Last week’s opening episode of BBC’s Wolf Hall portrayed a sickeningly violent scene where Walter Cromwell beat his young son Thomas Cromwell within an inch of his life. “The trilogy – the last book is in progress – will follow Thomas Cromwell’s life from that moment – from that instant, that pulse beat, when he thinks he is going to die – to the reprise some 40 years on, when he thinks the same, and he is right: he ends on Tower Hill, looking at the executioner’s boots, an axe poised above him,” writes Hilary Mantel. 1 The idea that he would be a subject in a novel several centuries later may have surprised Walter Cromwell a great deal. However, Walter’s bad reputation has long preceded him. So who was Walter Cromwell?
The Cromwells of Putney
The discovery of Walter Cromwell in the Court Rolls of Wimbledon Manor may have come about when a Mr. John Phillips was researching the ancestry of a later descendent, a certain Oliver Cromwell. The Cromwells of Putney are discussed in various 19th century studies of Oliver Cromwell, who is said to have descended from Richard Williams (alias Cromwell), son of Katherine, sister of Thomas. John Phillips appears to have been a respected antiquarian who wrote for the Antiquarian Magazine. Phillips was given permission to examine the Court Rolls of the 15th century for Wimbledon manor by Earl Spencer. Somewhere between a decade or two later Roger Bigelow Merriman, who compiled the vast Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, published in 1902, was given access to the rolls by Earl Spencer’s steward, a Mr. Joseph Plaskitt. Merriman was of course concerned with researching the life of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. But it is mainly from these records we have our account of Walter Cromwell, thought to be Thomas Cromwell’s father.
Grandfather Cromwell was born into a well-to-do family in Nottinghamshire. John Cromwell moved from from Norwell to Putney sometime before 1462, to take over a cloth fulling mill, residence, and six acres of land; the lease granted to him by Archbishop Kempe in around 1452.2 John Cromwell had two sons. The eldest, John, moved to Lambeth and became a brewer. His younger son Walter remained in Putney, where he would do rather well for himself.
Merriman mentioned various accounts of Walter Cromwell, or Walter Smyth, in the Court Rolls, writing “That both these names stand for the same person is proved by one entry written, ‘Walter Cromwell alias Walter Smyth/ by two written, ‘ Walter Smyth alias Cromwell/ and by five written, ‘ Walter Cromwell alias Smyth’.“3 Considering Walter has been described variously as a fuller, blacksmith and brewer, the name ‘Smyth’ could be at the root of the confusion. James Waylen wrote that it had been suggested Walter was apprenticed to his Uncle, William Smyth, an armourer. Waylen then claimed (presumably on the authority of Phillips) that when John Cromwell died the lease on the fulling mill was granted to Walter.4 Merriman, however, did not corroborate on the fulling mill, despite agreeing that Walter was apprenticed to his uncle. All of the records Merriman mentioned are related to brewing, and Walter’s later office of the Constable of Putney.
The nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts can be quite confusing. As historians tend to cite Merriman on the Court Rolls of Wimbledon Manor, it is assumed (at the time of writing) that the rolls are no longer accessible. So we must rely on a secondary source, Merriman’s account. Waylen, whose editor did not trust him, 5 breezily glossed over Walter’s forty-eight fines for breaking the assize of ale, unearthed by Merriman, going on to tell us what a respectable landowner Walter was. Merriman informed us that Walter’s name constantly occurred in the Court Rolls as a juryman, and was granted the office of Constable of Putney. This is rather odd considering his ale-swindling activities, and his fines for letting his cattle graze on the commons to which, as a landowner, he was not entitled, but clearly his local stature was somehow still intact.
Towards the end of Walter’s life, Merriman wrote, Walter forfeited all his position and property in Wimbledon. In 1514 “he ‘falsely and fraudulently erased the evidences and terrures of the lord,’ so that the bedell was commanded ‘ to seize into the lord’s hands all his copyholds held of the lord and to answer the lord of the issue.”6 So we have evidence that Walter Cromwell was a brewer, kept cattle and, despite his sticky end, was a principal landowner in Putney. Nowhere do the records that we have access to state that Walter was either poor, a blacksmith or a cloth-shearer.
The Blacksmith, the Brewer and the Shearman
Merriman described Thomas Cromwell as the son of a well-to-do blacksmith, brewer and fuller. Thomas Cromwell, however, never described his own father as well-to-do blacksmith, or a brewer. The few contemporary accounts describe Cromwell’s father as a poor blacksmith, or a poor cloth-shearer. It is strange that, if Thomas Cromwell was the son of a reasonably well-off landowner, he would claim that he was the son of a impoverished blacksmith.
