A Cromwell Adventure: Part 13 – Who wrote Thomas Cromwell’s Poor Law Draft?

Yesterday, I received a message asking about Thomas Cromwell. I was waiting to collect my sons from college, and my phone buzzed. A Tom Crumel chat? Of course! But instead, the messenger was asking about a link she had just seen, claiming that Anne Boleyn wrote the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars 1536, and because of this, Cromwell concocted lies to destroy her.

Readers, I laughed out loud when I read this. I probably looked crazy with my windows down on a hot summery afternoon, laughing to myself. Then I remembered why my messenger was confused, because this assertion comes from a recently released book. It has been a long week, and I have been frantic to get stock into my bookstores for Christmas, and the publishers are sending books by the thousands (the book in question is not one of them). I did not watch the video that came with this claim, but I did read the link, discussing the need to promote women in government. (It is a worthy claim, for Britain’s current political state is grotesque. I live in a country run by a woman, and we are better for it.) I know the book in question which makes these claims, and I have checked the book’s sources, and these claims do not match up with what I have read about Thomas Cromwell creating the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars 1536. That is not unusual in itself, for this story is interesting and is based on difficult evidence. The trouble is, the suggestion that new evidence has surfaced does not ring true, only that evidence has been interpreted… differently.

So, who wrote the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars 1536?

Tudor Poor Law is not a fun read. Essentially, it was believed the poor were idle, lazy beggars and vagabonds who were poor due to their own behaviour.[1] Many in (conservative) government tend to think the same way today, but in 1535, thoughts on better ways to deal with the poor were coming to life in England. Cromwell had been in parliament when the law last changed – the Vagabonds Act of 1531 (22 Henry VIII c.12). The law was a harsh one; rather than helping the poor, they were to continue to be punished. But this law change, the first in almost 150 years, saw the chance for beggars to become licensed by their local Justice of the Peace. Licensed beggars could to appeal to the JPs of their district for relief. However, punishments for vagrancy stayed in place.[2]

The Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars 1536 (27 Hen VIII c. 25) is unique for a number of reasons. Cromwell passed the law in the House of Commons that stated that “sturdy vagabonds” had to be put to work.[3] The constables, mayors, JPs, sheriffs and anyone in control of a district/parish had to look after their own poor. The poor were not simply punished for being poor, and the men in power would be punished if they did not aid beggars. Taxes were not levied to cover these costs, as taxes were always unpopular, and a number other important changes in England were already causing disharmony. Collections were organised through a common box, to pay for people to be put to work, for the sick to be helped so they could recover and find work, and those who could not work were not left to beg. The poor were to stay within their own district/parish, and in return, they could receive help. There were still harsh punishments in place for those who refused to abide by these rules, but this was the birth of real aid for the poor.

But this is not the real point of the claim that Anne Boleyn actually wrote up this law. What passed through parliament was Cromwell’s work. But, what Cromwell initially presented to parliament in February 1536 was far from what the law became.[4] Cromwell presented a far more ambitious plan, a law that would tackle poverty right to the root. This plan suggested that the poor were not idle, instead, they had come to their circumstances by more than simply bad choices. Sadly, precious little of Cromwell’s work survived his attainder, so what was specifically said in parliament is not known. What is known is that Cromwell strongly believed in the law he presented to parliament; he made certain King Henry attended the Commons when he put forth the law to the House, as a way of displaying the support he had from the king for this legislation.[5] Parliament’s nine-week session had been delayed by almost six months, so when Cromwell presented this law change, it was already underway in terms of firm planning. But the Act that passed in the House of Commons was a watered-down, rewritten version of the initial plan.[6] Even Henry’s appearance could not get the law to pass, as the Act was so costly. Cromwell essentially pushed for what he could get from the House of Commons. King Henry and Cromwell were not simply tyrants doing their own bidding; the government had the right to push back on law changes and did so at their discretion.

It is the original plan, just a draft, which causes the question of who wrote this revolutionary plan.

The draft, BL MS Royal 18 CVI (which took me forever to view on this side of the planet),[7] is a curiosity forgotten by time. As a draft, it is not listed in the official Letters of Papers of the Royal Manuscripts in the British Library, but it does exist. It was first uncovered by German Georg Schanz and mentioned in his book Englische Handelspolitik (English Trade Policy) in 1881.[8] Draft 18CVI is a 66-page document, written in basic handwriting, double-sided. The handwriting does not look like the fine handwriting of a clerk of the period, and the draft suggests it was written by one individual, but not in a formal setting.[9] Whoever wrote 18CVI had an intimate knowledge of the needs of the people, the needs of the country, the possibilities for job creation, the numbers of staff required, the costs, everything. It was not a plan of forming a utopian suggestion – this was a draft written up by someone who understood the needs of the poor and how to help them. Bringing a draft like this to Cromwell was a wise move, for he had grown up in a common home (though not the poor blacksmith’s son that fiction gives us),[10] had been to prison very young, and fell upon the hardest of times when he left the French army in Italy in the early 1500s.[11] Cromwell was a man who had been to the bottom and now sat at the top.

