Thomas Cromwell gained a reputation for being a brutal tyrant when law and order was concerned. Cromwell’s reputation suffered especially after his execution in 1540 when his detractors got to grips with his reputation. However, with regards to law and order, was this reputation justified?
After the death of Cromwell a rumour was spread that he had built up a huge spy network that informed on those who merely hinted at disloyalty to Henry VIII or made comments about the religious changes taking place. In fact, this was not so and was merely introduced to do what it did – tarnish Cromwell’s reputation. With a few exceptions, Cromwell relied on the judicial system as it stood. Between 1533 and 1540, 883 people were arrested and charged with various serious misdemeanours. If Cromwell had been a tyrant, the majority of these would have had a show trial and been executed. This simply did not happen. Only 329 were executed and over 50% of this total was as a result of the Pilgrimage of Grace when thousands had openly committed treason against the king. Cromwell was an avid retainer of his notes (possibly why he was denied a trial after his arrest in 1540 when he could have used these notes to defend himself) and these clearly indicate that when someone got off of a charge on a legal technicality, he did not alter any decision despite his anger. Some of the 554 who were not executed were freed as a result of judicial incompetence. If Cromwell was a tyrant, there is every chance that he would have used his position to ‘sway’ a decision. A few examples do exist where Cromwell did do this but they were in cases where the king had shown an ‘interest’ – that the final outcome had to be a guilty verdict and execution.
However, the dissolution of the monasteries and the Reformation led by Martin Luther had created a difficult environment – as the Pilgrimage of Grace indicated. Therefore, Cromwell worked in a very difficult period in history and he adapted the law accordingly. Treason, as a definition, remained what it was except that any negative comment against the Church was now seen as a comment against its head – Henry. However, ‘misprison’ was also introduced whereby it became a crime not to report anybody heard criticising the king. The punishment for ‘misprison’ could be as draconian as life in prison and the confiscation of all property.
Cromwell took a great interest in law. He frequently interviewed himself those arrested for treason and kept many notes on such issues. Cromwell himself decided on which cases should be followed up and which should be discarded. Though he was seen as a tyrant by many after his death, there is little doubt that Cromwell concentrated the power of the law only on those he felt were a major threat to stability (hence the executions of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace). His notes clearly show that he ordered the release of those he felt were nothing more than cranks – but harmless cranks who did not threaten either the king or stability, though in Cromwell’s view the two were the same