Pronouncing “Cromwell”

Alors,” Anne says softly, “suddenly, everything is about you. The king does not cease quoting Master Cromwell.” She pronounces it as if she can’t manage the English: Cremuel. “He is so right, he is at all points correct…Also, let us not forget, Maître Cremuel makes us laugh.” — Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Anne Boleyn, the daughter of a Tudor diplomat, spent her formative years in France. By the time she returned to England and caught Henry’s eye, she spoke English with a French accent. As Mantel imagines it, Anne pronounced Cromwell as Cremuel: [throat-clear] crem-yule. (Mary Queen of Scots, for all the broguing actors ladle on her, would also have spoken with more of a French accent than a Scottish one, too, based on how much time she spent in France*.)

[* “Mary’s English was far more suspect, although it has to be assumed that during her imprisonment in England this became fluent, but with a French accent. Examples of her attempting to write in English when she was with Sir Francis Knollys at Bolton, show that she wrote it phonetically and very badly.” — Robert Stedall]

(And not to make this a Mary Queen of Scots post, but here we are, in this parenthetical, so let’s live in the mystery: it’s very unlikely she would have spoken English. She was fluent in Scots and French and only later, likely during her imprisonment, did she become somewhat fluent in English. Having spent this much time on a diversion, and contradicting my avering that MQS spoke with a French accent, I will say that Samantha Morton is the best Mary Queen of Scots we’ve ever had, after the actual Mary Queen of Scots. Cf. :51 in this clip from Elizabeth: The Golden Age.)

Thomas Cromwell’s name was most often written, by his English correspondents, as C-R-U-M-W-E-L-L, which may give us a hint as to how they thought his name was pronounced. Diarmaid MacCullouch, in his biography of Cromwell, points out the challenge of hitting that short u in Crumwell rather than aspirating the short o. (“Try it yourself,” he suggests, and I did, to the cats, who can stare at a bug for hours but showed no patience for my Journey of Learning.) There is a certain point where the usual Crumwell starts to change to Cromwell in official docs.

Henry, who, in a sense, both created and destroyed Cromwell, as Henry created and destroyed so many people, wrote Cromwell’s name as C-R-O-M-E-L-L when he stripped him of his title of Earl of Essex. There’s violent power in misnaming someone, but it might also provide the final clue as to what Cromwell’s name sounded like to others.

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