Draft 18CVI goes into fine detail – those who could, had to report for work starting Easter 1537, though to Michelmas 1540, the first period that Cromwell set out for works to begin.[12] Those who could work had jobs planned out, works Cromwell knew needed to be done in England, as seen in his list of remembrances that still survive. Jobs would be created, such as making roads, digging sewers, repairing ports, jobs whose results would benefit the population. The workers would be paid a fair wage, along with meat and drink, and a clothing allowance they would earn. Salaries were already set out for those overseeing the projects. The costs of this new welfare state were set out as well; six forms of tax would cover the costs; ecclesiastical dignitaries would be taxed, then the temporal lords and laymen, taxed on different rates depending on their land values and moveables.[13] Doctors would be arranged for the sick and injured; medicine, beds, food and warm fires would be provided for those who needed them. Children between 5 -14 could be taken and apprenticed in jobs, but only those over 12 would be whipped for failure to work. All people had the chance to reform, with a three-strike system in place for those who failed to live up to expectations. One punishment for failure to work was to burn the ball of a man’s right hand in public.[14] Others included whipping and jail time for those unable to provide a good reason for not working.

Draft 18CVI broke down the costs involved, the men needed, the dates, the figures, the projects, everything for such an enormous plan. Whoever wrote 18CVI had a huge amount of official paperwork at their disposal. My general opinion is that someone working for Cromwell wrote this, as they would have access to his paperwork in his royal apartments as Secretary of State, the king’s chief minister, Vicegerent of Spirituals (head of the church under the king), along with his papers in his capacity as Master of the Rolls (keeper of England’s records). Cromwell believed in the reform of the Poor Law, could see how it would work, and how much it would cost.[15] The problem was that this parliamentary session, finally free of the King’s Great Matter, had much work to do. The immense Dissolution of the Monasteries was underway, and 10 years of experience with sporadic dissolutions gave Cromwell an insight into what was going to happen; many more people were about to become homeless, jobless, begging to survive when their monastic house closed. Also, the dissolutions meant that land previously unavailable would suddenly belong to the king, which was about to upset the feudal system in which land was still owned, bought and sold. Tensions were already high among the rich and noble men passing laws in parliament.[16] It was the right policy put to the wrong session. The 1536 parliament oversaw the new Act of Succession, the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act, the See of Rome Act and the Tithe Act (which was only repealed in 2018). An enormous change such as creating genuine care for the poor of England was a costly plan. This plan did not benefit the men voting for the Act and it was put to the vote at a time where nothing was certain, while the upheaval of religion affected everyone.

But who wrote draft 18CVI?

Enter William Marshall as the lead suspect. One of Cromwell’s agents, Marshall was an extreme reformist with an interest in the regulation of the monasteries. Marshall was a translator with a licence to print. He is not a well-known man, but his works between 1533 – 1537 leave a detailed story. In April 1534, Marshall sent Cromwell books on destroying Rome’s authority, and begging for money, as he often had none to live on or to print his books. Cromwell must have paid him, for Marshall printed three books in 1534. But in 1535, Marshall printed a book entitled The Forme and maner of subuention of helpyng of pore people, deuysed and practyced in the cytie of Hypres in Flaunders, whiche forme is autorised by the Emperour, and approued by the facultie of diuinite in Paris.[17] The book is dedicated to Anne Boleyn, and it is suggested that Marshall had met with Anne, probably through Cromwell. The book is a translation of work in Ypres, of the systems planned and being implemented in the Low Countries in the late 1520s. Many of the initial ideas which appear in draft 18CVI also appear in this translation. Cromwell must have been fond of Marshall’s work, as he then paid £34, the highest sum of the time for printing, for Marshall to translate and print The Defense of Peace, and scholars have argued Bishop Fisher himself had a copy for several days before burning it prior to his execution.[18] Marshall also printed several translations of Erasmus, Joye, Luther, and a book on idolatry and destroying relics, a book which caused much alarm in 1535, just as draft 18CVI was being created. The Images of a verye Chrysten bysshop, and of a counterfayte bysshop shocked many, including Thomas Audley, the country’s new Lord Chancellor and dear ally to Cromwell. Cromwell allowed the book to be published and did not seek to have Marshall punished for it, despite the book’s extreme Lutheran views.[19]

It is possible that Marshall wrote 18CVI, for he made the translation of the Flanders plan for Poor Laws. It is possible that Cromwell had Marshall write out the draft based on the Marshall’s translation work, and had another agent provide the relevant figures. It is unlikely that Cromwell wrote the draft himself; Cromwell had largely given up writing in a neat style by 1534, as he didn’t have the time. It is possible that a group of Cromwell agents got together to discuss and create 18CVI. Anyone of Cromwell’s army of clerks could have written the repetitive draft for his master, or for another man on their master’s behalf.

Back to one detail – Marshall’s translation of Poor Laws was dedicated to Anne Boleyn. It was common to dedicate a book to the monarchs reigning at the date of printing. Had Anne talked with Marshall about his translations? Maybe. Had Anne read these translations about Poor Laws or idolatry? Maybe. Anne had access to anything she wanted, and with several dozen of Marshall’s books in existence in London, maybe Anne Boleyn discussed these issues with Marshall.

What is known is that Cromwell and Anne loathed one another. They had an equal enthusiasm for the Reformation, which kept their mutual distaste peaceful until 1535.[20] Anne is known to have expressed her dislike of the dissolutions to Cromwell, both to his face and behind his back, and it is recorded that Anne mentioned helping the poor with proceeds of dissolutions.[21] I suppose it was easier to yell at the “commoner” than the king about such issues. There is no doubt Anne was well educated on the issues she discussed. There is no doubt that Anne mounted a challenge in April 1536, to wrestle power over the Reformation away from Cromwell and his allies. Anne did have her chaplain preach at the king and Cromwell, denouncing their behaviour before the entire congregation.[22] Anne’s champions Latimer and Alenius both told Elizabeth I of how her mother was angry the dissolutions of the monasteries.[23] Anne was said to have harassed men who came to see her, men who ran monastic houses, to make them pay for education. After Anne’s death, there was an increase in monks with university degrees.[24] Thomas Cranmer was away from court at the time of Anne’s power play after the parliament session, and wrote to Cromwell, asking what was going on, as Anne had seemed to jump into action in early 1536. Anne certainly did have powerful allies, a comfortable position that allowed her to advance her opinions, and access to information to help her make her case.

