Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex

Born: c. 1485

Wandsworth, London, England

Died: July 28, 1540

Tower Hamlets, London, England (Age c. 55)

Cromwell in History

Thomas Cromwell is one of several men who thrived during the Tudor era based strictly upon hard work and ambition, as opposed to noble birth, a sure-fire way of gaining influence within the government. Being the son of an abusive, trouble-making drunk did not help Cromwell's chances of ascending to any position of power and no one could have possibly imagined that he would one day be the highest man in land excepting the king. Luckily, one thing Cromwell did inherit from his drunkard father, Walter, was his business savvy (Walter had accumulated a modest fortune through his work as a blacksmith, cloth merchant and brewer, amongst other trades). More importantly, Walter's violent nature provided the younger Cromwell with an excellent reason to leave home and explore continental Europe. In 1503, Cromwell fought for the French army in Italy and, afterward, attached himself to a Florentine merchant banker name Francesco Frescobaldi, who undoubtedly had an influence on young Thomas when it came to financial issues. While Cromwell was still on the continent he honed his skills in business and trade by spending time in various cities in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands before returning to England at some various point to begin a family. After returning to his native land, Cromwell continued to establish himself as an up and coming entrepreneur and his skills ultimately spread into the closely related field of law and was even used as a papal envoy at one point to convince Leo X to provide indulgences for his local community. Before he had reached his thirtieth birthday, Thomas Cromwell was shaping up to be the political colossus he turn into during the final ten years of his life.

Cromwell's big break, so to say, came in the mid-1520s when he aided Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (the top man in Henry VIII's government, in addition to being a cardinal and Archbishop of York) on a number of property disputes. Wolsey was in the process of building a grammar school in his native Ipswich and, more significantly, Cardinal College at Oxford and was looking to suppress a number of monastaries so that he may liquidate their assets and pay construction costs. It was Cromwell who aided him in accomplishing his tasks by making use of his bargaining skills, gaining the cardinal's eternal trust and gratitude. By 1526, Cromwell was a member of Wolsey's council and by 1529, he was the cardinal's top adviser. For this reason, it is no surprise that when Wolsey fell from power (primarily because he could not attain an annulment for the king's marriage to Queen Catherine), Cromwell became extremely nervous. Luckily, Cromwell was able to, once again, make use of his political skills to make powerful allies amongst Wolsey's enemies, while maintaining his loyalty to the cardinal himself. Therefore, Cromwell was able to survive when the cardinal's enemies persisted in ruining him for good and he was arrested for treason, dieing on the way to his trial (1530). Cromwell was now a member of the king's council and played a huge role in the divorce proceedings between the king and queen, showing himself to be an avid reformist.

By 1532, Cromwell, with the help of fellow reformist and new Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, was able to pass statutes through Parliament that allowed England to brake off from papal authority and establish a church of her own. This allowed Henry VIII to "officially" annul his marriage to Catherine (based on the fact that she had once been married to late elder brother Arthur) and marry Anne Boleyn, the woman he had been lusting over for some years. Henry and Anne (who was already pregnant) were married in secret in early 1533. Cromwell was well-rewarded for his services and was given the job of secretary and chief minister of the king. The new secretary's next task was to assert Henry's new authority over the people of England. To assert the king's power, the Act of Succession was passed stating that the king was supreme head of the church of England (the pope was to have no influence at all) and children he was to have with Anne were the rightful heirs to the throne (disinheriting Princess Mary, his one surviving child with Catherine). It was Cromwell's task to get everyone, clergy; nobility; and commons alike, to submit to the Succession Act in writing. Most people signed the act willingly (whether they agreed with it or not), but when there proved to be a number of hold outs, Cromwell was forced to pass further laws through Parliament, making it a treasonable offense (and therefore punishable by death) to deny that the king was supreme head of the church; that his children through Anne were the rightful heirs; and to say anything derogatory about the king whatsoever. It was this law that caused the execution of both John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, both of whom refused to sign the Succession Act (1535).

