Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant

Thomas Cromwell Boarman

Thomas Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures of the Tudor court. He is cast either as a villain or a saint. In a man for all seasons he is the main villain who does everything in his power to convict the saintly Thomas More of treason. Thomas More in contrast, represents all the goodness in the world. But in real life, he wasn’t devoid of demons as Boarman shows us in this book. And neither was Thomas Cromwell whose reputation has been blackened since the nineteenth century. In actuality Thomas Cromwell was a man of many faces. The face he projected in the work place -in the Tudor court- was the face he likely wished to be remembered as. And then there was the face he kept at home, the one that people rarely saw or knew about, except for those he helped or were closest to him. As a man of his own times, subject to the era’s prejudices; Thomas was not devoid of cruelty. It was a dog-eat-dog world and coming from a lowly background, Thomas Cromwell had to be more ruthless than his enemies -the nobles- to advance in the world. But the Tudor statesman could also be loyal to a fault. He tried to help his master Wolsey as best as he could until he realized that he was finished and he had to move on.

As a father, Thomas Cromwell was diligent and attentive. In an age where parents were strict with their children and they were not far from hitting them to get results; Thomas Cromwell showed himself very different from most of his lower and upper class peers. While not much is known of his life with his wife and daughters, Boarman shows us his accounts to demonstrate that he did take an interest in his daughters’ education and wanted to give them significant dowries for when the time arrived for them to marry. As well all know, that time never came because they were taken shortly after his wife by the sweating sickness.

As a politician, Cromwell was highly pragmatic and this helped him in the difficult years following the demise of his master, Cardinal Wolsey. Yet he wasn’t without his faults. While he helped Henry get his annulment and his much wanted union with Anne Boleyn (recently elevated to Marques of Pembroke) and then her demise after she failed where her predecessor had failed, and made him rich with the money begotten from the dissolution of the monasteries; he was also arrogant and over-confident. As he grew more powerful and more sure of himself, he believed that nothing would bring him down. After all, his network of spies was immense, for every move one noble made, he was two steps ahead of him. And what was more, the king trusted him. The money made Henry one of the richest Kings in Europe after all, the treasury was overflowing with money, in addition to making him Head of the Church and helping him submit the opposition with an iron fist. But as the old saying goes “too much pride can kill a man” and that is exactly what happened in Thomas Cromwell’s case.

After the King lost Jane Seymour, Thomas Cromwell wasted no opportunity to push forward for a new alliance. While he favored an Imperial alliance since Anne’s downfall was on its way; he was more interested in promoting religious reform. When all of the King’s outrageous proposals to France and the Empire failed, Cromwell convinced him to turn to Cleves. Cromwell was very astute to know how dangerous Henry was at this stage, yet so powerful he had become, that he believed he could keep on his hold on the King. This proved to be a grave mistake. By the late 1530s the King’s behavior was becoming more unpredictable, and he started to distrust Cromwell, possibly (as Boarman explains) suspecting of his Protestant sympathies. Cromwell realized this and believed his best bet lay with the King’s wife to be. If he brought the King into the Schmalkadic League, it would drive England further away from the Roman Catholic powers, and if Anna of Cleves gave him a Duke of York, it would make Cromwell strong again. None of these things proved true. Cromwell over-exalted Anne of Cleves’ appearance. Besides telling Holbein to draw a favorable portrait of Anna; he also gave extreme compliments about this unknown bride, telling the King that there was no bride more beautiful than and that the sun shone upon her, etc. Age was catching up with Henry at this time. He was no longer the young man he had been when he married his first Consort or when he’d begotten his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy. He was now morbidly obese, suffering from an ulcer on his leg, and tyrannical. It was a far cry from the athletic, noble, handsome, scholar he had been in his younger years. If Anna was to his liking, she could make him feel young as he once was. She was after all a year older than his eldest daughter, the Lady Mary (whom Cromwell negotiated [in theory] a marriage between her and the future queen’s brother, the now Duke of Cleves. Yet Cromwell saw Mary as a threat. Even if the girl were to turn, she would still be a threat, so while he told the ambassadors to praise her, he also said not to overdo it so they wouldn’t convince the Duke to take her as a possible wife. Ironically, that is exactly what Cromwell did with Anna). When the day finally came to meet her, it proved a disaster and Henry was reputed to have said “I like her not” and urged Cromwell to break his engagement. Cromwell the faithful servant that he was, but also interested in this alliance, told Henry he could not since they were already promised and so the King was forced to marry his unwanted bride. But Henry was not one to be patient. Once an idea got in his head, nothing was going to take it away. He got rid of Anna, and once again Cromwell helped him for his own sake; and after he did, he paid the price for his initial mistake by being arrested at a dinner in 10 June 1540 on charges of treason. He was executed a month afterwards, and on the day he was executed, Henry married the cousin of his direst enemy (the Duke of Norfolk). The bride was Katherine Howard and in another ironic stroke of fate; Henry would also annul his marriage to this woman and like her cousin Anne Boleyn, cut her head.

In the epilogue, Boarman states that while Henry didn’t feel any remorse for Cromwell initially, he did at the end and according to some sources said that he needed a Cromwell. We will never truly know if this is how Henry felt, or he was just saying this so he could press his councilors to work harder to get what he wanted. In the end though, one thing was clear: His master secretary was loyal. He did everything and anything to get what the King desired, regardless of how he might have felt. And like so many of his contemporaries he was ruthless in getting his own way. His mistake? Was becoming too overconfident. You didn’t bet lightly when it came to Henry VIII, by 1539 Cromwell should have known that –especially since he had been witnessed to his master Wolsey’s downfall.

Cromwell is for posterity a mysterious figure and perhaps that is how he wanted to be. To be two steps ahead of his enemies, he wanted to keep the image of the ruthless and conniving man; he succeeded. For many years people have seen him in such a way, and fiction has not been too kindly to him until recently. While Boarman credits Hilary Mantel’s novels for revitalizing interest in Cromwell, I think the interest for him has always been there and hopefully it will continue to be, and he will be seen for the complex individual that he was –neither villain nor heroic, but a consummate politician, a good father, and a survivor first and foremost.

Boarman weaves a good factual tale of betrayal, intrigue, and paternal love. And while she gets right all the things regarding Cromwell, including his charity to his friends and the poor widows whom he gave homes and money; her portrayal of the second, fourth and fifth wives are questionable. Recent biographers and historians have dispelled myths regarding Katherine Howard as the harlot and giddy young girl as well as of Anne’s appearance. Nevertheless, this biography continues to be one of the most groundbreaking biographies about the once maligned councilor in the court of Henry VIII. For many years, Cromwell was depicted as a conniving, amoral, uncaring, cold, cruel man whose thirst for blood could not satiated. In one of the most iconic historical dramas of the 60s ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’, he was a one-dimensional character whose specter lingers there at the court. First he helps Anne rise then he is the cause of her downfall. There is no emotion in his face, he looks more like a mobster hit-man than the intelligent, cunning politician he really was. In the Six Wives of Henry VIII and its movie version Henry VIII and his Six Wives, in the 70’s, he is pretty much the same. It is not until the Tudors, the semi-historical drama, where James Frain finally gives birth to a multi-dimensional (and likeable) Cromwell. A Cromwell who is neither hero or villain but a human being like you and me who loved, who hated, and hoped. Hilary Mantel’s most recent portrayal in her Cromwellian saga ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ and the adaptation of these on TV, presents us with a more positive portrayal –one that has inspired people to look at him in a different way. This biography offers the same, using primary sources and revealing a man of many faces, one he presented to the king, another he presented to his enemies, and another he presented to his family and friends.