What is also known was that Marshall did not need anyone to give him ideas of Poor Laws. Marshall had read extensively, had travelled and met many Lutherans. Cromwell had unique access to all the fine details held in draft 18CVI, and personal knowledge of the realities of being poor. After Cromwell had Valor Ecclesiasticus completed in January 1535 (though some papers didn’t arrive until as late as September), Cromwell knew exactly the state of England’s people, he knew his population and how many were suffering.[25] Cromwell had already been planning Valor Ecclesiasticus and what might be done about England’s people for a year before the papers were finished by his inspectors. The Marshall translations came to Cromwell at the same time as Valor Ecclesiasticus, and draft 18CVI appears to have been ready to go through parliament by October 1535, only to suffer the parliamentary delay. William Marshall certainly didn’t do the math required to get the Act into parliament, and he had no access to the figures needed without Cromwell’s express permission. Marshall had no place in parliament, couldn’t present anything, and nor did he play any role in what eventually came into law, which was the creation of votes and debates in the House of Commons. In fact, there is nothing but suggestions made by Georg Schanz in 1881 that William Marshall was a strong candidate as the author, followed by a more cautious suggestion by Geoffrey Elton in The Economic History Review in 1953.[26]

So to suggest Anne wrote draft 18CVI, and either tried to present it or have Marshall present her work to Cromwell or parliament on her behalf, has no basis.  Also, Anne creating the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars 1536 as a result of her ideas doesn’t have any basis. The law that was pushed through was a compromise made by the all-male parliament (God, progress on that score has been very slow indeed).

What is a certainty is that Cromwell didn’t make up lies and kill Anne as a result of this legislation. In truth, Cromwell had seemed to run out of patience with Anne a year earlier. Anne’s marriage to King Henry had taken a huge toll on England, and the work levels Cromwell faced were so vast, he slept very rarely and worked himself into a life-threatening illness by 1534. Crucially, by the time that draft 18CVI was completed in autumn of 1535, Cromwell was already receiving letters from Stephen Gardiner in France, talking about rumours that Anne was an adulterer.[27] Lutheran and pro-Anne supporter Alexander Alenius heard of these rumours and letters, and was in London as a guest of Cromwell and Cranmer when the rumours started to circle the English court. Cromwell, claims Alenius, had told the king of these French rumours before Christmas 1535,[28] and the barrage of rumours and slander soon began behind Anne’s back. By February 1536, Chapuys was already writing to Lady Mary, assuring her that her position would soon improve.[29] Jane Seymour had been slid in place, now under the advisement of Sir Nicholas Carew, and Anne’s ladies-in-waiting were waiting and listening.[30] Anne had argued with many men at court over their greed and their cash-grab of the dissolution of the monasteries. By the time Cromwell and Anne were openly arguing,[31] her downfall was already months in the planning. While Anne’s downfall can appear swift, the gossipers and the cowardly underminers of the court seemed to have already pounced on Anne’s position after her miscarriage in January 1536.[32] While the tales of the what/where/when/how/why of Anne’s downfall timeline can vary between reports, Cromwell’s dislike of Anne began long before the Parliament sitting in 1536. (If you want solid information about Anne Boleyn’s life, read anything by Claire Ridgway).

Thomas Cromwell almost certainly engineered Anne Boleyn’s downfall. Whether Henry knew her adultery charges were false remains largely unknown, and there is little to suggest he cared too much about the truth when it came to trials. While Anne Boleyn sat on the throne, Cromwell had been working hard to justify her as the queen, and to make her daughter a legitimate royal heir. Cromwell became the chief minister to the king, had much control in parliament and he was the Vicegerent, controlling the church in its entirety. But Cromwell was still a commoner; not even Sir Thomas Cromwell for all his work.[33] Anne arguing over the monastery funds (which Henry wanted, not Cromwell) needed to stop so Cromwell could continue the cause. An important fact to note is the monastery dissolutions were not required for a country following the Reformation.[34] That was Henry’s grab for power.

Cromwell was no saint, and even I, as an ardent Cromwell lover, will say what he did to Anne was wrong. But I definitely don’t see any evidence that Cromwell killed Anne because she wrote the legislation of the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars 1536. While Anne was doing all she could with weakened power in 1536, this law was not one of hers. No time period in history has been kind to women, and the 1530s wasn’t kind of anyone at all. As it was, the 1536 Act didn’t work,[35] it fell over swiftly, and no aid was rolled out, with the country split into the Pilgrimage of Grace by October 1536. It was not until the late 1590s that any real Poor Laws came into effect, and they too were weak.

