(1st E. Essex)

Born: ABT 1485, Putney, Surrey, England

Died: 28 Jul 1540, Tower Hill, London, England

Notes: Knight of the Garter.

Father: Walter CROMWELL

Mother: Dau. CLOSSOP

Married 1: Elizabeth WYKES (b. 1489 - d. 1527) ABT 1513


1. Gregory CROMWELL (1° B. Cromwell of Oakham)



Associated with: ¿?



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Portrait of Thomas Cromwell as Earl of Essex

painted by Holbein

Thomas Cromwell was as great a statesman as England, who wanted government to be effective and efficient; to achieve this, he had to end the chaos of feudal privilege and ill-defined jurisdictions. He was blessed with a logical mind in an age sadly devoid of them. And unlike his royal master, King Henry VIII, he did not let his emotions interfere with his position. 

He was born of humble parentage in Putney, near London. His grandfather, John Cromwell, seems to have belonged to the Nottinghamshire family, of whom the most distinguished member was Ralph, Lord Cromwell (b. 1394? - d. 1456), lord treasurer; and he migrated from Norwell, Co. Notts, to Wimbledon some time before 1461. John's son, Walter, seems to have acquired the alias Smyth from being apprenticed to his uncle, William Smyth, "armourer", of Wimbledon. Walter had been a brewer and blacksmith known for permanent drunkenness and illegal activities. From this inauspicious beginning, his son went on to indulge his curiosity and practical nature by traveling through Europe. Over the course of several years, he was a soldier in Europe, a banker in Florence, where he was befriended by the banker Frescobaldi; clerk in the Netherlands, and then served as a soldier in the French army, as a trader, and as a messenger. Returning to England about 1510, he engaged in the businesses of dressing cloth and moneylending.

For about eight years after 1512 we hear nothing of Cromwell. He married ABT 1513, his wife was Elizabeth Wykes, daughter of a well-to-do shearman of Putney, whose business Cromwell carried on in combination with his own. As a young lawyer, he was manager of the affairs of the Dorsets. A letter to him from Cecily Bonville, Marchioness of Dorset, in which he is seen in confidential business relations with her ladyship, is probably earlier than 1520. According to some reports, the 3 younger brothers of Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset, were under Wolsey at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Cromwell's cousin Robert "Robin" Cromwell (d. 1517), formerly rector of Reed, Hertfordshire (which he resigned on 13 Feb 1511) became the 29th vicar of Battersea. He was the only son of Robert Cromwell, slain at Towton, whose relatives lived in Putney, Wandsworth and Wimbledon. He was made Steward of the York estate and when he went to Calais in 1513, his cousin Thomas was made his deputy. He probably introduced Thomas to King Henry VIII's lord chancellor,  Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who was then at Calais.

Soon he became a confidential agent of Wolsey, who helped him become a member of the House of Commons in 1523. Cromwell was introduced to government service as a secretary for Wolsey. His abilities won him the older man's respect and soon Cromwell was his most trusted servant and principal secretary. His most important work was the suppression of 29 religious houses whose monies Wolsey used to endow colleges at Ipswich and Oxford. Cromwell was Chief Steward of Syon Abbey from 1524 but there is no record of his ever visiting Syon so he presumably paid someone else to do so. When Wolsey fell from grace in 1529, Cromwell was hurriedly elected burgess for Taunton so he could remain in government service.

There were striking similarities between the two men - both managed to remain favorites of the mercurial Henry VIII for years; both were despised by the older nobility who coveted their influence with the King; both sought to reform the creaky medieval bureaucracy of Tudor government; both were highly intelligent and well-versed in international affairs. And both, ultimately, fell from Henry's favor with spectacular speed. In the end, the King preferred to listen to the old nobility.

But Cromwell and Wolsey were also markedly different in many ways. Unlike his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell was not a priest or a papist. He was a lawyer determined to impose his own character - methodical, detached, and calculating - upon government. Cromwell was the man responsible for the Henrician reformation while Wolsey fell because he served two masters - Henry and the Pope.

