What was the relationship between Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII? It would be natural to view the relationship as a failure in view of the execution of Thomas Cromwell in 1540. However, while it is difficult to argue against this in terms of the final aspect of their relationship, it was not always so. Henry VIII was lucky that he had, in the aftermath of Cardinal Wolsey, a man who was highly talented and it was Cromwell who attempted to modernise the government of the king – something that could only benefit the reign of Henry.
It does seem that Henry VIII had a very good eye for highly talented minister. However, Henry was also a very unforgiving man and while Wolsey died in Leicester, he must have known that he had little chance of survival once he reached London. One of the foremost employees of Wolsey was Thomas Cromwell. When Wolsey was out of favour (1529 to 1530), Cromwell managed to bring himself to the attention of Henry but did not engage in the actions of others who openly vilified the man who had once been England’s most powerful person after the king. A natural assumption for Cromwell would have been that those who had worked for Wolsey would have also been disgraced. But Cromwell had gained reputation for working very hard and energetically and to good effect. Despite his association with Wolsey, he came to the favourable attention of Henry when he skilfully disentangled Wolsey’s highly complex business and legal affairs. Henry took Cromwell into his service.
How Cromwell became Henry’s chief minister is not clear. What Cromwell actually did for the king between November 1530 and 1533 is difficult to clearly establish with any authority. For a man who was to be so keen to keep notes once he was chief minister, Cromwell did no do the same pre-1533. While it is not clear why Cromwell, especially with his non-noble background, came to prominence, intelligent guesses can be made. It is known that Cromwell was a very able man, but this by itself may not be enough to explain his rise, as the Royal Chamber would have had capable men in it regardless. However, his ability would have stood Cromwell in good stead. We do know that Henry considered himself to be an intellectual; though he was not the “universal genius” that Erasmus labelled him! It may well be that also in Cromwell’s favour was the fact that, unlike very many in the Royal Court, he had read the writings of such political theorists as Marsiglio of Padua and knew about the lifestyle of continental Western Europe as he had lived there in his youth. Therefore, unlike many in the court, Cromwell must have been more interesting to listen to and to develop philosophical arguments with – something the intellectual Henry would have relished and boosted even more his belief that he was an academic. Henry gave Cromwell a number of posts between 1532 and 1533 and by the end of the year it was assumed that Cromwell was the king’s chief minister. Therefore, at the start of Cromwell’s tenure as chief minister, the relationship between him and Henry must be seen as being positive and constructive.
The skilful way in which Cromwell took care of the divorce of Catherine of Aragon therefore allowing Henry to marry Anne Boleyn certainly won him favour with Henry. He became the king’s Principal Secretary, probably in April 1534, which effectively put him at the centre of all the issues that revolved around the king. Cromwell started to put his own men in positions that broadened his own power base and his status with Henry was such that in July 1536, he was appointed Lord Privy Seal. This has to be seen as another sign of the huge confidence Henry had in Cromwell, as he would never had got this important position if Henry had little faith in him.
Cromwell’s fall from grace was swift and decisive. He was arrested while at work in June 1540 and executed in July 1540. Why was there such a disastrous end to the relationship? Few historians believe that Cromwell was involved in treasonable activity – the crime he was arrested for. So what happened? It may well be that Cromwell was simply the victim of a man who was becoming more and more unpredictable. Henry had been deeply angered by the farce of his marriage to Anne of Cleves that was orchestrated by Cromwell who wanted a closer alliance between England and the Protestant princes in Northern Germany. The marriage was meant to be part of this. If Henry felt publicly humiliated by this marriage, then it would have been entirely blamed on Thomas Cromwell. Yet after this marriage fiasco, Henry made Cromwell the Earl of Essex – so he was either very forgiving, and recognised the huge amount of work that Cromwell had done for him, or the marriage/divorce didn’t really matter to him. Yet we do know that Henry was a very proud man and his wedding day to Anne could not have held any great memories for him.
The key to Cromwell’s swift fall seems to have been the Duke of Norfolk. His family had a long noble lineage and he would have been greatly angered that a commoner had been made an earl. In fact, the elevation of Cromwell (born into a non-noble family) was extremely rare then. But what would have caused him even more anger was the fact that Cromwell was the most dominant man at court and not himself or members of his family. Norfolk’s plan to push Cromwell off his pedestal was simple. He knew that Henry could not resist a pretty young girl. For this reason he introduced the nineteen year old Catherine Howard to court. Her beauty beguiled Henry. Catherine gave Norfolk the opportunity to have the ear of the king – something that the Principal Secretary could have controlled if Catherine had not been at court.
Norfolk convinced Henry that Cromwell was plotting to bring in a full version of Protestantism to England despite knowing that the king was adamantly against this. By now entranced by Catherine, Cromwell’s fate was effectively sealed as the king listened seemingly with great eagerness to Norfolk. Therefore, the relationship between king and Cromwell was destroyed over an ageing king’s infatuation with a nineteen year old young lady – an infatuation that clearly blinded him of any commonsense while he chased after Catherine. An Act of Attainder denied Cromwell the chance of defending himself. He almost certainly would have presented a good case but it was not to be. Cromwell was executed at Tyburn on July 28th 1540.