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…

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