Thomas Cromwell – The rise and fall of Henry’s henchman

Thomas Cromwell’s career as Henry VIII’s chief minister defined one of the most explosive decades in English history. Cromwell is credited with engineering the country’s break with Rome, and of masterminding the downfall of Anne Boleyn, before following her to the block a few years later. Tracy Borman traces the highs and lows of Henry’s tumultuous relationship with his ruthless fixer...

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

October 1529: Exit Wolsey, enter Cromwell

When Henry’s VIII’s chief adviser Cardinal Wolsey fell from grace in October 1529 – for failing to secure for the king an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – it was expected that his favourite servant, Thomas Cromwell, would fall with him. Cromwell feared this himself and wept bitter tears of regret. But he soon rallied, pronouncing that he would go to the court and “make or marre”.

Acting as an intermediary between his fallen master and the king had all the makings of a thankless task, but Cromwell turned it to his advantage with spectacular success.


A portrait of Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell was quick to step into the shoes vacated by his illustrious predecessor. (© Bridgeman)

Henry was quick to appreciate the skill of this self-trained lawyer – a man born to a ‘lowly’ family in Putney, c1485 – and  put it to his own use. Cromwell soon secured a seat in parliament and, by the end of 1530, had been appointed a member of the council. Far from being overawed by such a meteoric rise, he was outspoken and persuasive in his opinions, much to the annoyance of his higher-born colleagues.

The similarity between this new kid on the block and the man whom he had effectively replaced could not have been lost on the king. Wolsey and Cromwell shared more than their humble birth: both were highly intelligent, ambitious, audacious and extraordinarily industrious. But Henry had had his fingers burnt with the cardinal and was not about to entrust another adviser with as much power as Wolsey had enjoyed. Cromwell would have to work hard to gain his trust.

 

1533: The king gets his divorce

Cromwell is often credited with dreaming up England’s break with Rome as a means of extricating Henry from his first marriage. Cardinal Reginald Pole provides an account of the conversation that passed between the king and his councillor when they first discussed the “grete matier”. Cromwell told his royal master in no uncertain terms that, considering the only real obstacle was the pope, the answer to the conundrum was simple: he must renounce the authority of Rome and make himself head of the English church.

In fact, the idea of rejecting papal authority had already been conceived some years before, but Cromwell undoubtedly gave the campaign fresh impetus. It was largely thanks to his efforts that Henry was finally able to marry Anne Boleyn – derided by Henry’s subjects as ‘the great whore’ – in January 1533.


A portrait believed to be of Anne Boleyn. (© Bridgeman)

Three months later, he forced through the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which became law in April. From now on, no subject of the king – Catherine of Aragon included – could appeal to Rome as a higher authority. Described as “Cromwell’s masterpiece in statute-making”, the famous preamble to the act pronounced that the realm of England was an empire, ruled by the king as supreme head, with complete mastery over the bodies and souls of his subjects. Cromwell had not just got Henry his divorce, he had given him greater powers than any king before him.

 

1535: Henry’s fixer sets his sights on the church

On 21 January 1535, Henry appointed Cromwell viceregent in spirituals, or ‘vicar-general’. This gave him considerable new powers over the church. Bolstered by the promotion, and his master’s confidence in him, Cromwell set in train a revolution that would shake England to its core.

He wasted no time in dispatching commissioners across the country to assess the state of each religious house. With typical attention to detail, he even investigated a few himself. The imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported: “Wherever the king goes, Cromwell, who accompanies him, goes about visiting the abbeys in the neighbourhood, taking inventories of their lands and revenues.”

Motivated as much by tales of widespread corruption as by the prospect of seizing their immense wealth and landholdings, Cromwell began a programme of systematic dissolution which would see the closure and demolition of more than 600 monasteries. He then went about making an example of those who refused to recognise Henry’s supremacy. Principal among his victims were Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More. When these two stalwarts of the old regime resisted intense pressure from Cromwell to conform, they went to the block.

Cromwell’s favour with the king now seemed unassailable. The Venetian ambassador scathingly remarked 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”.

 

1536: Cromwell engineers the downfall of ‘the great whore’

Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn had been hard won. But as a royal wife, Anne soon proved a disappointment. She failed to produce the longed-for Tudor prince, and when she miscarried a male foetus on the day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral in January 1536, things began to unravel rapidly for her. “This king has not spoken 10 times to the concubine… when formerly he could not leave her for an hour,” reported a gleeful Chapuys in February. Worse still, for Anne, was the fact that her royal husband had already found a new favourite to replace her: the virtuous and rather insipid Jane Seymour. Henry wanted rid of Anne and there was only one man who could fix it: the same man who had arranged the marriage in the first place.


