported revealed some serious problems. The couple did not share a common language. Henry VIII could speak in English, French and Latin but not in German. Wotton also pointed out that she "had none of the social skills so prized at the English court: she could not play a musical instrument or sing - she came from a culture that looked down on the lavish celebrations and light-heartedness that were an integral part of King Henry's court". (86)
Wotton was frustrated by the stalling tactics of William. Eventually he signed a treaty in which the Duke granted Anne a dowry of 100,000 gold florins. (87) However, Henry refused to marry Anne until he had seen a picture of her. Hans Holbein arrived in April and requested permission to paint Anne's portrait. The 23-year-old William, held Puritan views and had strong ideas about feminine modesty and insisted that his sister covered up her face and body in the company of men. He refused to allow her to be painted by Holbein. After a couple of days he said he was willing to have his sister painted but only by his own court painter, Lucas Cranach. (88)
Henry was unwilling to accept this plan as he did not trust Cranach to produce an accurate portrait. Further negotiations took place and Henry suggested he would be willing to marry Anne without a dowry if her portrait, painted by Holbein pleased him. Duke William was short of money and agreed that Holbein should paint her picture. He painted her portrait on parchment, to make it easier to transport in back to England. Nicholas Wotton, Henry's envoy watched the portrait being painted and claimed that it was an accurate representation. (89)
Holbein's biographer, Derek Wilson, argues that he was in a very difficult position. He wanted to please Thomas Cromwell but did not want to upset Henry VIII: "If ever the artist was nervous about the reception of a portrait he must have been particularly anxious about this one... He had to do what he could to sound a note of caution. That meant that he was obliged to express his doubts in the painting. If we study the portrait of Anne of Cleves we are struck by an oddity of composition.... Everything in it is perfectly balanced: it might almost be a study in symmetry - except for the jewelled bands on Anne's skirt. The one on her left is not complemented by another on the right. Furthermore, her right hand and the fall of her left under-sleeve draw attention to the discrepancy. This sends a signal to the viewer that, despite the elaborateness of the costume, there is something amiss, a certain clumsiness... Holbein intended giving the broadest hint he dared to the king. Henry would not ask his opinion about his intended bride, and the painter certainly could not venture it. Therefore he communicated unpalatable truth through his art. He could do no more." (90)
Unfortunately, Henry VIII did not understand this coded message. As Alison Weir, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) has pointed out, the painting convinced Henry to marry Anne. "Anne smiles out demurely from an ivory frame carved to resemble a Tudor rose. Her complexion is clear, her gaze steady, her face delicately attractive. She wears a head-dress in the Dutch style which conceals her hair, and a gown with a heavily bejewelled bodice. Everything about Anne's portrait proclaimed her dignity, breeding and virtue, and when Henry VIII saw it, he made up his mind at once that this was the woman he wanted to marry." (91)
Anne of Cleves arrived at Dover on 27th December 1539. She was taken to Rochester Castle and on 1st January, Sir Anthony Browne, Henry's Master of the Horse, arrived from London. At the time Anne was watching bull-baiting from the window. He later recalled that the moment he saw Anne he was "struck with dismay". Henry arrived at the same time but was in disguise. He was also very disappointed and retreated into another room. According to Thomas Wriothesley when Henry reappeared they "talked lovingly together". However, afterwards he was heard to say, "I like her not". (92)
The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, described Anne as looking about thirty (she was in fact twenty-four), tall and thin, of middling beauty, with a determined and resolute countenance". He also commented that her face was "pitted with the smallpox" and although he admitted there was some show of vivacity in her expression, he considered it "insufficient to counterbalance her want of beauty". However, as Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002) has pointed out "Holbein's miniature is by no means without charm, and compared with, say, the portrait of Queen Jane Seymour, her successor would seem to have little to be ashamed of." (93)
Henry VIII asked Thomas Cromwell to cancel the wedding treaty. He replied that this would cause serious political problems. Henry married Anne of Cleves on 6th January 1540. He complained bitterly about his wedding night. Henry told Thomas Heneage that he disliked the "looseness of her breasts" and was not able to do "what a man should do to his wife".
Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley opened the 1540 Parliament. Thomas Cromwell attempted to explain the government's religious policies: "The king's majesty desires nothing more than concord... he knows there are those who would stir up strife, and in places in his field tares have sprung up to harm the wheat. The forwardness and carnal lust of some, the inveterate corruption and superstitious tenacity of opinion of other excite disputation and quarrels most horrible in so good Christian men; one side calls the other papists, and the other calls them heretics, both naughty and not to be borne... They twist God's sacred gift, now into heresy and now into superstition." (94)
Two of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, and Eleanor Manners, Countess of Rutland, asked Anne about her relationship with her husband. It became clear that she had not received any sex education. "When the King comes to bed he kisses me and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me good night... In the morning he kisses me, and biddeth me, farewell. Is not this enough?" She enquired innocently." Further questioning revealled that she was completely unaware of what had been expected of her. (95)
Henry VIII was angry with Thomas Cromwell for arranging the marriage with Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, saw this as an opportunity to remove him from power. Gardiner considered Cromwell a heretic for introducing the Bible in the native tongue. He also opposed the way Cromwell had attacked the monasteries and the religious shrines. Gardiner pointed out to the King that it was Cromwell who had allowed radical preachers such as Robert Barnes to return to England.
