Sunday, 25 January 2015


A series of posts dedicated to revealing the truth about a remarkable and complex man.

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.


Saturday, 24 January 2015


     The trouble with Holbein is that he was such a damn good portratist. As has been said ad nauseam, this artist was the first to show us what an English king and his courtiers really looked like. That is true. We are also told that he was a superb delineator of character. That also is true. But we have to bear in mind certain other truths about Renaissance portraiture which oblige us to be cautious about how we read Holbein's paintings.
     For example, what are we to make of the Cromwell painted by Holbein? Commentators have drawn attention to the 'tight lips', 'piggy eyes', 'grasping hand' and 'impassive features'. When we look at this image across almost 500 years during which the art of portraiture has developed in many ways, we judge it by our own criteria, and may conclude that this man is singularly unprepossessing - even sinister. What we should be doing is trying to view the painting through 16th century eyes. There were social and artistic conventions which had to be observed. Important sitters were almost always shown half-face or three-quarter face. In fact, it was considered vulgar to be depicted staring straight out of the canvas. 'But what of Henry VIII's famous full-face image,' I hear you cry. I'll come to that presently. Cromwell's pose is, therefore, that of a dignified man of substance and his stature and learning are made clear by the book on the table and the letter from the king beside it. Since the eyes are turned away from us it is difficult for us to deduce much about the sitter's character. By contrast, look at Holbein's portrait of the courtier, John Godsalve. His gaze is directed towards us. What do we, from our modern standpoint, make of it? Well, I always feel like captioning it, 'Would you buy a used car from this man?'
     Yet, in both cases, we must assume that the sitters were happy with the job Holbein had done. Because - and this is the most important point of all - Tudor grandees who commissioned portraits paid to be represented as they wanted to be represented. Godsalve certainly didn't think his portrait made him look 'shifty' and Holbein, if he valued his career, would not have deliberately presented him in an unsympathetic manner. The same is true of the Cromwell portrait.
     When we consider Holbein's royal portraits everything we have said about giving the sitter what he wanted has to be multiplied by a factor of at least ten. The famous image of Henry VIII shows the king as he wished to be seenIt is, in fact, a piece of royal propaganda. Henry's full frontal stance indicated his contempt for convention. It originated in a group painting (the Whitehall Cartoon) which showed Henry with his parents and his current wife. It was painted in 1537 when the king had several things he wanted to announce about himself. I cannot enlarge on them all but can only recommend anyone wanting to understand Holbein's ever-famous image to read my book, Hans Holbein - Portrait of an Unknown Man (1996, 1997, 2006). I'll just point out a couple of features. The observer cannot miss the king's thrusting codpiece - nor is he meant to miss it. Henry, who was having no end of a difficulty in begetting a son, wanted to assert his virility. Now look at the slender legs. By this time Henry was already suffering from severe ulcers but there is no sign here of the bandages he had to wear permanently.
     So are these and other portraits 'true' likenesses? The answer has to be 'Yes and No'. But that is always the case when we look at painted representations of anyone, past or present. Evaluating a portrait is a three-way transaction between sitter, artist and viewer and we always need to augment our knowledge of the sitter with whatever other evidence we can gather.