- The Rise of Thomas Cromwell: Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII by Michael Everett
By focusing on the career of Thomas Cromwell in the decade before he became Henry VIII’s secretary in April 1534, Michael Everett concludes that Cromwell was not the evangelical reformer of A.G. Dickens, the administrative innovator of Geoffrey Elton, or the factional politician of John Guy and David Starkey. In fact, ‘‘Cromwell was the conventional Tudor man-of-business, distinguished from his peers perhaps only by his aptitude and skills. . . who was less central to the momentous events surrounding the break with Rome than has previously been claimed’’ (247). Everett’s study goes beyond the standard printed summaries of the State Papers to mine Cromwell’s private correspondence — over 350 of his own letters and hundreds more sent to him during the 1530s. The result is a fuller and more nuanced picture of Cromwell’s life and legacy.
Everett, a visiting fellow at the University of Southampton, begins his study of Cromwell’s life in the 1520s, sketching out his early career as a London lawyer and merchant. Although Cromwell was born sometime around 1485, Everett finds only tangential evidence of his early life: ‘‘by 1520 he was married, settled in England, and had established himself at the heart of London’s legal and mercantile communities’’ (17). Cromwell’s legal training was probably obtained through self-study rather than at the Inns of Court; his mercantile interests were possibly connected to work with his father-in-law, a wealthy fuller. Cromwell’s correspondence suggests that his early legal work dealt primarily with disputes concerning land and property. He drew up bills of complaint and acted as an arbitrator for cases before Chancery and the Star Chamber. Cromwell’s reputation as an industrious and efficient lawyer caught the attention of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, and in 1524 Cromwell entered the cardinal’s service. Wolsey had received permission to suppress a number of religious houses to establish a college at Oxford and a grammar school in Ipswich, and Cromwell seemed the perfect person for the detailed surveying and legal work necessary to effect these transfers. As well as providing legal services for Wolsey, Cromwell remained active in the cloth trade, engaged in money lending, invested in land, and obtained a seat in the parliaments of 1523 and 1529. Here he drafted a number of bills ‘‘on behalf of the merchant and professional circles that he lived among’’ (45). Everett contends that Cromwell’s view of Parliament was not ‘‘revolutionary’’ as Elton asserted but rather quite typical of men from his background. [End Page 356]
Everett also disagrees with Elton’s claim that Cromwell’s ambition from the first was to rise as high as he could in the king’s service. Instead, he argues that ‘‘Cromwell’s entry into the royal service was unexpected, unintended and wholly dependent on fortune and circumstance’’ (49). The circumstance was Wolsey’s failure to get Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey was accused of praemunire, and all his lands and properties were to revert to the Crown. Henry VIII needed someone to manage the details of this conveyance, and Cromwell had done this exact type of work for the cardinal. Cromwell’s attainments subsequently led the King to grant him increasing responsibility over other Crown lands and royal works.
An examination of Cromwell’s interactions with the Catholic Church before 1534 similarly challenges the view of historians A.G. Dickens, B.W. Beckingsale, and others, that Cromwell was a leading Lutheran reformer. Everett maintains that even in the suppression of the monasteries, Cromwell was merely carrying out the king’s wishes. His 1529 and revised 1532 wills show that he possessed orthodox beliefs in the intercession of the saints, the importance of good works, and the power of religious images. Everett concludes that ‘‘between the years 1485...