In the mid-1530s, at the zenith of his political career, Thomas Cromwell—the chief minister to Henry VIII, the Tudor king known for his many wives and for initiating the English Reformation—began building a new house in London at Austin Friars. One of the “largest and most palatial private residences in the city,” according to BBC News, the 58-room mansion quickly emerged as Cromwell’s seat of power, simultaneously serving as a home for his family, an administrative base and an imposing venue for entertaining powerful visitors.
Cromwell’s estate burned down in the Great Fire of 1666. But thanks to new archival research, history buffs (and fans of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall trilogy, which offers a more sympathetic portrayal of the controversial Tudor statesman), can now envision what the property may have looked like at the height of its owner’s power.
As BBC News reports, Nick Holder, a historian and research fellow at English Heritage and the University of Exeter, scoured letters, surveys, property deeds and other records to reconstruct both the mansion and the humbler home where Cromwell lived prior to its establishment. The findings, including an artistic impression of the estate by illustrator Peter Urmston, are 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. 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,” says Holder in a statement. “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.”
Known for his role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, as well as his own dramatic fall from power just four years after the Tudor queen’s execution, Cromwell was arguably Henry’s “most faithful servant.” As historian Tracy Borman wrote for History Extra in 2014, he served as the king’s “ruthless fixer” and spearheaded the English Reformation on Henry’s behalf, overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries and the kingdom’s shift toward Protestantism. Interestingly, the new research suggests that Cromwell’s Protestant views developed slowly, as a 1520s inventory of his house paints him as “more of a traditional English Catholic” than a “religious radical,” says Holder in the statement.
“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,” Holder adds. “In the 1520s he seems like much more of a conventional early Tudor Catholic gentleman.”
Work on Cromwell’s second home began in July 1535, when the minister was still renting a comparatively modest, 14-room townhouse for around £4 each year. He spared no expense when constructing the estate: Per Grace Hammond of the Yorkshire Post, he spent at least £1,600 (around $1.9 million today) on the project, including some £550 on land acquisition.
Likely inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture, the mansion boasted heated halls adorned with tapestries, specialized parlors, a personal armory filled with enough weapons to equip a small army, a large garden (possibly featuring a tennis court and bowling alley), and servants’ quarters. Guests slept on cloth of gold, damask and velvet bedding.
Holder tells CNN’s Jeevan Ravindran that Cromwell, who was born the son of a blacksmith but experienced a meteoric rise to prominence in large part due to his shrewdness and skill, had high hopes for the new property: “He wants a grand London mansion, with impressive gateways and bay windows that sort of stick out over the street.”
The estate’s construction experienced delays, most notably in October 1536, when the uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace took place in the northern counties of England. Per the statement, all 80 workers employed at the site were sent to help put down the revolt, which found tens of thousands unsuccessfully rebelling against Cromwell’s Reformation policies. Work was only completed around 1539, leaving the statesman “barely [any] time to enjoy the finished house before his downfall” in the summer of 1540, as Holder writes in the study.
In another History Extra article, Tracy Borman argues that Cromwell’s fall from favor was precipitated in part by the Pilgrimage of Grace, which shattered Henry’s faith in his chief adviser and his radical reforms. Though Cromwell sought to return to the king’s good graces by arranging his marriage to Protestant Anne of Cleves, Henry quickly grew dissatisfied with his new bride; some six months after the couple’s January 1540 wedding, the king notoriously had the union annulled—and had Cromwell arrested on charges of treason.
Exactly 481 years ago, on July 28, 1540, the disgraced minister was beheaded at the Tower of London. In the words of one contemporary chronicler, Cromwell suffered three blows of the ax by a “ragged and butcherly” executioner. The crown took control of Cromwell’s possessions and, in 1543, sold his much-loved Austin Friars estate to the Drapers’ Company.
Henry, for his part, continued to profit from Cromwell’s foresight long after the latter’s death.
After selling the mansion, the king sent “a note to the Drapers’ Company, demanding to be sent Thomas Cromwell's prized damson plum tree from the garden,” Holder tells CNN. “So having confiscated armory and tapestries and fine quality beds, it’s almost like a few months later, Henry suddenly remembered, ‘Ooh, there’s some decent fruit trees. I could get my hands on those.’”