Thomas Cromwell

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Thomas Cromwell
Lord Great Chamberlain
In office
17 April 1540 10 June 1540
Spouse Elizabeth Wyckes
Children Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell
Anne Cromwell
Grace Cromwell
Jane Cromwell
Parent(s)Walter Cromwell, Katherine Meverell

Thomas Cromwell ( /ˈkrɒmwəl,-wɛl/ ; [1] [lower-alpha 1] c. 1485 – 28 July 1540), briefly Earl of Essex , was an English statesman and lawyer who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII from 1534 to 1540, when he was beheaded on orders of the king, who later blamed false charges for the execution.


Cromwell was one of the most powerful proponents of the English Reformation, and the creator of true English governance. He helped to engineer an annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that Henry could lawfully marry Anne Boleyn. [3] Henry failed to obtain the approval of Pope Clement VII for the annulment in 1533, so Parliament endorsed the king's claim to be Supreme Head of the Church of England, giving him the authority to annul his own marriage. Cromwell subsequently charted an evangelical and reformist course for the Church of England from the unique posts of Vicegerent in Spirituals and Vicar-general (the two titles refer to the same position). [4] :658,fn. 2

During his rise to power, Cromwell made many enemies, including Anne Boleyn, with his fresh ideas and lack of nobility. He duly played a prominent role in her downfall. [5] He later fell from power, after arranging the king's marriage to German princess Anne of Cleves. The marriage was a disaster for Cromwell, ending in an annulment six months later. Cromwell was arraigned under an act of attainder and executed for treason and heresy on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540. The king later expressed regret at the loss of his chief minister, and his reign never recovered from the incident.

Early life

It is believed that Cromwell was born in Putney, then part of Surrey. [6] In 1878, his birthplace was still of note:

The site of Cromwell's birthplace is still pointed out by tradition and is in some measure confirmed by the survey of Wimbledon Manor […] for it describes on that spot 'an ancient cottage called the smith's shop, lying west of the highway from Richmond to Wandsworth, being the sign of the Anchor'. [7]

The Anchor was situated in modern-day Brewhouse Lane, near to the Thames in Putney (although another tradition places the smithy higher on Putney Hill, at the edge of Putney Heath). [8]

Cromwell was born around 1485, the son of Walter Cromwell (c.1450 - c.1514 [9] ), a yeoman, fuller and cloth merchant, and owner of both an hostelry and a brewery. A popular tradition that he also carried on the trade of blacksmith may have arisen from his use of the alternative surname of "Smith", rather than actually practising the trade. [10] [11] Diarmaid MacCulloch describes as "fantasies" the popular accounts that Walter was a violent man, unscrupulous in his business dealings: these tales are based on a mistaken understanding of Putney manorial court records, where civil disagreements are not easily distinguished from criminal proceedings, or fines for breaching ale quality standards from "a routine manorial system of licensing ale-selling". [12] As a successful tradesman, Walter was regularly called upon for jury service and was elected Constable of Putney in 1495. [13] A well-informed but anonymous contemporary chronicler wrote that Walter was of Irish ancestry, but biographer James Gairdner has identified Cromwell family roots in Norwell, Nottinghamshire. [14] [15]

Thomas's mother, generally named as Katherine Meverell, was from a recognised "gentry family" in Staffordshire. [15] She lived in Putney in the house of a local attorney, John Welbeck, at the time of her marriage to Walter in 1474. [13]

Cromwell had two sisters: the elder, Katherine (great-great-grandmother of Oliver Cromwell), married Morgan (ap William) Williams, a Welsh lawyer's son who came to Surrey as a follower of King Henry VII when he established himself in the nearby Richmond Palace; [11] the younger, Elizabeth, married a farmer, William Wellyfed. Katherine's and Morgan's son, Richard, was employed in his uncle's service and by the autumn of 1529 had changed his name to Cromwell. Richard Cromwell was the great-grandfather of Oliver Cromwell. [16] [17]

France, Italy and the Low Countries

Cromwell declared to Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer that he had been a "ruffian[…]in his young days". [13] In his youth he left his family in Putney and crossed the Channel to the Continent. Accounts of his activities in France, Italy and the Low Countries are sketchy and contradictory. The tale that he first became a mercenary and marched with the French army to Italy, where in 1503 he fought in the Battle of Garigliano, originally stems from a short story by the contemporary Italian novelist Matteo Bandello (in which Cromwell is a page to a foot-soldier, carrying his pike and helmet, rather than a soldier himself).

This tale was later taken up as fact by many writers, notably John Foxe in his Actes and Monuments of 1563. [18] Diarmaid MacCulloch accepts that the specifics in Bandello's narrative suggest that it is more than an invented account, but James Gairdner, while acknowledging that Cromwell's year of birth is uncertain, points out that he could have been as young as 13 on the day of the battle. While in Italy, he entered service in the household of the Florentine banker Francesco Frescobaldi, who rescued him off the Florentine streets, where he was starving after leaving the French mercenaries. [19] [14] Later, he visited leading mercantile centres in the Low Countries, living among the English merchants and developing a network of contacts while learning several languages.

