28 July 1540: The Execution Speech of Thomas Cromwell

An execution at Tower Hill, circa 1550s

‘A true Christian confession of the L. Crumwel at his death.’

July 28 marked a dramatic day at Tower Hill. The most powerful man in England was to die due to forces entirely outside of his control. Cromwell had selected the perfect queen in Anna of Cleves, a beautiful, well-connected duchess, whose brother Duke Wilhelm of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, and her sister Electress Sybilla of Saxony, had powerful allies and the Schmalkaldic army on their side. But when Duke Wilhelm threatened war with Emperor Charles over the duchy of Guelders while Anna was travelling to England to her marriage, suddenly the duchess who promised powerful allies now also tied King Henry to enter a war he could not win, and would not benefit from at all. Cromwell’s paperwork on the marriage was as strong and watertight as all his work; it could not just be undone, and Henry wed a woman who tied him to war. Henry believed in Cromwell still, even making him an earl in April 1540, but when sexual humiliation reared its head (excuse the pun), Henry snapped and arrested his most faithful servant. Cromwell undid the marriage contract from his room in the Tower, bolstered by fabricated affidavits, talking of Anna being so ugly that Henry couldn’t consummate.  An annulment would stop Emperor Charles’ anger at England potentially allying against him, but there needed to be proof, there needed to be someone to blame for the marriage to a duchess who linked England to war. With statements about throwaway comments made to his enemies, Cromwell was attainted for heresy and treason and conspiring to marry Princess Mary (based on literally no evidence). Even though Henry started to realise his mistake on 9 July, a man attainted could not have his sentence wiped; it would set a legal precedent. But as much as Cromwell’s enemies wanted him dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn and hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor, or burned at the stake as a heretic, Henry granted Cromwell’s cry for mercy and ordered a beheading.

While primary sources of the day offer sketchy detail, the works Foxe, Hume, Cox, Galter,  Herbert, and Hall all offer insights to the day. It is suggested that Cromwell only learned of his style of execution on the morning from William Laxton and Martin Bowes, two sheriffs at the Tower, who came to him after breakfast, which he had just after dawn on a sunny summer’s day. Hume wrote that one thousand halberdiers were there to flank Cromwell’s short walk from the Tower to the scaffold on the hill, for an unfounded fear that Cromwellians would mount an escape bid. There, Cromwell met Walter Lord Hungerford, who was also destined to die for the crimes of incest, buggery and wife-beating, and had lost his mind by the time of his death. The men knew one another through their work for the king, and Foxe wrote that Cromwell tried to comfort the mad baron:

“There is no cause for you to fear. If you repent and be heartily sorry for what you have done, there is for you mercy enough from the Lord, who for Christ’s sake, will forgive you. Therefore, be not dismayed and though the breakfast which we are going to be sharp, trusting in the mercy of the Lord, we shall have a joyful dinner.”

Final words on the scaffold were not a time to defend oneself, fire anger at your enemies or beg for freedom. Cromwell had to deliver a speech to cement his legacy and save his son Gregory, daughter-in-law Elizabeth and their three sons, as well as Richard and Frances Cromwell and Ralph and Ellen Sadler, their very young children, and Cromwell’s wide extended family. Cromwell, accompanied by Thomas Wyatt on the scaffold for support, gave his final speech.

“I am come hither to die, and not to purge my self, as some think peradventure that I will. For if I should so do, I were a very wretch and a Miser. I am by the Law condemned to die, and thank my Lord God, that hath appointed me this death for mine Offence. For sithence the time that I have had years of discretion, I have lived a sinner, and offended my Lord God, for the which I ask him heartily forgiveness. And it is not unknown to many of you, that I have been a great Traveller in this World, and being but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithence the time I came thereunto I have offended my Prince, for the which I ask him heartily forgiveness, and beseech you all to pray to God with me, that he will forgive me. And now I pray you that be here, to bear me record, I die in the Catholic Faith, not doubting in any Article of my Faith, no nor doubting in any Sacrament of the Church. Many have slandered me and reported that I have been a bearer of such as have maintained evil Opinions, which is untrue. But I confess, that like as God by his holy Spirit doth instruct us in the Truth, so the Devil is ready to seduce us, and I have been seduced; but bear me witness that I die in the Catholic Faith of the holy Church; and I heartily desire you to pray for the Kings Grace, that he may long live with you in health and prosperity; and that after him his Son Prince Edward that goodly Imp may long Reign over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaineth in this flesh, I waver nothing in my Faith.”

