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  

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