Congratulations, Hilary Mantel (and Cromwell, Of Course!)

News has just come through that Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” has won the Man Booker prize.  I know I’m a little biased, but this really is a worthy winner.  Both Wolf Hall (also a Man Booker winner) and Bring Up The Bodies can only be described as Historic Fiction at its absolute best.  Well researched, richly detailed, and with characters that are viewed as human beings rather than “Reformers”, “Saints” or “Sinners”.  These novels take a fresh look at a character that had been reduced to a one-dimensional villain over the centuries since his death.  All of the above were so badly needed in a genre that is almost self-parodying at times.

All Historic Fiction is a double-edged sword.  But, from interviews with the author, Mantel seems to genuinely pride herself on integrity, and truth.  Research, respect for the characters, and respect for history; you can’t ask for more than that. But the books are well written, too (a definite added bonus).


Hilary Mantel; For. The. Win.

Thomas Cromwell: In The Beginning.

Today, as most will know, marks the 472nd anniversary of the death of Thomas Cromwell; a subject I have already written about HERE. So, to mark the anniversary and avoid repeating myself, I don’t want to write about his end, but instead take a look at his beginning. Naturally, the subject is a difficult one. The paucity of solid evidence/records is a major obstacle, but there are a few pointers to show us the way, and highlights just how remarkable Cromwell’s eventual rise really was.

Through a process of reverse dating, Cromwell’s birth has been generally agreed upon as the year 1485; a time of great change in England. It was the same year that Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth (22nd August); the Renaissance was sweeping across the whole of Europe, and movement through the layers of society (as Cromwell himself would illustrate later) was becoming increasingly fluid. Yet, despite the changes that were taking place, Cromwell’s beginnings were traditionally “Medieval” in their nature. Although we can estimate a year, there is not so much as a clue to the month or precise date.

Before I go any further, however, I would like to clear up some confusion that exists around Thomas Cromwell’s lineage. It is often stated that he was descended from one Lord Ralph Cromwell (1394 – 1456) and that his humble origin has been exaggerated. However, Lord Cromwell died childless, and his sole nephew died while still in his minority (without issue); so the only link between Thomas and the Lord is simply the coincidence of a common surname (the line of Lord Cromwell having already died out).

The reality is that Thomas’s father (or step-father) was one Walter Cromwell. A cloth shearer (according to Cardinal Reginald Pole), and a Farrier (according to Eustace Chapuys – who knew Cromwell well). What is known for certain about Walter is that he had a colourful record with the local judiciary. Records exist showing that Walter was fined for watering down ale before selling it illegally to the public, and he received further fines for running too many livestock on Wimbledon Common. Less still is known of Cromwell’s mother, except that she came from the north of England, and that her maiden name was Meverell. Thomas himself made only one recorded reference to his mother, during the King’s “Great Matter”. He claimed that she was fifty-one years of age when she bore him (during a discussion surrounding Queen Catherine’s possibility of bearing Henry VIII a living son). He also had two sisters (given the mother’s age, they were more than likely older than he); Elizabeth Wellyfed, and Katherine Williams (also remembered for being the great-grandmother of Oliver Cromwell).

According to the martyrologist, John Fox, Cromwell was born “of a simple parentage, and a house obscure” in “Putney, or thereabouts”. In relation to the mother, it is stated by Fox that after his birth, she remarried (“His mother married afterwards to a shearman”) and it is thought that Walter is that Shearman. In his recent biography, Schofield concurs that Walter Cromwell was more than likely to be a step-father. Either way, it was a rough upbringing, described by Fox as “simple and rude.”

In a letter to Thomas Cranmer, Cromwell himself admitted to having been a “ruffian” in his youth; adding weight to the theory that his home life was unstable. Perhaps, as many conjecture, Walter Cromwell was abusive, or his criminality had severe knock-on effects for Thomas. Further evidence of this is that Cromwell may have spent some time in prison (for reasons unknown). Either way, another tell tale clue of his turbulent early life comes in 1500. At the age of just fifteen; Thomas left home for the Continent. A lot of sources do specifically state that Cromwell was fleeing his father. However, Fox merely states: “a great delight came in his mind to stray into foreign countries, to see the world abroad, and to learn experience”.

