Monday, 27 April 2015


4. Thomas Howard - The One That Got Away

It would be hard to disagree with G.R. Elton's  verdict that Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was 'one of the most unpleasant characters in an age which abounded in them'. He was the last of the proud medieval grandees, an aristocrat who believed that his lineage should guarantee him a position of power in the councils of the state. He was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary who lacked the mental acuity to evaluate new ideas. Probably his most frequently quoted statement is, 'It was merry in England afore the New Learning came up; I would all things were as hath been in times past'. A creature of small-minded prejudice, if he were alive now and involved in 21st century politics he would probably have been a founder member of UKIP. His adherence to 'that old-time religion', indeed, 'that old-time everything', rested on the belief that resistance to change was essential to preserve power for himself and his noble ilk.

Howard inherited his father's title in 1524, when he was already over fifty years of age. If he expected to find himself at the king's side he reckoned without Thomas Wolsey who correctly assessed the duke's ambition, arrogance and lack of talent. Howard was sidelined for the better part of four years, skulking on his estate and  smouldering with hatred for the ill-bred cardinal. Then Anne Boleyn returned from France where she had learned courtly arts in the entourage of Francis I and his highly-cultured sister, Margaret. Henry's passion for the new arrival dovetailed neatly into his desire to solve his dynastic crisis and the Boleyn clan rose rapidly to prominence. Anne was Norfolk's niece and his fortunes also took a turn for the better. Thus began the marathon struggle for Henry's wife swap. When matters did not go according to the royal plan, Anne accused Wolsey of dragging his feet and there was some truth in her critique of the prolonged negotiations with Rome. Wolsey was certainly anxious to avoid Howard gaining permanent power at the top table. Norfolk grabbed the opportunity to go onto the offensive and his intrigues played a significant part in the cardinal's fall. 

But once again he was thwarted in his bid for power. The man who replaced as chief minister the butcher's son from Ipswich was the publican's son from Putney, Thomas Cromwell. Not only was Howard once more denied the position he considered his due; he had to watch Cromwell's radical attack on the fabric and theology of the medieval church. He opposed - albeit cautiously -  the new direction of government policy. When Queen Anne's turn came to become a victim of Henry's murderous megalomania Norfolk avoided implication in her fall by personally denouncing her 'treasons' and presiding over her trial.

The years 1536-1540 witnessed an escalating power struggle between the forces of reform and reaction. Existing documents suggest a relationship of respectful co-operation between Norfolk and Cromwell but beneath the flowery conventions of official correspondence perceptive foreign diplomats detected an impending crisis between irreconcilable forces. When Cromwell was promoted to the peerage as Earl of Essex and was granted the important court office of Great Chamberlain, elbowing his way brusquely into the closed ranks of the hereditary blue-bloods, Howard snapped. He poured lies in the king's ear and found perjured witnesses to back up his accusations. With relish he personally stripped Cromwell of his Garter insignia and ordered him to the Tower.

Now the path was clear for him to achieve his ambition. It was probably mere chance that Henry took a shine to another of Norfolk's nieces, Catherine Howard, but Norfolk and his accomplices did everything necessary to further the liaison. With the king's marriage to wife number five Howard was once again Henry's brother-in-law. And once again the sweet wine of success turned to vinegar in his mouth. Another Howard queen was found guilty of adultery (quite rightly this time). The queen was executed and several members of her family went to prison.

But Uncle Thomas survived - again. Why did Henry not add Howard to the list of servants disposed of when they had outlived their usefulness? The answer lies in the hereditary principle. Henry, for all his faults, was a very good judge of character. He placed trust in men of talent - Wolsey, More, Cromwell, Cranmer - irrespective of rank. Such gifted but lowly-born men had another important advantage: they were expendable. The same was not true of the aristocracy, men whose families had, for generations, buttressed royal power. These were the leaders who controlled England's shires, the generals who led England's armies, the diplomats who represented England to foreign dignitaries. Henry needed them and he could not alienate men who had loyalties to class as well as Crown.

