born c.1485 in Putney
executed 28 July 1540 in London
“A good household manager, but not fit to meddle in the affairs of kings.”
May 1538, Henry VIII describes Cromwell to the French ambassador
Thomas Cromwell Biography
Thomas Cromwell was as great a statesman as England has ever seen and, in his decade of power, permanently changed the course of English history. Unlike his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell was not a priest or a papist. He was a lawyer determined to impose his own character – methodical, detached, and calculating – upon government.
Cromwell wanted government to be effective and efficient; to achieve this, he had to end the chaos of feudal privilege and ill-defined jurisdictions. He was blessed with a logical mind in an age sadly devoid of them. And unlike his royal master, he did not let his emotions interfere with his position. He was the ideal statesman for Tudor England and, just months after his execution in 1540, Henry VIII was bemoaning his loss.
Cromwell was introduced to government service as a secretary for Cardinal Wolsey. His abilities won him the older man’s respect and soon Cromwell was his most trusted servant and principal secretary. But Cromwell managed to distance himself from Wolsey immediately after the Cardinal fell from grace and soon had taken his place as Henry’s most valuable advisor. Before entering Wolsey’s service, Cromwell lived an adventurous life. His father had been a brewer and blacksmith known for permanent drunkenness and illegal activities. From this inauspicious beginning, his son went on to indulge his curiosity and practical nature by traveling through Europe. Over the course of several years, he was a soldier in Europe, a banker in Italy, clerk in the Netherlands, and a lawyer in London. Like so many ambitious men, he was in Wolsey’s service in the mid-1520s. His most important work was the suppression of 29 religious houses whose monies Wolsey used to endow colleges at Ipswich and Oxford. When Wolsey fell from grace in 1529, Cromwell was hurriedly elected burgess for Taunton so he could remain in government service.
There were striking similarities between the two men – both managed to remain favorites of the mercurial Henry VIII for years; both were despised by the older nobility who coveted their influence with the king; both sought to reform the creaky medieval bureaucracy of Tudor government; both were highly intelligent and well-versed in international affairs. And both, ultimately, fell from Henry’s favor with spectacular speed. In the end, the king preferred to listen to the old nobility.
But Cromwell and Wolsey were also markedly different in many ways. Cromwell was the man responsible for the Henrician reformation while Wolsey fell because he served two masters, the king of England and the Pope. Though Henry had ejected Rome from his nation, he still practiced the Roman Catholic religion. The king’s religious tendencies were never reformist and many historians have made the mistake of painting him as one of the first Protestant kings. Henry was never a Protestant and he wrote treatises vilifying Martin Luther for which he was titled ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the Pope. Rather, he was an opportunist who disliked papal authority and interference in his realm and wanted some of the vast wealth the English church possessed. For Henry, often desperately short of money, it was near-blasphemy for his subjects to pay taxes directly to Rome; he wanted the money for his government. He also wanted an annulment from a devoutly Catholic wife, Katharine of Aragon, and when the Pope, held hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor, refused to rule in his favor, he found it most expedient to simply disregard the papacy. But throughout it all, Henry was unaware of the forces he had unleashed when he declared himself head of the English church. Trained for the church as a child, he remained staunchly Catholic for his entire life though the Catholic church deemed him a heretic.
a discussion of the Henrician reformation
It is important to remember that during Henry’s reign, at least half of his subjects were under the age of eighteen. Henry’s court swarmed with young people – pages, scullery maids, and the like. English culture celebrated youth; tournaments, hunts, glorious warfare were all the province of the young and strong. And while Henry was young, he joined these events with a gusto sadly lacking in his father or son. But time does not stop, not even for a despotic monarch determined to have his way in all things. During his ‘great matter’, Henry was in his thirties and changing from ‘Bluff King Hal’ into an overweight and balding hypochondriac. He had rid himself of Rome to gain wealth and a son. He gained both and, once he had, continually toyed with the idea of making peace with the pope. He didn’t relish excommunication and it is likely that he persuaded himself that he wasn’t disobeying Christ’s vicar but rather the Emperor’s puppet.
But he misjudged the mood of his people, particularly his nobles. Educated and by nature inquisitive and acquisitive, the new Protestant teachings intrigued them; they also sought the vast monastic lands which Henry planned to sell. This was the paradox of the Henrician reformation. It was motivated by greed and genuine religious turmoil. As time passed, the new generation of nobles were Protestant because it was expedient and philosophically appealing. And with each year, more Englishmen were born who were further and further away from the old days of Roman domination. Henry, in his forties, could remember the papist ways but, as the years passed, fewer and fewer of his subjects did.
