Friday, 27 February 2015


Joanna the Mad (1479-1555) and Catherine the Stubborn (1485-1536)

The next two in our list of powerful women were not, in the end, powerful enough. Why, then, include them? Partly because they provide continuity - they were both daughters of Isabella of Castile - but principally because their struggles demonstrate what royal women were up against in a world where men, by long established tradition, held sway.

Ferdinand and Isabella had five children who reached maturity - four of them girls. They were all married into other royal houses in order to provide secure alliances for Spain, whose rulers already saw themselves as leaders of Catholic Europe, with a divine mission to convert the world. By a treaty of 1495 the pope, Rodrigo Borgia, calmly divided all newly-discovered overseas territory between Spain and Portugal. The importance of the Iberian alliance was demonstrated by the remarkable marital history of Manuel I of Portugal. His first wife was Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (and also the widow of his own elder brother, who had died in a riding accident). When Elizabeth died Manuel married her sister, Maria. After her death he took to wife Eleanor, who was the niece of both of his former wives. Papal dispensations were necessary for these unions but they, as far as we know, raised few eyebrows. Anything, it seems, was permissible in the interests of dynastic survival.

The remaining two Spanish royal sisters were similarly disposed of in dynastic marriages. Joanna became the wife of Philip, son of the Emperor Maximilian. The political purpose of this match was to isolate and contain France. By her will Isabella of Castile left the sovereignty of her country to Joanna, guided if and when necessary, by Ferdinand, Joanna's father. In reality what happened was that the two men in her life competed for control of her considerable territory. After Philip's sudden death in 1506, Ferdinand mercilessly bullied his daughter into yielding up effective control. Under this unremitting pressure Joanna's mental health gave way. Whether or not she suffered from an inherited disorder or was driven 'mad' by the treatment meted out by her closest male relatives (Her son, Charles, equally determined to exercise unbridled power, also treated her badly.) has never been established. She resisted with spirit and sometimes tantrums in her attempts to prevent her status being diminished. Such behaviour made it easy for her adversaries to proclaim her unfit to rule. In 1509 she was confined to the castle of Tordesilas where she remained, deliberately isolated from the outside world for the remainder of her long life. 

1509 was also the year that Joanna's sister, Catherine, became Queen of England. Her route to this happy eminence had been tortuous and beset with difficulties. Her parents had selected the heir to the English throne for her in order to complete the encirclement of France. After protracted negotiations, she and Prince Arthur were married in 1501 but within six months Catherine was left a widow. There now followed seven years of painful uncertainty. Henry VII was anxious not to forego the prestigious Spanish match and plans were made for Catherine to marry Arthur's younger brother, Henry. But negotiations were repeatedly on and off, while Catherine remained in limbo as Henry's 'guest' and separated from her family. Only after the old king's death did Henry VIII, on his accession, precipitate plans for the Spanish match. 

The story of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon is too well known to need repeating. The point I want to stress is the difference of attitude between husband and wife over the eligibility of women to rule. Henry pursued his decision to divorce Catherine because he wanted a male heir to prolong the Tudor dynasty. Like Manuel I, he regarded this as an imperative before which all other considerations must bow down. Catherine saw no reason why their daughter, Mary, should not inherit the crown. Her own mother had ruled Castile and her sister was titular head of state in Spain. She fought to the last ditch for her own daughter's rights and Henry was forced to use every stratagem he could devise. The break with Rome and all that followed is testimony to Catherine's strength of character.

Sunday, 22 February 2015


5. What Did Cromwell Believe? - (2) Religion

As we view the appalling situation in Syria and adjacent countries we should have no difficulty in realising that religious ideology is one of the most powerful motivating forces known to man. People will die for it and kill for it. This may be alien to contemporary western culture but it is a fact and it was even more of a fact in England 500 years ago. We may readily accept a presentation of Thomas Cromwell as a political wheeler-dealer because that is a concept we can easily get our heads round but we shall not begin to understand the man if we leave it at that.

Religion was central to his life, as it was - notionally at least - for all his contemporaries. That did not mean accepting Catholic dogma hook, line and sinker. This remarkable mentally inquisitive and acquisitive, self-taught man was compelled to ask questions. Through wide reading and, probably, through meeting some of the leading thinkers of the day he was, by the 1520s, seeking answers to the big questions of life. How do we know this? One clue is that, according to his own claim, he had learned by heart Erasmus's revolutionary revision of the Latin New Testament. Foxe reported that it was this book that set Cromwell on a voyage of discovery: 'he began to be touched and called to a better understanding'. Erasmus' Novum Instrumentum was just one piece of biblical scholarship which was flavour of the month among intellectuals. By fresh exploration of the Greek text with the aid of recently discovered early documents they were setting students' minds free from slavish attachment to St. Jerome's Vulgate and from the secondary authority, Peter Lombard's Sentences which was a commentary on the Vulgate. It was this, centuries old 'scholastic' approach to the holy text that underpinned all Catholic dogma and it was now being called in question.

