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How Nasty Was Thomas Cromwell?

Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell

by G. R. Elton
Cambridge, 447 pp., $19.50

It is a textbook cliché that during the upheaval of the Reformation, after a period of great uncertainty, the religious configuration of Europe was eventually somehow made to correspond to the political. In the end, the boundaries of nation-states dictated the religious faith to which the great majority of their populations in fact subscribed. This should not surprise us too much, because by and large the same generalization of “cuius regio eius religio” applies even more to the twentieth century, the second era in which Western civilization has been split ideologically down the middle. In Bolshevik Russia, fifty years of political pressure have largely destroyed the Orthodox faith; and another thirty years of political pressure in Eastern Europe will probably suffice to reduce Roman Catholicism east of the Iron Curtain to negligible proportions. In America, on the other hand, members of the Communist Party are as rare as bald eagles, and for much the same reasons.

Curiously, the problem of Protestant thought control during the Reformation has hitherto been badly neglected by historians. Volumes have been written about how the Catholics suppressed Protestantism in Spain or Italy, but very little about how the Protestants suppressed Catholicism in England and Holland. The sixteenth-century states were very much weaker than those of today, and yet after seventy years of Protestant rule, Roman Catholicism in England was reduced from virtually the only religion to that of a tiny ostracized minority. There are three possible explanations of how this came about. Either nobody cared very much one way or the other, so that the state did not need to exert itself; or there was an active and growing minority that was sympathetic to reform anyway, so that state policy was merely following the tide of influential opinion; or the state exerted strong and effective police powers to destroy overt opposition, stamp out vocal dissent, and convert the population, or at any rate the younger generation, to the new orthodoxy.

Dr. Elton is an administrative and constitutional historian, who by his own clearly expressed statements has no time for historical pluralism. He is strongly opposed to such novelties as social history or quantitative methods, and he regards the study of state policy and state power as the highest and truest function of the historian. Not for him the thought that the community of historians might profitably live in many mansions and learn something from each other. He is also a most distinguished historian of the Tudor period, his reputation depending mainly on a major study of the administrative innovations of Henry the Eighth’s chief minister in the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell.1 He has failed to persuade more than a small minority of his colleagues in the profession that the changes that took place at that time can reasonably be described as a “revolution in government,” but it is an idea with which every serious student of the period must henceforth grapple.

This new book is concerned with the repressive aspects of Cromwell’s bureaucratic machinery, which Dr. Elton described in the earlier volume—and particularly its use as an instrument for social control at a time when religious orthodoxy was being altered for the first time since the initial conversion of the English to Christianity 900 years before. It was a time too when the hereditary succession to the throne was being changed arbitrarily from year to year according to the marital whims of King Henry, and when the state was in the process of seizing for itself between a quarter and a third of the landed property of the kingdom.

As the preface makes clear, the chief motive behind this book is to vindicate Thomas Cromwell from the charge made by the Victorian scholar R. B. Merriman that he practiced a “reign of terror.” For this reason Dr. Elton confines himself to the period of Cromwell’s rule and continually returns to the theme of vindication. This is therefore a book which has not only the broader aim of “revealing the realities of government,” but also a prime didactic purpose—to return a verdict of not guilty upon an individual with whom over the years Dr. Elton has formed a close attachment, almost an identification.

The argument runs as follows:

  1. If there was terror, it existed in the mind only” (i.e., it was a mild regime since only about 350 persons at most were executed for political reasons in nine years).

  2. Cromwell’s “control involved the enforcement of the law as it stood, by the age’s lawful methods of trial and investigation” (i.e., he kept within the letter of the law, and that is what matters).

  3. Great care was taken to establish the truth before the power of the law was brought into action” (i.e., casual punishment of innocent victims of malicious denunciation was not a part of official policy).

  4. No attempt was made to organize…anything resembling a network of spies; no rewards or inducements were offered” (i.e., he merely relied on a daily postbag of poison-pen letters).

  5. Cromwell did what he thought he had to do; the hatred and vindictiveness belonged to the King” (i.e., Cromwell was a coldly efficient bureaucrat; Henry was a man of passion).

  6. Without such activities society collapses…the revolution which he guided had major constructive ends in view.” “The King and his ministers were not men of gentle kindness. They were riding a revolution and needed drastic instruments of repression” (i.e., you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and it was a good omelet anyway).

In order to judge the validity of this set of propositions, one must look closely at the methods employed to arrive at them. The book is composed of an endless series of denunciations of unknown individuals by other unknown individuals, and of reports of official investigations into the accused. Not only are the stories themselves disconnected, often trivial, and only rarely amusing, but in a great many cases Dr. Elton has no idea what happened to the accused in the end. As he himself says, “I am uneasily aware of the barriers to enjoyment set by so many stories of often petty events, too many of them, moreover, devoid of that satisfaction which knowledge of the final outcome would bring.” The reason for this ignorance of the final outcome is partly that the records of Quarter Sessions and Assizes are nonexistent or incomplete or poorly indexed; partly also that Dr. Elton has largely restricted himself to a meticulous examination of that body of data he knows better than anyone else in the world, Cromwell’s personal files.