In terms of the practical effect the reformation had on everyday Englishmen, the situation is more difficult to gauge. Unlike the wealthy noblemen, they couldn’t bid on the seized monastic properties. And in many towns and villages, the parish church was the community center, where births, weddings, and deaths were officiated over by a priest. But they undoubtedly enjoyed not paying their tax to Rome. Once again, a paradox emerged – an excommunicated nation which found itself torn between loyalty to the sovereign and loyalty to the papacy. Also, since Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn could only be recognized if one accepted his annulment from Katharine – which in itself meant a rejection of papal authority – and it was treason to not recognize his marriage to Anne, then many people were swayed by the threat of execution. In other words, accept Henry’s decisions or die. Of course, I cannot discuss all aspects of the reformation at this site; I recommend L.B. Smith’s Henry VIII which studies Henry’s own theological beliefs.
There was opposition to the reformation which probably had more to do with the attendant loss of independence in north England. In 1536, a northern uprising which came to be called the Pilgrimage of Grace, gathered over 40,000 men and marched through England. It eventually destroyed itself by internal division and lack of clear purpose but one of the rebels’ demands was a warning for Cromwell – they want their king to be advised by noble councilors who understand the people’s wishes, not common men like Cromwell. Henry was angry at their presumption – how dare his ignorant subjects rebel and then tell him how to run the country! – but he was persuaded to show mercy and pardon those involved. And he continued to listen to Cromwell.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was largely motivated not by religious concerns but by Cromwell’s determination to dissolve the monasteries and improve the royal tax collecting methods. For example, the movement began in Louth, in Lincolnshire, and began with the murder of two tax collectors, one of whom was hanged and the other sewn into a sack and thrown to a pack of hungry dogs!
So the common people might grumble somewhat but they were ultimately more influenced by practical matters. Had Henry’s excommunication been followed by a terrible harvest or bad weather, it may have been otherwise. During his daughter Mary’s reign, such signs were taken to mean God was angry with her for attempting to reinstate Catholicism. But not only did Henry enjoy good weather, he had a brilliant servant. Cromwell was the one who gave force to Henry’s grand declarations. The king declared that Rome had no authority in England and Cromwell instituted the reforms which would make it so. The king declared that all monastic lands were forfeit and Cromwell set out to close the monasteries, assess their value, and sell them to the highest bidder. For a decade, this partnership worked marvelously.
Also, Henry and Cromwell both recognized a fundamental truth of the English people; the government could do what it liked as long as traditional religious views were not upset too much. Certainly, Henry did not upset his own. The name of the pope was omitted in their prayers but not much else. Henry’s break with Rome was really a legal reformation rather than one of real religious content. England practiced Catholicism without a pope and, in his place, was their king. This situation suited Cromwell. Like many, he recognized that the Church had lost its way, remaining a ponderous medieval institution concerned with wealth and influence. But Europe was no longer medieval; countries were becoming nation-states, patriotic and immune to the cultural unity which Rome promoted. The pope envisioned a collection of nations joined beneath the cloak of Christendom with him at its head; but, particularly in xenophobic England, there were mutterings that the church was dominated by other nations. Also, the church claimed authority over its subjects; no priest or cleric could be tried by their sovereign nation. They would answer only to Rome. This problem had angered Henry II centuries before and resulted in Thomas Becket’s murder. In Henry’s time, it had grown worse. Also, as king, he believed himself ruler of all his subjects, priest and commoner alike.
One must also mention the corruption of the church, sadly evident to everyone. Certainly there were Godly men who struggled to enforce the tenets of their faith. But there were also bishops and cardinals more interested in business and finance than theology. The church preached that the surest path to heaven was through good works, particularly at a monastery or abbey, but every Englishmen knew that only the wealthy could afford to endow or board at them. Furthermore, an increasing number of churchmen were absent from their posts. Cardinal Wolsey embodied this avaricious streak; he was bishop, archbishop, abbot, and cardinal yet the affairs of state kept him from his duties. Instead of tending to his flock, he tended to his purse. He sired illegitimate children and collected nearly 50,000 pds a year from his vast holdings.
