Frick Collection, New York

Hans Holbein: Thomas Cromwell, 1532–1533

“Thomas Cromwell…Thomas Cromwell? I thought his name was Oliver!” This was the initial reaction of a young Harvard graduate in 1897 to the topic assigned to him for his B. Litt. thesis by Oxford’s Regius Professor of Modern History, Frederick York Powell.1 Over a century later, the relative fame of the two Cromwells has, at least temporarily, been reversed. The brilliance of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), with a third, The Mirror and the Light, promised for next year, and the dazzling success of their adaptations to stage and television have made the name of Henry VIII’s minister better known than that of the Lord Protector.

After recovering from his disconcerting interview with York Powell, Roger Bigelow Merriman went on to publish an indispensable edition of Thomas Cromwell’s surviving letters, prefaced by a much less satisfactory assessment of the man himself. He then gave up the Tudors and became a distinguished historian of the Spanish Empire.

It was fifty years before the next serious attempt to study Cromwell appeared. This time Geoffrey Elton combined an unequaled grasp of the voluminous archives of the period with a powerful intellect, a trenchant prose style, and supreme self-confidence. His book The Tudor Revolution in Government burst upon the scene in 1953. It portrayed Cromwell as the dominating figure in the royal government of the 1530s: his achievements included the break with the papacy, the recognition of Henry VIII as the supreme head of the English church, and the dissolution of the monasteries. According to Elton, Cromwell also revolutionized the English state by replacing the personal government and financial management based in the royal household with formalized bureaucratic institutions based in Westminster.

In many subsequent publications Elton enlarged upon Cromwell’s legacy, crediting him with the doctrine that the king’s sovereignty was best exercised through Parliament, the consolidation of England and Wales as a unitary state, and the enforcement of the Henrician Reformation upon an unwilling people through press censorship, propaganda, new treason laws, the careful investigation of a flood of unsolicited denunciations of those hostile to the royal supremacy, and, occasionally, the execution of recalcitrants. He also revealed Cromwell as an intellectual with scholarly interests in history and literature and a tireless deviser of schemes to reform the law, the economy, and provisions for the poor.

Elton’s view of Cromwell’s significance provoked intense discussion and came under increasing attack, not least from some of his numerous doctoral students. In his later years he retracted some of his bolder claims for a Tudor revolution in government. One of his last statements on the subject, a booklet published in 1991, made so many concessions to his critics that in its mixture of repentance and defiance it bore some resemblance to the speeches made on the scaffold by some of Cromwell’s victims.2

Despite his unique knowledge of Cromwell’s life and works, Elton resolutely refused to write a life of his hero. He despised biography as a genre and he claimed that Cromwell was “not biographable.” His reasons for that view are not recorded, but the most likely one is that the evidence required for a truly comprehensive biography does not exist. When Cromwell’s career was abruptly terminated by his arrest and execution in 1540, his voluminous papers were seized by the Crown. Divided today between the National Archives and the British Library, they were listed chronologically and summarized by nineteenth-century historians in twenty-one enormous volumes of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, and the originals are now available on the website State Papers Online, 1509–1714.

Yet though there are thousands of letters to Cromwell, there are relatively few from him. In his new biography, Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that the copies of his outgoing letters were systematically destroyed by members of his household in a vain attempt to save their master (and perhaps themselves) from destruction. Whatever the reason, the gap in the archive is a huge one, and it means that anyone writing Cromwell’s life often has to choose between undocumented speculation and silence. This is what gave Hilary Mantel her opportunity. She respected the known historical facts, but filled the lacunae in the story with her own creative imagination.

MacCulloch comes to the subject as an outstanding authority on the history of sixteenth-century England, particularly its religious history. He is the author of a prize-winning biography of Cromwell’s closest ally in the l530s, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He has also written penetrating works on the European Reformation and the history of Christianity. His hugely impressive life of Cromwell is dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Elton, his former doctoral supervisor, whom he equals or even exceeds in his mastery of the relevant archives and his determination to read the documents themselves rather than relying on the printed summaries, whose misreadings, misidentifications, and misdatings he frequently points out. He employs these sources with an immensely painstaking concern to reconstruct the exact order in which events occurred and to ascertain who was where at any given time. He is also able to draw upon an abundance of scholarly writing on the period, much of it of very high quality. In 120 pages of densely printed endnotes, he passes uninhibited judgment on his fellow historians, praising the work of some as “extraordinarily illuminating,” “masterly,” “meticulously researched,” or “incisive,” and denouncing that of others as “unimpressive,” “unconvincing,” “wildly untrustworthy,” or “just silly.”


