On June 12 (two days after his arrest), Thomas Cromwell wrote his first letter to Henry VIII from his cell in the Tower. It was a letter like so many of the others he must have read to the King during his career – asserting his innocence and loyalty, pleading for understanding and mercy – and offering his side of the offenses that he assumed had provoked the King’s anger: the fact that he had shared a personal communication, and that he had retained more servants than he was allowed by law (a person’s rank determined not only what colors and fabrics they could wear, but also how many servants they could employ…).
This is the full version of the letter, the one from Cromwell’s Letters and Papers, not from the more official source, Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. L&P is an amazing resource, but it represents a summary of the contents it describes – a very good one, but still a summary. Their take on this letter veered back and forth between extracting the poetic and losing it. I wanted to get back to the full version, the one that repeats the “prostrate at your Majesty’s feet” language three times, the one that repeatedly calls upon God to confirm the truth of his words, the one he hopes will change the King’s mind.
So this version keeps in all the extra text, and includes all the “your Grace”s and “your Majesty”s rather than substituting the easier-to-read “you”s. It also includes the full page of Cromwell’s defense against the charge of “retaining” which L&P dismissed with three lines (“Was also accused at his examination of retaining contrary to the laws. Denies that he ever retained any except his household servants, but it was against his will. Was so besought by persons who said they were his friends that he received their children and friends—not as retainers, for their fathers and parents did find them; but if he have offended, desires pardon.”)
Unfortunately, there were a few things I just had to cut. The sentence “for the which your most abundant goodness benignity and lycens the immortal God three and on reward your Majesty” for one…I didn’t want people to stop reading because their eyes glazed over trying to decipher the meaning! . Similarly, a there were few places that were too convoluted and where I edited it on my own or followed L&P’s formulation. And I did make many minor simplifications. The result is, I hope, a readable letter that nevertheless captures the abject pleading that was done….
Most gracious King and most merciful sovereign, your most humble, most obedient and most bounden subject and most lamentable servant and prisoner. Prostrate at the feet of your most excellent Majesty, I have heard your pleasure by the mouth of your Controller, which was that I should write to your most excellent Highness such things as I thought meet to be written concerning my most miserable state and condition .
And now most gracious Prince, to the matter first whereas I have been accused to your Majesty of Treason. I never in all my life thought willingly to do anything that might or should displease your Majesty; and much less to do or say that thing which of itself is so high and abominable and offence as God knoweth (and who I doubt not shall reveal the truth to your Highness). Your Grace knows my accusers, God forgive them. For I ever always had love for your honor, person, life, prosperity, health, wealth, joy and comfort and also your most dear and entirely beloved Son the Prince, his Grace and your proceeding, God so help me in this my adversity, and confound me if ever I thought the contrary. What labors, pains and travails I have taken according to my most bounden duty, God also knoweth, for if it were in my power to make your Majesty to live ever young and prosperous, God knows I would; or if it had been or were in my power to make your Majesty so puissant that all the world should be compelled to obey you, Christ knows I would, for so I am of all others most bounden. For your Manjesty hath been the most bountiful prince to me that ever was king to his subject, yea, and more like a dear father than a master. Such hath been your most grace and goodly counsels towards me at sundry times, that I ask your mercy where I have offended. Shall I now despite such exceeding goodness and bounty be your traitor, nay, then the greatest pains were too little for me. Should any faction or any affection make me a traitor to your Majesty, then all the devils in Hell confound me and the vengeance of God light upon me if I should once have thought it, most gracious Sovereign.
I never spoke with the Chancellor of the Augmentations and Throgmerton together at one time; but if I did, I never spoke of any such matter. Your Grace knows what manner of man Throgmerton has ever been towards you and your proceedings. What Master Chancellor has been to me, God and he know best, I will not accuse him. What I have been to him, your Majesty well knows. I would to Christ I had obeyed your Grace’s frequent counsels and warnings then it would not have been with me as now it is. Yet our Lord, if it be his will, can do with me as he did with Susan who was falsely accused. I have committed my soul, my body and goods to God, at your Majesty’s pleasure, in whose mercy and pity I do wholly repose. For other hope than in God and your Majesty I have not.