Return to Italy

At some point Cromwell returned to Italy: the records of the English Hospital in Rome indicate that he stayed there in June 1514, [13] while documents in the Vatican Archives suggest that he was an agent for the Archbishop of York, Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, and handled English ecclesiastical issues before the Roman Rota. [20]

He returned to Rome again in 1518, this time on behalf of the St Mary's Guild, Boston, looking to gain Pope Leo's continued approval for the sale of various profitable indulgences. It was a 26-week trip, and on the journey Cromwell became familiar with Erasmus's new edition of the Gospels. His reading made him, for the first time, doubt the legitimacy of the practice he was advocating. [21] [22] Tracy Borman goes further, suggesting that it was at this point Cromwell developed his strong contempt for the papacy, because he had so casually manipulated Pope Leo into granting the Boston petition without proper consideration. [23]

Marriage and issue

At one point during these years, Cromwell returned to England, where around 1515 he married Elizabeth Wyckes (d. 1529 [24] ). She was the widow of Thomas Williams, a Yeoman of the Guard, and the daughter of a Putney shearman, Henry Wyckes, who had served as a gentleman usher to King Henry VII. [25] [26] [27] The couple had three children: [28]

Cromwell's wife died in 1529 and his daughters, Anne and Grace, are believed to have died not long after their mother. [32] Their death may have been due to sweating sickness. Provisions made for Anne and Grace in Cromwell's will, dated 12 July 1529, were crossed out at some later date. [33] [34] Gregory outlived his father by only 11 years, succumbing to sweating sickness in 1551. [35] [36] [37] [38] [39]

Cromwell also had an illegitimate daughter, Jane (c.1530–1580 [40] [41] ), whose early life is a complete mystery. According to novelist Hilary Mantel, "Cromwell had an illegitimate daughter, and beyond the fact that she existed, we know very little about her. She comes briefly into the records, in an incredibly obscure way—she's in the archives of the county of Chester." [42] [43] [44] [45] Jane was born to an unknown mother while Cromwell mourned the loss of his wife and daughters. Jane presumably was educated and resided in Cromwell's homes, but in 1539, Margaret Vernon, the worldly Prioress of Little Marlow Priory (who had also helped to raise Gregory Cromwell [46] ) suggested she take Jane to begin her education away from home. [47] In that same year Jane's half-brother Gregory (at age nineteen) and his wife Elizabeth moved into Leeds Castle, Kent, in preparation for Gregory's election as a Knight of the Shire (Member of Parliament) for the county. Jane, then nine years of age, accompanied him. [48] [47] Cromwell's records show him paying Elizabeth for clothing and expenses for Jane. [49] [50] It is unknown what became of Jane's mother, though historian Caroline Angus argues that Jane's mother was Elizabeth Gregory, a former household servant who was left a surprisingly large amount of money and items in Cromwell's will. [51] Elizabeth Gregory was listed among family members in the will, despite not being any relation to the Cromwell, Williams, Wyckes or Williamson families. Cromwell was known to be one of the few men at court without mistresses and tried to keep this indiscretion secret. [52]

Jane married William Hough (c.1527–1585), of Leighton in Wirral, Cheshire, around 1550. [53] William Hough was the son of Richard Hough (1505–1574) who was Cromwell's agent in Chester from 1534 to 1540. [44] [54] [55] [45] Jane and her husband remained staunch Roman Catholics, who, together with their daughter, Alice, her husband, William Whitmore, and their children, all came to the attention of the authorities as recusants during the reign of Elizabeth I. [56]

Lawyer, Member of Parliament, adviser to Wolsey

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.jpg
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

By 1520, Cromwell was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles. [13] In 1523, he obtained a seat in the House of Commons as a Burgess, though the constituency he represented has not been identified with certainty. [13] He prepared a daring speech against King Henry's declared intention of leading an invasion of France, although it was expressed tactfully in terms of concern for the king's safety while on campaign and fear of the costs such an overbold policy would entail; it was the latter point that embodied Cromwell's true concern. There is no record of when Cromwell actually delivered the speech in the chamber and some modern historians, including Michael Everett and Robert Woods, have suggested that the whole episode was no more than a ploy, sanctioned by Henry himself, to allow him to withdraw graciously from his rash threat of war. [14] [57] [58]

After Parliament had been dissolved, Cromwell wrote a letter to a friend, jesting about the session's lack of productivity:

I amongst other have indured a parlyament which contenwid by the space of xvii hole wekes wher we communyd of warre pease Stryffe contencyon debatte murmure grudge Riches poverte penurye trowth falshode Justyce equyte dicayte [deceit] opprescyon Magnanymyte actyvyte foce [force] attempraunce [moderation] Treason murder Felonye consyli... [conciliation] and also how a commune welth myght be ediffyed and a[lso] contenewid within our Realme. Howbeyt in conclusyon we have d[one] as our predecessors have been wont to doo that ys to say, as well we myght and lefte wher we begann. [13]

