Artists of Northern Europe, Books, portrait miniature, Portraiture, Renaissance, Tudor portraiture

The Cromwell Enigma – A Review

The Cromwell Enigma by Derek Wilson, published by MaryleboneHouse.

When it comes to Thomas Cromwell (1485 – 1540), what more of an enigma can there be than the paucity of detail for the years he spent abroad prior to becoming the indispensable secretary to Cardinal Wolsey and then the man who administered the affairs of England for Henry VIII.

Derek Wilson’s latest novel explores what might have happened during the years that Cromwell left England as a teenager and returned a man conversant in the law, international trade, with a network of connections throughout Europe.  All of this is seen through the eyes of the poet, Nicholas Bourbon (1503 – c1550) who is sent by Marguerite of Navarre (1492 – 1549) to England in order to find out whether the rumour of Cromwell’s arrest and possible execution is true. 

Thomas Cromwell (1485 – 1540). Hans Holbein (1447/8 – 1543) Frick Collection, New York.

Wilson builds a highly plausible story based on historical fact and where these are lacking, fills the voids with believable fiction.  Fact: Bourbon had been at the French court during the time Anne Boleyn had been an attendant to Queen Claude of France (1514 – 1521).  Anyone who knows anything about Boleyn will know that they were similar in age.  In 1533, Bourbon’s verses got him into trouble with the Church authorities and he was thrown into a Paris prison.  Thanks to Anne, who persuaded her now husband, Henry VIII to intercede on Bourbon’s behalf resulting in the poet’s release.  

Nicholas Bourbon (1503 – 1550). Hans Holbein (197/8 – 1543) Sketch. 38.4 x 28.3 cms.
Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle.

Bourbon came to England after his release in 1534 and mixed with all the great and the good.  He even sat for Hans Holbein, but only the sketch survives in the Royal Collection.  Bourbon’s religious beliefs were reformist, resulting in his having to tread a wary step in the late 1530s.  By this time our poet had been engaged as tutor to Marguerite of Navarre’s twelve year old daughter, Jeanne d’Albret (1528 – 1572).  

Jeanne d’Albret (1528 – 1572). School of  François Clouet,
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

This is the end of the history lesson regarding Nicholas Bourbon because we have little detail of his life after his employment at the court of Marguerite of Navarre.  

Marguerite of Navarre (1492 – 1549). Jean Clouet (1480 – 1541).
Walker Gallery, Liverpool.

However, in Wilson’s tale Bourbon returns to England in 1540 in search of news where he comes into contact with fellow poet and friend of Cromwell’s, Thomas Wyatt (1502 – 1546), who describes Cromwell’s execution in detail.  The book has many original quotations, and here we have Wyatt’s sonnet ‘On the Death of Thomas Cromwell’.  Wyatt’s sonnet that captures the affection the poet had for both the man and the visionary.  Other quotations throw much light on the various individuals and sometimes, especially in the case of John Skelton’s poem, Why Come Ye Not to Court?, Marguerite of Navarre’s The Hemptaméron and Balthasar Hubmaier’s , Heretics are Those who are Born Thus (1524), the atmosphere of time and place.

 From London Bourbon travels to Antwerp where he meets the head of the English ‘house’, Stephen Vaughan (d1549) who gives him the casket containing Tom Crom’s very personal papers that were spirited away from London before the Cromwell house was searched from top to bottom and everything removed – on the king’s orders.  Vaughan was very committed to the reformed religion and managed to survive Cromwell’s fall.  

Cromwell was always very reticent about his origins and at his downfall, Henry VIII ordered all the Cromwell papers destroyed, but for someone as canny as Cromwell it is quite believable that his very personal papers may have been kept in a separate box, possibly together with keepsakes of his past. The device of a casket is pure fiction, but a plausible one.  When alone, Bourbon opens the  small casket and finds top half of a crucifix that has been broken in two.  This sets a puzzle that is only finally resolved in the very final pages.

