I like to think of More and Cromwell on some sort of bizarre historical seesaw. It seems that when one is up, the other is inevitably down. In A Man for All Seasons, More is the glorified protagonist, so Cromwell becomes the conniving enemy. In Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, Cromwell is the hero, or at least antihero, and so More is given a less sympathetic portrayal.
Much of what we think we know of their relationship comes from More's earliest biographers, who were keen to place the two men in precisely this sort of opposition. For instance, it is from More's first biographer, William Roper, that we get the story of More, upon his resignation as Chancellor, advising Cromwell: "you shall, in your counsel-giving unto [the King], ever tell him what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do.... For if a Lion knew his own strength, hard it were for any man to rule him". And Cromwell, in Roper's version, teases and flatters More while he is in the Tower, prompting his reflections on "eye flattering fortune"
But how much do we really know about More and Cromwell - their relationship, what they thought of one another? We know the end of the story - or we think we do - the two men face off, and Cromwell wins, until he too is cut down. But is that the right way of thinking about it?
The two were probably born about the same time only about 5 miles apart; More in Cheapside, Cromwell in Putney. Neither came from particularly prestigious roots, More's ancestors were brewers, bakers and candlestick makers, Cromwell's father was a blacksmith and merchant. The main difference between the two men's early lives seems to have been their paternal fortunes. More's father was an up-and-coming lawyer, Cromwell's was a brute and a drunk.
Thus, the two received very different educations. More attended grammar school before serving in Lambeth Palace and studying at Oxford; Cromwell travelled the continent as a soldier and merchant.
Despite these differences, their careers took similar paths through the London mercantile guilds, and it was probably there, rather than in Wolsey's service or Henry's court, that the two men first met. Both were employed by London guilds on legal and diplomatic disputes and although More quickly accrued prestige and position within London, they would have held significant common ground.
If they hadn't crossed paths before, they certainly did in 1523. In this year Cromwell entered parliament for the first time, where More was appointed speaker. It was a short but, according to Cromwell, tempestuous parliament. Cromwell may have given a speech arguing against going to war with France, an argument to which More would have been very sympathetic. Even on religious matters, both men were reformers, though of different degrees (degrees that were not yet as important as they would become). Given their common backgrounds and shared views it seems unlikely at this time that the two wouldn't have at least been friendly, if not friends. In fact, it is not farfetched to speculate that More may have even played a part - even a small one - in Cromwell's advancement. Cromwell's place in Wolsey's service was secured thanks to his role in a transaction which took place in 1524. Cromwell was acting on behalf of a senior member of the Mercers' guild, of which More was a freeman and had a number of powerful connections. Did More recommend Cromwell to the Mercers? He certainly had the connections to do so, and at this point might have wanted someone like Cromwell to do well.
When the cardinal fell in 1529, More was the rather curious choice of successor to the chancellorship. The appointment made sense pragmatically, as Wolsey's attentions were turned ever increasingly to the "King's Great Matter", it had been More who had taken up much of the day-to-day running of the kingdom. Politically, however, More had already expressed his opposition to the divorce to the king, and so Henry's motives for appointing him to the highest post in the land are difficult to discern. Although he was the one who had to deliver the public condemnation of Wolsey, there was no evidence of enmity between the two men who had spent much of the previous decade working so closely together.
Cromwell was present for More's public condemnation of Wolsey. Perhaps he did, as Mantel suggests, take personal offence at those who participated in the cardinal's fall, and counted More as one of them. It would be surprising if it was More's persecution of Protestants that came between them, as this had begin as part of his service to the cardinal, although perhaps More's dedication to the effort offended Cromwell. The two seem to work together well enough during More's chancellorship, although from 1529 their views were increasingly opposed. More never spoke out against the divorce, but was widely known not to approve of it. Cromwell was increasingly employed to secure it, via a break with Rome that More dreaded. More resigned his chancellorship the day after the submission of the clergy, for which Cromwell was richly rewarded.
At this point the case for enmity between More and Cromwell gains traction. It was Cromwell, it seems, who put More on the Act of Attainder against the Maid of Kent, the first attempt to charge him with treason, and who sat on the various committees sent to try to make him swear to the Act of Succession.
But this is the part of the story we know well - either Cromwell hounds More to his death, or finds his hand forced against the zealot with the martyr complex. It is the earlier part of the story that goes untold. Rather than being diametrically opposed, More and Cromwell spend most of their lives more or less on the same path, with similar views, and shared friends. Perhaps they too were friends... for a time.
Whether More was sincere or not in calling Cromwell "his special tender friend" in a 1534 Tower letter to his daughter is unclear. But the two certainly had a long history, one that did not begin in 1529 and was not defined entirely by a struggle for power. It is a history worth keeping in mind.