The downfall of Thomas Cromwell

The Mirror & the Light, the eagerly-anticipated final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, focuses on the final four years of Thomas Cromwell’s life, from 1536–1540. This also happens to be one of the most dramatic periods in British history. Tracy Borman explores the fascinating events for HistoryExtra…

A portrait of Thomas Cromwell.

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light opens with Thomas Cromwell riding high – as indeed he was in 1536. At the beginning of the year, Henry VIII’s controversial second wife, Anne Boleyn, had miscarried on the same day that his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was laid to rest. According to the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, the infant “had the appearance of a male”, although at just 14 weeks it is doubtful whether they could have been able to tell. Already deeply dissatisfied with the woman who had promised so much, the king took it as a sign that this marriage, too, was cursed. It is likely that he privately instructed Cromwell to get him out of it.

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By now, Cromwell and Anne were sworn enemies, so he had his own reasons to seek her destruction. Drawing on rumour and hearsay prompted by Anne’s flirtatious behaviour, he constructed a case of adultery against her that involved no fewer than five men, including her own brother George. She was arrested on 2 May and taken to the Tower, where she was tried and found guilty a little over two weeks later. Cromwell was among the witnesses who gathered to see her beheaded there on 19 May.

Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn were sworn enemies, so he had his own reasons to seek her destruction

This was the zenith of Cromwell’s career. Not only had he rid the king of his troublesome second wife, but he soon engineered a marriage between the sister of wife number three, Jane Seymour, and his son Gregory. This made the Cromwells almost part of the royal family. When Jane gave birth to Henry’s longed-for son and heir, Edward, the following year, the Seymours became invincible – as, apparently, did Cromwell. Nobody could have predicted that in less than three years’ time, he would be dispatched in as brutal a fashion as the woman he had brought down.

How did Thomas Cromwell fall out of favour?

Even before the close of the year 1536, cracks had begun to appear in Cromwell’s relationship with his royal master. In October, opposition to the religious reforms that he had orchestrated broke out into open rebellion with the Pilgrimage of Grace, a large-scale revolt that quickly spread across the Midlands and northern counties. The rebels made it clear that the focus of their fury was not the king but “that heretic Cromwell”. Although Henry eventually put down the rebellion, his faith in Cromwell had been shaken. Increasingly, he began to distance himself from his chief minister. Things got so bad that he even took to beating up Cromwell. One shocked eyewitness described how the hapless minister was regularly “well pommelled about the head, and shaken up, as it were a dog”. He added: “the King’s Majesty hath called my Lorde Privy Seal [Cromwell] villain, knave, bobbed him about the head, and thrust him out of the privy chamber.” Although Cromwell would “laugh” at such treatment, he was acutely aware of the danger he was in.

Things got so bad that Henry VIII even took to beating Cromwell up

Desperate to claw back favour, Cromwell thought he had the perfect means when, in 1539, he found a new bride for his royal master. Jane Seymour had died shortly after giving birth to Prince Edward and the search for a fourth wife for Henry began almost immediately. The candidate whom Cromwell put forward was Anne of Cleves, a German princess who would bring England a powerful new alliance at a time when Henry was under threat from the combined might of Spain and France. Before he would agree to the idea, Henry insisted on seeing what his prospective bride looked like. He therefore dispatched his faithful court painter, Hans Holbein, to take her likeness. He was so satisfied with the result that negotiations immediately proceeded and Anne made her way to England in December 1539. But when Henry met her in person, he was appalled. “I like her not! I like her not!” he shouted at the beleaguered Cromwell, complaining that Anne was “nothing so well as she was spoken of”. The marriage was annulled a few months later. Although Holbein seems to have escaped any reprisals for what may have been an overly flattering portrait of Anne, Cromwell was not so fortunate. The king made his displeasure all too clear and tasked him with securing an annulment in order to make amends.

A portrait of Anne of Cleves.
A portrait of Anne of Cleves. When Henry VIII met her in person, he was “appalled”. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

However, contrary to popular belief, the Anne of Cleves disaster was not the end for Cromwell. Although one of his critics gleefully observed “Cromwell is tottering”, the king soon forgave him and in April 1540 he created him Earl of Essex. This infuriated Cromwell’s enemies – chief among whom were the Duke of Norfolk and his side-kick, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester – and made them determined to get rid of this low-born upstart for good. They whispered in the king’s ear that his chief minister was plotting treason. They pointed to the fact that Cromwell had many men in his service whom he could arm against the King, and even hinted that he was planning to marry Henry’s eldest daughter Mary. It was all groundless, but the king was so paranoid by this time that he did not hesitate to order Cromwell’s arrest.

On 10 June 1540, Cromwell arrived late to a meeting of the privy council. There was a cry of “traitor” and he was seized by the king’s guards. Norfolk then ripped the seal of office from around his neck and watched with satisfaction as his rival was taken to the Tower of London. Given Cromwell’s prowess as a lawyer, his enemies dare not risk putting him on trial so they persuaded the king to bring a bill of attainder before Parliament. This was passed in late June and Cromwell was condemned to die. His only chance of survival was to persuade Henry to pardon him. He therefore wrote a series of impassioned letters from the Tower, the last of which ended with a desperate postscript: “Most gracious prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell
Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. (Image by BBC Two/Alamy)

The most faithful servant Henry VIII ever had?

The king did not heed his words and Cromwell was executed on 28 July – the very same day that Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. In the immediate aftermath of Cromwell’s demise, his royal master was still convinced of his treasonous guilt and took every opportunity to blacken his name even further. Legend has it that whenever he was dealt a knave at cards, he exclaimed: “I have got Cromwell.”

But Henry soon realised the enormity of his mistake in having such an able and loyal minister put to death. It seems that he had taken Cromwell for granted all those years. His chief minister had been such a brilliant and able administrator that he had made it look easy. Perhaps, too, the king assumed that someone would step into his shoes, just as Cromwell had with Wolsey’s. It was a bitter realisation for him that there was nobody even approaching Cromwell’s ability. Just a few short months after the chief minister’s execution, the French envoy reported that the king “sometimes even reproaches [his ministers] with Cromwell’s death, saying that, upon light pretexts, by false accusations, they made him put to death the most faithful servant he had ever had”.

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Tracy Borman is an author and historian specialising in the Tudor period.  A new edition of her biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, is released by Hodder & Stoughton on 5 March.