Barnes was clearly in danger but on 28th February, 1540, he preached a sermon attacking Bishop Gardiner. On 5th March, Barnes was summoned to appear before Henry VIII and Gardiner. Barnes begged forgiveness but continued to preach against the religious conservatives. On 3rd April, he was arrested along with two of his followers, William Jerome and Thomas Garrard, and taken to the Tower of London. (96)
Thomas Cromwell retaliated by arresting Richard Sampson, Bishop of Chichester and Nicholas Wotton, staunch conservatives in religious matters. He then began negotiating the release of Barnes. However, this was unsuccessful and it was now clear that Cromwell was in serious danger. (97) The French ambassador reported on 10th April, 1540, that Cromwell was "tottering" and began speculating about who would succeed to his offices. Although he he resigned the duties of the secretaryship to his protégés Ralph Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley he did not lose his power and on 18th April the King granted him the earldom of Essex.
Quarrels in the Privy Council continued and Charles de Marillac reported to François I on 1st June, 1540, that "things are brought to such a pass that either Cromwell's party or that of the Bishop of Winchester must succumb". On 10th June, Cromwell arrived slightly late for a meeting of the Privy Council. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." The captain of the guard came forward and arrested him. Cromwell was charged with treason and heresy. Norfolk went over and ripped the chains of authority from his neck, "relishing the opportunity to restore this low-born man to his former status". Cromwell was led out through a side door which opened down onto the river and taken by boat the short journey from Westminster to the Tower of London. (98)
On 12th June, Thomas Cranmer wrote a letter to Henry VIII saying he was amazed that such a good servant of the king should be found to have committed treason. He pointed out that he had shown "wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience as no prince in the realm ever had". Cranmer told Henry that he loved Cromwell as a friend, "but I chiefly loved him for the love which I thought I saw him bear ever towards your grace singularly above all others. But now if he be a traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason has been discovered in time. But yet again I am very sorrowful, for whom should your grace trust hereafter." (99)
Thomas Cromwell was convicted by Parliament of treason and heresy on 29th June and sentenced him to be hung, drawn and quartered. He wrote to Henry VIII soon afterwards and admitted "I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all". He finished the letter with the plea, "Most gracious prince I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy." Henry commuted the sentence to decapitation, even though the condemned man was of lowly birth. (100)
On 28th July, 1540, Cromwell walked out onto Tower Green for his execution. In his speech from the scaffold he denied that he had aided heretics, but acknowledged the judgment of the law. He then prayed for a short while before placing his head on the block. The executioner bungled his work, and took two strokes to sever the neck of Cromwell. He suffered a particularly gruesome execution before what was left of his head was set upon a pike on London Bridge. (101)
According to the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, on 3rd March, 1541, Henry VIII was quoted as saying: "under pretext of some slight offences which he had committed, they had brought several accusations against him, on the strength of which he had put to death the most faithful servant he ever had." (102)
Wolsey had become very unpopular... with the nobility... and the King was ready to sacrifice him to save his own prestige, which had suffered from his heartless treatment of the Queen.
It was typical of the King that he would never accept responsibility for anything which seemed to be going wrong, and someone (probably Gardiner) succeeded in convincing him that Cromwell was responsible for the unseemly quarrels which were disrupting his Church.... Very suddenly everything which had recently gone wrong, including the Cleves marriage, became Cromwell's fault, and his alone
Henry had sent Anne of Cleves down to Richmond in the middle of June, "purposing it to be more for her health, open air and pleasure", though he himself remained to seek his pleasure in the capital, paying frequent visits to Mistress Katherine Howard at her grandmother's house in Lambeth. The Queen would not, of course, have understood all the ramifications of the power struggle currently in progress at Court (they remain more than somewhat obscure to this day), but she was certainly alarmed by the sudden arrest of Thomas Cromwell on a charge of high treason, which took place a few days before her own banishment. Cromwell had been the chief architect of the Cleves marriage, and Anne naturally regarded him in the light of a friend and mentor. Whether she was really afraid that she might soon be joining him in the Tower is difficult to say, but in the circumstances she could hardly be blamed for feeling nervous about her future. According to one account, she fell to the ground in a dead faint when a delegation headed by the Duke of Suffolk arrived at Richmond, believing they had come to arrest her. Her visitors, however, quickly reassured her. They had, on the contrary, been instructed to offer her what Henry considered generous terms in exchange for his freedom : an income of five hundred pounds a year, the use of two royal residences, with an adequate establishment, plus the position of the King's adopted sister with precedence over every other lady in the land except the next queen and the princesses.