For a short while early in 1523 Cromwell became an adviser to Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, drafting a parliamentary bill to relieve his sponsor of taxation on some property in Cumberland. Although the bill was not introduced in the 1523 session of Parliament, this may indicate that the unidentified seat for which Cromwell was returned in that year was Carlisle, Cumberland, to present the Marquess's bill. [59] Early in 1524 he became a member of the household of Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey although, initially, he maintained his private legal practice; in that year he was elected a member of Gray's Inn, a lawyers' guild. [13] [60] Cromwell assisted in the dissolution of nearly thirty monasteries to raise funds for Wolsey to found The King's School, Ipswich (1528), and Cardinal College, in Oxford (1529). [13] In 1529 Wolsey appointed Cromwell a member of his council, as one of his most senior and trusted advisers. [61] By the end of October of that year, however, Wolsey had fallen from power. [13] Cromwell had made enemies by aiding Wolsey to suppress the monasteries, but was determined not to fall with his master, as he told George Cavendish, then a Gentleman Usher and later Wolsey's biographer:

I do entend (god wyllyng) this after none, whan my lord hathe dyned to ride to london and so to the Court, where I wyll other make or marre, or ere [before] I come agayn, I wyll put my self in the prese [press] to se what any man is Able to lay to my charge of ontrouthe or mysdemeanor. [13]

Cavendish acknowledges that Cromwell's moves to mend the situation were by means of engaging himself in an energetic defence of Wolsey ("There could nothing be spoken against my lord…but he [Cromwell] would answer it incontinent[ly]" [62] ), rather than by distancing himself from his old master's actions, and this display of "authentic loyalty" only enhanced his reputation, not least in the mind of the King. [63]

Royal favourite

Cromwell successfully overcame the shadow cast over his career by Wolsey's downfall. [62] By November 1529, he had secured a seat in Parliament as a member for Taunton and was reported to be in favour with the King. [13] Early in this short session of Parliament (November to December 1529) Cromwell involved himself with legislation to restrict absentee clergy from collecting stipends from multiple parishes ("clerical farming") and to abolish the power of Rome to award dispensations for the practice. [64] [65] [66]

At some point during the closing weeks of 1530, the King appointed him to the Privy Council. [13] Cromwell held numerous offices during his career in the King's service, including:

Thomas Cromwell, c. 1532-3, attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger Thomas Cromwell, portrait miniature with fur collar, after Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Thomas Cromwell, c. 1532–3, attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger

as well as numerous minor offices. [43] [69]

Anne Boleyn

From 1527, Henry VIII had sought to have his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon annulled, so that he could lawfully marry Anne Boleyn. [70] At the centre of the campaign to secure the annulment was the emerging doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. By the autumn of 1531, Cromwell had taken control of the supervision of the king's legal and parliamentary affairs, working closely with Thomas Audley, and had joined the inner circle of the council. By the following spring, he had begun to exert influence over elections to the House of Commons. [13]

The third session of what is now known as the Reformation Parliament had been scheduled for October 1531, but was postponed until 15 January 1532 because of Henry's indecision as to the best way to proceed towards his annulment. Cromwell favoured the assertion of royal supremacy over the recalcitrant Church, and he manipulated support in the House of Commons for the measure by resurrecting anti-clerical grievances expressed earlier, in the session of 1529. Once he achieved his goal of managing affairs in Parliament, he never relinquished it. [71] In March 1532, speaking without royal permission, [72] [73] he urged the House of Commons to draw up a list of clerical abuses in need of reform. On 18 March 1532, the Commons delivered a supplication to the king, denouncing clerical abuses and the power of the ecclesiastical courts, and describing Henry as "the only head, sovereign lord, protector and defender" of the Church. On 14 May 1532, Parliament was prorogued. Two days later, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor, realising that the battle to save the marriage was lost. More's resignation from the Council represented a triumph for Cromwell and the pro-Reformation faction at court. [13]

The king's gratitude to Cromwell was expressed in a grant of the lordship of the manor of Romney in the Welsh Marches (recently confiscated from the family of the executed Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham) and appointment to three relatively minor offices: Master of the Jewels on 14 April 1532, Clerk of the Hanaper on 16 July, and Chancellor of the Exchequer on 12 April 1533. [74] None of these offices afforded much income, but the appointments were an indication of royal favour, and gave Cromwell a position in three major institutions of government: the royal household, the Chancery, and the Exchequer. [13]

Anne Boleyn Anneboleyn2.jpg
Anne Boleyn

Henry and Anne married on 25 January 1533, after a secret marriage on 14 November 1532 that may have taken place in Calais. [75]

On 26 January 1533 Audley was appointed Lord Chancellor and his replacement as Speaker of the House of Commons was Cromwell's old friend (and former lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey) Humphrey Wingfield. Cromwell further increased his control over parliament through his management of by-elections: since the previous summer, assisted by Thomas Wriothesley, then Clerk of the Signet, he had prepared a list of suitably amenable "burgesses, knights and citizens" for the vacant parliamentary seats. [76]