Before this denouement the reader follows Bourbon to Italy, who has been told that this is where Tom Crom learned his state craft with the Frescobaldi family.  The Frescobaldi family is still prominent in Florentine society, but in the late 15th and early 16th century, they were prominent bankers and merchants, having branches in the Low Countries.  In particular they had had a long association with England and the English kings via the wool trade and providing finance for various wars in the 14thc.  By the 16th century, various twists of fate meant the Frescobaldis were no longer of the first rank of Florentine influence, but even so they were still powerful and also exporters of fine Tuscan wine.  

In our tale, Bourbon meets with the various members of the family.  He discovers that the young Tom Crom was a popular lad, always at the centre of any adventure that young apprentices might be involved in.  While in search of people who might have further information about England’s late minister’s time in Florence and whether or not he might have known Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), Bourbon goes out in search of another person to quiz about the various exploits of the young Cromwell. He is grabbed by the priests of the Inquisition and thrown into prison where he becomes acquainted with a young artist, Antonio, who has also fallen foul of the Dominicans. Thanks to the calling-in of favours by the Frescobaldis the pair are sprung from their cell and flee, eventually reaching the port of Livorno and taking a Frescobaldi ship that is bound for England with a cargo of wine.  (Fact: The Frescobaldi family had been producing wine since 1308  and supplied Henry VIII with wine. The family archives still hold contracts signed by the king).

Having landed in Southampton, various influential doors are opened thanks to the agents of the Frascobaldi family. Bourbon and his companion come to London where they are contacted by Sir Richard Cromwell (1502 – 1544).  (Fact :Richard took his wife’s name and dropped his own name of Williams, as he married Cromwell’s sister, Elizabeth.  He is Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather).  

Sir Richard Cromwell (1502 – 1544)? 1600 copy of a lost Holbein original.

Thanks to Richard, our hero and his companion spend the Christmas of 1540 at Hampton Court Palace where the king and the nineteen year old queen are celebrating Christmas.  Here Bourbon meets Lady Elizabeth Cromwell (née Seymour)(c1518 – 1568), who had managed to ensure her father-in-law’s fall from grace did not mean that her husband, Gregory Cromwell (1520 – 1551) and therefore her own fortunes, should suffer.  

Elizabeth Cromwell (née Seymour) (1518 – 1568). Hans Holbein (1497/8 – 1543).
Toledo Museum, USA.

Wilson’s portrayal of Elizabeth is one of strength and resilience, in contrast to that of her rather vapid country loving husband.  As an aside, Teri Fitzgerald’s recent research into the Toledo Portrait that has been thought to have been of various women.  Fitzgerald’s research is absolutely first class and some years ago she identified a previously unidentified portrait miniature of a boy by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543) as being of a young Gregory Cromwell.  This research was co-written with Professor Sir Diamaid MacCulloch and published in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

Gregory Cromwell (1520 – 1551) c1535. Hans Holbein (1497/8 – 1543). 3.8 cms dia.
Royal Collection, The Hague, Brussels.

To return to the tale; Elizabeth invites the pair to visit the Cromwell country seat, Launde Priory, to meet the very elderly Mercy Prior, Thomas Cromwell’s mother-in-law, whom she says will be able to tell Bourbon more of the early history of the executed minister.  Suffice it to say, there is a plot afoot because there are those who wish our poet ill because certain interested parties do not wish the king to be reminded of Master Cromwell, most of all his daughter-in-law, Elizabeth.  

After many twists and turns, Bourbon and his companion artist Antonio find out a smidgin of information about Tom Crom’s very early years, but at the risk arrest and probable death.  They escape the Priory and Bourbon goes to Oxford while Antonio finds himself a market in London for painting portraits thanks to the Italian mercantile contacts.  In the final scene Bourbon heads for Putney where he finally solves the riddle of the broken crucifix and the very deep and personal reason for Thomas Cromwell’s obsession for religious reform.    

The weaving of fact and fiction is masterly combining theories regarding Cromwell’s downfall with imagined scenes of early modern Antwerp, Florence, and of course Tudor England, using the vehicle of real historical people and filling in the voids left by documented history with educated imagined ideas.   This type of story-telling is only possible by someone who is deeply immersed in the history of the period and capable of taking the skeleton of facts and dressing it in imagined scenarios to create a highly entertaining and very believable tale.

The Cromwell Enigma is published by MaryleboneHouse, an imprint of SPCK Publishing. 

This is the link to Derek Wilson’s website :

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.