Thomas Cromwell - Historical ProfileThis is a featured page

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The History
1485 - 1540 (aged 55)
The King's "Faithful Servant"
his Most Notorious Minister

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  • Thomas' father was a known drunkard of vicious disposition. At the age of 18 in 1503, Thomas fled to Italy. There he served as a soldier in the French army at the battle of Garigliano. He escaped from the battlefield to Florence, where he was befriended by the banker Frescobaldi, a debt which he appears to have repaid with superabundant interest later on.

  • He is next heard of at Antwerp as a trader, and about 1510 he was induced to accompany a man from Boston (Lincolnshire) to Rome, in quest of some papal indulgences for a Boston guild. In 1512 there is some slight evidence that he was at Middelburg in the Netherlands. He was also in London, engaged in business as a merchant and solicitor. His marriage must have taken place about the same time.

  • Nothing more is heard of him for about eight years until 1520, when it is known that he was advising Wolsey on legal matters. From that date he appears in the historical record frequently. He is recorded not only as a protege of the Cardinal's, but as an advisor to noblemen and others when they were in difficulty, especially of a financial nature. Cromwell made large sums as a moneylender. By 1523, he was a Member of Parliament.
  • Wolsey had failed to obtain for the King what he most desired (to rid himself of his first wife), but Cromwell managed to do it. First he subdued the church in England, initially by encouraging anti-clerical feeling, then by threats of punishment for its obedience to Rome.

  • Having done that, he associated Parliament with the measures which first made it illegal to pay taxes to Rome (a popular move), then forbade appeals from English church courts to the Pope. He declared Henry supreme head of the church in England, and passed an Act which made it treason to deny the royal supremacy. In little more than three years, Cromwell destroyed the work of centuries--even before he turned his attention to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the seizure of their lands. This was to become the greatest single act of privatisation in the history of Britain's governance.
  • In the rough world of Tudor politics, friendships were lost in the struggle for prestige and survival, and Cromwell betrayed his former patron Anne Boleyn. He switched his political allegiance to Jane Seymour and her family; however, they never warmed to him because they didn't trust him or his influence over the king.

  • His policies provoked the most dangerous rebellion of the century, the Pilgrimage of Grace, but Cromwell skillfully weathered the storm and was able to survive politically.

  • Meanwhile, Cromwell continued to accumulate offices and great wealth with amazing speed. Nothing was done, nothing granted, without gifts of gold and silver to the minister. His income in 1537 was over £12,000, which is equivalent to more than £4.5m today. He was certainly corrupt, as were most courtiers of Henry VIII. Cromwell was just more successfully rapacious than others.
Thomas Cromwell

Cromwell was a self-made man.

He was also unusual among Henry's ministers--even perhaps unique--in being competent. Indeed, no one in the 16th century did more than Cromwell
to shape the course of English history.

Thomas Cromwell's Accomplishments:

1 - Implemented the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the establishment of the royal supremacy.

2 - Founded the Ministries of Augmentations and First Fruits to handle income from the Dissolution.

3 - Founded the Courts of Wards and Surveyors, which allowed more efficient taxation and leasing.

4 - Integrated the kingdom politically by extending sovereign authority into northern England, Wales and Ireland (actions which angered the great feudal lords).

5 - Used the power of that relatively new invention, the printing press, thus spearheading the first propaganda campaign in English history.

"In April 1536 Cromwell told the imperial ambassador [Ambassador Chapuys] that 'it was only now that he had known the frailty of human affairs especially those of court... and if fate fell upon him as upon his predecessors [Cardinal Thomas Wolsey] he would arm himself with patience, and leave the rest to God' Yet, all the while he struggled to conceal a smile.

Even as he spoke, far from submitting to providence, he was plotting to strike before he was himself struck down, for Queen Anne [Boleyn], so he told Chapuys. 'would like to see his head cut off'. Through speed and guile Cromwell might survive the attacks of his rivals, but he could not last long if he ever angered the king. Yet Cromwell insistently led the king towards reform in religion more radical than the king could countenance, aware that he might revert, and that when he did his minister was likely to be sacrificed."