The parliamentary session began on 4 February, and Cromwell introduced a new bill restricting the right to make appeals to Rome, reasserting the long-standing historical fiction that England was an "empire" and thus not subject to external jurisdiction. [77] [78] On 30 March, Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, and Convocation immediately declared the king's marriage to Catherine unlawful. In the first week of April 1533, Parliament passed Cromwell's bill into law, as the Act in Restraint of Appeals, ensuring that any adjudication concerning the king's marriage could not be challenged in Rome. [73] On 11 April, Archbishop Cranmer sent the King formal notice that the validity of his marriage to Catherine was to be the subject of an ecclesiastical court hearing. The trial began on 10 May 1533 at Dunstable Priory (near to where Catherine was staying at Ampthill Castle) and on 23 May the Archbishop pronounced the court's verdict, declaring the marriage "null and invalid…contrary to the law of God". Five days later he pronounced the King's marriage to Anne to be lawful, and on 1 June, she was crowned queen. [13] [79]

In December, the King authorised Cromwell to discredit the papacy. The minister organised an adept smear campaign throughout the nation, attacking the Pope in sermons, pamphlets and plays mounted in parish churches. [13] [80] In 1534 a new Parliament was summoned, again under Cromwell's supervision, to enact the legislation necessary to make a formal break of England's remaining ties with Rome. Archbishop Cranmer's verdict took statutory form as the Act of Succession, the Dispensations Act reiterated royal supremacy and the Act for the Submission of the Clergy incorporated into law the clergy's surrender in 1532. On 30 March 1534, Audley gave royal assent to the legislation in the presence of the King. [13]

King's chief minister

Cromwell's coat of arms from 1532 to 1537. Arms of Thomas Cromwell, Baron Cromwell.svg
Cromwell's coat of arms from 1532 to 1537.

In April 1534, Henry confirmed Cromwell as his principal secretary and chief minister, a position which he had held for some time in all but name. [82] Cromwell immediately took steps to enforce the legislation just passed by Parliament. Before the members of both houses returned home on 30 March, they were required to swear an oath accepting the Act of Succession: all the King's subjects were now required to swear to the legitimacy of the marriage and, by implication, to accept the King's new powers and the break from Rome. On 13 April, the London clergy accepted the oath. On the same day, the commissioners offered it to Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, both of whom refused it. More was taken into custody on the same day and was moved to the Tower of London on 17 April. Fisher joined him there four days later. On 7 May Cromwell led a deputation from the commissioners to Fisher and More, to persuade them to accept the Act and save themselves. This failed and, within a month, both prisoners were executed. [83]

On 18 April, an order was issued that all citizens of London were to swear their acceptance of the Oath of Succession. Similar orders were issued throughout the country. When Parliament reconvened in November, Cromwell brought in the most significant revision of the treason laws since 1352, making it treasonous to speak rebellious words against the Royal Family, to deny their titles, or to call the King a heretic, tyrant, infidel, or usurper. The Act of Supremacy also clarified the King's position as head of the church and the Act for Payment of First Fruits and Tenths substantially increased clerical taxes. Cromwell also strengthened his own control over the Church.

During November 1534, another provision of the Act of Succession was in preparation: the appointment of three vicegerentes to supervise all ecclesiastical institutions. When the measure was put into effect on 21 January 1535, [84] however, only one name remained: that of Cromwell. [lower-alpha 3] The King appointed him Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General, and issued a warrant to authorise a visitation of all the country's churches, monasteries and clergy. Neville Williams explains that as Vicegerent in spiritual affairs, Cromwell held sway over church doctrine and religious policy, while from the Vicar General title, he drew his authority over monasteries and other church institutions. [85] By September 1535 Cromwell had appointed his own officials for church administration, with authority over the archbishops of Canterbury and York, to oversee all church affairs. He never declared that this visitation was ever complete, so he retained its extensive powers in his own hands. [86] In this capacity, Cromwell conducted a census in 1535 to enable the government to evaluate and tax church property more effectively. [13]

A lasting achievement of Cromwell's vicegerency was his direction of Autumn 1538 that every parish in the country should securely maintain a record of all christenings, marriages and burials. Although intended as a means to flush out Anabaptists (dissenting religious refugees from the Low Countries and elsewhere who did not practise infant baptism) the measure proved to be of great benefit to the posterity of English historians. [87]

Fall of Anne Boleyn

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger Hans Holbein the Younger - Jane Seymour, Queen of England - Google Art Project.jpg
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger

The final session of the Reformation Parliament began on 4 February 1536. By 18 March, an Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries, those with a gross income of less than £200 per annum, had passed both houses. [88] This caused a clash with Anne Boleyn, formerly one of Cromwell's strongest allies, who wanted the proceeds of the dissolution used for educational and charitable purposes, not paid into the King's coffers. [89]

