Thomas Cromwell’s son Gregory is a delightful character in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy. He is one of my favourite people in the books: I am like the servants at Austin Friars, who ‘cluster round Gregory, admiring him from hat to boots; all servants love him for his pleasant ways.’ (Bring Up the Bodies, Crows).
His pleasure in reading tales of King Arthur; in believing tall stories to give pleasure to the tellers; his uninformative letters (‘And now no more for lack of time’); his kindness to and concern for poor Anna of Cleves – Gregory’s innocent good nature runs through the Trilogy. I see him as a delicate youth, finely dressed in black velvet.
Accordingly to Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent biography of Thomas Cromwell, the real Gregory was younger than has long been assumed thanks to the long-ago misdating of some of his and Cromwell’s letters. MacCulloch argues that Gregory was born in either 1519 or 1520, ‘not 1516 as many commentators have asserted since the early nineteenth century. Much patronising nonsense has been written about Gregory based on that persistent miscalculation of his age. He has frequently been denigrated for not having the educational attainments of a teenager at a time when he was in fact ten years old or less.’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell: A Life, 2018)
When writing her Cromwell trilogy, Hilary Mantel had a suspicion that this might be the case, but didn’t have the archival evidence to challenge these long-held views. During a discussion between Mantel and MacCulloch in the summer of 2019, held at Launde Abbey where Gregory Cromwell lived in the 1540s, Mantel remembered:
So what I did was I very surreptitiously started reducing his age. But I didn’t quite have the courage of my convictions – I didn’t reduce it enough. If I had had the good fortune that Diarmaid had written before my novels, that would have been a big change, because I would then have had chapter and verse for my strong feeling that we were getting Gregory all wrong.Church Times, ‘Make something of me’: creating Thomas Cromwell, 2 August 2019. This discussion can also be heard on the Church Times podcast.
In the trilogy, one of Cromwell’s major preoccupations is to protect Gregory from the realpolitik of the Court of Henry VIII. Prior to the fall of Anne Boleyn, he sends Gregory to stay with a friend out of London, because ‘if he is to place all in hazard, and he thinks he is, then Gregory should not have to go through the pain and doubt, hour by hour. Let him hear the conclusion of events; he does not need to live through them.’ (Bring up the Bodies, The Black Book). Gregory’s tougher cousin Richard, or Cromwell’s chief clerk Rafe Sadler are always with his father, always taking action and supporting Cromwell’s actions and negotiations – while Gregory is shielded from the harsher aspects of life.
But in seeking to protect Gregory, Cromwell also fails to understand him. In Wolf Hall we learn that ‘little about Gregory is clear to him. “What is it,” he asks him, “what’s wrong?” The boy won’t say. With other people,he is sunny and lively, but with his father guarded and polite, as if to keep a formal distance between them.’ (Wolf Hall, An Occult History of Britain). Gregory wants to be recognised as Cromwell’s son, he wants to be useful to him like Richard or Rafe. And eventually, Cromwell’s underestimation is a source of tension and bitterness. As Gregory tells his father, ‘You do everything. You have everything. You are everything. So I beg you, grant me an inch of your broad earth, Father.’ (The Mirror and the Light, The Image of the King)
When I started working on my Weepers, I asked myself who would weep for Cromwell. Would Gregory? At his arrest, Cromwell imagines Gregory ‘inconsolable, crying like a child’, but is told that Gregory is simply ‘pensive’ (The Mirror and the Light, Mirror).
Protective of him to the end, Cromwell decides ‘it is time for Gregory to write a letter repudiating me. He should speak ill of me. Say he does not know how he comes to be related to such a traitor.’ (The Mirror and the Light, Mirror). Gregory’s wife writes the letter for him. Poor Gregory. His whole world has been rocked, the protection he has always known, the stability of Austin Friars, has gone. And so, at the age of just 20, he is one of my weepers.