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Thomas Cromwell and PBS's Wolf Hall

Updated on May 4, 2015
Mark Rylance stars as Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's advisor and political fixer in PBS's Wolf Hall.
Mark Rylance stars as Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's advisor and political fixer in PBS's Wolf Hall. | Source

Thomas Cromwell c.1485 - 1540

Last night began the six episode series, Wolf Hall, on PBS Masterpiece, the long awaited story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's most intimate adviser and master political operator.

The series graphically showed Thomas Cromwell as a young boy being beaten mercilessly by his drunk father, a blacksmith and beer brewer, and showed the inauspicious beginnings of a man who would rise to become the most powerful adviser 'behind the throne,' of Henry VIII of England.

The program is based on Hilary Mantal's two novels: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel's books, so richly told, cover Henry VIII's divorce/annulment from Catherine of Aragon (Spain), his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and her subsequent execution at the King's orders. It also covers England's split from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope in Rome.

Wolf Hall begins with Cromwell's distancing himself from Cardinal Wolsey, who has fallen from Henry's grace, because he has not been able to obtain an annulment from Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon from the Roman pope, and ends in 1535 with Cromwell presiding over Thomas More's execution for treason.

Bringing Up the Bodies continues the story post-More and ends with Anne Boleyn's execution.

Cromwell and More were contemporaries in Tudor England but were completely different men. They were complete opposites, with Cromwell heading the English Reformation, the break with the Roman Catholic Church, and the overseeing the formation of the Church of England also known as the Anglican Church.

Thomas More would not yield his conscience for Henry VIII and stood on the principle that Henry's request of a divorce/annulment of his marriage to Catherine (because she bore him no living male heirs and was past child-bearing years) was against church law. He eventually was executed by Henry.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell, a former mercenary soldier who hates war, seeks peace and equilibrium for England. Thomas More threatens this peace and so Cromwell arranges his execution for Henry.

Cromwell was so important to Henry VIII and such a trusted adviser because Cromwell got "stuff" done for Henry and engaged sometimes in dirty politics to do it. Cromwell was considered a brilliant politician and a savvy and shrewd adviser, until he wasn't. Then, Henry had Cromwell be-headed.

Months later, Henry regretted Cromwell's execution and realized the grave mistake he had made in getting rid of Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell is considered the greatest statesman England has ever had and he was in power for a decade (1530-1540) and permanently changed the course of English history.

He was a lawyer determined to impose his own character, that of a methodical, detached and calculating man, upon the English government. Cromwell wanted to be effective and efficient and end the chaos of feudal privilege and ill-defined jurisdictions. He intelligently did not let his emotions interfere with his political position. He became the ideal statesman for Tudor England.

Portait of Cardinal Wolsey
Portait of Cardinal Wolsey | Source

Cromwell's beginnings

Thomas Cromwell was born circa 1485 in or around Putney, London, England. His father ran a brewery, but was a jack of all trades. He was arrested several times for watering down beer and assaulting neighbors, and was described as a violent man.

Cromwell never got along with his father and described himself as quite the 'ruffian.' As soon as he hit his adolescence, Cromwell took off for the European continent. He was a soldier fighting in France, a banker in Italy, clerk in the Netherlands and became a lawyer who lived and practiced in London. He grew up street smart and this is one of the reasons he was described as a shrewd politician and manipulator. Cromwell was an ambitious man who gained great experience living and working in Europe.

When Cromwell returned to England about twelve years later, he went on to gain a seat in the House of Commons as MP for Tauton and he was introduced to government service under Henry VIII as a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey during the mid-1520's. His abilities won him the Cardinal's respect and soon Cromwell was the Cardinal's principal secretary and trusted servant. He was an intelligent, powerful and ruthless English lawyer and statesman.

Cromwell, ever the savvy politician, distanced himself from Wolsey when the Cardinal fell from grace in 1529. Soon, Cromwell took Wolsey's place as Henry's most valuable adviser. He remained a favorite of Henry VIII's for years, but he was despised by the older nobility who were jealous of his influence with the king. They also disliked Cromwell because he sought to reform the medieval bureaucracy of the Tudor dynasty and because he was highly intelligent, multi-lingual, and well-versed in international affairs.

Cromwell married Elizabeth Wyckes and they had three children together, Gregory, Anne and Grace. Elizabeth, Anne and Grace all died in 1528 from an epidemic of sweating sickness. Cromwell was devastated. He also fathered an illegitimate daughter, Jane.