I would gladly be corrected to say Anne Boleyn wrote draft 18CVI if the evidence proved it. It would be wonderful to see women’s plans and ideas being implemented in powerful ways. The time period was not filled with stupid women; women had plans of their own, but men weren’t listening (they still aren’t). I would support the idea that Anne was trying to push parliamentary reform if there was any proof of this, but I haven’t seen it. What has been offered in the book that inspired this whole question did not offer me a new source to check. I would gladly update this if that changed, and I could read primary sources showing the truth. Anne had power, but not in parliament, and by the time the Poor Laws went through parliament, Anne was already losing favour. Anne Boleyn did not die because she tried to push Poor Laws through the government. Anne was killed for a lot of unjustified reasons; she died unfairly, needlessly, callously, but it wasn’t because she wrote 18CVI.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

PS – I have no desire to argue, denigrate other work, or have a point to prove. I am always happy to accept corrections, as I only care about facts, because it makes fiction writing far more interesting. I also didn’t write this to promote my own books, as I have a firm character in my books who writes Cromwell’s drafts for him. This article pushes no agenda on my behalf.

[1] Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 1948

[2] Parliamentary Records 1536 22 Henry VIII c.12

[3] Parliamentary Records 1536 27 Hen VIII c. 25

[4] Parliamentary Records 1536 27 Hen VIII c. 25

[5] Parliamentary Records 1536 (28 Hen. 8)

[6] British Library MS Royal 18 C VI

[7] British Library MS Royal 18 C VI

[8] G. Schanz, Englische Handelspolitik gegen Ende des Miittelalters (Leipzig, 1881)

[9] British Library MS Royal 18 C VI

[10] State Papers 60/6 f.6, LP 8 no.11

[11] The novels of Matteo Bandello Bishop of Agen now first done into English prose and verse. J. Payne 1890

[12] British Library MS Royal 18 C VI

[13] British Library MS Royal 18 C VI

[14] British Library MS Royal 18 C VI

[15] British Library MS Royal 18 C VI

[16] Ives, Genesis of the Statue of Uses

[17] STC 26119

[18] LP 523 vol.9

[19] LP vol. 9, letter 358, 13 September 1535

[20] Calendar of State Papers Spain June 1535 no. 170

[21] Calendar of State Papers Spain June 1535 no. 170

[22] Ives, Anne Boleyn, 2005, p309

[23] Calendar of State Papers Elizabeth I 1558-1559, no. 1303, 527, 532

[24] Dowling, William Latymer’s Chronickille of Anne Bulleyne

[25] Robinson, The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 as Evidence of Agrarian Output

[26] Elton, The Economic History Review, 1953, p65

[27] Calendar of State Papers Elizabeth I 1558-1559, no. 1303, 527, 532

[28] Calendar of State Papers Elizabeth I 1558-1559, no. 1303, 527, 532

[29] Spanish Calendar 24 Feb 1536, 5 ii no.55 at 123

[30] Ives, Anne Boleyn, 2005, p332

[31] Spanish Calendar, 6 June 1536, 5 no.61

[32] LP x 284

[33] MacCulloch, Cromwell, p317

[34] Lutherus, Martinus (1521). On Monastic Vows – De votis monasticis

[35] Slack, The English Poor Law 1531-1782 p59

Celebrate the release of Thomas Cromwell Part three with two free Kindle books this week only

NO ARMOUR AGAINST FATE is officially available worldwide in paperback and on Kindle/Kindle app on all devices. To celebrate release day, the first two installments of the series, FRAILTY OF HUMAN AFFAIRS and SHAKING THE THRONE are free to download on Amazon from October 28 to November 1, inclusive.* No need to have a Kindle or be a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, as long as you download the free Kindle app, you can read for free on any device you like.

FRAILTY OF HUMAN AFFAIRS covers the story of Thomas Cromwell and Nicòla Frescobaldi through the early Reformation and the King’s Great Matter between 1529 – 1533.

Click here to read more about FRAILTY OF HUMAN AFFAIRS

Click here to download Book One for free

SHAKING THE THRONE covers the bloody change in fortunes for Anne Boleyn as Thomas Cromwell and Nicòla Frescobaldi plot a queen’s downfall, killing many in the process from 1533 – 1536.

Click here to read more about SHAKING THE THRONE

Click here to download Book Two for free

NO ARMOUR AGAINST FATE covers the final years of Thomas Cromwell’s reign in England as he and Nicòletta Frescobaldi try to find a new wife for King Henry between 1537 – 1540. Follow Cromwell, Frescobaldi, Cranmer, Wyatt, the Seymour brother, the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, Bishop Gardiner,  Sadler, Wriothesley, Rich and more as they race to either end, or save, Cromwell’s life.

Check out links to major characters on this site, and more Cromwell Adventure posts will be popping up here in the coming days.

*all links are for Amazon US, but promo is running on all Amazon sites worldwide. Sale runs 00:01 October 28 until 23:59 November 1, PST.

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 12: The Pillar Perish’d: Thomas Wyatt Laments Thomas Cromwell’s Death

In preparation of my final Thomas Cromwell book out next week, I came across Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet, which he wrote just after Cromwell’s execution on 28 July 1540.

The pillar perish’d is whereto I leant,
The strongest stay of my unquiet mind;
The like of it no man again can find,
From east to west still seeking though he went,
To mine unhap. For hap away hath rent
Of all my joy the very bark and rind:
And I, alas, by chance am thus assign’d
Daily to mourn, till death do it relent.
But since that thus it is by destiny,
What can I more but have a woeful heart;
My pen in plaint, my voice in careful cry,
My mind in woe, my body full of smart;
And I myself, myself always to hate,
Till dreadful death do ease my doleful state.

Poor Wyatt obviously suffered greatly when he stood on the scaffold with his friend on the day of his messy execution. Cromwell had known Wyatt’s father for about twenty years by this stage, and Wyatt became close friends with Cromwell at a young age, their shared passion of Italy a driving force. Only five months after Cromwell’s death, Wyatt was in the Tower himself, along with Sir Ralph Sadler, a muddled affair based on nothing more than being Cromwell allies. Both were acquitted, Wyatt proving himself in court, Sadler convincing the King they, and Cromwell himself, were innocent of any wrong doing. King Henry then made his claim that Cromwell “was the most faithful servant I ever had.”