When Henry fell for Jane Seymour, shown here, he needed Cromwell to bring down her predecessor. (© Art Archive)

That Cromwell masterminded Anne’s downfall there can be little doubt. He had his own reasons for doing so, besides his natural eagerness to satisfy the king’s wishes. His alliance with the queen had started to disintegrate some time before. Although their passion for reform had originally united them, Anne condemned Cromwell’s tactic of diverting the revenues from the dissolved monasteries to the crown, rather than to charitable causes. In 1535, Cromwell confided to Chapuys that “the lady” had told him “she would like to see his head off his shoulders”.

Cromwell was swift to act. Drawing inspiration from Anne’s flirtatious relationship with her male coterie at court, he gathered ‘evidence’ (flimsy at best) of her adultery with not one but five men, including her own brother. It was one of the most brutal plots in history, resulting in the beheading of the queen and all of her alleged lovers. In the battle for the king’s favour, Cromwell had triumphed once more.

 

Autumn 1536: Public unrest spooks the king

Cromwell emerged from the testing weeks that followed Anne’s execution stronger than ever. “Cromwell rules all,” observed Reginald Pole in June 1536. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed Lord Privy Seal, Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon and was knighted. But Henry’s gratitude did not last for long.

Although he had been content to support Cromwell’s religious reforms when they had served his purpose of divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne, the king had never taken them fully to heart and now became decidedly uneasy about them.

This illustration shows Catholic protestors on the march in 1537. Much of their bile was directed at Cromwell. (© Alamy)

Henry’s unease was increased by a rapidly growing resentment against the new regime among his subjects. This soon broke out into open rebellion. The uprisings, which became known collectively as the Pilgrimage of Grace, spread rapidly across the northern counties, winning support from nobility and commoners alike. They constituted the greatest threat yet to Henry’s authority – and the rebels were in no doubt that Cromwell was to blame.

The fact that a mere commoner could wield such power, and use it to such devastating effect, fanned the flames of their discontent. Lord Darcy, the most prominent nobleman to take part in the rebellion, voiced their hatred when he was captured and interrogated. He told Cromwell to his face: “It is thou that art the very original and chief causer of all this rebellion and mischief.” He also vowed: “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.”

Although Henry stood by Cromwell, his confidence in his reforms had been badly shaken.

 

1538: Treated like “a dog”

No matter how high Cromwell had risen in Henry’s favour, he had never completely won his master’s trust or affection in the way that Cardinal Wolsey had done. This became increasingly apparent during the mid-1530s. As early as May 1535, Chapuys had reported to Holy Roman emperor Charles V that the king had upbraided his minister as “a fool and a man without discretion”.


Eustace Chapuys reported the king’s verbal assaults on his chief minister. (© Bridgeman)

According to another source, Henry would even resort to physical intimidation in order to keep Cromwell firmly in his place. “I would not be in his case for all that ever he hath,” declared George Paulet during his imprisonment for slandering Cromwell in 1538, “for the king beknaveth 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”.

Although some of this report was pure slander, Cromwell himself once confessed to Chapuys that he had been too afraid to relay an unpalatable piece of news to the king in person, so had sent him a message instead.

It is easy to imagine the increasingly irascible and paranoid Henry, now in his late forties, lashing out at his low-born minister in this way – determined, perhaps, to highlight the gulf in their social status as a means of reinforcing his authority.

 

Spring 1539: Powerful enemies pull the plug on Cromwell’s reforms

After enjoying a decade’s ascendancy at court, Cromwell’s luck began to turn. In April 1539, he was struck down by a fever and was confined to his house for several weeks, missing the opening of parliament. His enemies were quick to seize the initiative. The Duke of Norfolk presented a series of convincing arguments against Cromwell’s religious reforms. These were enacted into law as the Act of Six Articles (reaffirming traditional Catholic doctrine on six key issues). This marked the lowest point of Cromwell’s career at court to date.


Stained-glass windows in Worcester Cathedral show the two most powerful men in 1530s England. (© AKG Images)

Cromwell did his best to counter the conservative backlash, but he looked in vain for support from his royal master, who seemed to welcome a return to more traditional religious practices. The king even made friendly overtures towards the staunchly Roman Catholic Charles V. When the emperor’s wife died on 7 June, Henry ordered two days of official mourning.

All of this spelt danger for Cromwell and he knew it. He went on the offensive by securing parliament’s assent for the contentious Statute of Proclamations, which gave decrees issued by the king or council the same legal status as an act of parliament. Cromwell no doubt had in mind further religious reforms, which suggests that he was confident of wresting back his favour with the king. His confidence would prove misplaced.

