The Truth and Myths of Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal of England, has enjoyed a revival as a popular Tudor character in recent years after being reshaped into a hero. But was Thomas Cromwell ever a villain? After his execution in 1540, all mention of Cromwell falls away, only to be plucked from the archives in the 1930s and made into the villain who brought about all the Protestant changes made by Henry VIII. Did Cromwell really do all this work on his own? Was he a religious fanatic? How does a common-born man come out of nowhere to rise to the top of English society in one decade? Simply, Cromwell didn’t; he had a remarkable tale before he was noticed by Henry VIII.
A child born in Putney, to common parents, suffering poverty and violence?
Much of Cromwell’s childhood has been imagined or created from basic details, as there hasn’t been a lot of information available until now. It’s nice to think of a boy shrugging off his low-born life and escaping to Europe. But the story is more complex.
Born in around 1485, Cromwell’s father was an Irishman named Walter Cromwell alias Smith, a yeoman of many trades, particularly running an alehouse, and before the court 47 times in fifteen years for breaking the assize of ale (other words, selling ale overpriced, poor quality, etc). Cromwell’s mother was Katherine Meverell, and the Meverells of Throwley were a gentry family, making Cromwell a little higher in life than assumed. Throughout this life Cromwell did favours for the Meverells and their relatives, giving them plum positions wherever they lived. Cromwell’s parents were kindly people, not cruel as sometimes portrayed.
Cromwell never forgot where he came from, or who he knew. A local boy named Thomas Megges grew up to be one of Cromwell’s many proteges, as did Thomas Mundy, all Putney boys who were of school age together. When Cromwell got elevated to the peerage in 1536, he was made Baron of Wimbledon, and his wealth and lands grew right through the very area where he was born. His wife was a Putney girl, and his sisters and their families were paramount throughout Cromwell’s life.
The ruffian’s “lost years’ in Italy?
The word ruffian gets used far too often when describing Cromwell, but it’s the only word Cromwell himself used to describe his childhood behaviour, and Eustace Chapuys wrote that Cromwell admitted to time in prison before leaving Putney. In approximately 1500, young Cromwell did leave Putney in search of adventure, but his time in Italy is documented through records, business transactions and by an Italian novelist named Matteo Bandello. Rather than fleeing his father, Cromwell instead left for an adventure, and ended up taking a place as a mercenary in the French army, who were sent to fight the Battle of Gagliano, Naples, on 29 December 1503. The French lost, as were France’s hopes forever in Naples, but Cromwell survived the killing and made his way to Florence. Cromwell was found on the streets of Florence, starving and homeless, by Francesco Frescobaldi, head of a wealthy mercantile family, who was amazed to find a fluent English speaker on the streets. The novelist Bandello tells a great tale of how Cromwell is taken into the Frescobaldi family.
Cromwell had found a home with Frescobaldi, who smuggled goods from Egypt and the Ottomans into northern Europe, making huge sums in the process, even in league with King Henry VII, making England wealthy. Cromwell learned the art of trading wool and wine and had the chance to travel to the Low Countries to attend trade fairs. Francesco’s brother Leonardo traded out of Southampton, giving Cromwell valuable contacts for a new life back in England. Cromwell made many friends and business allies for the next 30 years. Cromwell also met John Hacket in Calais in 1505, and George Elyot in 1512, both living in the Low Countries, giving him access to a wide range of people. By this time, the men were all corresponding as close friends in fluent French. During the ten years in Frescobaldi’s employ, Cromwell lived in Florence and Antwerp, learned Italian, Spanish and “self-consciously elegant” Latin, learned how to defraud the Pope by smuggling goods, learned to chase down debtors in the Low Countries, became at ease with the snobbery of the cloth trade, and created a huge web of friends and colleagues, none of whom he ever forgot. Cromwell started vast libraries of books, with many of the greatest Italian and humanist works of the era in his collections. He was the Italianate-Englishman and determined to be the best Italian in England when he returned home in 1514. But records also show Cromwell back in Rome in 1514, working as a London-based lawyer in a dispute. For the next five years, Cromwell made himself a tidy sum working as a lawyer, living six months of the year in London, the other six months in Rome, despite having undertaken no legal training.