Sadly, Wyatt lived only two years longer than Cromwell, dying of illness in October 1542, aged only 39.

While Wyatt’s beautiful sonnet loses it poetry when translated to modern English, I have included a copy. in case middle English doesn’t come easy to you.

My pillar of support has perished,
The strongest influence on my troubled mind;
I cannot find another to replace that pillar,
From east to west, you would not find someone to ease my misfortune. By chance, or fortune
Has torn away my inner and outer joy:
I, alas, have no choice
but to mourn daily, until death relieves me.
What more can I have but a woeful heart;
The pen I use, and my voice, cry,
My mind woeful and my body in pain;
And I must hate myself,
Until death relieves me of my misery.

Source: Yeowell, James, Ed. The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt.
London: George Bell and Sons, 1904. 18.

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 11: The Truth and Myths of Thomas Cromwell

The Truth and Myths of Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal of England, has enjoyed a revival as a popular Tudor character in recent years after being reshaped into a hero. But was Thomas Cromwell ever a villain? After his execution in 1540, all mention of Cromwell falls away, only to be plucked from the archives in the 1930s and made into the villain who brought about all the Protestant changes made by Henry VIII. Did Cromwell really do all this work on his own? Was he a religious fanatic? How does a common-born man come out of nowhere to rise to the top of English society in one decade? Simply, Cromwell didn’t; he had a remarkable tale before he was noticed by Henry VIII.

A child born in Putney, to common parents, suffering poverty and violence?

Much of Cromwell’s childhood has been imagined or created from basic details, as there hasn’t been a lot of information available until now. It’s nice to think of a boy shrugging off his low-born life and escaping to Europe. But the story is more complex.

Born in around 1485, Cromwell’s father was an Irishman named Walter Cromwell alias Smith, a yeoman of many trades, particularly running an alehouse, and before the court 47 times in fifteen years for breaking the assize of ale (other words, selling ale overpriced, poor quality, etc). Cromwell’s mother was Katherine Meverell, and the Meverells of Throwley were a gentry family, making Cromwell a little higher in life than assumed. Throughout this life Cromwell did favours for the Meverells and their relatives, giving them plum positions wherever they lived. Cromwell’s parents were kindly people, not cruel as sometimes portrayed.

Cromwell never forgot where he came from, or who he knew. A local boy named Thomas Megges grew up to be one of Cromwell’s many proteges, as did Thomas Mundy, all Putney boys who were of school age together. When Cromwell got elevated to the peerage in 1536, he was made Baron of Wimbledon, and his wealth and lands grew right through the very area where he was born. His wife was a Putney girl, and his sisters and their families were paramount throughout Cromwell’s life.

The ruffian’s “lost years’ in Italy?

The word ruffian gets used far too often when describing Cromwell, but it’s the only word Cromwell himself used to describe his childhood behaviour, and Eustace Chapuys wrote that Cromwell admitted to time in prison before leaving Putney. In approximately 1500, young Cromwell did leave Putney in search of adventure, but his time in Italy is documented through records, business transactions and by an Italian novelist named Matteo Bandello. Rather than fleeing his father, Cromwell instead left for an adventure, and ended up taking a place as a mercenary in the French army, who were sent to fight the Battle of Gagliano, Naples, on 29 December 1503. The French lost, as were France’s hopes forever in Naples, but Cromwell survived the killing and made his way to Florence. Cromwell was found on the streets of Florence, starving and homeless, by Francesco Frescobaldi, head of a wealthy mercantile family, who was amazed to find a fluent English speaker on the streets. The novelist Bandello tells a great tale of how Cromwell is taken into the Frescobaldi family.

Cromwell had found a home with Frescobaldi, who smuggled goods from Egypt and the Ottomans into northern Europe, making huge sums in the process, even in league with King Henry VII, making England wealthy. Cromwell learned the art of trading wool and wine and had the chance to travel to the Low Countries to attend trade fairs. Francesco’s brother Leonardo traded out of Southampton, giving Cromwell valuable contacts for a new life back in England. Cromwell made many friends and business allies for the next 30 years. Cromwell also met John Hacket in Calais in 1505, and George Elyot in 1512, both living in the Low Countries, giving him access to a wide range of people. By this time, the men were all corresponding as close friends in fluent French. During the ten years in Frescobaldi’s employ, Cromwell lived in Florence and Antwerp, learned Italian, Spanish and “self-consciously elegant” Latin, learned how to defraud the Pope by smuggling goods, learned to chase down debtors in the Low Countries, became at ease with the snobbery of the cloth trade, and created a huge web of friends and colleagues, none of whom he ever forgot. Cromwell started vast libraries of books, with many of the greatest Italian and humanist works of the era in his collections. He was the Italianate-Englishman and determined to be the best Italian in England when he returned home in 1514. But records also show Cromwell back in Rome in 1514, working as a London-based lawyer in a dispute. For the next five years, Cromwell made himself a tidy sum working as a lawyer, living six months of the year in London, the other six months in Rome, despite having undertaken no legal training.

