Tudor England: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell

In 1485, the last Plantagenet King of England; Richard III dies in Battle at Bosworth Field.  The Tudor Dynasty began in 1485, with Henry Tudor, victorious in battle and founder of the Tudor line.

Who would have believed that the young Thomas Cromwell, born on the back streets of London in 1485, would grow up and take his place in Tudor history?  He would be the architect of England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church, and responsible for the “Dissolution of the Monasteries.”

So who is the real Thomas Cromwell, and what do we know about him and the legacy he left?

Thomas Cromwell was born in London of 1485 to parents Walter Cromwell and Katherine Meverell.  He had two sisters; Katherine who married welsh lawyer Morgan Williams, whose son Richard changed his name to Cromwell, and his great grandson was Oliver Cromwell, who became England’s Lord Protector during the Stuart Dynasty.  His other sister Elizabeth married William Wellyfed a farmer.

His father Walter Cromwell by trade was a blacksmith, cloth merchant, owner of a hostelry and brewery. His father may have had prosperous business ventures, yet he was often brought up before the court, on many a drink problem.

By the time, the young Thomas Cromwell had reached fifteen, he was wild and out of control and lacked good judgement.  Father and son did not get on, which led to him running away from home to seek his fame and fortune.

Cromwell stowed away on a ship and wandered around France, later he became a soldier and fought at the “Battle of Garigliano” on the 28ThDecember 1503.  As the French Army is defeated by the Spanish, Cromwell flees the battlefield and travels to Italy.

In 1504, the penniless Cromwell, had taken to begging on the streets of Florence, when Francesco Frescobaldi, a member of a prominent banking family takes pity on him.  His luck had changed; he had a roof over his head, good clothes and money in his pocket.  He learns quickly and becomes a loyal servant.

His master, who had lifted him out of the gutters of Florence, had put Cromwell on a new destiny…

He went to the Netherland’s working as a cloth merchant.  In Antwerp and Bruges learned a trade, living amongst English merchants and learnt several languages including, German, French and Italian.

Cromwell returns to England, a better man than the wild teenager who had left years earlier.  He works as a cloth merchant and studies law.

Thomas Cromwell marries Elizabeth Wykys a widow in 1517, and they have three children; Gregory, Anne and Grace.  Henry Wykys his father-in-law proves to be a good contact in business, having served under Henry VII, and a significant figure in London’s cloth trade.

Later that year Cromwell is approached by Geoffrey Chambers seeking assistance to obtain an audience with Pope Leo X, for funding the “Guild of Our Lady,” in St. Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire.  Cromwell’s reputation grew, as a fixer.

In 1521, he was employed by the London baker’s guild to draft petitions to the government.  In 1523, becomes a member of the House of Commons.

In 1524, Thomas Heneage recommended Cromwell to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and by the end of the year was working for Thomas Wolsey.  In 1525 Wolsey selected Cromwell to sell the lands and goods of greedy monasteries and corrupted landlords to pay for the Cardinal College in Oxford (now known as Christ Church College).

In 1528, Thomas Cromwell’s life was shaken to its foundation, when his wife Elizabeth and their daughter’s died during the sweating sickness epidemic.

King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his wife: Catherine of Aragon who had not given him a male heir, so he could marry Anne Boleyn.  Henry wanted an annulment to his marriage with Catherine.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had to get the Pope’s permission for an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  He claimed Henry married Catherine, his brother arthur’s wife following his death.

Catherine opposed the split and petitioned Rome to block it.

In 1529, Henry VIII lost faith in Wolsey abilities, and had him arrested and charged with acting against his King’s wishes.  Cardinal Thomas Wolsey died on the 29thNovember 1530 before he could be brought to trial.

By 1531, Thomas Cromwell had taken control of the King’s legal and parliamentary affairs.

In January of 1532, Cromwell calls into question the right of the church, to make laws of its own.

Henry VIII insists that the church should abandon its claim to make laws without royal permission, and he had Cromwell’s support in the House of Commons, who manipulated its members, encouraging clerical grievances.

