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.
As Henry’s minister he clearly understood that his role was to do whatever was needed to get the king what he wanted. If the church in Rome stood between Henry and the woman he wanted, it was necessary to find a way around that church. That the time he had spent in the Low Countries may have made him friendly to the new ideas of Reformation certainly didn’t hurt. If there were those who held fast to the old religious order, it was necessary to deal with them ruthlessly. If the king needed funds to support his court and Parliament was unwilling to raise taxes, it was necessary to find new sources of income. In every sense Cromwell was a man for his time: a pragmatist who would do whatever was necessary.
It is ironic that his downfall, like his predecessor’s was as much a result of Henry’s libido as it was of anything else. It was likely his role in the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, a woman Henry found abhorrent almost at first sight that led to his fall from grace. Like Wolsey he had managed to amass a great deal of wealth as well as great many enemies during his tenure in power, and it was with a good deal of glee that he was led off to the Tower and the same fate he had prescribed for so many others, another example of how the mighty have fallen.
Hutchinson’s book is a scholarly biography that reads like a novel. It gives readers a well documented insight into the soap opera that was the court of Henry VIII.