So Thomas Howard survived - and survived to continue his intrigues. In 1543 he was involved in a failed plot to destroy Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. In 1546 Henry's last queen, Catherine Parr was the victim of another reactionary plot. By this time traditionalists were really worried about the country's future. Henry was nearing his end and would be handing on the crown to his under age son, Edward. The threat to Norfolk and his associates was that during the impending regency real power might lie with the boy king's uncle, Edward Seymour, and his friends. And they were committed to further reforms. Norfolk, as England's premier peer, believed that 'ruin' could only be averted if he had control of the ruling council but he was circumspect. Not so his son, the Earl of Surrey. For boasting of the Howards' royal connections and displaying those connections in the family's coat of arms he was arrested, tried for treason and executed. His father was detained for complicity and he, too, was sentenced to death. The beheading was planned for 28 January 1547. During the preceding night Henry VIII breathed his last. The new regime chose to leave the old duke in the Tower to die of natural causes. By surviving into his eighties in the reign of Catholic reactionary, Mary Tudor, he became the only one of the Six Thomases to die peacefully in his bed. He died believing that the dangerous years of Henry VIII were long passed and the 'good old ways' restored. He was spared the final disillusionment.
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Further reading:

D.M. Head, The Ebbs and Flows of Fortune: The Life of Thomas Howard,  Third Duke of Norfolk, Athens, Georgia, 1995

G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, New Haven, 2005

J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, London, 2008,

D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court, London, 2001

Next Week: 5. Thomas Wriothesley - A Man of Pliable Conscience

It would be

Monday, 20 April 2015


3. Thomas Cromwell - The Best Servant Henry Ever Had

When Thomas Cromwell, erstwhile confidential servant of the disgraced Thomas Wolsey, entered the royal Council, Lord Chancellor Thomas More urged him always to advise the king what he ought to do, rather than what he could do. He knew what Henry VIII was capable of. The king would always serve his own interests regardless of those of other people and with no concession to religious or moral guidelines. Henry's personality was marked by extreme egocentricity, indifference to the feelings of others, unlimited self confidence which prompted him to blame others for his own mistakes, superficial charm sometimes giving way to extreme irritability, impulsive behaviour which took no regard of past experience or future consequences. Today we have one word for a person displaying these personality traits: psychopath.

But Cromwell had no intention of acting as a brake on his sovereign's passions - and for one good reason. He and the king were in a symbiotic relationship. Henry would stop at nothing to achieve the dissolution of his marriage. He was prepared to defy the pope, to cosy up to Lutherans (despite having published a book against Luther), to bring the English church firmly under royal control, to appropriate ecclesiastical property and to crush without a twinge of conscience any who resisted - or even questioned - his will. Cromwell evolved a daring vision of a 'new England', a Christian commonwealth based on the principles of the New Learning. The English Bible would be its text. Its driving force would be king and parliament working together. Its chief resource would be the wealth appropriated from the church, which would make the government independent of taxes and free to carry out an imaginative programme of social reform. Without Cromwell's audacious vision and Henry's bulldozing egotism the extraordinary phenomenon of the 1530s - the most formative decade of the millennium - would not have happened.

Inevitably, Cromwell made enemies. There were religious conservatives, of whom the most influential was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, who viewed with alarm England's headlong rush into 'heresy'. There were aristocrats, like the premier peer, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who were humiliated by being made to kow tow to the upstart who now ruled the roost. Cromwell was the most hated man in England. His draconian measures had undermined the authority of the clergy, dispossessed monks and nuns, purified parish churches of much loved 'popish clutter' and cancelled traditional holidays.

Cromwell's new broom was not only applied to English religion. He addressed himself energetically to a wide range of social and economic problems. He tackled the serious problem of vagrancy and the decay of community life which drove men onto town streets as beggars or highways as brigands. He directed his attention to fat-cat land speculators who drove families from their agricultural holdings. He addressed reform of trade regulations, protection of the cloth industry, the regeneration of woodlands, abuses of apprenticeship rules and numerous other matters in need of reform. His preamble to a proclamation of 1539 makes clear his motivation. England's benevolent monarch, it declared, took seriously the duty of all kings 'to advance, set forth and increase their commonwealths committed to their cure and charge'. We know of Cromwell's wide-ranging concerns chiefly from his extant correspondence. He dealt daily with a prodigious number of letters and reports and draft legislation. Few of his intended reforms were carried into effect because they needed the support of parliament, and parliament represented various vested interests. Cromwell's involvement in court intrigues might make entertaining television but it involved only a small part of his working life.