Wolsey represented the church as it had become; certainly such abuses may not have turned most Englishmen from their faith. But when confronted with the forces of Protestantism, the church found precious few willing to die for their beliefs. After all, why would anyone die for a faith they didn’t respect? When the king styled himself head of the church, many were perhaps relieved. Henry made no claim to a holy life, not like the churchman Wolsey; he also was shrewd enough to endow his monarchy with papal apparatus. From the 1530s on, the Tudor dynasty was even more divine and the machinery of state could enforce its divinity.
Cromwell’s revolution in government
Cromwell’s rise to power was extraordinary and occurred just when Henry needed a minister of great administrative imagination and genius, uninterested in the squabbles of his council and determined to empower the machinery of state. Cromwell entered royal service in early 1530 and, from then on, rose rapidly. In late 1530 he was sworn into the King’s Council and, just a year later, began to attract unfavorable attention from Wolsey’s old rivals. These were Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. Gardiner had worked with Wolsey but, like Norfolk and Suffolk, viewed the Cardinal’s fall as a chance to take his place. From 1529 to about 1533, they enjoyed the king’s confidence even as Cromwell rose to overtake them all. His career progressed as follows:
1531 – member of the privy council
1532 – Master of Court of Wards and Master of Jewel House
1533 – Chancellor of the Exchequer
1534 – King’s Secretary and Master of the Rolls
1535 – Vicar-General
1536 – Lord Privy Seal and Baron Cromwell of Oakham
1537 – Knight of the Garter and Dean of Wells
1539 – Lord Great Chamberlain
1540 – created Earl of Essex
As the above list shows, Henry never forgot the fallen Wolsey. He had heaped honors upon him with extravagant generosity and had written to the pope recommending religious promotion. In the end, Henry believed himself betrayed. Not only had Wolsey accumulated obscene wealth, but he had grown arrogant and eventually treasonous. And so Cromwell, despite his years of diligence and genius, was eventually rewarded with an earldom but only a short time before his execution.
His influence upon the 1530s, one of the most influential and vital decades in English history, was enormous. One needs only to study the 1540s to realize how the loss of Cromwell affected Tudor government. He also came to power during Anne Boleyn’s ascendancy. It was a symbolic changing of the guard – the old Katharine of Aragon thrust aside for the young, ambitious Anne Boleyn and Wolsey disgraced and replaced by his protégé Cromwell. Cromwell supported Anne until she, like Wolsey, became a liability. Among his immediate accomplishments were the following:
1 – the dissolution of the monasteries and establishment of the royal supremacy
2 – founded the ministries of Augmentations and First Fruits to handle income from the dissolution
3 – founded the two courts of Wards and Surveyors which allowed more efficient taxation and leasing
4 – politically integrated the kingdom by extending sovereign authority into northern England, Wales & Ireland (actions which angered the great feudal lords)
5 – used the power of that relatively new invention, the printing-press and thus spearheaded the first propaganda campaign in English history.
In the 1530s, he had instituted reforms of the English government which earned enmity from the nobility. Cromwell recognized the basic inefficiency of feudal government and, from it, struggled to create a more logical system. Instead of offices held solely because of birth, he wanted trained servants with expertise in their field. He built a bureaucracy of professionals outside the royal household. He began the first era of parliamentary control of England, using the institution to dissolve the monasteries which made up a quarter of all arable land and validate his other decisions.
From the above list, one will note that most of the ‘accomplishments’ were motivated by financial need. Like his predecessors in government ministry, Cromwell needed to provide secure and regular income. This alone necessitated an assault on the church’s wealth. Cromwell also developed a novel, and very unpopular idea – in the past, taxes were created to support warfare; in 1534, he developed a new tax. It’s basis? The king’s maintenance of peace. These measures did not help his reputation but, by 1547, had brought nearly 2,000,000 pounds to Henry’s treasury. Of course, Henry would use the entire windfall to finance his increasingly complicated foreign policy. At the time of Henry’s death, all the wealth Cromwell had accumulated was gone and Edward VI was left with debased currency and massive debts.
In 1534, however, Henry was prepared to reap the benefits of his new anti-clerical policies. He had appointed his friend Thomas Cranmer to the venerable and powerful position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was like Cromwell in many ways – both owed their rise to prominence entirely to Henry’s mercurial favor; both came from humble backgrounds; both were despised by the traditional nobility. Cranmer had come to Henry’s attention by first suggesting a solution to the divorce problem – petition learned churchmen for their opinion, assuming they agreed with Henry. Like Cromwell, Cranmer benefited directly from the fall of Katharine of Aragon and the Imperial alliance and the rise of Anne Boleyn and her Norfolk relations. Henry’s midlife crisis provided fertile ground for ambitious men. Cranmer and Cromwell liked one another and became friends, though Cranmer was careful to distance himself once Cromwell’s ruin was assured.