William Warham, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, opposed the idea, and in August of 1532 died, only to be replaced by Thomas Cranmer, a man who believed in royal supremacy over the church.

On the 23rdMay 1533, Cranmore pronounced judgement at the Dunstable court, that King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, had not been valid, thus the request to annul the marriage was granted.

Thomas Cromwell was rewarded for the part he played in acquiring the annulment for Henry, by being appointed the new Chancellor of the Exchequer.

On the 1stJune 1533 King Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn.  On the 7thSeptember his daughter Princess Elizabeth was born, not the male heir he desired.

In December of 1533 Henry gave Cromwell all the resources of the state in discrediting the papacy.  In March of 1534, Pope Clement VII announced that Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid.  Henry replied, stating the Pope no longer had any authority in England.

In April of 1534, Cromwell was confirmed as Henry’s principal secretary and chief minister.

In November of 1534, Parliament passed an act, proclaiming Henry VIII was now head of the Church of England.  In January of 1535, Thomas Cromwell was appointed Vicar-General, making him the King’s deputy as Supreme Head of the Church.

When Henry VIII realised how much wealth could be attained for the royal coffers, by closing of monasteries, and the seizure of goods and lands, and selling said land to nobles and merchants.

So it was, during the years 1536-1540 some 250 monasteries were closed by order of Henry VIII, and undertaken by Thomas Cromwell.  The effects of the “Dissolution of the Monasteries,” can still be seen to this day; ruins standing in our countryside.

Henry VIII’s marriage showed all the signs of disaster, one daughter and no son and heir to carry on the Tudor dynasty.  Henry needed new blood, and had chosen his new Queen.  It had now fallen on Cromwell, to find a way of releasing his King from this marriage.

Cromwell saw it as an opportunity, to remove Anne from her courtiers by twisting the language of courtly love, to support accusations of adultery and conspiring against the King’s life.

Cromwell used intimidation and torture forcing those in her close circle, into making false confessions. Anne Boleyn was tried for treason and adultery with five men, found guilty and executed in 1536.

In 1536 Henry VIII marries Jane Seymour who died in 1537, weeks after giving birth to a son and heir; Edward VI.

Cromwell searches Europe for a fourth wife for Henry.  He suggests Anne of Cleaves; it was more of a political move, an alliance with German princes against an ongoing Catholic threat.  Upon her arrival, Henry was disappointed, but persuaded by Cromwell to go through with the marriage, which took place on the 6thJanuary 1540.

Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleaves was a disaster, and to get it annulled Henry had to give evidence in front of a court of his failings in the bedroom.  Henry was embarrassed and angry with Cromwell for setting up such a marriage.

This marriage proved to be a mistake for Thomas Cromwell, for he had angered his King and left the door open for his enemies within Henry’s court to make their move against him.

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester saw Cromwell as a heretic for the introduction of the Bible in the native tongue.  He opposed Cromwell’s attack on the monasteries and religious shrines.

Cromwell allowed radical preachers in England.  On the 28thFebruary 1540, Robert Barnes preached a sermon attacking Bishop Gardiner.  On the 3rdApril was arrested and taken to the Tower of London.

Quarrels in the Privy Council continue, it was clear either Cromwell’s party or that of the Bishop of Winchester must succumb.  On the 10thJune 1540, things came to a head in the Privy Council.  Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, called Cromwell a traitor and ripped the chains of authority from his neck.  Cromwell was arrested on charges of treason and heresy, taken by boat from Westminster to the Tower of London.

Thomas Cromwell, he who had risen from the gutters of Putney in London, to hold high offices in the court of King Henry VIII, was found guilty of treason and heresy by Parliament on the 29thJune 1540.  The sentence handed down, was that his body was to be hung, drawn and quartered. Henry commuted the sentence to decapitation.

On the 28thJuly 1540, Thomas Cromwell was led out to Tower Green to meet his executioner, but the executioner bungled it, taking two strokes to sever body and head. The final act was placing his head on a pike on London Bridge for all to see.

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