Thomas Cromwell Timeline

Thomas Cromwell Timeline

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  • c. 1485

    Thomas Cromwell, future first minister to Henry VIII of England is born.

  • 1503

    Thomas Cromwell travels to Italy where he fights as a mercenary and then learns banking.

  • c. 1520

    Thomas Cromwell establishes his own legal practice in London.

  • 1523

    Thomas Cromwell becomes a Member of Parliament.

  • 1524

    Thomas Cromwell joins the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

  • 1530

    Thomas Cromwell becomes a member of the King's Council.

  • 1532 - 1540

    Thomas Cromwell is chief minister to Henry VIII of England.

  • 1532

    Thomas Cromwell pushes through Parliament the Act in Restraint of Annates which limits funds paid to the Papacy.

  • 1533

    Thomas Cromwell is made Master of the Rolls.

  • 1533

    Thomas Cromwell pushes through Parliament the Act in Restraint of Appeals which declares that the English monarch is now the highest authority on all legal matters.

  • 23 May 1533

    Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury formally annuls Henry VIII of England’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

  • 1534

    Thomas Cromwell pushes through Parliament the Treason Act which forbids people to speak out and criticise their king or his policies.

  • 30 Apr 1534

    Parliament passes the Act of Succession which declares Henry VIII of England's daughter Mary (with Catherine of Aragon) illegitimate.

  • 28 Nov 1534

    The Act of Supremacy declares Henry VIII of England the head of the Church in England and not the Pope.

  • 1535

    Thomas Cromwell and a team of inspectors compile the Valor Ecclesiasticus, a record of all the wealth and income of monastic institutions in England and Wales.

  • Jan 1535

    Thomas Cromwell is made vicar-general by Henry VIII of England.

  • 6 Jul 1535

    Sir Thomas More is executed for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII of England as the head of the Church in England.

  • 1536

    Henry VIII of England and Thomas Cromwell push a bill through Parliament which begins the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England and Wales.

  • 1536

    Thomas Cromwell is made Lord Privy Seal.

  • 1536

    Thomas Cromwell's Ten Articles rejects four of the Seven Sacraments of Catholicism.

  • Aug 1536

    Thomas Cromwell issues The Injunctions, a set of recommendations for the clergy.

  • Oct 1536 - Dec 1536

    The Pilgrimage of Grace, a popular uprising against religious changes made by Henry VIII of England, marches in the north of England.

  • Jul 1537

    Thomas Cromwell publishes The Bishop’s Book.

  • 1538

    Thomas Cromwell issues a more radical version of The Injunctions.

  • 1539

    Henry VIII of England approves the translation of the Bible into English.

  • 1539

    Parliament passes an act to close all monasteries in England and Wales regardless of size.

  • 1539

    Thomas Cromwell is made Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain.

  • Jan 1540

    Henry VIII of England marries his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

  • 10 Jun 1540

    Thomas Cromwell is arrested on charges of treason and heresy.

  • 9 Jul 1540

    Henry VIII of England and Anne of Cleves divorce by mutual consent. Thomas Cromwell is blamed for the mismatch.

  • 28 Jul 1540

    Thomas Cromwell is executed for treason and heresy.

The Real Reason Henry VIII Executed Thomas Cromwell

In 1540, Henry VIII gave his primary advisor, Thomas Cromwell, the axe. Well, technically the executioner gave him the axe, but the point still holds. Citing a dubious "contemporary" source, Victorian author Arthur Galton describes an "ungodly" affair in which the executioner hacked away at Cromwell's neck and head for a half an hour. Other descriptions contradict this version of events, alleging that Henry cleanly severed ties with Cromwell after a single swing. Either way, Cromwell's cranium was headed to the same place — off of his body.

It was quite a fall for a man who had risen so high in his life. At the outset of his life, Cromwell had so little wealth to his name that even the record-keeping about his birth was poor. Per Historic Royal Palaces, no one knows precisely where or when he was born. However, the site writes that he was most likely born in 1485. Cromwell was the son of a businessman and a son of a much less flattering B-word when it came to his enemies. He initially tried to become a mercenary in the French army, but much like his future executioner, Cromwell couldn't hack it. Instead, he became a sharp businessman and lawyer. He went on to make friends in high places, the highest being the king. So, how Henry become an enemy?

CROMWELL, Thomas (by 1485-1540), of London.

b. by 1485, o.s. of Walter Cromwell alias Smith of Putney, Surr. m. by 1516, Elizabeth, da. of Henry Wykes of Putney, wid. of Thomas Williams, 1s. Gregory 2da. 1da. illegit. Kntd. 18 July 1536 KG nom. 5 Aug., inst. 26 Aug. 1537 cr. Baron Cromwell 9 July 1536, Earl of Essex 17 Apr. 1540.3

Offices Held

Member, household of Cardinal Wolsey c.1516-30, of his council by 1519, sec. by 1529 commr. subsidy, London 1524, Kent 1534, for printing of Bible 1539, for sale of crown lands 1539, 1540 Councillor by Jan. 1531 master of King’s jewels 14 Apr. 1532, jt. (with Sir John Williams) c.1535-d. clerk of the hanaper 16 July 1532, jt. (with Ralph Sadler) Apr. 1535-d. chancellor, the Exchequer 12 Apr. 1533- d. recorder, Bristol 1533-d., steward, Westminster abbey 12 Sept. 1533, jt. (with Robert Wroth) 14 Feb. 1534-May 1535, lordships of Edmonton and Sayesbery, Mdx. May 1535, of Havering-atte-Bower, Essex Dec. 1537, manor of Writtle, Essex June 1536, honor of Rayleigh, Essex Sept. 1539 jt. (with Sir William Paulet) surveyor, the King’s woods by 1533 principal sec. c. Apr. 1534-Apr. 1540 master of the rolls 8 Oct. 1534-10 July 1536 jt. (with Richard Cromwell alias Williams * ) constable, Hertford castle, Herts. 1534-d., Berkeley castle, Glos. 1535-d., sole, Leeds castle, Kent 4 Jan. 1539-d. visitor-gen. monasteries 21 Jan. 1535 steward, duchy of Lancaster, Essex, Herts. and Mdx. 12 May 1535-d., steward, Savoy manor May 1535-d. chancellor, high steward and visitor, Camb. univ. 1535-d. j.p. Bristol, Kent, Mdx., Surr. 1535-d. Essex 1536-d., Derbys., Westmld. 1537-d., all counties 1538-d. prebendary, Salisbury May 1536-d. receiver of petitions in the Lords, Parlt. of 1536, trier, Parlt. of 1539 ld. privy seal 2 July 1536-d. vicar-gen. and vicegerent of the King in spirituals 18 July 1536 dean, Wells 1537-d. warden and c.j. in eyre, N. of Trent 30 Dec. 1537-d. gov. I.o.W. 2 Nov. 1538-d. gt. chamberlain 17 Apr. 1540 numerous minor offices.4


Thomas Cromwell was the son of a Putney cloth-worker and alehouse keeper but the obscurity of his early life owes less to his humble origin than to the varied and exotic character of his pursuits. While still in his teens he was compelled, in circumstances which remain unknown, to leave the country. Passing through the Netherlands, he is said to have found employment in Italy, first as a soldier (he is reputed to have fought at the Garigliano in 1503) and then with the Venetian banking house of Frescobaldi. He was in Rome early in 1514 but in the course of that year he returned to the Netherlands and soon afterwards came back to England, where he married a widow and settled in London. He was to go to Italy again in 1517-18 to help the town of Boston obtain a bull of indulgence from Pope Leo X. On this journey he is supposed to have learned by heart Erasmus’s translation of the New Testament. His earlier travels had made him fluent in Italian and probably in French he also knew Latin and perhaps had some Greek.5

Cromwell followed a business career in London, dealing in cloth and lending money, but he also picked up enough law to establish the successful practice which is first glimpsed about 1518. Although by then a servant of Wolsey he continued to have other clients throughout his years with the cardinal and even after he entered the royal service. Who or what brought him to Wolsey’s notice is not known. The intermediary could have been the 2nd Marquess of Dorset, although the only surviving evidence of Cromwell’s connexion with the Grey family dates from 1522, and the dowager marchioness’s description of him as her son’s servant may mean no more than that he was one of Dorset’s lawyers. Another possible agent is the Robert Cromwell who was vicar of Battersea and overseer of works there for Wolsey. It may even be that Cromwell had brought a recommendation on his return from Antwerp, perhaps to the Luccese merchant Antonio Bonvisi, whose friendship he was to share with Thomas More and whose customers included Wolsey. Cromwell, like More, had a talent for friendship and he had already a wide acquaintanceship.6

It was doubtless to Wolsey that Cromwell owed his election to the Parliament of 1523, the only one summoned during the 14 years of the chancellorship. Wolsey could have nominated his servant for almost any seat, but as he held the bishopric of Bath and Wells in commendam until shortly before the Parliament met, when he was succeeded by his chaplain John Clerke, the city of Bath is a distinct possibility, with Cromwell’s interest in the cloth trade an additional recommendation. That Cromwell was a Member appears from his statement in a letter of 17 Aug. that he and others had ‘endured a Parliament which continued by the space of 17 whole weeks’, although this was to ignore its three-week prorogation. He also prepared—the draft survives in the hand of one of his clerks—and may have delivered a speech against the war with France which the Parliament had been summoned to finance he maintained that France could not be successfully invaded because of logistic difficulties and that the better plan was to conquer Scotland and unite it with England. Strange as such arguments may appear emanating from a servant of Wolsey, they might be explained, as has been recently suggested, if Wolsey himself was sufficiently opposed to the aggressive foreign policy favoured by the King to look to Parliament to frustrate it by refusing supply. Given the country’s hostility to an excessive subsidy, what was needed was to give the Commons its head by means of the liberty of speech claimed by Speaker More. Cromwell’s own epitaph on the Parliament shows how widely the debates ranged:

we communed of war, peace, strife, contentation, debate, murmur, grudge, riches, poverty, perjury, truth, falsehood, justice, equity, deceit, oppression, magnanimity, activity, force, attemperance, treason, murder, felony, conciliation and also how a commonwealth might be edified. However, in conclusion we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is to say, as well as we might and left where we began.7

