Act 1, Scene 1 Setting: The Smith's Shop, Putney
Hodge and two other smiths, all men of old Cromwell, prepare to begin their work day and talk about the constant studying, day and night, of young Thomas Cromwell.
Act 1, Scene 2 Setting: The Smith's Shop, Putney
Young Cromwell is speaking of his love for books and education when he is distracted by the hammering of the smiths outside. Hodge and the others enter and inform Cromwell that they have no choice but to work or his father will not make any money. When old Cromwell enters, he reprimands his son for telling his men not to work simply so he can concentrate on studying. Father and son then continue arguing about the fact that young Cromwell should be out doing better things in the world, and the young man claims he will one day build a house on this very site, which his father is skeptical of. When young Cromwell is left alone, he delivers a soliloquy lamenting his humble birth but is confident that he can ascend to a place of greatness just as Cardinal Wolsey (the most powerful man in England, who was born a butcher's son) has done. Old Cromwell re-enters with Master Bowser, a merchant, who has come to pick up a petition young Cromwell has drawn up for him. Bowser proceeds to offer young Cromwell a job as the new secretary at Antwerp, which he gladly accepts and departs home to begin his new life.
Act 1, Scene 3 Setting: Frescobald's House, London
Bagot, a broker, stands before the house of Frescobald, a Florentine merchant, and means to turn him against Banister, a fellow merchant who is one thousand pounds indebted to Frescobald and who Bagot has already had arrested. When Frescobald enters, Bagot immediately attempts to speak poorly of Banister, but the Florentine knows that Banister
is in virtual poverty. Bagot then proceeds to spread vicious rumors to Banister's character to the point that, when Banister and his wife are led in by the officers, Frescobald reprimands Banister for his disreputable behavior. However, Banister and his wife are able to convince Frescobald that Bagot is lying for his own benefit and that they are truly poor and unable to pay back the money they owe him. At this, Frescobald relents and says they shall pay him the money whenever they can and also invites them to dinner. Once they depart, Bagot reveals that he will buy off all of Banister's debts, to make it look like he is being kind, and then do all he can to ruin him.
Act 2 Chorus
The scene switches to Antwerp where Cromwell is ledger for the English merchants and to where Banister and his family have fled (followed by Bagot) after they learned that Bagot had bought off their debts.
Act 2, Scene 1 Setting: Antwerp
Cromwell talks of what he has accomplished so far before sending a post out to deliver money to certain Englishmen traveling on the continent. Mistress Banister then enters and informs Cromwell of the situation between Bagot and her husband, begging him to intervene in the conflict. Cromwell promises to speak with Bagot and do all he can to rescue Banister from his misery.
Act 2, Scene 2 Setting: Antwerp
Bagot is delivering yet another evil soliloquy, where he talks of his plans to destroy Banister as well as other greedy enterprises he is engaged in (such as a plot to make money from Antwerp's governor over some jewels), when Cromwell, whom Bagot has sent certain bills to receive, enters and is immediately bombarded by Bagot with propaganda against Banister. Cromwell, however, does not agree with Bagot's policies and reprimands him for his greed and deceitfulness. Bagot attempts to explain himself by stating that one must do whatever one can to get by in the financial industry, a statement that Cromwell does not take kindly to and vows to leave Antwerp and travel into Italy. Cromwell tells Bagot to mend his ways one last time before the latter departs, and out of the blue, Hodge, old Cromwell's man, enters. After delivering a soliloquy of his sea-sickness on the voyage over, Hodge gives Cromwell several items from various people back home. Cromwell informs Hodge that he is soon to head out to Italy and asks if he would like to join him. Hodge gladly accepts the offer and the two men set off to supper.
Act 2, Scene 3 Setting: Antwerp
The governor of Antwerp and Bagot discuss Cromwell's departure from Antwerp and financial matters involving the jewels the governor has been holding for Bagot. Bagot continues to slander Banister, and attempts to have him further punished, as the governor defends him as a man who has simply fallen on bad times due to some unfortunate events. At this point, Bowser enters and informs all present that the king's coffers have been robbed by a man who sold them for three hundred pounds. The thief himself has already been hanged, but it is believed that the man who he sold the jewels to, Bagot, is in Antwerp. Bagot is, of course, present at the time, and the governor immediately informs Bowser that the man he is looking for stands before him. Bowser has Bagot arrested and says that his forfeited goods, which are substantial, were set to be given to the Antwerp merchants who, in turn, gave them to a fallen brother of theirs, Banister. Since Banister is also present, Bowser has just completed his task in Antwerp, and all present depart to supper as Banister and his wife take joy in this advantageous twist of fate.
