Historian recreates Thomas Cromwell’s London mansion in exquisite detail
Tudor England was a treacherous place for ambitious courtiers, as the steady rise and sudden tragic fall of Thomas Cromwell—one of the chief architects of the English Reformation under King Henry VIII—makes clear. Cromwell had just completed work on a magnificent private mansion in London when he fell out of the king’s favor and was summarily beheaded. Now, a British historian has produced the most detailed analysis yet of both that mansion and the townhouse in which Cromwell lived prior to its completion, presented in a new paper published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.
“These two houses were the homes of this great man; they were the places where he lived with his wife and two daughters, where his son grew up,” said Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, who authored the new paper. “It was also the place he went back to at night after being with Henry VIII at court and just got on with the hard graft of running the country. No one else has looked at these two houses in quite as much detail, comparing all the available evidence. This is about as close as you are going to get to walking down these 16th-century corridors.”
There was a time when historians considered Thomas Cromwell to be a rather insignificant court figure during Henry VIII’s reign. That view began to shift in the 1950s as historians realized just how much Cromwell may have influenced the king and Parliament during a particularly chaotic period in British history. Much of that chaos, it must be said, stemmed from the monarch’s impetuous nature, particularly when it came to wives.
Cromwell’s star had already been rising at court when Henry VIII first stated his desire to have his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. It was Cromwell who first tried, and failed, to get the pope’s approval for the annulment. So naturally, Cromwell became a staunch champion of the so-called doctrine of royal supremacy, which claimed that the reigning king was also the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thereby granting Henry the power to annul the marriage himself.
Cromwell was instrumental in getting the House of Commons to recognize royal supremacy in March 1532. Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor soon after, marking a huge victory for Cromwell and the reformation movement. Parliament enacted legislation to formally break with Rome in 1534, and Cromwell became the king’s principal secretary and chief minister. More was subsequently executed for refusing to swear an oath of succession to accept the king’s new powers.
Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533, and Cromwell’s position at court seemed secure; the king named him Royal Vicegerent in 1535. Then the marriage to Anne began to sour, driven in part by her inability to give Henry a male heir. But she also instructed her chaplains to speak out against Cromwell because of a legislative disagreement over what to do with the proceeds from the dissolution of monasteries. Plus, the king’s notorious wandering eye had by now fallen on Jane Seymour.
Most historians agree that Cromwell played a key role in smearing Anne’s reputation with accusations of infidelity. She was executed on May 19, 1536, and by the end of the month, Henry had married Jane Seymour, forcing Parliament to issue a new Act of Succession to recognize the new queen. Cromwell’s faithful service was again richly rewarded; he became Lord Privy Seal and was named a baron in 1536. By then, construction of his grand London manor on Throgmorton Street was already underway.
Holder has been researching the medieval friaries of London for more than a decade, and his earliest reconstructions of the floor plans for both the manor and Cromwell’s tenement house near Austin Friars were included in his 2011 doctoral dissertation. This latest paper is the first time Holder has fully presented the historical evidence he gathered to make those reconstructions, drawing on letters, leases, surveys, and inventories. And it includes an artist’s illustration, based on all that research, of what the mansion probably looked like.
Cromwell likely paid 4 pounds a year in rent for his London townhouse—one of ten tenements owned and rented out by an Augustinian friary. There were 14 rooms across three stories, with at least one cellar and a handful of attic garrets in the roof for servant housing. It was Cromwell’s primary family residence; his book-lined private office was located in the ground-floor parlor.
For his reconstruction, Holder relied upon two inventories of the house and its contents, providing a room-by-room description, including the coats of arms of two former patrons, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Grey. According to Holder, this suggests that, despite his ruthless reputation at court, Cromwell still retained some private loyalties.
