A Cromwell Adventure: Part 14 – Did Thomas Cromwell Even Want Wolsey’s Position?

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, and Paul Jesson as Wolsey, in RSC’s Wolf Hall. MARILYN KINGWILL

November 30 marked the 489th anniversary of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s death. I considered writing an article on the fate of Wolsey, but there are already wonderful pieces on Wolsey’s demise (such as this by The Tudor Travel Guide), so I decided to go in a different direction.

The common belief prevails that Cardinal Wolsey fell out of favour hard and fast with King Henry over the legatine court debacle of May-July 1529. As Wolsey fell from grace, his lawyer Thomas Cromwell swiftly moved in and took his master’s place at the King’s side. Soon, Wolsey was dead at Leicester Abbey, dying onroute to his own execution. On the face of it, that is the story, but when you break it down, there are far more factors at play. Hilary Mantel’s version shows Cromwell saddened by his master’s fall, and then promoting himself at court. The Tudors showed a more ruthless Cromwell; a man who ignored his master in favour of the glitter of the royal court. But did Cromwell even want to work for the king?

Thanks to the work of Diarmaid MacCulloch, the details of Cromwell’s life prior to his time with Wolsey is no longer a mystery. From fighting in the French army, a decade living in Florence as a merchant and lawyer, a short stint working in Antwerp, followed by another decade of legal work split between London and Rome, Cromwell was well-known, well-liked and respected, and as a consequence of his travels and language skills, well-connected. By 1520, Cromwell had become fluent in Italian, French, Latin, and even a smattering of Flemish, Spanish, Greek and German. The early 1520s saw him going into service for Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, and within a year, was so beloved by the family that some referred to him in letters as a ‘dear brother.’[1] When Cromwell entered parliament for its sole sitting in almost a decade, it is likely that Thomas Grey got Cromwell elected, as Cromwell still did not work for Cardinal Wolsey. Only after this, through a mixture of mutual friends and allies, did Wolsey learn of the ‘finest Italian in England’, Thomas Cromwell, and how his skills could be valuable.

Wolsey was a man burdened by the role as cardinal as well as Lord Chancellor to King Henry. He had overseen much of England’s workings throughout Henry’s reign, and by the mid-20s, had total control, hence the restricted parliament sittings (no one can argue if no one can speak). But Wolsey’s grip on power, as a lowborn man, meant he had a good collection of noble enemies. Henry continued to favour Wolsey, meaning these enemies could do little. Wolsey continued his vanity projects, his colleges at Ipswich and Oxford, and the building of his magnificent tomb at his new palace, Hampton Court. Italians were the master artists of the period, and Wolsey needed someone who could work on his tomb and colleges and speak fluent Italian. Enter Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell had little to nothing to do with Wolsey’s work for the king or government. The colleges were huge undertakings for Cromwell, because, in order to pay for these projects, monasteries needed to be dissolved to pay for the works, and building materials gathered from the bones of these houses. From 1525, Cromwell was in charge of dissolving these small, and either corrupted or collapsing, religious houses. While this task made Cromwell plenty of enemies, it made him a surprising amount of friends, both papist and evangelical. A great many religious men wrote to Cromwell to beg for the safety of their houses, their people, even offering bribes to remain open. Cromwell, now a man writing with humanist and reformist tones, had friendships which crossed the divide between religious factions, friendships that lasted long into his reign over England. In overseeing the grand impending completions of the colleges in Oxford and Ipswich, Cromwell gained a huge understanding of religious houses and found where his own religious feelings lay within the quiet creep of the Reformation in England, all under the nose of a Catholic cardinal.

But 1525 was a hard year for Wolsey. Before the introduction of Anne Boleyn and her affair with the king, Wolsey set out to impose the Amicable Grant, a tax or benevolence on the people. It was a tax of between 1/6 to 1/10 on laity goods, and 1/3 on clergy goods.  Henry wanted war with France, and Wolsey needed to fund it. Henry needed £800,000 to take France while the French king was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor, but no parliament would ratify such a heavy toll, and the whole idea had been shot down two years earlier. Loans taken out in 1522 and 1523 for a French invasion had not been paid, and the tax as far from amicable as the name suggested. The people opposed the tax and rebelled, with the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk having to ride out against their own people.[2] Wolsey had to concede defeat and sought peace with the rebels, and Henry sought peace with France instead. A back down, a humiliation, for Henry translated to humiliation for Wolsey. He had ruled England for a decade without question, and now people had learned they could stand up to him. Henry suddenly saw weakness, and thus, doubted his affection to Wolsey.

