The critically acclaimed BBC series Wolf Hall dramatised one of the most tumultuous periods in English history, when Henry VIII ruled as king surrounded by a court full of ambitious schemers all vying for power and prestige.
Several advisors managed to exert significant influence over the monarch for a time, but this came with the risk of a sudden and sometimes fatal fall from grace; politics was a game of lavish success and precipitous survival, which claimed the lives of some of the canniest operators the age had to offer. Here we profile some of these fascinating characters whose machinations left an indelible imprint on the country.
The Story of Wolf Hall
Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, London in 1485. His father owned a tavern and also worked as a blacksmith. He was supposedly an aggressive man, appearing on court rolls with records of assaulting his neighbours. Thomas himself was described as a ruffian in his younger days.
At the age of 15, Thomas left Putney and travelled to the ‘low lands’ (Netherlands), before moving around Europe, including France where he learned the native language and became a mercenary in the army. He deserted his post during the battle of Garigliano and fled to Florence, Italy where he became a merchant’s agent, developing connections with England as well as improving his education by adding Italian and Latin to the list of languages he could speak.
He returned to England in 1517, and by 1523 had caught the attention of Thomas Wolsley, who as Lord Chancellor was Henry VIII’s chief adviser, and as the Archbishop of York the second most important cleric in the country. Wolsey employed Cromwell, who also became an MP during his post. At this time, Wolsley was engaged in securing an annulment of the marriage between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, a princess whose parents’ marriage had united Spain, and who had initially been married to Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur when she was 16, and he 15. A few months later Arthur had died, and Katherine married Henry in 1509 after receiving a special dispensation from the Catholic Church, who generally disapproved of such unions. Although the relationship was reportedly a happy one for several years, Katherine’s inability to provide a male heir (they had five children but only Mary survived) had infuriated Henry and convinced him the union was cursed, and should not have been sanctioned in the first place.
Wolsey failed in his attempt to secure an annulment in Rome and was subsequently imprisoned. Where his employer had failed Cromwell succeeded by overseeing the creation of the Act of Supremacy, which Henry was able to persuade Parliament to evoke, separating his power from the Roman Catholic Church.
Anne Boleyn was Henry’s next wife. Born in 1501 or 1507 (this is debated by historians) she was the daughter of a diplomat and granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She first appeared in Henry’s court playing ‘Perseverance’ in a pageant, ‘The Chateau Vert’ and by 1527 had caught his attentions, leading supposedly to him writing letters of love and adoration. They were married in January in a private ceremony, and Anne was declared Queen in June at Westminster Abbey. Again the marriage was hampered by the lack of an heir, as well as occasional violent quarrels and by 1536 Cromwell was charged with seeking another divorce. Anne’s sister in law, Jane Boleyn informed Cromwell that Anne had an affair with five men, including her brother George (Jane’s husband). Confessions from these men were extracted under torture and after a trial Anne was imprisoned. She was beheaded on 19th May 1536 at Tower Green.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries
In 1536, Cromwell oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. He was able to close 800 establishments in 4 years. Some historians argue that Cromwell was a devout Protestant, others see this as a manoeuvre for power and wealth. Whatever his motivations, this was undoubtedly one of his most important contributions to the history of England, and its effects are still physically prominent across the country in the ruins of abbeys and monasteries, including St. Mary’s Abbey, here in York, which was one of the largest landholders in Yorkshire until it was closed and subsequently destroyed.
His actions inevitably gained him many prominent enemies, who coalesced into an active faction working to weaken Cromwell’s power. Two prominent members of this group were Stephen Gardiner (b.1482) and Thomas Howard (b.1473). Gardiner had began his royal career as an Secretary to Cardinal Wolsey in 1524, and after Wolsey’s downfall he had become Principal Secretary and then Bishop of Winchester. Although Gardiner wrote tracts supporting the idea of royal authority over the church, he appears to have been a Roman Catholic, and so was not short of motivation for wanting to remove Cromwell.
His ally Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, forms an interesting contrast with the more academically minded Gardiner; he had a prominent military career, initially fighting Cornish and Scots rebels in 1497. He became knight of the garter to Henry VIII in 1510. He fought subsequently against France and held the posts of Lord Admiral, then Lord Deputy of Ireland. Howard benefited from Wolsey’s death by becoming President of the Royal Council in 1530, but his influence was gradually lessened by Cromwell’s rise. In 1536 he was summoned to preside over the trial of his niece Anne Boleyn, as well as his nephew George. In the same year he was also charged with leading the fight against the Pilgrimage of Grace’s Catholic uprising in North England, a campaign which was successful.
Howard and Gardiner both stood to gain from Cromwell’s downfall, however this of course depended on Henry VIII’s notoriously capricious favour. Fortunately for them and Cromwell’s other enemies the kings marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1539 – secured by Cromwell – was a disaster, leading to an annulment after 6 months. In addition to this, an alliance which would have bolstered England’s position on the continent failed to materialise. His rivals took the opportunity and conspired against him, resulting in a charge of treason in 1540, and ultimately his execution the same year.
One of the most stunning political ascents in English history, which had seen a blacksmith’s son rise to gain a strangle hold on the power of the nation, was cut abruptly short by the same monarch who had effected it in the first place. Henry’s favour was never unconditional; he demonstrated throughout his reign a willingness to dispatch with those who had disappointed or angered him, and indeed Cromwell had assisted often in the effecting of his king’s displeasure, so maybe it should have come as no surprise when the axe finally swung in his direction. However, his final personal address to the king suggests he still held hopes of appealing to a mercy which had been so viscerally lacking for so long: ‘Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy.’
You can discover more about Cromwell and the other characters who made up Henry VIII’s court at Barley Hall’s special ‘Wolf Hall Comes to York’ exhibition, which includes six of the sumptuous costumes from the smash hit BBC series.