~Law and Government Under the Tudors:
Essays Presented to Sir Geoffrey Elton
By Claire Cross, David Loades

" is important to understand how his [Henry's] subjects even his most important subjects, viewed the king. To them he was divinely appointed, his role a partly sacred one even before the royal supremacy; his power over them was huge, and could (and frequently did) extend to imprisonment or death. He was not someone to be pushed around as a cabinet colleague might attempt to lobby a contemporary prime minister. He was someone to be approached with caution and reverence, to whom ideas might be suggested, but with humility and in anxious hope of approval. Cranmer's description of Cromwell, written in surprise and sadness after Cromwell's fall from grace, is a good description of the place of a minister in Henry's government :

'he that was so advanced by your majesty; he whose surety was only by your majesty, he who loved your majesty (as I ever thought) no less than God ; he who studied always to set forward whatsoever was your majesty's will and pleasure ; he that cared for no man's displeasure to serve your majesty.'

Henry's closest advisors, Wolsey and Cromwell, as well as many others, were entirely dependent on the king's favour for their very livelihood, and their chief concern was always to advance the king's will, not to subvert it." ~
Lucy Wooding's Henry VIII (2009)

"There is something almost satanic about the King's chief minister, whose origins and education included soldiering, the law, moneylending, trading and the civil service. While Stephen Gardiner often gibbered with rage and blundered simply through exasperation, Cromwell never seemed to do anything without a
calculated reason. His anger may at times have been real, but more often it was feigned. His ruthlessness was strangely impartial he destroyed, but rarely hated his victims. Possibly this was why he was feared and detested by his contemporaries, for somehow
Thomas Cromwell never seemed to have expressed the proper human emotions. He was far too impervious, he was immune to insults because he never made a pretence at being a gentleman; he was coldly tolerant, if only because he felt no passion. Outwardly bland and imperturbable, he ruled by the sheer force of his intelligence.

For his own society he remained an enigma, and one baffled critic shook his head and said that for himself he would not be in Cromwell's shoes For all that ever he hath, for the King beknaveth him twice a week, and sometimes knocks him well about the pate, and yet when he hath been well pummelled about the head , the Vicar-General would enter the great chamber shaking off the bush with as merry a countenance as though he
might rule all the roost . Looking more like a pub-keeper than a minister of state, the man harboured a massive pride, and the agility and brilliance of his mind made him more than a match for wily Winchester. When the great oak finally fell, it was almost as though it crashed before the gale of historic necessity rather than to the ineffectual chopping of the Bishop's axe."
~ Lacey Baldwin Smith in A Tudor Tragedy

Thomas Cromwell  -  Historical Profile - The Tudors Wiki

Cardinal Reginald Pole, wrote that Cromwell had been converted into an "emissary of Satan" by the study of Machiavelli's Prince. In the one interview which Pole had with Cromwell, the latter, so Pole wrote ten years later in 1539, recommended him to read a new Italian book on politics, which Pole says he afterwards discovered was Machiavelli's Prince. But this discovery was not made for some years: the Prince was not published until 1532, three years after the conversation; there is evidence that Cromwell was not acquainted with it until 1537 or 1539, and there is nothing in the Prince bearing on the precise point under discussion by Pole and Cromwell.

On the other hand, the point is discussed in Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano which had just been published in 1528, and of which Cromwell promised to lend Bonner a copy in 1530. The Cortegiano is the antithesis of the Prince; and there is little doubt that Pole's account is the offspring of an imagination heated by his own perusal of the Prince in 1538, and by Cromwell's ruin of the Pole family at the same time; until then he had failed to see in Cromwell the Machiavellian "emissary of Satan."
Cromwell's handwriting
Thomas Cromwell  - Historical Profile - The Tudors Wiki
'God is God and knoweth both [my faithfulness] towards your Majesty and your realm … how dear your person was, is, and ever hath [been] …therefore, most gracious Prince, I humbly submit me to your [Grace] and ask of God mercy for my sins, and of your Highness mercy and pardon for mine offences as to your high wisdom shall seem most convenient. And, Sir, that ever I have deceived you in any of your treasure, surely I have [not], and that God Almighty best knoweth…Sir, upon [my kne]es I most humbly beseech your most gracious Majesty [to be goo]d and gracious lord to my poor son, the good and virtu[ous lady his] wife, and their poor children...'

