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

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