Monday, 16 March 2015


Who Murdered Thomas Cromwell?

On 28 July 1540 Thomas Cromwell was brutally and publicly murdered. This talented politician who, viewed from any historical perspective, stands head and shoulders above most men of his generation, was despatched on trumped-up charges. Even Henry VIII within a year denounced those who had tricked him into sacrificing 'the most faithful servant I ever had'. Who, then, committed this murder? It matters not whether we approve or disapprove of Cromwell; whether we regret the manner of his passing or are happy that he got his comeuppance. The fact is unassailable: Cromwell was a victim of culpable homicide, by person or persons who can be known and named. Who should historians place in the dock to answer for this crime?

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. His hatred of Cromwell was based on both personal and doctrinal grounds. In 1532 the 'upstart' had eased him out of his position of secretary to the king, an office traditionally occupied by a senior clergyman. Three years later the 'semi-educated' Cromwell was appointed chancellor of Gardiner's university of Cambridge, a post invariably held by a cleric with academic credentials. Worse than all that, in 1535, this 'mere layman' became Vicegerent in Spirituals, the king's personal representative in all matters ecclesiastical. Thereafter, he not only supervised the dismantling of the monastic system and filled important church posts with his own 'cronies', he led the 'New Learning' assault on ancient doctrine. Gardiner was hindered from opposing the man he regarded as his rival by the fact that he was kept busy on overseas diplomatic missions. Not until 1539, when he was once more ensconced in the royal council could he begin his counterattack. He used parliament to buttress traditional doctrine, notably the Act of Six Articles which threw the weight of the law behind persecution of heretics (those who refused to accept the Catholic doctrines specified in the Act). Gardiner also waged pulpit warfare. The Lenten sermons of 1540 at St Paul's Cross became a slanging match between the bishop and his appointees versus preachers put up by Cromwell. In March three of Cromwell's evangelical friends were thrown into the Tower and Gardiner ensured that the king was made well aware of the danger of 'creeping heresy'. It now became obvious to close observers such as the French ambassador that the bishop and the minister were locked in a fight to the death.

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Like Gardiner, Howard hated Cromwell the man and also what he stood for. He was the proud representative of England's ancient nobility and had watched with distaste turning to alarm the rapid rise of the Putney brewer's son. Norfolk believed that lineage, not talent, was the passport to the councils of kings. He also made no secret of his rejection of religious change. England was never merry, he asserted, since the New Learning came in. As for the English Bible Cromwell had striven manfully to introduce, Howard vowed that he would never read it. Until the spring of 1540 the Duke of Norfolk well outranked Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon, even though Cromwell had established that in parliament's seating arrangements the king's Vicegerent in Spirituals took precedence over all the peerage. But then the minister mopped up the vacant ancient earldom of Essex and the court office of hereditary Great Chamberlain. Such events made Howard puce with rage. There seemed to be no way to stop Cromwell. Unless...

Henry VIII. The secret of success as a royal minister was, as Wolsey had once put it, 'to give the king what he wants'. Cromwell had taken that message to heart. He had established the royal supremacy and buttressed it with parliamentary statute and he had poured into the king's coffers enormous wealth taken from the church. But he had also nudged Henry into believing that what he wanted was the same as what his minister wanted. By the end of the 1530s the cause dearest to Cromwell's heart was the establishment of a Christian (and for Cromwell 'Christian' increasingly meant 'evangelical') commonwealth based firmly on the Bible. But there was only so far that Henry would go in the direction of religious reform. He had a sincere loathing of heresy. He was determined that his subjects should believe what he believed and though this was not, simply, 'Catholicism without the pope' it was certainly not Lutheranism or, horror of horrors, the radical and often violent religion that went under the name of 'Anabaptism'. It was a matter of pride to Henry that he should have the reputation of being an orthodox Christian king (even though he reserved the right to define 'orthodoxy'). When Gardiner suggested to him that Cromwell was an aider and abetter of Anabaptists in the English enclave of Calais he was ready to prove his genuine Christian faith by rooting out such heresy even among those close to the throne.

