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 oath to you again: and you’ll give us a different answer, yes?”
He hears More’s joints creak as he stands. Parliament’s late-night sittings and a fresh row every day have tired him, but sharpened his senses too, so he is aware that in the room behind him Cranmer is working himself into a terrible anxiety; Cromwell wants More out of the room before the dam breaks.
“I don’t know what you think a half-hour will do for me,” More says. His tone is easy, bantering. “Of course, it might do something for you.”
More had asked to see a copy of the Act of Succession. Now Audley unrolls it, bends his head, and begins reading, though he has read it a dozen times. “Very well,” More says. “But I trust I have made myself clear. I cannot swear, but I will not speak against your oath, and I will not try to dissuade anyone else from it.”
“That is not enough. And you know it is not.”
More nods. He meanders toward the door, careering first into the corner of the table, making Cranmer flinch, his arm dart out to steady the ink. The door closes after him.
Audley rolls up the printed copy of the statute. Gently he taps it on the table, looking at the place where More had stood. Cranmer says, “Look, this is my idea. What if we let him swear in secret? He swears, but we offer not to tell anybody? Or if he cannot take this oath, we ask him what oath he can take?”
“That would hardly meet the King’s purpose,” Audley sighs. Tap, tap, tap. “After all we did for him, and for Fisher. Going on our knees to the King. If we had not intervened they might already be locked up.”
“Oh well. Blessed are the peacemakers,” Cromwell says. He wants to strangle somebody.
Cranmer says, “We will try again with More. At least, if he refuses, he should give his reasons.”
Cromwell swears under his breath, turns from the window: “We know his reasons. All Europe knows them. He is against the divorce. He does not believe the King can be head of the Church. But will he say that? Not he. I know him. Do you know what I hate? I hate to be part of this play, which is entirely devised by him. I hate the time it will take that could be better spent, I hate it that minds could be better employed, I hate to see our lives going by, because depend upon it, we will all be feeling our age before this pageant is played out. And what I hate most of all is that Master More sits in the audience and sniggers when I trip over my lines, for he has written all the parts. And written them these many years.”
Cranmer, like a waiting boy, pours him a cup of wine, edges toward him: “Here.”
Cromwell takes it. In the Archbishop’s hand, the cup cannot help a sacramental character: not watered wine, but some equivocal mixture, this is my blood, this is like my blood, this is more or less somewhat like my blood: do this in commemoration of me. He hands the cup back. The north Germans make a strong liquor, aquavita: a shot of that would be more use. “Get More back,” he says.
A moment, and More stands in the doorway, sneezing gently. “Come now,” Audley says, smiling, “that’s not how a hero arrives.”
“I assure you, I intend in no wise to be a hero,” More says. “They have been cutting the grass.” He pinches his nose on another sneeze, and shambles toward them, hitching his slipping gown onto his shoulder; he takes the chair placed for him. Before, he had refused to sit down.
“That’s better,” Audley says. “I knew the air would do you good.” He glances up, in invitation; but Cromwell signals he will stay where he is, leaning by the window. “I don’t know,” Audley says, good-humored. “First one won’t sit. Then t’other won’t sit. Look,” he pushes a piece of paper toward More, “these are the names of the priests we have seen today, who have sworn to the act, and set you an example. So why not you?”
More glances up from under his eyebrows. “This is not a comfortable place for any of us.”
“More comfortable than where you’re going,” Cromwell says.
“Not hell,” More says, smiling. “I trust not.”
“So if taking the oath would damn you, what about all these?” Cromwell launches himself forward from the wall. He snatches the list of names from Audley, rolls it, and slaps it onto More’s shoulder. “Are they all damned?”
“I cannot speak for their consciences, only for my own. I know that, if I took your oath, I should be damned.”
“There are those who would envy your insight,” Cromwell says, “into the workings of grace. But then, you and God have always been on familiar terms, not so? I wonder how you dare. You talk about your Maker as if he were some neighbor you went fishing with on a Sunday afternoon.”
Audley leans forward. “Let us be clear. You will not take the oath because your conscience advises you against it?”
“Could you be a little more comprehensive in your answers?”
“You object but you won’t say why?”
More inclines his head.
“Where it is a matter of conscience, there must always be some doubt…,” Cranmer ventures.
“Oh, but this is no whim. I have made long and diligent consultation with myself. And in this matter I hear the voice of my conscience clearly.” More puts his head on one side, smiling: “It is not so with you, my lord?”
“Nonetheless, there must be some perplexity? For you must ask yourself, as you are a scholar and accustomed to controversy, to debate, how can so many learned men think on the one side, and I on the other? But one thing is certain, and it is that you owe a natural obedience to your King, as every subject does. Also, when you entered the King’s council, long ago, you took a most particular oath, to obey him. So will not you do so?” Cranmer blinks. “Set your doubts against that certainty, and swear.”
