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Travels Through Time #16 – Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn

A plot, a rebellion and a triumph from the life of Thomas Cromwell.

History Today | Published in History Today

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell (detail), by Jacob Houbraken after Hans Holbein (II), 1737-39. Rijksmuseum.

Thomas Cromwell was born c.1485 and died on the scaffold in July 1540. From humble beginnings, he entered Parliament on the strength of his service to Cardinal Wolsey, working his way up in the king’s council and service. By late 1532, he had taken Wolsey’s place as the king’s chief minister. 

Cromwell was clever, driven and ruthless – qualities that have caught the imaginations of novelists and historians for generations as they have attempted to capture his mysterious essence.

In this episode of Travels Through Time, Diarmaid MacCulloch discusses the year of 1536, which saw Cromwell at the peak of his career. As Master of the Rolls and Principal Secretary to the King, he had vast and wide-ranging powers, but he also had enemies, including the king’s wife, Anne Boleyn.

MacCulloch describes the debriefing between Ambassador Eustache Chapuys and Thomas Cromwell on 24 May 1536, following the execution of Anne Boleyn; the moment on 3 October 1536 when the king was told of the Lincolnshire Rising; and the king's procession from Whitehall to Greenwich on 22 December 1536, when it appeared that the king had yielded to all the demands of the Pilgrims of the North.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is a Professor at the University of Oxford and a respected scholar of Tudor England and the Reformation. Last year he published his authoritative Thomas Cromwell: A Life.

This episode of Travels Through Time was recorded live at the Buxton Festival 2019. 

Slaves to War

The military elite of the Muslim world was comprised of men who had been captured and forced into service. But to what extent were they subject to slavery?

Ottoman troops advance towards the army of Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia at the Battle of Mohacs, 1526 © Bridgeman Images

‘I see that those on my side have been routed. I fear they will abandon me. I do not expect them to return. I have decided to dismount and fight by myself, until God decrees what He wants. Whoever of you wishes to depart, let him depart. By God, I would rather that you survive than that you perish and be destroyed!’ They replied: ‘Then we would be treating you unjustly, by God! You freed us from slavery, raised us up from humiliation, enriched us after we were poor and then we abandon you in this condition! No, we will advance before you and die beside the stirrup of your horse. May God curse this world and life after your death!’ Then they dismounted, hamstrung their horses, and attacked.

This is an excerpt from al-Tabari’s universal history describing the exchange between an emir (commander) and his military slaves and freedmen after the tide of battle had turned against them during the Abbasid civil war (811-819). The emir’s forces had fled and he was left only with his slaves, who refused to abandon their master even though he urged them to save themselves. This exchange exemplifies the loyalty of military slaves and freedmen, a characteristic that made them the most elite and reliable soldiers of the medieval and early modern Muslim world.

Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Nightmare

During the Cold War, nearly a quarter of all the world’s nuclear testing took place in Kazakhstan, in secret. In 1986, a high-profile disaster in Ukraine changed that.

Ben Jones

Seventy years ago, an explosion in a far-flung corner of Soviet-ruled Kazakhstan set off an arms race that took the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Four years earlier, the US had ended the Second World War by dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Joseph Stalin’s USSR was hellbent on catching up.

The blast at the Kremlin’s secret Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site, which rocked Kazakhstan on 29 August 1949, was the first of 456 atomic explosions conducted there over the next 40 years. Codenamed Pervaya Molniya (First Lightning) by the Soviets and Joe-1 by the Americans (after ‘Uncle Joe’, their nickname for Stalin), the first explosion released 22 kilotons of nuclear energy, or 22,000 tonnes of TNT, into the atmosphere. Over the next four decades, the bombs detonated at Semipalatinsk released energy 2,500 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It was that ruthless display of US military might that launched the Cold War arms race with Washington’s new rivals in Moscow, as the panicked Soviets – helped by spies within the US arms programme – scrambled to split the atom and become a superpower in the newly polarised world.

Mushroom clouds

Today, villagers living around the Polygon, the Russian word for ‘test site’, which became synonymous with Semipalatinsk, have traumatic memories of mushroom clouds exploding on the horizon during their childhood. ‘We’d be sent outside, and we’d crouch in ditches. We saw mushroom clouds: big and terrifying ones’, recalled an old lady called Galina Tornoshenko, born in 1949, the year of the first nuclear test. ‘I was small at the time, but I remember it well.’

Oil and Water: The Tanker Wars

The Strait of Hormuz has become a fraught passage in the Tanker Wars between Iran and Iraq.

The Singapore flagged Norman Atlantic after an Iranian attack, on approach to the Strait  of Hormuz, 6 December 1987 © Norbert Schiller/AFP/Getty Images

The war between Iran and Iraq, which lasted for most of the 1980s, was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the late 20th century. Casualties on both sides numbered in the hundreds of thousands. At times the combat zones bore more than a passing resemblance to First World War battlefields, with opposing trench systems arrayed along miles of front, massed infantry attacks pushed forward over the top and chemical weapons an increasing method of both attack and defence. The Iran-Iraq conflict was in the main a large-scale ground war with naval operations a decidedly subordinate field of operations.