Act 3, Scene 1 Setting: The Principle Bridge, Florence
Hodge complains to Cromwell about the fact that they have been robbed by a group of Italian thieves known as the "bandetti." Cromwell, however, knows that it is customary for foreigners within Florence to post their grievances on the bridge, and the locals will provide them with whatever relief they can. No sooner have they posted the bills at the bridge than Frescobald arrives and offers them money so they may purchase clothes, food and horses. Frescobald also offers them to stay at his house, but Cromwell politely declines, claiming that he has to move on to Bologna to rescue a fellow Englishman, the Earl of Bedford, who is captive there and who's life is in danger. After hearing Frescobald's kind farewell, the men set off to Bologna.
Act 3, Scene 2 Setting: A hotel, Bologna
The Earl of Bedford is being held captive at a hotel in Bologna, waiting to be delivered over to the French. Bedford says he will not go without a fight, even if he knows that he shall die in the process. Cromwell and Hodge arrive, disguised as Neapolitans, dismiss the hotel's host and reveal themselves to the earl as fellow Englishmen. They then come up with the plan that Bedford and Hodge shall switch clothing so that the earl and Cromwell may escape safely to Mantua and the Bolognians are left with a worthless peasant as their prisoner. Cromwell and Bedford are given safe passage to Mantua, and Hodge remains behind dressed as the earl. Soon after, a messenger from Mantua arrives and informs the governor of Bologna that the earl is safely within Mantua and that, if they do not deliver over the peasant that was left in his place, there will be problems between their two countries. The governor reluctantly hands over his lower-class prisoner and, to end the scene, the chorus asks us to imagine that Bedford departed to France, and Cromwell, after traveling to Spain and a number of other places, has arrived back in England and is about to become a significant figure in English politics.
Act 3, Scene 3 Setting: Sir Christopher Hales' House, London
Sir Christopher Hales, who now has Cromwell as his man, prepares to receive the lords at his house for a banquet. Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and Stephen Gardiner arrive and the men set down to dinner and talk of certain matters. At this point, Wolsey notices Cromwell, and Hales introduces the two men and informs the cardinal that Cromwell has done much traveling around the continent. The cardinal is immediately impressed by Cromwell and offers to take him into his own service as his right hand man, an offer that Cromwell gladly accepts and which Hales fully agrees to.
Act 4, Chorus
The chorus tells the readers that Wolsey has died, and Gardiner has been made Bishop of Winchester. Cromwell is now ready to reach the zenith of his power, but he will fall just as quickly as he rose.
Act 4, Scene 1 Setting: A Public Walk, London
The lords discuss the death of Wolsey and how it was his own ambition that brought him down in the end. Everyone, however, has fairly positive words to say about Cromwell, and several of the lords go off to inform the king of his abilities. The Duke of Suffolk returns and knights Cromwell in the king's name; the Duke of Norfolk informs him he has been appointed the positions of master of the jewel house, chief secretary to the king and a member of the privy council; and Bedford announces that he has been made keeper of the privy seal and master of the roles. Cromwell humbly accepts his new titles and positions and departs with the lords. Gardiner stays behind and reveals that he will make it his duty to bring down Cromwell and see him executed.
