Who was the real Thomas Cromwell? Your guide to Henry VIII’s “faithful servant”

How much do you know about Thomas Cromwell? As Henry VIII's chief minister, he became one of the most powerful men in England – but little is known about his origins. Here, historian Tracy Borman answers all the questions you need to know – from his meteoric rise to his spectacular fall from favour…

A portrait of Thomas Cromwell

When and where was Thomas Cromwell born?

The man who would one day become the most powerful in England was of such humble origins that nobody can be sure when or where he was born. The likeliest date for his birth is 1485, which would be appropriate, given it was the year the Tudors seized the throne. His birthplace is often cited as Putney, which at the time would have been a small village by the river Thames, west of the City of London.

Advertisement

When did he die?

Thomas Cromwell died on 28 July 1540, Tower Hill, London. It took three blows of the axe by the “ragged and butcherly” executioner to sever his head. There is a theory that, in a particularly cruel fit of revenge, the Duke of Norfolk had either bribed the axeman or plied him with alcohol.

What is he remembered for?

Thomas Cromwell enjoyed a meteoric rise from the son of a Putney blacksmith to the chief minister of Henry VIII. A man of exceptional ability and with an enormous capacity for hard work, he dominated England’s political and religious life for a decade. He ruthlessly dispatched those who stood against him and his royal master, notably his rival Thomas More and Henry’s notorious second wife Anne Boleyn. He also masterminded the seismic religious changes of the 1530s, playing a key role in the split from Rome, the establishment of Henry as ‘Supreme Head’ of a new Church of England, and the dissolution of the monasteries that followed in its wake.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

What were his origins?

Records suggest that Thomas was the youngest of three children – and the only boy – born to Walter Cromwell and his wife Katherine née Meverell. Considerably younger than his sisters, he may have been an unexpected child. In the only recorded reference to his mother, Thomas made the unlikely claim that she was 52 when she bore him. He made the remark during the debate about Henry VIII’s annulment with reference to whether Catherine of Aragon was still capable of bearing a living son.

Walter Cromwell was an enterprising if disreputable man with a number of different professions, including blacksmith, fuller (cloth dresser) and cloth merchant. He had ingratiated himself with the new Tudor dynasty by serving as a farrier in the future Henry VII’s contingent at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. He also owned a hostelry, called the Anchor, and a brewery. This was situated close to their home at the top of Brewhouse Lane, which today still runs the short distance from Putney Bridge Road to the river Thames. A house by the river in modern-day Putney would demand a premium, but the area was a good deal less salubrious in the 16th century.

Cromwell’s father was often in trouble with the law. He was fined six pence by the manor court on no fewer than 48 occasions between 1475 and 1501 for “breaches of the assizes of ale” (which meant that he had been watering down the beer that he sold). But his most serious conviction came in 1477 when he was found guilty of assault.

A remark made by Thomas Cromwell many years later suggests he had inherited some of his father's less admirable traits

Although the sources reveal little of Thomas’s relationship with his father, a remark he made many years later suggests he had inherited some of Walter’s less admirable traits. He confided to his friend Archbishop Thomas Cranmer what a “ruffian he was in his young days”. But he was eager to escape the family home. In 1503, when he was aged about 18, Cromwell left England for what would be a lengthy spell abroad. After a brief spell as a mercenary in the French army, he entered the household of the wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco Frescobaldi. Living in one of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world had a profound impact upon Cromwell’s character, beliefs and interests. Artists such as Michelangelo were regular visitors to Frescobaldi’s house, and Niccolò Machiavelli was beginning to exert his influence in the government of Florence.

Cromwell showed far more promise as an apprentice merchant than he had as a soldier, and by the time he returned to England in around 1512 he had both the experience and contacts to flourish in that profession. But like his father, he was not content to follow just one career path and soon after arriving back in London he was practising law. It was this profession that would win him greatest renown.

Cromwell’s years on the continent had transformed him from a poorly educated, if precocious and streetwise ‘ruffian’, to a cultured, well-connected and successful man of business. If he had stayed in Putney and become an apprentice blacksmith or brewer, history would have turned out very differently.

Did Thomas Cromwell marry?

Soon after his return to England in 1514, Cromwell married Elizabeth Williams, née Wykys, a wealthy widow. It was a sign of how far he had come that he was able to make such a good match. It would prove a successful marriage and produced at least three children: Alice (or Anne), Grace and Gregory. The family lived in Fenchurch, on the eastern side of the City of London, a popular area with merchants, before moving to nearby Austin Friars.