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The King's religious tendencies were never reformist; he wrote treatises vilifying Martin Luther (for which he was titled 'Defender of the Faith' by the Pope). Rather, he was an opportunist who disliked papal authority and interference in his realm and wanted some of the vast wealth the English church possessed.

For Henry, often desperately short of money, it was near-blasphemy for his subjects to pay taxes directly to Rome; he wanted the money for his government. He also wanted an annulment from Catalina of Aragon, and when the Pope (held hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor) refused to rule in his favor, he found it most expedient to simply disregard the Pope. But throughout it all, Henry was unaware of the forces he had unleashed when he declared himself head of the English church. Trained for the church as a child, he remained staunchly Catholic for his entire life though the Catholic church deemed him a heretic.

Cromwell's rise to power was extraordinary and occurred just when Henry needed a minister of great administrative imagination and genius, uninterested in the squabbles of his council and determined to empower the machinery of state. Cromwell entered royal service in early 1530 and, from then on, rose rapidly. In late 1530 he was sworn into the King's Council and, just a year later, began to attract unfavorable attention from Wolsey's old rivals. These were Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Gardiner had worked with Wolsey but, like Norfolk and Suffolk, viewed the Cardinal's fall as a chance to take his place. From 1529 to about 1533, they enjoyed the King's confidence even as Cromwell rose to overtake them all.

Throughout his political career Cromwell recognized the value of working through the House of Commons, and it was during his eight year period of ministry, 1532-1540, that the majority of the Henrican Reforms were carried out.

His career progressed as follows:

1531 - member of the privy council

1532 - Master of Court of Wards and Master of Jewel House

1533 - Chancellor of the Exchequer

1534 - King's Secretary and Master of the Rolls

1535 - Vicar-General

1536 - Lord Privy Seal and Baron Cromwell of Oakham

1537 - Knight of the Garter and Dean of Wells

1539 - Lord Great Chamberlain

1540 - created Earl of Essex

His influence upon the 1530s, one of the most influential and vital decades in English history, was enormous. One needs only to study the 1540s to realize how the loss of Cromwell affected Tudor government. He also came to power during Anne Boleyn's ascendancy. It was a symbolic changing of the guard - the old Catalina De Aragon thrust aside for the young, ambitious Anne Boleyn and Wolsey disgraced and replaced by his protégé Cromwell. (Cromwell supported Anne until she, like Wolsey, became a liability.) Among his immediate accomplishments were the following:

1 - establishment of the royal supremacy and the dissolution of the monasteries
2 - founded the ministries of Augmentations and First Fruits to handle income from the dissolution
3 - founded the two courts of Wards and Surveyors which allowed more efficient taxation and leasing
4 - politically integrated the kingdom by extending sovereign authority into northern England, Wales & Ireland (actions which angered the great feudal lords)
5 - used the power of that relatively new invention, the printing-press. Spearheaded the first propaganda campaign in English history.

In the 1530s, he had instituted reforms of the English government which earned enmity from the nobility. Cromwell recognized the basic inefficiency of feudal government and, from it, struggled to create a more logical system. Instead of offices held solely because of birth, he wanted trained servants with expertise in their field. (He built a bureaucracy of professionals outside the royal household). He began the first era of parliamentary control of England; he used Parliament to dissolve the monasteries (which made up 1/4 of all arable land) and validate his decisions.

From the above list, one will note that most of the 'accomplishments' were motivated by financial need. Like his predecessors in government ministry, Cromwell needed to provide secure and regular income. This alone necessitated an assault on the church's wealth. Cromwell also developed a novel, and very unpopular idea - in the past, taxes were created to support warfare; in 1534, he developed a new tax. Its basis? The King's maintenance of peace. These measures did not help his reputation but, by 1547, had brought nearly 2,000,000 pds to Henry's treasury. Of course, Henry would use the entire windfall to finance his increasingly complicated foreign policy.