In 1535, Henry appointed Cromwell Vicar General and, over the next five years, the honors increased – Lord Privy Seal, titled Baron Cromwell of Oakham, Knight of the Garter and Dean of Wells, and finally Lord Great Chancellor and ennoblement as Earl of Essex. The last was Cromwell’s greatest ambition and long before justified by his superior service to the crown. During the accumulation of these honors, however, Cromwell began to recognize the flaws in his success.
First, he had accompanied Anne Boleyn on her rise to power; yet, in 1536, he helped engineer her disgrace and execution on charges of adultery, incest, and witchcraft. Why? Cromwell recognized Henry’s dissatisfaction with the marriage – after several years, Anne’s sharp tongue had offended many and, even worse, she had not produced a male heir. Furthermore, Henry had become infatuated with Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Mistress Jane Seymour. Tiring of his wife, he wanted to be rid of her. Divorce was only briefly considered before being pushed aside. As he had with Katharine of Aragon, Henry became convinced his marriage was invalid, only this time because of adultery, and he retained his absolute conviction in her guilt even as he truly believed his and Katharine’s marriage was invalid. To rid himself of Anne, he turned to the ever-ready Cromwell. Soon enough, Anne was on trial with her brother and two male servants. They were all executed, despite spirited defenses and the widely-held belief that it was judicial murder.
Cromwell betrayed his former patron because she no longer held the king’s favor. In the rough world of Tudor politics, friendships were lost in the struggle for prestige and survival. And now Cromwell turned to Mistress Jane Seymour and her relatively obscure family for support. The Seymours, however, never warmed to Cromwell as had the Boleyns, largely because they didn’t trust him or his influence over the king. Cromwell was careful to press Jane’s cause to the king though Henry needed little urging. Just days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Jane Seymour became his third wife, dying eighteen months later after delivering the longed-for son, Prince Edward. Cromwell busied himself with auctioning off church properties to various noblemen and further reforming the archaic machinery of Tudor government. In doing so, he continued to ignore Henry’s council of noble peers. When the council did meet, Cromwell dominated the meetings and disregarded most suggestions. To his credit, he was right on most counts; the nobility was quite distanced from the changing nature of government. They were fiercely protective of their own ‘inalienable’ rights as landowners and peers and notoriously difficult when these rights were impugned (this conflict between the nobility and monarchy was centuries-old – simply remember the 13th century Magna Carta, when the nobles forced King John I to recognize their ‘natural’ rights.)
As discussed earlier, the nobility resented Cromwell’s influence with the king and his pro-monarchy, anti-nobility policy. And while many of the nobles benefited from the sale of clerical lands, many others had relatives dedicated to religious service. Also, reverence for the church and its servants was as deeply-held as reverence for the monarchy. Henry’s attacks upon the church struck many as unnatural and wrong; since they could not turn on the king, they turned on Cromwell and blamed him for every unpopular policy. Henry VIII, who relished his popularity, allowed his faithful servant to be impugned. Thus, Henry could meet with his nobles, listen to their complaints, and even agree with them since many were his dearest friends. The king remained popular while his chief minister became increasingly despised and isolated. It is worth noting that one of Cromwell’s friends, Richard Moryson, argued that merit and not birth should be the only qualification for entry into the privy council. Moryson eventually became a member himself.
It is also important to note that years of listening to anti-Cromwell gossip eventually affected Henry. Even the king did not exist in a vacuum and, as his temper became increasingly erratic, he was easily swayed by inflamed opinion. Thus, Cromwell suffered from a lapse in Henry’s temper and one which the king almost immediately regretted. Chief among Cromwell’s enemies were the highest nobles in the land, once Wolsey’s great enemies and led by the dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk. These men had pushed Wolsey from favor after years of effort and were determined to do the same to his protégé. The perfect opportunity arrived when Queen Jane died two weeks after childbirth, in October 1537. Henry VIII was genuinely bereaved at her death but almost immediately the search began for a new queen. After all, Jane had delivered a son but one male heir was not enough in the sixteenth century. Henry’s council began to search for a new consort with the king’s enthusiastic support.
