Thomas Cromwell: the best Italian in all England

Diarmaid MacCulloch reveals how the Tudor statesman's love of Italian culture transformed his political fortunes – and changed the course of England's Protestant Reformation

In c1500, the young Thomas Cromwell travelled from his humble Putney home to the great cities of Italy, as shown in our illustration. The connections he established on the Italian peninsula would prove key to his meteoric rise to power back in England. (Illustration by Sarah Young for BBC History Magazine)

For an early Tudor English traveller, Italy was to England as London was to the villages that dotted the nation. Imagine, then, how the teenage Thomas Cromwell felt when, around 1500, he left the constraints of Putney, a Thameside backwater that had yet to be engulfed by the sprawling capital, and wandered as far as the Italian peninsula.

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This was not the sophisticated Cromwell of later years – the chief minister and fixer who helped Henry VIII to engineer the annulment of the monarch’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon – but the unmistakably provincial son of a Surrey tradesman. He was a lad travelling from a kingdom on the European margins to the very centre of continental culture. In Italy, he would surely have marvelled at the sheer number of great cities – their size, wealth, energy and independence.

Once over the Alps, Cromwell would also have noted a bewildering variety of styles of government, very different from the unusually centralised kingdom of England. Many Italian cities were still republics, where a say in government was dispersed among the population to a greater or lesser extent.

Italy was central in Europe’s story. Cromwell knew the Roman walls of London, but they were nothing compared with the mighty remains of ancient Rome to be found in Italy. Reminders of past glories were everywhere. The Bishop of Rome bore imperial titles, and, besides being ‘pope’ for the church of western Europe, was temporal monarch over wide lands in central Italy. The influence of ancient Rome was vital and alive in the peninsula’s contemporary architecture, art and literature, producing a startlingly different style from England’s Gothic.

Young Cromwell himself was too insignificant to leave much trace in Italian archives – something in keeping with our lack of knowledge about Cromwell as a young man. The obscurity of his Italian years is only illuminated through an Italian novella by a prolific author and occasional bishop, Matteo Bandello, teasingly titled Francesco Frescobaldi Shows Hospitality to a Stranger. When Tudor England’s prime Protestant historian John Foxe, author of the great Acts and Monuments (‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs’), wrote an admiring account of Cromwell’s life, he was so fascinated by the tale that he commissioned a specially translated abridgement.

Bandello records something so specific that it does not sound like an invention: Cromwell’s presence with the French army as it clashed with Spanish forces at the battle of Garigliano just north of Naples on 29 December 1503, when Cromwell was probably not yet 20.

Bandello’s story then turns to Florence, where he has Cromwell rescued destitute from the city streets by merchant banker Francesco Frescobaldi. Later in the tale, Cromwell, as a powerful Tudor politician, would return the favour and help Frescobaldi.

The product of a great Florentine mercantile family, Frescobaldi did indeed later suffer financial difficulties, and wrote to Master Secretary Cromwell in October 1533 to pledge his gratitude and continued service. Nevertheless, Bandello has created a fairy-tale around a real story. This Francesco Frescobaldi was born in 1495 and was therefore unlikely to have helped a teenager about twice his age in the first decade of the 16th century. Perhaps the charitable deed was performed by Francesco’s father, Girolamo, or his elder brother, Leonardo.

Abiding influence

In subsequent years, Cromwell’s continental adventures took him to the Low Countries – modern Belgium and the Netherlands – and he prospered there in the cloth trade, international commerce in which the Frescobaldi firm had a large share. Nevertheless, he never forgot Italy. The seasoned traveller Richard Morison repeatedly turned to Italian when writing to him, sometimes to convey a particularly confidential thought, but elsewhere just to be agreeable. Cromwell himself had learned not just Italian but ‘humanist’ Latin, a form that eschewed medieval influences in favour of writing and even speaking the language as an ancient Roman statesman would have known it. He shared Italian books with friends and colleagues. In 1530, Edmund Bonner, future bishop of London, begged him to fulfil his promise to forward Petrarch’s I Trionfi and Castiglione’s newly published Il Cortegiano (‘The Courtier’) so Bonner could pass time in darkest Yorkshire improving his Italian.