(Extract from Thomas Cromwell's letter to Henry VIII from the Tower of London, June 1540)

Cromwell wrote two desperate letters from the Tower; the one that survives is in tatters. He assured his monarch that he was a good, loyal servant and a faithful Christian. But Henry, surrounded by Cromwell's enemies and - more significantly - newly infatuated with Norfolk's niece, Katherine Howard, would hear nothing.


"I am A Subject and born to obey laws...The trial of all laws only consisteth in honest and probable witness."
(Merriman, ii. p. 223.)

"This had been no great cause more to reject the one than thother, for ye know by histories of the bible that god may by his revelation dispense with his own Law."
Letter to Fisher. (Merriman, i. p. 376.)

"My prayer is that God give me no longer life than I shall be glad to use mine office in edification, and not in destruction." Letter of March 1538. (Merriman, ii. p. 129.)

"I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all...but hard it is for me or any other meddling as I have done to live under your grace and your laws but we must daily offend." Letter to Henry whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London. (Merriman, ii. p. 266.)

In 1540 he was charged with illegally selling export licenses, as well as granting passports and commissions without royal knowledge.

Most significantly, however, he was charged with heresy - this charge was the bulk of his attainder. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, allied with the Catholic bishops Cromwell had forced from power, engineered this charge. Cromwell, they charged, had encouraged and spread heretical literature, allowed heretics to preach, released them from prison, and allied himself against their enemies.

Significantly, it was reported that in March 1539 Cromwell said that, even if Henry turned from Protestantism, 'yet I would not turn, and if the king did turn, and all his people, I would fight in this field in mine own person, with my sword in my hand against him and all other'. That was treason.

Shortly after his arrest, incriminating letters to Lutherans were found in Cromwell's home, placed there by agents of the duke of Norfolk; they were so inflammatory that the king was outraged. Cromwell's name, Henry swore, would be abolished forever.

Contemporary chronicler Edward Hall records that Cromwell made a speech on the scaffold, professing to die, "in the traditional faith" (Catholicism) and then
"so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged Boocherly miser whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office".

Hall said of Cromwell's downfall:
Many lamented but more rejoiced, and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night, many wishing that that day had been seven year before; and some fearing lest he should escape, although he were imprisoned, could not be merry. Others who knew nothing but truth by him both lamented him and heartily prayed for him. But this is true that of certain of the clergy he was detestably hated, & specially of such as had borne swynge, and by his means was put from it; for in dead he was a man that in all his doings seemed not to favour any kind of Popery, nor could not abide the snoffyng pride of some prelates, which undoubtedly, whatsoever else was the cause of his death, did shorten his life and procured the end that he was brought unto.

July 28, 1540
He went to the block to which he had sent so many, confessing his faults and sins and proclaiming his love for the king. By doing so he safeguarded his son, Gregory, perhaps the only person for whom he felt affection. Though the earldom was lost, Gregory became a baron a few months later.

It is said that Henry VIII intentionally chose an inexperienced executioner: the teenager made three attempts at chopping off Cromwell's head before he succeeded. After execution, Cromwell's head was boiled and then set upon a spike on London Bridge, facing away from the City of London

In March 1541 Marillac, the French ambassador in England wrote in a letter that, characteristically, the king gave way to self-pity, moaning that "upon light pretexts", his councillors "by false accusations ... made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had" - the most faithful perhaps, the most able certainly.