Cromwell certainly questioned it. This is apparent from the fact that, once he was in a position of ecclesiastical authority as Vicegerent in Spirituals (1535) he devoted increasing time and energy to the production of an authorised English translation of the Bible. Foxe tells a story to illustrate Cromwell's commitment in the 'scripture versus tradition' debate. Archbishop Cranmer's secretary, Ralph Morice, had written out his master's argument against certain points of Catholic doctrine which the archbishop proposed to present to the king. It was 'a fair book ... First the Scriptures were alleged; then the doctors (i.e. church tradition); thirdly followed the arguments deducted from these authorities'. By accident it fell into the hands of 'a rank papist', who hastened to court to present it to Cranmer's enemy, Bishop Gardiner, to be used as proof of the archbishop's heresy. In an effort to circumvent this, Morice, with equal urgency, reported to Cromwell. The minister personally confronted the would-be informer and blustered against him: 'Who made thee so bold as to detain or behold any book ... from a councillor's servant?' He dismissed the fellow with a caution and the threat that he had come within an inch of being put in the stocks 'to teach such malapert knaves to meddle with councillor's affairs'.

Someone else profoundly influenced by the Novum Instrumentum was William Tyndale who became passionately attached to the idea of an English Bible, was forced to flee to the Low Countries and published there (1526-7) the book that would prove to be the most influential ever written in the English language. His New Testament was smuggled into the country, confiscated and burned by the authorities and covertly studied by free thinkers. Cromwell was certainly among the first members of the elite to possess a copy, long before Wolsey's fall. He coud not risk boldly advocating the banned book but he was a close friend of those who did. By 1527 he was a patron of Miles Coverdale (who was later to continue Tyndale's translation work) and of Hugh Latimer, the most famous evangelical preacher of the age. It was Latimer who, in 1530, wrote to the king protesting at the banning of Tyndale's book and urging him not to follow the counsel of Gardiner, More and the conservative party. Henry, he boldly advised, should 'do that God commendeth and not that seemeth good in your own sight without the Word of God'. Shortly afterwards Latimer obtained a Wiltshire benefice. By whose influence? Thomas Cromwell's. An even closer friend and another outspoken champion of the English Bible was Stephen Vaughan, who was Cromwell's principal agent in the Netherlands and employed there in trying to persuade the exiled Tyndale to return to England and continue his translation work.

These and other contacts were all established in the 1520s before Cromwell entered royal service and he never severed his links with them even though they were marked by enemies of reform. As an ambitious politician with a career to make he had no need of such allies. Indeed, it would have been prudent to avoid any contamination with men who espoused suspect opiinions, particularly as Henry VIII had a morbid fear of heresy. Yet Cromwell, long before he was established as Henry's deputy in ecclesiastical affairs, was supporting and encouraging preachers, writers and scholars of advanced opinions. He was lauded by friends and admirers as a generous host who welcomed people to his home to engage in stimulating debate. We are fortunate to have the testimony of one of his guests. John Oliver, a royal chaplain, enjoyed conversation round the Cromwell board in 1531-2. In a letter of 1538 he reminisced how the company would compare Vulgate readings with those of the Novum Instrumentum. The revelations he received during these debates, he affirmed, marked 'the beginning of my conversion'. Such gatherings of intellectually-inclined gentlemen were not controversial but they did constitute part of the seed bed of the English Reformation. Other more tendentious influences were already arriving from the continent. What would Cromwell's attitude be to them? 

Next time:  6. Was Cromwell a Lutheran?

John Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion, ed. G. Townend, 1838, Vol. 5, pp.388f
G.R. Elton, Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal, Cambridge, 1973, pp.267
G.F. Corrie, Sermons and Remains of Hugh Latimer, Cambridge, 1845, Vol.2, p.308  

Friday, 20 February 2015


Really? Yes really. From the 1470s to the 1620s the history of the continent cannot be accurately told without prominent mention of twenty or more powerful and talented women. They governed states. They made policy. They determined issues of war and peace. They engaged in diplomacy. They set the tone of religious debate. They were cultural innovators whose salons were magnets for top Renaissance artists and scholars. Belligerent monarchs, scheming popes and ruthless generals may have dominated the stage in the drama of political affairs as described by generations of historians but any account which ascribes solely to men the emergence of 'Modern Europe' is a distortion of the historical record. Throughout this period there were many women who were not mere ciphers. Nor were they simply 'powers behind the throne'. Stick with me for this blog series and I'll introduce you to a catalogue of female movers and shakers of the Renaissance.

1. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504)

As every schoolboy knows (or used to know) Queen Isabella was the patron of Christopher Columbus who supported his New World exploration and, by so doing, laid the foundation of the Spanish colonial empire. But that was far in the distance in the 1460s, when the teenage Princess Isabella began to play a significant role in politics. She was the half-sister of Henry IV of Castile, known as 'Henry the Impotent'. During his reign (1454-1474) the power of the crown dwindled as noble factions shrugged off centralised control. Isabella was only of interest to the king as marriage fodder. He entered into various negotiations, hoping, by pledging her to another monarch, to gain support to help him with the internal problems of Castile. But the feisty Isabella declined the role of hapless dynastic pawn. She exploited the divisions among the nobility and gained her own group of powerful backers. She contracted a clandestine marriage with the man of her choice - her second cousin, Prince Ferdinand of Aragon (1469). Having no son to succeed him, Henry reluctantly nominated Isabella as his heir and, in 1474, she became queen of a divided kingdom. Some of her enemies made common cause with the King of Portugal and the two states were locked in a land and sea war which lasted four years. In matters military Isabella adopted a hands-on role. She discussed tactics with her generals and appeared personally in battle arenas. Though not personally leading her troops, she was close to them and took a particular interest in field hospitals and the care of the wounded.

The constitutional agreement between Ferdinand and Isabella was unique (even revolutionary) by the standards of the time. Each was sovereign in his/her own territory. This gave Isabella complete freedom in reforming the chaotic administration of Castile. She put an end to expensive sinecures and relied increasingly on a bureaucracy of lawyers and educated officials. Patiently but firmly she dragged the kingdom's finances back into the black. The creaking judicial system was modernised by an overhaul of the legal code.

Jointly Ferdinand and Isabella embarked on a holy crusade. Their aim was to make the land which would become Spain into a Catholic bastion which would expand western Christendom throughout the world. They completed the Reconquista, which drove Muslims and Jews out of Spain, except those who converted. They achieved and forcefully maintained political and religious unity, established royal control of the church courts and ensured a rigid enforcement of official doctrine through what became the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella's fiery religious zeal was the driving force behind this. Contemporary chronicles described her as 'following the path of harshness, rather than mercy'. Bringing other lands under the spiritual authority of the pope was the driving force behind the exploration and exploitation of the New World and the establishment of the most far reaching missionary movement in a thousand years. The wealth pouring in from newly-conquered lands funded this expansion.

Isabella was determined to pursue her political and religious ambitions throughout Europe by a system of alliances with other royal houses. Her only son died, childless, at the age of nineteen but she married her three daughters into the royal houses of Portugal, England and the Habsburg Empire. Her direct female descendants became queens and regents in England, France, the Empire, Denmark, Hungary and the Netherlands.

Isabella was a phenomenon as remarkable to contemporaries as to historians. She was a legend in her own lifetime; chroniclers praised her as an example of female conduct but also praised her 'manly' virtues - an indication that something new had arrived in Europe: the powerful woman.

Monday, 16 February 2015


4. What did Cromwell believe? - (1) Politics

' [In] that book ... are set out all the plans of the enemy and the methods by which religion, piety, and all types of virtue could more easily be destroyed ... it was written by the hand of Satan.'

This was Reginald Pole's verdict on Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince. Pole identified it as the standard text behind the Henrician Reformation and claimed that Cromwell was responsible for introducing the Florentine's insidious, unprincipled secularism to the king. We can immediately say that any case for Cromwell's alleged Machiavellianism that rests entirely on Pole's evidence cannot be sustained. The cardinal's account rests on his memory of a single, brief conversation he had had with Cromwell years earlier (c.1529-30). Cromwell had referred to a nameless book which Pole claimed to have identified later as The Prince. Now, Machiavelli's notorious treatise, though written in 1513, was not published until 1532, so it cannot have been Cromwell's political Bible. That does not mean that there were no similarities between what the Italian writer and the English minister believed. Indeed, it would be surprising if there were no overlaps, since both men's political ideas had been formed in the political turmoil of Italy c.1500-1520.

