10 Extraordinary facts you didn’t know about Thomas Cromwell

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Award-winning historian and author Diarmaid MacCulloch reveals ten incredible facts about one of the most notorious figures in English history 

10. His family was probably Irish

Cromwell’s ancestry was always thought to be from the Midlands of England. However, there’s a whole set of apparent facts around that which has recently shown that it’s just a Victorian lie made up in the 19th century.

Our eyes have been looking in the wrong direction to explain how this humble lad’s family came to be in Putney, south of London. The original Tudor documents said that his father came from Ireland and I, for one, had not really taken these references seriously until I realised this deceit we’ve all been following based on made-up stories by Victorian historians. 

That means that Walter Cromwell—Thomas Cromwell’s father—who brought him up in Putney, had come from Ireland. It also means that Thomas Cromwell’s sister Katherine, who married a Welshman called Morgan Williams, was also Irish.

Morgan Williams’ son, Richard, became effectively Thomas Cromwell’s adopted son and took the name Cromwell. His descendants were eventually to produce Oliver Cromwell who is the biggest villain in Irish history.



Oliver Cromwell. Image via wikipedia.org

The massacres of Catholics that Cromwell undertook when he was campaigning in Ireland are notorious in Irish history. But the case of this “Irish victim” narrative of the English being cruel and rapacious, and Oliver Cromwell being worst of all, is actually complicated because both Oliver and Thomas came from Ireland in ancestry. That’s something very unexpected and brand new.

 

9. His father’s brutality was probably a myth

Those who have read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels will know that the story begins with Thomas Cromwell being knocked around by his father—but there’s virtually no evidence of this at all.

There are, however, authentic records of Walter Cromwell, the father, back in Putney. They’re local manor court records and they state that he had to pay a fine for assaulting his neighbour on one occasion but that’s actually very standard in Tudor records because disagreements happened often.

"There’s no proof at all that Walter Cromwell was dishonest or violent"

The other thing people latched onto in these court records was that he was regularly fined for “selling bad beer”. And you might say, “well that sounds pretty criminal too” but this isn’t what it seems. It’s actually a very medieval way of licensing beer-selling. It has nothing to do with brewing bad beer. So there’s no proof at all that Walter Cromwell was dishonest or violent.

Similarly, the only reference to his father that I found in all of Thomas Cromwell’s correspondence is a nice one: someone wrote to Cromwell saying how good his father had been to him when the correspondent was a lad.

 

8. He spoke Italian

…which was a really exceptional thing to do. England is on the edge of Europe, quite provincial, not in great power. To go to Italy was to put yourself right in the centre of European culture. Especially Florence, where Cromwell ended up, was the epicentre of civilisation and culture.

So he learned Italian and came back to England in his twenties; extremely well educated, not just speaking Italian but a bit of German a bit of Spanish, fluent French and also reading Latin, which was crucial at that period. But Italian ended up being his passport into the eventual public life. It happened quite late on as he only became a servant of Cardinal Wolsey in 1524 by which time he was nearly 40 which is really late in a Tudor career.

The Cardinal was building a magnificent tomb for himself that would have to be the best tomb in all of England, if not Europe. The best people to make such a tomb were the Italians, so what you needed then was someone who could speak fluent Italian, could negotiate with these probably temperamental Italian craftsmen and then report back to the Cardinal in English. It was Cromwell’s career break and a very distinctive one which pushed him out of obscurity in middle age to go into public life which he briefly enjoyed.  

 

 7. He was a committed Protestant who took big risks for faith

Cromwell turned out to totally adore Cardinal Wolsey and stuck by him. You’d think that therefore he’d adore traditional religion, but no. Very early on in his story under Cardinal Wolsey you can see Cromwell taking risks for Protestantism—the new Reformation which was not even a decade old then—by skilfully promoting people who were Reformers into the Cardinal’s service.

"Erasmus’ translation of the Bible into new Latin from Greek sources was quite revolutionary and it made people look at the Bible in a new way"

The principal promotions were of the young scholars who would be the very well paid staff on Cardinal Wolsey’s extremely expensive college in Oxford, which today is known as Christchurch. All these young men were recruited from the other English university, Cambridge, and they all turned out to be Protestants to everyone’s surprise and alarm—and it was all because of Cromwell. That was the beginning of a very regular pattern. He had his own religious agenda which didn’t match that of his two biggest patrons—the Cardinal and then King Henry VIII.

According to John Fox, the way Cromwell had come to ideas about Reformation was by reading Erasmus’ new translation of the Bible while he was on his way to Rome to negotiate with the Pope—and that’s quite plausible. Erasmus’ translation of the Bible into new Latin from Greek sources was quite revolutionary and it made people look at the Bible in a new way. That’s what started Thomas Cromwell off on his road to the Reformation.

 

6. He adored Cardinal Wolsey


Cardinal Wolsey. Image via wikipedia.org

The Cardinal was energetic, charming and cultured, and Cromwell responded to all of those but because of this Protestantism, it’s quite surprising. Yet it’s unmistakable, it’s the key to his career. My chief piece of evidence for this is the coat of arms which Cromwell had registered for himself after the Cardinal’s death.

Heraldry was really important in the 16th century, it sent messages. It was a bit like road signs: you have to read them or you get run over on the street. In the same way, if you didn’t read heraldry in the 16th century, you could’ve gotten something really wrong.