“In the 1520s, [Cromwell] seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”
Those inventories also provide some insight into Cromwell’s religious leanings. “We think of Cromwell as Henry VIII’s henchman, carrying out his policy, including closing down the monasteries, and we know that by about 1530, Cromwell became one of the new Evangelical Protestants,” said Holder. “But when you look at the inventory of his house in the 1520s, he doesn’t seem such a religious radical, he seems more of a traditional English Catholic. He’s got various religious paintings on the wall, he’s got his own holy relic, which is very much associated with traditional Catholics, not with the new Evangelicals, and he’s even got a home altar. In the 1520s, he seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”
Cromwell had been quietly buying up properties around his London townhouse for several years, including acquiring—by apparently illegal means—a 22-foot strip of land that technically belonged to a neighbor, in order to have a larger garden. (The landowner’s son complained that Cromwell had moved a garden-house on rollers to claim the strip.) Construction was delayed in late 1536 when most of the workmen were conscripted to put down a rebellion in Yorkshire (the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising). Holder estimates that Cromwell spent roughly 1,600 pounds on the residence, which seems to have served multiple functions: family residence, administrative base, and an excellent venue for entertaining prestigious visitors.
The new mansion boasted 58 rooms, plus at least a dozen servants’ garrets and several storage cellars for wine and beer. It spanned two main blocks built around three courtyards, linked by a long frontage on Throgmorton Street and by connecting galleries at the rear of the house with windows overlooking the courtyard. There were several kitchens (including a separate pastry kitchen) on the ground floor, a good-sized larder, a buttery and pantry, a chapel, a stable, and a porter’s lodge.
A large stair tower led to the first floor, which featured a waiting room and parlor, as well as several bedrooms—including what was likely Cromwell’s private and family chambers, located in the west block with a view of the garden. “The family apartment even included a separate bathroom with a plaster ceiling,” Holder wrote. The heated halls were likely hung with rich tapestries, and one of the halls featured bay windows—an unusual architectural feature in Tudor homes. The second floor consisted of a series of bedchambers along the street frontage, likely reserved for Cromwell’s staff and senior household servants. The other servants were probably housed in the various attic garrets.
There was also a storage space for Cromwell’s considerable personal armory, including several sets of German plate armor, almost 100 head pieces and helmets, and 759 bows with hundreds of sheaves of arrows. The large, detached garden may have included a bowling alley and tennis court, although it’s possible these were never finished.
The mansion was completed in the summer of 1539, but Cromwell did not enjoy the luxury for long. Jane Seymour died in 1537, and Cromwell convinced the king to marry Anne of Cleves, passing on reports of her beauty and a flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. But Henry was not at all happy when he finally met Anne in person, declaring, “I like her not!” He still went ahead with the wedding but apparently had trouble performing on their wedding night because he found her so unattractive. The marriage was never officially consummated.
Cromwell was one of only two courtiers who knew that secret, and when it inevitably leaked at court, Cromwell was blamed. Blabbing about the king’s humiliating inability to perform sexually wasn’t exactly solid legal grounds for execution, but Cromwell had made plenty of enemies during his rise to power, and they were all too happy to manufacture a variety of trumped-up charges amounting to treason. “This then is my reward for faithful service!” Cromwell reportedly said, right before he was tossed in the Tower of London and condemned to death without a trial.
Meanwhile, Anne of Cleves was just fine with having the marriage annulled and was rewarded handsomely for her cooperation. Henry next married Catherine Howard on the very day Cromwell was beheaded, July 28, 1540. (Howard suffered the same fate the following year, and Henry subsequently married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr.) I’m sure it was little consolation to Cromwell that the king later expressed regret for executing “the most faithful servant he ever had.” Naturally, Henry blamed his ministers for presenting him with “pretexts” and false accusations.
As for Thomas Cromwell’s grand London mansion, it was among the assets seized by the state; some of the furniture went to Anne of Cleves as part of her annulment settlement. The house remained unused for three years and was then purchased by a trade group called the Drapers’ Company in 1543 for an estimated 1,200 pounds, per Holder. And it’s a good thing the drapers did, since the group’s archives held a “treasure trove” of relevant documents—including the surveys and inventories Holder used to create such a complete picture of Cromwell’s London homes.