King Henry did not share - probably did not understand - his minister's vision. He could not see beyond his personal, short-term advantage. He used Cromwell to extricate himself from his first two marriages. He readily (though not gratefully) pocketed the wealth of his ecclesiastical subjects and immediately began spending it - not on 'commonwealth' projects. When it came to the issue of re-marriage, he entrusted to Cromwell an alliance with the Duke of Cleves who, like himself, occupied the mist-shrouded middle ground between Catholicism and Lutheranism. As we all know, this latest matrimonial adventure went pear-shaped. Henry was disillusioned with Anne of Cleves, annoyed by his inability to consummate the marriage (which, of course, he blamed on Anne) and, as ever, looked for a scapegoat on whom to vent his anger. All that had gone before was of no account. Cromwell's only value to the king was to unmake a third royal match, and he dutifully supplied a letter affirming that Henry and Anne were not connubially united.

But by this time Cromwell was in the Tower. His enemies had been quick to take advantage of the rift between king and minister. They fabricated charges of heresy. And Henry? He stood aside and let them do their worst. Obsessed with the flibbertigibbet Catherine Howard, dangled before him by her uncle, he had no interest in Cromwell's plight. He did not reflect on past service or consider future potential service Cromwell might yet perform. And as for gratitude, that was an emotion he simply did not possess.

Within a year, Henry knew he had made a mistake. Of course, he did not admit as much. According to the French ambassador, he berated his councillors who 'upon light pretexts and by false accusations' had 'made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had'. As if anyone ever made Henry do what Henry did not want to do! The ability of this deranged tyrant for self-delusion almost beggars belief.
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Further reading:
J. Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion, (ed. S.R. Cattley), London, 1838, Vol.5
J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, London, 2008
G.R. Elton, Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal, Cambridge, 1973
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next Week: 4. Thomas Howard - The One that Got Away 

Sunday, 12 April 2015


2. Thomas More - The Making of a Catholic Martyr

When Henry VII turned his back on Thomas Wolsey the main cheer leader was Thomas More. Addressing the opening of parliament in November 1529, he complimented the king's sagacity. 'His Grace's sight was so quick and penetrable that he saw ... through him, both within and without'. Like a wise shepherd Henry had removed a 'rotten and faulty' ram from the flock. As the new Lord Chancellor, More had to distance himself from the attitudes and policies of the previous regime. At 51, he had reached the pinnacle of worldly ambition and if he had been nothing other than a sycophantic royal servant, it is possible (though not very probable) that he would have survived. But he was always a torn man, a creature of contradictions. He was a member of the new wave of international humanist scholars while remaining committed to the old church. Though a skilful orator with a gift for language, he descended to vulgar abuse when attacking adversaries (such as William Tyndale). He argued passionately for the eradication of social ills but did not throw his political weight behind programmes of reform. He claimed freedom of conscience for his own beliefs yet persecuted those whose conscience led them in other directions.

Nothing illustrated better his Janus career than his ambitious pursuit of personal advancement and his disdain of public office. He explained to his friend, Erasmus, 'It was with great unwillingness that I came to court'. His famous book, Utopia, contains a passage in which he debates whether a philosopher should remain aloof from the corrupting influence of politics or do what he can to guide the formulation of policy.

It was as a philosopher and wit that Henry valued More. He had known the prominent lawyer and international scholar since his childhood and, like other Renaissance princes, there were times when he found stimulating the conversation of men steeped in classical learning. According to William Roper, More's son-in-law and first biographer, More steadily advanced from court hanger-on to royal intimate, though we should be careful about taking at face value Roper's picture of his father-in-law's friendship with the king. More was certainly under no illusions about the character of his sovereign. In a Latin poem 'To a Courtier' he wrote, 'You often boast to me that you have the king's ear and often have fun with him, freely and according to your whims. This is like having fun with tamed lions - often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Sometimes he roars for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal'. He once made the grim joke that if his head might win for his mercurial and ruthless master a castle in France, it would immediately become forfeit. Since he was aware of the hazards of life in the Tudor court, where, as Thomas Wyatt observed, 'it thunders round the throne', why did he not seek some way to withdraw from public office before it was too late? Perhaps because there was a strong ascetic element to this councillor who wore a hair shirt next to his skin to mortify the flesh. Perhaps because he believed that someone in authority should make a stand against misguided royal policy, though it might cost him his life.