Later in 1523 Cromwell served on the inquest of wardmote in Broadstreet ward. In the following year he was included in the London subsidy commission, was admitted to Gray’s Inn and at Wolsey’s direction embarked on the suppression of some 30 smaller monastic communities for the benefit of the cardinal’s educational foundations at Ipswich and Oxford. He was to be involved at every stage of this project and according to George Cavendish his continued interest in it after Wolsey’s attainder was the occasion of his access to the King, ‘by means whereof and by his witty demeanour he grew continually into the King’s favour’. After Wolsey’s withdrawal from the court, first to Esher and then to York, Cromwell remained his factotum and partisan. Although he had no option but to assist the crown in preparing the charge of praemunire against Wolsey he did his best for his old master. When a bill of articles was introduced into the Parliament of 1529 condemning Wolsey of treason it was he who ‘inveighed’ against it ‘so discreetly, with such witty persuasions and deep reasons, that the same bill could take there no effect’.8

Cromwell’s return to that Parliament has provoked much discussion, and understandably so, for the circumstances are far from clear. It was not until the end of October, within a few days of the opening, that he seems to have made a bid for a seat. The reason for such untypical slowness can scarcely have been other than his doubt whether, as Wolsey’s right hand man, he could procure one without falling foul of authority. That is why, when he resolved to do so, his first step was to obtain, with the help of his clerk Ralph Sadler, Sir John Gage and the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, the King’s agreement to his election, albeit on condition that he should conduct himself in the House according to royal instructions. That obstacle removed, on 1 Nov., he still had to find a seat. With but two days left the prospect of finding a vacant one was negligible the only hope was to replace someone already elected who could be persuaded to stand down.9

How this was contrived has to be deduced from two prime pieces of evidence. The first, and more direct, is Cavendish’s statement that Cromwell replaced the son of his friend Thomas Rush the second is Sadler’s promise to obey Cromwell’s instruction to ‘require’ Sir William Paulet to release a seat for one of the boroughs belonging to Wolsey as bishop of Winchester. The fact that Cromwell did come in for one of these boroughs, Taunton, whereas Sadler seems to imply that the vacancy created by the withdrawal of Rush’s son would be at Orford, has given rise to the impression that these were alternative openings and hence to the conclusion that Paulet was turned to only after the Orford plan failed. The confusion has been thickened by the failure to identify Rush’s ‘so’ as his stepson Thomas Alvard the eldest of Rush’s sons by the widowed Anne Alvard could have been only in his early twenties at the time of the election, when Alvard was at least 36 and, like his stepfather, a man of consequence in Wolsey’s entourage and a friend of Cromwell.10

That it was not Alvard whom Cromwell might have replaced at Orford is clear from the election there of two other men. Yet one of those men, Erasmus Paston, was such as Rush might have tried to supplant the seat which he took had probably come by 1529 under the patronage of the Duke of Suffolk, with whom Rush had long been associated, while Rush’s own standing at Orford could have counted for something. Thus if it was at Orford that Rush was expected to intervene it could not have been at the expense of his stepson, who was not elected there, and Cavendish’s statement, if it is to be accepted, must apply to a different borough. The obvious first choice is Ipswich, where Rush’s influence was at its strongest and where he himself was to take the senior seat but although Rush may well have hoped that his stepson would be his fellow-Member (as Alvard was later to become, by way of a by-election) the issue had been decided three weeks earlier when Thomas Hayward, the Ipswich common clerk, had been elected. With Orford and Ipswich thus ruled out there appears to be only one way of reconciling Cavendish’s statement with the rest of the evidence, namely, by concluding that it was at Taunton that Cromwell replaced Alvard. It is not hard to imagine that if Rush had failed to find Alvard a seat nearer home he should have turned to one of Wolsey’s boroughs, where Paulet as steward evidently handled the nominations nor would it be surprising if, once Cromwell had gained the King’s consent to his own election, Rush and Alvard had yielded to his superior claim and Paulet had substituted his name on the return. Whether the King or Norfolk brought any pressure to bear it is impossible to say.

Upwards of two years were to elapse before this last-minute scramble into the Commons was to issue in an unprecedented mastery of that assembly. Cromwell was probably admitted to the Council shortly after Wolsey’s death in November 1530: he is first mentioned as a Councillor early in the following January. He soon made himself the Council’s expert on parliamentary matters. It looks as though he assumed this role during the second session (January-March 1531) of the Parliament of 1529. By the summer of 1531 it was commonly believed in London that ‘Mr. Cromwell penned certain matters in the parliament house, which no man gainsaid’, and when the session ended he removed the 29 bills which were then left unfinished to the safety of his counting house. In the autumn Henry VIII directed him to co-operate with members of the King’s legal council in preparing bills for treason, sewers and apparel in readiness for the next session, and at the close of that session in May 1532 he again removed the unfinished bills, 16 in number. His remembrances often include topics to be legislated on and occasionally mention bills in progress, as when in 1534 the bills for faculties and for dairy produce were due to be engrossed. From 1532, at least, he used a group recruited by himself to compile a programme of reform for embodiment in statutes, while others not in his employ, like John Rastell, submitted their own proposals for his consideration. Corporations, monastic houses and private individuals sought his advice and approval for measures they wanted to see enacted, and to that end plied him with gifts. To judge from the requests emanating from these quarters he seems to have been consulted in 1532 mainly as a legal adviser, but later the mounting demands of the crown left him little time for such private business. He took great care over the drafting of bills corrections in his hand appear at different stages of those for tinworks and harbours in Devon and Cornwall (23 Hen. VIII, c.8), for restraint of appeals (24 Hen. VIII, c.12) and for pewterers (25 Hen. VIII, c.9). In 1536 he had included in the Act (27 Hen. VIII, c.47) making the King heir to the 5th Earl of Northumberland’s lands a proviso protecting an annuity given him by the earl.11

By the spring of 1532 Cromwell was in a position to supervise a sizeable change in the composition of the House. Having first established, by means of an annotated copy of the Crown Office list, the vacancies created by deaths or elevations to the Lords since the Parliament began, he initiated a series of by-elections. This was prefaced by the compilation by Thomas Wriothesley of a further list on which, out of 29 vacancies recorded, 17 were accompanied by the names of those recommended to fill them and a further eight by the names of the personages entitled to nominate, these being the King (for four seats), the attorney-general, the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and the lord warden of the Cinque Ports. The fact that for the most part each vacancy is accompanied by two names implies that Wriothesley either took it on himself, or was told, to furnish such a choice. What then befell the document was clearly Cromwell’s doing: it was he who placed a small circle against one out of each pair of names (or when both seats were vacant two out of three) as well as adding six vacancies and in four of these cases entering a single name. This is not to say that Cromwell was alone responsible for these choices, in which the King may have had a hand. Nor in the absence of by-election returns is there much evidence to show whether the persons so designated were successful. Only Sir John Neville II and John Scudamore are known to have come in for their respective shires Sir Francis Bryan and Sir Henry Long were by-elected, although not for certain as knights of the shire and the balance of probability is that Sir Thomas Cheyne, Sir Arthur Hopton, Sir John St. John and William Skipwith joined them in the House. On the other hand, Richard Sapcote seems to have been dismayed by Audley’s and Cromwell’s instructions to solicit support for his own election for Huntingdonshire, where Thomas Hall II (q.v.) was already in the field.12

Although this list reflects Cromwell’s interest in the recruitment of Members, it reveals little effort on his part to introduce his own dependants or associates. The great majority of the names are those of men of independent standing in their localities, and Cromwell’s—if they were his own—choices between them are scarcely revealing. But as yet he was standing only on the threshold of supremacy the year that followed shows him wielding increasing influence on behalf of particular individuals. The loss of so many returns puts out of the question any measurement of his intervention: out of some 40 by-elections known or presumed to have been held from the beginning of 1533 to the close of the Parliament, 16 produced Members whose names have not survived. Yet the names which are known include those of several men who stood close to Cromwell, among them Thomas Alvard, Sir Francis Bigod, David Broke, Sir Roger Cholmley, Thomas Derby, John Goodall and Robert Southwell.

Of Cromwell’s technique for controlling the House only fragments of evidence exist. The most interesting is furnished by two documents believed to date from 1533. The first is a list of 36 names (originally at least 37, the first being lost through the tearing of the paper), all of men known or presumed to have been Members at that time. Against A. F. Pollard’s suggestion that the list was a sounding board of parliamentary opinion it may be urged that from what is known of the outlook of the men concerned the majority of them were unsympathetic to the breach with the pope and that this was why their names were thus brought together on the list. Again, the most likely occasion of its production was the passage through the House of the bill against appeals to Rome, the outstanding measure of the fourth session. Evidence of opposition to this bill is not lacking, and it includes the stand taken, albeit temporarily, by Sir George Throckmorton, whose name heads the list in its present form. That the list is of official provenance is shown by the order in which the names appear they were clearly derived from a scrutiny of the Crown Office list. If the list may be taken to represent an effort by authority, doubtless in the person of Cromwell, to identify the Members most likely to give trouble, the use, if any, to which it was put remains a matter for speculation. We do not know of any Member other than Throckmorton who was taken to task, but the addition to 18 of the names on the list of the person’s domicile (in some cases seemingly of his diocese) prompts the thought that some local action may have been contemplated.13

Of quite another character is the second list, which contains the names of 50 Members. Unlike those of the first, its names are arranged in no discernible order save that as originally set down they began with five holders of high office, Cromwell himself standing first as ‘Mr Secretary’. This official group is followed by 16 knights of the shire and 22 Members for cities and boroughs, the constituencies of the remaining seven Members being uncertain or unknown. Both the ratio between knights and borough Members, and the wide geographical spread of their constituencies, make this assemblage a fair sample of the House, and this in turn suggests that the names are those of a committee, although whether operative or merely intended remains unknown. In the absence of the Journal nothing can be learned of the use of committees during this Parliament, but it is reasonable to assume that they were resorted to only for bills of importance and then only if these gave rise to difficulty. Outstanding among such bills was the treasons bill passed in the seventh session, and the evident disquiet which it aroused in the House could well have led to its committal to this group of Members. In that event, the chief interest of the list would lie in its apparent counterbalancing of the ‘official’ group by a number of Members likely to be critical, among them seven or eight of those named in the earlier list. Although the names of several of Cromwell’s close associates are to be found on it, the list can in no way be construed as a product of official packing.14

Cromwell’s management of this Parliament doubtless included the timing of its recurrent prorogations, which matched the vicissitudes of the political and religious scene, and of its eventual dissolution. In retrospect this final act was to prove a blunder, for within two weeks of the dissolution a fresh Parliament had to be summoned in consequence of the King’s decision to make away with his second Queen. It was with the intention of making the new Parliament in effect yet another and concluding session of the previous one that the King caused the writs to be accompanied by a request for the re-election of the same Members the device had been used once before in the reign, in respect of the Parliament of 1515. In theory, therefore, the Parliament of 1536 furnished no opportunity to Cromwell to intervene in the elections, which should have been predetermined. In fact, the outcome was somewhat different. Of the 312 Members presumed to have been returned the names of over two thirds are irrecoverably lost of the 68 whose names are known 47 had certainly and a further four had probably sat in the previous Parliament, while 15 had certainly not and two had probably not done so. If these Members were roughly representative of the whole, it follows that approximately three quarters of the Commons of 1536 were old Members and one quarter fresh ones, and that the royal request met with less than universal compliance. Some degree of change would have been unavoidable: old age, sickness or death, and in one or two cases appointment to debarring office, must have excluded some former Members from reelection, but the majority of those who did not reappear probably found other reasons or were officially discouraged or eliminated.

