Thomas Cromwell c.1532. Minature attibuted to Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on panel. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Following on from my earlier post on Perkin Warbeck and his burial at Austin Friars where I touched upon Thomas Cromwell’s house in the Austin Friars precinct I was happy to come across this excellent article covering the in-depth history of that house by Dr Nick Holder at the University of Exeter.
I won’t attempt to go into the somewhat complex history of Cromwell in this post as it can be found well covered elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Cromwell was yet another man of wealth and great power once held in high esteem by Henry VIII, only to fall out of favour, destroyed and his sumptuous property passed on to the crown.
The Augustinian friary owned 10 tenements in or around the south west corner of their precinct. Three of these tenements were built around 1510 by Prior Edmund Bellard and a draper, William Calley. The idea was to generate rental income for the friary and for Calley, who contributed £40, to receive commemorative masses after his death. A win win situation for both. Cromwell begun renting one of these tenements around 1523 and it is known he sent a letter to his wife Elizabeth there in 1525. In the diagram below you can see the three tenements marked 1, 2 and 3 with number 3 being the Cromwell residence marked with a red circle.
So far so good. The rent for this nearly new built house was about £4 per annum. It was built to high specifications with the luxury of fireplaces in nearly every room, a kitchen and buttery wing with a separate larder, (and perhaps a cellar below) yards with a privy and woodshed …… well lit with large windows with stone and brick mullions’. Furthermore the house had 14 rooms arranged over three stories with in addition at least one cellar and some garret rooms in the roof. The house was arranged in three wings with the main wing and the kitchen wing separated by a narrow entrance hall and a hall set further back behind the main yard. The ground floor parlour was an impressive room carpeted with a long table and a screen.
Thomas Cromwell’s first house in Austin Friars based upon a 17th century survey. This was the house Cromwell lived in with his wife Elizabeth, daughters Anne and Grace and son Gregory.
So far still good. In 1532 his status had risen rapidly and with it obviously his wealth. He had plan, big plans and begun to ‘expand’ his ownership of further properties on the precinct obtaining a 99 year lease in June of that year for the property he was renting eventually purchasing it from the friary for £200 in 1534. He also begun to consolidate and enlarge his portfolio, purchasing another property called The Swanne that fronted onto Throgmorton Street that had also been owned by the friary but lay just outside the precinct. Further plots were duly purchased that added to the street frontage. Cromwell then turned his attention to the garden buying out a George Eglyffeld’s lease on a large property. Sometimes his methods to gain more land were far from ethical. We know this because one of the people he rode roughshod over was none other than the father of John Stow who wrote ‘A Survey of London 1598′. We can still feel the rising of Stow’s hackles over the centuries as in writing his description of the Friary he added “On the south side and at the west end of this church many fair houses are built namely in Throgmorton Street, one very large and spacious built, in the place of old and small tenements by Thomas Cromwell. This house being finished and having some reasonable plot of ground left for a garden, he caused the pales of the gardens adjoining to the north part there off on a sudden to be taken down; twenty-two feet to be measured fourth right into the north of every man’s ground, a line there to be drawn, a trench to be cast, a foundation laid and a high brick wall to be built. My father had a garden there and a house standing close to his south pale; this house they loosed from the ground and bare upon rollers into my fathers garden twenty-two feet, ere my father herd thereof. No warning was given him, nor other answer when he spake to the surveyors of that work but that their master Sir Thomas commanded them to do so, no man durst go to argue the matter but each man lost his land and my father paid his whole rent which was six shillings and sixpence for the year for that half which was left. Thus much of my own knowledge have I thought good to note, that the sudden rising of some men causes them in some matters to forget themselves’. Really Sir Thomas!
From the diagram below we can see how Cromwell’s portfolio of properties had now expanded – including the theft of Stow Snr’s land. The house Cromwell had first lived in is again indicated by the little red circle.
Cromwell had now shelled out about £550 for the plots thus purchased. This now made him the owner of ‘one of the largest pre-Dissolution private properties in London owning 2 & 1/3 acres of land which included a greater garden (marjorem ortum) and a lesser gardeyn’.