Sir, as to your Commonwealth, I have after my wit, power and knowledge travailed therein, doing my duty to the same having no respect to persons (your Majesty only excepted), and I trust God shall bear me witness that the world cannot justly accuse me of having done any injustice or wrong wilfully. And yet I have not done my duty in all things as I was bound, wherefore I ask mercy. If I have heard of any combinations, conventicles or offenders against your laws, I have for the most part revealed them and also caused them to be punished, not of malice, as God shall judge me. Nevertheless, Sire, I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all – but one thing I am well assured of is that that I have never wittingly or willingly thought to offend your Highness. Still, hard it is for me or any other meddling as I have done to live under your Grace and your laws, but we must daily offend, and where I have offended, I most humbly ask mercy and pardon at your gracious will and pleasure.
Amongst other things, most gracious sovereign, Master Controller showed me that you complained that within these 14 days I revealed a matter of great secrecy contrary to your expectation. Sire, I do well remember the matter, but I never revealed it to any creature except after your Grace had opened the matter first to me in your chamber decrying your lamentable fate. You declared the thing which your Highness misliked in the Queen, at which time I told your Grace that she often desired to speak with me but I durst not. You said why should I not, alleging that I might do much good in going to her and to be plain with her in declaring my mind. Lacking opportunity, I spoke with her lord Chamberlain, for which I ask your Grace’s mercy, desiring him – not naming your Grace to him – to find some means that the Queen might be induced to behave pleasantly towards you. I thought thereby to have some faults amended to your Majesty’s comfort. I repeated the suggestion, when the said lord Chamberlain and others of the Queen’s council came to me in my chamber at Westminster for licence for the departure of the strange maidens. I then required them to counsel their mistress to use all pleasantness to your Highness. This was before your Grace committed the secret matter to me, and only so that she might have been induced to such pleasant and honorable fashions as might have been to your Grace’s comfort which above all things, as God knoweth, I did most court and desire. After that time, I never disclosed to any but my lord Admiral, which I did by your Grace’s commandment on Sunday last; whom I found equally willing to seek a remedy for your comfort and consolation. I saw by him that he did as much lament your Highness’ fate as ever did man, and was wonderfully grieved to see your Highness so troubled, wishing greatly your comfort and saying he would spend the best blood in his belly for that object. And if I would not do the same and willingly die for your comfort, I would I were in Hell and I receive a thousand deaths. Sire, this is all that I have done in this matter and if I have offended your Majesty therein, prostrate at your feet I most lowly ask mercy and pardon of your Highness.
Sire, there was also laid unto my charge at my examination that I had retained contrary to your laws. Sire, what exposition may be made upon retainers I know not, but this I will say: if I ever retained any man other than those as were in my household servants, it was against my will. But most gracious Sovereign, I have been so called on and besought by them that said they were my friends that, constrained thereunto, I received their children and friends – not as retainers, for their fathers and parents did promise to me to find them and so I took them not as retainers to my great charge and for non-evil as God best knows. I most humbly beseech your Majesty of pardon if I have offended therein. Sire, I do acknowledge myself to have been a most miserable and wretched sinner and that I have not toward God and your Highness behaved myself as I ought and should have done. For the which, my offense to God while I live I shall continually call for his mercy, and for my offenses to your Grace – which God knows were neither malicious nor willfull, and that I never thought treason to your Highness, your realm, or posterity, so God help me, either in word or deed. Nevertheless, prostrate at your Majesty’s feet, in whatsoever thing I have offended, I appeal to your Highness for mercy, grace and pardon in such ways as shall be your pleasure.
Beseeching the almighty maker and redeemer of this world to send your Majesty continual and long health, wealth and prosperity with [nestors] years to reign, and your most dear son the Prince’s Grace to prosper, reign and continue long after you – and to anyone who would wish the contrary, a short life, shame and confusion.
Written with the quaking hand and most sorrowful heart of your most sorrowful subject, and most humble servant and prisoner, this Saturday at your Tower of London.”
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