Cromwell then went on to pray:

“O Lord Jesus, which art the only health of all men living, and the everlasting life of them which die in thee; I wretched sinner do submit my self wholly unto thy most blessed will, and being sure that the thing cannot Perish which is committed unto thy mercy, willingly now I leave this frail and wicked flesh, in sure hope that thou wilt in better wise restore it to me again at the last day in the resurrection of the just. I beseech thee most merciful Lord Jesus Christ, that thou wilt by thy grace make strong my Soul against all temptations, and defend me with the Buckler of thy mercy against all the assaults of the Devil. I see and knowledge that there is in my self no hope of Salvation, but all my confidence, hope and trust is in thy most merciful goodness. I have no merits nor good works which I may allege before thee. Of sins and evil works, alas, I see a great heap; but yet through thy mercy I trust to be in the number of them to whom thou wilt not impute their sins; but wilt take and accept me for righteous and just, and to be the inheritor of everlasting life. Thou merciful Lord wert born for my sake, thou didst suffer both hunger and thirst for my sake; thou didst teach, pray, and fast for my sake; all thy holy Actions and Works thou wroughtest for my sake; thou sufferedst most grievous Pains and Torments for my sake; finally, thou gavest thy most precious Body and thy Blood to be shed on the Cross for my sake. Now most merciful Saviour, let all these things profit me, which hast given thy self also for me. Let thy Blood cleanse and wash away the spots and fulness of my sins. Let thy righteousness hide and cover my unrighteousness. Let the merit of thy Passion and blood shedding be satisfaction for my sins. Give me, Lord, thy grace, that the Faith of my salvation in thy Blood waver not in me, but may ever be firm and constant. That the hope of thy mercy and life everlasting never decay in me, that love wax not cold in me. Finally, that the weakness of my flesh be not overcome with the fear of death. Grant me, merciful Saviour, that when death hath shut up the eyes of my Body, yet the eyes of my Soul may still behold and look upon thee, and when death hath taken away the use of my Tongue, yet my heart may cry and say unto thee, Lord into thy hands I commend my Soul, Lord Jesus receive my spirit, Amen.”

Cox wrote that Cromwell then turned to Wyatt and said “farewell, Wyatt,” and that his friend was deeply upset at this stage, and Cromwell added, “gentle Wyatt, pray for me.” Cromwell removed his gown, gave forgiveness to his executioner and prayed him to take his head with a single blow. Conflicting reports exist of what came next. The news of the execution travelled Europe, changing with every letter. Hume wrote Cromwell’s head came off with a single blow. But Galton wrote that the axeman, a “ragged and butcherly wretch” and that the first blow instead hit Cromwell’s skull, and that it took half an hour to cut through Cromwell’s neck. While that seems like a story built on dramatics and exaggeration, regardless of the number of blows required, Cromwell would have been unconscious or dead within seconds.

Cromwell’s body was buried at St Peter ad Vincula, close to Anne Boleyn, whom the king had ordered killed during an Easter conversation with Cromwell only four years earlier. King Henry married Katheryn Howard at Oatlands the same day, not that any knew that at the time. No one who rose in the English court escaped eventual fates like this; it would be surprising if Cromwell had never considered this as his eventual fate. His brand-new purple and gold velvet garter robes had arrived at Hampton Court the day before, and Henry ordered it hung up and untouched. 

