Book Spoilers ahead….
In Hilary Mantel’s final book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, Cromwell is surprised by the visit of a young woman from Antwerp. Her name is Jenneke and it emerges that she is his illegitimate daughter by Anselma, his lover whilst he lived in Antwerp. She has been brought up first by nuns and then in the household of Stephen Vaughan, and is in London both to see what kind of man her father is and to tell him of William Tyndale’s betrayal and death. Having told her story, she refuses a place in Gregory Cromwell’s household and the prospect of and English marriage, and returns to Antwerp.
So was Jenneke a real person?
No (but also a little bit yes). The character Jenneke is a complete work of fiction by Mantel. There is no evidence that Cromwell had an illegitimate daughter in Antwerp, and her purpose in the story seems to largely be to bring in the eye-witness account of Tyndale’s burning, and to allow Cromwell to reflect on his past in a new light. However, Cromwell does appear to have had an illegitimate daughter – Jane.
Jane Cromwell was likely born c. 1530 and married William Hough, the son of Richard Hough, one of Cromwell’s servants in Cheshire. In her biography of Thomas Cromwell, Tracy Borman is cautious in definitively identifying Jane as Thomas’ daughter. She raises the possibility that Jane could have been a niece who chose to take her powerful uncle’s name (as Richard Cromwell did). However, Diarmaid MacCulloch is more confident that she was Cromwell’s daughter. He refers to the 1580 Heraldic Visitation* of Cheshire which records Jane in the pedigree of the Hough’s of Leighton and Thornton Hough as the “base d. of Thos Cromwell Earl of Essex”. MacCulloch also suggests that Cromwell’s 1539 payment to Gregory Cromwell’s wife for clothes for “mistress Jane” was intended for his daughter. This would mean that, shortly before her marriage, she was living in her half-brother’s household (as Cromwell proposed to the fictional Jenneke).
William Hough’s marriage to Jane appears to have been unpopular with his father – Richard Hough claimed in his will that William had married without his consent to a stranger whose father was unknown. If Jane was Cromwell’s daughter, or even his niece, it is unlikely that one of Cromwell’s servants would have been unaware of her parentage. MacCulloch suggests that Richard’s bitterness towards the couple stemmed from their religious beliefs. Ironically given her father’s beliefs, they were prominent amongst the Recusants of both Cheshire and Oxfordshire (where they had homes).
*Heraldic Visitation were carried out to determine and record the right of noble and gentry families to bear a coat of arms. As part of the process, pedigrees were recorded for the families.
Tracy Borman, Thomas Cromwell. The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant (2014), p. 73
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell (2018), p. 102-3
John Paul Rylands, ed., The Visitation of Cheshire in the year 1580 (1882), p.128