Soon after, Anne Boleyn beguiled the king. Already bearing a grudge against Wolsey for his refusal of her marriage to Henry Percy, Wolsey accidentally made a powerful enemy. The king wanted a new wife and a son, and sadly for Wolsey, Henry’s eyes fell on Anne, possibly the only woman who wouldn’t do as Henry pleased, or would listen to Wolsey. But by 1527, when Henry asked Wolsey to seek an annulment from the Pope, all seemed still fairly content between the king and his chancellor.  But the Pope refused to give a simple answer and was soon captured by the Holy Roman Emperor, meaning no answer on annulment would come. By late 1527, it was time to get serious; the Italians would need to come to Wolsey instead.

Through 1528, Cromwell was still working on dissolutions and Wolsey’s Italian artworks being made in a studio at Westminster. The year saw Cromwell lose this wife, and soon after, both his daughters. Cardinal Campeggio, sent from Rome to settle an annulment with Wolsey, didn’t arrive in England until October 1528 and face-to-face with Wolsey in London until May 1529, due to illness on both sides. Cromwell had little to do with Wolsey’s dealings on the marriage issues, though his writing is seen in some more international issues, possibly stepping in for his busy master.[3] Wolsey could smell the change in the air – he began making ever grander plans, elevating his idiot son higher than he ever deserved and kept pushing his expensive vanity projects, all while the king kept getting more impatient. The ground between Henry and Wolsey perhaps never truly settled after the mess of the Amicable Grant of 1525. By the time the legatine court sat at Blackfriars in May 1529, Anne Boleyn had spent months trying to gain a  faction of courtiers to come over to her side to oust Wolsey and his delaying tactics, but all came to little. Wolsey needed to trip up once more.

The case in the court of the King’s Great Matter (another post on its own), came to a close just under two months later, with Cardinal Campeggio ruling that the court could not make a decision based on lack of authority. This sabotage angered everyone, and threw Wolsey under the bus (donkey cart, perhaps?). Years of legal battles, theology debates, time wasted, lies told, trust broken, and probably a fair amount of sexual frustration, Henry was furious. Yet even then, Wolsey still wasn’t toppled.

Henry and Anne went on progress for the summer, giving Henry and Wolsey some time apart, as much as Wolsey tried to edge himself into the trip. It was not until September when the polarising Anne and her comrades finally managed to convince the king of Wolsey’s alleged premunire (usurping the king’s authority). Cromwell was working for his master as usual in London at this time, and but could not help but fall into the annulment’s shadow. Wolsey kept making choices that were clear to his servants that things were falling apart, and the rats started abandoning ship. Many hoped that when Wolsey went to the Tower, his servant Cromwell would too, for his crimes against the monasteries. The Duke of Norfolk already disliked Cromwell for monasteries closed, and Anne had similar thoughts.[4] In July 1529, Cromwell had started calling in his debts and wrote his will, not a man looking for a new post, or to climb over the corpse of his master. His reformist and humanist ideals were ignored as he wrote out the most traditional papist wishes for his death and included none of his noble or rich friends in his will, not even Wolsey himself. Long-time friends, lower men like himself, graced the pages that would see to the care of young Gregory and the Cromwell finances.[5] The country was in turmoil, and Cromwell painted the picture of a man with little will to go on at all, let alone a desire to meddle the king’s affairs.