Thomas Cromwell. We have to consider the possibility that the minister brought about his own downfall. He became over confident in his dealings with rivals and, above all, with the king. To further reform at home and to check the power of Catholic regimes in Europe Cromwell championed an alliance between England and the Lutheran princes of Germany. Henry was prepared to enter into discussions with the members of the Schmalkaldic League, in rebellion against the Emperor but the price they demanded - allegiance to their statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession - was a price the king was not prepared to pay. Cromwell threw his usual caution to the wind and pressed on regardless. His determination to push Henry into a marriage with the sister of the Duke of Cleves (not a Lutherna, though sympathetic to their cause) was largely motivated by religion but also served the purpose of preventing Henry marrying a daughter of the English aristocracy and, thereby, changing the domestic balance of power. The fiasco of the Anne of Cleves match is well known but there is an aspect of it that is rarely stressed. Henry's failure to consummate the marriage was basically the result of his own weak sex drive. He was frenetically sensitive on this issue, could not allow it to be so much as mentioned by anyone, and was probably in denial over the issue. Cromwell, therefore, committed a serious faux pas when he took the queen on one side and tried to counsel her on the secrets of the bedroom. It was Henry's anger over this that seriously weakened Cromwell's position and gave his enemies the chance they were looking for. Cromwell now needed friends but his own hubris had distanced himself from any who might have come to his aid. His last piece of folie de grandeur was a supreme snub to the duke of Norfolk over Thetford Priory. This was marked for demolition and Howard pleaded with Cromwell to spare it because it was the burial place of his ancestors. The Vicegerent, determined to show the proud aristocrat who was boss, rejected the plea and forced Norfolk to remove the remains of generations of Howards to a new resting place.

Gardiner, Howard, the king - all had motive and means to kill Thomas Cromwell. The fusion of their grievances provided the opportunity. It might be that Cromwell, by employing his usual clear-headedness, could have avoided the ministrations of the bungling headsman. But he did not (perhaps because he was ill in the summer of 1540). To that extent he was complicit in his own murder.

Sunday, 8 March 2015


Cromwell and the Monasteries

He 'banished the undeserving from their altars'. He 'restored true religion'. He ensured that 'the precepts of God began to be held in their due honour'. Those words were not applied to Thomas Cromwell. They were composed in honour of Henry VIII and by Henry VIII. In 1537 they were part of a eulogy of the king which featured in a full-length mural he ordered Holbein to paint for the privy chamber of his new palace at Whitehall. Henry's proudest boast was his reformation of religion, and the Whitehall Cartoon (as it is known) was commissioned in the aftermath of the defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was in large measure, a response to the dissolution of the smaller monasteries. Henry took responsibility for it. He was proud of it. He regarded his triumph over the rebels as a sign of divine approval. And he used the rebellion as justification for his assault on all the remaining religious houses.

But was the dismantling of English monasticism something Cromwell lured the king into - with promises of mouth-watering wealth? This is the central question that has to be addressed if we are seeking a deeper understanding of Cromwell and his motivation. We should not allow ourselves to be diverted by emotive reflection on 'bare ruined choirs' or loss of 'cultural heritage' (a concept largely meaningless in the 16th century). The question rests on two other questions: 'What did Henry want?' and 'What did Cromwell want?'

As Professor Bernard has argued, the king never held in high regard the abbeys and the paraphernalia of relics and pilgrimages with which they were associated. He made one pilgrimage, to Walsingham, at the very beginning of his reign and never repeated the experience. When Wolsey closed down 29 religious houses and used the proceeds to pay for his educational foundations at Oxford and Ipswich, he received warm praise from his sovereign. Any lack of interest Henry had in monasticism turned to animosity when his matrimonial misadventures provoked criticism from outspoken leaders of the religious orders, particularly the Observant Franciscans and the Carthusians (some of whom encouraged the rabble-rousing 'Nun of Kent', Elizabeth Barton). Henry's mounting hostility towards the religious orders was, as far as we can tell, political rather than theological. He did not, like Luther, regard the entire institution as founded on non-biblical error which encouraged a doctrine of salvation by works. He was concerned because the 800 or so houses were beyond his control. Their allegiance was either directly to the pope or to superiors in foreign mother houses. This was a concern shared by other European monarchs who were also bringing the religious under closer supervision. English bishops shared Henry's concern at the semi-independence of houses within their dioceses which made it difficult to exercise discipline and initiate necessary reforms.

