London People: Thomas Cromwell – Back in the Game

Historical Londoner Thomas Cromwell seems in vogue at the moment, not least since the release of Hilary Mantel’s final novel in her Wolf Hall trilogy, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ (Fourth Estate 2020). For a balanced biography of a Londoner whose political shenanigans still ring down the ages, Soul City Wanderer recommends Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. Robert Hutchinson. Phoenix. 2008.

Thomas Cromwell was King Henry VIII’s most trusted lieutenant during the 1530s. Though, of course, like all Henry’s close advisors, the proviso of that trust is ‘up to a point.’

The first chapters look at Cromwell’s slog up the diplomatic slope from humble beginnings as the son of a publican in Putney in south-west London. There doesn’t seem to be much that the young Thomas learns from his abusive father, aside from a hard edge, a mean streak and dishonesty.

By working his way into the household of Cardinal Wolsey, who was in the 1520s, the most powerful man in the country (irrespective of Henry VIII), Cromwell put himself at the forefront of English political plotting and courtly intrigue.

The rising clerk has an obsequiousness attitude to those above him, and a propensity to cynically ‘use’ and then ruthlessly dispense with the services of those below. And, like his later namesake Oliver, there is distinct Machiavellian aspect to his personality once he gets into power.

Soul City Wanderer Recommends: Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchinson

As this biography progresses, we see how Cardinal Wolsey’s fall signals Cromwell’s rise to the top. Within a few years of Wolsey’s passing Cromwell had managed to attain all the reins of government. In 1534 he formally became Chief Minister, Chief of Security and Royal Secretary.

By 1535, only the church remained free of his meddling. That soon changed when the King granted Cromwell the title of Vicar General which gave him power over the clergy and monasteries. Cromwell soon set up his own ecclesiastical court, with the power to install bishops. To his own posts, he then added Lord High Chamberlain, Keeper of the Privy Seal, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and finally Earl of Essex, which was the last straw for some of the aristocracy. By 1539, Cromwell’s power and influence pervaded every part of England’s administration.

At the same time, working hand in hand with Henry, he made the monarchy more powerful. In 1539 he forced through an Act of Parliament that effectively gave the king power by decree. A move towards tyrannical despotism.

Cromwell accrued vast wealth, of course. But it didn’t only did it stem from his offices of power. The author reveals he was also operating as the royal court’s loan shark. Those who wished to maintain at least a modicum of status were forced into paying him exorbitant interest rates. This of course, made him doubly unpopular.

It was Cromwell’s arrangement of the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves which led to his downfall. His enemies, especially the equally spiteful, venomous and duplicitous Bishop Gardiner, and the Duke of Norfolk, like vultures sensing blood, began to circle. Yet, Cromwell never deviated from being devious. He continued to scheme and plot right till the very end.

In June 1540, Cromwell was arrested for treason and sent to the Tower. On July 28th, he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

While reading the second part of the book, I was just wondering if this powerful Londoner’s state machinations had any modern parallels, when the author made the allusion to the Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels. It is a sharp analogy. Cromwell, in the words of the author, “dexterously wielded the airbrush of propaganda.

Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. Robert Hutchinson. Phoenix. 2008.

Follow Soul City Wanderer on Twitter@soulcitywander

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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