Key Facts & Summary
- Thomas Cromwell was not born into a rich or noble family. Nonetheless, he managed to become one of the most important men of Henry VIII’s kingdom.
- He worked with Cardinal Wolsey.
- Cromwell had a progressive mind and felt an affinity with Protestantism. For this reason, he supported the Lollards, i.e. a pre-Protestantism religious group.
- After Cardinal Wolsey’s arrest, he came into contact with Henry VIII and helped him divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon.
- Cromwell travelled across Europe in order to search a new wife for the king. He recommended Anne of Cleves (who had ties with Protestantism).
- Due to the king’s dissatisfaction, Cromwell was executed with the charges of treason and corruption at the Tower of London.
Thomas Cromwell’s background is humble: he was born into a poor family in Putney and managed to become one of the most prominent men of Henry VIII’s kingdom. In fact, before his death in 1540, he became Earl of Essex and Baron of Okeham (Eton 2019). Some view him as a revolutionary man that sought to make England more progressive; whereas other view him as a ruffian, manipulator that abused his power.
Thomas was born in Putney (London) in 1485. Although his family possessed a brewery, his parents carried out several jobs. His father was not committed to any job in particular, he carried out all sorts of trades: he was a ‘fuller, a blacksmiths, a brewer and a tavern owner’ (Macculloch 2019). Moreover, his father was not an honest person: he often got into trouble by assaulting his neighbours, and diluting the beer he produced with water.
Having had enough of the environment he was born into, as well as of ‘his father’s foul temper’, when Thomas reached the age of fifteen, he ran away from home and reached the Netherlands.
Cromwell joined the French Army during the battle against the English; and years later, he fought in Naples in the battle of Garigliano: here, the French army was defeated by the Spanish (Macculloch 2019). As a consequence, Cromwell deserted the battlefield and travelled across Italy instead.
Soon, Cromwell became ‘penniless’, however, Francesco Frescobaldi (who belonged to a prominent Florentine noble family) took him under his wing, believed the young English man had much potential and employed him: Cromwell demonstrated his devotion to the Frescobaldi family and their business. He was therefore assigned numerous jobs such as ‘acting as an agent for a local merchant’ in Venice (Macculloch 2019).
Moreover, during this time, Thomas Cromwell had not neglected his education and cultural formation: in fact, he dedicated himself to the study of law, and had also learnt to communicate in three languages: French, Italian, and Latin.
Upon his return to England, Cromwell married Elizabeth Wykys, who’s family held a favourable position within society. Their union gave birth to their three children: Gregory, Anne, and Grace. However, Cromwell’s family life was not as fortunate as his social life: his wife and daughters died because of the ‘sweating sickness’, and he was left with his son Gregory.
The fact that he had lived in Italy amongst one of the most prominent families, earned Cromwell a job by Cardinal Wolsey’s side, i.e. one of Henry VIII’s most trusted men and First Minister. Wolsey was working on creating a ‘legacy project’: in fact, in 1520 Cromwell was responsible for gathering Italian sculptors that could build the cardinal’s enormous tomb; as well as the creating of a school at Ipswich and Oxford University in order to commemorate him (Macculoch 2019).
In 1529, Cromwell became a Member of Parliament (more precisely, of the House of Commons), and in 1532, he ‘obtained office as master of the jewels’, the following years he became master of the rolls, and in 1536, lord privy seal (Elton 2019).
When Henry VIII sought to divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he turned to Cardinal Wolsey who attempted to gain the Pope’s permission for divorce. When such a request was refused, Wolsey was accused by Henry VIII of working against the king’s interested, and was therefore arrested. Notwithstanding the fact that everyone turned against the cardinal, Cromwell always remained faithful to his mentor, and claimed ‘I am like to lose all that I have laboured for all my life, for doing of my master true and diligent service’ (Macculoch 2019). In fact, considering the risky situation he was in, Cromwell wrote a will.
After Wolsey’s arrest, Cromwell helped Henry VIII to break with the Church of Rome and assume full powers even in religious matters. Thanks to Cromwell, the Act of Supremacy of 1534 arrogated to the King of England full ecclesiastical authority, nominating him as the Head of the English Church. Thomas Cromwell was successful and gained the King’s complete trust since he had made possible his divorce with Catherine of Aragon.
