Rags to Riches, Fighting Fortune and Thomas Lord Cromwell

It’s now day 5 (well actually it’s closer to day 7..) The joys of having a book recalled to the library mid-play have meant that I am a little behind on the play-a-day project. But with the weekend fast approaching I will catch up – promise! Having already read The Arden of Faversham, Locrine, Edward III and The Spanish Tragedy (the extended edition). Today’s play, the next in the  book Shakespeare and Others: The Collaborative Plays, is Thomas Lord Cromwell. Now chances are the only Cromwell you’ll have heard of is that bloke called Oliver, unless you’re an English history buff, or you’ve read all the renaissance plays – in which case, hats off to you! I grew up in a little city called Ely, and I remember on several occasions visiting Oliver Cromwell’s house there, partly because as far as tourist attractions go, besides the cathedral and his house that’s pretty much it. But mostly I remember him as the bloke who cancelled Christmas, ok not quite, but mainly the man who made mince pies illegal. Ok, not specifically mince pies, but any kind of festive food that might encourage happiness was strictly forbidden. I think the image of the puritan (which was the kind of bloke Oliver was) that has stuck with me are the puritans of Blackadder. The one’s who want to burn more Catholics to eradicate the cold.

Anyway, that’s enough about Oliver, this play is about a different Cromwell: Thomas Lord Cromwell, a minister of Henry VIII and the other couple of Thomases (Wolsey and More) also had plays written about them or appeared in plays like Cardinal Wolsey. Here’s a handy Wiki synopsis of who Thomas Cromwell was. Just to put it into context.

And here’s the eponymous (a word which to me always seems like you’re describing a villain) bloke.

Boy does he look a happy chappy (you might also recognise him from the books by Hilary Mantel where he plays a part).

And now, as they say, on with the play! The play title itself, gives little away but is written in the manner of a classic history play (by Shakespeare and other playwrights of the time).

THE TRUE CHRONICLE HISTORY OF THE WHOLE LIFE AND DEATH OF THOMAS LORD CROMWELL. As it hath been sundry times publicly acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamerberlain his Servants. Written by W.S.

The play begins in the shop of old smithy Cromwell, Putney and they’re starting bright and early at 5am. One smith is mad he can’t take his nap because of all the racket Master Thomas (that’s Thomas Cromwell) makes reading in his study and then he has a cracker of a line:

I do verily think he’ll read out of his wits

I can understand that! The dangers of reading.. She says reading the play as part of a play-a-day challenge. No wonder. To work it is for them but not before an obligatory beer. Yes, that’s right at 5. But then the water back then was hardly drinking material.

Cromwell (jr) is clearly a morning person as the first line he utters “Good morrow, morn, I do salute thy brightness” sounds remarkably cheery for the hour or maybe he just really likes the sunshine. He loves to read and study, probably not ideal if your dad happens to own a business where hammering is part and parcel of it. Speaking a bit like Prospero, from The Tempest, he complains

My books is all the wealth I do possess

And unto them I have engaged my heart.

O learning, how divine thou seems to me,

Within whose arms is all felicity. —

Peace with your hammers! Leave your knocking there:

You do disturb my study and my rest.

Leave off, I say, you mad me with the noise

His father appears and reminds Thomas that it is such “noise” and work as this which has enabled him to support the life of his son and “keep thee like a gentlemen”. He tells him to get out if he can’t stand the noise. Ungrateful and sensitive boy. To which Thomas throws money at the smith-workers, sparking more anger from his dad. That’s not the way he bought him up. But mr high-and-mighty Thomas declares “the time will come when I shall hold gold as trash” once he’s made it. This whole saga with the rich, poor and desire to improve one’s position really reminds me of Dickens, particularly the dynamic to be found in Great Expectations. Maybe it’s the blacksmiths that do it.

Pip at the opening of Great Expectations

His Dad is even more unimpressed and blames his mum’s desire to send young Thomas to University (the impression of University as a place where people change and not always for the better is nothing new) creating this “saucy boy!”

Thomas considers the distribution of wealth kings who were once beggars and beggars who were once kings because “from the dunghill minions” (not those of Despicable Me) “do advance” though their “fathers were the riff-raff of their age” – charming – but at least it gives him hope to become a self-made man. Comparing it to the small beginning of a river which may gradually turn into the Thames.

