This Wednesday 21st January sees the launch of the BBC’s new mini series Wolf Hall. The story by double Booker prizewinner Hilary Mantel is set in the period 1500 to 1535 and covers the reigns of both Henry VII and his second son Henry VIII. The story also features Henry’s most able and trusted minister Thomas Cromwell.
Putney born Cromwell was notable for his achievements, all the more remarkable for his humble origins. He was the son of Walter Cromwell a blacksmith, cum brewer, cum sheep farmer and innkeeper. Walter Cromwell was an irrepressible character whom as as well as a multi-faceted entrepreneur was also something of a small time rogue. He was constantly in front of the local authorities for transgressing boundaries on Wimbledon Common. He was fined sixpence no less than forty eight times for allowing his animals to graze on Wimbledon Common.
Thomas Cromwell was resented by many in Henry VIII’s court. Never before had such a lowborn commoner achieved such high office. Previous historians and filmmakers have depicted Cromwell as a despicable tyrant, brushing aside competitors in his ruthless drive for power. However, recent studies of the man, who left little in the way of autobiographical evidence, show him to be a diligent, hard working, high achiever who fully deserved his elevation as the most powerful man in the realm, second only to the king himself. Eventually becoming Earl of Essex before his fall in 1540.
Also depicted in the story is the equally remarkable Sir Ralph Sadleir, known as Rafe. At the age of seven years, fate decided to place the young Rafe within the wardship of the up and coming Thomas Cromwell. It was not unusual in those days to try and get your son if possible into the wardship of someone like a young lawyer or similar to try and give the boy a good start in life. Such was the destiny of young Rafe. He soon applied himself and fitted nicely into the Cromwell household. By the time he was twelve he was said to be an accomplished horseman, He spoke French and German and by the time he was fourteen had added Latin and Greek. Introduced into Henry's court at about eleven years old, he impressed the king with his abilities, not least his horsemanship and soon accompanied His Majesty on his hunting trips. He quickly established himself at court and before the age of thirty had become successful and wealthy in his own right. He had learned the art of diplomacy from his foster father Cromwell, a man who had mastered the art of staying on the good side of a very whimsical monarch.
One of Sadleir's early tasks was to be sent to Scotland to negotiate a marriage treaty between the infant Mary Queen of Scots and Henry’s son by Queen Jane Seymour, Prince Edward. A task he was unable to deliver despite four attempts at varying stages.
Despite that potentially serious setback Rafe went on to maintain a long and successful diplomatic career. His other offices also brought him a healthy income and after surviving four monarchs, he died in his adopted village of Standon, Hertfordshire in 1587 aged eighty years. His impressive tomb remains in the village church today, a grand tomb befitting a man who was said to have died the richest commoner in the land.
Wolf Hall begins on January 21st at 9pm on BBC2.