Now in the happy position of being the owner of a 188 foot strip of land fronting onto Throgmorton Street, Cromwell was able to embark upon building one of the grandest private residences in London. Money was spent like rice with a least £1000 being spent on the new build project. Then, as now, delays could occur, and did, when Cromwell’s nephew Richard took the whole site team of eighty workers to Yorkshire to help Thomas Howard against the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace. The whole project would take four years.
Artists impression of the completed mansion c.1539. Peter Urmston.
Reconstruction of the mansion as it would have appeared from Throgmorton Street.
Ground, first and second floor plans.
Austin Friars, Throgmorton Street and the mansion from the Copperplate map.c.1550. Museum of London.
The interior of this wonderful mansion can only be wondered at. It must have been a glorious sight with grand staircases, oriel windows and a series of long galleries looking down on the courtyards below which may have had Italianate decoration. Cromwell’s private rooms were probably situated on the first floor of the west block and included chambers with views of the garden to the north and lockable cupboards (two ammeres with durres of waynscott). The family apartment even included a separate bathroom with a plaster ceiling, a chamber that ‘hath a closet and a Stew therin the Stew being syled’.
There was more than one kitchen, the main one, a pastry kitchen with large ovens and a smaller kitchen in the western block where Cromwell’s private rooms were located. Very handy if one wanted to order a quick snack..or two. There was also a private chapel…of course.
The bedrooms must have been the height of luxury for in an inventory of Henry VIII’s possessions drawn up after his death there are listed bedroom items removed from Cromwell’s mansion after his arrest in 1540. These include a bed, three bedsteads, nine sets of bed linen, nearly all of them with a canopy, head cloth and valances, two quilts and four other bed canopies. Each item is in luxury cloth such as cloth of gold, damask or velvet.
The garden too was splendid with space enough for a diceing house and a bouling alley as well as of course stables. We know this because ‘Sir,’ one of his servants wrote to him ‘ther you maye have a fayer stabell mayd and ther you maye have mayd a fayer tennys playe and a close Bowlyng alle with a gallewre over it. The garden also contained hedged knot gardens, arbours and fruit trees and needed two male gardeners and six female gardeners to tend to it.
Sadly all this glory and beauty were not to be enjoyed for long by their owner. Cromwell was arrested in June 1540 and executed in a botched beheading on the 28 July at the Tower of London. Immediately following his arrest members of the king’s household took over possession of the house. Some of the furniture would be removed from the house, so much that it could not all be taken in one day, to be given, ironically, as a divorce present to Anne of Cleves. Later in 1543 the house would be purchased by the Draper’s Company from Henry VIII and was one of the properties lost in the Great Fire of London 1666. It was rebuilt but once again destroyed by fire in 1772, rebuilt and still stands today.
The purchase of Cromwell’s mansion by the Drapers Company has ensured that a wealth of information has survived over the centuries, including inventories, that has enabled Dr Holder to write in such rich detail about Cromwell’s house. These inventories range from high quality items to the basics such as the tools in the wood house. Listed here are just a few –
Ground Floor Parlour –
A pair of playing tables, a table of my lorde Cardynalles armes paynted and gylted, a long table, a screen and the arms of the King and Queen.
Old Parlour –
Tables, chests, old hangings and four javelins
A greate cesterne of leade for water with a cocke of brasse, good collection of pewter, pottery, pottery tableware, brass pots, fireplace equipment and pots for wine and ale.
First Floor Chamber of Cromwell’s mother-in-law Mercy Prior –
40 sets of sheets, six chests, six coffers, a relyque closyd in crystall, various cloths, shirts, linens, altar cloths, rosary beads, mirror and a chamber pot.
Bed and bedding, men’s gowns, Jackets, caps, four swords and some daggers, an alter of the natyvitye of oure lorde, painted cloth of the battle of Pavia and two paintings of Cromwell.
Chamber adjoining the new chamber –
A bed, bedding, several women’s gowns, swords and carved gilt altar.
Is it just me or does it feel a little intrusive to peruse these rooms and lists of belongings of a man, who left his mansion one morning never to walk through its doors again. Or perhaps others may see it simply as a visit from Karma….?
The site of Thomas Cromwell’s house in Throgmorton Street, London today.
To read Dr Nick Holder’s article in full click here.
1. A Survey of London 1537 p. John Stow.
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