By 1540 the invasion threat had receded, but the conservatives kept up their pressure on the King, insisting that Cromwell was a secret sacramentary, intent on destroying the Church that Henry had created in England. Henry was by nature suspicious, and age had not mellowed him. Furthermore his passion for Catherine Howard encouraged him to believe what the conservatives were telling him. He made up his mind with typical suddenness, and on 10 June 1540 Cromwell was arrested. A Bill of attainder was pushed through Parliament, condemning him as a heretic and traitor. The charges were flimsy, but Cromwell could make no effective rebuttal, for, as he told Henry in one of a number of letters in which he pleaded for mercy, "I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all". He was kept alive for six weeks so that he could give evidence in the divorce action between Henry and Anne of Cleves, and then, on 28 July, was led to the scaffold.
Thomas Cromwell was a self-made man - a man of action not a university-trained intellectual like More, Cranmer, or Reginald Pole. Yet the distinction should not be overdrawn, since in Italy he discovered wide intellectual interests. He read history as well as law, spoke fluent Italian and acceptable French, and wrote Latin and some Greek. Later he patronized writers and commissioned paintings from Hans Holbein the Younger. He had a sure grasp of rhetoric and (like Wolsey) was a natural orator. He made a formidable adversary in debate, sharp enough to defeat More, John Fisher, and Stephen Gardiner in verbal tussles. But his manner was usually relaxed and always engaging. When speaking, his face lit up; his conversation sparkled; and he cast roguish oblique glances when striking aphorisms. Most important, his talent for managing men and institutions was instinctive. John Foxe remembered him as `pregnant in wit ... in judgment discreet, in tongue eloquent, in service faithful, in stomach courageous, in his pen active'. A prodigious worker with a powerful and exact memory, Cromwell took the rounded view, was inwardly determined yet outwardly urbane.... Foxe claimed that, riding to Rome in 1516-18 on business for the Guild of St Mary, Boston (Lincs.), Cromwell learned the New Testament by heart in Erasmus's version, an exercise that seemingly laid the foundations of a lifelong understanding. Indeed, this story rings true: men said in the Renaissance that they had their best ideas on horseback.
Of course, for all his ease of manner, accessibility, and capacity for friendship, Cromwell had a dangerous edge. He was a politician who got things done. A degree of ruthlessness was the corollary of his single-mindedness, as his role in the putsch of 1536 indicated. On the other hand, Pole's charge that as early as 1528 Cromwell was a "Machiavellian" who held that the politician's art was to enable kings to gratify their lusts without offending public morality or religion was malicious.
Thomas Cromwell was not a Lutheran... He agreed with Luther on the need for vernacular scriptures, but remained ambivalent on the central Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone. The best general description of his beliefs is that they were Erasmian or Evangelical, or alternatively of the "new learning". This regularly set him at odds with conservative bishops such as Stokesley and Gardiner, who saw the Supremacy in terms of the defence of the Catholic faith as they knew it, and had no time for innovations.
Cromwell regularly protected Evangelical preachers such as Hugh Latimer, and pressed Henry, discreetly but persistently, to accept an English translation of the Bible. He also policed the enforcement of the Act of Supremacy, and set up the commissions required to administer the oaths required by the Act of Succession. The king's confidence in his secretary's judgement in religious matters was demonstrated in January 1535, when he created him Viceregent in Spirituals for the purpose of conducting a general visitation of the Church...
Cromwell, as Viceregent, consistently licensed Evangelical preachers to spread the word of reform, but these were regularly challenged by conservatives bearing Episcopal licences, with the result that there was confusion and not a little strife.
It was Thomas Cromwell who had finally convinced the King of' the advantages of severing the Church of England from Rome. Cromwell's promotion to the King's service from Wolsey's had been arranged in 1521 by the Cardinal, when Cromwell was thirty-five. The son of a blacksmith, a thick-set bull of a man with black hair and small, porcine eyes, Cromwell had led a somewhat disreputable early life, and had soldiered as a mercenary in Italy, where he may have learned to admire the Machiavellian ideal of political expediency. Upon his return to England in 1513 he had taken up law, and in this capacity had attracted the attention of the Cardinal, to whose service he had been recruited the following year. To great intelligence and ability Cromwell added a complete lack of scruple, although he always professed to be a devout Christian. It was this facet of his unattractive personality that would in time make him essential to the King. Unscrupulous and efficient, his spy network, instituted after his rise to favour following the disgrace of Wolsey, was to become a model for future governments.
Henry VIII formed a high opinion of Cromwell's abilities, and took him into his service; for though Henry had many able diplomats, he had no administrator and political manager of Cromwell's calibre. Here was another useful tool to be employed as an agent... There is no reasons for believing that Cromwell had any great interest in the "new learning" and in Lutheran doctrines in the days when her was serving the hated Cardinal Wolsey...
