What if

Henry VIII’S in­sid­i­ous ad­vi­sor is back in his post and bet­ter placed than many to whis­per into the ear of the im­pres­sion­able young Ed­ward VI

All About History - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by David J Wil­liamson

Tu­dor his­to­rian Tracy Bor­man on a world where Thomas Cromwell es­caped ex­e­cu­tion

By the time of his ex­e­cu­tion on the or­ders of King Hen­rry VIII, Thomas Cromwell had clawed and fought his way from be­ing a hum­ble com­moner to be known as one of the most in­flu­en­tial and pow­er­ful men in all of Eng­land.

His fall from grace was by no means un­usual; as vic­tims of Henry’s some­times ir­ra­tional and in­creas­ingly volatile be­hav­iour many had suf­fered the very same fate. But what if Cromwell’s ca­reer had not ended in this way?

What if Henry had not been swayed by Cromwell’s en­e­mies and had con­tin­ued to have him as his most loyal and trusted ser­vant?

Such was the ex­tent of the web of Cromwell’s in­flu­ence that, had he been given the op­por­tu­nity to con­tinue the pic­ture of his­tory for decades, per­haps even cen­turies, could have been so dras­ti­cally changed that it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine it could be at­trib­uted to the ex­is­tence of just one man.

What would have hap­pened to Cromwell’s ri­vals?

We can be sure that Cromwell would have had his re­venge upon his two prin­ci­pal ri­vals, Thomas Howard, Duke of Nor­folk and Stephen Gar­diner, Bishop of Winch­ester, both of whom were re­spon­si­ble for per­suad­ing Henry to have Cromwell charged with trea­son. Each of th­ese men had their own rea­sons to want Cromwell out of the way. As head of a prin­ci­ple fam­ily Nor­folk rel­ished power, in­flu­ence and the king’s favour. Cromwell had got in the way of that and for him to be a com­moner en­raged Nor­folk even more. Howard was to be stripped of his ti­tle and con­demned to death by King Henry, only to be saved by the king’s own death. But with his po­lit­i­cal guile and the ear of the king, Cromwell could well have brought about Nor­folk’s demise even sooner, play­ing on Nor­folk’s am­bi­tion and the un­for­tu­nate fam­ily con­nec­tion to Anne Bo­leyn, a per­son and a mat­ter that Henry was des­per­ate to for­get.

In Gar­diner, Cromwell had both a po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious ri­val. Each had served the for­mer Car­di­nal Wolsey and had clashed over their po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions in the king’s court.

Gar­diner had, how­ever, been kept away from the in­ner cir­cle of in­flu­ence with a num­ber of over­seas diplo­matic post­ings and mis­sions, some­thing which Cromwell could ar­range to con­tinue and neu­tralise him as a threat. They also dif­fered greatly over the form and speed of re­li­gious changes un­der Henry and with Gar­diner out of the way Cromwell could have worked more quickly to­wards his goal of a more re­formist Eng­land.

The Sey­mour brothers (Ed­ward in par­tic­u­lar) were also hos­tile to­wards Cromwell and had sup­ported the plot against him, but they were pretty much un­touch­able be­cause their sis­ter Jane had given Henry his pre­cious son. It could be that Cromwell would have been able to re­in­force a fam­ily con­nec­tion with the Sey­mours fol­low­ing the mar­riage of his son Gre­gory to Jane’s sis­ter. The Sey­mours may have come around to the fact that Cromwell was bet­ter an ally than an en­emy and their own thirst for power, em­bod­ied in Ed­ward Sey­mour as Lord Pro­tec­tor of the young King Ed­ward VI, could have been well sup­ported and ma­nip­u­lated by Cromwell.

How could Cromwell have in­flu­enced Henry’s fu­ture be­hav­iour?

Henry was no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to con­trol in the lat­ter years of his reign, as he be­came in­creas­ingly para­noid and change­able. But Cromwell had proved more suc­cess­ful than most of the king’s other men in judg­ing his mood and sub­tly in­flu­enc­ing his opin­ions and de­ci­sions. He also re­alised that ac­tions spoke louder than words, and had al­ways made it his pol­icy to find out the mat­ters clos­est to Henry’s heart and to make it his busi­ness to work on them to his royal mas­ter’s sat­is­fac­tion.

