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Portrait of Thomas Cromwell

THOMAS CROMWELL, Earl Of Essex (1485?-1540)

THOMAS CROMWELL, Earl of Essex, born probably not later than 1485 and possibly a year or two earlier, was the only son of Walter Cromwell, alias Smyth, a brewer, smith and fuller of Putney. His grandfather, John Cromwell, seems to have belonged to the Nottinghamshire family, of whom the most distinguished member was Ralph, Lord Cromwell (1394? - 1456), lord treasurer; and he migrated from Norwell, Co. Notts, to Wimbledon some time before 1461. John's son, Walter, seems to have acquired the alias Smyth from being apprenticed to his uncle, William Smyth, "armourer," of Wimbledon. He was of a turbulent, vicious disposition, perpetually being fined in the manor-court for drunkenness, for evading the assize of beer, and for turning more than his proper number of beasts on to Putney Common. Once he was punished for a sanguinary assault, and his connexion with Wimbledon ceased in 1514 when he "falsely and fraudulently erased the evidences and terrures of the lord." Till that time he had flourished like the bay-tree.

Under these circumstances the absence of Thomas Cromwell's name from the Wimbledon manor rolls is almost a presumption of respectability. Perhaps it would be safer to attribute it to Cromwell's absence from the manor. He is said to have quarrelled with his father — no great crime considering the father's character — and fled to Italy, where he served as a soldier in the French army at the battle of the Garigliano (Dec. 1503). He escaped from the battle-field to Florence, where he was befriended by the banker Frescobaldi, a debt which he appears to have repaid with superabundant interest later on. He is next heard of at Antwerp as a trader, and about 1510 he was induced to accompany a Bostonian to Rome in quest of some papal indulgences for a Boston gild; Cromwell secured the boon by the timely present of some choice sweetmeats to Julius II. In 1512 there is some slight evidence that he was at Middelburg, and also in London, engaged in business as a merchant and solicitor. His marriage must have taken place about the same time, judging from the age of his son Gregory. His wife was Elizabeth Wykes, daughter of a well-to-do shearman of Putney, whose business Cromwell carried on in combination with his own.

For about eight years after 1512 we hear nothing of Cromwell. A letter to him from Cicely, marchioness of Dorset, in which he is seen in confidential business relations with her ladyship, is probably earlier than 1520, and it is possible that Cromwell owed his introduction to Wolsey to the Dorset family. On the other hand, it is stated that his cousin, Robert Cromwell, vicar of Battersea under the cardinal, gave Thomas the stewardship of the archiepiscopal estate of York House. At any rate he was advising Wolsey on legal points in 1520, and from that date he occurs frequently not only as mentor to the cardinal, but to noblemen and others when in difficulties, especially of a financial character; he made large sums as a money-lender.

In 1523 Cromwell emerges into public life as a member of parliament. The official returns for this election are lost and it is not known for what constituency he sat, but we have a humorous letter from Cromwell describing its proceedings, and a remarkable speech which he wrote and perhaps delivered, opposing the reckless war with France and indicating a sounder policy which was pursued after Wolsey's fall. If, he said, war was to be waged, it would be better to secure Boulogne than advance on Paris; if the king went in person and were killed without leaving a male heir, he hinted there would be civil war; it would be wiser to attempt a union with Scotland, and in any case the proposed subsidy would be a fatal drain on the resources of the realm. Neither Henry VIII nor Wolsey was so foolish as to resent this criticism, and Cromwell lost nothing by it. He was made a collector of the subsidy he had opposed — a doubtful favour perhaps — and in 1524 was admitted at Gray's Inn; but he now became the most confidential servant of the cardinal.