Anne instructed her chaplains to preach against the Vicegerent, and in a blistering sermon on Passion Sunday, 2 April 1536, her almoner, John Skip, denounced Cromwell and his fellow Privy Councillors before the entire court. Skip's diatribe was intended to persuade courtiers and Privy Councillors to change the advice they had been giving the King and to reject the temptation of personal gain. Skip was called before the council and accused of malice, slander, presumption, lack of charity, sedition, treason, disobedience to the gospel, attacking "the great posts, pillars and columns sustaining and holding up the commonwealth" and inviting anarchy. [89] Cromwell took no action against Skip beyond the unsympathetic questioning, and he remained as the queen's almoner, attending her when she was awaiting execution in the Tower. [90] [91]

Anne, who had many enemies at court, had never been popular with the people and had so far failed to produce a male heir. The King was growing impatient, having become enamoured of the young Jane Seymour and being encouraged by Anne's enemies, particularly Sir Nicholas Carew and the Seymours. In circumstances that have divided historians, Anne was accused of adultery with Mark Smeaton, a musician of the royal household; Sir Henry Norris, the King's groom of the stool and one of his closest friends; Sir Francis Weston; Sir William Brereton; and her brother, George Boleyn, 2nd Viscount Rochford. [92] [93] The Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, wrote to Charles V that:

he himself [Cromwell] has been authorised and commissioned by the king to prosecute and bring to an end the mistress's trial, to do which he had taken considerable trouble... He set himself to devise and conspire the said affair. [94] [95] [96]

Regardless of the role Cromwell played in Anne Boleyn's fall, and his confessed animosity to her, Chapuys's letter states that Cromwell claimed that he was acting with the King's authority. Some historians are convinced that her fall and execution were engineered by Cromwell, [97] [98] while others accept that the king instigated the process. [99] Alexander Alesius, a theologian and associate of Cromwell, wrote that it had indeed been Cromwell who hinted to Henry of Anne's infidelity, but the king had in turn instructed Cromwell to turn the rumours into proceedings. [100]

The Queen and her brother stood trial on Monday 15 May, while the four others accused with them were condemned on the Friday beforehand. The men were executed on 17 May 1536 and, on the same day, Cranmer declared Henry's marriage to Anne invalid, a ruling that illegitimised their daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Two days later, Anne herself was executed. On 30 May, the King married Jane Seymour. On 8 June, a new Parliament passed the second Act of Succession, securing the rights of Queen Jane's heirs to the throne. [13]

Baron Cromwell and Lord Privy Seal

Cromwell's coat of arms after his son's marriage, in 1537, to Queen Jane's sister, Elizabeth, Lady Ughtred Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex.svg
Cromwell's coat of arms after his son's marriage, in 1537, to Queen Jane's sister, Elizabeth, Lady Ughtred
Cromwell's coat of arms as Knight of the Garter Thomas Cromwell, Coat of Arms, 1537.png
Cromwell's coat of arms as Knight of the Garter
Portrait medal made for Thomas Cromwell in 1538. Reverse: armorial shield of Cromwell, being two coats quarterly within the Garter. Thomas Cromwell medal, 1538 side 2.png
Portrait medal made for Thomas Cromwell in 1538. Reverse: armorial shield of Cromwell, being two coats quarterly within the Garter.

Cromwell's position was now stronger than ever. He succeeded Anne Boleyn's father, Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, as Lord Privy Seal on 2 July 1536, resigning the office of Master of the Rolls, which he had held since 8 October 1534. On 8 July 1536, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. [102]

Religious reform

Cromwell orchestrated the Dissolution of the Monasteries and visitations to the universities and colleges in 1535, which had strong links to the church. This resulted in the dispersal and destruction of many books deemed "popish" and "superstitious". This has been described as "easily the greatest single disaster in English literary history". Oxford University was left without a library collection until Sir Thomas Bodley's donation in 1602. [103]

In July 1536, the first attempt was made to clarify religious doctrine after the break with Rome. Bishop Edward Foxe tabled proposals in Convocation, with strong backing from Cromwell and Cranmer, which the King later endorsed as the Ten Articles and which were printed in August 1536. Cromwell circulated injunctions for their enforcement that went beyond the Articles themselves, provoking opposition in September and October in Lincolnshire and then throughout the six northern counties. These widespread popular and clerical uprisings, collectively known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, found support among the gentry and even the nobility. [104] [105]

The rebels' grievances were wide-ranging, but the most significant was the suppression of the monasteries, blamed on the King's "evil counsellors", principally Cromwell and Cranmer. One of the leaders of the rebellion was Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy of Darcy, who gave Cromwell the prophetic warning during his interrogation in the Tower: "[…] men who have been in cases like with their prince as ye be now have come at the last to the same end that ye would now bring me unto.". [106] The suppression of the risings spurred further Reformation measures. In February 1537, Cromwell convened a vicegerential synod of bishops and academics. The synod was co-ordinated by Cranmer and Foxe, and they prepared a draft document by July: The Institution of a Christian Man , more commonly known as the Bishops' Book. [107] By October, it was in circulation, although the King had not yet given it his full assent. However, Cromwell's success in Church politics was offset by the fact that his political influence had been weakened by the emergence of a Privy Council, a body of nobles and office-holders that first came together to suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace. The King confirmed his support of Cromwell by appointing him to the Order of the Garter on 5 August 1537, but Cromwell was nonetheless forced to accept the existence of an executive body dominated by his conservative opponents. [13]