In his time in England between Roman visits, Cromwell married Elizabeth Wyckes in around 1519, with their son Gregory born in about 1520. Cromwell also had a ward, Ralph Sadler, living in his house as his own son, and also nurtured his sister’s son Richard, who took on Cromwell’s surname. By 1523, Cromwell had leased Austin Friars, a manor in the heart of the Italian community of London, and had two more children, Anne and Grace. He could live a wealthy life as a lawyer and merchant, but also gained a place working for the powerful and noble Grey family. But more lay ahead – Cromwell got himself elected into parliament in 1523, thanks to Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, at a time when parliament rarely opened. Cromwell gave his first speech advising against Henry VIII’s possible war with France.

A sulking, unknown fixer and monastery-destroyer for Cardinal Wolsey?

In 1524, Cromwell was admitted to the bar, recognised as a lawyer by Gary’s Inn in London. He had worked for noblemen, clergymen and merchants in his time, so to be recommended to Cardinal Wolsey was no surprise. But Wolsey needed someone special; he needed someone fluent in Italian, a keen eye on money, and he needed a man who could fight his way through prolonged legal issues. Failing monasteries needed to be inspected and closed, to finance Wolsey’s vanity projects – large colleges built in his name, the completion of Hampton Court Palace, and the finishing of a giant tomb made by revered Italian tradesmen. Cromwell could well deal with Italians, but closing monasteries brought him into physical and legal battles with the gentry and the locals alike. Yet Cromwell emerged with even more people to add to his ever-widening group of friends who wrote to him throughout the rest of his life. Cromwell has a charm that saw even monks ejected from their monasteries still writing to him on friendly terms. This job also brought its enemies, a price Cromwell felt willing to pay.

During this time, Cromwell met many men interested in evangelical reform. While he worked for a Catholic cardinal and kept his religious affiliations quiet, Cromwell aided Reformation leaders and had them installed the new Cambridge College, helping reformers such as Thomas Cranmer, Robert Barnes and Miles Coverdale, all religious men who would feature in Cromwell’s rise and downfall.

Cromwell’s relationship with Thomas Wolsey grew in the short five years they worked side by side, and this brought Cromwell into contact with many noblemen such as the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and met his friend-turned-nemesis Stephen Gardiner, a friendship that would spiral out of control in later years. Cromwell and Wolsey became close friends and allies in a short time, a relationship Cromwell would never forget.

Abandoning his closest friend for personal gain?

Did Cromwell step over Wolsey’s body to take his place beside the king? Absolutely not. Wolsey was Henry VIII’s closest friend and Lord Chancellor of England. When Henry decided he needed a marriage annulment, it was Wolsey’s job to procure the desired legal and ecclesiastical paperwork. Anne Boleyn would take Katherine of Aragon’s place, but Anne was only single because Wolsey forbade her marriage to Henry Percy of Northumberland years before. Anne Boleyn hated Wolsey and vice versa.

A legatine court needed to be set up, the judges Wolsey, and Cardinal Campeggio from Italy. Here Cromwell could again be helpful. But 1529 would not be a kind year, as Cromwell had lost his wife and daughters to sweating sickness and Gregory was sent away for his education. Anne Boleyn was ready to be queen, Henry wanted Katherine ousted, and Wolsey and Campeggio simply couldn’t make the charges stick against Queen Katherine, a woman unmatched in all of Europe. Cromwell helplessly stood by  and watched Wolsey fail in the most public arena the 16th century had witnessed as the legatine court fell into disarray. When Henry denounced Wolsey and banished him 200 miles north to York, Cromwell had to stay in London. But he did not advance himself, rather Cromwell dared to face the king and beg for Wolsey’s return to power and favour, the only man to do so. Cromwell did a good job too, softening Henry’s angry heart. But Wolsey’s greed got the better of him, and even Cromwell’s brilliant mind could not save him, nor could he be with Wolsey when he died of illness in Leicester in November 1529. But King Henry had seen Cromwell now, seen what he could do. Cromwell also put his contacts to work, and got himself into parliament in late 1529, the first sitting in almost seven years, and tried to build a new life out of grief. All he had worked for had gone; his family was dead, Wolsey was disgraced, and his own legal practice had dried up due to busy times with the cardinal. In this time, Cromwell had a brief affair with an unknown woman, resulting in the birth of his daughter Jane. While illegitimate, Cromwell paid for Jane’s quality care and upbringing for the rest of his life.

Cromwell made being gay illegal?

In 1533, Cromwell did write the Buggery Act, a law designed to hurt men accused of the crime of sodomy. The law was created as an easy way to arrest men, primarily priests, as there was never any evidence to submit, and those arrested could not defend themselves. It was used to destroy men who would not submit to Henry’s new church, rather than what happened in bedrooms around England. Buggery was an immoral sin, but now also a legal crime, punishable by death. This law punished almost no one, while his larger legal changes, such as cresting the Church of England, making Henry VIII the head of religion over the Pope, and annulling the king;s marriage yo Katherine of Aragon all within a year.

A meteoric rise to power as Anne Boleyn’s “man?”

When Wolsey died, the king needed a new man at his side, and he called on Thomas Cromwell. But he was not an unknown to many; the Attorney-General sang his praises, his friend Stephen Gardiner was to be the king’s secretary, and ambassadors across Europe had already worked with him in the past. Cromwell was 45 years old when he caught the king’s eye and was no stranger, but a well-travelled and well-skilled man of many trades.