With powerful conservatives such as Fisher and More out of the way, and with many of Cromwell's reformist allies, on the council and within Parliament, Cromwell was, by far, the most powerful man within England's government below the king. It is at this point that he was ordered to suppress the monastaries, passing an act in Parliament forcing all of the lesser religious houses to submit and relinquish their incomes. The money was then to be deposited into the royal exchequer. This move was looked down upon by Queen Anne, who felt that the money should go to charitable use. With the queen against him and his own political career on the line, Cromwell was forced to look for ways to bring down his new enemy. Anne was already vulnerable considering the fact that she had produced only a daughter and had two miscarriages, so Cromwell put the final nail in her coffin by having her brought up on charges of adultery with five different men (including her own brother). All of the men, and Anne herself, were executed despite the fact that the accusations were, quite obviously, without merit. As a result of the queen's downfall, her father, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, was forced to resign his post as privy seal, allowing Cromwell to succeed to it. Despite Cromwell's political victory, he was now forced to deal with a rising in England's north (historically known as the Pilgrimage of Grace), caused by the suppression of the monastaries. Both Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer were named as some of the evil councilors that the people wanted to see removed from the king's presence and they had every to be afraid considering the rebels numbered in the tens of thousands. Luckily, the rebellion was quickly put down with the help of the Duke of Norfolk, who provided false promises to the rebels. All of the leaders and many other men, women and children alike were put to death. Although Norfolk would save Cromwell and his fellow reformists in this case, it would soon become clear that the two men were far from friends.

During the following years, tensions between the rival conservative and reformist factions continued to cause trouble within the government. Henry VIII, though in favor of reform when it favored him in the divorce proceedings, was actually quite conservative in his religious beliefs and hated radical reformers such as Martin Luther. Therefore, with both Anne and Catherine dead (the latter dieing just months before Anne), the king tended to side more with conservatives such as Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, limiting Cromwell's power. In 1538, the Six Articles were passed, supporting such traditional religious ideas such as celibacy amongst the clergy and the receiving of communion. Meanwhile, Cromwell was attempting to reform the church by allowing clergy to marry and translating the Bible into English so that common people could read it and become less dependent on the teachings of local clerics. Henry VIII still seems to have regarded Cromwell with a great amount of respect, creating him a Knight of the Garter and upgrading him in the nobility to Earl of Essex (1539). Cromwell's downfall began when he convinced the king to take Anne of Cleves as his fourth wife in order to order to cement an alliance with Anne's brother, Duke  Wilhelm. Unfortunately, the king was physically repulsed by Anne and blamed Cromwell. This is exactly the ammunition Cromwell's conservative enemies needed to take him down and, while the new earl was in this weakened state within the king's good graces, the conservatives laid charges of heresy and treason on him (all of which were trumped up).

Henry VIII was forced to make a difficult decision pertaining to his minister. It is true that Cromwell had served him loyally and effectively in the past, but the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, combined with the fact that Cromwell's intense reformist beliefs created far too much tension within the council, sealed his fate. Cromwell was convicted of treason and beheaded in July 1540. His execution was particularly gruesome being that the executioner was drunk, and it took a number of strokes before his head was severed. Like his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell was able to ascend to the highest position in government, only to fall just as rapidly as he had risen. Being forced to put in many unpopular policies into effect was bound to make Cromwell hated by the lords and commons alike, but one must remember that he was only acting on the king's orders. Ironically, it would be the Cromwell family that would have the last laugh as Thomas's great-nephew, Oliver Cromwell, would ultimately depose King Charles I and set up a protectorate, permanently limiting the power of the monarch in favor of a more democratic way of government.

Cromwell in Shakespeare

Appears in: Henry VIII

Thomas Cromwell is a fairly minor character within Henry VIII. He is a loyal servant to both the king and Cardinal Wolsey and considers the latter to be a mentor of sorts, being present at his downfall. Cromwell is looked at with scorn by conservatives such as Bishop Gardiner and, by the end of the play, his influence with the king is rising, as he has been made secretary and master of the rolls and the royal jewels. Going against history, Shakespeare has Cromwell appear at Cranmer's trial against charges of heresy. In reality, Cranmer was charged in 1543, three years after Cromwell's execution. 


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