If Marillac (and ambassadors were notorious for endorsing various rumours even those which lacked any evidence) was telling the truth and Henry apparently made such a statement, then it may have be seen as yet another example of Henry’s fickle nature. If however he was being genuine and really did regret removing Cromwell then this can be seen as an unusual occasion where Henry admits he was wrong. However even then he blames others – he distances himself from the action of Cromwell’s downfall as he states that ‘they had brought several accusations against him’ and so he did not precipitate his former minister’s death. Henry of course could do no wrong; the fault was on those around him

Perhaps Henry had also had enough with the paperwork, the hassle of the reformation and the problems with union between Wales and England and wished Cromwell back to help him sort out the problems.
So not exactly regretting his death because Cromwell was a great ally and friend, but because the man took a lot of weight off of Henry’s shoulders. But again such sentiments were not repeated so Henry was not exactly wallowing in regret.
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk was also shrewd enough to create a Lutheran conspiracy; three popular reformers, Robert Barnes, Thomas Garret, and William Jerome, were executed just days after Cromwell. None of the men were allowed an open trial. That would allow the public opportunity for them to dispute the false charges. Instead, they were condemned by Act of Attainder, a parliamentary tool which dispensed with justice in favour of speed.

The executed men were also neighbors of Cromwell, which was their only link to the earl. And they were as innocent as Cromwell of the charges against them - as evidenced by the confusion of contemporary chroniclers. Edward Hall, one of the great chroniclers of Tudor England, could find no real evidence against them although he 'searched to know the truth'.

Non fiction

  • Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchison (2008)
  • Thomas Cromwell: Machiavellian Statecraft and the English Reformation by J. Patrick Coby (2009) Lexington Books
  • Thomas Cromwell: Tudor Minister by B.W. Beckingsale (1978) MacMillan
  • Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation by A.G. Dickens (1959) English Universities Press
  • Policy and Police: the Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell by G.R. Elton (1972) Cambridge University Press
  • Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common wealth by G.R. Elton (1973) Cambridge University Press
  • In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Court of Henry VIII by Derek Wilson (2001) Hutchinson
  • The Cardinal and the Secretary: Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell by Neville Williams (1975) Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Crown and Cross: a Biography of Thomas Cromwell by Theodore Maynard (1950) McGraw-Hill


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Henry had used Barnes as an intermediary with Lutheran Germany, and he was involved in the marriage negotiations between Henry and Anne of Cleves. In 1540 Cromwell believed that the king was ready to hear the Gospels preached, and so he lined up Robert Barnes, Thomas Garret, curate of All Saints’ Church in Honey Lane and William Jerome, vicar of Stepney and they were asked to preach at the Lent service at Paul’s Cross. Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester preached a sermon antagonistic to the new teachings and he was followed by Barnes. Unfortunately Barnes insulted Gardiner in his sermon and Gardiner took advantage by complaining to Henry. Barnes, Garret and Jerome were commanded to read a prepared retraction at a service the following Sunday. Barnes read out the statement and then apologised to the bishop of Winchester, asking for his forgiveness. He then preached powerfully the doctrine of salvation by grace, the very doctrine for which he was persecuted by Gardiner. Garret and Jerome preached similarly and Henry had them taken to the Tower of London.
The Catholic party was on the rise. Anne of Cleves was divorced and Thomas Cromwell fell with her. Cromwell was executed and from that moment the three evangelists were doomed. They had unfortunately been prominent at a time when power was changing and they paid the price. On the 30th July they were taken to Smithfield and with no trial, no hearing, they were burned at the stake. Henry was keen to show that he favoured neither the Catholic or Protestant side and so he burned three Catholics at the same time. One Catholic and one Protestant were tied to a wooden hurdle and dragged to Smithfield. Not having any opportunity to be heard each evangelist took the opportunity to speak to the crowds. In the middle of Barnes’ speech he said, ‘Have ye any articles against me for the which I am condemned?’ The sheriff answered: ‘No.’
After they had each spoken they shook hands, embraced one another and were tied at the same stake. At the same hour and the same place the three Catholics were hanged. [source: 'The Reformation in England' by Merle d'Aubigne.]
The Burning of Barnes, Garret & Jerome

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