Next up we meet Bagot the broker and he’s a real barrel of laughs:

I hope this day is fatal unto some,

And by their loss must Bagot seek to gain

It reminds me of Mr Podsnap who, at least at the beginning of Our Mutual Friend (I have yet to finish the novel), loves to leech off the wealth and success of others, dead or alive. He’s had Banister arrested (for owing money) in the hope he will profit from organising the suit. Banister (yes I chuckled at the name when I first read it too, not just for sliding down apparently) knows he’s being used describing Bagot as “a cannibal that doth eat men alive” he’s so poor he can barely feed his kids and have had to sell everything dear to them. They promise to only eat one meal a day and to sell the rest to get more money to pay off the debt. Compassionate Friskiball says they may pay but only if they come upon the money, the Banisters are very happy and even get a dinner invite from Friskiball. Bagot curses him and claims he “will be revenged” for this injustice.

Chorus begins Act II and sets the scene, placing all the characters and it’s all kicking off in Antwerp.

Thomas wants to travel not to live “cloistered like a nun,” he runs into Mrs Banister who’s crying about Bagot. He’s heard of her husband and the debt problems, she begs him to help and to stop the pursuit from Bagot.

Sadistic Bagot rejoicing that Banister is rotting in prison and hope the rest of the family will die in grief and poverty. Cromwell thinks he can change Bagot’s nature from one who “will not stoop to any pity” to one who is more “liberal to those that stand in need and in distress”. Bogot thinks Thomas admirable but needs money to live, to which Thomas retorts that he would rather be chained to an oar than lead the kind of “base” life of Bagot. Bagot promises (falsely) to help Banister and Thomas decides to continue travelling “to see the fruitful parts of Italy”

A man of Old Cromwell appears gushing with news, Thomas confused expects the worst but Hodge (the man) assures him that all is well at home. Hodge agrees to accompany Thomas to the moon and back (well at least to Italy) and off they trot to dinner.

Bagot meets with the governor and they debate on a price for jewels (almost as badly as in the episode of The Apprentice this week). Gov tells Bagot to consider how misfortune may strike anyone, urging him to reform and to set free Banister who has fallen into hard times. Mrs Banister curses in prayers Bagot for the punishment he has caused them.

Bowser, a merchant, enters with mail and tidings. Apparently these jewels heard of earlier were robbed from the King by a man since hanged who sold them on to Bagot who has now fled to Antwerp. Now the Pink Panther theme tune is playing loudly in my head. It’s the jewel thieving that does it.

Lo and behold here’s Bagot and the jewels all in one room. Perfect! He’s off to be tried but would rather die

Mischief, confusion, light upon you all!

O hang me, drown me, let me kill myself!

Let go my arms; let me run quick to hell.

Turns out Bagot was very wealthy indeed, and thanks to fortunate events Banister is also to be released from debt. Gov invites the Banisters to dinner.

Cromwell and Hodge looking rather worse for wear, robbed by the Bandetto. They must work for money to repair their fortunes, leave notes of their poor fortunes and wait below the bridge to be rescued. Friskiball bails them out with 48 ducats for clothes, horses and food – gives them his last penny. He invites them for dinner but Cromwell must go to Bologna to rescue the earl of Bedford. Hodge wants to keep begging (cheeky) but Cromwell urges him on.

Bedford not happy about the French wanting to kill him off, they want him as prisoner and then dispatch him to France but he’s not having any of it. Cromwell enters in disguised a Neapolitan having told the French he would turn him in instead he plans to save him. Gives him clothes (a clown costume) to dress disguised and escape, Hodge meanwhile swaps clothes with him for he is to pretend to be the Earl. Hodge writes hilarious letter to his old boss, which is penned whilst he sits “amongst the Bolognan sausages” and mentions names they take to be noblemen he is a “lord parodie”. Cue a messenger from Mantua (where Bedford and Cromwell had fled) revealing Hodge’s true identity and demanding his immediate release, threatening the removal of the truce. The “fool” Hodge leaves with the brilliant line “I’ll leave the greater fool with you.” Bam. Fine words!

Chorus opens Act III and gives a sparknotes of the act. And there’s a time difference.

Sir Christopher Hales (another new character) hosts a banquet at which Cromwell is also present. Wolsey, More and Gardiner are guests. Compare English and Spanish custom and food. Hales pitches Cromwell as a well-travelled “scholar and a linguist”. Cromwell talks of the sin to be found in Europe, particularly the lusty nations of France, Italy and Spain. Cromwell offers his services to the three guests and they welcome him. Gardiner with open arms. Wolsey appoints him as legal secretary.

