Wolf Hall Explained – Was Thomas Cromwell a hit with the ladies?

In the second episode of Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell found himself on the receiving end of a reasonable amount of female attention (for a drama that is marketing itself as a serious political interpretation not the sex fest that is The Tudors). First up was Mary Boleyn, perhaps better known in popular culture as the heroine of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl. She made her interest in Cromwell clear, although her motivation appeared to have been that it would piss of her relatives who had little interest in her since she had been cast off as Henry VIII’s mistress. Whilst Cromwell turned Mary down he did give into Joan, one of the women in his household. Joan was in fact his dead wife’s sister and her husband worked for Cromwell. So, did he really have women throwing themselves at him?

Information about Cromwell’s private life is limited and most of his surviving correspondence is letters sent to him rather than those sent by him. In 1529, he wrote a will that left a generous bequest to his sister-in-law, Joan Williamson, but there is no evidence that this was the result of an affair. He made provision for other members of his extended family and gave generous gifts to his loyal servants. There is also no evidence that he had any form of personal relationship with Mary Boleyn. She certainly wrote to him asking him to intercede with her family and the King. However, this was in 1534 when her family had disowned her and she had been banished from court for marrying William Stafford, the younger son of a landowner. Numerous women wrote to him over the course of his career petitioning on behalf of husbands and sons or asking him to help them gain support from estranged husbands (amongst the estranged wives writing to him was the wife of the Duke of Norfolk who alleged that her husband’s servants abused her). This was a reflection of his political power not necessarily any high level of charm.

This is not to say that Cromwell didn’t have relationships with women other than his wife but, given the lack of evidence, scenes such as those in Wolf Hall are entirely fictionalised.

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