In January 1538, Cromwell pursued an extensive campaign against what the opponents of the old religion termed "idolatry": statues, rood screens, and images were attacked, culminating in September with the dismantling of the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Early in September, Cromwell also completed a new set of vicegerential injunctions declaring open war on "pilgrimages, feigned relics or images, or any such superstitions" and commanding that "one book of the whole Bible in English" be set up in every church. Moreover, following the "voluntary" surrender of the remaining smaller monasteries during the previous year, the larger monasteries were now also "invited" to surrender throughout 1538, a process legitimised in the 1539 session of Parliament and completed in the following year. [13]

Resistance to further religious reform

The King was becoming increasingly unhappy about the extent of religious changes, and the conservative faction was gaining strength at court. Cromwell took the initiative against his enemies. He imprisoned the Marquess of Exeter, Sir Edward Neville, and Sir Nicholas Carew on charges of treason in November 1538 (the "Exeter Conspiracy"), using evidence acquired from Sir Geoffrey Pole under interrogation in the Tower. Sir Geoffrey, "broken in spirit", was pardoned but the others were executed. [108]

On 17 December 1538, the Inquisitor-General of France forbade the printing of Miles Coverdale's Great Bible. Then, Cromwell persuaded the King of France to release the unfinished books so that printing could continue in England. The first edition was finally available in April 1539. The publication of the Great Bible was one of Cromwell's principal achievements, being the first authoritative version in English. [13]

The King, however, continued to resist further Reformation measures. A Parliamentary committee was established to examine doctrine, and the Duke of Norfolk presented six questions on 16 May 1539 for the House to consider, which were duly passed as the Act of Six Articles shortly before the session ended on 28 June. The Six Articles reaffirmed a traditional view of the Mass, the Sacraments, and the priesthood. [13]

Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1539 Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Anne of Cleves , by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1539

Henry's third wife, Jane, died in 1537, less than two weeks after the birth of her only child, the future Edward VI. In early October 1539, the King finally accepted Cromwell's suggestion that he should marry Anne of Cleves, the sister of Duke Wilhelm of Cleves, partly on the basis of a portrait which Hans Holbein had painted of her. On 27 December, Anne of Cleves arrived at Dover. On New Year's Day 1540, the King met her at Rochester and was immediately repelled by her physically: "I like her not!". The wedding ceremony, Archbishop Cranmer officiating, took place on 6 January in the Queen's Closet at Greenwich Palace, but the marriage was not consummated. [109] Henry said that he found it impossible to enjoy conjugal relations with a woman whom he found so unattractive. [110]

Earl of Essex

On 18 April 1540, Henry granted Cromwell the earldom of Essex and the senior Court office of Lord Great Chamberlain. [13] Despite these signs of royal favour, Cromwell's tenure as the King's chief minister was nearing its end. The King's anger at being manoeuvered into marrying Anne of Cleves was the opportunity Cromwell's conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, had been hoping for. [111]

Downfall and execution

During 1536 Cromwell had proven himself an agile political survivor. However, the gradual slide towards Protestantism at home and the King's ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves, which Cromwell engineered in January 1540, proved costly. Some historians believe that Hans Holbein the Younger was partly responsible for Cromwell's downfall because he had provided a very flattering portrait of Anne which may have deceived the king. The 65 cm × 48 cm (26 in × 19 in) painting is now displayed at the Louvre in Paris. When Henry finally met her, the king was reportedly shocked by her plain appearance. [112] Cromwell had passed on to Henry some exaggerated claims of Anne's beauty. [113] [114]

Henry VIII confided in Cromwell that he had been unable to consummate the union with Anne and he allowed Cromwell to impart this information to William Fitzwilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton who, as Lord Admiral, had conveyed Anne from Calais. Back home at Austin Friars, and uncertain how to deal with this new problem, Cromwell also told Thomas Wriothesley, his principal secretary (who also served the king in various important positions). When Henry's humiliation became common knowledge, Southampton (who was anxious to avoid the king's displeasure for his part in bringing Anne to London), or possibly Wriothesley's close friend Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, made sure that Cromwell was blamed for the indiscretion. Wriothesley, the bishop and the Lord Admiral were erstwhile friends of Cromwell and their self-serving disloyalty indicated that the minister's position was already known to be weakening. [115] [116]

A long-mooted Franco-Imperial alliance (contrary to England's interests) had failed to materialise. [lower-alpha 4] The king had sent the Duke of Norfolk to the French king Francis I to offer Henry's support in his unresolved dispute with Emperor Charles V, and the mission had been received favourably. This changed the balance of power in England's favour and demonstrated that Cromwell's earlier foreign policy of wooing support from the Duchy of Cleves had unnecessarily caused his king's conjugal difficulty. [117] Furthermore, the possibility of war was arising between the Duke of Cleves and Charles V and, if this materialised, Henry would be trapped by his new alliance with Cleves into declaring war on France, an unwelcome reversal of previous policy. [118]

