Thomas Cromwell

Who is Thomas Cromwell?

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex (1485 – 1540), was an English lawyer and statesman who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540. Cromwell was one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation. He helped to engineer an annulment of the king's marriage to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, in order to allow Henry to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. After failure to obtain approval from the Pope, in 1534 parliament endorsed the king's claim to be head of a breakaway Church of England, and Cromwell supervised the new church from the unique posts of vicegerent in spirituals and vicar general.

During his rise, Cromwell made many enemies, especially among the conservative faction at court. He fell from power after arranging the king's marriage to a German princess, Anne of Cleves. Cromwell hoped that the marriage would breathe fresh life into the Reformation in England, but it turned into a disaster for Cromwell and ended in annulment just six months later. Cromwell was arraigned under a bill 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. Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), the Parliamentarian leader who overthrew the monarchy during the English Civil War, was a great-great-grandson of Thomas Cromwell's sister, Katherine Williams (born circa 1482).


Thomas Cromwell was born around 1485 in Putney, Surrey, the son of Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith, fuller, and cloth merchant, and owner of both a hostelry and a brewery. Thomas's mother, Katherine, was the aunt of Nicholas Glossop of Wirksworth in Derbyshire. She lived in Putney in the house of a local attorney, John Welbeck, at the time of her marriage to Walter Cromwell in 1474.

Cromwell had two sisters. The younger, Elizabeth, married a farmer, William Wellyfed. The elder, Katherine, married Morgan Williams, a Welsh lawyer. Katherine and Morgan's son Richard was employed in his uncle's service and changed his name to Cromwell. Richard's great-grandson was Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Little is known about Thomas Cromwell's early life. It is believed he was born at the top of Putney Hill, on the edge of Putney Heath.

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, quoted above, 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.' The plot of ground here referred to is now covered by the Green Man public house."

Cromwell made a declaration to Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer that he had been a " his young days". As a 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. It is alleged that he first became a mercenary and marched with the French army to Italy, where he fought in the battle of Garigliano on 28 December 1503. While in Italy, he entered the household of the Florentine merchant banker Francesco Frescobaldi.

Later he visited leading mercantile centres in the Low Countries, living among the English merchants and developing an important network of contacts while learning several languages. At some point, he returned to Italy. The records of the English Hospital in Rome indicate that he stayed there in June 1514, while documents in the Vatican Archives suggest that he was an agent for Archbishop of York, Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, and handled English ecclesiastical issues before the Roman Rota.

At some time during these years, Cromwell returned to England, where around 1515 he married Elizabeth Wyckes (1489–1527). She was the widow of Thomas Williams, a Yeoman of the Guard, and the daughter of a Putney shearman, Henry Wykes, who had served as a Gentleman Usher to King Henry VII. The couple had a son, Gregory, and two daughters, Anne and Grace. Neither daughter survived childhood. Notwithstanding his family having grown, he twice (in 1517 and 1518) led an embassy to Rome to gain from Pope Leo X a Papal Bull of Indulgence, for the town of Boston in Lincolnshire.

By 1520, Cromwell was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles. In 1523, he obtained a seat in the House of Commons, though the constituency he represented at that time has not been identified. In 1524, Cromwell was elected as a member of Gray's Inn and entered the service of Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey. In the mid-1520s, 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). In 1526, Wolsey appointed Cromwell a member of his council; by 1529, Cromwell was one of Wolsey's most senior and trusted advisers. However, by the end of October of that year, Wolsey had fallen from power.

Cromwell's efforts to overcome the shadow cast over his career by Wolsey's downfall were successful. 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. At some point, during the closing weeks of 1530, the King appointed him to the Privy Council.

King's chief minister

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 Commons. He was a modest man, not fond of flattery. Since 1527, Henry VIII had sought to have his marriage to Queen Catherine annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn. At the centre of the campaign to secure the divorce was the emerging doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. 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 due to government indecision as to the best way to proceed.

Cromwell now favoured the assertion of royal supremacy, and manipulated the Commons by resurrecting anti-clerical grievances expressed earlier in the session of 1529. 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. The clergy resisted at first, but capitulated when faced with the threat of Parliamentary reprisal. On 14 May 1532, Parliament was prorogued. Two days later, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor, realizing 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.

The King's gratitude to Cromwell was expressed in a grant of the lordship of Romney in Newport in Wales 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. None of these offices afforded much income, but the grants 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. By January 1533, Anne Boleyn was pregnant and the marriage could no longer be delayed. The date of the wedding is unclear. It may have taken place when Anne was with the King in Calais in November 1532, but it seems more likely that it took place at a secret ceremony on 25 January 1533. Parliament was immediately recalled to pass the necessary legislation.

On 26 January 1533, Audley was appointed Lord Chancellor, and Cromwell increased his control over the Commons through his management of by-elections. The parliamentary session began on 4 February, and Cromwell introduced a new bill restricting the right to make appeals to Rome. On 30 March, Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, and Convocation immediately declared the King's marriage to Katherine unlawful. In the first week of April 1533, Parliament passed the bill into law as the Act in Restraint of Appeals, ensuring that any verdict concerning the King's marriage could not be challenged in Rome.

