Cromwell’s Abbess and Friend: Margaret Vernon
Written by: Mary Erler
A Friendship in Correspondence
The surviving letters that English nun Margaret Vernon sent to Thomas Cromwell in the 16th century reveal a nuanced portrait of the mysterious royal adviser.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has recently won the rights to stage Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) and fans may be able to see the plays as early as January 2014. Rumors of a BBC-TV series have inevitably led to discussion of who might play the great minister in what has been called “the hottest literary property in the western world” (Roger Allam?).
Hilary Mantel’s imagining of Cromwell has converted him from a ruthless careerist to a complicated, subtle, and ultimately sympathetic figure. When I read Mantel’s novels I was especially struck by his capacity for friendship. I had just been working on my book, Reading and Writing during the Dissolution: Monks, Friars, and Nuns 1530-1558. One of its chapters features the story of the unexpected friendship between Cromwell and a nun, Margaret Vernon. Her unparalleled administrative career as head of four different convents began when both she and he were relatively unknown. Vernon was prioress of St. Mary de Pre, a small house near St. Albans, and Cromwell was still working as Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man. The series of 21 letters she wrote him begin in the early 1520s and end with the closure of her last post, Malling Abbey, in 1538. Two years later Cromwell would be dead and she would be laicized.
None of Cromwell’s letters to her survive, but what is clear from her chatty and affectionate messages to him is their mutual regard (he sent his only son, Gregory, for his first schooling at her convent). Her advancement depended on his patronage and his loyalty to her remained strong, even during the dangerous 1530s when the closure of the monasteries led her to beg him to say what would happen to her. I was struck by the correspondence between Mantel’s nuanced picture of Henry VIII’s best servant and the historical evidence of Cromwell’s fidelity to his friend.