Thomas’ travels had a profound effect on him. Not only did he see and experience many different cultures across Europe, but he picked up several languages that would help him enormously in the future. According to Professor G.R Elton, his travels cultivated in him “an outlook remarkably free from the prejudices of his time and country.” It must be remembered that Cromwell lived in an era when most Englishmen of his era did not travel beyond the boundaries of their own shire, and people in the next county were referred to as “foreigners”. Cromwell, therefore, led a life of adventure and exploration by comparison.

Unfortunately, it is during the years of travelling that the trail on Cromwell pretty much goes cold again. We know that he fought at the Battle of Garigliano in 1503 (for the losing side, the French), but we don’t know in what capacity. He then shows up working for a Merchant Banker, Francesco Frescobaldi. One romantic sounding tale is that Cromwell was found hungry and homeless on the streets by Frescobaldi, and was taken in as an act of kindness due to the Banker’s great love of England, and its people. Whatever it was that brought Cromwell and Frescobaldi together, it was something that Cromwell never forgot. Matteo Bandello recalls how, years later, Frescobaldi had become impoverished, and come to England to caul in some debts. Cromwell recognised him in London, and brought him to his house (Austin Friars). When Cromwell heard of his old master’s struggles, he immediately set up an investigation, and the debts were repaid within days and Frescobaldi was able to return home with some money in his pocket. (Schofield dates this incident to around 1533; Hutchinson – 1535).

Cromwell returned to England after roughly a decade of travelling. He had acquired enough education and experience to re-train in Law, a move that would see him enter the services of Cardinals, and eventually the King himself. Of course, he may have received a form of education before he left England, but there is no record or evidence to state one way or the other. But coming from such beginnings, Cromwell’s rise was all the more spectacular, much more so than his shock downfall, in 1540.

Cromwell’s was a rise that has been attributed to many people. Thomas Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn being named most often as “Cromwell’s benefactor.” However, coming from the place he did, Cromwell himself should take a lot of the credit for where came to be. His capacity for learning; his tenacity, and determination to succeed against the odds placed him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. His life experiences, that he went out and got under his own steam, were ultimately what led him to becoming so invaluable to Henry VIII. Of course, he needed the luck of coming to the attention of the great Cardinal Wolsey for his initial introduction at Court. But many people were introduced to Court, and they didn’t all rise as high as Cromwell, or have as much influence over the running of the State, or for such a length of time. It’s certainly not every day that a Shearman’s son – a teenage runaway – becomes the Earl of Essex. I can only conclude that Cromwell stood out from the crowds of the Court because of his own merits, rather than anyone else who was drifting around at that time.

To conclude, Cromwell’s early years were more than likely the making of him. He was faced with adversity from the beginning, but persevered; giving him skills that cannot be taught. His travels broadened his mind, and helped him to develop a vision for what the future for England could and should be. He could see beyond the constraints of tradition and the established order, and there is no denying that his mark on history has been as profound as is has been controversial.


Special thank you to Karen Clark from “A Nevill Feast” for information on Lord Ralph Cromwell (and clearing up confusion on his descendants).

Letters and Papers (vol. 15)

Elton, G.R: England Under The Tudors

Fox, John: Book of Martyrs.

Hall, Edward: The Chronicle of Edward Hall

Know Your Cromwells!

Okay, this is just a very short post about Thomas and Oliver Cromwell; prompted by the sheer confusion that exists over them. First up, they’re not the same person (as one query showed in my blog search engine). Thomas Cromwell’s elder sister was Katherine Cromwell. She married one Morgan Williams. They had a son, Richard, who came to serve his Uncle, Thomas. Richard, in honour of his uncle, changed his name from Williams to Cromwell. The newly named Richard Cromwell married Francis, and their eldest son, Henry Cromwell, had  a son by his second wife, called Robert Cromwell. Robert Cromwell is Oliver Cromwell’s father. Thomas Cromwell served a King; Oliver Cromwell engineered the destruction of an altogether different King (Charles I).