Cromwell’s role in the matter has to be gauged from the only two known examples of his intervention. The first is his notorious insistence that the city of Canterbury, which had elected—perhaps in ignorance of the King’s request—two new Members, should set them aside in favour of its previous ones. The second, which has attracted less notice, is his imposition of two nominees in place of the previous Members for Buckingham. This departure from the general requirement is best explained by the presumption that the two men so displaced were unacceptable by reason of their connexion with the doomed Queen. Whether Cromwell took steps to exclude other similar undesirables cannot be known, nor is there more than a hint that he promoted the election of men of his own choosing, although both Richard Pollard and Ralph Sadler owed their nominations to him.15

It is not even clear whether Cromwell’s own election accorded with the royal request. Although there can be little doubt that he was returned for a shire, its identity remains a matter of guesswork, with Kent as the probable favourite in view of his recent acquisition of property there. In that case he could have been re-elected, for the death of Sir Henry Guildford in May 1532 had created a vacancy which Cromwell may have filled by exchanging Taunton for the more prestigious knighthood of a shire. The importance of his presence in the House was to be implicitly recognized by the circumstances of his ennoblement. Although this took place in the middle of the session, his patent exempted him from taking his seat in the Lords for the remainder of the Parliament and he did so only in the afternoon of the day of dissolution. One of the Acts of this Parliament (28 Hen. VIII, c.50) established his title to the manor of Wimbledon and other properties recently granted to him by the King. Throughout the session he was a frequent bearer of bills to the Lords.16

In June 1538 John Hull II, the collector of customs at Exeter, wrote to Cromwell to enlist his support for a bill which the city wished to introduce in the Parliament then thought imminent, but another nine months elapsed before the writs were issued. Cromwell was then to assure the King that he ‘and other your dedicate Councillors be about to bring all things so to pass that your majesty had never had more tractable Parliament’, and went on to describe the work of Sir William Fitzwilliam I, Earl of Southampton, in Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex. The Duke of Norfolk sent the minister a list of the boroughs in his control and ended ‘In all the shires of my commission [as commander in the north], save Lancashire, I have put such order that such shall be chosen as I doubt not shall serve his highness according to his pleasure and likewise I did in Norfolk and Suffolk before my last coming here’. Only in the instances of the earl and the duke is there documentary evidence to bear out Cromwell’s assertion that other members of the Council played an active part in the period before the elections, but analysis of the men returned to the Parliament and of their connexions suggests that other Councillors were equally diligent. The letters from earl and duke to King and minister, together with Cromwell’s own statement, leave little doubt that the decision to influence the elections was a conciliar one and that the decision was put into effect by the whole Council with Cromwell acting as coordinator.17

Of Cromwell’s own, more direct, part in the election of 1539 there are a few tantalizing glimpses. In Hampshire he seems not to have trusted Bishop Gardiner of Winchester to manage the shire election in the crown’s interest as he himself wrote to the freeholders on behalf of Thomas Wriothesley and John Kingsmill: Kingsmill being sheriff, the election was postponed until the King’s pleasure became known, when Wriothesley was returned with Cromwell’s servant Richard Worsley. On Cromwell’s instructions the cellarer of the Household, Richard Hill of Hartley Wintney, had rallied his neighbours and tenants to ensure the return of the minister’s nominees against opposition from Gardiner. In Norfolk Cromwell obtained the support of Sir Edmund Knyvet in persuading his friends to vote for Edmund Wyndham and Richard Southwell as knights of the shire, but then upset Knyvet who at the election offered himself as an alternative to Southwell. At Norwich the election for the city’s Members had already been held when Cromwell’s nomination of John Godsalve arrived, but the city obliged the minister by asking for a new writ to warrant a second election and then by returning Godsalve. Cromwell also obtained a nomination at Gatton after it had been promised to another. Whom he sponsored there is not recorded, but for such an undistinguished borough it is unlikely to have been Richard Morison, the pamphleteer selected as a government spokesman during the Parliament whose nomination by himself the minister singled out for mention to the King.18

Two weeks before the opening of Parliament Cromwell contracted a fever which still troubled him on 4 May, but he was sufficiently recovered six days later to take his place in the Lords. That when he did so he took his place as vicegerent, with precedence before all save the King, not as Baron Cromwell sitting with the rest of the barons, creates a strong presumption that he delayed his recovery until the bill regulating seating in the Lords had been passed and put into effect. The gravity of his illness can be gauged by his failure to have ready for introduction into Parliament the legislative programme outlined by him in the previous March, in particular ‘a device . for the unity in religion’. The measure to give proclamations greater effect met with opposition and its passage through Parliament diverted Cromwell’s attention from the committee under his chairmanship to establish uniformity. This enabled Norfolk to accuse him of slothfulness as vicegerent and to present the Lords with six major doctrinal issues in the form of questions so framed as to demand strictly traditional answers. Although outmanoeuvred Cromwell continued to pursue a line of moderation until the King announced his own support for Norfolk’s orthodoxy. The bill introduced in the second session and passed as the Act of Six Articles (31 Hen. VIII, c.14) reflected the beliefs of men unsympathetic towards reform and the vicegerent. Yet despite these setbacks Cromwell remained the King’s chief minister. The Act changing the custom of gavelkind in Kent (31 Hen. VIII, c.3) names Cromwell first among its beneficiaries: this subsumed a private bill settling certain lands on himself and his heirs which passed through both Houses but never received the assent.19

During the prorogation Cromwell pressed ahead with reform of the Household and concluded a treaty of marriage and defence between England and Cleves, but Henry VIII took against his new Queen. After two postponements Parliament reassembled on 12 Apr. 1540. Cromwell opened the session with a speech on the need for unity and concord in religion, but in the event he obtained only a short enabling Act (32 Hen. VIII, c.26) looking to future decisions from two committees of bishops ordered to formulate a definition of doctrine and to draw up a book of authorized ceremonies. The greater part of the government legislation inaugurated by him fared better. On 17 Apr. Cromwell was raised to the earldom of Essex and given the office of chamberlain, resigning his secretaryship in favour of Sir Ralph Sadler and Sir Thomas Wriothesley. The King’s infatuation with Catherine Howard and decision to divorce Anne of Cleves to marry Catherine left Cromwell with the task of putting asunder the union that he had long promoted, and thus reviving the Howard interest at court. In late May he had arrested the deputy of Calais and the bishop of Chichester on charges of intrigue with Cardinal Pole, but on 10 June after a morning in the House of Lords he himself was arrested at a council meeting in the afternoon and accused of heresy and treason. Taken to the Tower and his possessions seized, Cromwell was condemned without a trial. His sentence was confirmed by an Act of attainder (32 Hen. VIII, no.52) but he was allowed to languish in captivity as long as his testimony about the King’s repugnance for Anne of Cleves was of use in the royal divorce proceedings. The divorce completed, Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill on 28 July. A parliamentary bill confirming an exchange of lands between himself and the King was killed by his downfall. Copies of his portrait by Holbein survive but not the original.20

Thomas Cromwell Biographical Timeline Webquest

This timeline webquest uses a great website created by the BBC that allows students to get a better understanding of the life and legacy of Thomas Cromwell. The webquest is very easy to follow for students in grades 7-12.

*WARNING: There are three sections that make a brief mention of miscarriage, adultery, and sexual impotence. Please review the website prior to purchasing this product to ensure it is appropriate for your specific classroom environment.

Click on the link below to visit the website:

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Thomas Cromwell was born around 1485, in Putney, Surrey, the son of Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith, fuller and cloth merchant, and owner of both a hostelry and a brewery. As a successful tradesman, Walter was regularly called upon for jury service and was elected Constable of Putney in 1495. [5] Some think Walter Cromwell to have been of Irish ancestry. [6] Thomas's mother, generally named as Katherine Maverell, was from a recognised "gentry family" in Staffordshire. [7] She lived in Putney in the house of a local attorney, John Welbeck, at the time of her marriage to Walter in 1474. [5]

Cromwell had two sisters the elder, Katherine, married Morgan Willams, a Welsh lawyer the younger, Elizabeth, married a farmer, William Wellyfed. [8] Katherine and Morgan's son, Richard, was employed in his uncle's service and by the autumn of 1529 had changed his name to Cromwell. [9] [10]

Little is known about Cromwell's early life. It is believed that he was born at the top of Putney Hill, on the edge of Putney Heath. In 1878, his birthplace was still of note:

The site of Cromwell's birthplace is still pointed out by tradition and is in some measure confirmed by the survey of Wimbledon Manor, quoted above, for it describes on that spot 'an ancient cottage called the smith's shop, lying west of the highway from Richmond to Wandsworth, being the sign of the Anchor'. The plot of ground here referred to is now covered by the Green Man public house. [11]

Cromwell declared to Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer that he had been a "ruffian . in his young days". [5] In his youth he left his family in Putney and crossed the Channel to the Continent. Accounts of his activities in France, Italy and the Low Countries are sketchy and contradictory. The tale that he first became a mercenary and marched with the French army to Italy, where in 1503 he fought in the Battle of Garigliano, originally stems from a short story by the contemporary Italian novelist Matteo Bandello (in which Cromwell is a page to a foot-soldier, carrying his pike and helmet, rather than a soldier himself).

