Thomas Cromwell and his reputation

Thomas Cromwell: A reputation of two halves

TC 3Thomas Cromwell was a brutal enforcer to a tyrannical king; an unscrupulous, ambitious, ruthless and corrupt politician, who cared nothing of the policy he implemented as long as it made him rich.

This is a Cromwell that Catholics in the immediate aftermath of Henry’s reformation would have recognised, a vision articulated by Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500-1558). For Pole, Cromwell was just one of the jackals that surrounded the throne, feasting on the flesh of the church mad with lust for power and riches:

‘an agent of Satan sent by the devil to lure King Henry to damnation’

Pole needed Satan in the story – both to emphasise Cromwell’s evil nature and actions, and to explain how someone of such low birth could have got to where he had, against all the natural laws and the great chain of being. Pole’s narrative was picked up and expanded, by following Catholic writers Nicholas Sander (c.1530-1581) and Robert Persons (1546-1610), though they accept that maybe Cromwell had a genuine interest in promoting evangelism.

And although we have no words from Hans Holbein, it is difficult to read his portrait in any other way than a heavy, joyless, bureaucrat.

Cromwell was one of England’s finest statesman, who while being at times ruthless, worked with tireless skill and innovation to build a modern, integrated and powerful king and kingdom, and advance the cause of a reformed religion.

Meanwhile, though in England it was John Foxe (1516-1587) that created the story that would dominate the English view. For him, Cromwell’s whole life

‘was nothing else but a continual care and travail how to advance and further the right knowledge of the gospel and reform of the house of God’

Between the 16th and 19th centuries this was broadly how the story went; a negative Catholic view, and a triumphant English, Protestant one.

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The 19th century saw a more nuanced story – which was bad news form Cromwell’s reputation. The Romantic movement and the movement for Catholic emancipation saw Cromwell castigated for the destruction of the monasteries. Radicals like William Cobbett (1763-1835) condemned Cromwell for being part of a greedy grab for wealth on the part of the evil rapacious Henry and his evil and rapacious nobility. For Cobett, ‘the brutal blacksmith’ was:

‘Perhaps of all the mean and dastardly wretches that ever died, this was the most mean and dastardly’

James Froude, a committed Protestant who rather unconvincingly presented Cromwell as a single minded religious reformer, and the architect of England’s transformation, rather than Henry VIII:

‘Cromwell’s intellect presided – Cromwell’s hand executed’

But by and large Cromwell’s reputation fell into the dark side. A F Pollard (1869-1948) saw Henry VIII as a mastermind, and Cromwell was not to get in the way of that viewpoint. R B Merriman (1876-1945) described a minister who was a wholly secular figure, with no redeeming evangelical principles, the subservient hireling of a despotic king, intent on nothing but raising the crown

‘to absolute power on the ruins of every other institution which had ever been its rival’

Into this walked G R Elton and his 1953 Tudor Revolution in Government. Elton argued that Cromwell planned and introduced a new model of government, no longer controlled by the king through the royal household, but directed by bureaucratic departments of state. A Government enriched and empowered by the dissolution, and building a modern relationship between the centre and the regions, sweeping away the old franchises and local liberties that stood in the way of a single integrated modern state.

‘Wherever one touches him, one finds originality and the unconventional, and his most persistent trait was a manifest dissatisfaction with things as they were … he remained all his life a questioner and a radical reformer’

Even more, Elton has Cromwell working to a master-plan, a grand strategy. Elton’s thesis has not really survived, or not in its entirety anyway; these days Cromwell’s evangelism is stressed more strongly, alongside his desire to serve the king. But there have nonetheless been plenty of historians prepared to fight his corner. J J Scarisbrick’s 1968 biography of Henry VIII is still often quoted as the definitive work. He paints a picture of a king in control of strategy through his reign; none the less, he accords Cromwell a starring role

‘Far from being the ruthless Machiavellian of legend, Cromwell was a man possessed of a high concept of the ‘state’ and national sovereignty, and a deep concern for Parliament and the law; an administrative genius; one who may have lacked profound religious sense (though instinctively favourable to some kind of Erasmian Protestantism), but something of an idealist nonetheless. That the 1530s were a decisive decade in English history was due largely to his energy and vision.’