The Prince is in a category which was popular in the late medieval and early Tudor period. Such manuals offered advice to rulers on how to govern. Other examples are Edmund Dudley's Tree of Commonwealth and Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince. The enormous difference between such offerings and The Prince is that the former extol the ruler to exercise Christian virtues while the latter urges him not to be 'hampered' by any such constraint. Politics, as Bismarck would later observe, is the art of the possible. It becomes impossible if a basic fact is ignored: all men are bad. The only way to rule subjects and to overcome princely rivals is not to flinch from employing deception, ruthlessness and guile when necessary. Machiavelli was not interested in how an ideal ruler should operate in an ideal world by applying religious and philosophical principles culled from the ancients and Christian dogma. He simply observed how politics actually worked in practice. He had good reason to be pragmatic. His beloved Italy was a divided and war-torn mess. Other writers, contemplating Europe as a whole, contented themselves with satire (Sebastian Brant, Ship of Fools, Erasmus, In Praise of Folly) or whimsical reflection on the perfect state (More, Utopia). Machiavelli wanted action such as could only be offered by a saviour who could provide peace and stability. He did not advocate absolutism; what he did do was explore how governments of different character had operated effectively from classical times down to his own day. After 1532 the book was accepted as a contribution to the political debate and read by 'good Catholic' monarchs such as Charles V and Philip II.

Cromwell, a well-read man who had witnessed at first hand the varied political regimes operating in Italy, had obviously thought much about these things. Did he come to much the same conclusions as Machiavelli? How far was he responsible for turning Henry VIII into a ruthless tyrant exercising supreme power in church and state?

The main difficulty facing us in considering this question is that, though Cromwell was a student of political theory, he was not a political theorist. He was a man of action, an organiser, a creator of practical schema. His constitutional legacy is clear: he established the principal that England was ruled by the king in parliament. Whether this was a preconceived plan or a response to existing realities we cannot know. Two points need to be made about English power politics prior to 1530. The first is that Crown, nobility and church had been in competition for centuries. The second is that the Tudors had considerably strengthened monarchical control before Cromwell came on the political scene. Henry VII had curbed the power of the great baronial houses and his son, in pursuit of an annulment of his marriage, was already flexing his muscles in matters ecclesiastical. For example, by 1530, the king had a team of scholars working feverishly in libraries at home and abroad to discover documents which would support the theory that England was an 'empire' in which spiritual as well as temporal legislation was exercised in the name of the sovereign. This constitutional theory was fundamental to all the innovations of the 'Cromwell years'.

One subject with which Cromwell was of a common mind with Machiavelli was the relationship of kings and ministers. According to The Prince rulers were in constant need of wise counsel. They should appoint virtuous men as their advisers and listen to their advice. For his part, the minister's sole responsibility was to his sovereign whom he must obey in all things. Cromwell accepted without question his responsibility to serve Henry VIII. That did not mean that he made no attempt to influence the king. Thus, for example, he pioneered, with limited success, a programme of social reform. He identified with humanist scholars who were much exercised in improving the 'common weal', the wellbeing of all the king's subjects, especially the more vulnerable. He addressed such social ills as vagrancy, the enclosure of common land and corrupt legal practices. He intended that his proposed far-reaching reforms would be funded from a combination of Treasury funds, private investment and taxation.

Cromwell's political vision was the creation of a stable and united society. But he came to power at the time when Henry's confrontation with Rome was creating division and unrest. How could he give Henry what he wanted without exacerbating an already tense situation and one which threatened to provoke internal conflict and war with foreign powers backed by Rome - all of which would be ruinously expensive? In brief, his answer was to make the Crown financially secure and independent through the appropriation of ecclesiastical property (a process already begun during Thomas Wolsey's chancellorship). This would provide funds for the defence of the realm, the maintenance of public order and an ambitious programme of social reform. Unfortunately for this policy, while Cromwell could fill the royal coffers, he could not control how Henry used his financial bonanza.

The onslaught on the traditional church, its wealth, its practices and its practical ethics could not have been carried out by someone who lacked religious conviction. This was central to all Cromwell's policies and official actions and it will receive separate examination in the next blog. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what the young Cromwell saw of Italian religion and politics informed his later anticlericalism and contempt for ecclesiastical corruption. This further distances him from Machiavelli, for the author of The Prince applauded the aggrandisement and duplicity of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and Julius II. As Cromwell set out with relish on the reform of the English church and state he was not following a Machiavellian programme. He did not need to. His genius lay in quickening the impulse of a movement already in progress and creating a detailed legislative framework for it.

