Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, outside London, around 1485. Little is known of his family, but his father, a brewer and blacksmith, had court convictions for drunkenness and assault. Wolf Hall, my new novel from which this excerpt is taken, imagines for Cromwell a hungry, anxious, and desolate childhood. Aged seven, he takes himself to the Lambeth household of Cardinal Morton, where his uncle is a cook, and begs work in the kitchens. Aged nine, he witnesses the burning of a woman of eighty, the heretic Joan Boughton. Aged fifteen, he runs away after a beating from his father. His life for the next ten years is obscure. He seems to have joined the French armies as a mercenary and fought in Italy. Working his way up from a servant’s post in a Florentine household, he became a banker and cloth trader; he was sighted in Rome, Venice, and Antwerp.
Returning to London in his late twenties, a multitalented polyglot, shrewd, amiable, and ambitious, he became a lawyer and business adviser to Cardinal Wolsey. After the Cardinal’s fall from power in 1529, he entered the service of Henry VIII, helping to steer the country through the break with Rome and the King into his marriage with Anne Boleyn. Through 1533, he has replaced Bishop Gardiner as the King’s acting secretary, though he has not been given a formal role or title.
In the spring of 1534, the King, with the support of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, requires his subjects to swear an oath to uphold the succession of his children by Anne Boleyn. Thomas More, who has resigned as Lord Chancellor, is expected to refuse the oath. As a kitchen boy at Lambeth Palace, Thomas Cromwell had glimpsed the fourteen-year-old More, the golden protégé of the household. He has carried the picture in his mind ever since. More’s enthusiasm as a heretic hunter has made them the most courteous of enemies. But as More embarks on overt opposition to the King, courtesy can no longer be sustained.
Thomas Audley is Lord Chancellor. Rafe Sadler, in his mid-twenties, is Cromwell’s chief clerk.
Summer arrives with no intermission for spring, promptly on a Monday morning, like a new servant with a shining face: 13th April. He, Cromwell, is at Lambeth, with Audley and Archbishop Cranmer; as the sun shines strongly through the windows, he stands looking down at the palace gardens. This is how the book Utopia begins: friends, talking in a garden. On the paths below, Hugh Latimer and some of the King’s chaplains are play-fighting, pulling each other around like schoolboys, Hugh hanging around the necks of two of his clerical fellows so his feet swing off the ground. All they need is a football to make a proper holiday of it. “Master More,” Cromwell says, “why don’t you go out and enjoy the sunshine? And we’ll call for you again in half an hour, and put the …