This tale was later taken up as fact by many writers, notably John Foxe in his Actes and Monuments of 1563. [12] Diarmaid MacCulloch accepts that the specifics in Bandello's narrative suggest that it is more than an invented account, but James Gairdner, while acknowledging that Cromwell's year of birth is uncertain, points out that he could have been as young as 13 on the day of the battle. While in Italy, he entered service in the household of the Florentine banker Francesco Frescobaldi, who rescued him off the Florentine streets, where he was starving after leaving the French mercenaries. [13] [14] Later, he visited leading mercantile centres in the Low Countries, living among the English merchants and developing a network of contacts while learning several languages. At some point he returned to Italy. The records of the English Hospital in Rome indicate that he stayed there in June 1514, [5] while documents in the Vatican Archives suggest that he was an agent for the Archbishop of York, Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, and handled English ecclesiastical issues before the Roman Rota. [15]

At one point during these years, Cromwell returned to England, where around 1515 he married Elizabeth Wyckes (d. 1529). [16] She was the widow of Thomas Williams, a Yeoman of the Guard, and the daughter of a Putney shearman, Henry Wykes, who had served as a gentleman usher to King Henry VII. [5] The couple had three children: [17]

    (c. 1520–51), who was Elizabeth Seymour's second husband
  • Anne Cromwell (died c. 1529)
  • Grace Cromwell (died c. 1529)

Cromwell's wife died early in 1529 [18] and his daughters, Anne and Grace, are believed to have died not long after their mother. Their death may have been due to sweating sickness. Provisions made for Anne and Grace in Cromwell's will, dated 12 July 1529, were crossed out at some later date. [19] [20] Gregory outlived his father by only 11 years, succumbing to sweating sickness in 1551. [21] [22] [23] [24] [25]

Cromwell also had an illegitimate daughter, Jane (c. 1530/5 [18] –1580), [26] whose early life is a complete mystery. According to novelist Hilary Mantel, "Cromwell had an illegitimate daughter, and beyond the fact that she existed, we know very little about her. She comes briefly into the records, in an incredibly obscure way—she's in the archives of the county of Chester." [27] [28] [29] [30] Jane was born to an unknown mother while Cromwell mourned the loss of his wife and daughters. Jane presumably resided in Cromwell's homes, was educated, and spent time living with Gregory Cromwell at Leeds Castle in 1539. Cromwell's records show him paying for clothing and expenses for Jane. [31] It is unknown what became of Jane's mother. Cromwell was known to be one of the few men at court without mistresses, and tried to keep this indiscretion secret.

Jane married William Hough (c. 1527–1585), of Leighton in Wirral, Cheshire, around 1550. [16] William Hough was the son of Richard Hough (1508–73/74) who was Cromwell's agent in Chester from 1534 to 1540. [32] [33] [34] [30] Jane and her husband remained staunch Roman Catholics, who, together with their daughter, Alice, her husband, William Whitmore, and their children, all came to the attention of the authorities as recusants during the reign of Elizabeth I. [35]

In 1517, and again in 1518, Cromwell led an embassy to Rome to obtain from Pope Leo X a papal bull for the reinstatement of Indulgences for the town of Boston, Lincolnshire. [36]

By 1520, Cromwell was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles. [5] In 1523, he obtained a seat in the House of Commons as a Burgess, though the constituency he represented has not been identified. [5] After Parliament had been dissolved, Cromwell wrote a letter to a friend, jesting about the session's lack of productivity:

I amongst other have indured a parlyament which contenwid by the space of xvii hole wekes wher we communyd of warre pease Stryffe contencyon debatte murmure grudge Riches poverte penurye trowth falshode Justyce equyte dicayte [deceit] opprescyon Magnanymyte actyvyte foce [force] attempraunce [moderation] Treason murder Felonye consyli. [conciliation] and also how a commune welth myght be ediffyed and a[lso] contenewid within our Realme. Howbeyt in conclusyon we have d[one] as our predecessors have been wont to doo that ys to say, as well we myght and lefte wher we begann. [5]

For a short while in 1523 Cromwell became a trusted adviser to Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset before, early in 1524, becoming a member of the household of Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, although initially he maintained his private legal practice in that year he was elected a member of Gray's Inn, a lawyers' guild. [5] [37] Cromwell assisted in the dissolution of nearly thirty monasteries to raise funds for Wolsey to found The King's School, Ipswich (1528), and Cardinal College, in Oxford (1529). [5] In 1529 Wolsey appointed Cromwell a member of his council, as one of his most senior and trusted advisers. [38] By the end of October of that year, however, Wolsey had fallen from power. [5] Cromwell had made enemies by aiding Wolsey to suppress the monasteries, but was determined not to fall with his master, as he told George Cavendish, then a Gentleman Usher and later Wolsey's biographer:

I do entend (god wyllyng) this after none, whan my lord hathe dyned to ride to london and so to the Court, where I wyll other make or marre, or ere [before] I come agayn, I wyll put my self in the prese [press] to se what any man is Able to lay to my charge of ontrouthe or mysdemeanor. [5]

Cavendish acknowledges that Cromwell's moves to mend the situation were by means of engaging himself in an energetic defence of Wolsey ("There could nothing be spoken against my lord…but he [Cromwell] would answer it incontinent[ly]" [39] ), rather than by distancing himself from his old master's actions, and this display of "authentic loyalty" only enhanced his reputation, not least in the mind of the King. [40]

Cromwell successfully overcame the shadow cast over his career by Wolsey's downfall. By November 1529, he had secured a seat in Parliament as a member for Taunton and was reported to be in favour with the King. [5] Early in this short session of Parliament (November to December 1529) Cromwell involved himself with legislation to restrict absentee clergy from collecting stipends from multiple parishes ("clerical farming") and to abolish the power of Rome to award dispensations for the practice. [41] [42] [43]

At some point during the closing weeks of 1530, the King appointed him to the Privy Council. [5] Cromwell held numerous offices during his career in the King's service, including:

  • Commissioner for the Subsidy, London 1524, Kent 1534, for printing of the Bible 1539, for sale of crown lands 1539, 1540 jointly with Sir John Williams 14 April 1532, c. 1533–1540
  • Clerk of the Hanaper 16 July 1532, jointly with Ralph Sadler Apr. 1535–1540 12 April 1533 – 1540
  • Recorder, Bristol 1533–1540
  • Steward, Westminster Abbey 12 September 1533, jointly with Robert Wroth 14 February 1534 – May 1535
  • Lordships of Edmonton and Sayesbery, Middlesex May 1535, of Havering-atte-Bower, Essex December 1537 manor of Writtle, Essex June 1536, Honour of Rayleigh, Essex September 1539
  • Surveyor of the King's Woods, jointly with Sir William Paulet by 1533 c. April 1534 – April 1540 8 October 1534 – 10 July 1536
  • Constable jointly with Richard Williams (alias Cromwell) of Hertford Castle, Hertfordshire 1534–1540, Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire 1535–d., sole, Leeds Castle, Kent 4 January 1539 – 1540
  • Visitor-General of the Monasteries 21 January 1535
  • Steward, Duchy of Lancaster, Essex, Hertfordshire and Middlesex 12 May 1535 – 1540
  • Steward of Savoy Manor May 1535 – 1540
  • Chancellor, High Steward and Visitor, Cambridge University 1535–1540
  • Commissioner for the Peace, Bristol, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey 1535–1540, Essex 1536–1540, Derbyshire, Westmorland 1537–1540, all counties 1538–1540 of Salisbury, May 1536 – 1540
  • Receiver of Petitions in the Lords, Parliament of 1536
  • Trier, Parliament of 1539 , 2 July 1536 – 1540 and Vicegerent of the King in spirituals, 18 July 1536 , 1537–1540
  • Warden and Chief Justice in Eyre, North of Trent, 30 December 1537 – 1540 , 2 November 1538 – 1540
  • Great Chamberlain, 17 April 1540

as well as numerous minor offices. [28] [44]

Anne Boleyn Edit

From 1527, Henry VIII had sought to have his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon annulled, so that he could lawfully marry Anne Boleyn. At the centre of the campaign to secure the annulment was the emerging doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. By the autumn of 1531, Cromwell had taken control of the supervision of the king's legal and parliamentary affairs, working closely with Thomas Audley, and had joined the inner circle of the Council. By the following spring, he had begun to exert influence over elections to the House of Commons. [5]

The third session of what is now known as the Reformation Parliament had been scheduled for October 1531, but was postponed until 15 January 1532 because of government indecision as to the best way to proceed. Cromwell now favoured the assertion of royal supremacy, and manipulated the Commons by resurrecting anti-clerical grievances expressed earlier in the session of 1529. On 18 March 1532, the Commons delivered a supplication to the king, denouncing clerical abuses and the power of the ecclesiastical courts, and describing Henry as "the only head, sovereign lord, protector and defender" of the Church. The clergy capitulated when faced with the threat of parliamentary reprisal. On 14 May 1532, Parliament was prorogued. Two days later, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor, realising that the battle to save the marriage was lost. More's resignation from the Council represented a triumph for Cromwell and the pro-Reformation faction at court. [5]

The king's gratitude to Cromwell was expressed in a grant of the lordship of the manor of Romney in the Welsh Marches (recently confiscated from the family of the executed Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham) and appointment to three relatively minor offices: Master of the Jewels on 14 April 1532, Clerk of the Hanaper on 16 July, and Chancellor of the Exchequer on 12 April 1533. [45] None of these offices afforded much income, but the appointments were an indication of royal favour, and gave Cromwell a position in three major institutions of government: the royal household, the Chancery, and the Exchequer. [5]

Henry and Anne married on 25 January 1533, after a secret marriage on 14 November 1532 that historians believe took place in Calais. On 23 May 1533, newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry and Catherine's marriage null and void five days later, he declared Henry and Anne's marriage valid. [46]