Thomas Cromwell was undoubtedly the genius of the English court, a man whose mind far exceeded those about him. While his genius was exploited by King Henry, whose orders Cromwell could not refuse, it meant that many never truly appreciated Cromwell, too busy sneering at the rank of his birth. These people were only in power due to their birth and should have been grateful to breathe the same air as a man who far exceeded them in intelligence, generosity and charm.

~~~

Cromwell’s final speech: Passages from Foxe’s Ecclesiastical History, Vol. ii. p 433

John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, 1563

Arthur Galton, The Character of Times of Thomas Cromwell, 1887

Edward Hall, The Triumphant Reigne of Kyng Henry the VIII, vol 2, p306-7

Edward Herbert, Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth, Bodleian Library Oxford, Folio 624, 462

Richard Cox, Elizabethan Bishop of Ely, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, Parker Society MS 168 f. 209rv

Martin Hume, The Chronicle of King Henry VIII 1889, p104

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves” by Heather R. Darsie

Anna was the ‘last woman standing’ of Henry VIII’s wives ‒ and the only one buried in Westminster Abbey. How did she manage it?

Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’ looks at Anna from a new perspective, as a woman from the Holy Roman Empire and not as a woman living almost by accident in England. Starting with what Anna’s life as a child and young woman was like, the author describes the climate of the Cleves court, and the achievements of Anna’s siblings. It looks at the political issues on the Continent that transformed Anna’s native land of Cleves ‒ notably the court of Anna’s brother-in-law, and its influence on Lutheranism ‒ and Anna’s blighted marriage. Finally, Heather Darsie explores ways in which Anna influenced her step-daughters Elizabeth and Mary, and the evidence of their good relationships with her.

Was the Duchess Anna in fact a political refugee, supported by Henry VIII? Was she a role model for Elizabeth I? Why was the marriage doomed from the outset? By returning to the primary sources and visiting archives and museums all over Europe (the author is fluent in German, and proficient in French and Spanish) a very different figure emerges to the ‘Flanders Mare’.

Cover and blurb via Amberley

~~

There is a piece of fiction out right now, which suggests that Henry VIII was right, Anna of Cleves was no virgin. I will not be reviewing that work, as I only publish five-star reviews, and leave the rest in privacy. Instead, I am here to show you THE book on Anna of Cleves, a piece of written beauty.

Anna of Cleves starts out with a look at Anna’s childhood, her family, its history, and life in Germany at the time. The book has researched German life and child-rearing for those in Anna’s rich position. No music, dancing and sewing days for Anna – girls were taught by women to learn finance, in order to run a home worth of a duchy. Yes, Anna could sew, with her fine embroidery and needlework on clothing, but could also read, write, understand money and German customs, values and politics. While all that is great, Anna learnt a German way of life, and the German language, one of her original problems in England.

The book tells us of Anna’s early life, rather than only focusing on her once she was purchased as a queen. The Cleves Court was an intriguing place, with a wholly different look at politics and customs of the time period. Without giving away spoilers, the stark difference between Germany and England shows just how much Anna had to go through upon her marriage and carefully negotiated life.

Germany, of course, was in the process of the Reformation, leaning Protestant, just how my personal beloved Thomas Cromwell wanted for England. Between the changes of Germany and the power still held by the Holy Roman Empire at the time, Anna marrying into England would have massive repercussions, and as someone who had to write the death of Thomas Cromwell, the book was an immense eye-opener on how Anna of Cleves’ marriage brought down England’s greatest minister of all time.  The situation was never as simple as Henry thinking Anna was ugly. No spoilers, but damn!!!

Anna of Cleves is an extraordinary woman. She managed to survive an annulment from Henry after only a few months (and didn’t have to sleep with him), and became the king’s ‘sister.’ Anna made friends with the grandest of women in England, Henry’s daughters Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth, and also the exciting Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. Anna managed all this in England, living a longer life than any other Henry wife, but never had to let go of who she was.  It has been a long time since I found a book with so much new information; we just needed to wait for Darsie to deliver such brilliance. History has relegated Anna to a role of being the ugly foreign wife Cromwell brought to England. A woman so repulsive Henry became impotent (though, come on, none of us ever believed that was her fault). A woman married for an alliance not wanted or needed, and disposed of for a pretty teenager. Anna was beautiful, educated, kind, clever and resourceful. Thank you for this wonderful book!