After he (Cromwell) had become Henry's chief minister, and played the leading part in the attack on the Church and on the Pope's supporters, the Catholics held him responsible for the anti-Papal policy. Cardinal Pole wrote in 1539 that after the fall of Wolsey, Henry was on the point of abandoning the divorce, and of submitting to the Pope's authority, when Cromwell appeared on the scene; he was an emissary of Satan who admired Machiavelli's book, The Prince. According to Pole, Cromwell suggested to Henry that he should proclaim himself Head of the Church of England, for then he could obtain a divorce from Catherine without bothering about the Pope.
But there are several inaccuracies in Pole's story; and it is absurd to suggest that Henry put forward his claim to be Supreme Head of the Church of England at the suggestion of a man who had only entered his service, in a very subordinate position, a few months earlier.
The so-called Supplication against the Ordinaries... emerged (prompted by Cromwell). This was a fist of complaints against the church, shared by many English people, from the "Lutheran" Boleyns to much humbler persons whose lives were bedevilled by the frequent need to pay ecclesiastical fees and tithes or the clergy's unfair use of the weapon of excommunication. While the King at the top of society was able to say proudly that he cared "not a fig" for all the Pope's excommunications, those lower down could find their lives ruined by such undeserved bans.
Thomas Cromwell, who apart from his administrative and financial abilities, shared the reformist tendencies of the Boleyns, shaped the Supplication into a form in which it was first presented to the King, then passed back to the clergy. In future all clerical legislation would need the royal assent, while past legislation was to be investigated, given that it was now deemed to have sprung from the King's sovereignty (not the Pope's). These radical suggestions were at first rejected by the Convocation of the clergy, under Archbishop Warham. But under threat, the Convocation succumbed. The Submission of the Clergy was made on 15 May 1532. It followed parallel pressure on parliament.
Cromwell was a ruthless lateral thinker and a friend of the reform movement... Duke William V, a serious-minded twenty-two year-old, had just inherited from his father. Because of a territorial dispute with Charles V he needed allies. By inclination and education William was an Erasmian. His father had put the church in his territory under state control and instituted a reform programme. William was happy to allow Lutheran preachers to operate but declined to join the Schmalkaldic League, although one of his sisters was married to its leader, John Frederick of Saxony. He thus had a great deal in common with Henry VIII. And he had two more, unmarried, sisters. To Cromwell it seemed the ideal solution. Influence in the Rhineland would give England a powerful bargaining position and a Cleves match would signal clearly her religious position.
In the spring of 1540 Thomas Cromwell was created earl of Essex; his bright particular star was still in the ascendant. He was conducting the primary affairs of the nation; soon after his elevation he committed the bishop of Chichester to the Tower of London on the charge of favouring those who refused the oath of supremacy. He had also threatened the bishops of Durham, Winchester and Bath with the consequences of royal displeasure.
Yet there were always mutterings against him. He treated the nobles with a high hand, so that the duke of Norfolk in particular became his implacable opponent. He was accused of being overmighty and over-wealthy, and of recklessly squandering the king's treasure.
On the morning of 10 June 1540, he took his place in the Lords, as usual; at three in the afternoon of the same day he proceeded to his chair at the head of the council table. Norfolk shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." "I am not a traitor," Cromwell replied. Whereupon the captain of the guard, and six other officers, came to him.
"I arrest you."
"That, you will learn elsewhere."
In his fury Cromwell threw his cap down on the stone floor of the chamber. "This, then," he said "is the reward for all my services." The members of the council then erupted in a fury of antagonism, screaming abuse and thumping their fists on the table.
It is impossible to unravel all the private suspicions and antagonisms that led to his fall. He was hated by many of the nobility who resented the fact that the son of a blacksmith should have risen above them. Those of the old faith detested him for his destruction of their shrines and monasteries. The public accusations against him were manifold. He was accused of taking bribes and of encroaching on royal authority in matters like pardoning convicted men and issuing commissions. He was indeed guilty of all these, if guilty is the right word. They were really activities that came with the job, and had previously been tolerated by the king. Bribery was the only way, for example, that the system of administration could work.
Another set of charges concerned Cromwell's beliefs; he was accused of holding heretical opinions and of supporting heretics in court and country. It was claimed that he was a Lutheran who had all the while been conspiring to change the religion of the nation; as the king's ambassador to the emperor put it, he had allowed the impression that `all piety and religion, having no place, was banished out of England'. Letters between him and the Lutheran lords of Germany were discovered, although it is possible that they were forgeries. It was reported to the German princes that he had indirectly threatened to kill the king if Henry should attempt to reverse the process of religious reform; he had said that he would strike a dagger into the heart of the man who should oppose reformation. If such a threat had been made, then Cromwell was guilty of treason. It was of course the principal charge against him.