In his time in England between Roman visits, Cromwell married Elizabeth Wyckes in around 1519, with their son Gregory born in about 1520. Cromwell also had a ward, Ralph Sadler, living in his house as his own son, and also nurtured his sister’s son Richard, who took on Cromwell’s surname. By 1523, Cromwell had leased Austin Friars, a manor in the heart of the Italian community of London, and had two more children, Anne and Grace. He could live a wealthy life as a lawyer and merchant, but also gained a place working for the powerful and noble Grey family. But more lay ahead – Cromwell got himself elected into parliament in 1523, thanks to Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, at a time when parliament rarely opened. Cromwell gave his first speech advising against Henry VIII’s possible war with France.
A sulking, unknown fixer and monastery-destroyer for Cardinal Wolsey?
In 1524, Cromwell was admitted to the bar, recognised as a lawyer by Gary’s Inn in London. He had worked for noblemen, clergymen and merchants in his time, so to be recommended to Cardinal Wolsey was no surprise. But Wolsey needed someone special; he needed someone fluent in Italian, a keen eye on money, and he needed a man who could fight his way through prolonged legal issues. Failing monasteries needed to be inspected and closed, to finance Wolsey’s vanity projects – large colleges built in his name, the completion of Hampton Court Palace, and the finishing of a giant tomb made by revered Italian tradesmen. Cromwell could well deal with Italians, but closing monasteries brought him into physical and legal battles with the gentry and the locals alike. Yet Cromwell emerged with even more people to add to his ever-widening group of friends who wrote to him throughout the rest of his life. Cromwell has a charm that saw even monks ejected from their monasteries still writing to him on friendly terms. This job also brought its enemies, a price Cromwell felt willing to pay.
During this time, Cromwell met many men interested in evangelical reform. While he worked for a Catholic cardinal and kept his religious affiliations quiet, Cromwell aided Reformation leaders and had them installed the new Cambridge College, helping reformers such as Thomas Cranmer, Robert Barnes and Miles Coverdale, all religious men who would feature in Cromwell’s rise and downfall.
Cromwell’s relationship with Thomas Wolsey grew in the short five years they worked side by side, and this brought Cromwell into contact with many noblemen such as the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and met his friend-turned-nemesis Stephen Gardiner, a friendship that would spiral out of control in later years. Cromwell and Wolsey became close friends and allies in a short time, a relationship Cromwell would never forget.
Abandoning his closest friend for personal gain?
Did Cromwell step over Wolsey’s body to take his place beside the king? Absolutely not. Wolsey was Henry VIII’s closest friend and Lord Chancellor of England. When Henry decided he needed a marriage annulment, it was Wolsey’s job to procure the desired legal and ecclesiastical paperwork. Anne Boleyn would take Katherine of Aragon’s place, but Anne was only single because Wolsey forbade her marriage to Henry Percy of Northumberland years before. Anne Boleyn hated Wolsey and vice versa.
A legatine court needed to be set up, the judges Wolsey, and Cardinal Campeggio from Italy. Here Cromwell could again be helpful. But 1529 would not be a kind year, as Cromwell had lost his wife and daughters to sweating sickness and Gregory was sent away for his education. Anne Boleyn was ready to be queen, Henry wanted Katherine ousted, and Wolsey and Campeggio simply couldn’t make the charges stick against Queen Katherine, a woman unmatched in all of Europe. Cromwell helplessly stood by and watched Wolsey fail in the most public arena the 16th century had witnessed as the legatine court fell into disarray. When Henry denounced Wolsey and banished him 200 miles north to York, Cromwell had to stay in London. But he did not advance himself, rather Cromwell dared to face the king and beg for Wolsey’s return to power and favour, the only man to do so. Cromwell did a good job too, softening Henry’s angry heart. But Wolsey’s greed got the better of him, and even Cromwell’s brilliant mind could not save him, nor could he be with Wolsey when he died of illness in Leicester in November 1529. But King Henry had seen Cromwell now, seen what he could do. Cromwell also put his contacts to work, and got himself into parliament in late 1529, the first sitting in almost seven years, and tried to build a new life out of grief. All he had worked for had gone; his family was dead, Wolsey was disgraced, and his own legal practice had dried up due to busy times with the cardinal. In this time, Cromwell had a brief affair with an unknown woman, resulting in the birth of his daughter Jane. While illegitimate, Cromwell paid for Jane’s quality care and upbringing for the rest of his life.
