Book Reviews

The Cromwell Enigma by Derek Wilson,

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.

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. 

Wilson builds a highly plausible story, based on historical fact.  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.  

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 daughter, Jeanne d’Albret (1528 – 1572).  End of the history lesson of the life of Nicholas Bourbon because after his employment at the court of Marguerite of Navarre, we know little detail.  

However, in Wilson’s tale Bourbon returns to England 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’.  Some of the various quotations highlight the depth to which Cromwell fashioned contemporary thinking, but it is 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 plausible 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, since the 14thc.  By the 16th century, various twists of fate mean 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).  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.  

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 published in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

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 for painting various portraits thanks to Italian mercantile contacts living in London.  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 new 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 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 :

Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister by Heather Darsie. Published by Amberley 2019

At last an insighful investigation into the political reasons for the Cleves marriage of 1540. Using both English and German prime and secondary sources, Ms Darsie explores why it was that Henry VIII pursued a political alliance through marriage with the Duchy of Cleves. For Tudor fans it is important to remember this is the only one of Henry’s many marriages entered into after the advent of the Protestant Reformation that has an overt political element. We are given an insight into the mindset of both the king and his advisors during a period of religious turbulence within Europe. Despite Henry having broken from the Church of Rome and the various reforms such as the Bible being translated into English, Henry chose to marry a woman who was clearly a Catholic who, in 1557, was the only one of his wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey. This opens up various avenues of thought for even the most superficial reader.

By providing an insight into the education of aristocratic German women we learn that the Cleves daughters were well equipped to be sober administrators of any noble household into which they married. Not for them the frivolous pursuits of music and dancing so beloved of the English and French courts. Ms Darsie’s description of Anna’s education tells us with what was expected from all women destined for a European dynastic marriage. That Anna was neither a musician, skilled dancer nor did she engage in learned debates is documented ad nauseam elsewhere, but this biography highlights how her education rendered her a very capable administrator that enabled her to live as a single woman in a foreign land. Ms Darsie suggests that it is Anna’s example of being able to live as a single woman that may have had a profound influence on her younger stepdaughter who eventually became Elizabeth I. A nice thought, and one which will no doubt be argued for some time.

The one thing I wish had been included are maps of Cleves and the surrounding principalities, duchies, and lands of the various margraves and electors of northern Europe, but thanks to the wonders of the internet it is easy to print one off. It will help a reader understand the importance of Cleves both politically and for trade.

Those who have read books by Alison Weir and Amy Licence that are also published by Amberley, have often made the comment that these popular and prolific authors should make more use of footnotes. This observation has also been made about this latest Amberley publication. I suggest that the lack of footnotes is not the fault of the authors and may be a restriction placed on them by the publisher. If so, then I appeal to Amberley that they review this restriction, but would suggest to all writers that if something is important enough to warrant an extensive footnote then put it in the body of the text.

I see from Ms Darsie’s brief autobiography that not only does she hold a BA in the German language as well as a juris doctorate, she is now pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Early Modern History at the University of Northern Illinois. Her narrative style demonstrates her knowledge of the German language as some of her sentence structures are what might be described as ‘interesting’. This does not distract from the forensic analysis Darsie has made of the surviving English and German prime sources. She has a clear understanding of the political events that were tearing Europe apart during the Protestant Reformation and I hope she will pursue studying this aspect of 16th century history.

Clearly, this biography is going to rattle a few cages. If anyone is expecting a fluffy Disneyfied regurgitation of Tudor propaganda, this book is not for you. The rambling censorious reviewer on Amazon was clearly not expecting a political history, therefore I invite them to write their own biography of this English queen. During their researches they will find that all the aristocratic titles Ms Darsie lists for Anna, Duchess of Cleves, are correct. From their comments it is obvious is that this reviewer has never observed Anna’s signature on the various surviving notarised documents, or, if they have, perhaps they are unable to read the hand.

I will be adding this latest biography to the reading list I give to my students of Tudor history. Well done Heather. I look forward to your next book.