A 19th-century depiction of the house of Thomas Cromwell
A 19th-century depiction of the house of Thomas Cromwell at Austin Friars in the City of London. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The contemporary sources provide very few details of Cromwell’s marriage and family life, but it appears to have been settled and harmonious. Tragically, Cromwell lost both his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness within the space of a year (1528/9). He never remarried and instead focused all of his affection upon his surviving child, Gregory. Although it is sometimes claimed that one ‘Jane Cromwell’ who appears in the contemporary sources was his illegitimate daughter, there is no proof of this.

What was the secret of Cromwell’s success?

By the time of his wife and daughters’ deaths, Cromwell was one of the most successful businessmen in London. He had also secured an influential patron in the form of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister. It is not clear when Wolsey first enlisted Cromwell’s services, but he soon rose to become one of his most trusted servants. Wolsey once wrote to express his gratitude for Cromwell’s “good, sad, discreet advice and counsel”.

It is to Cromwell’s credit that in stark contrast to the majority of Wolsey’s sizeable entourage, Cromwell stood by his patron when Wolsey was thrown out of office in 1529 for failing to secure the annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Indeed, he went further still by going to court in order to secure Henry’s pardon for his master – apparently oblivious to the dangers of doing so. Against the odds and within the space of just one year, Cromwell had not only succeeded in rehabilitating his fallen master but had won such favour with Henry VIII that he was appointed a member of the Privy Council. In consistently defending his fallen patron, Cromwell not only softened Henry’s mind towards Wolsey but also impressed him with his own loyalty.

A 19th-century depiction of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey.
A 19th-century depiction of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey. Thomas Cromwell softened the king’s mind to Wolsey after the cardinal was thrown out of office. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Cromwell’s quick-wittedness, irreverence and obvious ability also attracted the king. Self-taught rather than formally educated, he was more intelligent and articulate than most of the nobly born members of court, and he soon gained renown as an orator. His cosmopolitan upbringing also gave him an edge over them. But his lack of refinement showed in what one observer described as a “rough” style of management. While this upset his noble rivals, his direct and bullish approach appealed to a king who had spent so much of his life surrounded by sycophants and flatterers.

Cromwell’s quick-wittedness, irreverence and obvious ability attracted the king

In April 1532, Henry awarded Cromwell his first formal office, that of Master of the Jewels. The 17th-century antiquarian John Strype opined that this appointment was a sure sign that Cromwell had “grown in great favour with the King”. Many more promotions would follow, bringing Cromwell great riches as well as immense power. His private businesses were also continuing to flourish, and together with his court appointments it has been estimated that by 1537 his annual income was around £12,000 – equivalent to more than £3.5m in today’s money.

What is the story behind the famous Holbein portrait?

It was almost certainly to celebrate his appointment as Master of the Jewels that Cromwell commissioned Hans Holbein, the most celebrated artist of the age, to paint his portrait. Far from flattering the sitter, it offers a brutally honest appraisal. The first impression is of a pensive and rather grumpy bureaucrat. Cromwell has a bulky frame and appears to be of middling height, although as he is seated this is difficult to judge. Turned slightly to the right, his small, prying eyes stare intently at something in the middle distance. His eyebrows are slightly raised in a questioning, vaguely cynical stance, and his long, thin lips are pressed together in a line.

Little wonder it is often thought that Holbein disliked Cromwell. In fact, they were firm friends

Little wonder it is often thought that Holbein disliked Cromwell. In fact, though, they were firm friends. It was as the public statesman, not the private man, that Cromwell wished to be remembered. The portrait presents a compelling – if unflattering – testament to his brilliant mind and enormous capacity for hard work. It is as if the painter has happened upon him in his study, deep in thought on some weighty matter. This is no unworldly academic, consumed by the ideas contained within the letters and books by which he is surrounded; it is a man of action, a shrewd and decisive pragmatist driven by a desire to succeed in all things.

A portrait of Thomas Cromwell, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger.
A portrait of Thomas Cromwell, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo by Gustavo Tomsich/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Where is Cromwell buried?

According to the established tradition for traitors, after his execution in 1540, Cromwell’s head was displayed on London Bridge. It was then reunited with the rest of his remains and buried at the Tower’s Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where his erstwhile rivals Anne Boleyn and Thomas More had been laid to rest. The woman whom Henry had married on the day of Cromwell’s execution would join him there just 18 months later.

Are Thomas and Oliver Cromwell related?

Yes – through Thomas Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, the son of his sister Katherine and her husband Morgan Williams. Richard changed his name to Cromwell upon entering his uncle’s service. Oliver Cromwell was Richard’s great-grandson. Given the fate he suffered at Henry VIII’s hands, Oliver’s great-uncle Thomas might have approved of the fact that his descendant would one day rid the country of monarchical rule.

Advertisement

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.