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. 

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