For Cromwell, this was a chance to further extend his influence while thwarting the English nobility. Henry’s second and third wives had been English noblewomen whose families directly profited from their rise to power. The influence of these families naturally troubled Cromwell. As their influence rose, his own suffered – so he was opposed to the idea of another English wife. Also, as an intelligent statesman, he recognized the diplomatic power of royal marriages. Henry’s troublesome foreign policy could be soothed if he chose a foreign wife – a princess or duchess of one of the great European families. Kings were meant to marry other royalty and Cromwell immediately searched for possible candidates.
While searching, he was careful to avoid Catholic candidates. Cromwell’s rise to power was directly connected to the fall of Catholicism in England and he wanted to keep England on the path of Protestantism. Therefore, he sought a Protestant ally for Henry VIII. Naturally, his gaze turned to the Protestant states of Germany, birthplace of the Lutheran revolution. Meanwhile, Henry VIII was concerned with more aesthetic matters, sending artists (most famously, Hans Holbein the Younger) to France and Milan to paint potential brides. Among those painted was Christina, Duchess of Milan and niece of the Holy Roman Emperor; she famously remarked that she would be happy to marry Henry – if she had two heads! Henry also considered Marie de Guise, a widowed cousin of the French king. Marie, however, chose to marry Henry’s nephew, James V of Scotland, thus creating a French-Scottish alliance along Henry’s troublesome northern border. Their only surviving child is famous in history as the tragic Mary Queen of Scots.
Cromwell was well aware that if France and the Holy Roman Empire ended hostilities, as seemed likely, England would be left out in the diplomatic cold. He was quite happy when the French and Imperial marriage negotiations fell apart. But as the search wound on, Henry became increasingly desperate for a wife. No doubt he was lonely; also, his court needed a queen to be complete. A king was not meant to be a bachelor, as every European monarch knew. Finally, Cromwell found a Protestant ally with two available sisters – the Duke of Cleves, whose lands were strategically located and wealthy. He had two sisters not yet wed called Anne and Amelia. As the eldest, Anne was chosen as the possible bride and Holbein immediately went to Cleves to paint her portrait. This painting would become of paramount importance in the coming year. Henry was determined to have a beautiful wife and specifically asked his various ambassadors probing questions – does Marie de Guise have wide hips for childbearing? is Christina of Milan pock-marked? does Anne of Cleves play the lute? Holbein’s famous portrait of Anne cannot be adequately judged in our time; after all, standards of beauty have changed. However, it is amusing to note that she – so maligned in her own time as the ugliest of Henry’s wives – is the most attractive by twentieth-century standards.
Holbein’s portrait showed a perfectly attractive young woman – and, on that basis, Cromwell was able to secure the marriage alliance with a Protestant ally. Anne set sail for England, little realizing what lay ahead. The king, meanwhile, was ecstatic that after almost three years as a widower he would be a husband again, able to play one of his favorite roles. The entire country was thrilled at the news, in fact, and after Anne arrived, Cromwell finally secured his greatest ambition – an earldom. He was titled earl of Essex by Henry VIII on 18 April 1540 after the marriage treaty was finalized.
During this time, he also attempted to placate the nobility by redistributing lands to the great magnates, providing them with near-autonomous controls of great sections of land. For example, the duke of Suffolk traded East Anglian lands for lands in Lincolnshire – the duke of Norfolk already held lands in Anglia while Lincolnshire needed a strong leader. Earlier, Cromwell had attempted to befriend Henry’s oldest child, the stubbornly Catholic Princess Mary. She rebuffed his attention, largely on religious grounds.
Two years of marriage-brokering were often interrupted by rumors of rebellion. The Pilgrimage of Grace had made Henry more sensitive to popular sentiment. While Cromwell searched for a wife, rumors spread that the king planned new taxes. Also, the last remnants of the legitimate Plantagenet line – the Nevilles, Poles, and Courtenays – were suspected of encouraging rebellionn and Henry used this convenient excuse to order more executions. But popular unrest needed to be assuaged in some manner so Cromwell engineered the passing of the Six Articles at Parliament in April 1539. These articles attempted to stamp a more conservative gloss on the Henrician reformation, thus placating conservative European nobles – and the Catholic nations in Europe, now forced to concede Henry was not so great a heretic after all. It was a supreme example of Cromwell’s talent for diffusing domestic tension. In effect, it was all talk and no action; it didn’t alter the course of the reformation one bit.