Brief, but I hope, concise!

Oliver “Not Thomas” Cromwell

To Troll and Be Trolled – Tudor Style.

To Troll and Be Trolled; Tudor Style.

Forgive me while I digress from the subject of Thomas Cromwell for today’s post. But following a frustrating, mind-boggling, and at times down right terrifying few weeks of debating History on various Facebook groups, I feel that I must say something on this subject. Once again, I am not a lone voice in this. Following This Post on A Nevill Feast, (the owner of which has had an especially torrid time of it), I want to add my two cents worth with regard to Tudor era groups especially.

Following the wildly popular TV series, The Tudors, there has naturally been an exponential increase in interest in the people behind the characters, and the times in which they actually lived. Join any number of them, and the administrators of said pages will assure you that: “all debate is welcome, encouraged, and appreciated” and so on, and so forth. For those of us who have had a genuine, scholarly interest in the Tudor Dynasty, this came as a welcome side effect to the popularity of a TV series that, generally speaking, had us tearing our hair out. It really did seem to get people (who may never have otherwise have heard of the Tudors) interested, and participating in a wealth of debates. However, it all soon started to go wrong.

First came the post on a Facebook page (which will remain nameless), asking us if we thought that “Henry VIII was a serial killer”. Myself and some friends defended Henry, pointing out that he did many good deeds as a King, and cited sources and examples to back up our discussions. We were then banned from the page, accused of having multiple ID s (because, obviously, more than one person could not possibly have a positive, balanced opinion of Henry VIII), and roundly abused by admin of said page. Then, unbeatably, a friend of mine who administrates a few pages of her own, received private messages from this person, warning her about my friends and I.

On another page, I saw a very well respected amateur Historian  being berated by the owner of one page in a manner most underhand. Her crime? She had the sheer audacity to point out (very politely, I might add), that one of the pictures the admin had added was not of Mary Boleyn (as stated), but of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. Quite how anyone manages to mistake Margaret Beaufort for Mary Boleyn is anyone’s guess, but there you go!

On yet another occasion, it was stated (as an indisputable fact) that it was treason for any woman to refuse to have sex with the King of England. Quite puzzled by this, I asked for a source to cite and back that claim up. Where is the law on the statute books? What year was it introduced/repealed? There would be a myriad of evidence if such a claim were true. I was then accused of being “a notorious troll”.

Amid all the mud slinging on Tudor groups, the others have not been slow to catch up. There was a debate on another historic fiction group about use of the “Akashic records”. From what I can tell, a person sensitive to these “Akashic Records” tunes into them, and they can see historic events being played out like a home movie on atoms floating around in the atmosphere (or something equally far-fetched). Myself and quite a few people of my acquaintance posted our thoughts and feelings on the Akashic Record. We were fairly sceptical (as most people probably would be). The results of these Akashic readings cannot be replicated, measured, or verified in any way, and it is therefore unscientific, and invalid for use in historic research. The OP was extremely unhappy. She took to her blog (deleting the FB thread to stifle any further dissent); copying and pasting the thread with the comments she did not like (ie, ours) edited out because we (according to her) were “unreasonable and insulting.”

A discussion about John of Gaunt turned into a flame throwing competition following the intervention of a man who really is an obnoxious troll. Several of my friends suffered terrible abuse at his hands. Then came the Historic Fiction author who claimed that Simon Montfort was the real father of Edward I, and that it was a hanging offence to mention Montfort’s name for seven hundred years. All nonsense, of course. But we asked for evidence (a request met with dummy-spitting and flouncing off in a huff). Eventually, the thread was deleted, and my friends turfed off the page and blocked. Although, these outrageous claims that Eleanor of Provence cheated on her husband did prompt This Excellent Post over on Sarah’s History Blog

All of this shit has hit the fan over the course of the last few months. We have been insulted, lied about, and accused of being trolls just for asking for evidence, and it has got me thinking. Is it an indictment of today’s culture that people are no longer able to debate? Or is it that these Page owners/group administrators merely do what they do so they can have everyone fall over themselves to gush about how clever the admin is? Is it feeding some sort of God complex that today’s History Group owners have?