In 1525 he was Wolsey's agent in the dissolution of the smaller monasteries which were designed to provide the endowments for Wolsey's foundations at Oxford and Ipswich, a task which gave Cromwell a taste and a facility for similar enterprises on a greater scale later on. For these foundations Cromwell drew up the necessary deeds, and he was receiver-general of cardinal's college, constantly supervising the workmen there and at Ipswich. His ruthless vigour and his accessibility to bribes earned him such unpopularity that there were rumours of his projected assassination or imprisonment. All this constituted a further bond of sympathy between him and his master, and Cromwell grew in Wolsey's favour until his fall. His wife had died in 1527 or 1528, and in July 1529 he made his will, in which one of the chief beneficiaries was his nephew, Richard Williams, alias Cromwell, the great-grandfather of the protector.

Wolsey's disgrace reduced Cromwell to such despair that Cavendish once found him in tears and at his prayers "which had been a strange sight in him afore." Many of the cardinal's servants had been taken over by the king, but Cromwell had made himself particularly obnoxious. However, he rode to court from Esher to "make or mar," as he himself expressed it, and offered his services to Norfolk. Possibly he had already paved the way by the pensions and grants which he induced Wolsey to make through him, out of the lands and revenues of his bishoprics and abbeys, to nobles and courtiers who were hard pressed to keep up the lavish style of Henry's court.

Cromwell could be most useful to the government in parliament, and the government, represented by Norfolk, undertook to use its influence in procuring him a seat, on the natural understanding that Cromwell should do his best to further government business in the House of Commons. This was on the 2nd of November 1529; the elections had been made, and parliament was to meet on the morrow. A seat was, however, found or made for Cromwell at Taunton. He signalized himself by a powerful speech in opposition to the bill of attainder against Wolsey which had already passed the Lords. The bill was thrown out, possibly with Henry's connivance, though no theory has yet explained its curious history so completely as the statement of Cavendish and other contemporaries, that its rejection was due to the arguments of Cromwell. Doubtless he championed his fallen chief not so much for virtue's sake as for the impression it would make on others. He did not feel called upon to accompany Wolsey on his exile from the court.

Cromwell had now, according to Cardinal Pole, whose story has been too readily accepted, been converted into an "emissary of Satan" by the study of Machiavelli's Prince. In the one interview which Pole had with Cromwell, the latter, so Pole wrote ten years later in 1539, recommended him to read a new Italian book on politics, which Pole says he afterwards discovered was Machiavelli's Prince. But this discovery was not made for some years: the Prince was not published until 1532, three years after the conversation; there is evidence that Cromwell was not acquainted with it until 1537 or 1539, and there is nothing in the Prince bearing on the precise point under discussion by Pole and Cromwell. On the other hand, the point is discussed in Castiglione's Il Cortegiano which had just been published in 1528, and of which Cromwell promised to lend Bonner a copy in 1530. The Cortegiano is the antithesis of the Prince; and there is little doubt that Pole's account is the offspring of an imagination heated by his own perusal of the Prince in 1538, and by Cromwell's ruin of the Pole family at the same time; until then he had failed to see in Cromwell the Machiavellian "emissary of Satan."

Equally fanciful is Pole's ascription of the whole responsibility for the Reformation to Cromwell's suggestion. It was impossible for Pole to realize the substantial causes of that perfectly natural development, and it was his cue to represent Henry as having acted at the diabolic suggestion of Satan's emissary. In reality the whole programme, the destruction of the liberties and confiscation of the wealth of the church by parliamentary agency, had been indicated before Cromwell had spoken to Henry. The use of Praemunire had been applied to Wolsey; laymen had supplanted ecclesiastics in the chief offices of state; the plan of getting a divorce without papal intervention had been the original idea, which Wolsey had induced the king to abandon, and it had been revived by Cranmer's suggestion about the universities. The root idea of the supreme authority of the king had been asserted in Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man published in 1528, which Anne Boleyn herself had brought to Henry's notice: "this," he said, "is a book for me and all kings to read," and Cardinal Campeggio had felt compelled to warn him against these notions, of which Pole imagines that he had never heard until they were put into his head by Cromwell late in 1530.