Cromwell made being gay illegal?
In 1533, Cromwell did write the Buggery Act, a law designed to hurt men accused of the crime of sodomy. The law was created as an easy way to arrest men, primarily priests, as there was never any evidence to submit, and those arrested could not defend themselves. It was used to destroy men who would not submit to Henry’s new church, rather than what happened in bedrooms around England. Buggery was an immoral sin, but now also a legal crime, punishable by death. This law punished almost no one, while his larger legal changes, such as cresting the Church of England, making Henry VIII the head of religion over the Pope, and annulling the king;s marriage yo Katherine of Aragon all within a year.
A meteoric rise to power as Anne Boleyn’s “man?”
When Wolsey died, the king needed a new man at his side, and he called on Thomas Cromwell. But he was not an unknown to many; the Attorney-General sang his praises, his friend Stephen Gardiner was to be the king’s secretary, and ambassadors across Europe had already worked with him in the past. Cromwell was 45 years old when he caught the king’s eye and was no stranger, but a well-travelled and well-skilled man of many trades.
The Pope would never allow Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell’s plans were simple; bypass the Church completely and start a Royal Supremacy over religion. He had his friend Thomas Cranmer elevated to be the archbishop, declared Henry the Leader of the Church in England, and ruled that the clergymen of England had to swear allegiance to Henry instead of the Pope or risk losing their heads. It was a pragmatic solution to a problem Henry could not solve in usual channels. Cromwell promised to make Henry the richest man in England and Henry was sold on Cromwell’s unorthodox plan. This allowed the Reformation to take hold in England, and by having Catholic men like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher killed. Suddenly, the Pope’s voice began to lose its power. To everyone who already knew Thomas Cromwell, none of this came as a surprise. But the nobles, in places of power due to birth and ancient customs were stunned by this new man.
Cromwell and Cranmer worked together, creating Henry as the Head of the Church, able to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Cromwell wanted the Reformation in England; he could even recite much of the New Testament by heart. Anne Boleyn wanted the Reformation so she could be queen, and yet Cromwell was not “Queen Anne’s man,” not in truth. For Cromwell loathed Anne and her family but had her married to Henry in 1533 anyway, with Queen Katherine banished. When Anne produced a daughter and then several miscarriages, Henry wanted out, and Cromwell had no qualms about destroying another queen. Over the course of 1530 – 1536, Cromwell did not hesitate in doing the king’s bidding. It was business, it was a pragmatic approach to issues that arose. Now the King’s Chief Minister, the Principal Secretary, Vicegerent of Religious Matters, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Cromwell had England in his grip. But not all his new laws were terrible; many helped cities with water, sewage, and food for the poor. Cromwell fed 200 people twice daily from his own kitchens. He passed laws making sure churches helped the homeless and jobless, he changed tax laws meaning the noblemen and merchants paid to fund alms-houses. Cromwell walked a tightrope like no one else.
Cromwell made up lies about Anne Boleyn to kill her?
In 1536, Henry wanted a new wife and Cromwell had the task of destroying Queen Anne. Queen Katherine had just died of cancer, and Queen Anne had lost another child; Henry could wait no more. No man called to sit in judgement of Anne for crimes could go against the king, and Cromwell’s best friend Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury. Cromwell had allies all over court and country, and Anne did not. It is unknown who suggested Anne was unfaithful, Henry or Cromwell. But Henry did show genuine shock when he heard Anne was found guilty of seducing four men, plus the extra charge of incest with her brother. The plan could have been a possible slander of adulterous rumours which blew out of control when people got nervous. A legal mind like Cromwell could easily spin any testimony to sound like Anne Boleyn was a witch. Did Cromwell orchestrate Anne’s death? He did. Did he show remorse? Not in any outward sense, though to go through the whole process could not have been easy for any man to bear. Once Anne was buried, Cromwell assumed her father’s role in as Lord Privy Seal of England, giving him wide-ranging powers in every respect.
The Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion was all Cromwell’s fault?
In late 1536, as Henry basked in the glow of his new wife Queen Jane, upwards of 40,000 men marched toward London, demanding to be a Catholic nation again. Their enemy? Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s had been back to his old tricks – closing monasteries in order to reap the financial gain, albeit the money went in Henry’s pocket, not his own. Henry loved destroying the Catholic Church’s power and taking their lands and wealth. Cromwell’s inspectors raided monasteries, abbeys and convents across England and Wales, calling them houses of sin, fraud and debauchery. Relics and shrines were pulled down, unnecessary under Reformation prayer. Cromwell’s new laws were the cause of the rebellion, and he wore the blood of the over 200 clergymen, nobles and commoners executed when the rebellion got quashed during sporadic fighting between October 1536 and March 1537.
But 1537 wasn’t a total loss for Cromwell. His investment in Jane Seymour’s womb paid dividends when she gave birth to Prince Edward. Sadly, Jane’s death was as hard on Cromwell as anyone. Just three months before Queen Jane’s death, Cromwell married his son Gregory to Jane’s sister, Lady Elizabeth. Gregory’s sons were first cousins to the prince, but after Queen Jane died, all the glory the Cromwell’s could have won also died away.
Gregory Cromwell – rapist?
A tricky truth/myth to dispel. In autumn 1538, Cromwell was busy with the White Rose trials, having the final men of Plantagenet blood arrested and executed. But in Lewes, where Gregory Cromwell lived with his wife Elizabeth, their new-born son, and another son on the way, a scandal emerged, and Gregory’s father stepped in when the situation became grave. Bishop Sampson of Chichester wrote a letter stating that Gregory could go to church for punishment for a serious offence. Bishops could only demand punishment for heresy and sexual crimes. Gregory was no religious man and heresy was not in his nature. That only led to one other cause. Having sex with maids was considered a routine sin in Tudor times, but a sexual charge requiring clerical punishment was considered serious, such as rape or buggery. Gregory angrily refused a light punishment and refused to accept what happened. What did happen? The crime is not recorded, but in doing this very simple acknowledgement in church, it meant Gregory could avoid “the possibility of further business.” Gregory’s “honesty” was affected, and so ruined his wife’s “reputation.” At the same time, Lady Elizabeth wrote to Cromwell in London and said she would no longer live under the same roof as Gregory, and she moved away. Gregory and Elizabeth did not reunite for more than six months. After spending a fortune to set up Gregory in Lewes Priory, Cromwell had to forfeit the lot and move Gregory and Elizabeth to Leeds Castle, where they patched up their marriage.
Cromwell brought about his own downfall when picking Anna of Cleves?
When Cromwell’s downfall came, it did not come from a gradual decline in power or a bolt from the blue, rather a strange mix. In April 1539, Cromwell fell ill and wrote to Henry of suffering an ague (malaria) and tertian fever (malaria fever that comes in waves every two/three days). This illness really struck a knife in the heart of Cromwell’s hard work. He had not long released the latest version of the bible, nicknamed the Cranmer Bible, though it was Cromwell’s bible; he and Cranmer were even on the cover. But when Cromwell fell ill, the Duke of Norfolk and many traditionalist clergymen in power got together and wrote the Six Articles, six points of clarification needed in religion, mostly around transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. While Cromwell was unable to move for a month, Cranmer watched hopelessly as the king took on board this Catholic doctrine and tried to mix them with the Reformation ideals. Religion was still a mess, and the Reformation took a big step backwards in a short time. Cromwell spent the rest of his life trying to undo the Six Articles. Archbishop Cranmer was forced to send away his German wife and daughter and never saw them again, lest they all be punished, possibly executed.
The King wanted a new wife, and Europe was low on princesses and duchesses available and/or willing. The best was Anna von der Marck, Duchess of Cleves. Anna’s brother, Duke Wilhelm of Julich-Cleves-Berg was like Henry; he was not strictly Catholic or a Lutheran, he was a middle way. But Anna’s sister Sybylla was married to the Elector of Saxony, a Lutheran German state with the powerful Schmalkaldic (Protestant) League and an army. England needed allies and the Schmalkaldic League looked were perfect. But negotiations frequently stalled, and when Henry liked the look of Anna’s painting and agreed to marry her, the countries still had no formal alliance.