Audley sits back in his chair. Eyes closed. As if to say, we’re not going to do better than that.
More says, “When you were consecrated archbishop, appointed by the Pope, you swore your oath to Rome, but all day in your fist, they say, all though the ceremonies, you kept a little parchment rolled up, saying that you took the oath under protest. Is that not true? They say the paper was written by Master Cromwell here.”
Audley’s eyes snap open: he thinks More has shown himself the way out. But More’s face, smiling, is a mask of malice. “I would not be such a juggler,” he says softly. “I would not treat the Lord my God to such a puppet show, let alone the faithful of England. You say you have the majority. I say I have it. You say Parliament is behind you, and I say all the angels and saints are behind me, and all the company of the Christian dead, for as many generations as there have been since the church of Christ was founded, one body, undivided—“
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Cromwell says. “A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old. Your undivided Church has liked nothing better than persecuting its own members, burning them and hacking them apart when they stood by their own conscience, slashing their bellies open and feeding their guts to dogs. You know history doesn’t speak for you, More, not unless you distort it to your purpose. Whatever process of twisted complacence brought you here, you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering and not your martyr’s gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don’t try to make this simple. You know I have respected you? You know I have respected you since I was a child? I would rather see my only son dead, I would rather him beheaded, than see you refuse this oath, and give encouragement to every enemy of England.”
More looks up. For a fraction of a second, he meets Cromwell’s gaze, then turns away, coy. His low, amused, murmur: he could kill him for that alone. “Gregory is a goodly young man. Don’t wish him away. If he has done badly, he will do better. I say the same of my own boy. What’s the use of him? But he is worth more than a debating point.”
Cranmer, distressed, shakes his head. “This is no debating point.”
“You speak of your son,” Cromwell says. “What will happen to him? To your daughters?”
“I shall advise them to take the oath. I do not suppose them to share my scruples.”
“That is not what I mean. It is the next generation you are betraying. You want the Emperor’s foot on their neck? You are no Englishman.”
“You are barely that yourself,” More says. “Fight for the French, eh, bank for the Italians? That’s what you said to the King, everybody knows it. You were scarcely grown up in this realm before your boyhood transgressions drove you out of it, you ran away to escape jail or a noose. No, I tell you what you are, Cromwell, you are an Italian through and through, and you have all their vices, all their passions.” He sits back in his chair: one mirthless grunt of laughter. “This relentless bonhomie of yours. I knew it would wear out in the end. It is a coin that has changed hands so often. And now the small silver is worn out, and we see the base metal.”
Audley smirks. “You seem not to have noted Master Cromwell’s efforts at the Mint. His coinage is sound, or it is nothing.”
The Chancellor cannot help it, that he is a smirking sort of man; someone must keep calm. Cranmer is pale and sweating, and he can see the pulse galloping at More’s temple. Cromwell says, “We cannot let you go home. Still, it seems to me that you are not yourself today, so rather than commit you to the Tower, we could perhaps place you in the custody of the Abbot of Westminster…would that seem suitable to you, my Lord of Canterbury?”
Cranmer nods. More says, “Master Cromwell, I should not mock you, should I? You have shown yourself my most especial and tender friend.”
Audley nods to the guard at the door. More rises smoothly, as if the thought of imprisonment has put a spring in his step; the effect is spoiled only by his usual grab at his garments, the scuffle as he shrugs himself together; and even then he seems to step backward, and tread on his own feet. After some fashion, More is bundled out of the room. “Now he’s got exactly what he wants,” Cromwell says.
He puts his palm against the glass of the window. He sees the smudge it makes, against the old flawed glass. A bank of cloud has come up over the river; the best of the day is behind them. Audley crosses the room to him. Hesitant, he stands at his shoulder. “If only More would indicate which part of the oath he finds objectionable, it is possible something might be written to meet his objection.”
“You can forget that. If he indicates anything, he’s done for. Silence is his only hope, and it is not much of a hope at that.”
“The King might accept some compromise,” Cranmer says. “But I fear the Queen will not. And indeed,” he says faintly, “why should she?”
Audley puts a hand on his arm. “My dear Cromwell. Who can understand More? His friend Erasmus told him to keep away from government, he told him he had not the stomach for it and he was right. He should never have accepted the office I now hold. He only did it to spite Wolsey, whom he hated.”
Cranmer says, “He told him to keep away from theology too. Unless I am wrong?”
“How could you be? More publishes all his letters from his friends. Even when they reprove him, he makes a fine show of his humility and so turns it to his profit. He has lived in public. Every thought that passes through his mind he has committed to paper. He never kept anything private, till now.”