In the same way Cromwell's influence over the government from 1529-1533 has been grossly exaggerated. It was not till 1531 that he was admitted to the privy council nor till 1534 that he was made secretary, though he had been made master of the Jewel-House, clerk of the Hanaper and master of the Wards in 1532, and chancellor of the exchequer (then a minor office) in 1533. It is not till 1533 that his name is as much as mentioned in the correspondence of any foreign' ambassador resident in London. This obscurity has been attributed to deliberate suppression: but no secrecy was made about Cranmer's suggestion, and it was not Henry's habit to assume a responsibility which he could devolve upon others. It is said that Cromwell's life would not have been safe, had he been known as the author of this policy; but that is not a consideration which would have appealed to Henry, and he was just as able to protect his minister in 1530 as he was in 1536. Cromwell, in fact, was not the author of that policy, but he was the most efficient instrument in its execution.

He was Henry's parliamentary agent, but even in this capacity his power has been overrated, and he is supposed to have invented those parliamentary complaints against the clergy, which were transmuted into the legislation of 1532. But the complaints were old enough; many of them had been heard in parliament nearly twenty years before, and there is ample evidence to show that the petition against the clergy represents the "infinite clamours" of the Commons against the Church, which the House itself resolved should be "put in writing and delivered to the king." The actual drafting of the statute, as of all the Reformation Acts between 1532 and 1539, was largely Cromwell's work; and the success with which parliament was managed during this period was also due to him. It was not an easy task, for the House of Commons more than once rejected government measures, and members were heard to threaten Henry VIII with the fate of Richard III; they even complained of Cromwell's reporting their proceedings to the king. That was his business rather than conveying imaginary royal orders to the House. "They be contented," he wrote in one of these reports, "that deed and writing shall be treason," but words were only to be misprision: they refused to include an heir's rebellion or disobedience in the bill "as rebellion is already treason, and disobedience is no cause of forfeiture of inheritance." There was, of course, room for manipulation, which Cromwell extended to parliamentary elections; but parliamentary opinion was a force of which he had to take account, and not a negligible quantity.

From the date of his appointment as secretary in 1534, Cromwell's biography belongs to the history of England, but it is necessary to define his personal attitude to the revolution in which he was the king's most conspicuous agent. He was included by Foxe in his Book of Martyrs to the Protestant faith: more recent historians regard him as a sacrilegious ruffian. Now, there were two cardinal principles in the Protestantism of the 16th century — the supremacy of the temporal sovereign over the church in matters of government, and the supremacy of the Scriptures over the Church in matters of faith. There is no room for doubt as to the sincerity of Cromwell's belief in the first of these two articles: he paid at his own expense for an English translation of Marsiglio of Padua's Defensor Pacis, the classic medieval advocate of that doctrine; he had a scheme for governing England by means of administrative councils nominated by the king to the detriment of parliament; and he urged upon Henry the adoption of the maxim of the Roman civil law — quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem. He wanted, in his own words, "one body politic" and no rival to the king's authority; and he set the divine right of kings against the divine right of the papacy.

There is more doubt about the sincerity of Cromwell's attachment to the second article; it is true that he set up a Bible in every parish church, and regarded them as invaluable; and the correspondents who unbosom themselves to him are all of a Protestant way of thinking. But Protestantism was the greatest support of absolute monarchy. Hence its value in Cromwell's eyes. Of religious conviction there is in him little trace, and still less of the religious temperament. He was a polished representative of the callous, secular middle class of that most irreligious age. Sentiment found no place, and feeling little; in his composition, he used the axe with as little passion as the surgeon does the knife, and he operated on some of the best and noblest in the land. He saw that it was wiser to proscribe a few great opponents than to fall on humbler prey; but he set law above justice, and law to him was simply the will of the state.

