Readers of Robert Hutchinson's new biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's most Notorious Minister, might be surprised that David Starkey in the episode of his 16-part television documentary on the history of the British monarchy which deals with Henry VIII never once mentions Thomas Cromwell. He discusses the significance of Henry's first minister, Thomas Wolsey. He devotes a good deal of time to Thomas Cranmer, the churchman whose religious ideas gave Henry the church sanction he desired for his break with Rome. He talks about the influence of Anne Boleyn on the king and his push for Reformation, but he never mentions "the most notorious minister."
This seems strange to say the least. Hutchinson's exhaustive portrait of the man makes it clear that from his ascent to political power, at first working with Wolsey and then as Henry's accomplice in Parliament, Cromwell was as much responsible for working the king's will as any man in England. He financed the king's extravagances by plundering church properties and suppressing the monasteries. He found the means to force Henry's newly formed religious ideas over political and religious hurdles. He was instrumental in dealing with the machinations of England's foreign friends and enemies. He was in the broadest sense of the word, Henry's enabler. Without him, the history of England might well have been quite different.
Little is known about Cromwell's youth. He was born sometime around 1485 in Putney to a family of undistinguished commoners. According to the Spanish ambassador, Cromwell was something of a delinquent in his youth and was forced to leave the country after some time in prison. There are a number of stories about his European wanderings: he joined the French army to fight the Spanish; he served as a clerk to a banker in Florence; he worked as an accountant in Venice; he worked as a secretary for English merchants in Antwerp; he was a cloth merchant. By 1516 he had returned to England and married. There he developed contacts with men who could further his interests as he began to accumulate more and more wealth. Eventually he met Cardinal Wolsey and perhaps through his influence was returned to Parliament. Over the years his power and influence grew, and when Wolsey lost his position, probably because of his failure to persuade the Pope to approve Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he was in place to fill the void.