This had served him well for the decade be­fore his fall and he would no doubt have con­tin­ued with the same strat­egy – per­haps mak­ing amends for the Anne of Cleves fi­asco by help­ing to find a suitable sixth bride af­ter Cather­ine Howard’s adul­tery was dis­cov­ered in 1541. The en­dorse­ment of the King’s favour would have left Cromwell in a strong po­si­tion to serve and sup­port young Ed­ward, Henry’s suc­ces­sor.

Would the re­la­tion­ship with the Church have been dif­fer­ent?

It is likely that Cromwell would have spurred Henry on to even greater re­forms. In his ab­sence Henry had re­verted back to a more con­ser­va­tive stance, but – per­haps with the lure of fur­ther fi­nan­cial gains – Cromwell might have per­suaded the king of the ben­e­fits of mak­ing the English church fully re­formist.

By sidelin­ing Gar­diner and oth­ers like him Cromwell could have made this pos­si­ble and would cer­tainly have been the case un­der the Protes­tant Ed­ward VI where Cromwell’s re­forms could have been con­sol­i­dated and had a greater im­pact, coun­ter­ing any threat of a re­turn to Rome by un­der­min­ing Ro­man Catholic sup­port and iso­lat­ing Princess Mary from her fol­low­ers and power base.

What im­pact could Cromwell have had in Par­lia­ment?

In the years be­fore his death, Cromwell had dom­i­nated Par­lia­ment, push­ing through sweep­ing leg­is­la­tion to ef­fect a thor­ough­go­ing re­for­ma­tion in both re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal life.

It was his favoured arena and his train­ing as a lawyer gave him the skills to dom­i­nate de­bates there.

He would have con­tin­ued to do so, and it’s in­ter­est­ing to spec­u­late that he might have made Par­lia­ment a more pow­er­ful force, per­haps even one that chal­lenged royal au­thor­ity – as his suc­ces­sor (and rel­a­tive) Oliver would do in the fol­low­ing cen­tury.

“cromwell could well have brought about nor­folk’s demise even sooner, play­ing on nor­folk’s am­bi­tion”

Could Cromwell have had any in­flu­ence on the suc­ces­sion?

If he had lived un­til the close of Ed­ward VI’S reign then we can be sure that he would have joined with John Dud­ley, Earl of Northum­ber­land in en­sur­ing Lady Jane Grey’s suc­ces­sion.

The idea of hav­ing the stoutly Ro­man Catholic Princess Mary on the throne would have been anath­ema to Cromwell.

In his will the young king had made his wishes for Jane Grey and her male heirs to suc­ceed him very clear, and with Cromwell throw­ing his sup­port be­hind Jane’s claim, Mary’s sup­port­ers may not have been so con­fi­dent in fight­ing for the crown. Cromwell would have planned his moves with care and then used all his diplo­matic ma­noeu­vrings and po­lit­i­cal ruth­less­ness within the Privy Coun­cil to per­suade and pre­vent them find­ing in Mary’s favour.

Both the princesses were still of­fi­cially il­le­git­i­mate and Cromwell would have used his skills as a lawyer to push the point in Jane’s favour.

As a Ro­man Catholic, Princess Mary may very well have been im­pris­oned rather than ex­iled to only then raise sup­port for her cause. Princess El­iz­a­beth may have be­fallen a sim­i­lar fate at first, although as a Protes­tant would have en­dured slightly more le­niency, to be per­haps then mar­ried off to one of the fore­most Protes­tant fam­i­lies in Europe and help­ing to ce­ment Eng­land in a Protes­tant al­liance.

With Jane Grey on the throne a whole new dy­nas­tic line would have opened up, chang­ing the thread of his­tory as we know it. She was in her late teens when of­fered the crown and there is ev­ery rea­son to think she would have pro­duced at least one male heir.

And there is ev­ery rea­son to think that had he sur­vived, Cromwell would have been for her, as he had been for Henry, a true and loyal ser­vant.

El­iz­a­beth may never have reached the throne, be­com­ing a far less sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in his­tory

Lady Jane Grey fac­ing the ex­e­cu­tioner’s axe. With Cromwell pulling the strings, this might well have been the fate faced by Mary I in­stead

Thomas Howard, third Duke of Nor­folk, was one of Cromwell’s dead­li­est ri­vals and may have met his come­up­pance had he sur­vived Henry VIII’S wrath

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