On 26 January 1533 Audley was appointed Lord Chancellor and his replacement as Speaker of the House of Commons was Cromwell's old friend (and former lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey) Humphrey Wingfield. Cromwell further increased his control over parliament through his management of by-elections: since the previous summer, assisted by Thomas Wriothesley, then Clerk of the Signet, he had prepared a list of suitably amenable "burgesses, knights and citizens" for the vacant parliamentary seats. [47]

The parliamentary session began on 4 February, and Cromwell introduced a new bill restricting the right to make appeals to Rome, reasserting the long-standing historical fiction that England was an "empire" and thus not subject to external jurisdiction. [48] On 30 March, Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, and Convocation immediately declared the king's marriage to Catherine unlawful. In the first week of April 1533, Parliament passed Cromwell's bill into law, as the Act in Restraint of Appeals, ensuring that any adjudication concerning the king's marriage could not be challenged in Rome. On 11 April, Archbishop Cranmer sent the King formal notice that the validity of his marriage to Catherine was to be the subject of an ecclesiastical court hearing. The trial began on 10 May 1533 at Dunstable Priory (near to where Catherine was staying at Ampthill Castle) and on 23 May the Archbishop pronounced the court's verdict, declaring the marriage "null and invalid…contrary to the law of God". Five days later he pronounced the King's marriage to Anne to be lawful, and on 1 June, she was crowned queen. [5] [49]

In December, the King authorised Cromwell to discredit the papacy and the Pope was attacked throughout the nation in sermons and pamphlets. In 1534 a new Parliament was summoned, again under Cromwell's supervision, to enact the legislation necessary to make a formal break of England's remaining ties with Rome. Archbishop Cranmer's verdict took statutory form as the Act of Succession, the Dispensations Act reiterated royal supremacy and the Act for the Submission of the Clergy incorporated into law the clergy's surrender in 1532. On 30 March 1534, Audley gave royal assent to the legislation in the presence of the King. [5]

In April 1534, Henry confirmed Cromwell as his principal secretary and chief minister, a position which he had held for some time in all but name. [50] Cromwell immediately took steps to enforce the legislation just passed by Parliament. Before the members of both houses returned home on 30 March, they were required to swear an oath accepting the Act of Succession, and all the King's subjects were now required to swear to the legitimacy of the marriage and, by implication, to accept the King's new powers and the break from Rome. On 13 April, the London clergy accepted the oath. On the same day, the commissioners offered it to Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, both of whom refused it. More was taken into custody on the same day and was moved to the Tower of London on 17 April. Fisher joined him there four days later. On 7 May Cromwell led a deputation from the commissioners to Fisher and More, to persuade them to accept the Act and save themselves. This failed and, within a month, both prisoners were executed. [51]

On 18 April, an order was issued that all citizens of London were to swear their acceptance of the Oath of Succession. Similar orders were issued throughout the country. When Parliament reconvened in November, Cromwell brought in the most significant revision of the treason laws since 1352, making it treasonous to speak rebellious words against the Royal Family, to deny their titles, or to call the King a heretic, tyrant, infidel, or usurper. The Act of Supremacy also clarified the King's position as head of the church and the Act for Payment of First Fruits and Tenths substantially increased clerical taxes. Cromwell also strengthened his own control over the Church. On 21 January 1535, the King appointed him Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General, and commissioned him to organise visitations of all the country's churches, monasteries, and clergy. In this capacity, Cromwell conducted a census in 1535 to enable the government to tax church property more effectively. [5]

A lasting achievement of Cromwell's vicegerency was his direction of Autumn 1538 that every parish in the country should securely maintain a record of all christenings, marriages and burials. Although intended as a means to flush out Anabaptists (dissenting religious refugees from the Low Countries and elsewhere who did not practise infant baptism) the measure proved to be of great benefit to the posterity of English historians. [52]

Fall of Anne Boleyn Edit

The final session of the Reformation Parliament began on 4 February 1536. By 18 March, an Act for the Suppression of the Lesser Monasteries, those with a gross income of less than £200 per annum, had passed both houses. This caused a clash with Anne Boleyn, formerly one of Cromwell's strongest allies, who wanted the proceeds of the dissolution used for educational and charitable purposes, not paid into the King's coffers. [53]

Anne instructed her chaplains to preach against the Vicegerent, and in a blistering sermon on Passion Sunday, 2 April 1536, her almoner, John Skip, denounced Cromwell and his fellow Privy Councillors before the entire court. Skip's diatribe was intended to persuade courtiers and Privy Councillors to change the advice they had been giving the King and to reject the temptation of personal gain. Skip was called before the Council and accused of malice, slander, presumption, lack of charity, sedition, treason, disobedience to the gospel, attacking 'the great posts, pillars and columns sustaining and holding up the commonwealth' and inviting anarchy. [54] [55]

Anne, who had many enemies at court, had never been popular with the people and had so far failed to produce a male heir. The King was growing impatient, having become enamoured of the young Jane Seymour and being encouraged by Anne's enemies, particularly Sir Nicholas Carew and the Seymours. In circumstances that have divided historians, Anne was accused of adultery with Mark Smeaton, a musician of the royal household, Sir Henry Norris, the King's groom of the stool and one of his closest friends, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton and her brother, George Boleyn, 2nd Viscount Rochford. [56] [57] The Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, wrote to Charles V that:

he himself [Cromwell] has been authorised and commissioned by the king to prosecute and bring to an end the mistress's trial, to do which he had taken considerable trouble. He set himself to devise and conspire the said affair. [58] [59] [60]

Regardless of the role Cromwell played in Anne Boleyn's fall, and his confessed animosity to her, Chapuys's letter states that Cromwell claimed that he was acting with the King's authority. [61] Most historians, however, are convinced that her fall and execution were engineered by Cromwell. [62] [63]

The Queen and her brother stood trial on Monday 15 May, while the four others accused with them were condemned on the Friday beforehand. The men were executed on 17 May 1536 and, on the same day, Cranmer declared Henry's marriage to Anne invalid, a ruling that illegitimised their daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Two days later, Anne herself was executed. On 30 May, the King married Jane Seymour. On 8 June, a new Parliament passed the second Act of Succession, securing the rights of Queen Jane's heirs to the throne. [5]

Baron Cromwell and Lord Privy Seal Edit

Cromwell's position was now stronger than ever. He succeeded Anne Boleyn's father, Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, as Lord Privy Seal on 2 July 1536, resigning the office of Master of the Rolls, which he had held since 8 October 1534. On 8 July 1536, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. [65]

Religious reform Edit

Cromwell orchestrated the Dissolution of the Monasteries and visitations to the universities and colleges in 1535, which had strong links to the church. This resulted in the dispersal and destruction of many books deemed "popish" and "superstitious". This has been described as "easily the greatest single disaster in English literary history". Oxford University was left without a library collection until Sir Thomas Bodley's donation in 1602. [66]

In July 1536, the first attempt was made to clarify religious doctrine after the break with Rome. Bishop Edward Foxe tabled proposals in Convocation, with strong backing from Cromwell and Cranmer, which the King later endorsed as the Ten Articles and which were printed in August 1536. Cromwell circulated injunctions for their enforcement that went beyond the Articles themselves, provoking opposition in September and October in Lincolnshire and then throughout the six northern counties. These widespread popular and clerical uprisings, collectively known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, found support among the gentry and even the nobility. [67]

The rebels' grievances were wide-ranging, but the most significant was the suppression of the monasteries, blamed on the King's "evil counsellors", principally Cromwell and Cranmer. One of the leaders of the rebellion was Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy of Darcy, who gave Cromwell the prophetic warning during his interrogation in the Tower: "… men who have been in cases like with their prince as ye be now have come at the last to the same end that ye would now bring me unto.". [68]

The suppression of the risings spurred further Reformation measures. In February 1537, Cromwell convened a vicegerential synod of bishops and academics. The synod was co-ordinated by Cranmer and Foxe, and they prepared a draft document by July: The Institution of a Christian Man, more commonly known as the Bishops' Book. [70] By October, it was in circulation, although the King had not yet given it his full assent. However, Cromwell's success in Church politics was offset by the fact that his political influence had been weakened by the emergence of a Privy Council, a body of nobles and office-holders that first came together to suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace. The King confirmed his support of Cromwell by appointing him to the Order of the Garter on 5 August 1537, but Cromwell was nonetheless forced to accept the existence of an executive body dominated by his conservative opponents. [5]

In January 1538, Cromwell pursued an extensive campaign against what the opponents of the old religion termed "idolatry": statues, rood screens, and images were attacked, culminating in September with the dismantling of the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Early in September, Cromwell also completed a new set of vicegerential injunctions declaring open war on "pilgrimages, feigned relics or images, or any such superstitions" and commanding that "one book of the whole Bible in English" be set up in every church. Moreover, following the "voluntary" surrender of the remaining smaller monasteries during the previous year, the larger monasteries were now also "invited" to surrender throughout 1538, a process legitimised in the 1539 session of Parliament and completed in the following year. [5]

Resistance to further religious reform Edit

The King was becoming increasingly unhappy about the extent of religious changes, and the conservative faction was gaining strength at court. Cromwell took the initiative against his enemies. He imprisoned the Marquess of Exeter, Sir Edward Neville, and Sir Nicholas Carew on charges of treason in November 1538 (the "Exeter Conspiracy"), using evidence acquired from Sir Geoffrey Pole under interrogation in the Tower. Sir Geoffrey, "broken in spirit", was pardoned but the others were executed. [71]

On 17 December 1538, the Inquisitor-General of France forbade the printing of Miles Coverdale's Great Bible. Then, Cromwell persuaded the King of France to release the unfinished books so that printing could continue in England. The first edition was finally available in April 1539. The publication of the Great Bible was one of Cromwell's principal achievements, being the first authoritative version in English. [5]

The King, however, continued to resist further Reformation measures. A Parliamentary committee was established to examine doctrine, and the Duke of Norfolk presented six questions on 16 May 1539 for the House to consider, which were duly passed as the Act of Six Articles shortly before the session ended on 28 June. The Six Articles reaffirmed a traditional view of the Mass, the Sacraments, and the priesthood. [5]

