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Thomas Cromwell - counsellor extraordinaire.
13 March 2015
Thomas Cromwell - erudite humanist, distinguished lawyer, consummate counsellor and first minister to Henry V111's court was by any reckoning, a colossus who bestrode the world of Tudor politics
That Cromwell rose from the obscurity of a blacksmiths forge in Putney, to possess all these attributes and become the most important minister in Henry's court is astounding. A self made man extraordinaire in an age of rigid hierarchy when 'the king was in his castle and the poor man at his gate', his meteoric rise to the first rank of Tudor politics was probably the first example of social mobility centuries ahead of its time.
The case for the prosecution - he was the evil counsellor who sought to amass his fortune by dissimulation and venality in Henry's court, a divisive force who challenged the orthodoxy of Catholic practice in England. Resented and reviled by Henry's aristocratic counsellors as a vulgar parvenu who had risen above his station; a devil incarnate to sought to introduce the English Reformation as the modernist project to enrich himself with the loot amassed from the sale of monasteries; and a final count of lese-majesty by allegedly seeking a betrothal with Henry's daughter Mary; and this hubris merited its nemesis on the executioners block at Tower Hill in July 1540; hoist by his own petard his detractors would add for good measure.
The case for the defence is formidable. Tracy Borman has written this lucid and compelling detailed account with meticulous research to revaluate the case against this man. Evidence is adduced which suggests Cromwell was a gifted man of phenomenal physical and intellectual firepower, whose indefatigable capacity for sustained hard work found him with no equal in the Tudor court; it suggests a man of high intelligence, inexhaustible ability for work; a self taught lawyer who became the most sought after barrister of his day by very distinguished clients from those of noble birth; an ironic thread was his increasing use of Parliament as a constitutional legislative institution that ultimately diminished and broke royal arbitrary power in the 17th century by his namesake; this perhaps was his most unwitting legacy; moreover a man of unimpeachable integrity towards his friends; a man who reached out to the dispossessed; and who sought to raise up any man of merit; an astute counsellor and loyal servant to the King; these qualities went some way to mitigate some of his more ruthless qualities of statecraft.
Cromwell was enlisted by Henry to become his chief minister/treasured counsellor holding the most important offices of state during his eleven year tenure ; it was Henry's voracious appetites, concupiscence and infidelities plus his disaffection with Katherine of Aragon, that called on Cromwell with his 'lateral thinking' remedy: if his counsellors couldn't persuade the Papal authority in Rome for the annulment to Katherine of Aragaon, then Henry should circumvent this Papal authority and pronounce himself judge and jury as head of the church to give him the solution.
This mercurial and capricious Royal patron was overwhelmed and evidently pleased with this novel solution and raised his status accordingly; and so began the process that excited the pique and envy of his fellow noble counsellors'.....principally the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and his circle, who regarded him as a vulgar arriviste to be discredited and destroyed. The point however, is much of the work undertaken was with the express and winning approval of Henry.....until the winds of fortune at court turned ugly against Cromwell. He was yet another victim of the dangerous shifting quicksand alliances and machinations of the Tudor Court....the losers in this game, always seemed to head to one place: Tower Hill which then was a terminal stop before it became a London tube station on the District Line.
So what does the evidence here adduced in Ms Borman's biography enable us to put forward as a tenable view? That he helped to alleviate any suffering and poverty among the poorest where his assistance was sought is unquestionable. He was a man of learning with polished cultural understanding of the age in which he lived. It's also suggests he was a magnanimous man ...despite his cold pragmatic realpolitik of dispatching victims who stood in the way of his Reformed church project; a project let it not be forgotten....that was started from practical necessity from Henry's need to rid himself of Katherine; it later morphed into a doctrinal policy away from the orthodoxy of Rome to a more Lutheran protestant faith and religion for England; a move fully countenanced by Henry when it suited him as it did for a while; a combination of circumstances came together the need to dispense with his 4th wife Ann of Cleves and punish Cromwell who'd been instrumental in this ill starred love match!
Cromwell's ultimate fall was a result of the nobles at court, acting with very little 'noblesse oblige' towards their perceived social inferior upstart from Putney. And so the denouement was set in motion; a bill of Attainder - dispensing with judicial proceedings, by a series of spurious allegations of treason and heresy, a Tudor version of a 1937 Stalinist show trial...whose outcome was preordained. Cromwell sought to appeal to his Royal patron for mercy, mercy; but Henry was 'not in the giving vein' having no 'quality of mercy' in his cold heart. He would later lament not saving him from his false accusers however.
The nobles at court couldn't have this accomplished man of low birth, outshine and outwit them with status above his station. They couldn't stand in the light of this most able man of his generation, so they had to kill him. I'd submit on the evidence of this book, he was more sinned against than sinner. An extraordinary man, for whom even the psychopathic Henry later lamented the loss of this outstanding man and loyal servant. More a hero than villain I'd submit. He was the victim of the brutal world of Tudor politics; a game in which he excelled but ultimately lost by aristocratic pique and envy.