Early in 1540 Cromwell's religiously conservative, aristocratic enemies, headed by the Duke of Norfolk and supported by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester (given the nickname "Wily Winchester" by polemical historian John Foxe for his mischievous counsels to the king) [119] decided that the country's decline towards "doctrinal radicalism" in religion, as expressed in a series of parliamentary debates held throughout that spring, had gone too far. They saw in Catherine Howard, Norfolk's niece, "considerately put in the king's way by that pander, her uncle of Norfolk", an opportunity to displace their foe. [120] Catherine's assignations with the king were openly facilitated by the duke and the bishop and as she "strode…towards the throne" the two conspirators found themselves edging once more into political power. [121] [122] It would have been a simple matter for Cromwell to arrange an annulment of Henry's marriage to the tractable Anne, but this would have put him in greater jeopardy as it would clear the way for Catherine to marry the king. [120] At this point, however, cynical self-interest may have made Henry hesitate to act immediately against Cromwell, as the minister was guiding two important revenue bills (the Subsidy Bill—whereby Cromwell sought to extend the principle that taxation could be levied for general government purposes rather than a specified objective—and a bill to confiscate the assets of the Order of St John) through parliament; Henry was anxious that any unpopularity caused by the measures would fall on Cromwell and not himself. [123] [124] [125]

Cromwell was arrested at a Council meeting at Westminster on 10 June 1540 and accused of various charges. "Cromwell may have been arrested for his promotion of religious reformation, but few could doubt that Henry was also punishing Cromwell for the humiliation of his latest marriage." [126] His enemies took every opportunity to humiliate him: The Duke of Norfolk snatched the St George's collar (insignia of the Order of the Garter) from Cromwell's shoulders, saying: "A traitor must not wear it", while the prisoner's former friend Sir William Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Southampton [127] untied the ceremonial garter of the Order. [128] [129] His initial reaction was defiance: "This then is my reward for faithful service!" he cried out, and angrily defied his fellow councillors to call him a traitor. [130] He was taken by barge to the Tower and imprisoned.

A Bill of Attainder containing a long list of indictments, including supporting Anabaptists, corrupt practices, leniency in matters of justice, acting for personal gain, protecting Protestants accused of heresy and thus failing to enforce the Act of Six Articles, and plotting to marry King Henry's daughter Mary, was introduced into the House of Lords a week later. It was augmented with a further charge of sacramentarianism, for which the Six Articles allowed only the death penalty, two days after that. [131] [132] It passed on 29 June 1540. [13] [133]

All Cromwell's honours were forfeited and it was publicly proclaimed that he could be called only "Thomas Cromwell, cloth carder". [134] The King deferred the execution until his marriage to Anne of Cleves could be annulled; Cromwell was being spared for the time being in case he was needed to give evidence of the king's distaste for Anne. [135] Anne, however, agreed to an amicable annulment (and was treated with great generosity by Henry as a result). Hoping for clemency, Cromwell wrote in support of the annulment, in his last personal address to the King. [136] He ended the letter: "Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy." [137]

Cromwell was condemned to death without trial, lost all his titles and property and was publicly beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540, on the same day as the King's marriage to Catherine Howard. [138] Cromwell made a prayer and speech on the scaffold, professing to die "in the traditional [Catholic] faith" and denying that he had aided heretics. This was a necessary disavowal, to protect his family. [139] [135] The circumstances of his execution are a source of debate: whilst some accounts state that the executioner had great difficulty severing his head, [140] [141] others claim that this is apocryphal and that it took only one blow. [142] Afterwards, his head was set on a spike on London Bridge. [13]

Hall said of Cromwell's downfall,

Many lamented but more rejoiced, and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night, many wishing that that day had been seven years before; and some fearing lest he should escape, although he were imprisoned, could not be merry. Others who knew nothing but truth by him both lamented him and heartily prayed for him. But this is true that of certain of the clergy he was detestably hated, & specially of such as had borne swynge [beaten hard], and by his means was put from it; for in deed he was a man that in all his doings seemed not to favour any kind of Popery, nor could not abide the snoffyng pride of some prelates, which undoubtedly, whatsoever else was the cause of his death, did shorten his life and procured the end that he was brought unto. [143]

Henry came to regret Cromwell's killing and later accused his ministers of bringing about Cromwell's downfall by "pretexts" and "false accusations"; over important issues and policies, he had always been liable to be "bounced" into a hasty decision by the intrigues of the factions within his court. [135] [144] On 3 March 1541, the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, reported in a letter that the King was now said to be lamenting that,

under pretext of some slight offences which he had committed, they had brought several accusations against him, on the strength of which he had put to death the most faithful servant he ever had. [145]

London 01 2013 Tower Hill scaffold 5211.JPG
Site of the ancient scaffold at Tower Hill where Cromwell was executed by decapitation
London Tower Hill Plaque-Courtenay-Cromwell-Howard-Seymour-Wyatt-Howard-Wentworth.JPG
Plaque at the ancient scaffold site on Tower Hill commemorating Thomas Cromwell and others executed at the site