Act 4, Scene 2 Setting: Cromwell's House, London
Friscobald, who is now a beggar on the streets of London (having lost all his treasure at sea), laments his fallen state and how no one will pay back any of the money they owe him, before passing out. A man named Seely enters with his wife Joan, and they speak of how they used to be friends of Cromwell before he became the powerful man he is. Their hope is that he has not changed and will show the same kindness to them that they once showed to him. When Cromwell and the lords arrive, Cromwell recognizes his old friends and remembers he owes them money. Not only does he offer to pay back the money (four pounds), but says he will give them an annual stipend of the same amount, before inviting Seely to supper. Gardiner then arrives and talks negatively about Cromwell to Norfolk, who shares the bishop's hatred but knows that Cromwell is in high favor with the king. Cromwell and Gardiner then clash over Cromwell's recent dissolution of the abbeys, which Cromwell says were corrupt and lazy and whom Gardiner says were sanctuaries for the poor. The men are separated by Norfolk, and Cromwell's father enters and is warmly received by his son and asked to join him. After the lords depart, Frescobald stays behind and is met by Banister and his wife, who greet him kindly and offer to take care of him in his impoverished state by paying him back the thousand pounds he is owed by them. The three then set off towards Cromwell's house, who has stated he would like to speak with Frescobald.
Act 4, Scene 3 Setting: A London Street
Two merchants discuss an argument between Cromwell and Gardiner in which the bishop said he would sit on Cromwell's skirt, causing Cromwell and his men to wear long skirts for him to "have more room" to sit on.
Act 4, Scene 4 Setting: Cromwell's House, London
Cromwell, his father, and several of the lords meet at Cromwell's house with Frescobald. The Florentine explains how he is now destitute and has been forced to come to England, a land he loves greatly, to beg. Cromwell, in turn, reminds him that he, Frescobald, once gave money to him in Florence when he had nothing. Therefore, Cromwell not only gives the Florentine back the money that he had once given to him, but also a large amount of cash on top, before all the men set off to dinner.
Act 4, Scene 5 Setting: Gardiner's House, London
Gardiner continues to scheme to take down Cromwell and calls in two witnesses that he previously had saved from being executed. The bishop swears to the men that Cromwell made a threat to stab the king to death and wishes them to testify against him in recompense for his past favors towards them, which they agree to. At this point, the lords (Suffolk, Norfolk and Bedford) enter, and Gardiner proceeds to have the witnesses explain Cromwell's supposed plot to murder the king to them. Suffolk and Norfolk seem to believe this, but Bedford, whom Cromwell has helped in the past, refuses to and departs. The lords and the bishop then devise a plan to have Cromwell executed without trial (since they know the king will relent if Cromwell speaks up for himself) under the new law (that Cromwell himself enacted) which states that any man convicted of high treason will automatically be executed.
Act 5, Scene 1 Setting: A London Street
Bedford vows to save Cromwell from his enemies but is not able to speak with the man he would like to save, who is in a rush to get to the king for an unknown matter. When Cromwell passes by again, he informs the earl that he must receive the privy seal from the dying Marquess of Dorset. Bedford is summoned by the bishop and lords and quickly writes a letter to Cromwell, warning him of the treachery against him, before departing.
Act 5, Scene 2 Setting: A London Street
Cromwell is preparing to sail to Lambeth, where he has been summoned, and receives the letter from Bedford, which he says he shall read.
Act 5, Scene 3 Setting: Lambeth
Bishop Gardiner and the lords await Cromwell's arrival at Lambeth, and when he does arrive, they arrest him of high treason. Despite Cromwell's protests of innocence, he is taken off to the tower to await trial as Bedford laments his fall.
Act 5, Scene 4 Setting: A London Street
Two citizens discuss Cromwell's arrest and how they have benefited from him and will now be completely ruined.
Act 5, Scene 5 Setting: The Tower
Cromwell laments his fall from grace as he awaits his fate in the tower. The lords and Gardiner arrive and inform Cromwell that the king, being so sure of his guilt, does not wish to see him. Cromwell then asks Gardiner if he will deliver a letter to the king asking for forgiveness, which the bishop refuses, but Sir Ralph Sadler, one of Cromwell's men, willingly does. Gardiner, however, tells Cromwell that he shall be executed immediately, and after an emotional farewell with his son and Bedford, Cromwell is led off to execution. The officers re-enter with Cromwell's head just as Sadler returns with news that the king is willing to pardon him for any offenses. Knowing that they have scored a joyless victory, the lords, and even Gardiner, regret their actions and greatly lament Cromwell's death. Norfolk ends the play by saying they shall now inform the king of his minister's death and know that he will be saddened by the news.