On 11 April, Archbishop Cranmer sent the King a pro forma challenge to the validity of his marriage to Queen Katherine. A formal trial began on 10 May 1533 in Dunstable, and on 23 May the archbishop pronounced sentence, declaring the marriage illegal. Five days later he pronounced the King's marriage to Anne to be lawful, and on 1 June, she was crowned queen. In December, the King authorized Cromwell to discredit the papacy, and the Pope was attacked throughout the nation in sermons and pamphlets. In 1534, a new Parliament was summoned, again under Cromwell's supervision, to enact the legislation necessary to formally break England's remaining ties with Rome.

Archbishop Cranmer's sentence 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. In April 1534, Henry confirmed Cromwell as his principal secretary and chief minister, a position he had held in all but name for some time. 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, and all the King's subjects were now required to swear to the legitimacy of the marriage and, by implication, to acceptance of 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, who both refused it. More was taken into custody on the same day, and was moved to the Tower on 17 April. Fisher joined him there four days later. On 18 April, an order was issued that all citizens of London were to swear. 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. On 21 January 1535, the King appointed him royal vicegerent, or vicar-general, and commissioned him to organize visitations of all the country's churches, monasteries, and clergy. In this capacity, Cromwell conducted a census in 1535 to enable the government to tax church property more effectively.

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. This caused a clash with Anne Boleyn, who wanted the proceeds of the dissolution used for charitable purposes, not paid into the King's coffers. Anne instructed her chaplains to preach against the vicegerent, and on 2 April 1536 her almoner, John Skip, denounced Cromwell before the entire court as an enemy of the Queen. Anne had so far failed to produce a male heir, and Cromwell, aware that the King was growing impatient and had become enamoured of the young Jane Seymour, acted with ruthless determination, accusing Anne of adultery with several courtiers, including her own brother, Viscount Rochford. 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, and on the same day Cranmer declared Henry's marriage to Anne invalid, a ruling that bastardized 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. 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.

In July 1536, the first attempt was made to clarify religious doctrine after the break with Rome. Bishop Edward Foxe, with strong backing from Cromwell and Cranmer, tabled proposals in Convocation, which the King later endorsed as the Ten Articles, printed in August. 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, which found support among the gentry and even the nobility, were collectively known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Although the rebels' grievances were wide-ranging, the most significant was the suppression of the monasteries, blamed on the King's "evil counsellors", principally Cromwell and Cranmer. The suppression of the risings spurred further Reformation measures. In February 1537, Cromwell convened a vicegerential synod of bishops and doctors. By July, the synod, co-ordinated by Cranmer and Foxe, had prepared a draft document, The Institution of a Christian Man, more commonly known as the Bishops' Book. 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 electing 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.

In January 1538, Cromwell pursued an extensive campaign against what was termed "idolatry" by the followers of the new religion. Statues, roods, 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 of the largest volume 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 legitimized in the 1539 session of Parliament and completed in the following year. The King was becoming increasingly unhappy about the extent of religious changes, and the conservative faction at court was gaining strength. Cromwell took the initiative against his enemies. In November 1538, using evidence acquired from Sir Geoffrey Pole under interrogation in the Tower, he imprisoned the Marquess of Exeter, Sir Edward Neville, and Sir Nicholas Carew on charges of treason; all were executed in the following months.

On 17 December 1538, the Inquisitor-General of France interdicted the printing of Miles Coverdale's Great Bible. Cromwell persuaded the French King to release the unfinished books so that printing could continue in England. In April 1539 the first edition was finally available. The publication of the Great Bible, the first authoritative version in English, was one of Cromwell's most significant achievements. The King, however, continued to resist further Reformation measures. A parliamentary committee was established to examine doctrine, and on 16 May 1539 the Duke of Norfolk presented six questions 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.

Queen Jane had 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 marry Anne, the sister of Duke Wilhelm, of Cleves. On 27 December, Anne arrived at Dover. On New Year's Day 1540, the King met her at Rochester, and was chagrined to find that she was not the beauty Holbein had depicted in his portrait of her. The wedding ceremony took place on 6 January at Greenwich, but the marriage was not consummated.

Downfall and execution

On 18 April 1540, Henry granted Cromwell the earldom of Essex and the senior court office of Lord Great Chamberlain. Despite these signs of royal favour, Cromwell's tenure as the King's chief minister was almost over. The King's anger at being forced to marry Anne of Cleves was the opportunity Cromwell's conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, needed to topple him. At a Council meeting on 10 June 1540, Cromwell was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. A bill of attainder containing a long list of indictments, including treason, heresy, corruption, and plotting to marry Lady Mary Tudor, was introduced into the House of Lords a week later, and was passed on 29 June 1540.

All Cromwell's honours were forfeited. The King deferred the execution until his marriage to Anne of Cleves could be annulled. Hoping for clemency, Cromwell wrote in support of the annulment in his last personal address to the King. Cromwell was condemned to death without trial and beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540, the day of the King's marriage to Catherine Howard. After the execution, his head was set on a spike on London Bridge.

Henry came to regret Cromwell's execution, and later accused his ministers of bringing about Cromwell's downfall by false charges. 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."

Cromwell's life and legacy have aroused enormous controversy. However his effectiveness and creativity as a royal minister cannot be denied, nor can his loyalty to the King. 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 occasioned by 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 legislation, the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, which promoted stability and gained acceptance for the royal supremacy in Wales. 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.


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