Thomas Cromwell & Henry VIII of England

wolf-hall-imageCompelling and believable historical fiction continues to encourage me to look further into non-fiction accounts of historical figures, in this case a complex of figures surrounding Thomas Cromwell and his King, Henry VIII. The book is Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.

The book is so highly valued by critics and readers that you can find all you may wish about it by scanning the Internet, including under the above link.

I had heard of Thomas Cromwell (1485 – 1540), but had only a few impressions of him: he was an important figure in the history of England, and he was maybe not such a nice fellow. After reading this book, I feel I admire him. [Post-publishing note: I was thinking of Oliver Cromwell, not Thomas, in remembering a possibly unlikable historical figure. Oliver was a descendant of Thomas Cromwell’s older sister].

Of course I had heard of King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547), famous for his many wives and his break with the Roman Catholic Church. But that’s about all that had remained stuck to my gray matter. I know more now, both from the book and from subsequent readings on the Internet.

Another key figure involved in this story was Sir Thomas More (later a Catholic saint), about whom I had read recently in another book, from which I came away with the impression that he was quite a wonderful fellow. Now, I really don’t like him.

Cromwell is the central figure in this novel, an extraordinary man from humble origins (his father was a blacksmith) who rose to the pinnacle of influence with, and importance to, a great monarch.

The book is written in an unusual way: whenever you can’t quite tell who is talking or being talked about, you finally realize that it is almost always Cromwell. Thus, the first part of the book took some getting used to, but after ‘getting it,’ the book flows quite nicely and compellingly.

I now know the factors and motivations behind King Henry’s many marriages, divorces and annulments, two of which ended with the lady’s head severed from her body. (There is still controversy as to whether Henry was legally married to as many as four of the women, but all were “Consorts” to the king, however briefly for some).

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Simply put, Henry VIII wanted at least one male heir, related directly by blood (i.e., not adopted and “legitimate;” he apparently had a son outside of marriage whom he didn’t consider an heir), on whom to bequeath his crown. Cromwell, a lawyer, helped Henry through the inevitable break with the rules of the Church in order to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who bore one female but no males during their 24 years of marriage.

With Cromwell’s behind the scenes maneuvering and the King’s own decisions based in the work of Cromwell and members of Parliament, the King was lawfully declared the supreme authority in the Church in England, as well as in secular matters.

Many people lost their lives, most in horribly brutal ways, over the legal and ecclesiastical controversy, not the least of whom was Thomas More who was once the Lord Chancellor of England, later superseded by Thomas Cromwell. Before Thomas More was ousted and subsequently executed (the King was merciful and commuted his sentence of death under torture to a mere beheading), he was himself responsible for the torture of many “heretics,” reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.

Cromwell was a world traveler who spoke many languages, including Italian. From the two or more mentions of Machiavelli in Wolf Hall, I made the inference that Cromwell learned some of his statecraft from Nicolò Machiavelli, directly or indirectly. One of the characters in the book not-so-playfully taunts Cromwell as being “Italian.” Cromwell was 42 when Machiavelli died.

The countless tortures, murders, impoverishments and intrigues engendered by Henry’s desire for a male heir, and by his personal appetites, have ever since been grist for the literary mills of historians and story tellers.

So, maybe you are asking whether Henry VIII ever begat a male heir? And what ultimately happened to Thomas Cromwell, “the most faithful servant he (the King) had ever had”?

Well, if you want to know the rest of the story, you’re going to have to find out on your own.

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