John Schofield offered an interesting response in his own biography of Cromwell. 7 The four references he discussed are from Italian writer Matteo Bandello, Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys, Cardinal Reginald Pole, and a later description from John Foxe.
Bandello, who wrote novellas, portrayed a meeting between a young Thomas Cromwell and Francesco Frescobaldi, a wealthy Florentine merchant. Frescobaldi, Bandello tells us, met “a poor youth’ (un povero giovane) in the streets begging alms. Seeing him ‘in a bad condition though gentle in appearance’ (mal in arnese e che in viso mostrava aver del gentile), Frescobaldi pitied him, and asked his name. ‘My name is Thomas Cromwell’, he replied, ‘the son of a poor cloth shearer’ (d’un povero cimatore di panni).”8
That Cromwell’s father was a cloth-shearer is again mentioned by Reginald Pole in his Apologia ad Carolum Quintum.9 Pole’s account is usually dismissed because of its hostile nature towards Cromwell, yet the account of Cromwell’s father’s profession is not particularly controversial and correlates with Bandello’s. It should be noted that Bandello wrote novellas and his account could be fictional, yet there are a handful of mentions of Frescobaldi in Letters and Papers that indicate Cromwell knew him well.
It is Eustace Chapuys’ account that is probably the most reliable, as it is Chapuys who knew Cromwell, and the two men became good friends. In a letter to Nicolas de Granvelle, Chapuys wrote “As you desire me to give you a detailed account of secretary Cromwell and his origin, I will tell you that he is the son of a poor blacksmith, who lived and is buried at a small village distant one league and a half from this city (London). His uncle, the father of a cousin of his, whom he has since considerably enriched, was cook to the last archbishop of Canterbury (Warham). In his youth Cromwell was rather ill-conditioned (mal conditionné) and wild. After being some time in prison he went to Flanders, Rome, and other places in Italy, where he made some stay. On his return to England he married the daughter of a fuller (tondeur de draps), and for a time kept servants in his house who worked for him at that handicraft.“10
So was Thomas Cromwell’s father a blacksmith or a cloth shearer? Protestant martyrologist John Foxe later wrote that Cromwell was “born in Putney or thereabouts, being a smith’s son, whose mother married afterwards to a shearman”.11 Bandello wrote that Cromwell told Frescobaldi he was “fleeing” from his father when he arrived in Italy. 12 Foxe’s account makes perfect sense if Cromwell had told Frescobaldi that his father was a cloth shearer while his step-father was alive, and later told Chapuys that his father was a blacksmith in reference to his birth father.
If Cromwell’s mother remarried we could assume that her first husband, father of Thomas Cromwell, died sometime in Cromwell’s childhood. As Schofield pointed out, unless Foxe was greatly mistaken, Walter Cromwell, who was alive until at least 1514, could not be Thomas Cromwell’s father. The list of Walter’s many professions is rather odd, and cloth-shearing was a manual labour job. Perhaps the professions of blacksmith and shearer were added to Walter’s actual profession to correlate with the 15th and 16th century accounts. Waylen tried to explain Walter’s many professions with the wildly amusing statement that “In thus combining under one management so many diverse kinds of business, Walter may be almost said to have anticipated some of the big London firms of the nineteenth century.” 13 Walter might certainly be pleased with this glowing assessment.
However as we can see, Schofield’s observation has some weight behind it and it might be argued that Walter was not actually Thomas’s father.
The Lady Cromwells
Merriman tells us that Walter had three children, Thomas and his sisters Elizabeth and Katherine. We encounter another small problem here. Katherine married quite well, a young Welshman named Morgan Williams who came from an important family in Putney. Walter the landowner may have been able to secure such a marriage for his eldest daughter, but the poor cloth-shearer may not. Elizabeth, the younger daughter, married a sheep-farmer named Wellyfed. Katherine, thought to be an ancestress of Oliver Cromwell, has been quite well-researched. Elizabeth is less well-known, but her son Christopher attended Cambridge with Thomas’s son Gregory. It is our Cromwell who throws another spanner in the works here, with his claim that his mother was 52 when she gave birth to him.
Chapuys, writing to Charles V, stated that “To the objection raised by the secretary, namely, the Queen’s inability to bear children, owing to her being more than 48 years old at this time, I named to him some women in this very country, who at 51 had been delivered; and, far from denying the fact, Cromwell himself owned that his own mother was 52 when he was born.”14 Historians have found this claim very strange indeed and some have dismissed it entirely, or argued that Cromwell must have meant his mother was past normal child-bearing age, but could not possibly have been 52.