Cromwell shows of his archery skills to Henry VIII in PBS's Wolf Hall.
Cromwell shows of his archery skills to Henry VIII in PBS's Wolf Hall. | Source
Portrait of Catherine of Aragon
Portrait of Catherine of Aragon | Source

Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Cromwell

The marriage of Henry and Catherine of Aragon started out as a true love match and was a passionate marriage in the beginning. Eighteen years later, Catherine had not born him a living male heir and Henry came to the conclusion it was time to be rid of Catherine so he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

Henry wanted a divorce/annulment from Catherine, but Catherine refused and fought back. The Roman Catholic Church, headed the Pope, refused Henry's request and supported Catherine and the marriage. Furious, Henry turned to Thomas Cromwell to "fix" things. Cromwell played a key role in arranging the annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon in favor of Henry's mistress, Anne Boleyn.

Henry was an opportunist who disliked papal authority and interference in his English realm and wanted the vast wealth the English Roman Catholic Church possessed. He wanted the tax money sent to Rome in his own coffers.

Henry wanted to rid himself of Rome to gain wealth and a son. The paradox of Henry's "reformation" is that it was motivated by greed and genuine religious turmoil. The break was really a legal reformation rather than a real religious one. Henry still practiced Roman Catholicism until his death, even though he was now head of the Church of England.

Henry declared Rome had no authority in England and it was Cromwell who instituted the reforms that made it so. Cromwell believed the Roman Catholic Church had lost its way and was a ponderous medieval institution concerned only with wealth and influence. He had no problem setting out to reform it.

Cromwell set out to get support in the House of Commons for Henry's split with Rome. On the day of the vote, Cromwell asked those against the split to stand on the left and those for the split to stand on the right.

Henry was present and watching all this so all members of the House moved to the right (and kept their heads.) Cromwell had a law passed in Parliament that said the king, not the pope, was head of the Church of England and Henry could then annul his marriage to his then wife Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Henry did so.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII in PBS's Wolf Hall.
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII in PBS's Wolf Hall. | Source
Portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein.
Portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein. | Source

Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Cromwell

Cromwell's influence during the decade of the 1530's was one of the most influential and vital decades in English history and his influence was enormous. He came to power during Anne Boleyn's ascendancy to the throne. It was a symbolic changing of the guard. Old Catherine of Aragon was pushed aside for the young ambitious Anne Boleyn. Cromwell supported Anne until she became a liability. Then he distanced himself from her just as he had done with Wolsey.

During this decade, Cromwell grew in stature and power. He dissolved the Catholic monasteries, sold their lands and established the royal supremacy. He founded two courts of Wards and Surveyors which allowed for more efficient taxation and leasing throughout the realm. He also politically integrated the English kingdom by extending sovereign authority into northern England, Wales and Ireland. He used the power of the printing press and began the first propaganda campaign in English history.

Instead of offices held by the aristocracy because of birth, he wanted trained servants with expertise in their field to hold these offices. The nobility resented Cromwell and his power to do this. Cromwell built a bureaucracy of professionals outside of the royal household. He brought about the first era of parliamentary control of England. In 1534 he developed a new tax called the King's Maintenance of Peace, that by 1547 brought approximately 2,000,000 pounds to Henry's treasury.

Cromwell benefited directly from the fall of Catherine of Aragon and the rise of Anne Boleyn.

Henry married Anne Boleyn and for a while the marriage worked. However, Anne was an upstart, spoke her mind, and insulted many in the Tudor court. In the meantime, Anne did not produce a male heir and so Henry wanted to be rid of her. He had become infatuated with Anne's lady in waiting, Jane Seymour. Cromwell "fixed" things by bringing up a case against Anne for adultery, incest, and treason.

Anne was found guilty and be-headed. Cromwell then arranged Henry's marriage to Jane Seymour, wife number three. Cromwell tried to get close to the Seymour family, but they wanted nothing to do with him. It was the Anne Boleyn/Jane Seymour affair that began bringing about Cromwell's downfall.

During this time, Cromwell continued in his job but he ignored the nobility to his detriment. The nobility resented Cromwell's influence with Henry and his pro-monarchy, anti-nobility policy. The anti-Cromwell gossip by the nobility eventually got back to Henry. Then, Jane Seymour died in childbirth (she did give birth to a male heir, Edward).

Portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger. | Source

Cromwell's downfall

With Jane Seymour's death, Cromwell began making inquiries about possible candidates for another wife for Henry. Cromwell wanted to make sure to keep Protestantism alive in England, so he turned to Protestant Germany to find Henry a wife number four. He chose Anne of Cleves, daughter to the German Duke of Cleves. As a result of this choice, sight unseen, Henry awarded Cromwell an Earldom in 1540.