Ironically, the conflict between allegiance to the king and allegiance to the pope which had brought Wolsey down proved also to be More's undoing - but for different reasons. The Cardinal would have fallen over backwards to secure a political settlement in Henry's favour. More a mere layman, could not bring himself to sanction the royal divorce and the rejection of papal authority which it implied. As long as Henry pursued this policy More could not be the public face of government policy. But Henry was determined to have the public endorsement of his virtuous chancellor and refused More's request to yield up the Great Seal in March 1531. More's resignation was eventually accepted in May 1532.

The king had now found in Thomas Cromwell, a legal and political genius whose radical ideas were able to untie the tangle of the divorce negotiations. More hoped to be left in peace in his home at Chelsea, although he did not shun the light of publicity. He continued in print his war against heresy. The nation was riven with discord, some supporting the king and some adhering to his discarded Queen Catherine. Some championed religious reform and some clung to the old ways. With the government sponsoring a pulpit and pamphlet propaganda campaign and suspected opponents of official policy being imprisoned and interrogated, the issue of 'king versus pope' was seldom out of the 'headlines'. While nailing his colours to the mast in matters of faith, More refused to be drawn into any political argument. But neutrality was not possible. The ex-Chancellor was too popular and his beliefs too well known for Henry to allow him to indulge what his new wife, Anne Boleyn, insisted was sullen silence.

Matters came to a head in April 1534. Cromwell was dotting the Is and crossing the Ts of Reformation legislation, forcing all the king's subjects to endorse anti-papal policy or face the consequences. Parliament had passed an Act of Succession, vesting the crown in the issue of Henry and Anne and it was now to be imposed by means of a sworn oath. When More's turn came to sign, he accepted the succession issue but could not endorse the Act's anti-papal preamble. This was acceptable to Archbishop Cranmer and, probably, to Cromwell but Henry would brook no compromise. He ordered More to the Tower. From that point his condemnation and execution were inevitable. On 6 July 1534 More was beheaded, insisting at the last, that he died 'the king's good servant but God's first'. For Henry there could be no such dichotomy. He seriously believed that his will and the dictates of Providence were one and the same. This conviction had separated England from Christendom. Thomas More had been the standard-bearer of Christendom. He was, therefore, wrong. And defiantly wrong. King and ex-minister were locked in a battle of wills. In such a conflict no opponent of Henry VIII ever came off best.
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Further reading:
W. Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More in R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding, eds., Two Early Tudor Lives, New Haven, 1962
R. Marius, Thomas More, London, 1985
N. Harpsfield, The Pretended Divorce Between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Camden Soc., 2nd ser., xxi (1878)
G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, New Haven, 2005
J. Guy, Tudor England, Oxford, 1988
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next Week:  3. Thomas Cromwell - The Best Servant Henry Ever Had 

Sunday, 5 April 2015


                                     Died, beheaded, beheaded
                                     Self-slaughtered, burned, survived

It was as dangerous to be chief adviser to Henry VIII as it was to be married to him. Of the six men who served in this capacity only one avoided an unpleasant death and he came within a few hours of sharing the fate of the others. For this king loyalty was a one-way street. He was insanely profligate with talented servants and this makes the chronicle of the Six Thomases more revelatory of the second Tudor's reign than the well-worn, over romanticised saga of the Six Queens. Join me over the next few Mondays as I retell a truly appalling story.

1. Thomas Wolsey - The Unkindest Cut 

When the 17 year-old Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509 the 36 year-old Thomas Wolsey was well established as one of the minor denizens of the court. He was a royal chaplain and had already come to the attention of the new king. Unlike the other close attendants of Henry's penny-pinching, pragmatic, killjoy of a father, Wolsey was an extrovert who loved life and the pleasures it had to offer. Henry, unconsciously seeking a replacement father figure but one who would support his passion for what a later, equally resplendent, monarch would call 'la gloire', lost little time in appointing Wolsey his almoner, with a seat on the Council. For his part, Wolsey had had plenty of opportunity to observe the fun-loving prince, the party animal, whose head was stuffed with images of Arthurian adventure. While his conciliar colleagues tut-tutted about young Henry's extravagant ambitions, Wolsey knew that the path to promotion was, as his biographer, George Cavendish pointed out, to 'satisfy the king's mind'. During the early 'Camelot' years of the reign Wolsey helped to set the tone of conspicuous consumption, assuming the role of benevolent, indulgent uncle to the king and his inner core of gallants. But Wolsey was very much more than an ambitious yes-man. He was an administrative genius, with a head for detail and a capacity for hard work. In 1515, after a 'cabinet reshuffle' had removed some of the greybeards from office, Wolsey was raised to the position of Lord Chancellor and in the same year he achieved international status as a cardinal.