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII’ by Gareth Russell

Written with an exciting combination of narrative flair and historical authority, this interpretation of the tragic life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, breaks new ground in our understanding of the very young woman who became queen at a time of unprecedented social and political tension and whose terrible errors in judgment quickly led her to the executioner’s block.

On the morning of July 28, 1540, as King Henry’s VIII’s former confidante Thomas Cromwell was being led to his execution, a teenager named Catherine Howard began her reign as queen of a country simmering with rebellion and terrifying uncertainty. Sixteen months later, the king’s fifth wife would follow her cousin Anne Boleyn to the scaffold, having been convicted of adultery and high treason.

The broad outlines of Catherine’s career might be familiar, but her story up until now has been incomplete. Unlike previous accounts of her life, which portray her as a naïve victim of an ambitious family, this compelling and authoritative biography will shed new light on Catherine Howard’s rise and downfall by reexamining her motives and showing her in her context, a milieu that goes beyond her family and the influential men of the court to include the aristocrats and, most critically, the servants who surrounded her and who, in the end, conspired against her. By illuminating Catherine’s entwined upstairs/downstairs worlds as well as societal tensions beyond the palace walls, the author offers a fascinating portrayal of court life in the sixteenth century and a fresh analysis of the forces beyond Catherine’s control that led to her execution—from diplomatic pressure and international politics to the long-festering resentments against the queen’s household at court.

Including a forgotten text of Catherine’s confession in her own words, color illustrations, family tree, map, and extensive notes, Young and Damned and Fair changes our understanding of one of history’s most famous women while telling the compelling and very human story of complex individuals attempting to survive in a dangerous age.

cover and blurb via amazon

~~

I have to admit that I am no fan of Catherine Howard. By the time that Henry married Catherine, he was fat, demented and most importantly (to me), had turned against my book-husband Thomas Cromwell. So I read little about wife number five. The whole Catherine Howard incident is just one big hot mess, and one of the main indicators of how far Henry had already fallen.

King Henry had spent twenty years on the throne as a golden king, praised by all in word and art, so to cement a legacy, but Henry’s third decade showed signs of decay. By the time that Henry had denied Anne of Cleves because of his erectile issues, it was little Catherine Howard who had accidentally wandered into view, as a teenage attendant to Anne. Anne of Cleves was an educated, travelled woman and Henry was more in need of a child who had no thoughts or opinions and could be manipulated by a man who would make a better grandfather than lover.

The English court expected women to be virgins, perfect and untouched in every way. Yet men roamed freely, unguarded in their desires, as if their meddling had no effect on virginity. Catherine Howard was a simple girl, raised away from family and without anyone really caring for her. Catherine makes the perfect victim to be targeted by an old weirdo.

Russell’s book tells the story about how court life would have been in Catherine’s time; the late 1530’s were an awful time all round, with Henry’s leg increasingly pressing upon his sanity, the country in revolt, and Anne of Cleves getting the blame for Henry’s lack of male…. well… just, ew.

Catherine was a victim of her own lifestyle, one she never chose. Without a decent education or people to confide in, she fell for charms of young men liked a pretty face. A sweet girl told whispers of love is easy prey for older men. By the time Catherine was sent to court to wait on the new Queen Anne, she had already become a victim of her own existence.

Henry, a fat, old man with a desire to feel special and young again, laid eyes on a girl, not a seductress or whore as claimed, but an innocent girl who was whisked away in the glamour of being courted by the most powerful man in the land. Henry had been married to Catherine’s cousin, Anne Boleyn, and yet Catherine had not been shown a caution around the king, and soon was caught up with a man who never loved her, rather loved the idea of her instead.

Catherine, covered in gowns and jewels, played the role of token on the king’s arm, only to fall in love – with someone else. A man who worked in Henry’s chamber, a man known to be a disgusting human being in his own right, was happy to let Catherine’s feelings run away with her, thinking she could have romance in her life while playing concubine to an ailing fat man.