He was allowed to confront his accusers, but he was not permitted a public trial before his peers. He was instead subject to an Act of attainder for treason, a device that he himself had invented. The bill of attainder passed through both Lords and Commons without a single dissenting vote. Only Cranmer endeavoured to find a good word for him, and wrote to the king remarking on Cromwell's past services. "I loved him as a friend," he said, "for so I took him to be."
It is sometimes asserted that Cromwell's fate was largely the consequence of the fatal alignment between religion and politics, but the bungled marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves also played some part in the matter. The French king and the emperor had failed to forge an alliance, so Henry no longer needed the princes of Germany for allies; the marriage had proved to be without purpose. Although Cromwell had expedited the union at Henry's request and with Henry's approval, he could not wholly shield himself from the king's frustration and anger.
Cromwell's fall cannot be attributed to any one mistake or decision, although the Cleves marriage was the single most important factor in undermining the king's confidence in him. It was also a problem particularly difficult for Cromwell to resolve, as Henry's divorce from Anne would only lead to the king's marrying Norfolk's niece, Catherine Howard, thereby further threatening the minister's position. When he made his final desperate bid to strike out his conservative opponents Cromwell was forcing the king to decide between the two competing factions. As Henry dispatched his minister he was probably thinking more about the future than the past. With so committed an evangelical as his chief minister there would be little chance of achieving the religious unity he sought. Two days after Cromwell suffered, in a blunt statement intended to show his determination to end the years of religious strife since the break from Rome, Henry ordered the executions of the three evangelicals arrested in March, as well as three conservatives loyal to Rome.
Henry had sent Anne down to Richmond in the middle of June, "purposing it to be more for her health, open air and pleasure", though he himself remained to seek his pleasure in the capital, paying frequent visits to Mistress Katherine Howard at her grandmother's house in Lambeth. The Queen would not, of course, have understood all the ramifications of the power struggle currently in progress at Court (they remain more than somewhat obscure to this day), but she was certainly alarmed by the sudden arrest of Thomas Cromwell on a charge of high treason, which took place a few days before her own banishment. Cromwell had been the chief architect of the Cleves marriage, and Anne naturally regarded him in the light of a friend and mentor. Whether she was really afraid that she might soon be joining him in the Tower is difficult to say, but in the circumstances she could hardly be blamed for feeling nervous about her future.
Hilary Mantel's Tudor novel, Wolf Hall is a kind of one-volume compensation for all the times the Man Booker prizewinner has been bought and not read.
And that's the trouble. Because it's so readable, so convincing, it risks being taken as a true version of events. And that's scary. Because one of the things it does is to reverse the standing of two Thomases: Cromwell and More. The novel does a grave disservice to More who was, whatever else you say about him, one of the great men of the Renaissance.
In Wolf Hall, you don't get the author of Utopia, Erasmus's favourite companion (these things are mentioned but with a sneer). You don't get the humanist and the humorist. What you get is a heretic-hunter, whose wit is turned to dry sarcasm and whose world view is simple religious fanaticism. This is Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons turned on its head. Granted, Bolt's play wasn't historical verity either but it was, in depicting Thomas More as the martyr of conscience, truthful.
All right, historical fiction is just that: fiction. But nowadays, we know so little history, the Wolf Hall version may well pass for reality, especially when it's true to some extent (the sympathetic portrait of Cardinal Wolsey is perfectly credible). Certainly its prejudices are congenial to the liberal-individualistic mindset that dominates our intellectual life. We may read the novel, or at least the reviews; and that's what's going to stick.
For the simple-minded dinner-party liberal, the Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight. Indeed, if the prevailing mindset in Britain right now is a kind of secular Protestantism then Thomas Cromwell as drawn by Hilary Mantel is its man.
Trouble is, there is a reason why Cromwell has had a longstanding reputation as a complete bastard. The tally of the executions over which he presided - including those for heresy - far surpassed More's. And unlike More, he was unlikely to have been swayed by the notion that what he was doing was for the good of souls.
We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.
It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognise his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.
About the year 1533 Hans Holbein painted a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer in the service of King Henry VIII. Hans (as he was casually called) was not yet established as Henry’s court painter, but drew his sitters from minor courtiers and the Hanseatic merchant community. He was not seen as a remote genius, more as a jobbing decorator who you would call in to design a tassel, a gold cup, a salt cellar or the scenery for a pageant. Thomas Cromwell had not yet acquired his status as Henry’s chief minister; as the paper on his desk informs us, he was Master of the Jewel House. A gregarious, cosmopolitan man who had spent time in Italy and the Low Countries, he was probably better placed to know Holbein’s worth than many of his courtier contemporaries. The politician and the painter, both due to rise rapidly at Henry’s court, were bound together by a network of shared friends and shared interests.