By autumn 1529, Cromwell sat in conversation with Reginald Pole, two totally opposed men, and Pole recorded that Cromwell seemed a man confused, repeating Wolsey’s worries.[6] Soon after, Wolsey’s continued failure the find peace with France was the final straw and Henry had Wolsey arrested. Anne Boleyn and her accomplices had all the ammunition ready, and spectators lined up to see Wolsey’s barge leave York Place (soon to be Whitehall Palace), but turn not east to the Tower, but west to Esher instead. Reginald Pole left England at the same time, convinced Cromwell had also been arrested that day and would be soon be executed.[7]

The famous scene written by George Cavendish, of Cromwell crying while reciting from a primer, happened soon after, a continuation of this pattern of a man who did not think himself in the running to rise in the king’s favour. His wife had died, both his daughters, the projects he had worked so hard on were suddenly taken from him, he was hated by more powerful men, and was reduced to crying while reading the Our Lady Mattins at Esher Place.[8] But Cromwell had one thing on his side; he was not a nobleman, thus didn’t think like a nobleman. He sat with Wolsey, who lamented all his losses, a man complaining while sitting in relative comfort in a newly renovated manor house, with a retinue of servants to attend him. Cromwell noted that Wolsey owed his lay staff money and prayers, and from his own pocket and by guilt-tripping Wolsey’s clergy staff,[9] paid the innocent men and women of the household, those most likely to suffer first over Wolsey’s demise. Cromwell wiped his tears and decided to head back to London. Wolsey was down but not out.

On November 1, Cromwell left Esher, and through his friends made in his years working quietly, Cromwell got himself a place in parliament by November 3. Between Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, Sir John Gage, Thomas Rush, Thomas Alvard and William Paulet, negotiations with the Duke of Norfolk prevailed and Cromwell was admitted into parliament. Cromwell had a say in what came next for Wolsey and England. Alvard gave up his seat for Taunton to his friend Cromwell, a helpful friend indeed, as Cromwell was a hated man for his connection to Wolsey. Many were abandoning Wolsey and looking for other roles with noble masters, something Cromwell refused to do, as he was already widely hated at court for his dissolution projects and thought no place existed for him anyway. Bishop Fisher already calling the dissolution project heresy in parliament.[10]

Cromwell had an idea to help Wolsey and appeal to the man angry at the cardinal: King Henry. More dissolutions (as he was already hated, so there was no point in worrying about that) would enrich the king while proving Wolsey wasn’t a heretic, not if the king approved of such dissolutions. Cromwell stood in open parliament and defended Wolsey, gaining him the attention he didn’t want or need at such a time, in front of the king and all who had just signed a petition against Wolsey for premunire. Contemporary writers wrote of how this risky choice gave Cromwell a good reputation and an honest beginning for him before those ranked far above him.[11] One can only assume these men were annoyed that Cromwell’s speech was good, honest and legally sound. By mid-December, Thomas More closed parliament and Cromwell set out to make sure he could continue to bankroll Wolsey and his small household, in the hope Wolsey could return to the king’s side. Cromwell also tried to keep the cardinal’s colleges open after Wolsey’s premuniure charges and had to deal with losing the Italian masters who had been working on Wolsey’s tomb, as they no longer wanted the association with Wolsey’s immortality.

By this time, Stephen Gardiner, Wolsey’s secretary, was now the king’s secretary instead, harshly abandoning the man whom he owed so much. Cromwell and Gardiner, once on the same side, had suddenly become enemies. But while Gardiner was happy to turn his back on Wolsey in return for favour, Cromwell was receiving more favour in a totally different way. Cromwell had shown unwavering loyalty to Wolsey, and loyalty was something King Henry struggled to find (at least in his own mind).[12] Cromwell attracted the king’s attention due to his loyalty, his patience, and his studious behaviour in a time where many were crying out for sentences that carried a death penalty for Wolsey.

Wolsey was sidelined, with Cromwell left behind to argue his cause. By February 1530, Cromwell was before the king, being tasked with overseeing all Wolsey-related affairs, renewing the Italian masters, the colleges, and Henry was keen to hear more of destroying church power through dissolution.[13] Cromwell was a reformist; Wolsey was a Catholic cardinal. Cromwell openly favoured neither in his work or letters, and defended Wolsey while denying papal authority. He spoke of dissolving monasteries but did not ally with Anne Boleyn and her evangelical accomplices, even though they shared a good friend in Thomas Cranmer. Rather, Queen Katherine was no enemy, and Anne Boleyn was left out of the equation. Cromwell told Henry to continue petitioning the Pope for an annulment, but not to worry too much if the Pope denied him, as Pope Clement’s supremacy might not matter; a thought Henry would have considered for years. The court was divided into three; Anne supporters, Katherine supporters, and Henry supporters, those who supported neither Katherine or Anne, and silent on the annulment. Cromwell fought for only Wolsey, and Henry relented and pardoned Wolsey of his perceived crimes and moved him to luxury at Richmond, angering Anne and her uncle the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk fought back, and Wolsey was sent north as Archbishop of York at Easter. The 200 miles between them made no difference; Cromwell did not seek a place at court, instead, he wrote to Wolsey constantly, and lived at Austin Friars and not closer to the king, who put Cromwell to work upgrading York Place into Whitehall Palace.