The message of Thomas Cromwell’s coats of arms was that he was Wolsey’s servant. He took up themes and motifs in the Cardinal’s heraldry and put them on his own shield. To do this was a very calculated gesture of loyalty to his own master.

 

5. He loathed Anne Boleyn, despite their similar religious outlooks


Anne Boleyn. Image via wikipedia.org

If anyone was responsible for bringing Cardinal Wolsey down, it was Anne. She had decided that he was obstructing her road to marrying Henry VIII because Wolsey simply couldn’t do the great deed which was to get the King’s first marriage to Catharine of Aragon annulled—he couldn’t do it, hence Anne decided to consistently hate the Cardinal and tried to poison Henry VIII’s mind against him.


Henry VIII. Image via wikipedia.org

They loathed each other. The fallacy in that to think that just because two people agree with each other in ideology, they’re going to like each other. Just look at modern politics and you’ll see that that’s not true. To understand the story of what happened next, when Cromwell became Henry’s servant, you have to keep this fact in mind. Anne was not promoting Cromwell, she was obstructing his career, because she saw him as the Cardinal’s man.

 

4. He was very pally with Princess Mary, who went on to become Queen “Bloody Mary”


Mary I. Image via wikipedia.org

This is the reverse of the Anne Boleyn story. If you’re the enemy of Anne Boleyn, it’s likely that you’re going to be a friend to the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, whom Anne had replaced. Mary was a late teenager in the early 1530s and it was quite clear that as the conspiracy to bring down Anne gathered strength in 1536, Thomas Cromwell was behind it and he was in direct touch with Lady Mary as early as that.


Catherine of Aragon. Image via wikipedia.org

When Anne was executed, Mary was put back in her succession, and their relationship was completely contrasting to that with Anne. There are lots of warm letters from Mary to Thomas Cromwell to prove it.

"There were even rumours that Thomas Cromwell and Lady Mary would actually marry"

Furthermore, when Cromwell’s first grandchild came along in 1537, it looks very likely that Lady Mary was godmother to that child. There were even rumours that Thomas Cromwell and Lady Mary would actually marry!

That’s again very unexpected because Lady Mary would go on to become Mary Tudor, or Mary I, the one who burned Protestants, “Bloody Mary”. And yet at an earlier stage of her career, she was the ally and friend of one of the greatest agents of Reformation.

 

3. He became King Henry VIII’s uncle by marriage

This is one of the most extraordinary twists in the story. Hardly anyone had noticed the significance of the fact that Thomas Cromwell’s only son, Gregory, married Henry VIII’s sister in law, Elizabeth Seymour, who was Jane Seymour’s sister!


Jane Seymour. Image via wikipedia.org 

Jane Seymour was Queen number three in Henry’s bag of six. It was the summer of 1537, and 17-year-old Gregory married Elizabeth who was probably 19 and already had two children by previous marriage. But you can see what that does in family tree terms. It makes Gregory Cromwell the King’s brother in law and in an informal sense, it made Thomas Cromwell, his father, the King’s uncle.

The significance of that was that the English nobility with their antennae out would be absolutely horrified by this because of the potential power it gave to Thomas Cromwell. To be so intimately connected by family ties to the King would make him almost ungovernable. And you could almost explain Cromwell’s fall in those terms; that great noblemen like the Duke of Norfolk were just furious that he leapfrogged over their heads and married into the King’s family.

 

2. He got on very well with widows and dowagers

What I noticed when I was studying the letters to Cromwell, were these two twin things;

that lots of ladies of a certain age got on with him extraordinarily well. He actually had an employer before Cardinal Wolsey, the Marquess of Dorset, who died in 1530, so he wasn’t politically useful. But his widow, the Marchioness, was.

She sent a whole stream of warm, affectionate letters to Thomas Cromwell and it wasn’t just her. I kept noticing aristocratic ladies writing to him in warm terms, such as “Thank you for that marvellous dinner last night, it was such fun”. That kind of humanised him for me, the fact that he had that sort of charm with ladies of a certain age.

 

1. He had a soft spot for wild young men—including his wild son Gregory

This one might sound a bit sleazy but I don’t think it is. I think the reason for that is that they reminded him of himself when he’d been that wild young man who’d dashed off to Italy and made his career. And again, it’s all in the letters from these wild young men. One significant thing that I kept coming across, again and again, was that they asked him to help them to marry the dowagers. They would write, “I’m so in love with this wealthy 60-year-old widow. Can you put in a word for me with her?” Interestingly, virtually none of those efforts worked. The widows had far more sense than to marry the wild young men.

Some of the other letters are from very capable, respectable members of the gentry, or the legal profession, saying, “I can’t understand why you’re giving such affection and patronage to my nephew, he’s a complete waste of space, stop it at once.” But it didn’t have much effect, you can see Cromwell going on being nice and generous to these young men.


Holbein portrait believed to be Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. Image via wikipedia.org

His son Gregory was a prime example. Pretty wild, not greatly talented despite the lavish education, but Cromwell absolutely adored him. Towards the end of his career with the King, he overreached himself for the sake of Gregory. For instance, he manoeuvred Gregory into being a member of the Parliament for Kent and Knight of the shire which is an extremely prestige-laden office. The electors of the county of Kent would elect two Knights of the shire and the 19-year-old Gregory was a bizarre choice but it was Cromwell who forced it.

 

Diarmaid MacCulloch is a celebrated historian of Christianity and an award-winning author and presenter of the BBC documentary Sex and the Church.

His book Thomas Cromwell: A Life is published by Allen Lane