But the portrait is not a friendly one. Holbein would soon paint The Ambassadors, rich and splendid and symbol-laden, one of the icons of Western art. There are no metaphors in his Cromwell picture. There is no echo of his portrait of Thomas More: none of that swift intelligence, intensity, engagement with the viewer. What you see is what you get. Cromwell looks like a man hard to reach and hard to impress. He does not invite you to conversation. His posture is attentive, though, as if he might be listening to someone or something beyond the frame.
Of course, a Tudor statesman who commissioned his portrait didn’t want to look bonny. He wanted to look powerful; he was the hand, the arm, of the state. Even so, when (in my novel Wolf Hall) the portrait is unveiled, Cromwell himself is taken aback. “I look like a murderer,” he exclaims. His son Gregory says, “Didn’t you know?”
It is as a murderer that Cromwell has come down to posterity: as the man who tricked and slaughtered the saintly Thomas More, the man who ensnared and executed Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn; who turned monks out on to the roads, infiltrated spies into every corner of the land, and unleashed terror in the service of the state. If these attributions contain a grain of truth, they also embody a set of lazy assumptions, bundles of prejudice passed from one generation to the next. Novelists and dramatists, who on the whole would rather sensationalise than investigate, have seized on these assumptions to create a reach-me-down villain. Holbein’s portrait is both the source of their characterisation, and a reinforcement of it.
It is important to realise, though, that what we are seeing is not what Holbein painted. There are various copies, some of better provenance than others. But it seems the original was lost, just as the original Thomas Cromwell was lost when he was beheaded on Tower Hill in the summer of 1540. Copies, representations of a representation, may blur or coarsen or obscure. This is what happened to Thomas Cromwell’s reputation. In the minds of academic historians, Cromwell’s importance was established in the last century by the great Tudor historian G R Elton. But Elton was interested in Cromwell’s record as a statesman. He did not leave us a biography. Others have attempted it; but while we have ample sources for what Cromwell did, we have much less to show us what he was. So the biographies are records of a life’s work, not of a man’s life, and in the mind of the general reader, he has been reduced and simplified: all we have is a malign mask held before an actor’s face. It is as if the man Holbein painted has been erased. When I began writing about him, people would look at me in puzzlement, and ask, “Thomas Cromwell… do you mean Oliver?”
So why build a massive project around an ugly Tudor politician, condemned by posterity as a corrupt torturer? The first thing to say is that when I began I felt that I could cut Cromwell down to size. I intended one novel, to take him through from his obscure birth around 1485 to his death on the scaffold in 1540. I meant to trace his path from his origins in Putney, where his father was a brewer and blacksmith, though the serpentine twists of fortune that brought him to Henry’s right hand and made him one of the major architects of the English reformation. I meant to follow him to wealth and power and magnificence, then stand back and watch as the king turned his back on his newly created Earl of Essex: as he sent Cromwell’s enemies to pull his house apart and impound his papers, as he bundled him into the Tower and (after a period of weeks for him to complete the work on the current royal divorce) sent him to the scaffold, where, according to one source, he was butchered by an incompetent executioner.
But fiction is inherently unpredictable. Even when you know the end of the story, you don’t know how you’re going to arrive there. There is a choice of route maps, but at a fork in the road you hesitate; the scenery is not as you imagined. The plain straight line on the paper is obscured, in reality, by dense thickets, and the ground under your feet, reassuringly solid when you began, now feels marshy, quaking. When I began to write Wolf Hall, I jumped, within the first unpremeditated line, behind the eyes of a 15-year-old boy, lying on the ground in his own blood, at the mercy of his father’s fists and feet. “I was a ruffian in my younger days,” Cromwell said; it was perhaps the only piece of autobiography he proffered. I took him at his word and made him a ruffian. I had no quarrel at that stage with his status as villain. I only thought he must be interesting. But once I had made that fictional leap, I was pulled away from the easy, received version. The picture changed. My character scraped himself up from the ground and staggered into his future. From behind those small eyes, the sharp eyes of a good bowman, the Tudor world looked complex and unfamiliar. The angles were different. Light and shadow fell in unexpected places.
I saw that the man in Holbein’s painting was a man inured to loss. He was in his late forties at the time of the painting. His wife and daughters were dead, gone most probably in the epidemics of the late 1520s. The loss was not, by the standards of the time, particularly remarkable, but he did not marry again or try to replace them. He had tied his fortunes to those of Thomas Wolsey, the king’s cardinal, the flamboyant and charismatic minister who dominated the political scene until Henry turned against him and broke him in 1529. It was a proceeding of craven ingratitude on Henry’s part, and Cromwell, who loved the cardinal, had to fight to survive him: a hard man, a determined man, and one with little to lose. He set out to win over Henry and to make himself indispensable. “I will make or mar,” he said, picking himself out of the wreckage. It was, said a contemporary, “ever his common saying”.
