Thomas Cromwell served as Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1533 to 1540. Cromwell gained a reputation as an unscrupulous politician who, like Cardinal Wolsey, would do anything to advance himself and the power and wealth of Henry. Thomas Cromwell is most associated with the dissolution of the monasteries and the controversy that surrounded this event. However, whether he deserved his negative reputation is open to debate.
Thomas Cromwell was born around 1485. He was the son of a brewer and blacksmith. He spent much of his early adult life abroad, be it as a soldier in Italy or a merchant in Antwerp. Cromwell trained as a lawyer and by the 1520’s he was working for Cardinal Wolsey as a general manager. When Wolsey fell from royal favour in 1529, Cromwell managed to stay faithful to his old employer but also to remain in favour with Henry VIII. There is little doubt that Cromwell learned a lot from Wolsey and the way he conducted business. It was also a quirk of history that Henry was served by two such able men; fifteen years by Wolsey and eight years by Cromwell. He entered formal royal service in 1530 and by November 1530 he was a member of the Royal Council. Within a year, Cromwell was part of Henry’s inner circle of advisors – men who had ready access to the king.
Like Wolsey, Cromwell came from a non-noble family – though his father had been related to minor nobility in Nottinghamshire. He was not tied to old traditional ideas as many of the king’s advisors were. Cromwell was an intelligent man who read well. He had not only experienced life abroad as a younger man, which gave him experience of European commerce and business, he also tried to work out how politics might develop in Europe and how and why power might shift. He was influenced by the writings of political theorists such as Marsiglio of Padua. Very few in the Royal Court would have had such an insight. Cromwell was also influenced by the writings of Martin Luther.
Between 1532 and 1536 Cromwell gained numerous offices. He was made Master of the King’s Jewels (1532), Clerk of the Hanaper (1532), Chancellor of the Exchequer (1533), Principal Secretary (1534), Master of the Rolls (1534) and Lord Privy Seal (1536). The 1530’s was a decade of great change in England and Wales and Cromwell would have been involved in a great many day-to-day decisions. Cromwell handled all the greatest issues of the day – the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn and the dissolution of the monasteries. These were very ‘visible’ issues. However, Cromwell was also very much involved in major reforms to government administration. Some historians saw these changes as being so important that they were seen as revolutionary. Government bodies such as the Royal Council, the Council of the North and the Exchequer were all modernised. Five new revenue courts were established. Cromwell oversaw the incorporation of Wales into the English system of government. He also had a major input into the Tudor Poor Law. To what extent Cromwell initiated these changes and was the ‘brains’ behind the ideas is open to debate and dispute but it is accepted that he was the creative drive behind the actual mechanics of change and the historian E N Williams has referred to Cromwell as being a “managerial genius".
Cromwell was greatly worried by England’s isolation after the Lutheran Reformation had taken hold in northern Germany. He was concerned that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, would cast aside his differences with the king of France, Francis I, to form an alliance directed at any state that had turned its back on Rome. Cromwell had little choice but to direct his attention to forming some kind of alliance with the north German princes. He also did what he could to improve the country’s southern coastal defences, as there was a real fear of an attempted invasion. Between 1538 and 1539, there were a series of meeting between Charles V and Francis I. Cromwell became convinced that they were planning to invade England. He urged Henry to form alliances with the north German Lutheran princes but it came to nothing. Henry refused to bend to the will of the German princes who wanted him to convert to the Lutheran faith before any alliance was discussed. Henry was also very wary of getting England involved in a war in mainland Europe against the might of the Holy Roman Empire and France. None of the north German states at the time looked as if they were able to hold out against the Emperor. Henry wanted England to steer clear of what he assumed would be defeat for the princes. However, the failure of Cromwell to convince his master that he was no longer capable of carrying out his duties. This failure in foreign policy also gave his enemies a great deal of ammunition to attack Cromwell.
One of these enemies was the influential 3rd Duke of Norfolk whose niece was Catherine Howard. Norfolk accused Cromwell of foisting Protestantism onto England via the Act of Six Articles. He also introduced Catherine to the Royal Court almost certainly in the knowledge that Henry would fall for her.
What happened between Henry and Norfolk and his faction remains somewhat mysterious. On April 18th, 1540, Henry made Cromwell the Earl of Essex and on April 19th, 1540, he was made Lord Great Chamberlain of the Household. Therefore, as late as Spring 1540 Cromwell was presumably in favour with Henry. Yet on June 10th 1540, he was arrested in Westminster by the Captain of the Guard and sent to the Tower of London. An Act of Attainder convicted him of heresy and treason (June 29th) – but it also denied Cromwell the right to a proper trial where he could defend himself.
Thomas Cromwell was executed at Tyburn on July 28th 1540.