Thomas Cromwell’s life before Henry VIII

Much has been written about Thomas Cromwell, the self-taught ‘Putney boy’ who went on to become the henchman of Henry VIII and who brought down Anne Boleyn, only to suffer the same fate. But long before establishing himself as the king’s trusted adviser, Cromwell spent much of his early adulthood in Europe, namely Italy

Thomas Cromwell © Hi-Story / Alamy

Little is known about this period in his life – what exactly was the son of a London brewer doing on the war-torn peninsula? Here, Dr Catherine Fletcher, a lecturer in public history at the University of Sheffield, explores Cromwell’s ‘Italian years’, and reveals how his time in Rome influenced his views on religion…

As far as we can tell, after leaving England early in the 16th century Cromwell joined the French army and found his way south. There had been war in Italy since 1494. In this period the peninsula was divided into numerous different states: Florence, Naples, Venice, Milan, the Papal States and many smaller territories. In alliance with the big European powers – France on one side, the holy Roman empire on the other – they fought to expand their influence. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Borgia family held the papacy, while the Medici [a very powerful family] were in exile from Florence.

Shortly after the death of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) in 1503, Cromwell fought with the French against a Spanish army at the battle of Garigliano. The Italian wars were notorious for the extensive use of mercenary troops, and Cromwell would have been one of many foreigners – Swiss pikemen, German landsknechts – fighting on Italian soil at this time. Niccolò Machiavelli famously described mercenary armies as “disunited, ambitious, without discipline, disloyal... they have no fear of God, they keep no faith with men”. We don’t know whether this was Cromwell’s experience: we do know that he ended up on the losing side. The French were defeated at Garigliano.

Cromwell made his way to Florence, where he met Francesco Frescobaldi, a banker. Frescobaldi took the young Englishman into his household, providing him with clothing and money. The tale of Cromwell at Garigliano and his subsequent encounter with Frescobaldi is told in a series of rather romanticised stories by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello. It shouldn’t be taken at face value, but the connection between Cromwell and Frescobaldi is substantiated by a letter of 1533.

Florence had a very different political system from England’s. There was no monarch. The city was ruled by a series of councils and committees, though in practice government was dominated by a fairly small number of leading families. The most famous of its civil servants was Machiavelli, whose name became a by-word for political cunning and duplicity. (That isn’t a fair depiction of Machiavelli’s political thought, but since the later sixteenth century it has been a popular image.)

There is no evidence that Cromwell and Machiavelli met, but the timing of Cromwell’s stay in Florence has long invited speculation. From Cardinal Reginald Pole in the 16th century onwards, critics of Cromwell accused him of being ‘Machiavellian’. In the play A Man For All Seasons [written by Robert Bolt in 1960], where Cromwell is very much the villain, he’s supposed to be familiar with the doctrines of Machiavelli’s famous little book, The Prince. (For debate about The Prince and Wolf Hall, see David Rundle’s blog with comment from Hilary Mantel.)

There is better evidence for Cromwell reading other great works of Italian literature. He agreed to loan Edmund Bonner, who, like Cromwell, was one of Cardinal Wolsey’s protégés, a copy of Petrarch’s Triumphs. In 1530 Bonner wrote to Cromwell asking if he might also borrow a copy of Baldassarre Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. Castiglione was a courtier and diplomat, and his book, which enjoyed international success, was a kind of guide to operating at court. His courtiers were advised to cultivate an air of nonchalance (the closest word we have to the Italian sprezzatura), to hide their skill and effort behind a facade of ease and grace.

After his stint in Florence, Cromwell spent time in the Netherlands, a centre for the textile trade, where many of the Florentine banks maintained branches. Their international networks facilitated all sorts of transactions for Henry VIII and fellow European rulers, importing and exporting everything from artworks to textiles to weapons. Antonio Bonvisi, who features in Wolf Hall, was a London-based banker and merchant from another Tuscan city, Lucca.

Cromwell also went back to Italy. In 1514 he stayed at The English Hospice in Rome, which provided accommodation to visiting pilgrims. It exists to this day as the Venerable English College, a seminary for the training of priests. Cromwell was far from the only member of Henry’s administration to have spent time in Italy: the peninsula’s universities – Padua, Bologna, Perugia and others – attracted numerous English students, particularly aspiring churchmen.

Cromwell was in Rome again in 1517–18 to secure indulgences for the guild of Our Lady in Boston. By now, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici had been elected pope, taking the name Leo X. Cromwell is supposed to have won Leo over with a gift of sweetmeats, quickly obtaining the paperwork he needed. He might also have picked up some political tips. In the spring and summer of 1517, Leo moved ruthlessly to secure his own power. He packed the College of Cardinals with friends and supporters, and arrested three cardinals on charges of plotting against him. One of them, Alfonso Petrucci, was sentenced to death, and was executed by strangling.

Historians still debate whether the plot existed or whether Leo framed his enemies, but certainly the incident would have been well-known to their fellow cardinal Thomas Wolsey. More generally, Leo’s worldly papacy drew the wrath of religious reformers. It was on his watch, also in 1517, that Martin Luther famously pinned his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther and his followers caricatured Leo as the Antichrist, denouncing the wealth of his church and contrasting it with the poverty of the early Christians. Did Cromwell’s time in Rome influence his views on religion?

But perhaps the Italian connection we’re meant to be thinking of is not so much a link to the 16th century as to the 20th. As Hilary Mantel noted in an interview, Cromwell does have “something of that dark glitter of the mafia boss about him”. I’ve been fascinated by the way the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall plays on the subliminal association between ‘Italianness’ and intrigue. It draws minds not just to the Borgias and Machiavelli, but to more recent images of Italy too. For some Mafia-style ‘offers you can’t refuse’, in short, look no further than the Tudor court.

Dr Catherine Fletcher was a historical adviser on the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. A lecturer in public history at the University of Sheffield, Fletcher specialises in early modern British and European history, and the Italian Renaissance and its reception. You can follow her on Twitter @cath_fletcher

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