The Tudor Roses

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Renowned Historical Blogger Sarah Reveals Her Favourite Tudor Court Personality


Master Thomas Cromwell


My answer to the question “who is your favourite Tudor court personality?” is quite an odd one compared to many other lovers of this era, for it is Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.


He is often thought of as nothing more than the king's brutal henchman, but Thomas Cromwell was much, much more than that. He was a skilled politician, a capable servant to the king, shrewd yet generous to the poor, clever and practical, even if he wasn't of noble blood. Such a great man was likely to rise in the favour of England's renaissance prince, but just as likely to soon fall at the hands of his enemies. Today I want to explore the life of Master Cromwell, rather than just the legend.


Thomas Cromwell was born around 1485. His father was Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith and brewer from Putney, South East London. His early life is rather mysterious, though of course we have the legend that he was beaten by his drunken sot of a father. Some records survive that demonstrate Walter Cromwell was less than honest when it came to his trade, and was fined more than once for selling watered down beer. Whatever happened to Thomas, he left home as soon as he was able, and as a young man travelled all around Europe. He served as a soldier in the French army and worked as a banker and clerk, learning many valuable political skills and becoming fluent in several languages.


Thomas eventually returned to England and married Elizabeth Wykes, the widowed daughter of Henry Wykes. Thomas' marriage was happy and he had two daughters and a son with Elizabeth, though sadly his daughters died during childhood. His son, Gregory, survived to adulthood and father and son were close. In 1516 Thomas became a member of Cardinal Wolsey's household. He served his new master well and was clever and hardworking, and quickly gaining his trust. Thomas became Wolsey's legal secretary and assisted him in dissolving some of the smaller, underperforming monasteries in England. In 1523 Thomas skills began to be recognised more widely as he was elected to the House of Commons. He excelled in both jobs and held both offices until Wolsey fell from favour in 1530.


Thomas did not suffer following Wolsey's fall. Instead, he entered royal service himself in 1531, becoming a member of King Henry VIII's privy council. The king was impressed by his intelligence and hardworking manner, and Thomas quickly rose in royal favour. He was given many grants in return for his services, becoming Master of the Jewel House and Master of the Court of Wards in 1532, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1533 and Master Secretary and Master of the Rolls in 1534. Brains, rather than bloodline, were becoming much more important in the distribution of office.


Thomas was part of the Reformation Parliament, which was successful in gaining Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533. Thomas was supportive of the royal supremacy and the creation of King Henry as the head of the Church of England, and with that was also supportive of Anne Boleyn becoming queen. Thomas was a strong believer in the reformed faith that was rapidly spreading through Europe in his lifetime. In 1532, the King became the Head of the Church in England with several bills were passing through parliament in 1533- appeals to Rome were denied, Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury, Catherine's marriage to the king was pronounced null and void and Anne's marriage to the king pronounced good and valid. Thomas Cromwell also updated the treason laws this year, making it illegal to deny the king's titles, speak against the king or any member of the royal family, or refer to the king as a heretic, as some were doing. Thomas also in drawing up a new Act of Succession following the birth of Princess Elizabeth to the new queen, barring Mary from inheriting the throne and the oath required to be sworn by all the king’s subjects acknowledging both this fact and the status of Henry VIII as Head of the Church of England. Those that refused to swear were executed for treason; both Cardinal John Fisher and Sir Thomas More ended their lives on the scaffold for refusing to swear.


Cardinal Fisher                                     Sir Thomas More


In 1535 Thomas Cromwell was created Vicar General and conducted a survey of all the religious houses in England. On completion of this survey, a bill passed Parliament in early March 1536 for the suppression of the smaller monasteries. It was also in 1536 that something happened that would tarnish Cromwell’s reputation for many centuries.


Queen Anne Boleyn was falling from favour. She had many enemies, was sharp, loathed by the supporters of Catherine of Aragon and had not had the son the king wanted. It is not known for certain how the downfall of Queen Anne was engineered, or who thought up the charges; even with a lack of evidence Cromwell often becomes the scapegoat, no doubt because of his involvement in the proceedings. Mark Smeaton, the queen's musician, was the first person to be arrested and questioned. He was invited to Thomas Cromwell's house, unaware of what was about to happen to him. Smeaton soon confessed to adultery with the queen. There are several stories telling how the confession came about; conflicting sources claim Mark was tortured with a knotted rope in his eye, that he was racked, or submitted to psychological torture. Mark named Francis Weston, William Brereton, Henry Norris and the queen's brother George Boleyn in his confession as lovers of Queen Anne. All were arrested and found guilty, although none but Mark confessed. They were all sentenced to death, with the men being beheaded on May 17th at Tower Hill and Anne on May 19th 1536 on Tower Green. A few days before the queen's execution Anne and Henry's marriage was declared null and void and Princess Elizabeth was bastardised. Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, a few days later.