Chorus opens Act IV which tells of the increased fortunes of Cromwell. He’s made it. But the play doesn’t have space to talk about all the good parts, or Wolsey’s life, because “our play depends on Cromwell’s death” so this act will tell of changes in fortune again for Cromwell, “his height of rising and his sudden fall” just like a Greek tragedy, Aristotle would be proud.

Cromwell, Norfolk, Suffolk, More, Hales, and Gardiner enter, clearing up unfinished business following the death of Wolsey who’s been plotting against the state. Cromwell turns in the evidence. Cheer up Cromwell cries Bedford I can save you now, vouch for you as you once saved me before.

Hales considers fickle fortune and the way the wheel may turn unpredictably

Gay honours are but fortune’s flatteries

And whom this day pride and promotion swells,

Tomorrow envy and ambition quells

They compare Cromwell to Icarus and other overreaching figures, certain of his death.

Not yet! Norfolk arrives with great news for Cromwell the King wants him to be the Master of the Jewel House, Suffolk Knights him and Bedford brings news that the King wants Cromwell to be Lord Keeper of His Privy Seal and Master of the Rolls. Titles on titles on titles. Pessimistic Gardiner is less pleased and says “I fear this climbing will have a sudden fall” he’s jealous doesn’t want Cromwell to be remembered as greater than he, or worse still instead of him.

Friskiball is now very poor (fortune’s wheel again..). Cromwell repays and rewards Seely and his wife for the kindness they once showed to him. Cromwell and Gardiner discuss religion and the antichrist among other things, abbeys pulled down etc, Gardiner is not happy with Cromwell’s unrelenting destruction.

Father and son Cromwell reunion.

Banister and wife prepare dinner and are saddened to see the poor fortunes of Friskiball – the tables have turned.

Merhents enter and discuss the comic reason as to why bishops wear long blue coats. Well worth checking out (IV.iv) when you read the play.

Friskiball is given money by Cromwell for rescuing him in the past before dinner.

Gardiner employs two witnesses to brand Cromwell a treasonous traitor, he wants him pulled down just like the abbeys. Gardiner discusses how Cromwell is the only Thomas remaining of the three original crowd. Norfolk, Bedford, and Suffolk are told Cromwell wants to kill the King they doubtful of his “greatness” are saddened by this news but believe it may be likely. (Bedford isn’t) Gardiner plots to use an act Cromwell created himself to execute him without a trial.

Bedford wants to prove that Gardiner is false and Cromwell is true. Off to the lion’s den aka Lambeth’s palace for Bedford and Cromwell, Cromwell dismisses the letter from Bedford for tomorrow. Lining the banks of the river (as Cromwell approaches by barge) Norfolk, Suffolk, Gardiner and many armed men accuse Cromwell of being a traitor arguing for his arrest to the Tower. Citizens are confused and saddened by the news. He reads the letter of warning from Bedford. If only he’d read it sooner!

He blames his hunger for knowledge and power in his heart-wrenching words:

Learning kills learning, and instead of ink

To dip his pen, Cromwell’s heart blood doth drink

Cromwell asks Gardiner to give the king a message of his falsity, urges Sadler to give a letter to the king of his behalf after which willingly he goes to meet death. Harry Cromwell (his son) enters and he gives him advice and a blessing, after hugging Bedford Cromwell is taken off to be executed. His head is brought through. Just seconds to late Sadler enters with news that the King wished to see Cromwell. But “reprieves comes now too late” and Gardiner knows he has done wrong, but it’s all too late and on that tragic note the play ends.

Cromwell, this play shows, was a good man who had earned his high position through hard work only to be thwarted unjustly and as a result of his kindness by his kinsman besotted by jealously that a poor boy could be place on equal footing with them. Fortune can be cruel and this is vividly illustrated in the play.

This play was a real mix of themes, plots and approaches, but in the tradition of a Greek tragedy, or the renaissance tragedy of Faustus the classic overreacher, this history comprises a lovely collection of tales, many which seemed to me to be Dickensian in nature, all wrapped up under the heading of the life of Sir Thomas Cromwell.

Coming up next is Sir Thomas More, and until then I’ll leave you with the opening sentence to the play’s introduction in Shakespeare & Others: “it begins on the street, nastily.”


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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5 Responses to Rags to Riches, Fighting Fortune and Thomas Lord Cromwell

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