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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

Hexes in High Places: Thomas Cromwell and the Politics of Magic



Thomas Cromwell by Holbein National Portrait Gallery
Thomas Cromwell by Holbein National Portrait Gallery

My short historical mystery, Wise Enough to Play the Fool, is a Tudor tale. It takes place on 28 July 1540. The execution of Thomas Cromwell and the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine Howard both took place on that day. The story opens from Cromwell’s point of view as he waits for a response from Henry VIII to his letter begging for mercy.


Needless to say, I was able to do some pretty fascinating research! One of the most fabulous books I’ve come across is Francis Young’s Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England. Young devotes several pages to Thomas Cromwell, and I thought I would detail some of the most fascinating things he discovered.


As Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, Thomas Cromwell was forever on the lookout for threats to the Tudor dynasty—whatever their origin. Anyone practicing magic or using witchcraft or prophesy to compass the king’s death would have commanded the Lord Chancellor’s immediate attention.


Such as the case of Elizabeth Barton in 1533. Barton was a nun from Kent, who had a reputation for receiving visions. She spoke out against the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and predicted the king’s death. Political operatives, such as William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Fisher, cultivated and supported Barton as part of a larger campaign against the king’s second marriage. Barton was tried for treason and executed in 1534.


But disposing of Warham and Fisher was not as easy. Cromwell interpreted their complicity as “compassing or imagining the king’s death.” Cromwell, nothing if not a careful lawyer, realized there were no laws against using magic to prophesy the king’s death. Parliament met in November 1534 and passed a law that made such magic treason to:


“Maliciously wish or desire by words or writing or by craft imagine, invent, practice, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person.” (62)


It was this law that ultimately brought down Fisher and undermined Warham for the rest of his career.


Cromwell knew that while prophecy and magic were different in theory, (prophecy involved knowing the future rather than controlling it), it was not difficult for the Chancellor to imagine how one desire might turn into another.


Magical and prophetic plots against the crown did not stop with Barton. And a pattern was developing. Opponents of the king’s religious change routinely attributed “superstitious practices,” including magic, to them. In short, there was a politicization of magic. In the 1530s there was an actively escalating campaign by proponents of reform to discredit Catholic ceremonies as magic.


Cromwell kept a careful eye on religious conservatives and their “magical practices.” Young cites a case that came to Cromwell’s attention in 1536. It was the case of Richard Branktre, a government informant who reported on a fellow parishioner, William Love.


Love was the Cistercian Abbot of Coggeshall in Essex. Branktre accused him of reading anti-royal prophesies, procuring miscarriages by magic, and locating lost objects.


This last one would seem out of place.


Only it wasn’t.


Locating lost objects involved the magical ritual of putting a key inside a bible. The bible was then closed with the key protruding out and suspended by a cord. The diviner, in this case, Love the Abbot, held the key’s bow and spoke the name of potential thieves and the locations of the lost item. If he spoke correctly, the bible and the key would turn.


Cromwell and the government viewed Abbot Love and those like him as traitors and treated this religious deviance as magic. There was very little room between magical rituals like Love performed and those who sought to foresee and control the acts of the kings and his ministers, including Thomas Cromwell.


The suggestion that people were trying to control the king and his ministers remotely by magic was a disturbing one since doing so did not technically violate any existing law. Such practices, however, implied potential harm to the monarch and therefore fell within the remit of a treason investigation and under the office of Chancellor Thomas Cromwell.


But the king’s most faithful servant could face a reversal of fortune. Many Tudor courtiers

and ordinary subjects believed that Cromwell, and Cardinal Wolsey before him,

Cardinal Wolsey
Cardinal Wolsey Portrait at Trinity College, Cambridge, c. 1585–1596

achieved their positions through magic. Young cites one notable case. A necromancer, oddly named Dr. Clene, said he had made a ring for Cardinal Wolsey “with a stone that he wrought many things with.”


The implication was that it was magic that put a butcher’s son so close to the throne, not ability.


Such a belief was not a one-off. Young argues in his book many thought that both Wolsey and Cromwell achieved what they did by magic (65). There were specific incantations a man on a track of upward mobility would recite.


“If thou dost desire the love of any worshipful man, write his name and his mother’s name and bend it under thy right armhole and bear it with thee, and thou shalt have his love.” (65)


Some people were not deterred by the punishment meted out for using magic to compass the king’s death or spells to explain away the success of his ministers. As the 1530s came to a close, this practice seems to have increased.


In the summer of 1540, as Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves ended, many of Thomas Cromwell’s enemies saw an opening to take down the minister. (Cromwell helped to engineer the Cleves marriage. When it floundered, Cromwell’s political opponents used every means at their disposal to undermine the Chancellor.)


Henry VIII declared he could not consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves and sought an annulment.


Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger

In his petition, Henry VIII declared, “I have neither the will or the courage to proceed any further in other matters.” The annulment came about on the grounds of “relative impotence,” a condition attributed to harmful magic. The king’s impotence had direct consequences for the nation. It raised fears that someone might be directing spells against Henry.


As the Cleves marriage disintegrated, Cromwell’s enemies closed in. And they used magic as a political weapon.


One of Thomas Cromwell’s closest assistants was a man named Walter Hungerford. He was Baron Hungerford of Haytesbury, a wealthy landowner and one of Cromwell’s most trusted aids in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


Hungerford’s professional responsibilities involved dealing with disobedient priests, settling matters arising from the redistribution of monastic lands, and arresting people suspected of seditious speech. He would appear, on the surface, to be a solid government employee, carrying out the plans originating in Westminster.


But in 1540, Hungerford was accused of using magic to compass or imagine “the king’s death.” (75). Additional accusations included surrounding himself with known heretics. There was a third accusation of “buggery,” indicating perhaps Hungerford was gay at a time when his orientation was illegal. The government’s specific charge against Hungerford stated he had “used magical arts and the invocation of devils.”


Such a man was not long for the Tudor world.


The crown executed Hungerford alongside Thomas Cromwell on the same day, July 28, 1540.


Was this a case of accentuating Cromwell’s guilt by reinforcing the magical and heretic connection the Chancellor had with a member of his staff?


Well, things might be a little more complicated.


Hungerford, in February 1540, wanted a divorce from his wife. He consulted “Mother Roche” for help with poisoning Lady Hungerford. (Religious and secular law both considered poisoning a diabolical crime since the fourteenth century, since it involves turning food, a substance necessary for life, into something that takes life.) Perhaps to save Lady Hungerford’s life and to prevent his colleague from committing a murder, Thomas Cromwell advanced a bill in parliament for Hungerford’s divorce.


Yet, in February 1540, Thomas Cromwell was still hard at work trying to salvage the Cleves marriage.


Was Thomas Cromwell executed because he helped his colleague end his marriage and would not help the king do so?


We may only speculate.


However, Hungerford’s highly questionable personal practices cannot have reflected well on anyone who advocated for him or called him a friend.


Through the 1530s and into 1540, Henry VIII’s religious policy change reworked 1000 years of tradition. Thomas Cromwell was at the forefront of that effort. No government employee could attempt so radical an assault on local communities without being challenged. Whether that took the form of magic, prophecy, or necromancy, it was likely Cromwell’s bureaucratic effectiveness that ultimately proved his undoing.



 

I’ve linked Francis Young’s book here. I’ve tried to do a small section of it justice and I hope it inspires you to read the whole thing!


And if you are interested in reading or listening to my short historical mystery, Wise Enough to Play the Fool, a historical mystery about Thomas Cromwell’s last day, you can find it here FOR FREE! The audiobook and the ebook!








 

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