Finally, on 6 October 1539, the marriage treaty with Cleves was finalized just two months after Holbein delivered his portrait. Princess Anne, once betrothed to the duke of Lorraine, was now destined to be queen of England. It was the fulfillment of Cromwell’s domestic and foreign policies. On 11 December, Anne was at Calais waiting for a favorable wind to carry her to Dover. She was there for almost two weeks while Henry waited at Greenwich. Finally, on 27 December she landed at Deal and then traveled to Dover and Canterbury before arriving at Rochester on 1 January 1540. Henry, desperate to see his bride in person, rushed in disguise to meet her ‘to thus nourish love’, he told Cromwell. Their comical first meeting is described at the Primary Sources section.
The meeting was an unmitigated disaster and the beginning of Cromwell’s end. The New Year gifts Henry had brought for Anne were delivered the next day by a courier with a brief note of welcome. ‘I am ashamed that men have so praised her as they have done, and I like her not’, the king said ominously; he told Cromwell that Anne was ‘nothing so well as she was spoken of’ and, if he had known the truth of her appearance, she would never have come to England. The next day, his betrothed arrived in Greenwich and the marriage, scheduled for that day, was delayed for two days while Henry sought escape. But there was none to be had – the Holy Roman Emperor was in Paris meeting with the French king and Henry, locked out by those two great powers, could not risk offending the German princes who approved the union with Anne. They were, after all, his only allies at the moment. So Anne was not sent back and Henry moaned that he must ‘put my neck in the yoke’. He wrote to Cromwell, ‘My lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing’.
Poor Anne of Cleves – barely able to speak English, in a foreign land, and despised by her intended husband! The confused woman was led to a private marriage ceremony at Greenwich and, then, to her equally humiliating marriage-bed. The union was not consummated, a subject upon which Henry never wavered. He spoke openly of how disgusted he was by Anne’s appearance; ‘struck to the heart’ by distaste, he ‘left her as good a maid as he found her’. They lay together for the entire length of their marriage but were never physically intimate. After a few months had passed, the French-Imperial alliance showed signs of cooling and Henry’s natural boldness had returned. He wanted out of this fourth marriage and told Cromwell to arrange it.
What were Cromwell’s options? There were two ways to nullify the marriage (in essence, arrange a divorce) – Henry had not consented to the marriage (this was proved by his failure to consummate it) and Anne had not consented to the marriage (this was proved by Anne’s precontract to the duke of Lorraine.) Henry had long been concerned with the latter problem – but had been assured that the contract was completely repudiated. Still, the day before his marriage to Anne, he called the Clevian ambassadors to him and raised the issue. They were astonished, and rightly so, and offered to remain as prisoners in England until the formal repudiation papers were delivered from Cleves. Meanwhile, Thomas Cranmer told the king that Anne could simply swear that the betrothal had been repudiated – no official documents were necessary. His friend Cromwell ‘travailed on him [Henry] to pass the matter over’; he hoped that once Henry was married to Anne, the king would resign himself to the marriage.
But instead Henry turned to the precontract when his distaste could not be overcome. On 9 July, Parliament declared the marriage null and void and Anne, surprising Henry and the court, was content to be called ‘sister’ and receive a handsome income and household in England. She had no desire to return to Cleves, where she would remain under her brother’s thumb and perhaps married again. It is also possible she found Henry as unattractive as he found her. Henry was so pleased with this unexpected docility that he gave her status second only to his daughters, Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom came to befriend Anne. Anne’s letter to Henry, in which she accepts the dissolution of their marriage, can be read at ‘Letters of the Six Wives of Henry VIII’.
However, the time had come to search for a convenient scapegoat – the person responsible for the disastrous union. Henry railed against his ambassadors who had so misled him with descriptions of her beauty – though, in truth, the ambassador’s descriptions had been honest. It was soon alleged that Cromwell had kept them from the king, for fear of discouraging the union. Now, Cromwell was arrested on 10 June 1540, at 3pm on a Saturday, while at a Privy Council meeting. This was a full month before the marriage was nullified. Henry and Cromwell’s enemies were in the midst of finding scapegoats for the marriage, while not yet assured of its outcome. Henry, in a fit of temper and pique, complained bitterly that his minister had betrayed him while trying to further his own influence; the nobility were only too happy to encourage such thoughts. They urged Henry to arrest Cromwell and teach the upstart his final lesson – namely, that it does not pay to mislead a king.