Cromwell spent his growing wealth on a house in Austin Friars, a favoured area of London’s Italians

Another long-standing friend of Cromwell’s who shared his love of things Italian was Henry Lord Morley, an exceptionally cultured nobleman. Sometime in the late 1530s Morley made Cromwell a present of Niccolò Machiavelli’s best-known works, the History of Florence and The Prince, in Italian editions.

Cardinal Reginald Pole, who went into Italian exile after refusing to support Henry’s divorce from Catherine, came to hate Cromwell as an agent of Henry VIII’s crimes – including killing Pole’s mother and other relatives – and repeatedly called the royal minister a disciple of Machiavelli. That was at least one step down from calling him Satan, as Pole did on other occasions.

More broadly, much of Cromwell’s career rested on being the best Italian in all England, as a job he undertook in his 30s for the expanding Gild of Our Lady at Boston in Lincolnshire illustrates. There were thousands of gilds in English parishes, associations of parishioners for all sorts of purposes, but especially so that they could employ a priest to pray for their souls. Boston Gild was one of the wealthiest, and to keep up its work in the parish church of the town, it sold indulgences: pardons granting a shortening of time in purgatory. Gild profits needed constant defence against rival enterprises and matters came to a head in 1517 when a battle royal for control of the English indulgence market broke out.

Boston turned to Thomas Cromwell for help. In the accounting year Whitsun 1518–19, he accompanied Geoffrey Chamber, gild secretary, on an expedition to Rome. Foxe described Cromwell’s special contribution with relish, a perfect anecdote to illustrate papal worldliness and corruption. Cromwell followed the pope on the hunting field, and secured renewal of Boston’s bulls by charming His Holiness with the aid of fine dishes of English jelly, serenaded by singers demonstrating English three-part harmony. So Pope Leo, “knowing of them what their suits were, and requiring them to make known the making of that meat… without any more ado, stamped both their pardons”.

Parish xenophobia

This Boston mission was one mark of a late-blossoming career – a career that would see Cromwell rise to the ranks of England’s most powerful men. In 1523, he entered service with the Marquess of Dorset, and spent his growing wealth on a house in one of London’s most expensive quarters: the precinct of Austin Friars (near the present Liverpool Street station). It was a significant choice. Austin Friars was a favourite with the Italians of London, who found it more congenial, or simply safer, to worship in a friary church than face xenophobia in a parish church. More prosaically, they might thus escape demands for tithes.

Cromwell added to his growing estate in the late 1520s by buying up one of the most lavish Austin Friars houses from its rich Florentine occupants, the business partners Pier-Francesco de’ Bardi and Giovanni Cavalcanti. Predictably, the Bardi and Cavalcanti were close allies of the Frescobaldi.

Cromwell stayed only a year with the marquess before entering the service of Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, in spring 1524. Why did Wolsey poach Thomas Cromwell from Dorset, when he had swarms of middle-aged jobbing lawyers to choose from? The answer is the cardinal’s legacy project: a huge tomb, outclassing the tombs of kings, as well as memorial colleges at Ipswich and Oxford.

Historians have not paid enough attention to the centrality of the tomb in Wolsey’s decision to employ Cromwell. The vital clue is provided by letters written when Wolsey’s inability to secure Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon had brought the cardinal disaster. One was addressed to Wolsey on 31 January 1530 by the Florentine Benedetto Rovezzano, chief sculptor working on the tomb. He was seeking a final reckoning of his accounts before returning to his wife and children in Florence, from whom he claimed to have been separated for a decade. It had been Cromwell, said Rovezzano, who arranged the contract with Antonio Cavallari, the king’s agent for gilt work. Conspicuously, Rovezzano had received his first payment in June 1524, soon after Cromwell entered Wolsey’s service. (Rovezzano, incidentally, praised Cromwell as “a man of great talent and exceptional skill”.) This clearly suggests that the key to Cromwell’s employment by Wolsey was his ability to deal with Italians.