Anne of Cleves Edit

Queen Jane had died in 1537, less than two weeks after the birth of her only child, the future Edward VI. In early October 1539, the King finally accepted Cromwell's suggestion that he should marry Anne of Cleves, the sister of Duke Wilhelm of Cleves, partly on the basis of a portrait which Hans Holbein had painted of her. On 27 December, Anne of Cleves arrived at Dover. On New Year's Day 1540, the King met her at Rochester and was immediately repelled by her physically: "I like her not!". The wedding ceremony took place on 6 January at Greenwich, but the marriage was not consummated. Henry said that he found it impossible to enjoy conjugal relations with a woman whom he found so unattractive. [72]

Earl of Essex Edit

On 18 April 1540, Henry granted Cromwell the earldom of Essex and the senior Court office of Lord Great Chamberlain. [5] Despite these signs of royal favour, Cromwell's tenure as the King's chief minister was nearing its end. The King's anger at being manoeuvered into marrying Anne of Cleves was the opportunity Cromwell's conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, had been hoping for. [73]

Downfall and execution Edit

During 1536 Cromwell had proven himself an agile political survivor. However, the gradual slide towards Protestantism at home and the King's ill-starred marriage to Anne of Cleves, which Cromwell engineered in January 1540, proved costly. Some historians believe that Hans Holbein the Younger was partly responsible for Cromwell's downfall because he had provided a very flattering portrait of Anne which may have deceived the king. The 65 cm × 48 cm (26 in × 19 in) painting is now displayed at the Louvre in Paris. When Henry finally met her, the king was reportedly shocked by her plain appearance. [74] Cromwell had passed on to Henry some exaggerated claims of Anne's beauty. [75] [76]

Initially, Cromwell was one of only two courtiers with whom the king confided that he had been unable to consummate the union (the other was Lord High Admiral Southampton, who had conducted Anne from Calais). When Henry's humiliation became common knowledge, Southampton (or possibly Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London) made sure that Cromwell was blamed for the indiscretion. Both men were erstwhile friends of Cromwell and their self-serving disloyalty indicated that the minister's position was already known to be weakening. [77] [78]

A long-mooted Franco-Imperial alliance (contrary to England's interests) had failed to materialise: Cromwell had caused the Duke of Norfolk to be sent to the court of the French king Francis I to offer Henry's support in his unresolved dispute with Emperor Charles V, and the mission had been received favourably. This changed the balance of power in England's favour and demonstrated that Cromwell's earlier foreign policy of wooing support from the Duchy of Cleves had unnecessarily caused his king's conjugal difficulty. [79]

Early in 1540 Cromwell's religiously conservative, aristocratic enemies, headed by the Duke of Norfolk and supported by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester (given the nickname "Wily Winchester" by polemical historian John Foxe for his mischievous counsels to the king) [80] decided that the country's decline towards "doctrinal radicalism" in religion, as expressed in a series of parliamentary debates held throughout that Spring, had gone too far. They saw in Catherine Howard, Norfolk's niece, "considerately put in the king's way by that pander, her uncle of Norfolk", an opportunity to displace their foe. [81] Catherine's assignations with the king were openly facilitated by the duke and the bishop and as she "strode…towards the throne" the two conspirators found themselves edging once more into political power. [82] [83] It would have been a simple matter for Cromwell to arrange an annulment of Henry's marriage to the tractable Anne, but this would have put him in greater jeopardy as it would clear the way for Catherine to marry the king. [81] At this point, however, cynical self-interest may have made Henry hesitate to act immediately against Cromwell, as the minister was guiding two important revenue bills (the Subsidy Bill and a bill to confiscate the assets of the Order of St John) through parliament. [84]

Cromwell was arrested at a Council meeting on 10 June 1540 and accused of various charges. His enemies took every opportunity to humiliate him: they even tore off his Order of the Garter, remarking that "A traitor must not wear it." His initial reaction was defiance: "This then is my reward for faithful service!" he cried out, and angrily defied his fellow councillors to call him a traitor. He was imprisoned in the Tower. A Bill of Attainder containing a long list of indictments, including supporting Anabaptists, corrupt practices, leniency in matters of justice, acting for personal gain, protecting Protestants accused of heresy and thus failing to enforce the Act of Six Articles, and plotting to marry King Henry's daughter Mary, was introduced into the House of Lords a week later. It was augmented with a further charge of sacramentarianism, for which the Six Articles allowed only the death penalty, two days after that. [85] [86] It passed on 29 June 1540. [5] [87]

All Cromwell's honours were forfeited and it was publicly proclaimed that he could be called only "Thomas Cromwell, cloth carder". [88] The King deferred the execution until his marriage to Anne of Cleves could be annulled: Anne, with remarkable common sense, happily agreed to an amicable annulment and was treated with great generosity by Henry as a result. Hoping for clemency, Cromwell wrote in support of the annulment, in his last personal address to the King. [89] He ended the letter: "Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy." [36]

Cromwell was condemned to death without trial, lost all his titles and property and was publicly beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540, on the same day as the King's marriage to Catherine Howard. [90] Cromwell made a prayer and speech on the scaffold, professing to die, "in the traditional faith" [Catholic] and denying that he had aided heretics. This was a necessary disavowal, to protect his family. [91] [92] The circumstances of his execution are a source of debate: whilst some accounts state that the executioner had great difficulty severing the head, [93] [94] others claim that this is apocryphal and that it took only one blow. [95] Afterwards, his head was set on a spike on London Bridge. [5]

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 years 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 [beaten hard], and by his means was put from it for in deed 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. [96]

Henry came to regret Cromwell's killing and later accused his ministers of bringing about Cromwell's downfall by "pretexts" and "false accusations". [92] On 3 March 1541, the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, reported in a letter that the King was now said to be lamenting that,

under pretext of some slight offences which he had committed, they had brought several accusations against him, on the strength of which he had put to death the most faithful servant he ever had. [97]

A Victorian essayist, Arthur Galton, quotes a ‘contemporary writer’ (Galton’s words) saying that two executioners were ‘chopping the Lord Cromwell’s neck and head for nearly half an hour’ (Galton has these words in quotes).

Galton does not name the writer or give any source reference nor does he explain why a second executioner was present. Galton’s essay, moreover, is a very superficial survey of his subject and he is a bit at sea over Cromwell’s fall. Cromwell, he says, ‘died professing the Anglo-Catholicism which his own policy had done so much to restore’, which is rather silly. He is also wrong about Cromwell’s fellow Protestant prisoners ‘who had been caught in the meshes of the Six Articles’ and later burned: Barnes, Garrett and Jerome were in the Tower because of disputes with Bishop Gardiner in Lent, in 1540, not the Act of Six Articles of 1539.

Surviving contemporary reports, in fact, tell a very different story. The Chronicle of Thomas Wriothesley, who knew Cromwell well, says simply that he was beheaded. Likewise Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador, who had been following the events leading up to Cromwell’s arrest very closely and sending detailed reports to France. Marillac adds that Cromwell was spared a worse death (that means he was not hanged, drawn and quartered). Richard Hilles, a London merchant who also knew Cromwell, says much the same. The Venetian ambassador, who did not like Cromwell, adds that his end was better than he deserved, which does not sound as though it was agonisingly drawn out. A London Chronicler says that the head (apparently intact) was set up on London Bridge but if two men had been hacking away at it with axes for half an hour, there would have been no head left to put anywhere.

Moving on to the Elizabethan era, John Foxe the martyrologist was not squeamish – he graphically tells of the prolonged torture at the stake of John Lambert in Henry’s reign and Nicholas Ridley in Mary’s, so there is no reason why he would have kept silent if something hideous had happened to Cromwell. But Foxe knows nothing of Galton’s witness.

Soon after Foxe, a highly inventive narrative of Henry’s reign was composed by an unknown Spanish author, commonly known as the Spanish Chronicle. Here, Mark Smeaton is tortured with a knotted rope tied round his head to get him to confess that he and Anne Boleyn were lovers. Sadly for those who trust in this sort of thing, however, the chronicle also has Cromwell (who died in 1540) investigating adultery charges against Catherine Howard (which did not come to light until the following year). Then, after Catherine’s demise, arrangements begin for Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves. (This is no misprint: this writer really does make Catherine Howard Henry’s fourth wife and Anne of Cleves the fifth.) Later, after Anne’s unhappy meeting with Henry, Cromwell gets up at a dinner one evening and tells everyone he is going to make himself king, for which he is arrested. One of those at this dinner is the Marquis of Exeter (who died in 1538).

No surprise, therefore, to find something new in the chronicle when we get to Cromwell’s fall. Here Cromwell asks the headsmen, ‘Pray, if possible, cut off the head with one blow, so that I may not suffer much.’ But even the chronicle says that Cromwell died ‘with a single blow of the axe’.

The Elizabethan historian Raphael Holinshed follows Hall and Foxe for the most part, though here the executioner ‘ill favoureblie’ [sic] performed the office. But John Stow (1600) has another variation – he says that Cromwell ‘patiently suffered the strokes [plural] of the axe by the hands of him who ilfavoredly [sic] performed his office’. The plural could suggest that a hitherto unpleasant secret is slowly being revealed. It could, however, be a simple misprint or transcription error, because Andrew Willet, writing about the same time (1603) insists that Cromwell’s end was ‘neither unfortunate nor miserable’.

Cromwell was also the subject of a play or interlude, acted by those of the royal household in the reign of King James. The author is known to us only by his initials – ‘W.S.’ When his last hour comes, Cromwell bids farewell to his friends and those around him, including Stephen Gardiner, his chief enemy. The executioner begs his forgiveness, which is freely granted. Cromwell and the headsman leave the stage and friends speak sadly one to another. Then, in comes a man with Cromwell’s head. Then Ralph Sadler arrives in haste with a reprieve from the king, but it is too late. It is all very genteel and obviously not intended to be factual. Nevertheless, there is no hint of a bad end.

Moving on to the middle of the seventeenth century, another Spanish writer, Rodrigo Mendes Silva, follows the Spanish Chronicle, though this seems still largely ignored in England. When the sign was given, writes Gilbert Burnet, ‘the executioner cut off his head very barbarously’ – a similar thought to the earlier ‘ill favoureblie’.

Then, in 1695, a writer identified in the records only as ‘R.B.’, though more knowledgeable on Cromwell than Galton, says that the head was ‘cut off at three or four strokes by the hand of an unskilful and butcherly executioner’. This reads like a best guess to interpret Hall's ‘ungoodly’. But there is still only one executioner, and at worst three or four stokes, which would take less than thirty seconds, not half an hour. Right up to at the end of the seventeenth century, it seems that no one knew of Galton’s source.