B W Beckinsale in 1978 painted a generally positive picture of a reforming minister and rational reformer with a passionate distaste for superstition and treason; and quoted Archbishop Cranmer for a final assessment:

‘such a servant, in my judgement, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had’

But generally in the more popular view, it is the brutal, corrupt thug that has defined his reputation in more recent times. Here is Alison Weir:

‘To great intelligence and ability Cromwell added a complete lack of scruple… his unattractive personality…would …make him essential to the King. Unscrupulous and efficient, his spy network…was to become a model for future governments.’

And a recent biographer, Robert Hutchinson:

‘an ambitious and totally corrupt statesman… an opportunistic jack-the-lad, a ruffian on the make’

Hilary Mantel’s books have therefore transformed his reputation; she depicts him as a sensitive gregarious, talented conscientious family man, determined to serve his king. Along the way, she has also painted a negative picture of Thomas More, and together this has sparked a response. The excellent Spartacus Educational site quotes a couple of these. Firstly, the Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies:

‘It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.’

Secondly, by Melanie McDonagh in the Evening Standard had an interesting theory as to why Cromwell’s reputation may be in a more positive phase:

the Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight. Indeed, if the prevailing mindset in Britain right now is a kind of secular Protestantism then Thomas Cromwell as drawn by Hilary Mantel is its man.

There is one thing all these commentators agree on is that the 1530’s were a decade that changed England forever; and for good or ill Thomas Cromwell was a leading architect of those changes.

13 thoughts on “Thomas Cromwell and his reputation

  1. keith G

    1. Hi Keith – we did quite a lot of this in the Anne Boleyn debate and the vote; the conclusion I think is that the impulse came from Henry VIII and Cromwell executed his orders if you’ll pardon the pun, But I doubt we’ll ever know for sure….

    2. Yes he was, the he didn’t like how the church took money to help themselves. And he closed the ones who admitted to it. He also didn’t believe in giving money to the poor. More so akin to the “Give a man a fish…” Method.
      Anne wanted to give to the poor for popularity & possibly power. Cromwell was against this. So when she told him she would like to see his head from his shoulders he made it his business to get rid of her.

  2. I just finished Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I disagree with how you describe her portrayal of Cromwell. I think she showed him to be an intelligent man who suffered much abuse as a child. This abuse scared him for life and gave him a very dark side. While he was extraordinarily intelligent, he was also extraordinarily evil. He was unscrupulous and violent and obeyed the most ridiculous commands of Henry VIII. He made everything happen for Henry – securing his separation from Catherine, his first wife, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and a few years later he accomplished her execution and Henry’s new marriage to Jane Seymour. Well finally Cromwell’s karma caught up with him. He displeased Henry greatly over Anne of Cleves and soon after that he was executed. He well deserved to be executed for the heartless way he’d tortured others so I didn’t feel sad about it at the end. That is not to say that Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell isn’t highly nuanced. YEs, he was sensitive to women and children and yes he could be charming. But his evil flies in the face of all that. He wasn’t mentally ill; he made a conscious choice to serve Henry and he paid the consequences, as so many people close to the king did.

    1. Hi Joan, and thanks for your very interesting comment. As far as Hilary Mantel’s views are concerned, I think the episode was written certainly before the third book came out – I think the quotes reflect purely the first book.