Next Time:   5. What Did Cromwell Believe - (2) Religion

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trs. W.K. Marriott, 1992
J. Guy, 'Thomas Cromwell and the Intellectual Origins of the Henrician Revolution',
S. Anglo, Machiavelli: A Dissection, 1969
S.A. Samson, 'Enclosures, Rebellion and the Commonwealth Men - 1536-1549', Liberty University Faculty Publications, Paper 272, 1980
F. van Dycke, 'Reginald Pole and Thomas Cromwell: An Examination of the Apologia and Carolum Quintum', in The American Historical Review, Vol 9 (1904)
P.S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and Mystery of State, Cambridge, 1989
G.R. Elton, Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal, Cambridge, 1973
G.R. Elton, 'The Political Creed of Thomas Cromwell', in Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics, Vol 2, Cambridge, 1974, pp.215ff.

Sunday, 8 February 2015


2. Thomas More - The Making of a Catholic Martyr

When Henry VII turned his back on Thomas Wolsey the main cheer leader was Thomas More. Addressing the opening of parliament in November 1529, he complimented the king's sagacity. 'His Grace's sight was so quick and penetrable that he saw ... through him, both within and without'. Like a wise shepherd Henry had removed a 'rotten and faulty' ram from the flock. As the new Lord Chancellor, More had to distance himself from the attitudes and policies of the previous regime. At 51, he had reached the pinnacle of worldly ambition and if he had been nothing other than a sycophantic royal servant, it is possible (though not very probable) that he would have survived. But he was always a torn man, a creature of contradictions. He was a member of the new wave of international humanist scholars while remaining committed to the old church. Though a skilful orator with a gift for language, he descended to vulgar abuse when attacking adversaries (such as William Tyndale). He argued passionately for the eradication of social ills but did not throw his political weight behind programmes of reform. He claimed freedom of conscience for his own beliefs yet persecuted those whose conscience led them in other directions.

Nothing illustrated better his Janus career than his ambitious pursuit of personal advancement and his disdain of public office. He explained to his friend, Erasmus, 'It was with great unwillingness that I came to court'. His famous book, Utopia, contains a passage in which he debates whether a philosopher should remain aloof from the corrupting influence of politics or do what he can to guide the formulation of policy.

It was as a philosopher and wit that Henry valued More. He had known the prominent lawyer and international scholar since his childhood and, like other Renaissance princes, there were times when he found stimulating the conversation of men steeped in classical learning. According to William Roper, More's son-in-law and first biographer, More steadily advanced from court hanger-on to royal intimate, though we should be careful about taking at face value Roper's picture of his father-in-law's friendship with the king. More was certainly under no illusions about the character of his sovereign. In a Latin poem 'To a Courtier' he wrote, 'You often boast to me that you have the king's ear and often have fun with him, freely and according to your whims. This is like having fun with tamed lions - often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Sometimes he roars for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal'. He once made the grim joke that if his head might win for his mercurial and ruthless master a castle in France, it would immediately become forfeit. Since he was aware of the hazards of life in the Tudor court, where, as Thomas Wyatt observed, 'it thunders round the throne', why did he not seek some way to withdraw from public office before it was too late? Perhaps because there was a strong ascetic element to this councillor who wore a hair shirt next to his skin to mortify the flesh. Perhaps because he believed that someone in authority should make a stand against misguided royal policy, though it might cost him his life.

Ironically, the conflict between allegiance to the king and allegiance to the pope which had brought Wolsey down proved also to be More's undoing - but for different reasons. The Cardinal would have fallen over backwards to secure a political settlement in Henry's favour. More a mere layman, could not bring himself to sanction the royal divorce and the rejection of papal authority which it implied. As long as Henry pursued this policy More could not be the public face of government policy. But Henry was determined to have the public endorsement of his virtuous chancellor and refused More's request to yield up the Great Seal in March 1531. More's resignation was eventually accepted in May 1532.

The king had now found in Thomas Cromwell, a legal and political genius whose radical ideas were able to untie the tangle of the divorce negotiations. More hoped to be left in peace in his home at Chelsea, although he did not shun the light of publicity. He continued in print his war against heresy. The nation was riven with discord, some supporting the king and some adhering to his discarded Queen Catherine. Some championed religious reform and some clung to the old ways. With the government sponsoring a pulpit and pamphlet propaganda campaign and suspected opponents of official policy being imprisoned and interrogated, the issue of 'king versus pope' was seldom out of the 'headlines'. While nailing his colours to the mast in matters of faith, More refused to be drawn into any political argument. But neutrality was not possible. The ex-Chancellor was too popular and his beliefs too well known for Henry to allow him to indulge what his new wife, Anne Boleyn, insisted was sullen silence.