These people hate to be challenged. They perceive it as a threat to their authority. They feel that their word alone should be enough to turn something from a rumour, into an historic fact. They take the word of certain pop historians at face value, and wouldn’t know a Primary Source if one painted itself purple and danced around naked in front of their faces. Any attempt to point them in the right direction, and it’s like that scene from Harry Potter where Professor Snape deducts points from Hermione Granger for being “an insufferable know-it-all”. The rule of thumb now seems to be “say what you like, as long as you agree with me.”

What I would like to say to the owners of the pages I have had run ins with is this: debate is a beautiful thing. If I may, I will bring this around to Thomas Cromwell. Like many other people, I began by thinking of him as a monster. A tyrant lurking in the shadows of Court, waiting to see who’s head he would chop off next, and when he took a break from killing people, he starved Priests and Nuns, and burned crops and stamped on puppies. Then, I began debating with people who knew a lot more than I did. I opened myself up to new ideas that grew up in the midst of all this discussion, and this healthy exchange of views. I discovered a wonderful, misunderstood man, who I am now proud to defend and do so on every occasion (hopefully without fan-girling, too).

Now this is not to say that debate is all about bringing every living being around to your way of thinking; it’s not that at all. It is about being able to engage in a frank, vigorous exchange of views with the possibility of learning something from it. If that something leads to a change of heart, then that is probably an added bonus. But far more importantly than that, it is how history grows as a subject. Robust debates about history is what provides the subject with its dynamism, and to continue to develop. If we censor debaters, stifle discussion, or set limits on what is to be allowed/disallowed then that will cease. That is the ultimate tragedy.

Before anyone else states this, I know that it’s only Facebook. But it’s still a huge platform, and one that many people turn to for information. As such, this worrying trend is all the more worrying still.

All I can conclude with is a few brief points for consideration. Asking for sources/evidence is not an attack. It is what all historians do when presented with a new theory. Disagreeing with a belief/assertion is not trolling (and freedom of speech is a two-way street). Please, bear this in mind before starting up a group and inviting people to join I discussions, because my friends and I are just around the corner, and we’ll carry on defending history and debating as healthily as ever we did!

As a post-script, let me add, anyone here is welcome to disagree with me. I always try to include a full list of sources I have used for all of my articles. If any are missing, do please ask me. I genuinely relish debates, so feel free to do it here. Enjoy!

Don’t Defame The Dead: The Thomas Cromwell Edition.

This issue has been a running sore for myself, and plenty of other Historical bloggers. First came this excellent post from the Edward II Blog (Part One Here! and Part Two Here!) defending a much maligned King. Also, came this excellent post from The Neville Feast dealing with the myriad of calumnies, myths and slanders that are meted out to the likes of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick (Article Here!). So, I thought that seeing as Thomas Cromwell is among the most maligned of Henrician Ministers, I thought that I would add my two cents worth.

Although I want to focus on fictional portrayals of Cromwell (they’re always the worst of the worst offenders), I want to start with non-fiction. What bugs me here is the cherry picking of the evidence. The evidence that remains in existence is scanty, and every bit of it is like gold dust. So it staggers me when historians are so selective with it (well, actually, they usually have an agenda of gross simplification, and the evidence is so damn tricky!). For example, many historians claim that Mark Smeaton was racked upon his arrival at the Tower of London because a servant working for Smeaton’s co-accused, George Constantine, claims so in his diary. Historians always report that. What they then fail to add is Constantine’s very next sentence. “I could never discover if this is of a truth”. Meaning that he is reporting rumours, and there is probably little truth in it (especially given that Smeaton appeared at his trial completely uninjured).