Catherine’s life ended far too soon, scared, alone and never believed in her words and deeds. A young girl who wanted, needed, to be loved, was instead used and abused by everyone, a minor detail in a long story of depravity that was the end of Henry’s reign. It is nice to read about the life and facts of Catherine, instead of whore narratives.

 

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII’ by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger

This book provides a fresh perspective on the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives by embarking on a journey through the manors, castles and palaces in which their lives were played out. This journey traces their steps to the Alhambra in Spain, childhood home of Katherine of Aragon; to the very room at Acton Court where Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII publicly dined; through the cobbled grounds of Hampton Court Palace, which bore witness to both triumph and tragedy for Jane Seymour; into the streets of Düsseldorf in Germany, birthplace of Anne of Cleves; among the ruins and picturesque gardens of St Mary’s Abbey in York where Catherine Howard and Henry VIII rested at the pinnacle of the 1541 progress; and to Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire, where Katherine Parr lived as daughter-in-law of the irascible Sir Thomas Brough.

Each location is described in a fascinating narrative that unearths the queens’ lives in documents and artefacts, as well as providing practical visitor information based on the authors’ first-hand knowledge of each site. Accompanied by an extensive range of images including timelines, maps, photographs and sketches, this book brings us closer than ever to the women behind the legends, providing a personal and illuminating journey in the footsteps of the six wives of Henry VIII.

cover and blurb via amazon

~~

For everything Henry VIII did, all anyone remembers is the fact he married six times. To be fair, he isn’t all that different to many guys – gets to middle-age and freaks out and wants to date younger women, usually blondes. And like most of these scenarios, who the women are doesn’t matter so much, but to those of us who do know these women, they are far more fascinating than the man they married.

Whether or not you know your Annes from your Katherines from your Jane, this book is a different take on the six queens of England. Morris and Grueninger, rather than writing the history of these women, have instead mapped out their lives, detailing the places where they lived their extraordinary lives, a tour of their time as queens.

Katherine no.1 was England’s queen, but she began her life in Spain, and the authors have included this history in the detail of her life, such as the details of the Alcazar in Seville and in the incredible Alcazar in Cordoba, and naturally, the Alhambra. On the other side of her life, Katherine’s time pushed aside as a forgotten wife is even detailed, something I found invaluable.

Anne Boleyn’s life gets a vivid recreation at Hever Castle, before she headed to Flanders and France. Of course, her time in the Tower before execution is all laid out (in fact, there is a whole extra book!). Jane Seymour led a more simple life, but the now well-known Wolf Hall is there, along with Mercer’s Hall and Chester Place in London.

Next came Anne no.2, one of my personal favourites, and what a varied life Anne of Cleves lived. She grew up by the Rhine in Düsseldorf; she and her sister were painted by Holbein himself at Schloss Hambach. Anne travelled through Antwerp, staying at England House, and onto Bruges, Calais, before she passed through Deal and Dover Castles in Kent. Anne lived in many beautiful places before being given The King’s Manor, a 100-room palace in Dartford. Oh, to see what Anne of Cleves saw in her time!

Katherine no.2, little Katherine Howard, started her life at Norfolk House in London and Horsham, where many of her problems began. Katherine’s young eyes take readers to Oatlands Palace, Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, north into York and more before she ended her days in the Tower. Katherine no.3, the intelligent Katherine Parr, had been married and widowed twice before the king all-but forced her into marriage. She started life at Rye House in Hertfordshire, before moving between castles in Lincolnshire, Cumbia and North Yorkshire. As queen, Katherine lived in Woking Place in Surrey, including when she ruled as regent in Henry’s absence while fighting in France. The now-mythical Nonsuch Palace in Surrey also makes an entry.

I can’t tell you how many places are meticulously detailed in this book. The level of  information and attention is unquestionable in this beautiful book and there is absolutely no book which can give readers insight such as this one. I cannot thank the authors enough for this book, I originally got a copy at the library but went and ordered a copy for myself straight away.