Saturday, March 21, 2015

Thomas Cromwell: Catholic or Evangelical?

The witnesses of Thomas Cromwell's execution in The Tapestry are shocked to hear him proclaim at the block that he dies a Catholic. Michael Everett writes in History Today about Thomas Cromwell's religious convictions, or lack thereof:

Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's leading minister during the 1530s, is often described as a religious reformer. According to consensus, Cromwell was a deeply committed evangelical, who steered the king towards reform in religion more radical than Henry himself wanted. Yet the little evidence we have for Cromwell's religious views is frustratingly inconclusive; some even points another way. . . .

Yet there is little direct evidence for Cromwell's religious beliefs. He did not pen any scholarly works which might offer hints of his affiliations, nor does his considerable correspondence contain much which touches on theology or doctrine at all. In fact, several pieces of evidence counter the view that Cromwell was a religious radical. Inventories of his possessions show that, throughout the 1530s, he continued to own many traditional religious images, including 'ii ymages in lether gylted the one of our ladye the other of saynte christopher'. Cromwell's will also invoked 'our blessed ladie Saynct Mary the vyrgyn and Mother with all the holie companye of heuen to be Medyatours and Intercessours' for his soul. He even specified a priest of 'good lyuyng' should be hired 'to Syng' for his soul, and money was left for friars in London to 'pray for my Soule'. This suggests that Cromwell still believed in the intercessory power of prayer and in the importance of good works, as well as in the ability of saints to act as mediators for men's souls. These were notably traditional beliefs for someone who – it is often claimed – was one of the driving forces behind the early Reformation in England.

Everett's book, The Rise of Thomas Cromwell:Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII, 1485-1534 is due out from Yale University Press next month. The blurb:

How much does the Thomas Cromwell of popular novels and television series resemble the real Cromwell? This meticulous study of Cromwell’s early political career expands and revises what has been understood concerning the life and talents of Henry VIII’s chief minister. Michael Everett provides a new and enlightening account of Cromwell’s rise to power, his influence on the king, his role in the Reformation, and his impact on the future of the nation.

Controversially, Everett depicts Cromwell not as the fervent evangelical, Machiavellian politician, or the revolutionary administrator that earlier historians have perceived. Instead he reveals Cromwell as a highly capable and efficient servant of the Crown, rising to power not by masterminding Henry VIII’s split with Rome but rather by dint of exceptional skills as an administrator.

Michael Everett gained a PhD at the University of Southampton where he is now a visiting fellow. He currently works at the House of Commons, London, and lives in Hampshire, UK.

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