Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchinson
Thomas Cromwell (? 1485 - 1540) was a common man who, after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, rose - by virtue of his intelligence, hard work and boundless opportunism - to become the Earl of Essex, Lord of the Privy Seal and Viceregent for religious affairs in the reign of King Henry the VIII of England; the second richest and most powerful man in the whole Kingdom.
Though no Lutheran, what Cromwell did achieve as Viceregent was to widen the access of ordinary people to their religion by providing worship in their own language, through the Great Bible of 1539. Although Henry was nervous about its impact and sought to restrict its readership, by 1541 parishes were being fined for failing to buy a copy. Cromwell also destroyed some of the superstitious flummery that pervaded much of the Catholic Church of the time through his attacks on images, pilgrimages and shrines. He also presided over the nearly complete dismantling of monastic institutions in England.
His main attainments, however, were in government. He reformed the royal household and machinery in England, laying down the foundation for today's departments of state. His loyalty to Henry was unquestionable: all his inventive measures, all his punitive actions were directed at safeguarding the Tudor dynasty. He would have heard his brutish father talk of the mayhem of the Wars of the Roses more than five decades before. Cromwell was determined that his England would never be torn apart by internecine rivalry between aristocratic power bases; he thus ensured that the nobility's loyalty was purchased by the redistribution of monastic property. The proceeds of that privatisation also spread to a new class of emerging gentry, who became stakeholders in the peace and tranquillity of a prosperous England.
Cromwell may appear authoritarian, cruel and malevolent to our modern eyes, with a cynical contempt for Parliament and justice, but his actions were always motivated by what he perceived to be the best interests of his royal master and his realm. Naturally, Cromwell's own best interests also lay in keeping the despotic Henry happy, with the benefits of ever-increasing power and the opportunity for enrichment. He was single-minded in pursuit of his policy objectives and there was little room in his heart for compassion or the quiet, still voice of conscience. No doubt Cromwell would have felt comfortable in the government of a twentieth-century totalitarian state. Many who governed those states could plead similar motivations to Cromwell's in seeking to justify their actions. In his case, he could not have sought to hide behind appeals that he was 'only following orders'. Within the limits on his authority always imposed by Henry, he was the one issuing orders.
He enjoyed (almost) absolute power, and in fulfillment of the old dictum, he was certainly corrupt. His apologists point to the widespread practice of bribery in Tudor times, but Cromwell went far beyond that. His greed and avarice knew no bounds, except stealing from his King. His wealth and property at the end of his life surpassed that of all except the King himself and perhaps the 'old money' of the Duke of Norfolk. That eventually spelt his ruin and he became a victim of those nobles consumed with envy and hatred for a self-made man doing far better than them.
Surprisingly, Cromwell's downfall did not damage his family , perhaps in return for his meek acceptance of his guilt* or even some faint, lingering gratitude deep in the King's heart for a loyal servant's services through thick and thin.
The last word on Cromwell has to go to Henry, so well served by his corpulent, black-coated Minister. Legend has it that whenever the King, an inveterate gambler, was dealt a knave at cards, he would exclaim: "I have got a Cromwell." And, scornfully, he told the French Ambassador in May 1538 that his Minister was 'a good household manager, but not fit to meddle in the affairs of Kings. Henry may have come to regret those dismissive words.
Once he had lost the loyal services of his most ruthless and resourceful administrator, as well as the Machiavellian architect of England's foreign policies, he began to feel uncomfortable and isolated. Henry confidently believed only he posssessed the supreme skills and cunning required to rule England alone. His self-assurance swiftly dissipated. Never endowed with any patience for the minutiae of government, the King soon became tired of the burden and within less than a year, he was angrily ruing the day that Cromwell was executed.
In one of his increasingly frequent outbursts of tearful, vituperative rage, he complained bitterly that his subjects were ' unhappy people to govern whom he would shortly make so poor that they would not have the boldness, nor power to oppose him'. Most of his privy councillors were concerned more with lining their pockets than serving him and, moreover, 'upon light pretexts, by false accusations, they made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had.'
Cromwell would have enjoyed the unexpectedly fulsome epitaph and laughed at the discomfiture of his enemies.
*"Good people, I am come here to this scaffold to die and not to purge myself, as some may think I will. For if I should do so, I would be a wretch and a miserable man. I am by the law [ which I enacted] to die and thank my Lord God that has appointed me this death for my offense. For since the time I have had years of discretion, I have lived as a sinner and have offended my Lord God, for which I ask Him heartily for forgiveness."