Matters came to a head in April 1534. Cromwell was dotting the Is and crossing the Ts of Reformation legislation, forcing all the king's subjects to endorse anti-papal policy or face the consequences. Parliament had passed an Act of Succession, vesting the crown in the issue of Henry and Anne and it was now to be imposed by means of a sworn oath. When More's turn came to sign, he accepted the succession issue but could not endorse the Act's anti-papal preamble. This was acceptable to Archbishop Cranmer and, probably, to Cromwell but Henry would brook no compromise. He ordered More to the Tower. From that point his condemnation and execution were inevitable. On 6 July 1534 More was beheaded, insisting at the last, that he died 'the king's good servant but God's first'. For Henry there could be no such dichotomy. He seriously believed that his will and the dictates of Providence were one and the same. This conviction had separated England from Christendom. Thomas More had been the standard-bearer of Christendom. He was, therefore, wrong. And defiantly wrong. King and ex-minister were locked in a battle of wills. In such a conflict no opponent of Henry VII ever came off best.
* * *
Further reading:
W. Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More in R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding, eds., Two Early Tudor Lives, New Haven, 1962
R. Marius, Thomas More, London, 1985
N. Harpsfield, The Pretended Divorce Between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Camden Soc., 2nd ser., xxi (1878)
G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, New Haven, 2005
J. Guy, Tudor England, Oxford, 1988
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next Week:  3. Thomas Cromwell - The Best Servant Henry Ever Had 

Thursday, 5 February 2015


How bad were things in European Christendom prior to the Reformation? The question has fuelled academic and revisionist writing for years. Some claim the church was in a mess and urgently needed reform. Others tell us that traditional religion was in a healthy state until those pesky Lutherans came along. These arguments are not to the point. The church has always had its critics and its staunch defenders. What is important is that there were ominous tremors beneath the surface of European society that presaged the coming volcano. In support I offer four remarkable cultural artefacts produced exactly half a millennium ago.

1. A revolutionary Painting 

In 1515 or 1516 Matthias Grünewald completed a complex altarpiece (a polyptych) for the convent of the Order of Saint Anthony at Issenheim. This stand-alone piece of religious art, featuring (among other subjects) the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, is unique for its dramatic and even gruesome portrayal of its subject matter. The crucified Christ is depicted in gut-wrenching detail but this makes the radiant resurrection panel even more triumphant. This work, probably inspired by The Visions of St Bridget (1303-73) which contained some criticisms of the medieval church and had just been translated into German, goes beyond 'Renaissance realism'. Its appeal is clearly and deliberately to the emotions. Grünewald wanted viewers to engage directly with the events of the gospel in a way that conventional religious art did not allow. For example, compare Grünwald's resurrection with that of Ambrogio de Stefano Borgognone, painted only five years earlier.

2. A Revolutionary Translation

No less startling was a work by the Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, which came off the press in Basel in March 1516. The Novum Instrumentum was a fresh Latin translation of the New Testament accompanied by a text of the Greek original. It was a scholarly

improvement on the 4th century Vulgate of St. Jerome and it caused a sensation. As Diarmaid McCullocoh observes, 'To attack Jerome was to attack the structure of understanding of the Bible the western Church took for granted'. Erasmus was sweeping into the dustbin the book on which eleven hundred years of official doctrine had been based. His translation gave scholars permission to redefine Christian belief and undermine ecclesiastical authority.

3. A Book that Refused to be Revolutionary

A matter of weeks after seeing his Novum Instrumentum off the press, Erasmus helped to publish a book by his friend, Thomas More. Utopia was a 

work of imagination. It reflected the surprised realisation Europeans were experiencing in the early 16th century that the world was a different, bigger and more varied place than their forbears had ever known. Sailors returning from the discovery of new lands told strange stories to wide-eyed listeners of the wondrous things they had seen. With hitherto unknown civilisations coming within their ken, scholars inevitably began to ponder what an ideal 'Christian commonwealth' would be like. And that meant that they became more conscious of the defects of their own culture. More's whimsical travelogue introduced readers to the ideal world of 'Utopia' (= 'Good Place'). But his book was not a programme for reform - almost the opposite. 'I must needs confess,' he explained, 'that many things be in the Utopian weal public, which in our cities I may rather wish for, that hope after'. More was no radical. It was almost as though he was, in a witty, good-humoured way, trying to hold off demand for change - a demand he found unsettling; one which would eventually deprive him of his life.