Although his own writing is lucid, witty, and acerbic, MacCulloch’s extremely detailed book—with its careful argumentation, its large cast, and its intricate reconstruction of the networks, connections, and affinities at the court of Henry VIII—makes heavy demands on the reader’s memory and powers of concentration. MacCulloch knows his characters intimately. He can refer casually to the “characteristic pretentiousness” of the Greek scholar Richard Croke or dismiss the king’s favorite, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, as lacking “the administrative abilities required for celebrations in a brewery, let alone governing a kingdom.” But unlike a novelist, he cannot make things up when the evidence is not there. As a result, his narrative abounds in fascinating probabilities, most of them highly plausible but none of them certain. All too often he has to use words like “maybe” or “likely” or “possibly” or “perhaps.”

He does, however, dispel much of the mystery that previously surrounded Cromwell’s early life. Born in Surrey around 1485, the son of a Putney yeoman farmer-cum-brewer, he left home in his teens and traveled extensively in Flanders and Italy. In 1503 he fought with the French army at the Battle of Garigliano, near Naples, and in Florence he formed a connection with the great businessman Francesco Frescobaldi. Lacking a university education, he had an extraordinary capacity to teach himself. By the time he returned to England around 1515 he had become a genuine cosmopolitan, fluent in French and Italian, competent in Latin and Spanish, expert in the details of trade between Italy, the Low Countries, and the ports of London and Southampton. In the 1520s he combined a successful business as a money-lender with a practice as a self-taught but knowledgeable Chancery lawyer and legal consultant.

MacCulloch believes that in 1523 Cromwell, though keeping up his private business, entered the service of Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset. If so, he did not stay long, but he remained on familiar terms with the Grey family long afterward, for his astonishing social ascent owed everything to his ability to make influential friends and keep them. MacCulloch stresses his “clubbability” and “considerable charm.” Cromwell, he says, “had a way with dowagers.” But this incorrigible networker was also supremely competent: a businessman, a lawyer, an MP in the 1523 Parliament, and, as it turned out, an administrator of genius.

It was above all his reputation as the man best qualified to deal with Italians that made possible his appointment in 1524 to the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York, lord chancellor, the pope’s representative in England, and, next to the king, the most powerful man in the country. Cromwell’s job was to oversee what MacCulloch calls Wolsey’s “legacy project,” which involved founding two new “Cardinal Colleges” at Oxford and Ipswich, and constructing a grandiose tomb for himself, to be made by the Florentine sculptor Benedetto Rovezzano and gilded by a craftsman procured by the king’s agent for gilt work, the Lucchese merchant Antonio Cavallari. Cromwell’s later responsibilities included dissolving some small monasteries in order to raise funds for Wolsey’s colleges and brokering the elections of sundry abbots and priors.

Wolsey’s failure to secure papal approval for Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn led to his downfall in 1529 and his arrest the following year for treasonous dealings with foreign powers. He died shortly afterward, thereby probably avoiding execution. Cromwell, who had become an MP again in 1529, loyally defended Wolsey in Parliament and managed to save Cardinal College, Oxford (today’s Christ Church). But the Ipswich college did not survive, and Wolsey’s extravagant tomb was commandeered by the king. Today it houses the remains of Admiral Lord Nelson in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Cromwell was in tears at his master’s fall and fearful for his own safety. But by January 1530 he had somehow managed to transfer to Henry’s service. The ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire, Eustace Chapuys, later remarked sardonically that “he must have promised to make him the richest King that England had ever seen.” But if it was his financial acumen that recommended him to Henry, it was his skill in drafting legislation and seeing it through Parliament that made him indispensable.


As Hilary Mantel grasped, Cromwell never abandoned his loyalty to Wolsey’s memory. He regarded the cardinal’s enemies as his enemies, with Anne Boleyn, the primary cause of his downfall, high on the list. One might have expected them to be close allies, for Cromwell had worked to secure the king’s divorce from Katherine and they were both supporters of religious reform. But their mutual antipathy was exacerbated by disagreements over foreign policy, Anne favoring an alliance with France, where she had grown up, and Cromwell wanting closer ties with the Holy Roman Empire. MacCulloch is convinced that it was Cromwell who orchestrated the forces leading to Anne’s execution in 1536. Another enemy was Thomas, Lord Darcy, executed in 1537 after his involvement in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the northern rebellion that nearly persuaded the king to drop his principal minister. In Cromwell’s eyes, however, Darcy’s real crime was to have assisted Anne in her campaign against Wolsey.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII; drawing by David Levine

As a royal servant, Cromwell began by managing his former master’s confiscated estates. But by the late summer of 1531 he was on the king’s inner council. Theresfter his rise was relentless: master of the jewels in 1532; chancellor of the exchequer in 1533; principal secretary and master of the rolls in 1534; vice-gerent in spirituals and chancellor of Cambridge University in 1535; made a baron and Lord Privy Seal in 1536; knight of the Garter in 1537; chief nobleman of the privy chamber in 1539; and finally, in March 1540, three months before his execution, Earl of Essex and lord great chamberlain. Each appointment meant an increase in wealth and patronage as well as in status and power. It was a remarkable ascent, in many ways resembling that of Wolsey, who was the son of an Ipswich butcher. Unsurprisingly, these two meritocrats aroused the envy of the established nobility, who regarded themselves as the king’s rightful counselors and resented the two men’s rise.