In 1534, however, Henry was prepared to reap the benefits of his new anti-clerical policies. He had appointed his friend Thomas Cranmer to the venerable and powerful position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was like Cromwell in many ways - both owed their rise to prominence entirely to Henry's mercurial favor; both came from humble backgrounds; both were despised by the traditional nobility. Cranmer had come to Henry's attention by first suggesting a solution to the divorce problem - petition learned churchmen for their opinion (assuming, of course, they agreed with Henry). Like Cromwell, Cranmer benefited directly from the fall of Catalina of Aragon and the Imperial alliance and the rise of Anne Boleyn and her Norfolk relations. Henry's midlife crisis provided fertile ground for ambitious men. Cranmer and Cromwell liked one another and became friends, though Cranmer was careful to distance himself once Cromwell's ruin was assured.

In 1535, Henry appointed Cromwell Vicar General and, over the next five years, the honors increased - Lord Privy Seal, titled Baron Cromwell of Oakham, Knight of the Garter and Dean of Wells, and - finally - Lord Great Chancellor and ennoblement as Earl of Essex. The last was Cromwell's greatest ambition and long before justified by his superior service to the crown. Also in 1535 Thomas Cromwell was granted the lease of the manor of Wimbledon, comprising the parishes of Wimbledon, Putney, Roehampton, Mortlake, East Sheen and parts of Wandsworth and Barnes and on 27 Feb 1544 the lease of Battersea and Wandsworth from Abbot Boston for 66 years. During the accumulation of these honors, however, Cromwell began to recognize the flaws in his success.

First, he had accompanied Anne Boleyn on her rise to power; yet, in 1536, he helped engineer her disgrace and execution on charges of adultery, incest, and witchcraft. As he had with Catalina De Aragon, Henry became convinced his marriage was invalid, this time because of adultery; and he retained his absolute conviction in her guilt. To rid himself of Anne, he turned to the ever-ready Cromwell. Soon enough, Anne was on trial with her brother and two male servants. They were all executed.

G. W. Bernard, in his book 'Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attraction', wrote that Anne Boleyn was guilty of at least some of the charges against her, theorizes that Elizabeth Browne, Countess of Worcester and others of Anne’s ladies were aware of her love affairs and only escaped prosecution for their complicity by giving evidence against the Queen. Bernard’s book includes the suggestion, originally made by T. B. Pugh, that Cromwell himself was the father of Elizabeth’s first baby.

Cromwell betrayed Anne because she no longer held the King's favor. In the rough world of Tudor politics, friendships were lost in the struggle for prestige and survival. So Cromwell turned to Mistress Seymour and her relatively obscure family for support. The Seymours, however, never warmed to Cromwell as had the Boleyns, largely because they didn't trust him - and his influence over the King. Cromwell was careful to press Jane's cause to the King though Henry needed little urging. Just days after Anne Boleyn's execution, Jane Seymour became his third wife (dying eighteen months later after delivering the longed-for son, Prince Edward.) Cromwell busied himself with auctioning off church properties to various noblemen and further reforming the archaic machinery of Tudor government. In doing so, he continued to ignore Henry's council of noble peers. When the council did meet, Cromwell dominated the meetings and disregarded most suggestions. To his credit, he was right on most counts; the nobility was quite distanced from the changing nature of government. They were fiercely protective of their own 'inalienable' rights as landowners and peers and notoriously difficult when these rights were impugned (this conflict between the nobility and monarchy was centuries-old - simply remember the 13th century Magna Carta, when the nobles forced King John I to recognize their 'natural' rights).

During Henry’s marital problems, Syon Abbey became known as a hot bed of treasonous gossip. Cromwell sent in spies in 1534 who sent back various condemning reports. Vicar Hale of Isleworth was reported as saying the King’s life was more filthy than that of a sow, spoke of his womanising, and that he had now taken up with this whore Anne. After being arrested Hale, Richard Reynolds, the Confessor General of Syon and three Carthusian priors were dragged on hurdles from the Tower of London through the streets of London, a fact which caused some disquiet amongst observers. They suffered the usual execution of being hanged till half dead, castrated, their entrails burned in front of them, then drawn and quartered. Reynolds’ head was stuck on Syon Abbey’s gatehouse. In 1535 Abbess Jordan and her nuns were reported to be 'agreeable to everything'. But the gossip about goings on in the Abbey went on: one monk was said to have had a key made to allow wenches in. He was also the confessor to a nun and persuaded her that if she confessed to him about her activities with him she would be forgiven; he had bars pulled out from a window so he could talk to her at the nuns’ choir. John Coppinger was now nominated as Confessor-General; he had originally been against Henry’s supremacy of the Church, but obviously had changed his mind. Cromwell sent politically correct books to Syon and insisted that they be read out at dinner. But he was intent on the dissolution of the monasteries. Henry had always had a troubled exchequer so was in need of money.