In 1534 Cromwell was appointed master of the Rolls, and in 1535 chancellor of Cambridge University and visitor-general of the monasteries. The policy of the Dissolution has been theoretically denounced, but practically approved in every civilized state, Catholic as well as Protestant. Every one has found it necessary, sooner or later, to curtail or to destroy its monastic foundations; only those which delayed the task longest have generally lagged farthest behind in national progress. The need for reform was admitted by a committee of cardinals appointed by Paul III in 1535, and it had been begun by Wolsey. Cromwell was not affected by the iniquities of the monks except as arguments for the confiscation of their property. He had boasted that he would make Henry VIII the richest prince in Christendom; and the monasteries, with their direct dependence on the pope and their cosmopolitan organization, were obstacles to that absolute authority of the national state which was Cromwell's ideal. He had learnt how to visit monasteries under Wolsey, and the visitation of 1535 was carried out with ruthless efficiency [see, Dissolution of the Monasteries].

During the storm which followed, Henry took the management of affairs into his own hands, but Cromwell was rewarded in July 1536 by being knighted, created lord privy seal, Baron Cromwell, and vicar-general and viceregent of the king in "Spirituals." In this last offensive capacity he sent a lay deputy to preside in Convocation, taking precedence of the bishops and archbishops, and issued his famous Injunctions of 1536 and 1538; a Bible was to be provided in every church; the Paternoster, Creed and Ten Commandments were to be recited by the incumbent in English; he was to preach at least once a quarter, and to start a register of births, marriages and deaths.

During these years the outlook abroad grew threatening because of the alliance, under papal guarantee, between Charles V and Francis I; and Cromwell sought to counterbalance it by a political and theological union between England and the Lutheran princes of Germany. The theological part of the scheme broke down in 1538 when Henry categorically refused to concede the three reforms demanded by the Lutheran envoys. This was ominous, and the parliament of 1539, into which Cromwell tried to introduce a number of personal adherents, proved thoroughly reactionary. The temporal peers were unanimous in favour of the Six Articles, the bishops were divided, and the Commons for the most part agreed with the Lords. Cromwell, however, succeeded in suspending the execution of the act, and was allowed to proceed with his one independent essay in foreign policy.

The friendship between Francis and Charles was apparently getting closer; Pole was exhorting them to a crusade against a king who was worse than the Turk; and anxious eyes searched the Channel in 1539 for signs of the coming Armada. Under these circumstances Henry acquiesced in Cromwell's negotiations for a marriage with Anne of Cleves. Anne, of course, was not a Lutheran, and the state religion in Cleves was at least as Catholic as Henry's own. But her sister was married to the elector of Saxony, and her brother had claims on Guelders, which Charles V refused to recognize. Guelders was to the emperor's dominions in the Netherlands what Scotland was to England, and had often been used by France in the same way, and an alliance between England, Guelders, Cleves and the Schmalkaldic League would, Cromwell thought, make Charles's position in the Netherlands almost untenable. Anne herself was the weak point in the argument; Henry conceived an invincible repugnance to her from the first; he was restrained from an immediate breach with his new allies only by fear of Francis and Charles. In the spring of 1540 he was reassured on that score; no attack on him from that quarter was impending; there was a rift between the two Catholic sovereigns, and there was no real need for Anne and her German friends.

From that moment Cromwell's fate was sealed; the Lords loathed him as an upstart even more than they had loathed Wolsey; he had no church to support him; Norfolk and Gardiner detested him from pique as well as on principle, and he had no friend in the council save Cranmer. As lay viceregent he had given umbrage to nearly every churchman, and he had put all his eggs in the one basket of royal favour, which had now failed him. Cromwell did not succumb without an effort, and a desperate struggle ensued in the council. In April the French ambassador wrote that he was tottering to his fall; a few days later he was created earl of Essex and lord great chamberlain, and two of his satellites were made secretaries to the king; he then despatched one bishop to the Tower, and threatened to send five others to join him. At last Henry struck as suddenly and remorselessly as a beast of prey; on the 10th of June Norfolk accused him of treason; the whole council joined in the attack, and Cromwell was sent to the Tower. A vast number of crimes was laid to his charge, but not submitted for trial. An act of attainder was passed against him without a dissentient voice, and after contributing his mite towards the divorce of Anne, he was beheaded on Tower Hill on the 28th of July, repudiating all heresy and declaring that he died in the Catholic faith.