Again and again, therefore, his stories peter out inconclusively: “Whatever steps were taken have left no evidence behind”; “No more is known”; “She looks to have got off”; etc., etc. When in doubt he tends to assume that the accused was spared, without much hard evidence to support the conclusion. Some at least of the 109 capital cases he labels “probably dropped” may in fact have to be added to the list of sufferers of the terrible penalty for treason, namely death by torture. As a result, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Dr. Elton’s statistics about victims are not entirely trustworthy.

A more serious defect is that the list of executions is in any case only the moraine thrown up by a great glacier of repression and punitive actions, of floggings, tortures, imprisonments, public humiliations, harassments, etc., carried out by lesser authorities all over the country. Dr. Elton himself admits that under ceaseless goading from Cromwell to suppress loose talk, rumors, false news, etc., the local justices of the peace often “acted summarily, using public disclaimers, the pillory, and the whip as fancy took them or the seriousness of the offence seemed to warrant.” Thus a zealous—or sycophantic—Cornish justice reported to Cromwell that he was freely using the pillory and the stocks “according to the contents of your former letters to me directed.” Because Dr. Elton has confined himself to a close reading of the letters in the in-tray on the desk of the leading minister in London, his evidence offers no more than one or two of these faint suggestions about the true weight of noncapital punishment as it bore down in real life on the villages and towns of England; one cannot therefore accurately assess its severity.

Dr. Elton further narrows his evidence by omitting, on the grounds that it was “a highly special case,” all discussion of the suppression of the series of major armed rebellions which broke out in the north of England in 1536-1537, and which for a time threatened the stability of the regime itself. But this was the supreme challenge to Cromwell’s system of repression. The outbreak of rebellion gives a measure of the pent-up resentments of the population, and its defeat marks the turning point in the long battle for social control with which this book is concerned.

Other objections to Dr. Elton’s approach to this problem concern questions of historical imagination. These are delicate issues of moral sensibility rather than of historical method, and it may be that they are too subjective to be relevant. But they are bothersome. Dr. Elton is personally an amiable man, but there is a chillingly heartless tone to these endless descriptions of persecution, and sometimes torture and execution, of little people caught in the cogs of a great revolution by a loose word or a slip of the tongue in a moment of anger or drink, and ground to dust by the Moloch of the state. He tells us cheerily that one victim “succeeded in getting himself executed” as if the wretched man had perversely insisted on thrusting himself upon the executioner. Another’s “loose tongue got him a month in prison awaiting Cromwell’s pleasure, but no more.”

Has Dr. Elton ever stopped to consider what life was like for a poor man in a sixteenth-century prison, certainly half-starved, and possibly chained up in a dark cellar to wallow in his own filth? Or how his family survived while the breadwinner could earn no money? To Cromwell such gossips were merely tiresome nuisances who had to be silenced, and Dr. Elton agrees with him: “Fish was asking for trouble. People’s credulity was a burden to King and Government. Cromwell said so often enough….”

Equally disturbing is another failure of Dr. Elton’s historical imagination. He seems to be totally unaware of the damage done to the fabric of a society when governments positively encourage denunciations of neighbors by neighbors, thus opening up a Pandora’s box of local malice and slander. No one who has read a little about life in occupied Europe under the Nazis or has seen the movie Le Chagrin et La Pitié could share the satisfaction of Dr. Elton as he triumphantly concludes that his hero encouraged private delation rather than relying on a system of paid informers. Incidentally, it is on this issue that a serious case of suppressio veri occurs. In his discussion of whether or not Cromwell was planning or operating a police state, Dr. Elton omits altogether to mention that sinister little phrase in one of Cromwell’s memoranda to himself in 1534: “to have substantial persons in every good town to discover who speaks or preaches thus” (i.e., “in favor of the Pope’s authority”).2

Finally, there is the question of Dr. Elton’s curiously respectful attitude toward the enacted law. For him it seems that there can be no meaningful difference between a statute and natural justice. He speaks of “the purposes of government, purposes which, as the law stood, must be called the ends of justice too.” In 1536 Cromwell managed, after a struggle, to get a statute passed in Parliament which extended the meaning—and penalties—of treason to cover the spoken word, or even a refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy, or, as judicially interpreted, the mere dissemination of rumor, while at the same time preserving the medieval tradition that a single witness is adequate for conviction. Executions by torture inflicted as a result of this atrocious statute were lawful, and in Dr. Elton’s eyes were apparently therefore just. Dr. Elton’s paragraph on this statute (pp. 287-288) is worth reading as a masterpiece of sophistical casuistry.