There remains an element of what G. R. Elton describes as "mystery" about Cromwell's demise. In April 1540, just three months before he went to the block, he was created Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain. The arbitrary and unpredictable streak in the King's personality, which more than once exercised influence during his reign, had surfaced again and washed Cromwell away in its wake. [146]

Personal religious beliefs

Although Cromwell always maintained a primarily political outlook on general affairs, there is consensus among scholars that at least while he held power he was a Protestant, with a Lutheran mindset. For him, the Henrician Reformation was certainly more than a jurisdictional revolution masquerading in religious garb. For instance, in the mid-1530s, he promoted Protestant ideas to forge an alliance with German Lutheran states, but his support for the Protestant cause is too general to be accurately explained in narrow political terms. [147]

In 1535 Cromwell succeeded in having clearly identified reformers, such as Hugh Latimer, Edward Foxe and Nicholas Shaxton, appointed to the episcopacy. He encouraged and supported the work of reformers, such as Robert Barnes; and he obtained the licence to publish the Matthew's Bible, providing significant funding for the printing of this English translation of the Bible and sending one to every parish in England. [148] [149] By 1538, it was compulsory for all churches to own a Bible, in accordance with Cromwell's injunctions. [150] [151] The revised version, the Great Bible, was widely available by 1539 and included a picture of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer and Cromwell on the title page. [152] [153]

When Cromwell fell from favour in 1540, his alleged support for Anabaptism was cited. Although the charge was spurious, the fact that it was levelled at all demonstrates the reputation for evangelical sympathies Cromwell had developed. [154]

Historical significance

Until the 1950s, historians discounted Cromwell's role, stating he was little more than the agent of the despotic King Henry VIII. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article (written by Albert Pollard) states "his power has been overrated." [155] Geoffrey Elton, however, in The Tudor Revolution (1953), featured him as the central figure in the Tudor revolution in government, the presiding genius, much more so than the king, in handling the break with Rome and in creating the laws and administrative procedures that reshaped post-Reformation England. Elton wrote that Cromwell had been responsible for translating royal supremacy into parliamentary terms, creating powerful new organs of government to take charge of Church lands, and largely removing the medieval features of central government. [156]

Subsequent historians have agreed with Elton as to Cromwell's importance, though not with his claims of "revolution". [157] [158] [159] Leithead (2004) wrote, "Against significant opposition he secured acceptance of the king's new powers, created a more united and more easily governable kingdom, and provided the crown, at least temporarily, with a very significant landed endowment." [13] Diarmaid MacCulloch credits the advancement of the most significant politicians and administrators of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, including William Cecil and Nicholas Bacon, to the influence and guidance of Thomas Cromwell at the start of their careers. [160]

During Cromwell's years in power, he skilfully managed Crown finances and extended royal authority. In 1536, he established the Court of Augmentations to handle the massive windfall to the royal coffers from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Two other important financial institutions, the Court of Wards and the Court of First Fruits and Tenths, owed their existence to him, although they were not set up until after his death. He strengthened royal authority in the north of England, through reform of the Council of the North, extended royal power and introduced Protestantism in Ireland, and was the architect of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, which promoted stability and gained acceptance for the royal supremacy in Wales. [161] He also introduced important social and economic reforms in England in the 1530s, including action against enclosures, the promotion of English cloth exports and the poor relief legislation of 1536. [162] [13]


Thomas Cromwell's son Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell, married Elizabeth Seymour, the sister of Queen Jane Seymour and widow of Sir Anthony Ughtred. They had five children: [163] [164]

Thomas Cromwell had an illegitimate daughter called Jane. [53] [165]

Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell was the great-grandson of Sir Richard Cromwell, Thomas Cromwell's nephew. [166]

Hans Holbein portraits

Thomas Cromwell was a patron of Hans Holbein the Younger, as were Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. In the New York Frick Collection, two portraits by Holbein hang facing each other on the same wall of the Study, one depicting Thomas Cromwell, the other Thomas More, Cromwell's executed political and religious opponent. [76] In 2023 the Book of Hours depicted in the Frick Collection portrait of Cromwell was put on display at Hever Castle, Kent. [169]

Fictional portrayals

Cromwell has been portrayed in a number of plays, feature films, and television miniseries, usually as a villainous character. More recently, however, Hilary Mantel's two Man Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring up the Bodies (2012), and the final volume in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light (2020), have shown Cromwell in a more sympathetic light. In the fiction, he is imbued with family affections, genuine respect for Cardinal Wolsey, zeal for the Reformation, and support for a limited degree of social reform, while the villainous character is Thomas More. [170]


  1. in his Thomas Cromwell: a life (2018) Diarmaid MacCulloch offers the contemporary pronunciation of "Crummle" or "Cromell" (without "w"), based on the spellings used by Cromwell's correspondents. [2]
  2. A trier was the official first to receive and scrutinise petitions to the King [68]
  3. The other two under consideration had been John Tregonwell and Thomas Bedell
  4. Had the proposed treaty come about the Pope would direct the reconciled rulers to mount a joint invasion of England. [117]

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