When Anne arrived in England and met Henry it was disastrous and sealed Cromwell's end. Henry didn't like Anne and thought her ugly, but he could not get out of the marriage without angering the German princes and so he went ahead with the marriage, all the while seething at Cromwell.

The marriage was never consummated and six months later Henry demanded Cromwell to get him out of the marriage. On July 9, 1540 the English Parliament declared the marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves null and void. Anne, however, went along with the annulment and because she acquiesced she received a handsome income and a household from Henry so she was able to remain in England. She didn't lose her head and she ended up being the smartest of Henry's wives.

A scapegoat had to be found for this marriage disaster and Cromwell became that scapegoat. Henry accused Cromwell of betraying him and Cromwell was arrested and taken to the Tower of London.

Cromwell, however, was never charged with treason. He was actually charged with selling export licences illegally, granting passports and commissions without royal knowledge, and freeing people suspected of treason. Cromwell was seen by Henry as base-born and ignoble and who had usurped and deliberately misused his royal power. He was also charged with heresy.

After Cromwell's arrest, incriminating letters to Lutherans were found in Cromwell's home put there by the duke of Norfolk, a Cromwell enemy. Henry was outraged. He also was infatuated with Norfolk's niece, Catherine Howard, and so Henry had Cromwell executed on the grounds of a Lutheran conspiracy.

Cromwell was executed privately on Tower Green on July 28, 1540, the same day Henry married Catherine Howard. He, then, had Cromwell's severed head exhibited on a spike on London Bridge.

Sources:

www.telegraph.co.uk

www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zttdjxs

englishhistory.net/tudor/thomas-cromwell/

www.nytimes.com/sunday-review

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

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    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 2 years ago from Reno NV

      Enjoyable read about Cromwell and Henry VIII, I will try to get started on the show it looks enjoyable. Kind of interesting but I just published this morning a hub about Henry Howard the Earl of Surrey, a Courtier Poet who wasa member of the Henry VIII's court. Is he a character in the show? Jamie

    • L.M. Hosler profile image

      L.M. Hosler 2 years ago

      Good interesting hub. I enjoyed reading it.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I really need to watch PBS more often. Thanks for the reminder, Suzette.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      PBS rocks. I watch as many shows as can from them on Netflix. Maybe this will show up there. This is such an interesting life to learn about.

      Voted up and shared

      Angels are on the way to you this evening ps

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 2 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      I am a great fan of English history, especially of the Royals. This is an excellent article on the documentary of Henry VIII - I really enjoyed reading it. Cromwell was a very interesting, impressive man with great influence.

      Well done, Suzette.

      Up, U,A,I and H+

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Oh phooey, I missed this one. And had been looking forward to seeing yet another take on the crazy life of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. Like pstraubie above, I hope it comes to Netflix as so many PBS shows do.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Great read. You sure laid this out in a wonderful fashion. Very interesting history here.

    • suzettenaples profile image
      Author

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Hi Jamie: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. It is an interesting show and worth checking out. I just saw your new hub on poetry and Henry Howard. I didn't know about this poet so I am thrilled to learn about him from you. I don't know if he is on the show or now. So far, in episode one, he is not mentioned. But, who knows? I have been enjoying your poetry this poetry month. You are really a wonderful poet. Some time, publish a collection of your poetry. I certainly would buy it!

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      LM Hosler: Hello and thank you for reading my hub. I am pleased your enjoyed it. Check out the program, it is really interesting.

    • suzettenaples profile image
      Author

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Bill: I am a PBS fan and watch it nearly every night. Their Masterpiece series is wonderful and always well acted. I think you would really enjoy this historical drama. I used to get Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell confused, but this show has certainly shown me the difference in the two men just in episode one. Check it out.

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      pstraubie48: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and it is good to meet another PBS fan. I love the Masterpiece shows. They are always so well done. This historical drama, just in episode one, is fascinating. Hope you enjoy it also.

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Phyllis: Thank you so much for your kind comments. I love history and Masterpiece does it so well. I especially like the Tudor time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. It is such a fascinating time in world history. Cromwell, certainly was a savvy politician and advisor.

      Thanks so much for your visit.

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Dolores: There are still five more episodes to come, so perhaps you can see them. They are on Masterpiece, I forgot to mention that in the hub, which does a great job on historical dramas. Henry VIII is always so fascinating to me and I enjoy seeing who is performing Henry. This Henry is quite handsome, at least for now, and enjoyable to watch. Thanks so much for your visit and I am glad your enjoyed reading this.

