Ancestors II: Wolsey's Disciples

August 9, 2017

They really are box office, those Tudors. 

From amongst even the most impressive, melodramatic and powerful royal families in the world, somehow they still stand separate, their fame fueled by a seemingly insatiable appetite for stories and tales of their often gruesome deeds and fascinating lives. Even the men and women who lived with them have become household names, their stories retold, their legacy, once monstrous, recast and reinterpreted for modern minds.
In her new book, The Woman in the Shadows, Carol McGrath places her protagonist right at the centre of the intrigue, in a position to observe all the great people of the period, to see them and hear of their lives. Through the eyes of his wife, Elizabeth, Carol charts the rise of that most infamous of men, Thomas Cromwell.
Like many, I am drawn to this era. In my case it is because of a familial connection to the court of Henry VIII. In 1515, the Butlers, my family, became embroiled in a feud with their English cousins, the Boleyns, over the land and titles of the Irish earldom of Ormond. King Henry VIII, as you might have guessed, was persuaded in favour of the Boleyn claim, but his chief minister of the time, Cardinal Wolsey, threw his support behind the Irish warlord, Sir Piers Ruadh Butler, the heir-male. In 1520 his son, James Butler, was sent to Wolsey's household for his education and it was there, I surmise that he would've met and possibly befriended Cromwell and his wife.
Carol was kind enough to take some time out to investigate and to give me a peak into the world of Wolsey's household and to open the door on Elizabeth and Thomas Cromwell's life together in England during the 1520s.



Carol, thanks for taking part in this look at the link between James Butler and Thomas Cromwell. I suppose the first question should be: how did Thomas end up working for the cardinal?

Cromwell achieved a place in Wolsey’s household through a relative. The date he entered Wolsey’s service is the subject of conjecture. Some historians say as early as 1514, others as late as 1525. Robert Cromwell, a cousin, may have helped his cousin to the stewardship of York Place which was Wolsey’s London residence.

It was not until 1518 that he rose as a protégé of Wolsey and by 1519 was on Wolsey’s council. From then on he wore black and tawny velvet livery as did other men in the cardinal’s service. He was principally demolishing monasteries, only five or six, that were unprofitable, at the Wolsey’s behest. John Foxe said that he had several offices for Wolsey, was of excellent wit and fidelity.​​ Wolsey came to admire him and he was close to Wolsey. Both were self-made men and were witty, intelligent, shrewd and industrious. Cromwell made himself indispensable to Wolsey and being ambitious saw advancement. He did much for Wolsey when Wolsey was in disgrace but he must have been put in an intolerable position. He secured for Wolsey a pardon in 1530. He got Wolsey back the Archbishopric of York, but Wolsey was not satisfied and the rest you must read for yourselves!
As for what Elizabeth thought, we do not know. In The Woman in the Shadows, I suggest that she was wary of court and of Wolsey too, warning Thomas not to get too close. Elizabeth died before Wolsey’s disgrace. I end the book before her death but with a warning. Read it and find out!
Now Piers Butler. I think that Cromwell was not involved in the issues with the Boleyns and the Butlers. The Boleyns tried to make a marriage for Anne with young Butler but unfortunately for all concerned it fell apart. How different history might have been had it not!

Yes, Cromwell would have met Piers for sure, but I have not read anywhere that he was involved in any legal case between the Butlers and the Boleyns in circa 1520. He would have been aware as he was by then part of Wolsey’s council. I don’t think Wolsey ever interacted with Elizabeth Cromwell either and I doubt she personally knew him.
At this time 1520, Cromwell was involved with demolishing small monasteries in the north and was not even elected to Parliament until 1522. He also was Steward of York Place and he undertook some legal work for minor courtiers.



I suppose the act for which Cromwell is generally remembered is the Dissolution of the Monasteries. James Butler was the first Protestant member of that family and I wonder if he might have been influenced by Cromwell's religious leanings.

​The relationship between Cromwell and James Butler was outside the remit I set myself and I wonder if one should look more closely for evidence of it during the 1530s. During the 1520s such religious fervour was covert and dangerous. Cromwell was not openly talking about religious reform but I do believe that he was interested from at least 1517.

I address this in The Woman in the Shadows. He was interested in so much that I suggest a meeting between Cromwell and Tyndale, certainly not Butler, and I doubt Piers Butler would have openly questioned the issue of transubstantiation that early, and not in Wolsey’s household. I explored this in fiction because Cromwell was interested in the Bible as translated into the vernacular. Even that was dangerous in 1520. Elizabeth, as I portray her, was conservative in her views. This is really more a novel about a marriage, and I seek tensions within the marriage, rather than anything to do with courtiers other than touching on them.