Henry’s court was a fearfully dangerous place where courtiers jostled for the favor of a capricious monarch. When execution was the fate of the losers, the survivors would rush to fill their places and claim their goods. MacCulloch portrays the king as “terrifyingly unpredictable,” given to “destructive whims” and “habitually erratic” decision-making, “a thorough coward when it came to personal confrontations,” and “almost impossible to serve successfully.” He tactfully declines to draw an analogy with any modern head of state, though some of his American readers may be tempted to do so.

For all his affability, Cromwell too had some unattractive qualities. He had a “fierce temper” and was capable of “towering rage.” He had no compunction about ordering suspects to be tortured and, like most of his contemporaries, could with apparent equanimity bear the prospect of people being burned alive or cut down from the gallows and mutilated while still conscious. He could be as ruthless in his private life as in politics. On one notorious occasion he enlarged his property by building a wholly unauthorized boundary wall twenty-two feet inside his neighbors’ gardens and then digging up one of their houses and moving it on rollers to the other side of the wall. As the son of the aggrieved neighbor later commented, “The sudden rising of some men causeth them to forget themselves.”

Cromwell was not content with successfully climbing the greasy pole. MacCulloch argues that he had two other priorities. The first was the future of his dynasty, with which he was preoccupied “at least as much as the King was with his.” He married a local girl and had three children, but only his son, Gregory, survived into adulthood. Cromwell, a devoted father, sent him to Cambridge, prepared him for life as a courtier by boarding him out in aristocratic houses, and, triumph of triumphs, in 1537 secured his marriage to Elizabeth Seymour, the king’s sister-in-law, thereby making Gregory the king’s brother-in-law. He dissolved a monastery to ease the process of setting Gregory up as a Sussex landowner, only for the boy to get involved in an undisclosed but evidently serious scandal that made necessary his move to a new residence in Kent. When Gregory was nineteen, Cromwell obtained a seat for him in the 1539 Parliament. Six months after his father’s execution, the king, in response to a well-calculated letter from Gregory’s wife, Elizabeth, made the boy a peer, and the Cromwell barony lasted into the late seventeenth century.

Cromwell’s wife had died in 1529 and he never remarried, though he fathered an illegitimate daughter; and in 1536 there was an astounding rumor that he might be about to wed Mary, the king’s daughter by Katherine of Aragon and the future queen. His sister married into a Welsh gentry family, one of whom became Lord Williams of Thame. When her husband died, Cromwell virtually adopted her son Richard Williams, who later took his uncle’s surname and would become Oliver Cromwell’s great-grandfather. As dynasties go, this is undoubtedly impressive.

Cromwell’s second objective was to advance the cause of evangelical reform. (MacCulloch believes that “the term ‘Protestant’ is best put aside in dealing with the very early stage of the English Reformation which Cromwell did so much to advance.”) Ironically, he had traveled to Rome in 1518 to secure the renewal of a wealthy Lincolnshire guild’s license to sell papal indulgences, at the very time when Martin Luther’s attack on the indulgence trade was launching the German Reformation. But by the late 1520s Cromwell seems to have moved to a decisive, though clandestine, commitment to religious reform. He was a patron of evangelical clergy and filled Wolsey’s Cardinal College with them. But his outward posture was that of Catholic orthodoxy; he even urged Wolsey to purge the realm of heretical books, because if they were “scattered among the common people” they would “destroy the whole obedience and policy of this realm.” His form of religion was “deceitful certainly, hypocritical perhaps,” says MacCulloch, who labels Cromwell a Nicodemite, after the Pharisee who dared to visit Jesus only at night.

In the 1530s Cromwell played a crucial part in implementing the drastic decision to solve the king’s divorce problem by declaring independence from Rome and making Henry supreme head of the English church. He collected texts to buttress the view that England had long been an “empire,” an independent state with no earthly superior, and that its monarch had always exercised jurisdiction over the English church. He piloted the Reformation legislation through Parliament and in 1535 became the first (and last) vice-gerent in spirituals—that is to say, the king’s deputy head of the church. This was an extraordinary appointment, never to be repeated, for it placed Cromwell, a layman, above the two archbishops and the church’s assemblies, the Convocations of Canterbury and York. It gave him powers almost identical to those enjoyed by Wolsey as papal legate.