In estimating Cromwell's character it must be remembered that his father was a blackguard, and that he himself spent the formative years of his life in a vile school of morals. A ruffian he doubtless was, as he says, in his youth, and he was the last man to need the tuition of Machiavelli. Nevertheless he civilized himself to a certain extent; he was not a drunkard nor a forger like his father; from personal immorality he seems to have been singularly free; he was a kind master, and a stanch friend; and he possessed all the outward graces of the Renaissance period. He was not vindictive, and his atrocious acts were done in no private quarrel, but in what he conceived to be the interests of his master and the state. Where those interests were concerned he had no heart and no conscience and no religious faith; no man was more completely blighted by the 16th century worship of the state.

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol VII.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 501.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Borman, Tracy. Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story
           of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant.
           New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015.

Elton, G. R. Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation
           in the Age of Thomas Cromwell.
           Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. (Reprint)

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life.
           New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

Merriman, Roger Bigelow. Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell: 2 Volumes.
           New York: Oxford University Press, 1901.

Schofield, John. The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell.
           London: The History Press, 2011.

Wilson, Derek. In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition,
           and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII.
           New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.

Thomas Cromwell on the Web:

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Thomas Radcliffe, 3. Earl of Sussex
Henry Radcliffe, 4. Earl of Sussex
Robert Radcliffe, 5. Earl of Sussex
William Parr, Marquis of Northampton
Henry Wriothesley, 2. Southampton
Henry Wriothesley, 3. Southampton
Charles Neville, 6. E. Westmorland
Thomas Percy, 7. E. Northumberland
Henry Percy, 8. E. Northumberland
Henry Percy, 9. E. Nothumberland
William Herbert, 1. Earl of Pembroke
Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham
Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk
Henry Howard, 1. Earl of Northampton
Thomas Howard, 1. Earl of Suffolk
Henry Hastings, 3. E. of Huntingdon
Edward Manners, 3rd Earl of Rutland
Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland
Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland
Henry FitzAlan, 12. Earl of Arundel
Thomas, Earl Arundell of Wardour
Edward Somerset, E. of Worcester
William Davison
Sir Walter Mildmay
Sir Ralph Sadler
Sir Amyas Paulet
Gilbert Gifford
Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague
François, Duke of Alençon & Anjou

Mary, Queen of Scots
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley
James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell
Anthony Babington and the Babington Plot
John Knox

Philip II of Spain
The Spanish Armada, 1588
Sir Francis Drake
Sir John Hawkins

William Camden
Archbishop Whitgift
Martin Marprelate Controversy
John Penry (Martin Marprelate)
Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury
John Dee, Alchemist

Philip Henslowe
Edward Alleyn
The Blackfriars Theatre
The Fortune Theatre
The Rose Theatre
The Swan Theatre
Children's Companies
The Admiral's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
Citizen Comedy
The Isle of Dogs, 1597

Common Law
Court of Common Pleas
Court of King's Bench
Court of Star Chamber
Council of the North
Fleet Prison
First Fruits & Tenths
Livery and Maintenance
Oyer and terminer

The Stuarts

King James I of England
Anne of Denmark
Henry, Prince of Wales
The Gunpowder Plot, 1605
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset
Arabella Stuart, Lady Lennox

William Alabaster
Bishop Hall
Bishop Thomas Morton
Archbishop William Laud
John Selden
Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford
Henry Lawes

King Charles I
Queen Henrietta Maria

Long Parliament
Rump Parliament
Kentish Petition, 1642

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
John Digby, Earl of Bristol
George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax
Robert Devereux, 3rd E. of Essex
Robert Sidney, 2. E. of Leicester
Algernon Percy, E. of Northumberland
Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester
Edward Montagu, 2. Earl of Manchester

The Restoration

King Charles II
King James II
Test Acts

Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace
Woodstock Manor

The Cinque Ports
Mermaid Tavern
Malmsey Wine
Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
Westminster School
The Sanctuary at Westminster


Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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