While many of the nobles benefited from the sale of clerical lands, many others had relatives dedicated to religious service. Also, reverence for the church and its servants was as deeply-held as reverence for the monarchy. Henry's attacks upon the church struck many as unnatural and wrong; since they could not turn on the King, they turned on Cromwell - he was blamed for every unpopular policy. Henry VIII, who relished his popularity, allowed his faithful servant to be impugned. Thus, Henry could meet with his nobles, listen to their complaints, and even agree with them - many of the nobles were his dearest friends. The King remained popular while his chief minister became increasingly despised and isolated. (It is worth noting that one of Cromwell's friends, Richard Moryson, argued that merit - not birth - should be the only qualification for entry into the privy council. Moryson eventually became a member himself).

It is important to note that years of listening to anti-Cromwell gossip eventually affected Henry. Even the King did not exist in a vacuum and, as his temper became increasingly erratic, he was easily swayed by inflamed opinion. Thus, Cromwell suffered from a lapse in Henry's temper - one which the King almost immediately regretted. Chief among Cromwell's enemies were the highest nobles in the land. These men had pushed Wolsey from favor after years of effort and were determined to do the same to his protégé. The perfect opportunity arrived when Queen Jane died two weeks after childbirth, in Oct 1537.

Henry VIII was genuinely bereaved at her death - but, almost immediately, the search began for a new Queen. After all, Jane had delivered a son but one male heir was not enough in the sixteenth century. So Henry's council began to search for a new consort.

For Cromwell, this was a chance to further extend his influence while thwarting the English nobility. Henry's second and third wives had been English noblewomen whose families directly profited from their rise to power. The influence of these families naturally troubled Cromwell. As their influence rose, his own suffered - so he was opposed to the idea of another English wife. Also, as an intelligent statesman, he recognized the diplomatic power of royal marriages. Henry's troublesome foreign policy could be soothed if he chose a foreign wife - a princess or duchess of one of the great European families. Kings were meant to marry other royalty and Cromwell immediately searched for possible candidates.

While searching, he was careful to avoid Catholic candidates. Cromwell's rise to power was directly connected to the fall of Catholicism in England and he wanted to keep England on the path of Protestantism. Therefore, he sought a Protestant ally for Henry VIII. Naturally, his gaze turned to the Protestant states of Germany, birthplace of the Lutheran revolution. Meanwhile, Henry VIII was concerned with more aesthetic matters, sending artists (namely, Hans Holbein the Younger) to France and Milan to paint potential brides. Among those painted was Christina, duchess of Milan (niece of the Holy Roman Emperor); she famously remarked that she would be happy to marry Henry - if she had two heads! Henry also considered Marie de Guise, a widowed cousin of the French King; Marie, however, chose to marry Henry's nephew, James V of Scotland, thus creating a French-Scottish alliance along Henry's troublesome northern border. (Their only child is famous in history as the tragic Mary Queen of Scots).

Cromwell was well aware that - as seemed likely - if France and the Holy Roman Empire ended hostilities, England would be left out in the cold. So he was quite happy when the French and Imperial marriage negotiations fell apart. But as the search wound on, Henry became increasingly desperate for a wife. No doubt he was lonely; also, his court needed a Queen to be complete. A King was not meant to be a bachelor, as every European monarch knew. Finally, Cromwell found a Protestant ally with two available sisters - the Duke of Cleves, whose lands were strategically located and wealthy. He had two sisters not yet wed - Anne and Amelia. As the eldest, Anne was chosen as the possible bride - and Holbein immediately went to Cleves to paint her portrait. This painting would become of paramount importance in the coming year. Henry was determined to have a beautiful wife and specifically asked his various Ambassadors probing questions - does Marie de Guise have wide hips for childbearing? is Christina of Milan pock-marked? does Anne of Cleves play the lute? Holbein's famous portrait of Anne cannot be adequately judged in our time - after all, standards of beauty have changed. However, it is amusing to note that she (rumored to be the ugliest of Henry's wives) is the most attractive by twentieth-century standards.