Cromwell spent the rest of 1530 working again as a private lawyer and renewing his merchant work with his friend Stephen Vaughan in the Low Countries, as if ready to prepare for a life post-Wolsey.[14] He also wrote to Wolsey, talking of the Lutheran sect around Henry (aka Anne), not favouring Luther himself, yet also not favouring papist beliefs. Around this time, his daughter Jane was born (the Jane in my books) to an unknown mother; a illegitimate baby, a mistake made by a careful man, a mistake he turned into a kindness by raising the girl. Cromwell sat quietly, floating in no  real direction at all.

Wolsey continued to make mistakes in the north; living beloved and lavishly, writing to Queen Katherine, the French king and the Holy Roman Emperor, in an attempt to be the saviour of England once all came crashing down when Anne Boleyn got ousted. When the king decided to dismantle Wolsey’s precious colleges in August 1530, Wolsey upped his attempts to blacken Anne, and wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor, suggesting an invasion. A rare Cromwell letter survives, where Cromwell urges his master to be more careful, as King Henry had lost the last of his patience .[15] Wolsey began to question Cromwell’s unwavering loyalty, and planned a ceremony for himself in York, to be enthroned before his sympathetic northern people. Henry snapped and had Wolsey arrested, but the cardinal died onroute at Leicester Abbey on November 30, after a number of serious health problems (and definitely not suicide as we saw on tv). Wolsey had become an international embarrassment, and Cromwell fought for an audience with the king and promised to make him the richest man in England. Cromwell’s seven years of service were suddenly over, and he needed to come out of it safely, not entangled in Wolsey’s poor choices. Henry instead rewarded Cromwell with a seat in parliament, a far higher position than the previous year, making  Cromwell a fresh round of enemies in the process. Trying to tie up the mess surrounding Wolsey had instead thrust Cromwell back into public view.[16]

Cromwell had ideas: raising funds for Henry, reducing clerical power, and resisting the Pope’s behaviour over the whole Katherine v Anne debacle.  By New Year 1531, rather than only sitting in parliament to preach his ideas, Henry made Cromwell a royal councillor as well. His friendships, his language skills, his precious experience with Wolsey, all alongside his unquestionable loyalty, made Cromwell perfect for Henry. While Cromwell had run up his fair share of enemies with monastery dissolution, he had a firm cast of friends and allies, and could finally speak openly without risking his dear cardinal. Cromwell may not have wanted Wolsey’s position or power, but he got it precisely by not scrambling for favour alongside everyone else. The rest is history.

________________

[1] LP 4i no.1881 1526

[2] Guy, Tudor England p103

[3] LP 4ii no.4441, Capon to Cromwell 1 July 1528

[4] LP 4iii no. 5458, Capon to Wolsey 12 April 1529

[5] LP 4iii no. 5772

[6] Mayer,Correspondence of Pole vol 1 p212

[7] ERP I, 127 xxviii

[8] Cavendish, Life of Wolsey p260

[9] Cavendish, Life of Wolsey p275

[10] Scarsbrick, Fisher, Henry VIII and the Reformation Crisis p158

[11] Herbert, Life and Raigne of King Henry Eighth p266

[12] Cavendish, Life of Wolsey p274

[13] LP 5 no. 11799 December 1530

[14] LP 4iii no. 6744 Vaughan to Cromwell 30 November 1530

[15] LP 4iii no. 6571 Cromwell to Wolsey 18 August 1530

[16] Spanish Calendar 5i no.228 21 November 1535

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