Two extraordinary men. William Marshall and Thomas Cromwell. Both started out with practically nothing: William Marshall had a more established background but as a younger son would inherit nothing but his ability, Thomas Cromwell was the son of a Putney blacksmith but between them in the times in which they lived, they rose to be the most powerful men in England after the King.
Until about 1860, William Marshall was an obscure name whose seal is attached to a number of important medieval documents, not least the original Magna Carta and several later (and even more important versions of the same).
Then one day, in Sotheby’s, London, a document came up for sale that would rapidly change that. The document in question, listed as Lot 51 was an unassuming bundle of vellum, about the size of an ordinary book, in a dark brown leather binding, rather worn and dating from the sixteenth century. Described in the catalogue as a “Norman-French chronicle on English Affairs (in Verse)”. Perusing the items in a pre-sale viewing was an eminent French scholar called Paul Meyer, the self-same Paul Meyer who would be called as a key witness in the infamous Dreyfus Trial in 1898.
Paul Meyer turned the pages of this little book, the elegantly decorated caligraphy in black ink, arranged in two columns excited his curiosity, his interest piqued Paul Meyer sat down to wait for the bidding. The British Museum was outbid, as was another well known archivist, Sir Frederic Madden, by Sir Thomas Phillipps; this bibliophile bought no less than thirty-four other items from the Savile sale and spent £350 on Lot 51.
Thereafter, and even after Sir Thomas’ death, Paul Meyer pursued this manuscript. But to his dismay, the Norman-French manuscript was not listed in the catalogue. At last in 1881, he found this misplaced chronicle, he had it before him. What he had found was the account of the life of a medieval knight, in verse, probably composed in 1220. The life of Guillaume le Maréchal, William Marshal, the first ever biography of a subject, not a famous King or Queen, not even a Saint, but an ordinary man.
Perhaps not so ordinary either. William Marshal was born at the time of King Stephen, when England was in the midst of a terrible series of battles to decide who would be King (or Queen) of England. A time that the contemporary chroniclers described as a “time when God and his Saints slept”.
William, aged about five, was made a hostage in the King’s court as a surety of his father’s good behaviour, but even so this did not stop the old William Marshal from rebellion, based he said on the fact that he had the “anvil and hammers to forge even finer sons”. At least three times, this little boy was led to the gallows but in the end, Stephen was too soft-hearted to execute him. A wise decision, since William Marshall went on loyally and faithfully to serve no less that five English monarchs, in his late seventies acting as Regent (or Guardian of the Realm) to Henry III.
This was a time of great upheaval. From 1252 when King Stephen failed to execute him until 1219, William Marshal negotiated a position of increasing power and wealth through the reigns of Henry II, (Young Henry, who died before he had succeeded to the throne), Richard I, John and finally Henry III. A time when chivalry was in its infancy and the ideas of loyalty, honourable knightly behaviour and fealty were being forged out of the unsettled exigencies that existed between England and France. A time in which powerful English barons and the King owned lands on both sides of The Channel, with endless dismal exhibitions of disloyalty as the Capetian Kings of France tried desperately to oust the English from the Angevin inheritances of Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine – lands held through their relationships to William the Conqueror and to Henry II’s astonishing marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The second “nobody” who rose from obscurity to become the most powerful commoner in England, was Thomas Cromwell. Born, probably around 1485, and also at a time of uncertainty – The Battle of Bosworth had placed a Tudor on the throne that same year – Thomas Cromwell left London and worked in Europe (notably Italy and Antwerp) variously as a mercenary and a scribe and possibly a number of other things for which there is little evidence now. Returning to London as a young man, fluent in French, Latin and Italian he joins the mercantile enterprise of his father-in-law, and may also have diversified into a growing interest in legal practice. The elusive nature of the evidence of his early youth makes it impossible to say for certain where he was at any one time, or what exactly he was doing. The first concrete evidence, apart from his entry into the Putney baptismal record, comes in 1520 when his name appears in a legal document executed on behalf of the Prioress of Cheshunt, Hertfordhsire. Earlier documents may exist, and many historians attribute to him similar work, but this is the first dateable piece. All that can be said with certainty is that by 1520 he had established himself in London, with a wife and at the heart of London’s legal and mercantile communities.
As a highly litigious society, it is not surprising that an able lawyer might eventually end up in the king’s service. By 1530, Thomas Cromwell can be found belonging to a professional group from which an increasing number of Crown servants were being drawn.
There is no dispute that eventually Thomas Cromwell was engaged in work for the King’s chief minister, Thomas Wolsey. Argue as you may about exactly when this relationship began, what is without doubt is that Thomas Cromwell became Wolsey’s right-hand man and was loyal to him even to the bitter end. His early life, therefore, was that of a fairly typical commoner in the sixteenth century, demonstrating that ability could outweigh birth.
Once he entered into the King’s service however, sometime around 1529 to 1530, his rise was steady and inexorable. In 1531, he joined the King’s Council, by 1535 one visitor to the court described Cromwell as living “splendidly…as remarkably fond of pomp and ostentation in his household and in building”. He moved on to become the King’s Chief Minister, the break with Rome and Anne Boleyn, and the Church reformation had not a little to do with it. But Cromwell was not the Machiavellian monster that many have presented, a more nuanced view – equally challenged by contemporary historians – has arisen, largely as a result of the novels of Hilary Mantel.
What remains without doubt and what links him by a tenuous thread to the life of William Marshall, is that they both rose through ability, tact, loyalty to a pinnacle of achievement, in their endings they were markedly different. William Marshall died peacefully at home in his manor in Caversham, surrounded by his family and was buried with honour in The Temple Church where his tomb can be seen to this day and Thomas Cromwell died on the scaffold, discredited and abandoned by the capricious monarch whom he sought to serve.
Another new book has arrived about him. The Rise of Thomas Cromwell – Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII by Michael Everett.