At war with Anne Boleyn

Cromwell clearly came to adore Wolsey and, after the cardinal’s fall from grace, registered a version of Wolsey’s arms as his own heraldry. This was a brave and pointed thing to do during the ascendancy of Anne Boleyn, who loathed Wolsey and saw him as obstructing her path to marriage with Henry. It was Boleyn who took it upon herself to lead the cardinal’s many enemies in destroying him in 1529. And yet when Wolsey was deprived of the chancellorship, accused of the vague but terrible crime of praemunire for exercising the pope’s jurisdiction in England, Cromwell did not desert him. He entered the king’s service without an official title, but was in effect royal secretary “for Wolsey-related affairs”, doing his best to lessen the cardinal’s troubles.

Among all the reasons that Henry might want to use this man was one very specific demand for the Anglo-Italian: the king wanted that beautiful tomb for himself. Henry seized everything, and cannibalised for his own projected monument all parts with no specific Wolsey reference. Cromwell was paid 20 marks after Wolsey’s death “for the king’s tomb”, and went on liaising with Rovezzano, now back from Florence to resume his work.

So much follows from Cromwell’s exotic early career and the way it played into his spectacular later career. Was he a follower of Machiavelli? Perhaps. More plausibly, as Wolsey’s apprentice, his actions can be interpreted as putting into effect the cardinal’s interrupted plans for reform. In England, Wolsey wanted to streamline church government with more bishoprics and fewer monasteries, but also sought to promote social justice by curbing the drive to enclose communally farmed arable land for sheep-grazing by single powerful rich farmers. In Ireland, he wanted to revive the moribund royal administration in the island and to take closer control of the church. Cromwell took all this up again.

While the Italian reformation was exposed, crushed and scattered abroad, Thomas Cromwell’s endured

Yet in one area Cromwell went much further than Wolsey intended: he became the main force in England’s Protestant Reformation. Again, Italy is key to understanding what happened here. Wolsey’s schemes for church reform were paralleled in Italy by efforts of some senior churchmen to revitalise their dioceses. Around them gathered a penumbra of intellectuals with religious views as risky as Cromwell’s turned out to be. They have been called ‘Nicodemites’, hiding unorthodox religious views and practice amid conformity to official religion. As John Calvin pointed out sarcastically when coining the label, Pharisee Nicodemus had only dared come to see Jesus by night. Wolsey had no need to conceal his intentions or beliefs in such a fashion, but his faithful servant had gone much further, to embrace Protestantism and the Reformation.

Cromwell’s Nicodemism led him to sponsor Bible translation in English based on the work of William Tyndale, a man whom Henry came to hate. Cromwell deftly and discreetly secured the king’s consent to an official Bible that was substantially Tyndale’s work. Just as momentously, Cromwell developed quiet contacts between early English Protestants and the Protestant city-state of Zürich, again without troubling to tell Henry. In consequence, England’s Protestant Reformation aligned with Switzerland rather than Luther’s Germany. When Henry turned against Cromwell, and had him condemned for heresy and treason, the heresy charge was actually very accurate.

Cromwell’s religion, therefore, may be one of the most important consequences of his years in Italy. His Nicodemism contributed to the Reformation that he promoted openly and aggressively during the 1530s in the king’s name: hidden in plain sight. Its permanent results became apparent only after his death in 1540, in reformations under Edward VI and Elizabeth.

Because of this posthumous result, Cromwell’s religious programme must count as the European Reformation’s most successful Nicodemite enterprise. The Nicodemites in Italy ran up against churchmen determined to reassert the old faith without concessions to anything that looked like Protestant reform; with the aid of a new papal inquisition, they were crushed and scattered abroad by the counter-reformation. By contrast, Thomas Cromwell’s reformation endured. Under the tutelage of his most accomplished imitator, Queen Elizabeth I, it gave us the Church of England.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the history of the church at Oxford University. His latest book, Thomas Cromwell: A Life, was published by Allen Lane in September

You can listen to Diarmaid MacCulloch discuss the life of Thomas Cromwell on the History Extra podcast

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This article was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine