A Cromwell Adventure – Part 2: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell as played by James Frain in Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’

Thomas Cromwell – lawyer, politician, religious reformer, mercenary, charmer, merchant, party thrower, country changer, money-lender, queenmaker. When people hear the name Cromwell, they think of Oliver Cromwell. Wrong century. Thomas Cromwell is the only man in English history you need to know. He managed to destroy the Catholic Church’s hold in England and their greatest queen all at once, and became a common man who took over England, and the nobility couldn’t do a thing about it. Here is a short and simple introduction.

Cromwell’s birth is not recorded, but thought around 1485, in Putney, to mother Katherine and father Walter, a blacksmith, merchant and brewery owner. He was simply another common baby born, along with two sisters, around Putney Hill.  In his own words, he was a ruffian as a child. At some stage, Cromwell left home and travelled to France, became be a mercenary in the French army, marched into Italy, and fought as a soldier in the battle of Garigliano in December 1503, all by about 18 years old.

Then Cromwell’s life turned around. Starving and homeless, Cromwell found himself in Florence, where he met a banker named Francesco Frescobaldi, an English-speaking merchant who took him into his household, giving him a home and a job. Working as a merchant on Frescobaldi’s behalf, it is believed Cromwell worked successfully in Florence and the Low Countries (what is now parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). He created his own network of merchants in English, Italian and Flemish, though very little is known of this empire-building part of his life. But he is recorded as a patient in a Roman hospital in June 1514, and Cromwell pops up in Vatican archives as an agent for the Archbishop of York and working for the Roman Rota (like a Catholic Church court system).

Cromwell doesn’t appear anywhere until his name appears back in England, when he married Elizabeth Wyckes in 1515, a girl who also grew up in Putney, but was a widow after her first husband, a Yeoman of the Guard, passed away. Three children came into Cromwell’s life – Gregory in about 1520, Anne and then Grace soon after.

Cromwell found himself a job in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. England’s most powerful man, a favourite of King Henry. Henry was inclined to leave the heavy lifting in the kingdom to Wolsey. With his knowledge as a lawyer (yes, that happened somewhere along the way), in 1517 Cromwell returned to Rome to visit Pope Leo X on Wolsey’s behalf, where he was said to have charmed the Pope into seeing him and granted the papal bull (like a decree or patent) he required for his master. He returned a year later to again see the Pope, such was Wolsey’s trust in Cromwell.

By 1520 Cromwell was doing well, in both legal and merchants circles in England. He continued his work for Wolsey, but also earned money as a lawyer and cloth merchant, and in 1523, won a seat in parliament (the where’s and how’s are not firmly established). But parliament was dissolved (Henry and Wolsey disliked people making decisions for them), and Cromwell was accepted to Gray’s Inn (like passing the bar for lawyers) in 1524.

Cromwell took on more work and started to become more powerful under Wolsey at this time. In 1525 he did Wolsey’s dirty work and closed corrupt monasteries, to redirect their money into building The King’s School, Ipswich (now Ipswich School) and Cardinal College in Oxford (now Christ Church, part of Oxford University). Cromwell was one of Wolsey’s council members by 1526 and his secretary in 1529. Then things took their dramatic turn.

Thomas Cromwell, as played by Mark Rylance in BBC’s ‘Wolf Hall’

Around 1528-1529, Cromwell’s wife and two daughters all died of sweating sickness (a bit like the plague without the boils). King Henry was trying to divorce Queen Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey and another Cardinal, Lorenzo Campeggio from Rome, sat in legatine court to decide on whether the King could gain an annulment. When the court folded, Henry turned on his well-known rage, and Wolsey was fired, banished and humiliated. Cromwell was determined not to suffer the fate of his master and friend.

Anne Boleyn hated Wolsey with a passion, and Cromwell moved out of the Cardinal’s shadow and charmed his way into working directly for King Henry. In late 1530, Wolsey died on his way to execution (you couldn’t make this up) and Cromwell set to making Anne Boleyn queen, and also breaking the stranglehold of the Catholic faith in England. Countries like Germany (or the areas that make up modern Germany) were reforming, creating the Protestant faith, freeing Catholics from the Latin scriptures and suffocating nature of the Church. Cromwell found that reforming the Church was the way to ensure Anne Boleyn could be queen. Cromwell got himself into a prime role beside the king, and got himself back into parliament, and completed a series of law changes which stripped the Church’s power and made annulment possible (I’m massively over-simplifying here). Anne Boleyn gained her crown in June 1533, and Princess Elizabeth was born three months later. The Pope had not annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, but by now the Church of England existed and Henry was the leader, not the Pope. Cromwell was a hero in Henry’s eyes, and hated by pretty much everyone else.