 

Winter 1539/40: The relationship turns ugly

When Henry’s beloved third wife, Jane Seymour, died in October 1537 shortly after giving birth to his longed-for son and heir, the future Edward VI, Cromwell immediately started searching for her successor. Within weeks, he found a lady whom he believed to be the perfect candidate.


Hans Holbein’s flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves. (© Bridgeman)

The 22-year-old Anne, daughter of the Duke of Cleves, had much to recommend her. Her father had expelled papal authority from his realm and was therefore a natural ally for the English king. But Henry’s ambassadors admitted they had heard “no great praise of her beauty”, so it was not until two years later, when a treaty between France and Spain left the king in desperate need of allies, that he instructed Cromwell to begin negotiations. Before he would agree to the betrothal, though, he demanded that the leading German artist Hans Holbein the Younger should be dispatched to Cleves to paint Anne’s likeness. The result was flattering enough to convince him that she would make a pleasant wife, and the marriage treaty was duly signed.

But when Henry met Anne soon after her arrival in England in December 1539, he was bitterly disappointed. “I like her not! I like her not!” he shouted at a dismayed Cromwell when the meeting was over, and ordered his chief minister to get him out of the marriage. Cromwell knew, though, that the treaty was binding, and it was with extreme reluctance that Henry was obliged to “put his neck in the yoke” and marry her on 6 January 1540. He never forgave the man who had got him into this mess.

 

April 1540: Briefly back in the king’s good books

The year 1539 had been an ‘annus horribilis’ for Cromwell, and by the dawn of 1540, his standing with the king was at an all-time low. Thanks to his chief minister, Henry was married to a woman whom he found abhorrent and he was the enemy of Catholic Europe – not to mention many of his own subjects.

Cromwell was flailing, and the world knew it. On 10 April, the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, reported that the minister was “tottering” and cheerfully predicted his imminent downfall. But just when it seemed that Cromwell’s relationship with the king was doomed, the pendulum swung back in his favour.


Thomas Cromwell was a brilliant political operator who became the second most powerful man in England. Yet he was to fall victim to the very kind of ruthless machinations that had propelled him to the top. (© Bridgeman)

Cromwell lashed out at his opponents in the new parliament, which opened on 12 April, passing a series of measures to consolidate his position, including a new taxation bill. Cromwell knew that the bill would swell the royal coffers considerably, and that in forcing it through parliament he was effectively buying back Henry’s goodwill.

It worked. Six days later, the king granted his minister the earldom of Essex, one of the most ancient and distinguished titles in the land. At the same time, he appointed him to the senior court office of lord great chamberlain and gave him extensive monastic lands.

This apparent volte-face on Henry’s part prompted an astonished Marillac to remark that the new Earl of Essex “was in as much credit with the king as ever he was”.

 

June 1540: When it comes, the end is spectacular

Cromwell arrived late for a meeting of the Privy Council on 10 June. As he entered the chamber, the captain of the guard came forward and arrested him on charges of treason and heresy. Barely had he time to draw breath before he was conveyed to the Tower. Cromwell’s arrest sent shock waves across the country and was soon reported in the courts of Europe. His fall from grace had been spectacular, even in a court renowned for its swift turns of fortune.

That it happened so soon after he had received a very public reassurance of the king’s favour suggests that it was masterminded not by Henry, but by Cromwell’s arch rivals, the Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, who had long sought his destruction. Playing upon Henry’s increasing paranoia and volatility, they whispered that Cromwell had “usurped” his authority, confidently predicted the king’s imminent death and planned to marry himself to his master’s eldest daughter, the Lady Mary. Most stinging of all, they claimed that Cromwell had called the king’s virility into question over his failure to consummate the marriage to Anne of Cleves. This was enough to persuade Henry to accede to his chief minster’s arrest.


Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous portrait of Cromwell. Following his arrest in June 1540, Cromwell begged Henry for “mercye, mercye, mercye”, but within a matter of weeks he had been put to death. (© National Portrait Gallery)

Yet even now he retained some affection for his beleaguered minister because he sent him money in the Tower in order to make his imprisonment more comfortable.

A grateful Cromwell wrote a long and impassioned letter, begging his royal master for “mercye mercye mercye”. His plea fell on deaf ears. A bill of attainder, containing a host of trumped up charges, was passed on 29 June and Cromwell was beheaded on 28 July. Having at last secured an annulment from Anne of Cleves (thanks in part to ordering Cromwell to testify from the Tower), Henry married Catherine Howard on the very day of his former minister’s execution. His callousness didn’t fully mask his true feelings. Within a few months, the king was bemoaning the death of “the most faithful servant he had ever had”.

Tracy Borman is a historian and bestselling author. To find out more, visit www.tracyborman.co.uk.

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