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Thomas Cromwell and PBS's Wolf Hall
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.