In 1534, Cromwell was King Henry’s chief minister, plus in parliament, and running the royal treasury, the royal jewel house, the steward of Westminster and many other titles. With the chance to continue reforming religion, Cromwell had Henry’s blessing to continue with destroying the Catholic Church, interrogating and killing clergymen, weeding out corruption, and famously had everyone in England swear an oath stating Henry ruled the Church, not the Pope. When famous haters of reform, and Queen Katherine supporters, Sir Thomas More (now Saint Thomas More) and Bishop John Fisher (now also a saint) refused to take the oath, Cromwell had them both beheaded in June 1535. The King appointed Cromwell Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General of England, and Cromwell conducted an extensive census, so he could start taxing monasteries around the nation (the monasteries had money pouring from every gap, powerful in their communities and known for corruption). By now, Cromwell was unpopular with most, but loved by King Henry ever more. Cromwell had total power over the Church in England, which made him as powerful as Henry himself.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A recreation kept by The National Trust for Scotland in Aberdeenshire

Viceregent Cromwell passed a law suppressing lesser monasteries in England, so their funds could be directed to Henry’s accounts. Queen Anne did not like this, and turned on her precious Cromwell, forgetting he was the power that made her Queen. She had her chaplain preach against him before the royal court, making him an enemy. Anne wanted the monastery money sent to the people for education and charity, while Cromwell followed Henry’s orders and gave it to the royal accounts. Already Anne Boleyn had failed in giving Henry a son that she promised, and now she had Cromwell, England’s real power, against her.

With Jane Seymour, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting, catching Henry’s eye, Anne became unpopular with the King (the only person who liked her). So when Henry wanted a new queen, a pretty blonde girl was ready, and Cromwell was more than ready to destroy the queen had made only a few years earlier. He had his power and the dissolution of religious control. Anne Boleyn had to die.

Cromwell had Anne Boleyn arrested and tried in May 1536 of adultery, with her brother George, Henry’s close friends and staff Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and court musician Mark Smeaton. Also tried was Thomas Wyatt, court poet and diplomat, but he was a friend of Cromwell, and was spared. In court, Cromwell had the judges find Anne and the men all guilty of adultery and sentenced to death, all with the King’s blessing. All the heads quickly rolled and Henry married Jane Seymour ten days later.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A 1859 engraving published in Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, Germany.

Now Baron Cromwell and Lord Privy Seal, Cromwell enjoyed total control, passing more laws destroying anything Catholic related, and even great monasteries in England were pulled down. The Church was pulled from the people and Protestant changes were forced upon everyone. Henry got his beloved son from Jane Seymour, only to have her die in childbirth in July 1537. But Cromwell had his own troubles as the commoners were marching in their tens of thousands, calling for his head over the changes being made to their country. The famous Pilgrimage of Grace against Cromwell failed, and English Bibles turned out over England while Catholic relics were gathered and destroyed. By mid 1539, the Catholic Church was more or less wiped out thanks to Cromwell’s extensive law changes. But Henry was sick of the changes, unhappy with the unrest in England, and in need of wife number 4.

The famous sole surviving painting of Thomas Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It is said it was hidden to protect it from being destroyed – but by whom?

Queenmaker Cromwell found Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, from a Protestant nation (Cleves was tiny country/province now in Germany), but Henry, now a fat old man, said his new German bride was too ugly for him (again, this is massively over-simplifying). Cromwell took the blame for Henry marrying a German girl he wouldn’t (or many say couldn’t) bed. Like Henry’s libido, Cromwell’s favour had run out.