Anne set sail for England, little realizing what lay ahead. The King, meanwhile, was ecstatic that - after almost three years - he would be a husband again, able to play one of his favorite roles. The entire country was thrilled at the news, in fact, and after Anne arrived, Cromwell finally secured his greatest ambition - an earldom. He was titled Earl of Essex by Henry VIII on 18 Apr 1540, after the marriage was finalized.

During this time, he also attempted to placate the nobility by redistributing lands to the great magnates, providing them with near-autonomous controls of great sections of land. (For example, the Duke of Suffolk traded East Anglian lands for lands in Lincolnshire - the Duke of Norfolk already held lands in Anglia while Lincolnshire needed a strong leader). Earlier, Cromwell had attempted to befriend Henry's oldest child, the stubbornly Catholic Princess Mary. She rebuffed his attention, largely on religious grounds.

Two years of marriage-brokering were often interrupted by rumors of rebellion. The Pilgrimage of Grace had made Henry more sensitive to popular sentiment. While Cromwell searched for a wife, rumors spread that the King planned new taxes. Also, the last remnants of the legitimate Plantagenet line - the Nevilles, Poles, and Courtenays - were suspected of encouraging rebellion - and Henry used this convenient excuse to order more executions. But popular unrest needed to be assuaged in some manner.

A new Parliament was summoned to meet in Apr 1539. Cromwell, who was a past master in the art of selecting and managing such assemblies, took care that men should be returned who were likely to favour the projects of the King, and in this action he succeeded beyond expectation. An Act of Attainder was passed against Cardinal Pole and against the Countess of Salisbury, as well as against those who had been executed a short time before. As the Ten Articles on religion published by the King and the improved version of these Articles known as the 'Bishop’s Book' had not proved sufficient to suppress religious controversy in the kingdom or to prevent England from being regarded as a heretical nation on the Continent, Henry determined to lay down a fixed rule of faith, that should be accepted by all his subjects, and that should prove to the Emperor and to France that England, though separated from Rome, was still loyal to the Catholic religion. A commission of bishops was appointed to prepare a report on the principal points of faith that had been called in question, but the bishops were divided into two hostile camps. While Cranmer, Latimer, Shaxton, Thomas Goodricke and William Barlow were strongly Lutheran in their tendencies, Edward Lee, Gardiner, Tunstall, and Robert Aldridge were opposed to all dogmatic innovations. Though Cromwell supported secretly the reforming party it soon became known that Henry VIII favoured the conservatives. As no agreement could be arrived at by the bishops, the Duke of Norfolk, who was rising rapidly at court as the champion of conservative interests, took the matter out of the hands of the bishops, by proposing to the House of Lords Six Articles dealing with the main points of difference between the Catholics and the Lutherans of the Continent. On these Articles the laymen did not venture to express any opinion, but Cranmer, Latimer and their friends held out till at last Henry appeared himself and 'confounded them all with God’s learning'. Cromwell engineered the passing of the Six Articles at Parliament. These articles attempted to stamp a more conservative gloss on the Henrician reformation, thus placating conservative European nobles - and the Catholic nations in Europe, now forced to concede Henry was not so great a heretic after all. It was a supreme example of Cromwell's talent for diffusing domestic tension. In effect, it was all talk and no action - it didn't alter the course of the reformation one bit. But if Cromwell had received a check on the question of dogma, he determined to curry favour with the King and at the same time to advance the cause he had at heart, by securing the suppression of the remaining monasteries. An Act was passed through all its stages in one day vesting in the King the property of all monasteries that had been suppressed or that were to be suppressed. This was done under the pretence that the monks, being ungodly and slothful, should be deprived of their wealth, which if handed over to the King could be devoted to the relief of poverty, the education of youth, the improvement of roads, and the erection of new bishoprics. Under threat of penalties nearly all the great monasteries surrendered their titles and lands except the abbots of Glastonbury, Reading, and Colchester, all of whom were arrested and put to death (1539). This punishment struck terror into the hearts of the others, and by the surrender of Waltham Abbey (Mar 1540) the last of the great English monasteries disappeared. Only the Knights of St John were left alone for a while as they were thought to be above reproach: Cromwell had been unable to get any "dirt" on them. But they too eventually had to go.