So the captain of the guard arrived at the council chamber and arrested Cromwell, while a table of his enemies looked on. The moment the guard entered the room, Cromwell recognized the danger – and threw his hat upon the table in rage. Norfolk and Southampton stripped his decorations from his robe of state and Cromwell was then escorted to a barge – and, then, the Tower of London. The events which follow are far from clear – Cromwell’s fall and execution are among the most mysterious events of Henry VIII’s reign and cannot be easily understood. I have yet to read a history which offers an adequate explanation. In truth, Henry became increasingly mercurial and tempermental in his later years, and Cromwell was just one of many victims of the king’s ever-changing whims.
First, if Cromwell fell from favor because of the Cleves marriage, as most believe, why did Henry title him earl of Essex in April 1540 – months after the marriage had been finalized and while negotiations for divorce were underway? Second, if Cromwell was executed because his government policies angered the king, as has been alleged, why did Henry give his voluntary approval to all of Cromwell’s legislation? Third, is his enemies were in the ascendancy, why had Henry only recently shown the duke of Norfolk (Cromwell’s great enemy) open favor? After all, Norfolk had just been sent abroad on diplomatic work – away from the king.
What are we left with? The charges eventually listed in Cromwell’s attainder did not list the above – Cromwell was not accused of misleading Henry on matters of policy, he was not held responsible for the disastrous marriage, and he was not charged with leading England into an unwanted Lutheran alliance. Instead, he was charged with selling export licenses illegally, granting passports and commissions without royal knowledge, freeing people suspected of treason and – of course – that he, base-born and ignoble, had usuurped and deliberately misused royal power. Most significantly, however, he was charged with heresy – this charge was the bulk of his attaindder and apparently swayed Henry decisively. Norfolk, allied with the Catholic bishops Cromwell had forced from power, engineered this charge. Cromwell, they charged, had encouraged and spread heretical literature, allowed heretics to preach, released them from prison, and allied himself against their enemies. Significantly, it was reported that in March 1539 Cromwell said that, even if Henry turned from Protestantism, ‘yet I would not turn, and if the king did turn, and all his people, I would fight in this field in mine own person, with my sword in my hand against him and all other’. That was treason.
Shortly after his arrest, incriminating letters to Lutherans were found in Cromwell’s home, placed there by agents of the duke of Norfolk; they were so inflammatory that the king was outraged. Cromwell’s name, Henry swore, would be abolished forever. Cromwell wrote two desperate letters from the Tower; the one that survives is in tatters. He assured his monarch that he was a good, loyal servant and a faithful Christian. But Henry, surrounded by Cromwell’s enemies and – more significantly – newly infatuated with Norfolk’s niece, Catherine Howard, would hear nothing. Furthermore, Norfolk was shrewd enough to create a Lutheran conspiracy; three popular reformers, Robert Barnes, Thomas Garret, and William Jerome, were executed just days after Cromwell. None of the men were allowed an open trial. That would allow the public opportunity for them to dispute the false charges. Instead, they were condemned by Act of Attainder, a parliamentary tool which dispensed with justice in favor of speed.
The executed men were also neighbors of Cromwell, which was their only link to the earl. And they were as innocent as Cromwell of the charges against them – as evidenced by the confusion of contemporary chroniclers. Edward Hall, one of the great chroniclers of Tudor England, could find no real evidence against them although he ‘searched to know the truth’.
So Cromwell was executed privately on Tower Green on 28 July 1540, still protesting his innocence. He died with dignity – but the whole sordid affair of his death would not rest. For the volatile Henry VIII was soon despairing of his loss, just a few months after he allowed the execution. He raged at his council, accusing them of lying and deliberately destroying his ‘most faithful servant’. Cromwell’s destruction had been engineered on ‘light pretexts’ and against the king’s wishes. In truth, Henry was a victim as well – of a determined group of nobles and clerics, led by Norfolk, who hated Cromwell and carried the king along on their path of destruction. Events were rapid and deliberately confused. By the time Henry realized what had happened, it was too late. He could only bemoan his loss, while never understanding exactly why it happened.
This was no comfort to Thomas Cromwell, however; after a lifetime of dedicated service, he met his end by execution and all of Henry’s regrets could not bring him back to life.
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