In that capacity, Cromwell issued Protestant injunctions for the religious life of the entire kingdom. He did not disguise his hostility to friars, shrines, and pilgrimages or his commitment to reading the Bible in the vernacular. He ordered a visitation of religious houses, which turned into a deliberate discrediting of the monastic life by unearthing sexual scandals, though MacCulloch attributes this to Henry VIII’s “fussy prudishness.” Cromwell’s nationwide survey of the church’s financial assets, the Valor ecclesiasticus, was “a staggering achievement,” completed in nine months and comparable in ambition to Domesday Book. An even greater triumph was the publication in April 1539 of the magnificent “Great Bible,” the first official English version, which Cromwell had commissioned and ordered to be placed in every parish church.

As for the monasteries, Cromwell favored piecemeal closure or voluntary surrender, rather than total dissolution. But the king’s desire to sell monastic lands in order to finance his expensive project of coastal fortification took priority. Even so, Cromwell introduced legislation authorizing the establishment of new cathedrals, which he envisaged as semi-monastic collegiate foundations. He himself had been dean of Wells cathedral since 1537. As MacCulloch has emphasized in other works, the cathedrals, with their resident canons, their ceremony, and their music, would become a distinctive feature of the Church of England. Their survival owed much to the influence of powerful protectors who, following the precedent set by Cromwell, became lay deans in subsequent years.

It seems certain that Henry VIII’s Supreme Headship would not have involved a turn to Protestantism had not Cromwell and Cranmer grafted Evangelicalism onto the breach with Rome. As well as initiating the suppression of the monasteries, they attacked the worship of saints, relics, and religious images. They also asserted the supreme authority of the Bible and the need for Scripture to be made accessible to the laity. Rather than following Luther, Cromwell was drawn to the more radical Protestantism of Zurich, which Henry VIII detested. Acting behind the king’s back, he risked his career by establishing semiclandestine relations with the Swiss city, which had banned religious images, forbidden church music, and replaced the Mass, and its miraculous transformation of the bread into Christ’s body and blood, with the Lord’s Supper, a simple act of commemoration in which the consecrated elements remained unchanged. In MacCulloch’s view he was “deliberately laying foundations for a Protestant future.” Cromwell also sought to counterbalance his religiously conservative opponents at home by establishing closer relations with the Schmalkaldic League of Protestant territories in the Holy Roman Empire.

By 1539 Cromwell was losing his influence. It was then that he made his fatal mistake: in order to cement the relationship with the German Protestants, he encouraged the king to marry Anne of Cleves, sight unseen. On her arrival in England at the beginning of 1540, Henry took one look and recoiled in horror. The marriage was never consummated, and Cromwell’s reluctance to support its annulment lost him the confidence of the king. The religious conservatives—his old enemies—moved in for the kill. They were led by the Duke of Norfolk, who was Anne Boleyn’s uncle, and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, who had been the king’s principal secretary until he was replaced by Cromwell in 1534, and a privy councillor until he was ejected at Cromwell’s request in 1539.

On June 10, 1540, Cromwell was arrested, stripped of his Garter decorations, and sent to the Tower. Six weeks later he was beheaded. He had been convicted of heresy and treason, not after a trial in a court of law but by simple parliamentary fiat in an Act of Attainder, a tyrannical procedure that he and Henry had used against Sir Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher, and some other opponents of the royal supremacy.

MacCulloch does not exaggerate his subject’s achievements. He states at the outset that “the leading actor in the 1530s was not Cromwell but his king.” Foreign policy was exclusively Henry’s business, while at home many of the important decisions were made on his initiative and hardly any without his assent. Anne Boleyn, for example, would never have been executed had not Henry VIII transferred his affections to Jane Seymour.

Cromwell was above all the king’s faithful servant, one of the greatest civil servants Britain has ever known. He was indubitably a central figure in “a decade of revolution.” But this biography will not end debate about the precise significance of his remodeling of English government or his contribution to the English Reformation. MacCulloch rightly stresses the importance of his concern to base the Reformation on parliamentary statute, but he passes too quickly over his bill of 1539 authorizing the king to bypass Parliament and legislate by proclamation—the so-called Henry VIII clauses, under which it now appears likely that if Britain leaves the EU, the decisions as to which European laws are to be kept and which discarded will be made by ministerial fiat. MacCulloch makes a good case for Cromwell’s posthumous influence upon both church and state. But it is surely a step too far to claim that his legacy “shaped much of the modern world, not least that still-Protestant power, the United States of America.”

Still, it is hard to imagine that Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life, based on research spread over several decades, will ever be replaced. The way is still open, however, for the gaps in MacCulloch’s story to be filled by ingenious historians or imaginative novelists. Hilary Mantel’s many admirers will be fascinated to see what influence his magisterial book will have on The Mirror and the Light.