Cromwell was very interested in English shipping and his memoirs record items for building and rigging ships, making and improving harbours. He had the Channel cleared of pirates and tried to get compensation for cargoes seized from English merchants. He had an Act passed in 1540 for the privileges of the Navy, one clause of which restricted the privileges of foreign merchants (proclaimed the year before) to those who used English ships for their cargoes. This proclamation was dated 26 Feb 1539 and decreed that for seven years "straungers shall paye like custome and subsidy as the kinges subjects".

Finally, on 6 Oct 1539, the marriage treaty with Cleves was finalized, this was just 2 months after Holbein delivered his portrait. Princess Anne, once betrothed to the son of the Duke of Lorraine, was now destined to be Queen of England. It was the fulfillment of Cromwell's domestic and foreign policies. On 11 Dec, Anne was at Calais waiting for a favorable wind to carry her to Dover. She was there for almost two weeks while Henry waited at Greenwich. Finally, on 27 Dec she landed at Deal - then traveled to Dover and Canterbury before arriving at Rochester on 1 Jan 1540. Henry, desperate to see his bride in person, rushed in disguise to meet her ('to thus nourish love', he told Cromwell).

The meeting was an unmitigated disaster and the beginning of Cromwell's end. The New Year gifts Henry had brought for Anne were delivered the next day by a courier with a brief note of welcome. 'I am ashamed that men have so praised her as they have done, and I like her not', the King said ominously; he told Cromwell that Anne was 'nothing so well as she was spoken of' and, if had known the truth of her appearance, she would never have come to England.

The next day, his betrothed arrived in Greenwich and the marriage, scheduled for that day, was delayed for two days while Henry sought escape. But there was none to be had - the Holy Roman Emperor was in Paris meeting with the French King and Henry, locked out by those two great powers, could not risk offending the German princes who approved the union with Anne. They were, after all, his only allies at the moment. So Anne was not sent back and Henry moaned that he must 'put my neck in the yoke'. He wrote to Cromwell, 'My lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing'.

Poor Anne of Cleves - barely able to speak English, in a foreign land, and despised by her intended husband! The confused woman was led to a private marriage ceremony at Greenwich and, then, to her equally humiliating marriage-bed. The union was not consummated, a subject which Henry was firm upon - he spoke openly of how disgusted he was ('struck to the heart' by distaste, he 'left her as good a maid as he found her'.) They lay together for the entire length of their marriage but were never physically intimate. After a few months had passed, the French-Imperial alliance showed signs of cooling and Henry's natural boldness had returned. He wanted out of this fourth marriage - and told Cromwell to arrange it.

What were Cromwell's options? There were two ways to nullify the marriage (in essence, arrange a divorce) - Henry had not consented to the marriage (this was proved by his failure to consummate it) and Anne had not consented to the marriage (this was proved by Anne's precontract to the Duke of Lorraine). Henry had long been concerned with the latter problem - but had been assured that the contract was completely repudiated. Still, the day before his marriage to Anne, he called the Clevian Ambassadors to him and raised the issue. They were astonished (and rightly so) and offered to remain as prisoners in England until the formal repudiation papers were delivered from Cleves. Meanwhile, Thomas Cranmer told the King that Anne could simply swear that the betrothal had been repudiated - no official documents were necessary. His friend Cromwell 'travailed on him [Henry] to pass the matter over'; he hoped that once Henry was married to Anne, the King would resign himself to the marriage.

But instead Henry turned to the precontract when his distaste could not be overcome. On 9 Jul, Parliament declared the marriage null and void and Anne, surprising Henry and the court, was content to be called 'sister' and receive a handsome income and household in England. She had no desire to return to Cleves, where she would remain under her brother's thumb and perhaps married again. (It is likely she found Henry as unattractive as he found her). Henry was so pleased with this unexpected docility that he gave her status second only to his daughters, Princesses Mary and Elizabeth (both of whom came to befriend Anne).