Nevertheless, it is the naval aspect of the war – in particular the decision by both sides to attack enemy merchant shipping – which most resonates today, as tensions between Iran and the United States once again begin to escalate.

Inside the Ancient Bull Cult

King Minos and the Minotaur remain shrouded in mystery and mythology, yet evidence of a Bronze Age ‘Bull Cult’ at the Minoan palaces abounds. Were bulls merely for entertainment or did they have a deeper significance?

Detail from the Bull-leaping fresco from the Minoan Palace of Knossos

Detail from the Bull-leaping fresco from the Minoan Palace of Knossos.


Are Empires Always Bad?

Empires have been part of human history for millennia. Are they, of necessity, a bad thing?

The Course of Empire: Destruction by Thomas Cole

Being part of the Aztec federation was not without its advantages

Caroline Dodds Pennock, Senior Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield

Stereotyping ‘empire’ as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not only deeply flawed and ahistorical, but also misses the fact that a wide range of types of state are bundled under this heading. The ‘Aztec empire’, for example, wasn’t really an empire in the sense that is often imagined: it was a cluster of allied and subject states, bound together in a network of power and tribute relationships. When Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he believed that the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan ruled an ‘empire’. The reality was much more unstable and complex.

The Future of God in 1943

Tim Stanley | Published 05 July 2019
Reading Alan Jacobs’ super little book is like prizing open the back of a watch to study the mechanism within: tiny cogs working in clever order, designed by a master craftsman. The cogs are several Christian thinkers whose lives and thoughts connected in 1943, a year when it looked like the Allies were on top and minds turned to the future. Defeating fascism was a moral necessity, of course, but what was to stop the democracies from descending into it themselves? The answer was education, which W.H. Auden defined, in Jacobs’ words, as ‘a vocation-based education sustained by a democratic...Read more »
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What Have the Romans Done for Us?

‘Oh, my fur and whiskers!’:  a hare or rabbit mosaic, from the House of Dionysus, Cyprus, third century AD © Bridgeman Images

Rabbits hit the headlines earlier this year. A fragment of tibia, unearthed in the 1960s during an archaeological dig at Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, was radiocarbon dated by researchers at the University of Exeter. The analysis showed it to be almost 2,000 years old, suggesting its owner was last hopping during Roman times. This remarkable discovery pushes back the presence of the European rabbit – a native of the Iberian peninsula – in Britain by more than a millennium. But the question remains: were the Romans responsible for introducing rabbits to Britain, rather than the Normans, as was previously thought?

The Exeter research now shows that at least one rabbit was brought to Britain during the Roman occupation, but the species does not seem to have established in the wild. It seems most probable that the Fishbourne rabbit was a cossetted and likely short-lived pet, rather than the outrider of a mammalian invasion.

Yet there is no doubting the profound impact that the Roman occupation had on Britain’s fauna and flora.

Dan Eatherley | Published 03 July 2019
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Published in
Volume 69 Issue 7 July 2019

Can You Keep a Secret?

Jackie Eales | Published 01 July 2019
In February 1649 the Royalist newsbook Mercurius Pragmaticus characterised ‘Parliament Jone’, aka Elizabeth Alkin, as ‘an old Bitch’ able to ‘smell out a Loyall-hearted man as soon as the best Blood-hound in the Army’. Elizabeth later claimed that during the Civil Wars she was ‘imployed as a Spye by the Earl of Essex, Sir William Waller, & the now Lord Generall ffairfax’. Her husband was hanged by the Royalists at Oxford for spying and she had put her life in danger in the service of the state. The intelligence-gathering of Elizabeth and other women, often paid as nurses by Cromwell’s...Read more »
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The History of the Picnic

From high life to country living.

Cold meats: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, by Édouard Manet, 1863 © Bridgeman Images

It is hard to disagree with W. Somerset Maugham’s view that ‘there are few things so pleasant as a picnic lunch’. Even if ants and wasps occasionally join the fun, picnics are the very epitome of innocent pastoral delight. But they haven’t always been so carefree – nor so bucolic.

Where the word ‘picnic’ comes from is something of a mystery. The French root may derive from the verb piquer (‘to peck’ or ‘to pick’) and the noun nique (‘a small amount’ or ‘nothing whatsoever’); but this is just speculation. What is certain, however, is that, originally, it did not refer to anything we would now recognise as a picnic. It first appears in Les Charmans effects des barricades, ou l’amité durable de la compagnie des freres Bachiques de Pique-Nique (1649), a burlesque satire on the perceived hypocrisy of the Fronde, an insurrection against French absolutism. The main character, ‘Pique-Nique’, is a hero of the barricades; but, like his friends, he is also a glutton, whose guzzling stands in stark contrast to the food shortages caused by the very rebellion he was leading. His name was hence ironic and probably referred to an excessively large or lavish meal, enjoyed at other people’s expense.