The Pope would never allow Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell’s plans were simple; bypass the Church completely and start a Royal Supremacy over religion. He had his friend Thomas Cranmer elevated to be the archbishop, declared Henry the Leader of the Church in England, and ruled that the clergymen of England had to swear allegiance to Henry instead of the Pope or risk losing their heads. It was a pragmatic solution to a problem Henry could not solve in usual channels. Cromwell promised to make Henry the richest man in England and Henry was sold on Cromwell’s unorthodox plan. This allowed the Reformation to take hold in England, and by having Catholic men like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher killed. Suddenly, the Pope’s voice began to lose its power. To everyone who already knew Thomas Cromwell, none of this came as a surprise. But the nobles, in places of power due to birth and ancient customs were stunned by this new man.

Cromwell and Cranmer worked together, creating Henry as the Head of the Church, able to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell wanted the Reformation in England; he could even recite much of the New Testament by heart. Anne Boleyn wanted the Reformation so she could be queen, and yet Cromwell was not “Queen Anne’s man,” not in truth. For Cromwell loathed Anne and her family but had her married to Henry in 1533 anyway, with Queen Katherine banished. When Anne produced a daughter and then several miscarriages, Henry wanted out, and Cromwell had no qualms about destroying another queen. Over the course of 1530 – 1536, Cromwell did not hesitate in doing the king’s bidding. It was business, it was a pragmatic approach to issues that arose. Now the King’s Chief Minister, the Principal Secretary, Vicegerent of Religious Matters, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Cromwell had England in his grip. But not all his new laws were terrible; many helped cities with water, sewage, and food for the poor. Cromwell fed 200 people twice daily from his own kitchens. He passed laws making sure churches helped the homeless and jobless, he changed tax laws meaning the noblemen and merchants paid to fund alms-houses. Cromwell walked a tightrope like no one else.

Cromwell made up lies about Anne Boleyn to kill her?

In 1536, Henry wanted a new wife and Cromwell had the task of destroying Queen Anne. Queen Katherine had just died of cancer, and Queen Anne had lost another child; Henry could wait no more. No man called to sit in judgement of Anne for crimes could go against the king, and Cromwell’s best friend Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury. Cromwell had allies all over court and country, and Anne did not. It is unknown who suggested Anne was unfaithful, Henry or Cromwell. But Henry did show genuine shock when he heard Anne was found guilty of seducing four men, plus the extra charge of incest with her brother. The plan could have been a possible slander of adulterous rumours which blew out of control when people got nervous. A legal mind like Cromwell could easily spin any testimony to sound like Anne Boleyn was a witch. Did Cromwell orchestrate Anne’s death? He did. Did he show remorse? Not in any outward sense, though to go through the whole process could not have been easy for any man to bear. Once Anne was buried, Cromwell assumed her father’s role in as Lord Privy Seal of England, giving him wide-ranging powers in every respect.

The Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion was all Cromwell’s fault?

In late 1536, as Henry basked in the glow of his new wife Queen Jane, upwards of 40,000 men marched toward London, demanding to be a Catholic nation again. Their enemy? Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s had been back to his old tricks – closing monasteries in order to reap the financial gain, albeit the money went in Henry’s pocket, not his own. Henry loved destroying the Catholic Church’s power and taking their lands and wealth. Cromwell’s inspectors raided monasteries, abbeys and convents across England and Wales, calling them houses of sin, fraud and debauchery. Relics and shrines were pulled down, unnecessary under Reformation prayer. Cromwell’s new laws were the cause of the rebellion, and he wore the blood of the over 200 clergymen, nobles and commoners executed when the rebellion got quashed during sporadic fighting between October 1536 and March 1537.

But 1537 wasn’t a total loss for Cromwell. His investment in Jane Seymour’s womb paid dividends when she gave birth to Prince Edward. Sadly, Jane’s death was as hard on Cromwell as anyone. Just three months before Queen Jane’s death, Cromwell married his son Gregory to Jane’s sister, Lady Elizabeth. Gregory’s sons were first cousins to the prince, but after Queen Jane died, all the glory the Cromwell’s could have won also died away.

Gregory Cromwell – rapist?

A tricky truth/myth to dispel. In autumn 1538, Cromwell was busy with the White Rose trials, having the final men of Plantagenet blood arrested and executed. But in Lewes, where Gregory Cromwell lived with his wife Elizabeth, their new-born son, and another son on the way, a scandal emerged, and Gregory’s father stepped in when the situation became grave. Bishop Sampson of Chichester wrote a letter stating that Gregory could go to church for punishment for a serious offence. Bishops could only demand punishment for heresy and sexual crimes. Gregory was no religious man and heresy was not in his nature. That only led to one other cause. Having sex with maids was considered a routine sin in Tudor times, but a sexual charge requiring clerical punishment was considered serious, such as rape or buggery. Gregory angrily refused a light punishment and refused to accept what happened. What did happen? The crime is not recorded, but in doing this very simple acknowledgement in church, it meant Gregory could avoid “the possibility of further business.” Gregory’s “honesty” was affected, and so ruined his wife’s “reputation.” At the same time, Lady Elizabeth wrote to Cromwell in London and said she would no longer live under the same roof as Gregory, and she moved away. Gregory and Elizabeth did not reunite for more than six months. After spending a fortune to set up Gregory in Lewes Priory, Cromwell had to forfeit the lot and move Gregory and Elizabeth to Leeds Castle, where they patched up their marriage.

Cromwell brought about his own downfall when picking Anna of Cleves?

