After early travels in France and Italy, Cromwell’s detailed knowledge of Italy enabled him to get a job working for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s powerful first minister and right-hand man, who saw in Cromwell’s humble beginnings something of his own rise to fortune. Under his patronage, Cromwell gained access to the court as Wolsey’s trusted servant, and his career advanced swiftly until he became a Member of Parliament in 1523.
Despite an early alliance with Anne Boleyn, as he enabled Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry his new bride, Cromwell later played a significant role in her downfall and execution. This and the many other intriguing aspects of his life – his relationship with King Henry, the enemies he made during his rise to power and his execution at the hands of Henry VIII – give valuable insight into this fascinating period of history. Cromwell was the orchestrator of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the destruction of many ‘popish’ or superstitious texts, deemed by many modern scholars to be a disaster for English literary history. Cromwell’s suggestion that Henry marry Anne of Cleves in January 1540 following the death of his previous wife, Jane Seymour, ended in disaster, as Henry found her so physically repulsive that he refused to consummate the marriage, blaming Cromwell for his over-flattering portrayal of his new bride.
Cromwell was executed without trial at Tower Hill in July 1540, on the day of Henry’s marriage to Catherine Howard. In history and literature Cromwell has been portrayed variously as merely an agent to the despotic king or the mastermind behind the reformation and the split with Rome. His recent portrayal in Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, was more positive and sought to rebuild his reputation as a ruthless politician, but whatever the truth was, Cromwell played a remarkable role in English history.