Perhaps best known as Thomas Wolsey’s right-hand-man and then Henry VIII’s chief minister, examinations of Thomas Cromwell have traditionally focused on whether he was an agent of a powerful king or a talented minister driving the changes that took place in Tudor government. More recently, historians are trying to recover more about Thomas Cromwell’s character and private life.
What do we know about Cromwell’s very early life?
Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney around 1485. Records of his birth do not exist (it was Cromwell who established that records of births, deaths, and marriages should be kept), but shreds of evidence from records including leases indicate Cromwell’s parents were Walter and Katherine who lived in Putney after moving there to acquire land for sheep farming. The Cromwells were yeomen at the time of Thomas’ birth and lived with Walter’s brother who ran an alehouse supplying Mortlake Manor for the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1501, Thomas’ family moved to Wandsworth to a property with a water-mill suggesting they were grinding grain or fulling cloth.
Did Cromwell flee to the Continent to escape a violent father?
The notion of Thomas Cromwell’s father being a violent man (as is depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example) most likely arises from two places. First, Walter appears in a court record for assault following a dispute between him and his brother-in-law’s brother. Second, an Italian author called Matteo Bandello wrote that Cromwell fled his father. However, we should treat this evidence with caution as, in a letter written to Thomas Cromwell by his then-protégé, Anthony St Leger, Anthony praised Thomas and Walter for their goodness.
Nonetheless, Cromwell did head to the Continent around the age of 15. He did not attend university and Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador, noted in his mini-biography of Cromwell that he travelled to Flanders and then Italy after time in prison (in his later years Cromwell described his young self as a ‘ruffian’). During this time, it is likely Cromwell was in the French army in 1503, travelling to Florence after the French were defeated in the Battle of Garigliano, and later Antwerp.
Was he a man of faith?
Cromwell was taken into the service of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, around January 1524. In 1525, Cromwell began helping Wolsey to close or amalgamate under-performing monasteries and it seems he regarded this as a legal and business matter, not a religious one; the actions were to improve efficiency and wealth. Nonetheless, from 1526, after meeting Thomas Cranmer, Cromwell began discussing the idea of a reformation of monasteries, reflecting on how to improve them.
That said, there is much debate to be had here. Historian and author Caroline Angus believes Cromwell’s actions were largely pragmatic rather than principled, while others believe Cromwell was a reformer, citing evidence including his correspondence with the Thames Valley Lollards, a group of religious dissenters who questioned the established church, and his contact with radical reformers in Zurich and northern Switzerland.
Was he loving and kind?
Although depicted by some as scheming and unpopular, we should not ignore Cromwell’s depths and complexities. Cromwell married Elizabeth Wyckes c.1514 and had three children, Gregory, Anne, and Grace. He appears to be a caring man who was loyal to his family, taking in Elizabeth’s mother, Mercy, Elizabeth’s sister, Joan, and the children of both of his sisters. Similarly, the letters that survive from Cromwell’s in-tray (that is, the letters he received) demonstrate he formed long-lasting, kind friendships, including from his time on the Continent.
The love Cromwell felt for his family seems evident in his actions after his wife and children died. Letters show that, for the first time in his professional life, payments went unpaid, replies were not sent to letters, he snapped at friends, and Bishop Gardiner even came looking for Cromwell as he could not be contacted by Wolsey. His actions were so out of character that those around him seemed genuinely concerned for his health and welfare.
How else should we characterise Cromwell?
Cromwell was well-liked and could be charming. He spoke directly, in part because he did not rely on a particular group of people for his position or status. He was a hard worker, toiling day-after-day, and seems to have been a strategic thinker. He was not given any noble recognition (apart from being Master of the King’s Jewel house in 1532) and did not seek it; his 1532/33 portrait by Holbein implies he was proud of his work as a lawyer and his membership of the Merchant Taylors’ Company (look for the scissors in his portrait), which marked his place in the world of international commerce.
What is clear is that traditional representations of Cromwell as either one thing or another are too simplistic. He was a public servant with a personal life and a complex personality.