by Kyra Cornelius Cranmer
Thanks to the excellent writing of Hilary Mantel’s books Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, Thomas Cromwell’s reputation has undergone something of a renaissance. In her novels, Mantel pointed out (rightly so) that Cromwell was good to his dependents and very intelligent. Even historians like me, who consider him to be a total schmuck, will acknowledge that he was one of the smartest and most capable ministers Henry VIII ever had. However, in making him the hero of her novels Mantel had to contend with some very unheroic historical facts about Cromwell. In her writing, Mantel excuses Cromwell’s perfidies and orchestrated murders by 1) making Anne Boleyn and her family detestable villains whose downfall at Cromwell’s hands was an act of justice and 2) explaining his vengeance against the men falsely executed for having sex with the queen in terms of Cromwell’s loyalty to Cardinal Wolsey.
The trouble with these excuses is that they are fiction. That’s why Mantel’s books are called historical fiction. There are parts of it wherein the author made stuff up to give the narrative more strength. That is excellent writing, but not accurate history.
All the evidence suggests that Cromwell’s real beef with Anne and her family was that they were obstacles in his path to power. Anne and her faction had too much influence over the king for Cromwell’s comfort. Furthermore, Anne was trying to prevent Cromwell from sacking the Catholic monasteries like a Visigoth. The queen wanted some of them left to promote learning and provide succor for the poor, while Cromwell wanted every last ha’penny squeezed from them before destroying them.
As Eric Ives pointed out in his biography of Anne Boleyn, “Anne’s support for the redeployment of monastic resources directly contradicted Cromwell’s intention to put the proceeds of the dissolution into the king’s coffers. The bill dissolving the smaller monasteries had passed both houses of parliament in mid-March, but before the royal assent was given Anne launched her chaplains on a dramatic preaching campaign to modify royal policy…. Cromwell was pilloried before the whole council as an evil and greedy royal adviser from the Old Testament, and specifically identified as the queen’s enemy. Nor could the minister shrug off this declaration of war, even though, in spite of Anne’s efforts, the dissolution act became law.” (pg. 27)
Cromwell needed Anne out of the way if he wanted to keep pushing his agenda unimpeded. From that point on, Cromwell and the anti-Anne faction were looking for an opening to destroy her. Thus, when Anne told Henry Norris that he looked for “dead men’s shoes”, Cromwell leaped on this transgression and spun it into a tale of adultery that convinced Henry VIII to kill his wife.
Cromwell also convinced Henry to behead five innocent men. It is easy to see why he singled out Norris and Mark Smeaton – they had complimented Anne lavishly and pretended to be madly in love with her, as men were wont to do as part of playing at ‘courtly love’ in that time period. Sir Francis Weston was also would-be Lothario who hung around in Anne’s rooms and made goo-goo eyes at her and her ladies in waiting — and was ergo convenient to accuse of adultery with the queen.
It also makes sense for Cromwell to accuse Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, of sleeping with his sister as a way to imprison him and keep him away from Henry. George was (until accused of incest) a favorite of the kings and would have defended his sister. For Cromwell’s plan to go off without a hitch, Anne’s brother had to be silenced and as far away from Henry as possible. But why did Cromwell go after William Brereton? Brereton wasn’t one of Anne’s faux-suitors and was actively against the Boleyn faction. How did he wind up beheaded for having an affair with her? The most likely answer is that Brereton was rich, strong willed, and an opponent of Cromwell’s. Naming him among Anne’s lovers had a twofold purpose; it was a neat way to dispatch an enemy and it also provided ‘evidence’ that it wasn’t just Anne’s friends and allies who were getting the chop. Cromwell was covering his tracks with a dusting of plausible deniability.
The ugly truth of Thomas Cromwell is that he was willing to arrange the judicial murder of a woman and five men simply to consolidate his power and give himself an unchallenged sphere influence around the king. His appetite for consequence was such that he would ruthlessly slaughter anyone who opposed him, and he was smart enough not to have to dirty his own hands with the wet work. Cromwell was more Nero than hero, and even a wordsmith of Hilary Mantel’s caliber cannot present him as anything but a monster without the liberal use of invention.
Editor’s note: Kyra’s biography is provided by her website, Krya Cornelius Kramer and is provided to us in her own words.
Kyra Cornelius Kramer is an author and freelance medical anthropologist. She holds BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She and her beloved husband live in Bloomington, Indiana, USA with their three young daughters.
Kyra is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Kyra is high-functioning, meaning that most of the time Kyra can pass for “quirky” with a dash of “gauche”. As a function of being an “Aspy”, she has a deep and abiding love for facts, which she stuffs into her writings like chestnuts in a Christmas goose. Seriously, you will knee-deep in facts by the time you are three paragraphs into her work. Moreover, she has a sardonic sense of humor that flavors her writings, no matter how academic they are in nature. Her editors appreciate this, but the review board usually makes her take any humor out before publishing in a peer reviewed journal. Kyra hopes that the academic reviewers were at least amused before they crossed the sentence out with heavy red pencil marks. She suspects not.
Editor’s note: For more information about the remarkable accomplishments of Kyra Cornelius Kramer, do visit her website linked above. Queenanneboleyn.com will be publishing a review of Kyra’s newly released book The Jezebel Effect: Why Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters in the coming days.
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