Cromwell's opposition went deeper. Even in the 1520s, when he was acting as Wolsey's agent for the closing of minor houses, there were complaints of his heavy-handedness which suggests that he had little sympathy for the dispossessed inmates. As a reader of Erasmus' and Tyndale's New Testaments he understood salvation as a work of grace available to all and not especially offered to a minority of 'first class Christians' who had taken monastic vows. As a visitor of abbeys and nunneries he would have seen at first hand the behaviour of such 'first class Christians', who gave little evidence of remarkable holiness. He had also long been familiar with the satirical pamphlets and woodcuts which, at best, poked fun at monks and nuns and, at worst, angrily demanded reform of abuses. By 1530 he will have read Simon Fish's inflammatory Supplication for the Beggars which complained of monks who lived in idle luxury and sexual debauchery while most of the king's subjects struggled to survive. This was exaggerated diatribe, despatched from the safety of a foreign press but, as Professor Dickens pointed out, 'tavern talk had now found open and eloquent expression'.

It was not long after this that Cromwell realised that he held much in common with Luther. He knew that, in lands where the reformers held sway, monasticism was withering on the vine. He had profound religious reasons for dismantling the system in England. But if he urged Henry to set in hand a root-and-branch reform he will have discovered that he was pushing against a door that was already open. The only question was how to bring it about.

Ways and means were Cromwell's speciality. In 1535 a thorough survey of ecclesiastical wealth (the Valor Ecclesiasticus) was made. The following year agents were despatched to examine the smaller houses to determine which were non-viable. Essentially, this was a continuation of the work Cromwell had done for Wolsey. The angry reaction of the Pilgrimage of Grace in the northern shires played into the government's hands. This spontaneous uprising was blamed upon 'traitorous priests' and 'renegade monks'. Thereafter, few abbots or priors were prepared to resist the wave of closures which followed, particularly as financial inducements were offered to those who willingly left their houses.

Were the religious bullied into abandoning their vows? Certainly. Were the findings of Cromwell's agents coloured to show the victims in the worst possible light? Probably. But there was sufficient undoctored evidence available from some locations to provide justification for the closures. Fraudulent 'miracle-working' images were exposed. Accusations of sexual immorality were substantiated by confessions. When villagers gazed on the wagon loads of treasures being trundled away from despoiled abbeys Fish's exposure of the difference between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' seemed to be well proven.

Those who remember Mrs Thatcher's assault on the coal mining industry in 1984 will still carry vivid images of mounted police clashing with crowds of stone-throwing miners. It was all very distressing. It always is when centuries-old communities are broken up and an ancient way of life comes to an end. But few would now contest the argument that the industry, a bedrock of Britain's Industrial Revolution, was no longer relevant two centuries later. To everything there is a time. So it was with English monasticism in the form in which it had existed for generations. It belonged to the past and - for several reasons - it could not serve the Tudor present. It certainly could not serve Henry VIII's regime. He dispensed with it for reasons which are at least questionable. Thomas Cromwell provided the cold, clinical bureaucratic machine which turned his master's will into reality. But at least he had, what Henry lacked, a vision for the future: a financial stable government able to use the bonanza resources as the foundation of a Christian commonwealth. But the iron will of the king, which put paid to England's monastic past, also prevented the realisation of Cromwell's hoped-for future. 

Next time:  8. Why was Cromwell executed?

G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, 2005, pp 249ff
A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation, 1989, pp 167ff
 J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, 2008, pp 110ff
R.W. Hoyle, 'The origins of the dissolution of the monasteries', Historical Journal, 1995, pp 275ff
D. Wilson, Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man, 1996, pp 244f

Saturday, 7 March 2015


Louise of Savoy (1476-1531) and Margaret of Navarre (1492-1549)

The death of Louis XII of France in 1515 created a dynastic situation which brought to the fore two women destined to play extraordinary roles in the political and cultural life of Europe. Because the Salic Law operated in France women were debarred from inheriting the crown. Louis left two daughters. Claude married Francis of Angouleme, a distant cousin who, as the nearest male relative of her father, became king as Francis I. The court now came under strong feminine influence but not from Queen Claude, who had few interests beyond her personal devotions. It was her mother-in-law and sister-in-law who became leading lights in French political and social life. Louise of Savoy was a shrewd and determined woman who was immersed in Renaissance culture. She passed on to her children her own love of learning and personally taught Francis Italian and Spanish. She was also politically astute and had brought her infant son to the royal court at the earliest opportunity to be reared among the younger members of the royal family. By the time that Francis became king he had become heavily dependent on his mother and, despite the protests of his councillors, regarded her as his chief adviser. Louise's political status was clearly established within months. When Francis set off on a military expedition, he appointed his mother to act as regent. Ten years later she again ruled in the king's name when he marched to Italy to contest the rights of the Emperor Charles V.