Thomas certainly gained from the fall of the queen, becoming Lord Privy Seal in place of her father a few days later and Baron Cromwell of Oakham, but does this mean he planned the whole thing? Debate rages about this, and has done for years. Historian Geoffrey Elton, in 1948, put forward the argument that Henry VIII was not interested in the day-to-day running of government, and that Cromwell and parliament were the driving force behind the changes in England at this time. Joel Hurtsfield argued vehemently against this theory, instead theorising that there was a ‘Tudor despotism’ and that government ministers did what Henry told them, no questions asked. This argument is not exclusive to these two men; indeed this is debated hotly in classrooms, lecture halls, books and internet fora today. My stance is that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of these extreme views, though I don’t think Henry was as easily influenced by those around him as some might think. He was a powerful man, and does not seem the type to shy away from his power.


In late 1536 rebellion broke out in England, originating in the north and quickly spreading. Headed by a lawyer named Robert Aske, those involved in the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ blamed Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer for the destruction of the religious houses and wanted them removed from office; they also wanted their religious houses to be reinstated and the old religion restored. Cromwell was regarded a heretic by those of the Catholic faith, as he supported the king as the head of the Church of England and was known to support the religious doctrine of Luther and Zwingli, believing in justification by faith alone and denying transubstantiation. Likewise, Archbishop Cranmer was supportive of Calvin and went on to believe in the doctrine of predestination. This uprising was unsuccessful in displacing Cromwell, and by February 1537 had been crushed by the Duke of Norfolk. Those that thought Cromwell would fall from favour as a result could not have been more wrong; he was raised to a Knight of the Order of the Garter and his son, Gregory, married Elizabeth Seymour, the queen’s sister. Sadly, the triumph was short lived as Queen Jane died following the birth of Prince Edward in October 1537.


Thomas' work with religious reform continued throughout 1538. He spoke out against and removed what he called idolatry from churches, which included the removal of statues and shrines. The Bible, written in English, was placed in every church for anyone to read. Corrupt or not, religious houses continued to close, their assets transferring to the king. King Henry, however, was becoming uncomfortable with the extent of his reforms. In May 1539, the Six Articles passed in Parliament, reaffirming the Mass, the position and celibacy of priests and the transubstantiation of the sacrament.


A draft of the Six Articles


The reason often cited for the downfall of Thomas Cromwell is the disastrous match between the king and the German princess Anne of Cleves. The king was not impressed with his new bride, and was seemingly very unhappy when they married in January 1540 as had been arranged. Despite this, Cromwell remained in favour with Henry, becoming the Earl of Essex that April.


Cromwell was not a popular man at court and had not been for a long time, due to his low birth, his extraordinary abilities and his close relationship with the king. When the niece of the Duke of Norfolk, Katherine Howard, caught the king’s eye, a chance to bring him down arose. Accusations of both treason and heresy were aimed at Thomas until the nobility finally succeeded in turning the king against him and he was arrested during a council meeting on June 10th, 1540. Even from his cell in the Tower he remained faithful and worked for the king’s benefit, supporting and successfully securing his annulment from Queen Anne. Thomas also wrote to the king in a personal capacity, pleading for mercy.


Cromwell never went to trial. He was convicted by Act of Attainder for high treason and heresy and sentenced to death, never having a chance to defend himself or an attempt to clear his name. His sentence was commuted to beheading, but even that went horribly wrong. Thomas’ execution was botched, though it was not the work of a drunken executioner, or an inexperienced teenager, as shown on TV adaptations of the beheading; just plain human error. One contemporary source tells us Thomas "patiently bore the stroke of a ragged and butcherly miser", which sounds just awful. After his ordeal, which took place on July 28th 1540 as Henry was marrying Katherine Howard, Thomas Cromwell was laid to rest in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. After a few months, Henry regretted the execution of Thomas Cromwell, mourning the loss of his "most trusted advisor".



So what of Cromwell? The Tudor 'henchman', as some now refer to him? Personally, I find a lot to admire in master Cromwell. He was skilled, hardworking, clever and loyal. He rose according to his abilities, rather than any birthright- something that I cannot help but admire. He wasn't a bad man, but a man who worked his way in and around the Tudor court to the best of his ability.



Thank you to Sarah for this great guest post on The Rose Blog and we hope you all enjoy reading it and find it as interesting as we did - a true insight into Cromwell and his life. We feel extremely honoured to have Sarah's amazing blog skills gracing our page. (The Tudor Roses)


Sarah is currently studying for a Bachelor of History with Latin degree at an English university and regularly blogs at her site



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