The awful fascination of this making, this marring, riveted my attention, and when I gota little over half way through Wolf Hall, I saw – not gradually, but in a flash of insight – that one book would not tell this story. The battle for England’s soul was under way. England had broken from Rome. Anne Boleyn was queen. The king’s favourite, Thomas More, was locked in the Tower, wrestling with his conscience, while Thomas Cromwell tried to tempt him to the side of life, to a capitulation to Henry’s will. The story is more nuanced than the one familiar to us from A Man for All Seasons. More’s death was a defeat for Cromwell; More’s surrender would have been his victory, a glorious propaganda coup for the new church. In the teeth of Cromwell’s efforts, More organised his own martyrdom. Once I began to see the complexity of the contest between the two men, my story could not hurry past it. It was the climax of the narrative, and after it the reader must put down the book.
So: there will be a second novel, I told my bemused publisher. It will take us from the day of More’s execution to Cromwell’s own end, some five years. I should not have been so certain. Last autumn, writing the story (overfamiliar, you would think) of the final days of Anne Boleyn, I found myself rigid with tension and rinsed by fear. It is the privilege of the imaginative writer not to retell but to relive. It did not feel like a privilege to inhabit those rooms alive with whispers, pattering with footsteps: running feet scurrying to desert, the feet of men and women rushing to save themselves. In Anne’s last days courtiers were ready to slander and twist and lie. The court was seething with unspeakable secrets that were, nevertheless, trying to speak themselves. About a fortnight (in writer’s time) before Anne was due to die, I made another sudden and alarming discovery. The head that was to fall was Medusa’s head and its glance would turn my project to stone.
I had, in fact, written a second book, and with the arrest of Anne it was almost complete. Whereas the action of Wolf Hall sprawls across the borders of Europe and spans more than a lifetime, Bring up the Bodies directs the reader’s attention to the events of nine months, and within that nine months to an intense period of three weeks; and within that three weeks, to the hour, to the instant of compromise and betrayal, to the loose word and the flickering thought that changes history’s course. At the end of the book, the king has his heart’s desire: a third wife. Cromwell has given him what he wanted, but for both king and minister there is a price to pay. The last chapter is called Spoils. In the political arena, no victories are uncomplicated, and all contain the seeds of defeat. And on the personal level, the ghosts who trail Cromwell are joined by another spectre, the quicksilver phantom of a laughing, narrow-bodied woman, who clasps her hands around her throat and says, “I have only a little neck.”
I am still surprised to find that I am writing a trilogy. The Mirror & the Light will (I swear) conclude the enterprise. It will have taken a decade. Sometimes people ask me what I think now of Thomas Cromwell. Nothing, is the answer. I don’t think anything. He is a work in progress. I am not in the habit of writing character references for people I only half know. When I’ve finished, and he’s decapitated, and a year has elapsed, I might be able to tell you. I am not claiming that my picture of him has the force of truth. I know it is one line in a line of representations, one more copy of a copy. All I can offer is a suggestion: stand here. Turn at this angle. Look again. Then step through the glass into the portrait and behind those sharp eyes: now look out at a world transformed, where all certainties have dissolved and the future is still to play for.
In the Living Hall of the Frick Collection, on either side of a fireplace, there are portraits by Hans Holbein of the two most illustrious politicians of the court of Henry VIII. On the left is Sir Thomas More, Henry’s lord chancellor from 1529 to 1532, who, when the King needed an annulment of his marriage, and therefore a release from the duty of obedience to the Pope, was too good a Catholic to agree to this. For his refusal, he forfeited his office and, eventually, his life. Holbein’s portrait shows him thin and sensitive, with his eyes cast upward, as if awaiting the sainthood that the Church finally bestowed on him, in 1935. On the right side hangs Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the minister who did for Henry what More wouldn’t. He wrote the laws making the King, not the Pope, the head of the English Church, and declaring the English monasteries, with all their wealth, the property of the Crown. To achieve these epochal changes, he had to impose his will on many people, and that is clear in Holbein’s painting. Cromwell is hard and heavy and dressed all in black. His mean little eyes peer forward, as if he were deciding whom to pillory, whom to send to the Tower.
More and Cromwell were enemies, and history has taken More’s side. Good examples are Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, “A Man for All Seasons,” and the 1966 movie that Fred Zinnemann based on it, both with Paul Scofield, as a saintly More, and Leo McKern, as Cromwell, the very picture of skulking evil. Shortly before Bolt’s play, though, the eminent British historian G. R. Elton had begun claiming, in successive writings on the Tudors, that Cromwell wasn’t so bad. Under him, Elton wrote, English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period, and you can’t make that kind of revolution without breaking eggs. Elton’s research revealed, furthermore, that under Cromwell only about forty people per year were killed in the service of the Crown’s political needs. That’s a pretty cheap omelette. Yet Cromwell is still widely seen as the warty toad in the garden of the glamorous Henry VIII. In the Showtime series “The Tudors,” he is, unequivocally, a villain. Earlier this month, a new biography was published: “Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister” (St. Martin’s; $29.99), by Robert Hutchinson, an English writer of popular history books. Already in his preface, Hutchinson calls Cromwell “a devious, ruthless instrument of the state,” a man who showed no compunction about “trampling underfoot the mangled bodies of those he had exploited or crushed.”