However, the time had come to search for a convenient scapegoat - the person responsible for the disastrous union. Henry railed against his Ambassadors who had so misled him with descriptions of her beauty - though, in truth, the Ambassador's descriptions had been honest. It was soon alleged that Cromwell had kept them from the King, for fear of discouraging the union. Now, Cromwell was arrested on 10 Jun 1540, at 3pm on a Saturday, while at a Privy Council meeting. This was a full month before the marriage was nullified. Henry and Cromwell's enemies were in the midst of finding scapegoats for the marriage, while not yet assured of its outcome. Henry, in a fit of temper and pique, complained bitterly that his minister had betrayed him while trying to further his own influence; the nobility were only too happy to encourage such thoughts. They urged Henry to arrest Cromwell and teach the upstart his final lesson - namely, that it does not pay to mislead a King.

So the captain of the guard arrived at the council chamber and arrested Cromwell, while a table of his enemies looked on. The moment the guard entered the room, Cromwell recognized the danger - and threw his hat upon the table in rage. Norfolk and Southampton stripped his decorations from his robe of state and Cromwell was then escorted to a barge - and, then, the Tower of London. The events which follow are far from clear - Cromwell's fall and execution are among the most mysterious events of Henry VIII's reign and cannot be easily understood. In Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty, my favorite Tudor history, the great L.B. Smith even fails to explain it.

First, if Cromwell fell from favor because of the Cleves marriage (as most believe), why did Henry title him Earl of Essex in Apr 1540 - months after the marriage had been finalized and while negotiations for divorce were underway? Second, if Cromwell was executed because his government policies angered the King (as has been alleged), why did Henry give his voluntary approval to all of Cromwell's legislation? Third, is his enemies were in the ascendancy, why had Henry only recently shown the Duke of Norfolk (Cromwell's great enemy) open favor? After all, Norfolk had only recently been sent abroad on diplomatic work - away from the King.

What are we left with? The charges eventually listed in Cromwell's attainder did not list the above - Cromwell was not accused of misleading Henry on matters of policy, he was not held responsible for the disastrous marriage, and he was not charged with leading England into an unwanted Lutheran alliance. Instead, he was charged with selling export licenses illegally, granting passports and commissions without royal knowledge, freeing people suspected of treason and - of course - that he, base-born and ignoble, had usurped and deliberately misused royal power. Most significantly, however, he was charged with heresy - this charge was the bulk of his attainder and apparently swayed Henry decisively. 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 Cromwell said (in Mar 1539) 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 Norfolk probably); they were so inflammatory that the King was outraged. Cromwell's name, Henry swore, would be abolished forever. Cromwell wrote two desperate letters from the Tower; 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, Catherine Howard, would hear nothing.

At the command of the King, Cromwell wrote a long letter, in which he showed that Henry never really consented to the marriage with Anne of Cleves, against which marriage the existence of a pre-nuptial contract was also adduced. On the strength of this, Parliament demanded an investigation, and a commission was issued empowering the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and others of the clergy to examine into the validity of the marriage. Convocation decided that it was null and void (Jul 1540).

Furthermore, Norfolk was 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 favor 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'.

So Cromwell was executed privately on Tower Green on 28 Jul 1540, still protesting his innocence. He died with dignity - but the whole sordid affair of his death would not rest. After his execution, Cromwell's head was boiled and then set upon a spike on London Bridge, facing away from the City of London. 

Edward 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...'

For the volatile Henry VIII was soon despairing of his loss, just a few months after he allowed the execution. He raged at his council, accusing them of lying and deliberately destroying his 'most faithful servant'. Cromwell's destruction had been engineered on 'light pretexts' and against the King's wishes. In truth, Henry was a victim as well - of a determined group of nobles and clerics, led by Norfolk, who hated Cromwell and carried the King along on their path of destruction. Events were rapid and deliberately confused. By the time Henry realized what had happened, it was too late. He could only bemoan his loss, while never understanding exactly why it happened.

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