4. A Polite Treatise

It was scarcely more than a year later (on 31 October 1517) that the German monk and theologian, Martin Luther, wrote a respectful monograph to Archbishop Albrecht of Brandenburg asking him to put a stop to the practice of selling 'indulgencies', certificates assuring the buyers, in the name of the pope, of remission from the penalties of sin. His reasons were set out in 95 propositions demonstrating that the indulgence traffic had no biblical support. He did not, in all probability, nail these theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. But he might just as well have made such a public gesture of defiance. Printers got hold of the text of the 95 Theses and sold them all over Europe. Within four months Thomas More was reading them in London. Questions long thought but unspoken were now brazenly asked: Did ultimate authority lie in the Bible or the pope? Could an ideal society be achieved? Was individual salvation imparted via the church's sacraments or through relationship with Grünwald's suffering Christ? These and a host of other issues were thrown up as blisteringly hot lava. The volcano exploded. The Reformation had begun.

Sunday, 1 February 2015


2. Cromwell and his dad

I came to Italy fuggendo da mio padre ('fleeing from my father'). Those four words, written by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello (c.1480-1562), are the only words which indicate Thomas Cromwell's relationship with his father. On this thin foundation has been built the character of Walter Cromwell as a drunken bully who thrashed his teenage son within an inch of his life. It might make good television but is it true? Let us consider its origins. Bandello, who spent his latter years as Bishop of Agen, in south-western France, was more interested in literary pursuits than in religion. And he was, in his time (c.1530-60), extremely successful. His forte was picaresque, moral tales of a similar nature to Boccaccio's Decameron. His prodigious oeuvres were translated into other European languages and became the stock-in-trade of English dramatists such as Shakespeare, Webster and Massinger. The Cromwell tale was used by the anonymous writer of the tragedy, The Life and Death of Thomas Cromwell (1602) which was wrongly attributed to Shakespeare. 
     What was this tale? Bandello told how the destitute young Cromwell was driven to begging on the streets of Florence, until rescued by the wealthy banker Francesco Frescobaldi, who nurtured him and finally sent him on his way back to England with a horse to ride and money in his purse. Years later this Frescobaldi's fortunes took a turn for the worse and it was Cromwell, now a wealthy and powerful man, who was able amply to repay the kindness of his erstwhile saviour. It makes a good story and the moral is clear. Cromwell certainly did have some dealings with Frescobaldi (or it may have  been his son) around 1532-3. That is all we know. So, how much truth is there in Bandello's edifying yarn? The author set his tale in the aftermath of the Battle of Garigliano. The adolescent Cromwell, having served as servant to a mercenary soldier, found himself abandoned and penniless in a foreign land. The problem with the story as a factual account lies in its dating. Francesco Frescobaldi was born in June 1495. The Battle of Garigliano was fought in December 1503. Assuming that the alleged encounter took place a few months later the 'prosperous banker' was a boy of eight. There could, of course, be a crumb of truth in the story; an impoverished Cromwell might have received charity from the prominent Florentine family but the way Bandello embroidered on that to tell a good story does not inspire confidence in his claim that the young Englishman had run away from his father.
      But even if we swallow that - and it takes some swallowing - Bandello's four words to not conjure up the image of a vicious child-beater. Young Thomas may have left the parental home for any one of several reasons. He would not have been the first or last teenager to do that. What other evidence do we have that Walter Cromwell was given to domestic violence? The sparse details of land and court transactions present a mixed picture of Walter. He was a leading member of Putney society. He was a landowner who built up his property holdings and, by 1500, possessed at least 250 acres. He was often appointed to the position of tithingman (responsible for law and order in a group of ten households) and served on juries. At least once (1495) he was appointed parish constable. Despite this prominence and the trust apparently reposed in him by the community, Walter frequently himself fell foul of the law. Once he got into a fight witih a neighbour. On several occasions he was charged with overgrazing the common land and on forty eight occasions within twenty-six years he was fined for selling sub-standard or overpriced ale. How can we reconcile these apparently contradictory character traits?