But in April 1540, Henry made Cromwell an earl and named him Lord Chamberlain. Trouble was, Cromwell’s huge list of enemies had pushed teenager Catherine Howard forward as a new bride. Cromwell was the man who married Henry to an ‘ugly’ woman, and his enemies had fresh meat for him to defile. Henry turned on Cromwell, having him arrested on heresy and treason charges, but mostly because Anne of Cleves wasn’t pretty enough. A serious of false charges were thrown at Cromwell, tossed in the Tower, and he was beheaded, in what is mentioned as the worst beheading ever (as in, the executioner needed to butcher him to get the head off) on 28 July 1540. Henry married Catherine Howard the same day, only to cut off her head less than two years later (Anne of Cleves got an annulment, kept her virginity, and lived happily in England for all her days).

Henry soon regretted losing Cromwell, and a replacement never took Cromwell’s place beside Henry. The vast amounts of money Cromwell made for Henry was squandered in a petty French war in 1545, and all Cromwell had done was lost. His son Gregory (who had married Jane Seymour’s sister) died in 1551 of sweating sickness, and there was a rumour of a bastard daughter named Jane, though none of that has been proven (you shall have to read my book for that).

the famous sole surviving painting of Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It was hidden so it couldn’t be destroyed – but by whom, and where?

Cromwell’s Protestant England caused countless deaths, with Henry’s son being a Protestant king, his daughter Mary a Catholic queen and then Queen Elizabeth back to Protestant. Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s only child, made the country firmly Protestant and the changes to law and government made by Cromwell were built on to help shape what England has become.

Cromwell disappeared from history, only one portrait of him surviving, his paperwork all destroyed during his trial. In 1953, Geoffrey Elton wrote of Cromwell, studying and discovering, while Henry was a mastermind and despot, it was Cromwell who held the real power of the era. Cromwell brought government from the medieval times to the modern age and was portrayed as the bad guy, until the last decade, where tv and books have tried to show Cromwell in a more positive light.

My first Cromwell book will focus on his creation of Anne Boleyn, the second about the creation of Jane Seymour, and finally the creation of Anne of Cleves, all books covering his creation of Protestant England. Thomas Cromwell is no longer a forgotten genius.

Check back for very regular updates on posts about all the character of Frailty of Human Affairs, out September 1.

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This Week In Spanish Civil War History Extra: 80 Years Since The Death of Buenaventura Durruti – 20 November 1936

José Buenaventura Durruti Dumange was born 14 July 1896 in León, northwest Spain, as the second of eight boys born to Anastasia Dumangue, and Santiago Durruti, a railway worker and self-described socialist.

Durruti left school at 14 and started as mechanic on the railway with his father. The pair became members of the UGT, Unión General de Trabajadores (socialist General Workers Union). This quiet start to life changed in August 1917, when the UGT took part in a strike, when the government struck down an agreement between unions and their employers. To stop the general strike, the army was brought in to stop them, killing 70 and harming another 500. Another 2,000 were jailed without being tried for any crime. Young Durruti escaped the fighting, but exiled himself to France for safety, where he found company in fellow anarchists over the border.

The harsh treatment by the Spanish government on its people changed Durruti forever. He made his way to Paris and worked there as a mechanic for three years, before deciding to return home. He got over the border and onto nearby city San Sebastian on the northern coast. By now he was an anarchist, and set up his own group named Los Justicieros (The Avengers) with well-known local anarchists Suberviola, Ruiz, Aldabatrecu and Marcelino del Campo, and others keen to fight. While Durruti had been in Paris, thousands of workers had been fighting, jailed or killed by the government while defending their rights, and Durruti wanted a high place in helping them all.

On 15 August 1921, San Sebastian had the inauguration of the Gran Kursaal, a beautiful La Belle Époque style building for the city, with casinos, restaurants and a flourish of the cosmopolitan city’s wealth. King Alfonso XIII attended the opening, and Los Justicieros made their first large play – to assassinate the King. The King, a symbol of all workers were oppressed by, was already under fire for losing 10,000 soldiers in Morocco a month earlier, and had suffered assassination attempts before, but Durruti’s plan failed.

buenaventuradurrutiSoon after this failure, Durruti got approached by the leader of the CNT, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour), a strong anarchist union. Durruti took the offer of going to Barcelona, where workers and CNT members were being jailed, harmed and killed by the government. Members of the Los Justicieros including Durruti moved to Barcelona, where Durruti met Francisco Ascaso and Juan García Oliver, men, along with other prominent anarchists, would become from friends and start the Los Solidarios (Solidarity) group in early 1922. By this time, members  of the CNT including their president were being assassinated, thrown in jail, or hurt in armed stand-offs as people tried to defend themselves and their fights against the government.