It took Anna two months to travel to England, and in that time, all hell broke loose. Duke Wilhelm laid claim to the duchy of Guelders, held by Emperor Charles V. Charles travelled to his lands in the Low Countries, and threatened war with Julich-Cleves-Berg if Wilhelm did not step back from Guelders. France, bordering these two, urged peace and wanted an alliance with the Emperor. Suddenly Europe’s largest Catholic nations were becoming allies, and Henry was informally allied to Cleves by his marriage. Poor Anna had nothing to do with this, but by marrying her, and bedding her, Henry would be allied with Anna’s brother and must be dragged into war. England would be decimated. To top it off, the Elector of Saxony still hadn’t allied with Henry, so even the Schmalkaldic League would not necessarily be England’s ally.
By selecting Anna, Cromwell had accidentally brought England to the brink of war while Christendom hung in the balance. Cromwell was a brilliant legal mind, so Henry and Anna’s marriage contract was so tight nothing could be done. Henry was forced to marry Anna, or Cleves would turn against England, possibly alongside the Schmalkaldic army and all of Germany. But marrying Anna meant England became the enemy of the Holy Roman Empire and possibly France.
Henry’s dislike to Anna was obvious, but it was not about her looks, rather she was the anchor to a war England couldn’t win. The men of Europe postured and moved troops around for months, by which time, Henry was totally infuriated, and trapped in a complex scenario where no one would even write to England, fearing they might light the spark which started war. Henry needed to be free, he needed an annulment, and he needed someone to take the fall. But Henry had just given Cromwell the honour he always dreamed of; Cromwell was now Earl of Essex. Cromwell was a high-ranking nobleman, the Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord Privy Seal, Secretary of State, Vicegerent of England and Ireland, Chancellor of the Exchequer, head statesman in the House of Lords and much more. But to show the Emperor that England was not a threat, someone needed to suffer.
Thomas Cromwell, traitor?
Cromwell was arrested on June 10, 1540, for being a traitor. He had said to Stephen Gardiner, one night at home at Austin Friars, that he would not turn from the Reformation, even if Henry did, and that Cromwell would fight the king if necessary. Angry words from a man who never seemed to recover from malaria. Was it treason? Technically yes, by Cromwell’s own laws of never speaking against the king, even though he did not mean he would literally fight against Henry, only argue for his religion. Cromwell’s long-time servant Thomas Wriothesley betrayed him and told the king that Cromwell was talking about Henry’s impotence with Queen Anna, sending the king into a rage. More rumours were thrown on the pile – that Cromwell wanted to marry Princess Mary and become king, that Cromwell was colluding with extreme Lutherans in Zurich, and was a heretic by failing to enforce the Six Articles of religion. By laws Cromwell wrote in the early 1530s, a subject could be attainted without trial and sentenced to death. Cromwell was stripped of all titles, but Henry still allowed him to be beheaded, rather than more horrific penalties. In his prison cell, Cromwell wrote out all the paperwork needed to prove that Henry was not truly married to Anna due to her pre-contract in childhood, plus lack of consummation and lack of inward consent. Once the paperwork was done, Cromwell lost his head on July 28; all he worked for scattered to the wind as Henry married Katheryn Howard on a whim. Gregory and Elizabeth, plus Richard Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wyatt, and countless more mourned the loss of Cromwell, but many rejoiced.
It was said Henry regretted the loss of Cromwell within a month of the arrest; Cromwell was still in the Tower when the king realised how much Cromwell did every day (while putting up with Henry’s atrocious leg smell), but it was too late to back down. By Christmas, Henry was angry at his councillors for lying about Cromwell’s crimes. Henry nor England really saw any kind of success after that, and no man could hold Cromwell’s position, instead, dozens were brought in to fill the void. Henry died a fat old man and Cromwell was forgotten, and all except for one portrait of him, hidden away by Ralph Sadler, was destroyed.