      As far as my opinion is concerned, I don’t consider Cromwell evil, or that he deserved to be executed – not sure anyone does. His entrapment of Anne could probably be described as evil – it was certainly deeply machiavellian. Outside of that, many of his actions caused profound change and great pain – in a strategy set by H8 not Cromwell; and I think we need to balance the traditional focus on the pain caused by the changes in the realm with the effectiveness and the breadth of his methods. The example always passed over is the creation of the poor law to compensate for the lost charity of the monasteries. And finally, seen in the European contact of the time (10,000 Waldensians slaughtered by Francis I of France for example) Cromwell’s methods were mild indeed.

  3. Hilary Mantels novel says more about the author’s values than about Cromwell. It is a beautifully seductive though complex picture of a recognisably modern hero for Tory sensibilities. Tear down the privilege of birth (fair enough) but maintain a steep hierarchy which requires almost superhuman merit to get to the top of, and sod the ‘losers’, who should have no security in life. And yes, every dog will have its day. Then die. Any success must have been deserved, every failure, also deserved. No free lunches. Redistribution is a matter of arbitrary charity decided by the random moral values and moods of the rich.

    Very, very Tory.

    1. Very interesting comment. The only thing I suppose I slightly rebel at is the Tory link; I think Cromwell was a man of his time – ordinary people should know their place, but their rulers had a responsibility to defend them as part of a social contract. It was he, after all, that started the idea of the state poor laws that by the end of the century until their evisceration in the 1830s, would be by far the most generous and effective system of poor relief in Europe – though as you very much discretionary according to local gentry and yeomen. But then the idea of a modern, rules based system of wealth re-distribution would be incomprehensible to an early modern European.

      1. I’m not so sure – I think the Dutch almshouses were a better model, but then, I think they started up a bit later, during the Dutch golden age.

        I would not call Cromwell a Tory. That would not make sense. But I was wondering about the author for a while there, it was only an interview I heard with her stopped me thinking about her having Tory leanings. I’m still not convinced about her portrayal of More, where I think she imports too modern a set of values into her moral judgement of him. We keep forgetting that for More as for many others, God and Hell were very real, Catholic corruption not withstanding, and I don’t think enough weight is given to this in her portrayal of More. Still her rather out-there hypothesis that he was just a nasty narcissist is interesting.

        1. Yes I agree Dutch poor relief seems to have been very effective; however, it was not based on a national system, or a statutory requirement; and so tended to vary from town to town – you did very well in Delft, less so in Utrecht for example. While often as generous if you were in the right place, it seems to have been less stable or predictable, it was voluntary and not a consistent national system. The English poor law get a rather grudging press in my view; historians talk about it’s use by gentry as a form of social control; but equally, those parishes really knew the individuals and their needs. Plus there is of course the continual and over romanticised view (again in my view only of course!) of relief from monasteries- which was totally dependent on the monastery which happened to be near you – which might be tiny or non existent. The Elizabethan Poor laws do not get the credit they deserve. (there’s an article you might have read on JSTOR called “The stability of voluntarism: financing social care in early modern Dutch towns compared with the English Poor Law, c. 1600-1800” by ELISE VAN NEDERVEEN MEERKERK and DANIËLLE TEEUWEN if you are interested in knowing more.

          Yes I agree she over does the Thomas More thing; a fine man I think – though making a man a saint who ordered three men to be burned I still think is a bit of an outrage, but then I’m not the Pope so that’s not my call. I agree we find it really hard to get inside the medieval and early modern brains when it comes to religion; and again agree that there’s a bit of fun in having someone through bit of dirt at such a revered figure. It’s good to see someone presenting an alternative interpretation to the hagiography that is A Man for all Seasons.

  4. Speaking as a member of a group of historic fiction authors, I know that one of the most difficult things when writing is to try to understand the set of values generally held in the particular era in question. Among the many values to be addressed are the belief in God, slavery, wealth, and the treatment of women and children. It’s interesting to be exposed to the ideas of different authors and their “take” on those values. I’m enjoying Hilary Mantel at the moment.

    1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Getting into the mode of early modern religious mindset is really hard in particular

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