By this time the conflict between France and the Empire had become the dominant theme in European affairs and Louise took a leading role in the diplomatic life of the continent. Seeking to isolate Charles V, she concluded a peace treaty with Henry VIII of England (1525). More audaciously, she sent envoys to the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, urging him to divert Charles' attention by attacking imperial territory from the east. The result was a humiliating trouncing of imperial forces at Mohacs (1526). But in Italy, the war went badly for Francis, who was captured at the Battle of Pavia (1525). It was Louise who had to negotiate the terms of his release. But this only achieved a temporary lull in the ruinous contest between the two bellicose monarchs. By 1529 they both needed peace but neither would humiliate himself by seeking terms. Once again the rulers had to look to their womenfolk. It was Louise and Margaret of Austria, Charles' governor in the Netherlands, who drew up the terms of what came to be called the 'Ladies' Peace' (1529).

After the disaster at Pavia it was Francis' sister, Margaret, who took on the role of go-between. Her own husband had been mortally wounded in the battle and she nursed him through his last days. Then she made the long journey at breakneck speed to succour her brother and agree the terms for his release. This was proof positive of the strong bond between these siblings, a bond which helped to set the tone of the French court. In a remarkable move, Francis created his sister duchess of Berry which meant that, as a peer of the realm, she was, in effect, an 'honorary male', with power denied to all other French women.

Margaret was the cultural hub of the French court and her salon was the most famous in Europe. Her patronage extended to several of the leading scholars and writers of the day, including Rabelais and Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, who first translated the Bible into French. She ventured into print herself - something almost unheard of for women at this time. Her writings ranged from devotional works to poems and plays and also the Heptameron, a collection of picaresque tales in the style of the Decameron.

This activity for a woman was noteworthy enough but what made it more so was that it occurred just as the Reformation tsunami was breaking across Europe. Margaret, as intellectually curious as she was devout, entered fully into the religious debate. She corresponded with several of the leading scholars of the day, notably with the French Protestant theologian, John Calvin. She gathered around her a coterie of free thinkers several of whom would have been persecuted by the ecclesiastical authorities if they had not been under her protection. 

After the death of her first husband Margaret married Henry II of the buffer state of Navarre, between France and Spain. As the Reformation gathered pace her court at Nerac became a haven for advanced thinkers. In the 1530s the clashes between Catholics and Protestants became ever more violent but Margaret's court was a place where scholars of all stamps could co-exist. The queen, herself, displayed what was for those days a remarkable balance of personal devotional and doctrinal toleration. Margaret's beliefs were the foundation of the way she interpreted her role as queen. She walked freely among her people. She was approachable. And she particularly cared for the less fortunate of her subjects, founding hospitals and establishing other charities.

History books covering the early sixteenth century are replete with the martial exploits of Francis I and Charles V but the story of those years is far from complete without acknowledgement of the civilising influence of such remarkable royal women.

Sunday, 1 March 2015


6. Was Cromwell a Lutheran?

Trying to define Cromwell's religious beliefs confronts us with two immediate problems: (a) he never said, (b) confessional labels are deceptive. When asked what he believed, the minister famously replied, 'I believe even as my master, the king, believes'. It was the only response he could safely make when questioners tried to pin him down - usually for sinister motives. So the question forces us back to another - 'What did Henry VIII believe?' That's just as difficult to answer, not because there's no evidence, but because there's too much. The king regarded himself as something of a theologian. He wrote a book against Luther (but came to believe later that he had been misled by his advisers in reaching some of his conclusions) and he was directly involved in the sequence of doctrinal statements of the 1530s which told his subjects what they ought to believe. His attempts to define 'a theology for England' were made during a period of intense debate, speculation and conflict. That's why labels such as 'Lutheran', 'Catholic', 'Anabaptist', etc must be used with care. Religious belief is a personal matter and never more so than at this period we call the Reformation.

So, we are obliged to approach Cromwell's mindset via his deeds and his contacts. He was a truly remarkable, multi-faceted phenomenon. Today we would probably call such a person a master of 'networking'. His travels and studies over two decades had given him the entree to several national and international communities - diplomatic, mercantile, legal, ecclesiastical, parliamentary, academic, religious, social. His patronage embraced artists, scholars, lawyers, preachers and hommes d'affaires. That is why Wolf Hall's claustrophobic concentration on court politics is little help to  us as we struggle to get the measure of the man.

