Made in Putney, slayed at the Tower: welcome to Thomas Cromwell’s London

Power player: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall (Picture: Company Productions Ltd/Giles Keyte)

London Evening Standard -- As Wolf Hall mania grips the capital, Melanie McDonagh and Susannah Butter tour the Tudor city of a local boy made good.

The hero of Wolf Hall may be Thomas Cromwell, but it’s London that really steals the show. From the first scene, when we see poor, demoted Cardinal Wolsey making his way down the Thames, to amid the splendours of Hampton Court where Wolsey formerly held court, the great events of the day happened in the capital and its hinterlands.

London was only about three miles in circumference then, walled, and the centre of gravity ran between Westminster and the Tower. However, the villages that became the suburbs were already in evidence. It was in one of them, in the wild west of the city, that Thomas Cromwell was born: in Putney, on the edge of the heath. Or possibly Wimbledon. For all that he knocked around Europe in his youth, Cromwell was from first to last a London boy.

The Thames back then was the great thoroughfare that split London in two. It was a tidal river, crossed by one bridge but it was a pretty magnificent one, with arches, buildings, even a church. Getting around the city was best done by river.

Cromwell’s career can be traced in a journey west to east along the river, from Putney to the Tower, passing Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall (the seat of parliament) on the way. Indeed, en route to Westminster, he would have passed by the Chelsea back garden of his great rival, Thomas More.

Henry VIII spent most of his time in London; that was where his most splendid palaces were, notably Whitehall and the Tower (Hampton Court came later.) London was, except during summer, where things happened; the court was where you went to get ahead, to get things done. Just like now, really. Except that, because of the small scale of the city, relations between people were more intimate then than now. Cromwell’s house in Austin Friars was where lots of state admin got carried out.

Cromwell’s most infamous traits, ruthlessness and avarice were borne out in the properties he accumulated. His family first lived in Fenchurch Street and then moved to Austin Friars on Broad Street. Fourteen rooms! Three wings! When he finally made it, he had properties in Chancery Lane, Stepney and Hackney as well, beside the monastic properties he appropriated.

Fittingly, his career concluded in London too: in the Tower, where he had brought so many unfortunates before him. His head was put on a spike on London Bridge. MM


Thomas Cromwell’s birthplace. Today it is all gastropubs and competitively priced homes for young professionals but in the 16th century Putney was a lawless backwater, especially for the son of a brewer and blacksmith who was unafraid to use his belt and fists to enforce discipline. When Cromwell (played by Mark Rylance) eventually leaves his father’s bleak courtyard for a place at the King’s court, Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) warns him to behave because “this is not Putney, you know”. The area’s reputation then has been compared to backstreet Soho — a “Putney barmaid” was slang for a woman of easy virtue until well into the 20th century — and it was somewhere to learn about the less salubrious side of human nature.

If river rat Cromwell went back today, there would still be artisans and a few beer-makers, but the grimmest scene he’d find would be off-duty bankers trying to find Uber taxis after finishing their evenings at Fez nightclub.




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