Now let me come on to Cromwell’s involvement in the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Many would have us believe that he was solely responsible. Like he woke up one morning and decided to kill the Queen. As John Schofield points out, the only evidence for this comes from one line in one letter from Eustace Chapuys, in which he claims that Cromwell “plotted” Boleyn’s fall. Also, and here is the clincher, Schofield has also pointed out that that letter has been mis-translated several times.The truth is, Cromwell was just one link in a vast chain that was working away at that time. Boleyn fell victim to politics, circumstance, and a series of tragic events. The sad truth is that no one could have saved her, least of all Cromwell.

In one recent “non-fiction” biography, Thomas Cromwell was compared to Josef Stalin. Please! There is a world of difference between Thomas Cromwell’s reforms, ground-breaking law making, and era defining attitude, and a tyrannical despot from 20th Century Russia! The whole of Robert Hutchinson’s “biography” was tabloid sensationalist history at its absolute worst (although my copy comes in handy when flies and insects stray in to my private abode!).

Now, on to the “goldmine” that is Cromwell in Historic Fiction:

I personally have come across so many portrayals of Thomas Cromwell in historic fiction showing him in varying degrees of Pantomime villainy, that I could be writing about this from now until next month. He has been portrayed as a brainless thug, despite the fact that he was possibly one of the most intelligent men of his time. Not for nothing did the son of a blacksmith rise to become an earl, and change the world about him as he did so.

However, to give credit where it’s due, Cromwell did admit (in a letter to Thomas Cranmer) that he had been “a ruffian” in his youth. I think the emphasis on here should be on the phrase “youth”. He, too, was once a young man like any other, and he had a very humble beginning in a very rough and tough age. Then he grew up, and I am certain he was a “ruffian” no more.He was a human being, and they change.

From what we know of Thomas Cromwell’s private life (which is very little, incidentally), he know he liked to socialise. His eyes lit up in conversation (according to Eustace Chapuys), and he knew the Old Testament off by heart. However, his dinner parties were known to be lavish, generous and the big occasion in many a social calender. So, why then is he so often portrayed as a lonely, vindictive little man with nothing better to do than plan who’s head he’s going to chop off next? Wonders will never cease!

My guess is that authors think it’s okay to write such slanders against a man like Cromwell. He’s been dead for five hundred years. Not very many people like him, or want to scratch beneath the surface to find the truth of what he really was like, so who cares, right? Wrong, say’s I. We must remember that he too was once a living, breathing human being. He had traits, foibles, good points and bad. He was not a cardboard cut-out, or a one-dimensional cartoon character. His story is endlessly complex, intriguing, and engaging. If it had not been for this man and his friends, England would be a radically diferent place. As such, does he not deserve a bit of respect? Yes, I am referring to certain hist fic novels that portray him virtually raping Jane Boleyn so she can be excused for ratting on her husband. It’s precisely that sort of demonisation of Cromwell so those around him can be sanctified (see also A Man For All Seasons) that has led to the blackening of his name in the first place!

Finally, and most importantly, there is the time difference. We think we know these people. Sure, many say, they were just like us! Well, no, they weren’t. Thomas and co. lived their lives in an era so radically different from our own that will never truly know, or understand, their minds or who they were, or how they functioned. Yet, time after time, we see twenty-first century standards being imposed on a man who was born at the end of the Medieval era. The two are simply incompatible.

I have even read writers (and other commentators) state that they don’t understand the era, but “they know what is right, and what is wrong” and these people were “wrong”. What they fail to grasp is that they know right from wrong according to the 21st Century, and the 21st century is a very different creature to the 16th. It baffles me!

Even Hilary Mantel’s wonderful books about Cromwell fall short. She has repeated the old myth that Cromwell held deep rooted grudges against all of Anne’s co-accused. Yet, on the other side, she has also debunked the Mark Smeaton torture myth (credit where it’s due). They are still beautifully written books, but not perfect!