For the first half of the reign king and minister worked together to make Henry's court a centre of Renaissance splendour competing with the capitals of rival monarchs and they elbowed their way into the decision-making councils of Europe. In 1518 it was Wolsey who presided over the international conference which agreed the Treaty of London. All this was no mean accomplishment. Lavish display was an important element of 16th century politics and diplomacy and Wolsey, like his master, was a natural theatrical extrovert who travelled in the utmost pomp, kept lavish court at York House and Hampton Court and staged magnificent events of which the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) was the most spectacular. Wolsey's enemies (of whom there were a growing number) were not slow to point out that his splendour rivalled the king's but Henry was not moved to jealousy. He regarded the cardinal's magnificence as a complement to his own - as long as it suited him. By the mid-1520s it no longer suited him.

The glory days were over. England's royal egotist was approaching middle age and problems were piling up. Years of extravagance had emptied his treasury. His wife had not provided him with a male heir and was now extremely unlikely to do so. He had been humiliated in diplomatic exchanges with the Emperor Charles V. Added to this was the beginning of religious unrest which would lead to the Reformation. Henry and his minister tried to solve the financial problems by imposing a new tax, euphemistically called the Amicable Grant (1526). The result? Riots, leading to a government climb-down. Protestors  could not blame the king (that would have been treason), so they blamed Wolsey. On the heels of this unpleasantness came the king's Great Matter. In the effort to gain a papal annulment of Henry's marriage, Wolsey - royal councillor and Catholic cardinal - was caught in the middle. There is no need to rehearse again the protracted negotiations which led, eventually, to the break with Rome. The important point for Wolsey was that he had failed to 'satisfy the king's mind'.

In the breaking of Wolsey we observe for the first time that ruthlessness and ingratitude Henry displayed in disposing of people who deserved better of him. First of all, he embraced public opinion. Under normal circumstances the king cared not a whit what anyone thought of his policies but when it suited him he could 'discover' and 'share' the discontent of his people. Wolsey was the butt of alehouse jokes up and down the country. Religious tracts published abroad denounced him as the symbol of all that was wrong with the church. At court political rivals, led by Anne Boleyn's family, were ready to go on the offensive against the overmighty upstart. Knowing that the move would be popular, Henry made Wolsey the scapegoat for the policy failures of the reign. An old statute of praemunire was pressed into service by cunning lawyers who accused the cardinal of exercising papal jurisdiction in opposition to royal law, a crime punishable by forfeiture of all the goods of the accused.

There was no showdown between king and minister. Another feature of Henry's dealings with sacked servants was his refusal to confront them personally. His preferred and cowardly tactic was to remove his favour and allow the victim's enemies to do their worst. The Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk were sent to retrieve the Great Seal and eject Wolsey from his office of Lord Chancellor. Wolsey was ordered to take himself to his archdiocese of York while Norfolk cobbled together evidence of yet more heinous crimes. Pilate-like, Henry washed his hands of blood guilt. He would allow the law (based on perjured evidence) to take its course. Fate absolved Henry of this final betrayal, for Wolsey died on his journey south to face trial, on 29 November 1530.

During the cardinal's last weeks he received occasional messages from the king via various agencies assuring him of his majesty's continuing goodwill. Were these stratagems designed to keep Wolsey sweet as long as he could be useful over the divorce? Was the king hanging onto his options as to which faction to support? Or could it be that his conscience was troubling him? If he was feeling twinges of guilt, it was, for him, a rare experience and one which would not trouble him in the years that followed.
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Further reading:
G. Cavendish, 'The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey', R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding, eds., Two Early Tudor Lives, New Haven, 1962
P. Gwyn, The King's Cardinal, London, 1990
D.M. Head, The Life of Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, Athens, Georgia, 1995
J. Guy, Tudor England, Oxford, 1988
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court, Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next week:  2. Thomas More - The Making of a Catholic Martyr