Letters, Networks of Power, and the Fall of Thomas Cromwell: 1524-1547

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: English

Abstract

My project makes an original contribution to our understanding of Thomas Cromwell's rise and fall from power, acting as a case study through which the role of letters as a social and political tool and questions about influence surrounding Henry VIII can be explored. Most of the biographies focusing on Henry VIII's chief minister rely on the wealth of letters left behind at his fall from power, that now exist as part of the Calendar of State Papers, extracting the details about Cromwell's life and character from these pages. This PhD instead offers letters not as a 'window into the soul' of their author, but as the fundamental connections in networks of power, using those documents alongside key theories and quantitative measures developed in the field of network science and social network analysis in order to reconstruct the local and international web of contacts that Cromwell maintained to propel his career and maintain his administrative supremacy. Building on my MA dissertation demonstrating Cromwell's use of letters and contacts to bolster his position at court, this PhD will establish letters as an instrumental political medium at the Tudor court which can evidence both subtle and significant changes in power structures. In doing so, my research looks at questions of influence and control surrounding Henry VIII, and the impact of changing networks on significant events in Tudor history. The debate concerning influence around and on Henry remains a focus of Tudor historiography, and spans across issues during his entire reign. Centring specifically on networks of power around Henry during Cromwell's fall in such a way allows this project to change the framework through which we can consider these questions. Furthermore, despite the recent emphasis on Cromwell's career, the end of his life is overwhelmingly under-represented in historiography. In re-assessing the evidence through quantitative measurements and network analysis, this project aims to offer fresh conceptions of the events of the summer of 1540 and consider why they have received less attention until now.
My research builds on the work Prof. Ruth Ahnert, my primary supervisor and PI on the AHRC-funded project Tudor Networks of Power, which created a database of 132,000 letters, extracted from State Papers Online), cleaned and coded for network analysis. Where Prof. Ahnert's project developed several key methods for the analysis of these letter networks, and an exploratory survey of the opportunities for further archival research, my thesis is the first to take these data and methods and apply them to a focused historical case study. Developing these skills is becoming increasingly necessary in the light of an ever-growing available digitised archive, which has not only made vital material more accessible, but has also allowed for more nuanced and developed analytical processes. These strategies are poised to become pivotal in future humanities projects, and honing these skills places me at the forefront of digital humanities and allows me to lead fresh and innovative projects such as my PhD thesis, contributing not only to the research field but to the research process itself. My thesis will promote the advantages of using network analysis in historical research, and what it can present for future projects; it also seeks to contribute to the growing field of theory, offering approaches and methods both to the humanities and the social sciences in order to encourage and fortify interdisciplinary collaboration. By applying these methods to an extended, thesis-length study of a single historical figures' network, this project aims to reinvigorate fundamental debates in Tudor historiography, offering new angles on questions of influence surrounding Henry VIII, the socio-political role of letters at the Tudor court, and the impact networks of power had on the fall of Henry's 'most faithful servant.'

Publications

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