Where, then, does this leave Dr. Elton’s main thesis? Defective though his evidence clearly is, limited though he is in his empathy with the victims, confused though he is about the difference between legality and natural justice, and blind to every consideration save that of raison d’état, he has proved one point without much doubt: There was no bloodbath, nothing like the Terror under Robespierre or the great purges under Stalin. Annual executions did not exceed fifty a year, which is small stuff by modern standards.

Compared with what happened during the French Revolution, whose endless bloody horrors have recently been displayed, perhaps in excessively loving detail, by Professor Cobb,3 the instruments of social control exercised by Cromwell during the first stage of the English Reformation were both weak and poorly organized. For one thing, Cromwell had neither a paid local bureaucracy nor a standing army to enforce his will. It also seems that Cromwell was not an erratic and arbitrary sadist, although he was certainly a cold and heartless brute. He did act mostly within the limits established by the law, however tyrannical it may have been, and he did make some effort to sift truth from falsehood in the stream of denunciations, insofar as he could spare the time from more urgent business. How far he succeeded is another matter, on which the records are unhelpful.

On the other hand, compared with the Middle Ages, or modern open societies, the degree of thought control and the loss of personal liberty are startling indeed. It was the crisis of the Reformation that first drove the politicians and bureaucrats of Europe to strive for a domination over the hearts and minds of their subjects far greater than any that had been seen before.

Whether the orchestrated repression directed and supervised by Cromwell and reaching down to the lowest levels of civic administration added up to a “reign of terror” must remain an open question. But it should be noted that repression works best through the fear inspired by example. There were the well-chosen and well-publicized executions of such important figures as Thomas More and John Fisher and the Abbot of Reading, the frequent public spectacles of men put in the pillory for spreading rumors, having their ears cut off, and being flogged half-naked about the town on market days until they were drenched in blood. These were enough to cow all but the most dedicated or the most foolish. The regime was certainly not as murderous as some other regimes of later ages, but it was the most repressive that the primitive administrative machinery of the age could manage.

My reading of the evidence offered in this book reinforces the belief that Cromwell was driving England steadily toward a legalized Renaissance despotism with the overlay of more modern forms of thought control, and that the process was only arrested from developing further by his premature death—appropriately enough on the scaffold—and by subsequent major errors in state policy, such as the selling off of most of the seized church property to pay for a supremely futile war.

The fundamental objection to this book is that the history of repression in this period cannot be written merely by telling stories out of Cromwell’s postbag. In the first place, some hard analysis is necessary to assess the capacity of the King’s leading minister to bend local officials to his will. This involves a careful study of the distribution of local power, and of the desire and capacity of the magnates and local gentry to obstruct orders from London. The four-way relationship between the central government, great nobles, gentry, and articulate yeomanry and peasantry was changing at this period, as the Pilgrimage of Grace showed, but Dr. Elton does not deal with such matters. We are told nothing, for example, about the way in which Henry and Cromwell enhanced the power of the dependable gentry of the north so as to undermine that of the unreliable magnates there, and thus to extend the area under control of the central government.

Although Cromwell’s files offer ample evidence, we are told nothing whatever about his methods and success in developing a chain of local agents and dependents and clients upon whom political effectiveness depended in this age of patronage. We need to see how Cromwell’s clientage system related to those of his enemies, like the Duke of Norfolk, many of whom were also important power-brokers and as anxious to protect Roman Catholics as Cromwell was to silence them. Only by such a study, which Dr. Elton has not undertaken, will it be possible to “reveal the realities of government.”

In the second place, the story of repression has to be told not only from the point of view of the policeman, as Dr. Elton tells it, but also from that of the victims, as Professor Cobb has tried to tell it. It is significant that ideology, passionate religious dedication to either Protestantism or Catholicism, plays only a minor part in Dr. Elton’s innumerable stories. But that it did play a major part, along with cruelty, slander, greed, envy, malice, and all uncharitableness, can hardly be doubted. In the end the opinions of people from weavers to nobles, formed through the reading of the Bible or a desire for church land or a dislike of priestly authority, were at least as important as the powers of the police in determining the outcome of the Reformation crisis. But this is a story which can only be told, as Professor Dickens has told it, from local and legal records.4 What really happened to the English in the 1530s—indeed what really happens to any people at any time—cannot be discovered merely by examining the correspondence of their leading minister.

  1. 1

    G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1953).

  2. 2

    Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, VII, no. 420.

  3. 3

    R. C. Cobb, The Police and the People: French Popular Protests 1789-1820 (Oxford, 1970).

  4. 4

    A. G. Dickens, Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York 1509-1558 (Oxford, 1959).

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