Luther's anti-papal diatribes had been swirling around in the intellectual ether since 1518. Henry VIII had not been slow to respond, in print, with his Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, only to be dismissed by Luther as a 'buffoon'. After that, no-one hoping for advancement under the Crown would have embraced the opinions of the German monk and there is no reason to doubt that Cromwell was sincere when he told his boss, Thomas Wolsey, that he wished Luther had never been born. Certainly, the will he drafted in 1529 was couched in traditional terms and betrayed no suggestion of evangelical belief. However, he was already a part of active humanist/reformist networks (scornfully dismissed by opponents as the 'New Learning') whose members were constantly exchanging letters and books. In that same year Erasmus' little treatise An Exhortation to the diligent study of Scripture appeared in English. Unfettered access to the Bible, the great scholar suggested, would produce 'a true and godly kind of Christian ... which would not only in ceremonies, dispositions and titles profess the name of Christ, but in their very heart and true conversation of living'. This was the kind of intellectual diet on which 'trendy' students and young courtiers as well as serious theologians were feeding. One did not need to be a follower of the German heretic monk to be critical of church tradition and eager for change. There was a fervent spirituality spreading among the educated class. Its devotees were few in number but revolutions always begin among minorities. By 1531 reformist activists were being burned for their beliefs. By no means were they all signed-up Lutherans.

Cromwell was kept abreast of such developments through his own growing network of agents - men like Stephen Vaughan and Robert Barnes. Vaughan was a London merchant in his twenties when he developed a close friendship with Cromwell, while he was working for Wolsey. Business frequently took him to the continent and he became a messenger and information gatherer for Cromwell and, as a result of Cromwell's influence, for the king. Vaughan was one of the young sophisticates who had early absorbed the English heresy. In 1529 he was investigated by the Bishop of London but escaped, once again thanks to Cromwell's intervention. Vaughan's evangelical zeal did not diminish with age and, on more than one occasion, Cromwell had to hold him in check.

The same was true of Robert Barnes. This former Augustinian friar was another Bible enthusiast who was part of a cell of reformist students in Cambridge, a bold preacher and a colporteur of Tyndale's banned New Testament. He narrowly escaped burning for these activities and, by 1529, he was in Wittenberg, where he was converted to Luther's theology. Cromwell  smoothed the way for his safe return and, in the ensuing years, made considerable use of him on diplomatic missions to Germany while he was trying to persuade King Henry to form an alliance with the Protestant princes of the Schmalkaldic League. Barnes was unable to rein in his zeal and, in 1536, was among those Cromwell had to put in prison, simply to take them out of circulation at a particularly sensitive time.

Cromwell was not the stuff martyrs are made of. He would never have publicly aired his convictions, heedless of the consequences. But alongside his instinct of self-preservation there went the knowledge that the reformed society he dreamed of would only be possible as long as he remained the king's trusted councillor. In the late 1530s he steered Henry towards an alliance with the Lutheran princes. He tried more than once to persuade Philip Melancthon, Luther's second-in-command, to come to England for talks with the king. The hoped-for alliance did not materialise for reasons political as well as religious. But success came close sometimes, partly because more extreme radicals (often lumped together as 'Anabaptists') were troubling Europe (including England). By comparison Lutheranism was beginning to look like a media via.

Cromwell cannot be called a Lutheran in the sense that he signed up to the Augsburg confession, the Lutheran statement of belief. The heresy he was charged with in 1540 was 'sacramentarianism', a belief about the Lord's Supper associated with the Swiss reformer, Zwingli, and other extremists. But he certainly was no more a radical than he was a Lutheran. His 'heresy' stemmed from his long study of the Bible. It was not only Lutherans who believed in justification by faith (St Paul had got there first) and it was this that he, at last, publicly confessed on the scaffold:

     'I trust to be in the number of them to whom thou wilt not impute their sins .. Most merciful Saviour ... let thy blood cleanse and wash away the spots and foulness of my sins. Let thy righteousness hide and cover my unrighteousness ...'

Next time:  7. Cromwell and the Monasteries

Desiderius Erasmus, An Exhortation to the diligent Study of Scripture, A. Arbor, ed., University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service, 2003
J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, 2008
M. Wriedt, Christian Networks in the Early Modern Period, European History Online, 2006
D. Wilson, A Brief History of the English Reformation, 2012