It possesses, during this period, little or no historical value. ]
The ten years which follow the fall of Wolsey are among the most momentous in our history. The New Monarchy at last realized its power, and the work for which Wolsey had paved the way was carried out with a terrible thoroughness. The one great institution which could still offer resistance to the royal will was struck down. The Church became a mere instrument of the central despotism. The people learned their helplessness in rebellions easily suppressed and avenged with ruthless severity. A reign of terror, organized with consummate and merciless skill, held England panic-stricken at Henry's feet. The noblest heads rolled on the block. Virtue and learning could not save Thomas More: royal descent could not save Lady Salisbury. The putting away of one queen, the execution of another, taught England that nothing was too high for Henry's " courage" or too sacred for his "appetite." Parliament assembled only to sanction acts of unscrupulous tyranny, or to build up by its own statutes the great fabric of absolute rule. All the constitutional safe-guards of English freedom were swept away.
[Authorities. - Cromwell's early life as told by Foxe is a mass of fable; what we really know of it may be seen conveniently put together in Dean Hook's "Life of Archbishop Cranmer." For his ministry, the only real authorities are the State Papers for this period, which are now being calendared for the Master of the Rolls. For Sir Thomas More, we have a touching life by his son-in-law, Roper. The more important documents for the religious history of the time will be found in Mr. Pocock's new edition of Burnet's " History of the Reformation"; those relating to the dissolution of the Monasteries, in the collection of letters on that subject published by the Camden Society, and in the "Original Letters " of Sir Henry Ellis. A mass of material of very various value has been accumulated by Strype in his collections, which begin at this time. Mr. Froude's narrative (" History of England," vols. i. ii. iii.), though of great literary merit, is disfigured by a love of paradox, by hero-worship, and by a reckless defence of tyranny and crime.
Arbitrary taxation, arbitrary legislation, arbitrary imprisonment were powers claimed without dispute and unsparingly exercized by the Crown.
The history of this great revolution, for it is nothing less, is the history of a single man. In the whole line of English statesmen there is no one of whom we would willingly know so much, no one of whom we really know so little, as Thomas Cromwell. When he meets us in Henry's service he had already passed middle life; and during his earlier years it is hardly possible to do more than disentangle a few fragmentary facts from the mass of fable which gathered round them. His youth was one of roving adventure. Whether he was the son of a poor blacksmith at Putney or no, he could hardly have been more than a boy when he was engaged in the service of the Marchioness of Dorset. He must still have been young when he took part as a common soldier in the wars of Italy, a "ruffian," as he owned afterwards to Cranmer, in the most unscrupulous school the world contained. But it was a school in which he learned lessons even more dangerous than those of the camp. He not only mastered the Italian language but drank in the manners and tone of the Italy around him, the Italy of the Borgias and the Medici. It was with Italian versatility that he turned from the camp to the counting-house; he was certainly engaged as a commercial agent to one of the Venetian merchants; tradition finds him as a clerk at Antwerp; and in 1512 history at last encounters him as a thriving wool merchant at Middleburg in Zealand. Returning to England, Cromwell continued to amass wealth by adding the trade of scrivener, something between that of a banker and attorney, to his other occupations, as well as by advancing money to the poorer nobles; and on the outbreak of the second war with France we find him a busy and influential member of the Commons in Parliament. Five years later the aim of his ambition was declared by his entrance into Wolsey's service.
The Cardinal needed a man of business for the suppression of some smaller monasteries which he had undertaken, and for the transfer of their revenues to his foundations at Oxford and Ipswich. The task was an unpopular one, and it was carried out with a rough indifference to the feelings it aroused which involved Cromwell in the hate which was gathering round his master. But his wonderful self reliance and sense of power only broke upon the world at Wolsey's fall. Of the hundreds of dependents who waited on the Cardinal's nod, Cromwell was the only one who clung to him faithfully at the last. In the lonely hours of his disgrace at Esher Wolsey "made his moan unto Master Cromwell, who comforted him the best he could, and desired my lord to give him leave to go to London, where he would make or mar, which was always his common saying." He shewed his consummate craft in a scheme by which Wolsey was persuaded to buy off the hostility of the courtiers by confirming the grants which had been made to them from his revenues, while Cromwell acquired importance as go-between in these transactions.
It was by Cromwell's efforts in Parliament that a bill disqualifying Wolsey from all after employment was defeated, and it was by him that the negotiations were conducted which permitted the fallen minister to retire to York. A general esteem seems to have rewarded this rare instance of fidelity to a ruined patron. "For his honest behaviour in his master's cause he was esteemed the most faithfullest servant, and was of all men greatly commended." But Henry's protection rested on other grounds. The ride to London had ended in a private interview with the King, in which Cromwell boldly advised him to cut the knot of the divorce by the simple exercise of his own supremacy. The advice struck the keynote of the later policy by which the daring counseller was to change the whole face of Church and State; but Henry still clung to the hopes held out by his new ministers, and shrank perhaps as yet from the bare absolutism to which Cromwell called him. The advice at any rate was concealed, and though high in the King's favour, his new servant waited patiently the progress of events.