Did Thomas Cromwell Ever Live in Wolf Hall?

  • Wolf Hall Manor, Burbage, Wiltshire (Grade II)
  • The Drapers Hall (Grade II) and the Dutch Church (Grade II), City of London
  • Putney Council Blue Plaque, Brewhouse Lane, Putney

Following Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, its adaptation for the theatre and its success on TV, there is no question that the both celebrated and maligned figure of Thomas Cromwell is enjoying a revival.

Wolf Hall follows Cromwell's stratospheric rise from his birth (around 1485) in Putney and travels abroad as a merchant and mercenary, to practising as a London lawyer, advising Cardinal Wolsey and, by the 1530s, supervising parliamentary and legal affairs as Henry VIII's privy councillor. As his authority expanded, so did his wealth and property portfolio. Yet by the 1540s, Cromwell's dramatic downfall resulted in the repossession of his houses, in an attempt to eradicate his name from Reformation history.

As the title of Mantel's novel suggests, grand buildings equated with power in 16th century society. So are there any left through which we can track Cromwell's rise and fall?

Wolf Hall in Wiltshire

First things first: Cromwell never lived in a place called 'Wolf Hall'.

The residence made famous by Hilary Mantel exists today, but not in its medieval form. Wolf Hall Manor (also known as Wulfhall) in Wiltshire probably started off as a timber-framed, double courtyard house with a tower, which housed the Seymour family until the 1570s. It is said that this is where Henry VIII first saw Jane Seymour, who would become his third wife - but certainly Cromwell never lived here. Today a 17th-century private manor (designated Grade II) stands on its predecessor's foundations.

Historians have suggested that Mantel's title alludes to the Latin saying 'Man is wolf to man' ( Homo homini lupus est), signifying the opportunistic political world that Cromwell negotiated, rather than to his physical relationship with the Wiltshire hall.

A plaque in Putney

When Cromwell was born in the 1480s Putney was a village on the outskirts of London, not the cosmopolitan borough we know today. He allegedly came into the world on the edge of Putney Heath: as Mantel vividly describes in Wolf Hall, the area was a noted haunt of highwaymen and so a dangerous place to spend your childhood. It is perhaps not a surprise, then, that Cromwell is said to have admitted to Archbishop Cramner that he had been a 'ruffian' in his youth - he would certainly have developed his fighting spirit on the streets of Putney village.

Cromwell's actual birthplace hasn't survived, although 19th-century sources pointed to a centuries-old smithy cottage west of the present-day A205. In 2013, in honour of one of their most remarkable residents, the Putney Society unveiled a Blue Plaque at 3 Brewhouse Lane, reputed to be within the general vicinity of Cromwell's childhood home.

From friary to family home

Many of the scenes in Wolf Hall revolve around Cromwell's home at Austin Friars in the heart of the City of London. Founded as an Augustinian Friary in the 1260s, the site remained a monastic complex until 1538, when Cromwell was instrumental in its dissolution.

It was common for monastic houses to lease tenements, and a number within the precinct were rented to notables such as the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador Eustace Chapuys (featured in Wolf Hall), the humanist scholar Erasmus and Thomas Cromwell, whose house lay to the west of the friary church. He used it as both a family home and an administrative base.

We can build a picture of his property from Drapers' Company reports from the 17th century, which describe a substantial 14-room, three-storey brick house fronting onto the street. However, nestled alongside modern architecture today, it is hard to imagine how this property was originally integrated into the urban fabric.

In 1540, Cromwell's residence was seized by the Crown (we won't say more - you'll have to read the book!) and sold to the Drapers' Company. The complex was mainly demolished, with just Cromwell's house retained to become the Drapers' Hall and the nave of the friary church incorporated into the 19th-century Dutch Church. While the tenements and the friary's kitchen gardens have disappeared, aspects of Cromwell's original mansion and the Dutch Church around the corner still give visitors a sense of Cromwell's 16th century surroundings.