Q: I would have assumed that they would have hated each other, being on opposite sides of the religious divide, but every time I read a book about either of them the relationship seems closer. I believe Mary Tudor even referred to herself as his “loving friend”. Surely this wasn’t the case?
Tracy Borman: Mary Tudor and Thomas Cromwell were diametrically opposed in every way that mattered. She was a staunch Roman Catholic; he a reformist who masterminded the destruction of the monasteries and England’s break from Rome. She was the daughter of Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon; he helped engineer the annulment of their marriage so that the king might marry Anne Boleyn. Thanks to Cromwell, Mary suffered the misery and humiliation of being demoted from heir to the throne to illegitimate outcast.
And yet, on the surface at least, relations between the two were cordial. Their letters were filled with respectful, even affectionate sentiments. These should not be taken at face value, however. Even the fiercest of enemies would disguise their antipathy with the elaborate, courtly language of the Tudor age. Thus, Elizabeth I referred to her most deadly rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, as her “beloved sister” right up until the point when she ordered her execution.
Nevertheless, there did seem to be a rapprochement between Mary and Cromwell after Anne Boleyn’s death in 1536. It was even rumoured that the king’s chief minister harboured secret plans to marry the Lady Mary so that his heirs might inherit the crown of England. There is little reliable proof that Cromwell ever presumed so far. Even if he had, it is highly unlikely that Henry VIII would have sanctioned such a marriage, or that Mary herself would have agreed to it.
In fact, the real reason behind the apparent cordiality between Cromwell and Mary during the mid-1530s was that he was trying to persuade the king’s stubborn eldest daughter to acknowledge the invalidity of her parents’ marriage and accept her father’s new status as supreme head of the church.
When Mary continued to resist, Cromwell dispensed with the niceties and bluntly told her: “To be plain with you, I think you the most obstinate woman that ever was.” The gloves, at last, were off.
Answered by Tracy Borman, author of Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen (Jonathan Cape, 2009).
This Q&A was first published by BBC History Magazine in 2011