But now the excellent novelist Hilary Mantel has joined the tournament, with Wolf Hall, a five-hundred-and-thirty-two-page novel portraying Cromwell as a wise minister and a decent man. Mantel is not new to revisionist projects. In her 1992 novel “A Place of Greater Safety,” about the French Revolution, she performed the amazing feat of making Robespierre a sympathetic man. Her interest is in the question of good and evil as it applies to people who wield great power. That means anguish, exultation, deals, spies, decapitations, and fabulous clothes. Mantel recently told an interviewer that she had long planned to write about the Tudors: “Almost all the stories you might want to tell are lurking behind the arras.” Some are quite bawdy, which, if we can judge from the Tudor playwright Shakespeare, is true to the period. A waiter at an inn advises Cromwell not to order the pottage: “It looks like what’s left when a whore’s washed her shift.”
Partly, no doubt, for this high color, which few people dislike, Wolf Hall last week won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.’s most valued literary award. It was heavily favored; the London bookie William Hill gave it ten-to-eleven odds, the shortest ever accorded to a nominee.
Mantel doesn’t hide Cromwell’s bad deeds, or not always. She mentions the bribes he took, the spies he placed in important households. She tells us that he could kill. His servant Christophe, a ruffian whom he brought back from a trip to France, says that the other boys in the minister’s employ perform innocent tasks. “Only you and me, master,” he says to Cromwell, “we know how to stop some little fuckeur in his tracks, so that’s the end of him and he doesn’t even squeak.” But Cromwell, as G. R. Elton emphasized, avoided killing. During the conflict over the annulment, Mantel’s protagonist tries again and again to persuade More to make some concession, and thereby save his life.
As for More, he comes off badly, as a man who combines a milky piety with an underlying cruelty. We see him humiliating his wife in front of guests (“Remind me why I married you”), and we get the list of the “heretics” he imprisoned and tortured. Mantel acknowledges that he was a renowned thinker and writer, but she turns this to his discredit. At his trial, he s******s when a clerk makes a mistake in Latin. Years earlier, in Mantel’s account, he gave the same treatment to Cromwell. To earn a few pence—or perhaps just to get a meal—Cromwell, when he was seven, worked as a kitchen boy in the house of a cardinal where More was a student, and he had the job of delivering to the scholars, before they retired for the night, a mug of beer and a loaf of bread each. Bringing More his snack, he found him reading a big book. He had had no formal education; he was curious, and he asked More what was in the book. “Words, words,” More replied. Cromwell, in one of his last interviews with More, asks him if he remembers their exchange that night, and More says no. Of course not. Why should he have taken a minute to tell a servant what was in a book, let alone remember the episode many years later? But Cromwell remembers, and as he is assembling the evidence against More he thinks of it. Mantel admires self-made men. (Her father was a clerk. Her mother went to work in a textile mill at the age of fourteen.) Hence, in part, her defense of Robespierre, and of Cromwell.
As the BBC’s adaption of Wolf Hall draws to a close, there can be little doubt that the rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell is complete. Gone is the crude, shouting bully of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, haranguing and persecuting the saintly Thomas More. In his place we now have a new Cromwell, more human, more humane – subtle, soft-spoken, witty, grief-stricken, conscientious. Such is often the way with historical personalities: their reputations rise and fall as we choose to regard them in new ways or in the light of new evidence. Historians and biographers must endeavour to provide us with balanced, accurate portraits of their subjects. Creators of historical fiction are not bound by such constraints.
No one knew this better than Cromwell himself, who was something of a pioneer in the field. As viewers of Wolf Hall will know, his overriding concern as chief minister of Henry VIII was the king’s quest for a queen who could produce a male heir – a quest which led to England’s break with Rome and the beginning of the English Reformation. In advancing this policy, Cromwell was happy to re-write history to a degree that would make even the most inaccurate historical fiction of our own day seem like sober reportage by comparison.
Consider, for instance, what Cromwell did with Thomas Becket. In the early 16th century, as for the previous 350 years, Becket was England’s foremost saint, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had famously clashed with Henry VIII’s namesake ancestor, Henry II, defending the rights of the universal Church against the contradictory claims of the English Crown. As everybody knew, that story had ended in bloody fashion in December 1170, when four royal knights murdered the archbishop in his own cathedral, instantly transforming him into the most famous martyr in Europe.
Cromwell denied all of this. According to his propaganda, Becket had died because of an argument with the Archbishop of York that became a brawl in the streets of Canterbury. The so-called martyr had piled into the fray in order to lay into one of his opponents and ended up being cut down in the scuffle. The murder, in other words, was all the fault of the Church. Poor, blameless Henry II had nothing to do with it.