This may not sound important, but I think it is. Richard III has an entire Society defending his name, simply because Shakespeare was a bit mean to him in a play. Anne Boleyn has an army of fanatics who will justify every little thing she did, (and try to make out she was “a helpless pawn for her male relations” if that fails – it’s their weapon of last resort, because the rest of the time she is a 21st century feminist who just happens to have been born centuries before her time). Everyone has their defenders and detractors; it’s all part of the History game. But Cromwell’s defenders have been, and continue to be, rather thin on the ground. We lag behind where others are forging ahead and changing popular opinion of an array of maligned personalities. Of course, my aims are a little more modest than changing opinion, but I like to do my bit for Cromwell. I want to explore the real man, and not the panto villain.



John Schofield: Thomas Cromwell (2009)
Robert Hutchinson: Thomas Cromwell (2008)

Letters and Papers


E Cards made by me!

I like Him Not! The Downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell’s downfall was swift, sudden, and unexpected. The French Ambassador wrote to his master, King Francis I, informing him of the event and the shock waves that it sent pulsing through the Court. According to Marillac: Cromwell’s faction “seemed to be the stronger” (than the opposing Conservative faction, led by Bishop Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk). So why people lazily assume that Cromwell’s downfall came about solely due to the disastrous marriage of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves will always be something of a mystery to me.

True, Henry did declare to Cromwell that he “likes her not” (although, he never did call her “the Flanders Mare”), as Cromwell himself recounted in a preserved letter to the King, sent from his cell in the Tower of London. True, Henry implored his Councillor’s to get him out of the mess in which he had found himself. But there is no solid evidence that he blamed Cromwell alone. After all, Cromwell (like Henry) had never met Anne of Cleves. Cromwell, (again, like Henry himself), had only heard reports from Ambassadors who had been sent to see her. Also, of course, there was the infamous Anne of Cleves portrait. Hans Holbein had met her, and painted her likeness from life. There was a multitude of people more culpable than Thomas Cromwell for “misleading” Henry as to Anne’s looks and mannerisms; yet, none of them suffered any adverse effects. The painter responsible for the portrait continued to flourish, and enjoy the King’s patronage, right up until his perfectly natural death in 1543.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein.

Furthermore, in April of 1540 (four months after Anne’s arrival in England), Thomas was created Earl of Essex. This blacksmith’s boy being elevated to an Earldom was a heard-earned reward for endless hours spent in service to the King. Cromwell had, after all, made Henry powerful, and rich. So again, no sign of displeasure from the King.

Also, we come back again to Marillac’s letter. Cromwell’s faction at Court seemed to be stronger than his opponents. If Cromwell really had suffered a fatal blow following the Cleves marriage, then surely that would affected the standing of the rest of the Reformist faction?

However, Cromwell’s final letters to Henry VIII (all sent from his cell at the Tower), all talk extensively about the Cleves marriage. This is because Cromwell, despite being a prisoner, was still working on the divorce case. His letters, and the information contained within, were being used as evidence to procure the annulment. They were not being used as evidence against Cromwell himself, as they bore no relation to the charges that were brought against him.

The charges brought against Cromwell are my final point. He was not charged with treason, but Sacramental Heresy. It was not heresy to arrange a bad marriage for a King.

The exact reasons for the downfall of Thomas Cromwell remain uncertain. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (who had laboured long and hard to bring Cromwell down), may well have planted false documentation in his offices; leading to the charges of Sacramental Heresy. In all likelihood, it was a whispering campaign that spread like wildfire in those last few months of his life at Court, and Henry chose to start listening. But I believe that one reason that can be ruled out, is that of the Cleves marriage. Whereas the débâcle didn’t do Cromwell any good, all subsequent events show that it didn’t spell the end for him, either.

Sources: Letters and Papers of Henry VIII (British History On line).

John Schofield – Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant.

Bring Up The Bodies: Preview.

For those of us in the United Kingdom; Bring Up The Bodies (sequal to Wolf Hall) by Hilary Mantel goes on sale in just three days time. Knowing that many readers (and me!) are beside themselves with excitement about the new book, I decided to post this link. From the Daily Telegraph, it contains an extract of BUTB; an encounter between Thomas and Catherine of Aragon. There’ll be another in tomorrow’s paper, too.


LINKY!!(Needless to say: SPOILERS)