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 

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