Y8: Thomas Cromwell

28th July 1540 – Thomas Cromwell, a man ‘borne of lowleye familye’ in Putney in or around 1485, a self trained lawyer, member of Parliament by 1530 and most powerful man in England after King Henry VIII was sent to Tower Green where he was beheaded under a trumped up Act of Attainder by his former Royal Patron. How had a man of such lowly birth risen through the mire of Tudor Court life to such a high position? His rise had started on the coattails of Cardinal Wolsey who had been Henry’s favourite, his Chief Minister and a political genius. However, when Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn and Queen Katherine was no longer able to have children, it fell to Wolsey to obtain the Papal Annulment of the marriage. This proved a task too far for the hapless Cardinal: the Pope was by far too afraid of the Spanish King and the Holy Roman Emperor, both close relatives of Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell, despite being so closely associated with the now fallen Cardinal, managed to use this to his advantage by acting as intermediary which allowed the King to see his political acumen at first hand. Though highly debated, Cromwell is believed by many to have been the architect of the Break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England, thus granting the King the divorce he wanted as well as, through the Act in Restraint of Appeals which not only forbade the political appeal to Rome, but gave Henry absolute power over all his subjects. This was followed by his organisation and carrying through of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, often on the most trumped up charges based on gossip instigated by those who wanted to seize the buildings and lands for themselves. By 1535, the Venetian ambassador was able scathingly to state that although “this Cromwell was a person of low origin and condition; he is now secretary of state, the king’s prime minister, and has supreme authority”. In 1536, he moved, at the King’s behest, against Queen Anne, Henry having fallen for Anne’s maid, Jane Seymour. The Queen was renowned for flirting at the Court, and Cromwell used this to accuse the Queen of adultery and even incest before the King. Anne lost her head on May 19th 1536. As a reward for the removal of Queen Anne, Cromwell was Knighted and appointed Lord Privy Seal, Baron of Wimbledon. The favour was not to last for too long, however. The Protestant reforms were massively unpopular amongst the populace, who remained Catholic at heart. This resulted in the disastrous Pilgrimage of Grace – at his trial after the failure of the rebellion, Lord Darcy (a prominent noble who had been a leader of the Pilgrimage) shouted at Cromwell before the King, “It is thou that art the very original and chief causer of all this rebellion and mischief….Though thou wouldst procure all the noblemen’s heads within the realm to be stricken off, yet shall there one head remain that shall strike off thy head.” Henry was shaken and began to question Cromwell, though he stood by him in 1536. The position at Court was never truly secure – it was said by George Paulet, “the king beknaveth (humiliates) him twice a week, and sometimes knocks him well about the pate; and yet when he hath been well pommelled about the head, and shaken up, as it were a dog, he will come out into the great chamber, shaking off his bush with as merry a countenance as though he might rule all the roost”. By 1540, after organising the disastrous marriage of the ever more irascible Henry to Anne of Cleves, and having made so many enemies amongst the high nobility, Cromwell found himself in a desperate situation – rumour had it that he was waiting for the King’s death when he would force Lady Mary (the King’s eldest daughter, the future Queen Mary) into marriage and take the crown for himself. When it was said he questioned the King’s physical ability to consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves, he found himself in the Tower in June. A month later, on the day Henry, married Katherine Howard, Cromwell was beheaded for High Treason against the King’s Body.
He is a truly contentious character – was he simply a man of his time and the victim of a series of vengeful enemies or was he a spymaster, an over-ambitious man, and a cruel despot who simply, ultimately, reaped what he sowed?


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