Henry VIII soon became tired of his new wife Anne Boleyn, who had birthed an unborn male child. By that time, the king was already in love with Jane Seymour, and he assigned Cromwell the task of getting rid of his current wife. Cromwell employed much torture in order to make people close to her confess any ‘false’ misdeeds carried out by the Queen (Macculoch 2019). Because of Cromwell’s technique, Anne Boleyn was accused of treason and adultery, and as a consequence, was beheaded in 1536.
Jane Seymour was his third wife and gave birth to Henry’s son, Edward VI, whom became king for a brief period of time, and who died at the age of fifteen. Queen Jane died during childbirth, and only a week later, Cromwell was assigned the duty of travelling around Europe in order to find a new wife for the king. Cromwell desired to establish diplomatic relations with the protestants, therefore, he traveled to Germany and designated Anne of Cleves as one of the possible women Henry could marry (Hanson 2015). Cromwell described Anne of Cleves as a gorgeous woman by claiming: ‘every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body… she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon’ (Borman 2015). Even the painter Hans Holbein gave an unrealistic representation of king’s future wife, by representing her as a gracious, delicate, doll-faced girl.
Henry VIII was largely unimpressed during his first encounter with Anne of Cleves. It is reported that he reproached Cromwell by shouting ‘I like her not! I like her not!’ and ‘I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse’! (Borman 2015). Although he was completely repulsed by Anne of Cleves, Thomas Cromwell convinced the king to go ahead with the marriage in order to strengthen England’s relation with Protestantism.
Cromwell fell out of the king’s graces the moment he decided to have a voice in his private life by suggesting the marriage with Anne of Cleves.
Following his union with Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII was disappointed in Cromwell since he felt he had been tricked and fooled. Moreover, Cromwell had to explain in court that the king wanted to divorce from his wife for ‘failings in the bedroom” (Macculloch 2019). The nobles that were against Cromwell were able to convince Henry that Cromwell’s wrongdoings and inefficiency were unacceptable.
Therefore, although artist Hans Holbein was simply dismissed from his position as royal painter, Cromwell, on the other hand, was accused of treason and corruption. One of Cromwell’s last letters to Henry VIII state ‘most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!’ (1540). Notwithstanding his supplication, the former king’s advisor was executed on July 28, 1540, at the Tower of London. The same day, Henry VIII married Catherine Howard (Kissane 2018).
Only few week later, Henry regretted his hasty decision of killing Cromwell and regarded him as ‘the most faithful servant [he] ever had’ (Macculloch 2019).
Cromwell and his affinity with Protestantism
Cromwell preferred Protestantism even when England was still a Catholic country. In fact, during the time he worked under Cardinal Wolsey, he was nonetheless maintaining relations with ‘religious dissenters’ called ‘Lollards’. Lollardy was a pre-Protestant Christian movement guided by John Wycliffe.
Henry VIII saw a huge economic benefit in shutting down monasteries: in fact, the decision of ‘seizing’ religious properties allowed the king to become a much wealthier man.
Thomas Cromwell wanted to encourage the ‘religious reform’ in England (Kissane 2018), and suggested that Rome’s power on England should be ‘destroyed’ by supporting the king’s full supremacy in religious matters (Elton 2019). Cromwell achieved such objective with the Act of Supremacy in 1534, and other acts such as the Act in Restraint of Appeals in 1533 (Elton 2019).
Cromwell was astute since he managed to be in control of such foreign policies by ‘pretending to act on the king’s authority’ (Elton 2019).
The British statesman was elected by Henry VIII as the king’s vicar general and was allowed to ‘reform all monastic institutions’ (Elton 2019).
[1.] Borman, T. (2015). Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s most successful queen? History Extra. [online] Available from: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/anne-of-cleves-henry-viii-successful-queen-fourth-wife-tracy-borman/
[1.] Elton, G.R. (2019). Thomas Cromwell: English Statesman. Britannica. [online] Available from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Cromwell-earl-of-Essex-Baron-Cromwell-of-Okeham
[2.] Hanson, M. (2015). Anne of Cleves: Facts, Information, Biography, and Portraits. English History. [online] Available from: https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/anne-of-cleves/
[3.] Kissane, C. (2018). Thomas Cromwell: A Life: A definitive guide to an extraordinary journey. Irish Times. [online] Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/thomas-cromwell-a-life-a-definitive-guide-to-an-extraordinary-journey-1.3644525
[4.] Macculloch, D. (2019). Who was the real Thomas Cromwell? BBC. [online] Available from: https://www.bbc.com/timelines/zttdjxs