Nor did the Victorians think much of it. No mention of it is made in three leading historical works of his time: Froude’s History of England, Vol. 3, 1893 Merriman's Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 1902 and Pollard’s Henry VIII, 1905. Merriman, no friend of Cromwell, lists Galton in his bibliography but ignores him in the section on Cromwell’s fall.

Maybe Galton’s source will turn up one day, somewhere. Maybe, however, it is just a fiction, as Froude, Merriman and Pollard apparently thought. Hall says that Cromwell's enemies rejoiced at his misfortune, and some did invent accounts of it. Less than a month after the event, Cromwell’s main Lutheran ally, Philip Melanchthon, heard that he had been strangled, quartered and burned.

But none of this adequately explains Hall’s ‘ungoodly’. Froude suggests that Cromwell’s death ‘seems to have been needlessly painful through the awkwardness of the executioner’. It is possible that the execution did not proceed quite as surgically as it should have done, but it is more likely that Froude and others were guessing and on the wrong trail, as a few quotes from Hall’s contemporaries will show.

An English translation in 1533 of the Enchiridion by Erasmus, the Dutch humanist scholar, reproved ‘ungoodly manners’, meaning bad, immoral conduct, not clumsiness or inefficiency. ‘Set before thine eye,’ he warns, ‘how ungoodly it is,’ among other things, to ‘submit thyself unto a stinking harlot’. And ‘if honour be given of man for an ungoodly and unhonest [sic] thing … this is not honour but great dishonesty’. Then in another translation, this one of the Paraphrases of Erasmus, the daughter of Herod danced ‘ungoodly' (meaning seductively, immorally), and Jesus was ‘ungoodly and shamefully handled’ at Calvary (this refers to the mocking and jeering, not the execution itself). In an anonymous commentary on the parable of the wedding feast in chapter 22 of St Matthew’s Gospel, those who refuse the king’s invitation to the banquet are ‘ungoodly’. ‘Little sins,’ warns Bishop Fisher, ‘deform our souls and maketh them ungoodly.’ ‘Good things ungoodly used are not good,’ says Roger Ascham, tutor to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth.

Other examples could be given where, in Hall’s time, ungoodly did not mean ineptly or inefficiently, but basely, shamefully, badly in a moral sense. This could be why Holinshed has ‘ill favoureblie’ instead: the meaning is the same (see above).

It may be difficult for us to imagine a ‘goodly’ or ‘favourable’ public beheading, but the Tudors were more inured than we are to this sort of thing. Bizarre though it may seem nowadays, there were scaffold civilities that had to be observed. The headsman would kneel and ask forgiveness of the condemned, who would grant it gladly, with a smile, a kind word and maybe a gift. There was no need for malice between the two. The one was not just the instrument of judgement, he was also sending the other out of this troubled life to a better world (he hoped).

My guess, therefore, is that there was only one stroke of the axe, but this executioner behaved spitefully in some way that Hall does not describe in detail. Hall calls him a ‘miser’, which used to mean a contemptible character, not someone who hoards money. Maybe Cromwell was manhandled, or maybe there was some coarse ribaldry before or after the deed was done. Others, like Hilles and Foxe, either did not know what had offended Hall, or if they did, they thought it not worthy of a mention. This way ‘ungoodly’ can be harmonised with the testimonies of reliable witnesses that Cromwell’s end was mercifully quick.

On the morning of the 28 July 1540, according to Foxe, Cromwell called for his breakfast, and, after ‘cheerfully eating the same’, he set out for the scaffold. On the way he met Lord Hungerford – condemned to die for serious sexual offences including incest with his daughter – looking ‘heavy and doleful’. Cromwell, still cheerful, bid him take heart and not fear. ‘For if you repent and be heartily sorry for what you have done, there is for you mercy enough with the Lord, who for Christ’s sake will forgive you and therefore be not dismayed. And though the breakfast which we are going to be sharp, yet trusting to the mercy of the Lord, we shall have a joyful dinner.’

Let us hope he enjoyed his dinner. And that Henry joined him shortly after. It is pleasing to think of them reunited in realms above. Likewise Henry and his six wives happily together at last, with no divorce trials or crises of conscience to worry about and Elizabeth and other Tudor favourites, all perfect friends at the same convivial table, having a good old laugh at the stories we still tell about them.

Oliver Cromwell 1599 – 1658

Father – Robert Cromwell
Mother – Elizabeth Steward
Spouse – Elizabeth Bourchier
Children – Robert, Oliver, Bridget, Richard, Henry, Elizabeth, James, Mary, Frances
Lord Protector of England and Scotland – 1649 – 1658
Predecessor – King Charles I – 1625 – 1649
Successor – Interregnum – Richard Cromwell Lord Protector – 1658 – 1660

Published Aug 22, 2018 @ 9:35 am – Updated – Mar 24, 2020 @ 8:39 pm

Harvard Reference for this page::

Heather Y Wheeler. (2018 – 2020). Oliver Cromwell 1599 – 1658. Available: Last accessed June 16th, 2021


# OnThisDay in 1536 Anne Boleyn was beheaded at the Tower of London. After a brief farewell to her weeping ladies and a request for prayers, she kneeled down and one of her ladies tied a blindfold over her eyes. She is thought to have been around 35 years old.

She was sentenced to death due to charges of adultery, incest and treason. Most of the charges against her were through fabricated or forced confessions from 'lovers'. Anne's biographer Eric Ives believe this plot was engineered by her former ally Thomas Cromwell.

In her final letter sent to King Henry VIII on the 6th of May, she signed it with "Your most loyal and ever faithful wife"

Thomas Cromwell and Government

Thomas Cromwell, chief minister for Henry VIII from 1533 to 1540, gained a reputation for being a ruthless politician who stopped at nothing to succeed. Some historians of old portrayed Thomas Cromwell as an unpleasant man who in 1540 got his just reward – execution.

However, in recent years, largely as a result of extensive research done by Sir Geoffrey Elton, a new view has emerged – that Thomas Cromwell was a very capable politician who brought in what was termed a ‘revolution’ in government. Elton contended that Cromwell brought in a series of reforms at government level that moved Tudor government from being steeped in medieval practice, which a man like Cardinal Wolsey could exploit, to a modern form of government. Elton believed that the work of Thomas Cromwell with regards to government reform was in the first three major turning points in English politics. Elton was very clear about the specifics of medieval government – a financial administration that was based on the king’s chamber the extended use of the king’s seal the use of individual advisors as opposed to a council. A modern form of government was based on a bureaucracy staffed by capable people who worked to a series of rules and procedures. Departments were created that dealt with the specifics associated with that department and only those specifics. Cromwell believed that if this system ran well, it would end the dominance of any one person, as no single person would be able to control a properly run bureaucracy that was governed by procedures and rules. Elton believed that Thomas Cromwell introduced a modern form of government based on the above.

Cromwell was credited with two reforms of major importance. Whereas in the past, individuals who were never systematically audited and bound by procedures had received the king’s income, Cromwell introduced a bureaucratic model. In the Thomas Cromwell model, departments received money from pre-specified sources – there was meant to be no overlapping – and paid out money for reasons that had to be sanctioned first. Each department was rigorously audited. They were run the same way as the Duchy of Lancaster was. This had been set up to administer the lands and rights that had come to the crown from the house of Lancaster. The two most famous departments (the Court of Augmentations and the Court of First Fruits and Tenths) were created to look after Henry’s income from the Church following the dissolution of the monasteries. Because they had legal status to adjudicate over disputes, they were given the title ‘court’.

The second major reform introduced by Cromwell was the Privy Council. Previous to this, a council had existed that was made up of up to 100 men to advise the king. However, very few of them ever attended and the system usually ended up with one strong man dominating, such as Wolsey. The Privy Council was made up of twenty men who were specifically chosen to have responsibility for the day-to-day running of government. The ability of these men and the exclusivity of the Privy Council meant that, in theory, no individual could dominate it, as the men in the Council should have been more than able to ‘hold their own’.

Elton believed that these reforms swept away the old medieval system of government and introduced a system that survived with few changes for another 300 years. Those in government after Cromwell were meant to be able men whose sole intention was to do their best for the government – as opposed to their own self-advancement.

Primary Sources

(1) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

Wolsey had become very unpopular. with the nobility. and the King was ready to sacrifice him to save his own prestige, which had suffered from his heartless treatment of the Queen.

(2) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

It was typical of the King that he would never accept responsibility for anything which seemed to be going wrong, and someone (probably Gardiner) succeeded in convincing him that Cromwell was responsible for the unseemly quarrels which were disrupting his Church. Very suddenly everything which had recently gone wrong, including the Cleves marriage, became Cromwell's fault, and his alone

(3) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002)

Henry had sent Anne of Cleves down to Richmond in the middle of June, "purposing it to be more for her health, open air and pleasure", though he himself remained to seek his pleasure in the capital, paying frequent visits to Mistress Katherine Howard at her grandmother's house in Lambeth. The Queen would not, of course, have understood all the ramifications of the power struggle currently in progress at Court (they remain more than somewhat obscure to this day), but she was certainly alarmed by the sudden arrest of Thomas Cromwell on a charge of high treason, which took place a few days before her own banishment. Cromwell had been the chief architect of the Cleves marriage, and Anne naturally regarded him in the light of a friend and mentor. Whether she was really afraid that she might soon be joining him in the Tower is difficult to say, but in the circumstances she could hardly be blamed for feeling nervous about her future. According to one account, she fell to the ground in a dead faint when a delegation headed by the Duke of Suffolk arrived at Richmond, believing they had come to arrest her. Her visitors, however, quickly reassured her. They had, on the contrary, been instructed to offer her what Henry considered generous terms in exchange for his freedom : an income of five hundred pounds a year, the use of two royal residences, with an adequate establishment, plus the position of the King's adopted sister with precedence over every other lady in the land except the next queen and the princesses.

