1. Avoiding confusion
Two great men in England's history have borne the name 'Cromwell' - Thomas (c.1485-1540) and Oliver (1599-1658). What relationship were they to each other? In fact, the family name of Oliver Cromwell who, in 1653, became Lord Protector and king in all but name, was not 'Cromwell' at all, but 'Williams'. The Williamses and the Cromwells were neighbours in Putney, a village on the south bank of the Thames, some 6½ miles up-river from Westminster, in the hundred of Wimbledon. Both families were relatively new arrivals in the environs of the capital at the beginning of the Tudor period. Morgan Williams, a Welsh lawyer, may have had connections in the entourage of Henry VII and deliberately hitched his wagon to the Tudor star. He was certainly a go-getter. As well as continuing his professional practice, he set up as an innkeeper in Putney. He subsequently moved to Greenwich where Henry VII built his favourite palace of Placenta and this can only have been with the intention of extending his clientele among members of the royal court. It was while he lived in Putney that he married Katherine, the daughter of his neighbour, Walter Cromwell.
The Cromwells, who hailed from Nottinghamshire, had been established in Putney since the middle of the fifteenth century. Within the local community Walter was a substantial figure with a finger in several business pies. He was an innkeeper, a fuller, a cloth merchant and a blacksmith. It is not surprising that these two ambitious men, Morgan and Walter, should have become linked by marriage. Walter had three children of whom records have survived. Besides Katherine, there was another girl, Elizabeth, and a son, Thomas, the future royal minister. The two families remained close and their paths to prosperity ran parallel. Walter and his brother-in-law were both self-made men but, during the early years of Henry VIII's reign it was the Williamses whose fortunes advanced more rapidly. Morgan's son and heir, Richard Williams (c.1500-1545) may have served in Henry's early French campaigns but was certainly well known at the royal court, where he cut quite a dash as a young buck and a contender in tournaments. That he could afford to do so was largely thanks to his father's growing reputation in the capital. When, in 1518, a marriage was negotiated for him, his bride, Frances Morfyn, was the daughter of no less a personage than the reigning Lord Mayor of London. Frances came well-endowed with estates in East Anglia. By the time he reached his thirties Richard Williams was a country gentleman with influential friends in the City and the royal court. Thus, by the time that Thomas Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey in the early 1520s, it was his Williams relatives who were making the social running within the wider family.
Things changed in the 1530s when Thomas scaled the dizzying heights of royal preferment. Richard's uncle was in a position to advance his career even more dramatically. He certainly did so. Thomas was a family man. He maintained strong links with his roots. He acquired land in Putney and, when he was raised to the peerage, he took the title 'Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon'. He educated his sister Elizabeth's son, Christopher, with his own boy, Gregory. The minister employed Richard extensively in the business of dissolving the monasteries and ensured that he received rich pickings from the appropriated lands. He also employed Richard as a confidential messenger between himself and the king. It is scarcely surprising that Thomas's relative took to styling himself 'Richard Williams otherwise Cromwell'. His descendants kept the name and it was Richard's great-grandson who was Oliver Cromwell.
We might have expected that Richard and his kin, who benefited so spectacularly from Thomas Cromwell's rise to power might have been crushed by his fall. Nothing can be further from the truth. The condemned minister's estates did, indeed, revert to the crown but within a year of his father's death, Gregory, his heir, received considerable grants of land and, in December 1540, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Cromwell of Oakham. Thereafter, Gregory was assiduous in attendance in the House of Lords. By the time of his death in 1551, he was one of the wealthiest landowners in the Midlands. As for Richard Williams/Cromwell, with whom Gregory remained on very close terms, he continued to accumulate property, held several lucrative posts under the Crown and, in 1543, was made a gentleman of the privy chamber. He was one of the wealthiest men in England and held land in several counties. By 1564 the family mansion, Hinchinbroke House, near Huntingdon, was considered sufficiently splendid to receive a visit from Queen Elizabeth.
More about Thomas Cromwell's early life will be covered in the next blog post.
R.B. Merriman, The Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (Oxford, 1902), Vol I. pp.1-12, Vol II, p.191.
Mark Noble, Memoirs of the Protectorate-house of Cromwell ... (1787)
G.R. Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge, 1972), Ch.6.
G.R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution (Cambridge, 1960), pp.69ff.
J. Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion (ed.G.Townsend, 1838) Vol.V, p.385ff.
D. Wilson, The King and the Gentleman: Charles Stuart and Oliver Cromwell 1599-1649 (2000), pp.11-16.