In 1923, Durruti and Ascaso carried out the assassination of Cardinal Juan Soldevilla y Romero, a man wealthy on gambling and hater of the common man. That year was huge in Spain, with Miguel Primo de Rivera taking power in Spain and launching his dictatorship of the nation. Durruti, Ascaso and their allies retaliated by launching attacks on military barracks both in Barcelona and along the border stations which led into France. Often, these attacks harmed more anarchists than government supporters. With so many unsuccessful attempts to upset the regime, Durruti, Ascaso and Oliver left Spain. They went to Cuba, before travelling South America, robbing banks throughout Argentina and Chile. All Latin American countries have been told of Durruti, and he wasn’t safe anywhere.

In 1924, Durruti and Ascaso sent to Paris, to again attempt to assassinate King Alfonso XII. Another failed attempt saw both men in jail for a year. Release saw them awaiting extradition to be executed in Argentina, after being convicted in their absence for crimes committed there. But the French anarchists rose up, and the pair were not extradited, but were exiled from France. They fled to Germany, but were denied asylum, and Belgium and Luxembourg offered no help. They fled back to Paris, and lived in secret on the charity of anarchist sympathisers. They moved to the French city of Lyon but were caught by police, so fled illegally to Belgium before making their way back to Germany. Germany again refused asylum and Belgium took them in after a change of heart. Through all this, the USSR were becoming interested in Durruti’s rising status, but the pair refused to take up ‘communist hospitality’ and live in Russia.

Meanwhile in Spain, a secret anarchist meeting in Valencia saw the opening of the FAI, Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Iberian Anarchist Federation) to bring together various militant groups working for the anarchist cause, and become part of the CNT.

It wasn’t until 1931 when the monarchy was overthrown and exiled, and the Republican government won elections did Durruti and Ascaso came home to Spain. Durruti was influential now, and his presence stirred already-forming splits within the anarchist CNT. Arguments about supporting the Republican government formed, splitting the CNT in two, with the leader Angel Pestaña leaving to form a new party and support the government, and loyal CNT/FAI members, including Durruti, to remain loyal to their anarchist principles. Throughout the year, workers were being killed for striking, with hundreds killed in Barcelona, Seville and elsewhere. Durruti and Ascaso kept robbing banks to give money to workers, but change was coming. Durruti married and had a baby on the way, and he needed to step back.

But in January 1932, the Catalonian FAI staged a violent uprising, and the army retaliated by arresting 120 prominent anarchists, Durruti and Ascaso among them. All were immediately deported to Spanish Guinea, Durruti separated from his wife and two-month-old baby. But continuing surges in violence saw the army back down, and all were sent back to mainland Spain three months later. On his return, he tried to play it safe, with what are called his black years. He joined the Textile Workers’ Syndicate in Barcelona and did factory work, but he was constantly hounded by police for his constant work for unions and the anarchist movement.

By October 1934, Spain was in near collapse. Uprisings by Catalan Nationalists in Barcelona, Madrid and the northern Asturias region saw massive violence. In the Asturias, where workers were well organised, with anarchists, socialists, Stalinists and neo-Trotskyists all working together against their enemy, the Catholic church and the government. The University of Oviedo and the Bishop’s Palace were destroyed, churches we burned, priests shot and nuns raped. Coal miners were striking, and General Franco and his army were sent in to quell drama, killing 1,300 people, mostly the coal miners. Another 3,000 were wounded and another 30,000 jailed, mostly in the Asturias region. The violence saw the rich moving towards fascism to keep themselves safe, while the workers of the country continued to spiral against a system crushing them. The government, now the right-wingers, were looking for blood.

By February 1936, the Republicans returned to power, with full socialist support, but not with the huge anarchist movement, or the smaller communist supporters. Now, the ever increasingly angry fascists, the wealthy and the right-wing religious were ready to pull down the government. Durruti was still in Barcelona, and was forced into hospital in July for hernia surgery, just as war would break out.