     Let us take the 'bad ale' charges first. The Anize of Bread and Ale, which had been on the statute book for more than two centuries, was a regulatory licensing system designed to fix the price of these vital commodities (which varied from year to year according to harvest yields) and to ensure their quality. In each parish an ale-conner was appointed to adjudicate such matters. The system was arbitrary, open to abuse and frequently caused arguments. Later, in 1531, an Act would be passed removing to higher authority all decisions about pricing. Henceforth, justices of the peace were to determine what charges were 'convenient and sufficient'. I am not suggesting that in such matters Walter was more sinned against than sinning; simply pointing out that we must be careful how we interpret the legal decisions which went against him.
     What these sparse scraps of evidence suggest about Walter Cromwell is that he was a hard-headed, possibly ruthless businessman, determined to extract the maximum profit from his enterprises, which included inn-keeping, shearing, fulling (and possibly - see below - blacksmithing). He was an entrepreneur with his finger in several pies. Perhaps, he wanted to keep up with his 'posher' friend and son-in-law, Morgan Williams. Such an ambitious and forceful man may not have been attractive but nothing we have observed so far identifies him as a brutal ruffian.
     Eventually, Walter went too far. His forceful business methods and his tendency to sail close to the wind proved his undoing. In 1514 (long after Thomas had left home) he appeared in the manorial court again - this time on a more serious charge. It was proved against him that he 'falsely and fraudulently erased the evidences and terrures (land titles) of the lord'. He must have been pretty desperate to risk tampering with official documents. Taking on the lord of the manor was a mistake for which Walter paid by being stripped of all his property. And that is the last we know of Thomas Cromwell's father.
     But was he Thomas Cromwell's father? Some historians have tried to resolve the apparent contradictions in the records by suggesting that Thomas's mother married twice. John Foxe, Cromwell's first biographer, adds weight to this by informing us that his mother was first married to a blacksmsith and, after his death, to a shearman. That would help us to understand how Thomas's father could be referred to as an innkeeper, brewer, shearman, fuller and blacksmith. It might also explain why Thomas left home. If Walter Cromwell was his step-father there might well have been no love lost between the two of them. Unfortunately, this exit from the problem is not available to us. As we have seen, records relating to Walter (sometimes referred to as 'Cromwell alias Smyth') place him in Putney from the 1470s right down to 1514. The scenario of the two husbands could then run something llike this: Thomas's mother (name unknown) was married to Thomas's father (name unknown) who died not long after his son's birth. The mother then married the prominent Walter Cromwell. Now, if Walter ill-treated his stepson to such an extent that the latter ran away at the first opportunity, why did young Thomas abandon his proper name and assume his step-father's? it does not add up psychologically. So, to recap, there is no convincing documentary evidence that Cromwell had an abusive step-father or even (pace Foxe) a step-father at all.
     Historians, picking over the meagre archival bones to provide a coherent account of Cromwell's origins, favour different bits of the evidence. To be honest, there is nothing else we can do. So here, for what it's worth, is my assessment.
      Contemporaries were mystified about Cromwell's meteoric rise to power from humble beginnings and tended to suggest simplistic answers. For example, imperial ambassador Chapuys reported to his master in 1535 that Cromwell's promotion was the result of a royal whim. In 1530 this 'nobody' had gained an audience with the king during which he promised to make Henry 'the richest king in the world' and for that reason was immediately admitted to the royal council. The interview did take place (in 1530) and Foxe recorded in more detail the topics covered. The ambassador, reporting in 1535, at the very time that Cromwell's assault on ecclesiastical revenues was getting under way, believed, or affected to believe, that the minister's rise could only be explained by Henry's avarice. Nobody knew where the new man had come from and, as for Cromwell himself, he only threw out tantalising tit-bits of information. Inevitably, people made up their own explanations, sewing together facts and gossip and embroidering the results with personal prejudice.
     Character is the product of nature and nurture. For some reason, the two were at odds in the young Cromwell. By his own admission to Archbishop Cranmer he was 'a bit of a ruffian', a teenage rebel who could not be contained by his home, by Putney or, indeed, by England. Nascent genius did not need a parent's boot or fist to begin to reveal itself.

Next time we will think about 'Cromwell - the self-taught genius'.

C. Brognoligo, ed., The Stories of Matteo Bandello (1911), Vol III, pp.233ff
R.B. Merriman, The Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (Oxford 1902), Vol 1, pp.1-12
J. Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion (ed. G. Townsend 1838), Vol V, p.365
Calendar of State Papers Spanish, ed. G.A. Bergennoth and P. de Gayangos (1862-6), Vol V, p.356.