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Cromwell & Wolsey: From ‘Wolf Hall’

Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, just outside London, around 1485. His father was a brewer and blacksmith. Details of his education are unknown. Aged about fifteen, Cromwell ran away from home, and seems to have joined the French army, fighting as a mercenary in Italy. Lost to sight for some years, he is thought to have worked for a Florentine banking house and was glimpsed in Rome, Venice, and Antwerp, where he traded in wool. In his late twenties he returned to London, married well, took to the law at Gray’s Inn, and went to work for Cardinal Wolsey, soon becoming one of his closest advisers; his enemies suggested he had achieved this by sorcery. This extract from my novel Wolf Hall finds the Cardinal at the height of his power in church and state: papal legate and Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor.

Stephen Gardiner, later Bishop of Winchester, is secretary to the Cardinal.


York Place, London, 1527

So: Stephen Gardiner. Going out, as he’s coming in. It’s wet, and for a night in April, unseasonably warm, but Gardiner wears furs, which look like oily and dense black feathers; he stands now, ruffling them, gathering his clothes about his tall straight person like black angel’s wings.

Late,” Master Stephen says unpleasantly.

Cromwell is bland. “Me, or your good self?”

You.” He waits.

Drunks on the river. The boatmen say it’s the eve of one of their patron saints.”

Did you offer a prayer to her?”

I’ll pray to anyone, Stephen, till I’m on dry land.”

I’m surprised you didn’t take an oar yourself. You must have done some river work, when you were a boy.”

Stephen sings always on one note. Your reprobate father. Your low birth. Stephen is supposedly some sort of semi-royal by-blow: brought up for payment, discreetly, as their own, by discreet people in a small town. They are wool trade people, whom Master Stephen resents and wishes to forget; and since Cromwell himself knows everybody in the wool trade, he knows too much about his past for Stephen’s comfort. The poor orphan boy!

Master Stephen resents everything about his own situation. He resents that he’s the King’s unacknowledged cousin. He resents the way that, at court, they call him Master Stephen. He resents that he was put into the Church; he’d prefer the law. He resents the fact that someone else has late-night talks with the Cardinal, to whom he is confidential secretary. He resents the fact that he’s one of those tall men who are hollow-chested, not much weight behind him; he resents his knowledge that if they met on a dark night, Master Thos. Cromwell would be the one who walked away dusting off his hands and smiling.

God bless you,” Gardiner says, passing into the night unseasonably warm.

Cromwell says, “Thanks.”

The Cardinal, writing, says without looking up, “Thomas. Still raining, I suppose? I expected you earlier.”

Boatman. River. Saint. He’s been traveling since early morning and in the saddle for the best part of two weeks on the Cardinal’s business, and now come down by stages—and not easy stages—from Yorkshire. He’s been to his clerks at Gray’s Inn and borrowed a change of linen. He’s been east to the city, to hear what ships have come in and to check the whereabouts of a little off-the-books consignment he is expecting. But he hasn’t eaten, and hasn’t been home yet.

The Cardinal rises, smoothly. He opens a door, speaks to his hovering servants. “Cherries!” he says. “What, no cherries? April, you say? Only April? We shall have sore work to placate my guests, then.” He sighs. “Bring what you have. But it will never do, you know. Why am I so ill-served?”

Then the whole room is in motion: food, wine, fire built up. A man takes his wet outer garments with a solicitous murmur. All the Cardinal’s household servants are like this: murmuring, comfortable, soft-footed, and kept permanently apologetic and teased. And all the Cardinal’s visitors are treated in the same way; if you called on him each night for ten years, and sat sulking and scowling on each occasion, you would still be his honored guest.

The servants efface themselves, melting away toward the door. “What else would you like?” the Cardinal says.

Perhaps the sun to come out?”

So late? You tax my powers.”

Tomorrow would do.”

The Cardinal inclines his head to the servants. “I shall see to this request myself,” he says gravely; and gravely they murmur, and withdraw.

The Cardinal joins his hands; he makes a great, deep, smiling sigh, like a leopard settling in a warm spot. He regards his man of business; his man of business regards him. The Cardinal, at fifty-five, is still as handsome as he was in his prime. Tonight he is dressed not in his everyday scarlet, but in blackish purple and fine white lace: like a humble bishop. His height impresses; his belly, which should in justice belong to a more sedentary man, is merely another princely aspect of his being, and on it, confidingly, he often rests a large, white, beringed hand. A large head—surely designed by God to support the papal tiara—is carried superbly on broad shoulders; shoulders upon which rest (though not at this moment) the great chain of Lord Chancellor of England. The head inclines; the Cardinal says, in those honeyed tones, famous from here to Vienna: “How was Yorkshire?”