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thank you, Eric and I am pleased you enjoyed reading this.

    • ZeldaMes profile image

      Zelda Mes 2 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you. I will certainly watch this series.

      a very interesting hub.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Thomas Cromwell was a self-seeking, power-hungry megalomaniac in real life - in the same way Beria manipulated his 'master' Josef Stalin - who made himself unpopular amongst the hierarchy. He was willing to betray others to further his own career. He was also architect of his own downfall. As the premier Roman Catholic family in England, the Howards outlasted the Tudor dynasty by around 400 years, Major John Howard (of Pegasus Bridge fame, 1944) being the last of the direct line.

      I am no Roman Catholic myself, but Thomas Cromwell's 'engineering of his own enemies' downfall, painted by him as Henry's enemies, and the demise' of Catherine Howard would have been enough to turn anyone from the Reformation movement here.

      As it was the antics of his daughter Mary ('Bloody Mary') by Catherine of Aragon saw to the Catholics' end in the power stakes for around 200 years. It was another knee-jerk reaction that saw England swing back again under Elizabeth, to the Protestant camp, with threats of invasion by the French and Spaniards through Ireland (there's another story) and the dispatching of the Earl of Essex to quell rebellion.

      My name might be Lancaster but I'm a Yorkist at heart. I'd have been with Richard III.

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      You certainly not a fan of Thomas Cromwell, are you? What is the saying: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? These men in history who were power mad ended up badly in the end. Anyone who was helping Henry to be-head Henry's enemies would rack up enemies of his own. It seems these guys never realize that those that they hate will be sure to usurp them in the end. You certainly are passionate about what side you are on. Thanks so much for reading this.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 2 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hello suzettenaples, you are back! And with a flare. Good to know that you could not stay away. Lots of insight and history rolled into this article.

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Mike: LOL! I'm back, huh? This show inspired me to get back to writing some historical hubs. I am back in the saddle again, so they say. So glad you enjoyed reading this and thanks for the visit.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Suzette

      Awesome hub. I really enjoyed reading it. Two novels I can recommend to read section Elizabethan Times are 'Sacred treason' and 'Roots of betrayal' by James Forrester (pen name of Ian Mortimer) about a document that comes to light that suggests Anne Boleyn was already married and pregnant when she married Henry. It's a novel but we'll worth the read

      I loved this hub and I'm going to 'look out for that series

      Blessings

      Lawrence

    • suzettenaples profile image
      Author

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      lawrence: Thanks so much for your insightful comments. And, thank you for suggesting the two books you have. I will certainly check them out. My next hub is about Anne Boleyn and yes, she and Henry were secretly married while he was still married to Catherine and it is reported that Anne was pregnant at the time of the marriage. Wolf Hall has renewed my interest in this time period and I do recommend it for viewing.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      You'll like the books as the plot was Anne was pregnant but Henry wasn't the father as Anne was secretly married to another Duke

      You'll have to read them to find out who

      Blessings

      Lawrence

    • suzettenaples profile image
      Author

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Wow! I didn't know all that! That didn't come up in articles I researched. So Elizabeth was not Henry's child? Good thing Henry didn't know that!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      As I said they are novels but there's a note from the author at the back explaining what they're based on.

      Kind of a really good 'what if? ' scenario

    • suzettenaples profile image
      Author

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      lawrence: What if? it is a great scenario. Who knows with all those liasons in each monarchy. What a great history! LOL!

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Interesting article. We often read about or see films and documentaries that focus the Tudor family and the exploits of Henry VIII, but not about the political maneuverings of Cromwell that eventually led to his beheading. I had no idea this series was playing on PBS. Thank you for the "heads up" (No pun intended.:-) )Voted up.

    • suzettenaples profile image
      Author

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Genna: So glad you enjoyed reading this and thank you for your comments. The Tudor dynasty is certain an interesting and bold one full of historic moments. Don't mess with Henry and if you couldn't do his bidding, off went the head. I would have never wanted to be in or around his court if I lived in those days! LOL!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      I just caught one of these episodes on PBS the other night. Politics were such a dangerous business then--and maybe now!

    • suzettenaples profile image
      Author

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Audrey: Isn't it a wonderful series? It started out slow for me, but these last several episodes have become really intriguing. Living in Henry's court was taking your life in your hands. Henry certainly was mercurial. I would hate to live at his whims. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this.

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