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Colin Burrow writes:
There was no shortage of bastards in the early 16th century, but Thomas Cromwell stands out as one of the biggest bastards of them all. His surviving correspondence shows the energy, efficiency and brutality of someone born to get things done. Whenever he says, ‘I remain still your perfect and sincere friend,’ you can be fairly sure he is about to terminate the addressee’s career with extreme prejudice. Little is known about his early life, except that his father was several times had up for drunkenness. In his teens he more or less disappeared, though rumour had it that he joined the French army, travelled in Italy and then worked in the Low Countries as a merchant. It was not until the 1520s, when a successful legal practice led him into the service of Cardinal Wolsey as an agent or legal fixer, that he began to make his mark on the historical record. When Wolsey failed to bring about Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and so fell from favour, Cromwell somehow managed seamlessly to enter the service of the king. He eventually came to fill much of the large gap left by the portly cardinal, from whom he learned a number of tricks for reconciling the law to the will of the king. No one understands exactly how the son of a blacksmith and brewer managed to become the king’s principal secretary and eventually, in 1536, privy seal, but his energy, efficiency and brutality played their part, along with his eye for detail and the bottom line.