A pause. “Filthy.”

In what way?”

Weather. People. Manners. Morals.”

The Cardinal sighs. “Well, I suppose this is the place to complain. I am already speaking to God about the weather.”

Oh, and the food. Five miles from the coast and never tasted fresh fish.”

What do they eat?”

Londoners, when they can get them. It is a race of scowling heathens, my lord—swarthy, so high, low foreheads, live in caves I don’t doubt, though they pass for gentry in those parts.” He ought to go and look for himself, the Cardinal; he is Archbishop of York, but has never visited his see.

Still, our business moves forward.”

I am listening,” the Cardinal says. “Indeed, I go further. I am captivated.”

As he listens, the Cardinal’s face creases into its affable, perpetually attentive folds. From time to time he notes down a figure that he is given. He sips from a glass of his very good wine and at length he says, “Thomas, you tell me Yorkshire was filthy, yet you return with not even ink on your hands. You suggest our business was obstructed yet it is transacted at speed. Now, what have you done, monstrous servant? An abbess is with child? Two, three abbesses? Or, let me see…have you set fire to Whitby, on a whim?”

In the case of his man Cromwell, the Cardinal has two jokes, which sometimes converge to form one. The first is that he walks in demanding cherries in April and lettuce in December; that he can be tempted by nothing if they cannot answer his exact request. The other is that he goes about the countryside committing outrages, and charging them to the Cardinal’s accounts. And the Cardinal has other jokes, from time to time: as he requires them.

It is about ten o’clock. The flames of the wax candles bow civilly to the Cardinal, and stand straight again. The rain—it has been raining since last September—splashes against the glass window. “In Yorkshire,” he says, “your project is disliked.”

The Cardinal’s project: with papal permission, he means to amalgamate some thirty small, ill-run monastic foundations with larger ones, and to divert the income of these foundations—decayed, but often very ancient—into revenue for the two colleges he is founding—Cardinal College, at Oxford, and a college in his home town of Ipswich, where he is well remembered as the scholar son of a prosperous and pious master-butcher, a guildsman, a man who also kept a large and well-regulated inn, of the type used by the best travelers. The difficulty is…no, in fact, there are several difficulties. The Cardinal, a bachelor of arts at fifteen, a bachelor of theology by his mid-twenties, is learned in the law but does not like its delays; he cannot quite accept that real property cannot be changed into money with the same speed and ease with which he changes a wafer into the body of Christ. When Cromwell once, as a test, explained to the Cardinal just a minor point of the land law concerning…well, never mind, it was a minor point…he saw the Cardinal break into a sweat and say, “Thomas, what can I give you, to persuade you never to mention this to me again?” “Find a way, simply do it,” he would say, when obstacles were raised: and when he heard of some small person obstructing his grand design, he would say, “Thomas, give them some money to make them go away.”

He has the leisure to think about this: because the Cardinal is staring down at his desk, at the letter he has half-written. He looks up and says, “Tom…” and then, “No, never mind. Tell me why you are frowning.”

The people up there say they are going to kill me.”

Really?” the Cardinal says. His face says, I am astonished and disappointed. “And will they kill you? Or what do you think?”

Behind the Cardinal is a tapestry, hanging the length of the wall. King Solomon, his hands stretched into darkness, is greeting the Queen of Sheba.

I think, if you’re going to kill a man, do it. Don’t write him a letter about it. Don’t bluster and threaten and put him on his guard.”

If you ever plan to be off your guard,” the Cardinal says, “let me know. Give me due notice. It is something I should like to see. And do you know who…but I suppose they don’t sign their letters? I shall not give up my project,” the Cardinal says. “There would be no difficulty, if it were not for meddlesome persons willfully misunderstanding and purveying evil rumors.”

And this is true. No one is proposing to put old monks out on the roads. There can be relocation; there can be pensions, compensation. It can be negotiated: with good will on both sides. Bow to the inevitable, he urges. Obedience to His Grace. Regard his watchful and fatherly care; believe his keen eye is fixed on the ultimate good of the Church. These are the phrases with which to negotiate. Poverty, chastity, and obedience: these are what you stress, when you tell some senile prior what to do.

Such a display of baseless indignation,” the Cardinal says. “I have personally and carefully selected these institutions, and His Holiness has approved them under seal. I will not give up my project. You will have to take an armed guard, if necessary, when next you go north.”

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