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.

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