When Cromwell’s downfall came, it did not come from a gradual decline in power or a bolt from the blue, rather a strange mix. In April 1539, Cromwell fell ill and wrote to Henry of suffering an ague (malaria) and tertian fever (malaria fever that comes in waves every two/three days). This illness really struck a knife in the heart of Cromwell’s hard work. He had not long released the latest version of the bible, nicknamed the Cranmer Bible, though it was Cromwell’s bible; he and Cranmer were even on the cover. But when Cromwell fell ill, the Duke of Norfolk and many traditionalist clergymen in power got together and wrote the Six Articles, six points of clarification needed in religion, mostly around transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. While Cromwell was unable to move for a month, Cranmer watched hopelessly as the king took on board this Catholic doctrine and tried to mix them with the Reformation ideals. Religion was still a mess, and the Reformation took a big step backwards in a short time. Cromwell spent the rest of his life trying to undo the Six Articles. Archbishop Cranmer was forced to send away his German wife and daughter and never saw them again, lest they all be punished, possibly executed.

The King wanted a new wife, and Europe was low on princesses and duchesses available and/or willing. The best was Anna von der Marck, Duchess of Cleves. Anna’s brother, Duke Wilhelm of Julich-Cleves-Berg was like Henry; he was not strictly Catholic or a Lutheran, he was a middle way. But Anna’s sister Sybylla was married to the Elector of Saxony, a Lutheran German state with the powerful Schmalkaldic (Protestant) League and an army. England needed allies and the Schmalkaldic League looked were perfect. But negotiations frequently stalled, and when Henry liked the look of Anna’s painting and agreed to marry her, the countries still had no formal alliance.

It took Anna two months to travel to England, and in that time, all hell broke loose. Duke Wilhelm laid claim to the duchy of Guelders, held by Emperor Charles V. Charles travelled to his lands in the Low Countries, and threatened war with Julich-Cleves-Berg if Wilhelm did not step back from Guelders. France, bordering these two, urged peace and wanted an alliance with the Emperor. Suddenly Europe’s largest Catholic nations were becoming allies, and Henry was informally allied to Cleves by his marriage. Poor Anna had nothing to do with this, but by marrying her, and bedding her, Henry would be allied with Anna’s brother and must be dragged into war. England would be decimated. To top it off, the Elector of Saxony still hadn’t allied with Henry, so even the Schmalkaldic League would not necessarily be England’s ally.

By selecting Anna, Cromwell had accidentally brought England to the brink of war while Christendom hung in the balance. Cromwell was a brilliant legal mind, so Henry and Anna’s marriage contract was so tight nothing could be done. Henry was forced to marry Anna, or Cleves would turn against England, possibly alongside the Schmalkaldic army and all of Germany. But marrying Anna meant England became the enemy of the Holy Roman Empire and possibly France.

Henry’s dislike to Anna was obvious, but it was not about her looks, rather she was the anchor to a war England couldn’t win. The men of Europe postured and moved troops around for months, by which time, Henry was totally infuriated, and trapped in a complex scenario where no one would even write to England, fearing they might light the spark which started war. Henry needed to be free, he needed an annulment, and he needed someone to take the fall. But Henry had just given Cromwell the honour he always dreamed of; Cromwell was now Earl of Essex. Cromwell was a high-ranking nobleman, the Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord Privy Seal, Secretary of State, Vicegerent of England and Ireland, Chancellor of the Exchequer, head statesman in the House of Lords and much more. But to show the Emperor that England was not a threat, someone needed to suffer.

Thomas Cromwell, traitor?

Cromwell was arrested on June 10, 1540, for being a traitor. He had said to Stephen Gardiner, one night at home at Austin Friars, that he would not turn from the Reformation, even if Henry did, and that Cromwell would fight the king if necessary. Angry words from a man who never seemed to recover from malaria. Was it treason? Technically yes, by Cromwell’s own laws of never speaking against the king, even though he did not mean he would literally fight against Henry, only argue for his religion. Cromwell’s long-time servant Thomas Wriothesley betrayed him and told the king that Cromwell was talking about Henry’s impotence with Queen Anna, sending the king into a rage. More rumours were thrown on the pile – that Cromwell wanted to marry Princess Mary and become king, that Cromwell was colluding with extreme Lutherans in Zurich, and was a heretic by failing to enforce the Six Articles of religion. By laws Cromwell wrote in the early 1530s, a subject could be attainted without trial and sentenced to death. Cromwell was stripped of all titles, but Henry still allowed him to be beheaded, rather than more horrific penalties. In his prison cell, Cromwell wrote out all the paperwork needed to prove that Henry was not truly married to Anna due to her pre-contract in childhood, plus lack of consummation and lack of inward consent. Once the paperwork was done, Cromwell lost his head on July 28; all he worked for scattered to the wind as Henry married Katheryn Howard on a whim. Gregory and Elizabeth, plus Richard Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wyatt, and countless more mourned the loss of Cromwell, but many rejoiced.

It was said Henry regretted the loss of Cromwell within a month of the arrest; Cromwell was still in the Tower when the king realised how much Cromwell did every day (while putting up with Henry’s atrocious leg smell), but it was too late to back down. By Christmas, Henry was angry at his councillors for lying about Cromwell’s crimes. Henry nor England really saw any kind of success after that, and no man could hold Cromwell’s position, instead, dozens were brought in to fill the void. Henry died a fat old man and Cromwell was forgotten, and all except for one portrait of him, hidden away by Ralph Sadler, was destroyed.

To commemorate the anniversary of Cromwell’s unjust execution, I am having a free kindle promo on Amazon worldwide from July 27 – July 31. Both novels in the Queenmaker Series, Frailty of Human Affairs, and Shaking the Throne, all about Thomas Cromwell and Nicóla Frescobaldi, will be free to download. Book three, the final chapter of Cromwell’s life, No Armour Against Fate, will be available from October 28.