The rich right-wing haters declared a rebellion on July 17, but fighting did not reach Barcelona until the 19th. Durruti, with his wound still open, left hospital and took up arms to squash the army and police seizing the government. Fighting in the streets went on for hours, and the workers, the civilian militia, were winning. At dawn on July 20, Durruti and best friends Ascaso launched an assault on one of the two remaining army barracks not defeated, but Ascaso was shot and killed alongside Durruti as they ran towards the soldiers.

Durruti Column members

A day later, Durruti along with his other longtime companion Oliver visited the Catalan government leader, still dirty and armed from the attack. They negotiated for the anarchists to join the government and rise up together. The Anti-Fascist Militia’s Committee was formed, bringing together all groups the CNT, the FAI, the UGT, the neo-Trotskyists and a number of Republican groups, taking over as government of Catalonia. Just a week later, teamed with Ascaso’s brother, Durruti and Oliver they formed the ‘Durruti column’ a band of men loyal and ready to take back Spain.

On July 23, Durruti left Barcelona with 1,000 men, ready to save nearby Zaragoza from the army. By the time they marched to Zaragoza, they had between 8,000 and 10,000 men, while other columns worked on saving smaller towns, this large group prepared to save Zaragoza city, though the attack never occurred.  By now, as much of Spain was controlled by the fascists and the army, with people being executed by the thousands, but the Aragon and Catalonia regions were in anarchist hands.

Popular propoganda poster

The Durruti column set out for Madrid, and the group of around 3,000 marched the 350kms to the capital. They arrived on 12 November, just as International Volunteers also arrived to help fight back the siege on the capital. The Durruti Column fighters battled mostly in the north of the city in the Ciudad Universitaria region. Madrid was under full siege, with German planes bombing at night, soldiers attacking by day in every direction, with no escape.

The tide was starting to turn; the Republicans, their supporters and the volunteers were starting to hold off the army. But on November 19 at around 2pm, Durruti was shot in the chest while in the northern region of Madrid. Little was said about the incident as Durruti was rushed to the Ritz Hotel, now a makeshift hospital and surgical theatre. There was little that could be done, and Durruti died at 6am, November 20. The bullet was not even taken from his heart, where it was lodged. He was only 40.

The news of Durruti’s death spread fast, and calls for his body to go home to Barcelona and his family were made. No autopsy was performed on his body, so the calibre of the bullet was not recorded. This made it harder to certify what happened.

The story emerged that Durruti was shot by a sniper. His driver said he had stopped his car on Avenida de la Reina Victoria, the area totally destroyed near the Hospital Clinica. He saw some of the militia leaving the front, and ordered them to return. As Durruti returned to the car, bullets came flying from surrounding destroyed buildings. As Durruti tried to get in the car, a sniper’s bullet shot him in the chest.

Republicans fighting in northern Madrid

This story was relayed over and over, everyone assuming their leader to have died a hero. On November 22, his body arrived back in Barcelona, and half a million people poured in to join the funeral procession. They followed to Montjuïc cemetery where he was laid to rest, and his funeral was the last large gathering of anarchists throughout the rest of the war.

Barcelona funeral

To some, Durruti was a criminal and a bully. To others, he was their salvation against the oppressors. His stories and actions were used for morale and propaganda to help the Republicans cause; this asset now lost. But the story of him dying in a haze of sniper’s bullets continued to circulate, a propaganda story in itself.

But later inquires heard of different stories, from the men who claimed to witness Durruti’s death. Rather than killed by the hiding enemy, the story told was one of simpler disaster. It was said, while planning an attack, one of Durruti’s friends shot him, when a rifle went off by accident. This friendly fire was a common problem due to the poor quality supplies the Republicans fought with. Other rumours suggested Durruti was planning an attack, a sort of suicide mission, and someone shot him to prevent it, though none of that was ever proven. The accidental shooting stayed quiet, the snipers story better to rally the cause.

The Durruti Column was broken up and folded into other groups several months later and while the war did not end until 1 April 1939, the battle to hold Madrid and the Aragon/Catalonia/Valencia regions were the only large success the Republicans had, before eventually falling and suffering another dictatorship for almost 40 years.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight of Durruti’s life. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos are linked to source for credit.