It is only through the stray depositions of royal spies that we catch a glimpse of the wrath and hate which lay seething under this silence of the people. For the silence was a silence of terror.
Henry VIII Makes Himself Head of the Church of England, featuring a series of excerpts selected from A Short History of the English People by John R. Green published in 1874. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
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It is only through the stray depositions of royal spies that we catch a glimpse of the wrath and hate which lay seething under this silence of the people. For the silence was a silence of terror. Before Cromwell’s rise, and after his fall from power, the reign of Henry VIII witnessed no more than the common tyranny and bloodshed of the time. But the years of Cromwell’s administration form the one period in our history which deserves the name that men have given to the rule of Robespierre. It was the English “Terror.” It was by terror that Cromwell mastered the King. Cranmer could plead for him at a later time with Henry as “one whose surety was only by your majesty, who loved your majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God.” But the attitude of Cromwell toward the King was something more than that of absolute dependence and unquestioning devotion.
He was “so vigilant to preserve your majesty from all treasons,” adds the primate, “that few could be so secretly conceived but he detected the same from the beginning.” Henry, like every Tudor, was fearless of open danger, but tremulously sensitive to the lightest breath of hidden disloyalty; and it was on this dread that Cromwell based the fabric of his power. He was hardly secretary before spies were scattered broadcast over the land. Secret denunciations poured into the open ear of the minister. The air was thick with tales of plots and conspiracies; and with the detection and suppression of each, Cromwell tightened his hold on the King.
As it was by terror that he mastered the King, so it was by terror that he mastered the people. Men felt in England, to use the figure by which Erasmus paints the time, “as if a scorpion lay sleeping under every stone.” The confessional had no secrets for Cromwell. Men’s talk with their closest friends found its way to his ear. “Words idly spoken,” the murmurs of a petulant abbot, the ravings of a moon-struck nun, were, as the nobles cried passionately at his fall, “tortured into treason.” The only chance of safety lay in silence.
“Friends who used to write and send me presents,” Erasmus tells us, “now send neither letter nor gifts, nor receive any from anyone, and this through fear.” But even the refuge of silence was closed by a law more infamous than any that has ever blotted the statute-book of England. Not only was thought made treason, but men were forced to reveal their thoughts on pain of their very silence being punished with the penalties of treason. All trust in the older bulwarks of liberty was destroyed by a policy as daring as it was unscrupulous. The noblest institutions were degraded into instruments of terror. Though Wolsey had strained the law to the utmost, he had made no open attack on the freedom of justice. If he shrank from assembling parliaments, it was from his sense that they were the bulwarks of liberty.
But under Cromwell the coercion of juries and the management of judges rendered the courts mere mouth-pieces of the royal will; and where even this shadow of justice proved an obstacle to bloodshed, parliament was brought into play to pass bill after bill of attainder. “He shall be judged by the bloody laws he has himself made,” was the cry of the council at the moment of his fall, and by a singular retribution the crowning injustice which he sought to introduce even into the practice of attainder, the condemnation of a man without hearing his defense, was only practiced on himself.
But, ruthless as was the “Terror” of Cromwell, it was of a nobler type than the Terror of France. He never struck uselessly or capriciously, or stooped to the meaner victims of the guillotine. His blows were effective just because he chose his victims from among the noblest and the best. If he struck at the Church, it was through the Carthusians, the holiest and the most renowned of English churchmen. If he struck at the baronage, it was through Lady Salisbury, in whose veins flowed the blood of kings. If he struck at the New Learning, it was through the murder of Sir Thomas More. But no personal vindictiveness mingled with his crime.
In temper, indeed, so far as we can judge from the few stories which lingered among his friends, he was a generous, kindly hearted man, with pleasant and winning manners which atoned for a certain awkwardness of person, and with a constancy of friendship which won him a host of devoted adherents. But no touch either of love or hate swayed him from his course. The student of Machiavelli had not studied The Prince in vain. He had reduced bloodshed to a system. Fragments of his papers still show us with what a business-like brevity he ticked off human lives among the casual “remembrances” of the day.
“Item, the Abbot of Reading to be sent down to be tried and executed at Reading.” “Item, to know the King’s pleasure touching Master More.” “Item, when Master Fisher shall go to his execution, and the other.” It is indeed this utter absence of all passion, of all personal feeling, that makes the figure of Cromwell the most terrible in our history. He has an absolute faith in the end he is pursuing, and he simply hews his way to it as a woodman hews his way through the forest, axe in hand.