We know virtually nothing about Mrs. Cromwell. Schofield says her maiden name may have been ‘Meverell’. Merriman tells us the she was was the aunt of a man named Nicholas Glossop, of Wirksworth in Derbyshire. Phillips claimed that she was the daughter of a yeoman named Glossop, and that she was living in Putney at the house of an attorney named John Welbeck, at the time of her marriage with Walter Cromwell in 1474, but as Merriman pointed out, gives no reference for the statement. Katherine, her eldest, is thought to be born in 1477, with Thomas and Elizabeth following a long time later, 1485 and 1487 respectively. Now we could speculate if she was at least in her forties and her husband close in age, that her blacksmith husband did die and leave her with three young children, prompting her to remarry quickly, to the poor cloth-shearer. If Walter had been her husband he would possibly have been about 70-80 years old at his last mention in the Wimbledon rolls. However we can only speculate. We are no closer to solving the possible mystery of Thomas Cromwell’s parentage with so little information available, and with Thomas Cromwell himself giving conflicting information to his contemporaries.
But because both Walter Cromwell and Thomas Cromwell’s possible mysterious fathers deserve a fair assessment we should address the reason why a young Thomas Cromwell left home and Merriman’s assertion that Walter was a violent drunk.
The Young Ruffian
We have seen that Walter made rather a nuisance of himself in Putney, Merriman’s claim that he was a “most quarrelsome and riotous character” and “not seldom drunk” seems somewhat unfounded considering the evidence he has presented. Walter’s fines for breaking the assize of ale, letting his cattle roam too freely and altering records aside, and admittedly it is a generous aside, the assertion that Walter was violent is based on one fine. In 1477 a “penalty of twenty pence was inflicted on him for assaulting and drawing blood from William Michell,”15 but Merriman gives us no other evidence of brawling. However his portrait of Walter has gained a firm footing. Two recent biographies of Thomas Cromwell speculate that his father may have either attempted to or had him imprisoned and he was forced to flee abroad. And the recent depiction of Walter on television should cement the vision of his violent behaviour. We should give Walter the benefit of the doubt here. Shady he was, but we have no evidence he was an abusive father or would try to beat his son to death. And if a young Thomas Cromwell had gotten in trouble with the law, Walter was certainly no stranger to that.
Merriman got himself rather flustered at Phillips’ vain attempt to find Thomas Cromwell in the Court Rolls of Wimbledon Manor. Phillips tried to attribute records of a Thomas Smyth to Thomas Cromwell, claiming they must be the same person as Walter was also called Smyth. While Merriman neatly counters Phillips, he also wondered how Thomas Cromwell could not be mentioned in the rolls at all, arriving at the conclusion that “this may be partially explained by Chapuys’ account of his youthful wildness and early imprisonment; it seems quite probable that he was a mere boy when he left his home.”16 However if Thomas was imprisoned in Putney, surely there would be a record of it? And certainly if Walter, who was something of a regular in the rolls, had had Thomas imprisoned, it would have been recorded.
An explanation for Cromwell’s stint in prison has never been found. As for young Thomas’s desperate flight – we’ve actually no evidence that Cromwell was forced to flee Putney. Chapuys merely told Granvelle that Cromwell had left England after a spell in prison. Cromwell’s statement to Frescobaldi that he was ‘fleeing’ his father shouldn’t be considered so controversial. It could mean a number of things. He may have been fleeing his father’s wrath. He may equally have been fleeing the mundane life of a brewer or a shearman. Or perhaps Foxe’s rather sentimental account could explain…
Thus, in his growing years, as he shot up in age and ripeness, a great delight came in his mind to stray into foreign countries, to see the world abroad, and to learn experience; whereby he learned such tongues and languages as might better serve for his use hereafter.
Thomas Cromwell was a man of humble origins and outstanding intellect who rose up to become Henry VIII’s chief minister and right-hand man during the English Reformation. He wielded enormous power while he retained the king’s favour, but the failure of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, which Cromwell had arranged, led to his swift downfall and execution. In this authoritative biography by an acknowledged expert in the field, John Schofield reveals that the popular image of Cromwell as a blood-stained henchman is largely fictional. Detailed research into contemporary sources illuminates his brilliant mind and his love for and patronage of the arts and humanities, while short case studies shed new light on his relations with, and his reputation among, Henry VIII’s subjects. In his conclusion, Schofield narrates the drama of Cromwell’s downfall and highlights the king’s posthumous exoneration of the ‘most faithful servant he ever had’.