However, King Henry later looked at the Early English Church as an inspiration for a Royal Church and diminished power from Rome. This may well have been at Cromwell’s suggestion. Cromwell questioned and was a realist, but even Thomas More believed in a degree of reform but in a conservative way. More just did not question the practice of transubstantiation, the Pope’s leadership and the other trappings such as reliquaries and indulgences. Though he did see misuse, More was very conformist and idealistic. Wolsey was more like More. He saw the need for Monastery reform but not radical change. I think Cromwell was still on a non-conservative pathway in the period of The Woman in the Shadows. My Elizabeth is most concerned and rather devout!
Thank you for providing such thought provoking and interesting questions! If I do look at the 1530s closely in due course I may look deeper at the religious question.



Tell me more about Elizabeth Cromwell. What is her background?

Elizabeth, like many historical women is shadowy. Here are some facts we do know, gleaned from sound secondary sources such as Tracy Boreman and Robert Hutchinson’s biographies of Thomas Cromwell.

Hutchinson writes that Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry Wykes a cloth-worker of Putney. He had been a gentleman usher to Henry VII. He says that Elizabeth was the well-off young widow of Thomas Williams, a Yeoman of the Guard. The couple settled in a house in Fenchurch Street after their marriage circa 1514/15. Cromwell was an agent for businessmen and dealt in cloth himself. He had a number of servants working for him. Tracy Borman places their marriage in 1514. She suggests that through his father in law, Henry, Thomas had a tenuous link to court. He got through his father in law a foothold in the English cloth trade.
Elizabeth was a woman of wealth and property from a good family. Thus I felt I could allow her an education and give her a plausible story. As a writer of historical fiction I speculate and feel I can do so. I allowed her to inherit a cloth trade and for her to keep a secret owned by her first husband and to allow this to drive a part of the narrative. Widows could choose their own husbands and so I let her choose Cromwell and created a love story for them. After all, though he has his own secrets and possibly an illegitimate child born circa 1520, he never remarried after Elizabeth’s death.
She is an intelligent woman married to a phenomenally intelligent man. She had a brother, Henry and a sister called Joan. Her mother, Mercy, once widowed, lived with the Cromwell family in the Austin Friars house by 1530.



And Cromwell?

I believe Cromwell to have been intelligent, ambitious and tough. I think he was determined to be upwardly mobile and made good opportunities that came his way. This was not unusual. It was a hard society with an insecure and rather suggestible King, and the nearer one came to those associated with the King the more sycophantic and self-protective one grew.
I was happier to work on a characterisation that possessed inert traits of determination and ambition but knowing that at an early stage in his timeline they had not come into play quite as much as later in the 1530s.
Thomas Cromwell was a family man without doubt, and it is on the record that Elizabeth was liked and respected by his intellectual friends. He was known to be good company and social. He trusted longstanding friends and placed those he trusted in positions as he gained power. Ralph Sadler, for instance, was in his household as a boy. He was totally loyal to Cromwell even after Cromwell’s execution when he, himself was in danger.
Cromwell was also always loyal to his masters. He did not trust the world of nobility though he joined it in his final years. He had significantly put protective rights on his properties in 1537 in case anything happened to prevent his son claiming them after his death. How aware was this move? Without doubt, Thomas Cromwell, a humanist, was also interested early on in religious reform. It was his undoing in the end. He was accused of heresy. Henry VIII believed in transubstantiation and was conservative in his religious beliefs.

Are there places where you had to make The Woman in the Shadows more 'fiction' than 'historical'?

Elizabeth would have run the household though I imagined she had a hand in the cloth trade. I don’t know if the Williamses really owned such a trade. It is a guess, but her father did. Marriages were often for links between families.
I wanted to give Elizabeth purpose, other than a marriage, to create a storyline that was plausible. I allow her an interest in fabrics as Cromwell, in his early years, was involved with guilds and parishes in which he dwelled. The couple lived amongst the merchant class, although the move to Austin Friars, an upmarket neighbourhood, was made up of minor nobility, foreign merchants and diplomats such as Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador. Yes, absolutely he trusted his wife. Elizabeth did keep an eye on his businesses whilst he was away.
Borman writes, ‘What patchy evidence there is of Elizabeth’s life at Austin Friars gives the impression that it combined domestic duties with supporting her husband’s career.’
In November 1525 he sends her a deer he had killed on a hunt, whilst suppressing Begham Abbey, and in an existing letter to her, asked her to perform a number of business errands for him. Elizabeth acted on his behalf reporting comings and goings at their home during his absences. She also received gifts from men eager to win his favour. She would, in addition to these duties, have superintended the early phase of their three children’s education.



Thank you so much for this really interesting piece, and the best of luck with the newly published novel. The Woman in the Shadows is available in all good bookshops and also HERE
Find Carol on her website:





Carol McGrath has an MA in Creative Writing from The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen's University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in Creative Writing from University of London. The Handfasted Wife, the first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 was shortlisted for the RoNAs in 2014. The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister complete this best-selling trilogy.

Carol is working on a new medieval series, The Rose Trilogy, set in the High Middle Ages.

She speaks at events and conferences on the subject of medieval women, writing Historical Fiction, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Fabrics, Tapestry and Embroidery as incorporated into fiction. Carol was the co-ordinator of the Historical Novels Association Conference, Oxford in September 2016 and reviews for the HNS.





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