Audley reaches past him, opens the window. A torrent of birdsong crests on the edge of the sill; it spills into the room, the liquid, fluent notes of the storm-thrush.
“I suppose he’s writing an account of today,” Cromwell says. “And sending it out of the kingdom to be printed. Depend upon it, in the eyes of Europe we will be the fools and the oppressors, and he will be the poor victim with the neater turn of phrase.”
Audley pats his arm. He wants to console him. But who can begin to do it? He is the inconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell.
Next day the King sends for Cromwell. He supposes it is to berate him for failing to get More to take the oath. “Who will accompany me to this fiesta?” he inquires. “Master Sadler?”
As soon as he enters the King’s presence, Henry gestures, with a peremptory sweep of his arm, for his attendants to clear a space, and leave him alone in it. His face is like thunder. “Cromwell, have I not been a good lord to you?”
He begins to talk…gracious, and more than gracious…own sad unworthiness…if fallen short in any particular begs most gracious pardon….
He can do this all day. He learned it from Wolsey.
Henry says, “Because my lord Archbishop thinks I have not done well by you. But,” he says, in the tone of one misunderstood, “I am a prince known for my munificence.” The whole thing seems to puzzle him. “You are to be Master Secretary. Rewards shall follow. I do not understand why I have not done this long ago. But tell me… when it was put to you, about the lords Cromwell that once were in England, you said you were none of their kin. Are you still sure about that?”
“To be honest, I never gave it another thought. I wouldn’t wear another man’s coat, or bear his arms. He might rise up from his grave and take issue with me.”
“My lord Norfolk says you enjoy being low-born. He says you have devised it so, to torment him.” Henry takes his arm. “It would seem convenient to me,” he says, “that wherever we go—though we shall not go far this summer, considering the Queen’s condition—you should have rooms provided for you next to mine, so we can speak whenever I need you; and where it is possible, rooms that communicate directly, so that I need no go-between.” He smiles toward the courtiers; they wash back, like a tide. “God strike me,” Henry says, “if I meant to neglect you. I know when I have a friend.”
Outside, Rafe says, “God strike him…what terrible oaths he swears.” He hugs his master. “This has been too long in coming. But listen, I have something to tell you when we get home.”
“Tell me now. Is it something good?”
A gentleman comes forward and says, “Master Secretary, your barge is waiting to take you back to the city.”
“I should have a house on the river,” he says. “Like More.”
“Oh, but leave Austin Friars? Think of the tennis court,” Rafe says. “The gardens.”
The King has made his preparations in secret. The arms of Cromwell’s predecessor Gardiner have been burned off the paintwork. A flag with his coat of arms is raised beside the Tudor flag. He steps into his barge for the first time, and on the river, Rafe tells his news. The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green. He stares down into the water, now brown, now clear as the light catches it, but always moving; the fish in its depths, the weeds, the drowned men with bony hands swimming. On the mud and shingle there are cast up belt buckles, fragments of glass, small warped coins with the kings’ faces washed away. Once when he was a boy he found a horseshoe. A horse in the river? It seemed to him a very lucky find. But his father said, if horseshoes were lucky, boy, I would be the King of Cockaigne.
First he goes out to the kitchens to tell Thurston he is Mr. Secretary. “Well,” the cook says easily, “as you’re doing the job anyway.” A chuckle. “Bishop Gardiner will be burning up inside. His giblets will be sizzling in his own grease.” He whisks a bloodied cloth from a wooden tray. “See these quails? You get more meat on a wasp.”
“Malmsey?” he suggests. “Seethe them?”
“What, three dozen? Waste of good wine. I’ll do some for you, if you like. Come from Lord Lisle at Calais. When you write, tell him if he sends another batch, we want them fatter or not at all. Will you remember?”
“I’ll make a note,” he says gravely. “From now on I thought we might have the Council meet here sometimes, when the King isn’t sitting with us. We can give them dinner before.”
“Right.” Thurston titters. “His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, we could put some flesh on his twiggy little legs.”
“Look, Thurston, you needn’t put yourself out with this sort of work. You have enough staff. You could put on a gold chain, and strut about.”
“Is that what you’ll be doing?” A wet poultry slap; then Thurston looks up at him, wiping pluck from his fingers. “I think I’d rather keep my hand in. In case things take a downturn. Not that I say they will. Remember the Cardinal, though.”
He remembers Norfolk: tell Wolsey to get himself to the north, or I will come where he is and tear him with my teeth.
He had said, My lord, may I substitute the word “bite”?
He throws the cloth back over the tray of quails. Wipes his hands. The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.
(A second excerpt from Wolf Hall will appear in a following issue.)