(4) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985)

By 1540 the invasion threat had receded, but the conservatives kept up their pressure on the King, insisting that Cromwell was a secret sacramentary, intent on destroying the Church that Henry had created in England. Henry was by nature suspicious, and age had not mellowed him. Furthermore his passion for Catherine Howard encouraged him to believe what the conservatives were telling him. He made up his mind with typical suddenness, and on 10 June 1540 Cromwell was arrested. A Bill of attainder was pushed through Parliament, condemning him as a heretic and traitor. The charges were flimsy, but Cromwell could make no effective rebuttal, for, as he told Henry in one of a number of letters in which he pleaded for mercy, "I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all". He was kept alive for six weeks so that he could give evidence in the divorce action between Henry and Anne of Cleves, and then, on 28 July, was led to the scaffold.

(5) John Guy, Tudor England (1986)

Thomas Cromwell was a self-made man - a man of action not a university-trained intellectual like More, Cranmer, or Reginald Pole. Yet the distinction should not be overdrawn, since in Italy he discovered wide intellectual interests. He read history as well as law, spoke fluent Italian and acceptable French, and wrote Latin and some Greek. Later he patronized writers and commissioned paintings from Hans Holbein the Younger. He had a sure grasp of rhetoric and (like Wolsey) was a natural orator. He made a formidable adversary in debate, sharp enough to defeat More, John Fisher, and Stephen Gardiner in verbal tussles. But his manner was usually relaxed and always engaging. When speaking, his face lit up his conversation sparkled and he cast roguish oblique glances when striking aphorisms. Most important, his talent for managing men and institutions was instinctive. John Foxe remembered him as `pregnant in wit . in judgment discreet, in tongue eloquent, in service faithful, in stomach courageous, in his pen active'. A prodigious worker with a powerful and exact memory, Cromwell took the rounded view, was inwardly determined yet outwardly urbane. Foxe claimed that, riding to Rome in 1516-18 on business for the Guild of St Mary, Boston (Lincs.), Cromwell learned the New Testament by heart in Erasmus's version, an exercise that seemingly laid the foundations of a lifelong understanding. Indeed, this story rings true: men said in the Renaissance that they had their best ideas on horseback.

Of course, for all his ease of manner, accessibility, and capacity for friendship, Cromwell had a dangerous edge. He was a politician who got things done. A degree of ruthlessness was the corollary of his single-mindedness, as his role in the putsch of 1536 indicated. On the other hand, Pole's charge that as early as 1528 Cromwell was a "Machiavellian" who held that the politician's art was to enable kings to gratify their lusts without offending public morality or religion was malicious.

(6) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013)

Thomas Cromwell was not a Lutheran. He agreed with Luther on the need for vernacular scriptures, but remained ambivalent on the central Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone. The best general description of his beliefs is that they were Erasmian or Evangelical, or alternatively of the "new learning". This regularly set him at odds with conservative bishops such as Stokesley and Gardiner, who saw the Supremacy in terms of the defence of the Catholic faith as they knew it, and had no time for innovations.

Cromwell regularly protected Evangelical preachers such as Hugh Latimer, and pressed Henry, discreetly but persistently, to accept an English translation of the Bible. He also policed the enforcement of the Act of Supremacy, and set up the commissions required to administer the oaths required by the Act of Succession. The king's confidence in his secretary's judgement in religious matters was demonstrated in January 1535, when he created him Viceregent in Spirituals for the purpose of conducting a general visitation of the Church.

Cromwell, as Viceregent, consistently licensed Evangelical preachers to spread the word of reform, but these were regularly challenged by conservatives bearing Episcopal licences, with the result that there was confusion and not a little strife.

(7) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 220

It was Thomas Cromwell who had finally convinced the King of' the advantages of severing the Church of England from Rome. Cromwell's promotion to the King's service from Wolsey's had been arranged in 1521 by the Cardinal, when Cromwell was thirty-five. The son of a blacksmith, a thick-set bull of a man with black hair and small, porcine eyes, Cromwell had led a somewhat disreputable early life, and had soldiered as a mercenary in Italy, where he may have learned to admire the Machiavellian ideal of political expediency. Upon his return to England in 1513 he had taken up law, and in this capacity had attracted the attention of the Cardinal, to whose service he had been recruited the following year. To great intelligence and ability Cromwell added a complete lack of scruple, although he always professed to be a devout Christian. It was this facet of his unattractive personality that would in time make him essential to the King. Unscrupulous and efficient, his spy network, instituted after his rise to favour following the disgrace of Wolsey, was to become a model for future governments.

(8) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 196

Henry VIII formed a high opinion of Cromwell's abilities, and took him into his service for though Henry had many able diplomats, he had no administrator and political manager of Cromwell's calibre. Here was another useful tool to be employed as an agent. There is no reasons for believing that Cromwell had any great interest in the "new learning" and in Lutheran doctrines in the days when her was serving the hated Cardinal Wolsey.

After he (Cromwell) had become Henry's chief minister, and played the leading part in the attack on the Church and on the Pope's supporters, the Catholics held him responsible for the anti-Papal policy. Cardinal Pole wrote in 1539 that after the fall of Wolsey, Henry was on the point of abandoning the divorce, and of submitting to the Pope's authority, when Cromwell appeared on the scene he was an emissary of Satan who admired Machiavelli's book, The Prince. According to Pole, Cromwell suggested to Henry that he should proclaim himself Head of the Church of England, for then he could obtain a divorce from Catherine without bothering about the Pope.

But there are several inaccuracies in Pole's story and it is absurd to suggest that Henry put forward his claim to be Supreme Head of the Church of England at the suggestion of a man who had only entered his service, in a very subordinate position, a few months earlier.

(9) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 182

The so-called Supplication against the Ordinaries. emerged (prompted by Cromwell). This was a fist of complaints against the church, shared by many English people, from the "Lutheran" Boleyns to much humbler persons whose lives were bedevilled by the frequent need to pay ecclesiastical fees and tithes or the clergy's unfair use of the weapon of excommunication. While the King at the top of society was able to say proudly that he cared "not a fig" for all the Pope's excommunications, those lower down could find their lives ruined by such undeserved bans.

Thomas Cromwell, who apart from his administrative and financial abilities, shared the reformist tendencies of the Boleyns, shaped the Supplication into a form in which it was first presented to the King, then passed back to the clergy. In future all clerical legislation would need the royal assent, while past legislation was to be investigated, given that it was now deemed to have sprung from the King's sovereignty (not the Pope's). These radical suggestions were at first rejected by the Convocation of the clergy, under Archbishop Warham. But under threat, the Convocation succumbed. The Submission of the Clergy was made on 15 May 1532. It followed parallel pressure on parliament.

(10) Derek Wilson, Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man (1996)

Cromwell was a ruthless lateral thinker and a friend of the reform movement. Duke William V, a serious-minded twenty-two year-old, had just inherited from his father. Because of a territorial dispute with Charles V he needed allies. By inclination and education William was an Erasmian. His father had put the church in his territory under state control and instituted a reform programme. William was happy to allow Lutheran preachers to operate but declined to join the Schmalkaldic League, although one of his sisters was married to its leader, John Frederick of Saxony. He thus had a great deal in common with Henry VIII. And he had two more, unmarried, sisters. To Cromwell it seemed the ideal solution. Influence in the Rhineland would give England a powerful bargaining position and a Cleves match would signal clearly her religious position.

(11) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012)

In the spring of 1540 Thomas Cromwell was created earl of Essex his bright particular star was still in the ascendant. He was conducting the primary affairs of the nation soon after his elevation he committed the bishop of Chichester to the Tower of London on the charge of favouring those who refused the oath of supremacy. He had also threatened the bishops of Durham, Winchester and Bath with the consequences of royal displeasure.

Yet there were always mutterings against him. He treated the nobles with a high hand, so that the duke of Norfolk in particular became his implacable opponent. He was accused of being overmighty and over-wealthy, and of recklessly squandering the king's treasure.

On the morning of 10 June 1540, he took his place in the Lords, as usual at three in the afternoon of the same day he proceeded to his chair at the head of the council table. Norfolk shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." "I am not a traitor," Cromwell replied. Whereupon the captain of the guard, and six other officers, came to him.

"I arrest you."

"What for?"

"That, you will learn elsewhere."

In his fury Cromwell threw his cap down on the stone floor of the chamber. "This, then," he said "is the reward for all my services." The members of the council then erupted in a fury of antagonism, screaming abuse and thumping their fists on the table.

It is impossible to unravel all the private suspicions and antagonisms that led to his fall. He was hated by many of the nobility who resented the fact that the son of a blacksmith should have risen above them. Those of the old faith detested him for his destruction of their shrines and monasteries. The public accusations against him were manifold. He was accused of taking bribes and of encroaching on royal authority in matters like pardoning convicted men and issuing commissions. He was indeed guilty of all these, if guilty is the right word. They were really activities that came with the job, and had previously been tolerated by the king. Bribery was the only way, for example, that the system of administration could work.

Another set of charges concerned Cromwell's beliefs he was accused of holding heretical opinions and of supporting heretics in court and country. It was claimed that he was a Lutheran who had all the while been conspiring to change the religion of the nation as the king's ambassador to the emperor put it, he had allowed the impression that `all piety and religion, having no place, was banished out of England'. Letters between him and the Lutheran lords of Germany were discovered, although it is possible that they were forgeries. It was reported to the German princes that he had indirectly threatened to kill the king if Henry should attempt to reverse the process of religious reform he had said that he would strike a dagger into the heart of the man who should oppose reformation. If such a threat had been made, then Cromwell was guilty of treason. It was of course the principal charge against him.

He was allowed to confront his accusers, but he was not permitted a public trial before his peers. He was instead subject to an Act of attainder for treason, a device that he himself had invented. The bill of attainder passed through both Lords and Commons without a single dissenting vote. Only Cranmer endeavoured to find a good word for him, and wrote to the king remarking on Cromwell's past services. "I loved him as a friend," he said, "for so I took him to be."

It is sometimes asserted that Cromwell's fate was largely the consequence of the fatal alignment between religion and politics, but the bungled marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves also played some part in the matter. The French king and the emperor had failed to forge an alliance, so Henry no longer needed the princes of Germany for allies the marriage had proved to be without purpose. Although Cromwell had expedited the union at Henry's request and with Henry's approval, he could not wholly shield himself from the king's frustration and anger.

(12) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Cromwell's fall cannot be attributed to any one mistake or decision, although the Cleves marriage was the single most important factor in undermining the king's confidence in him. It was also a problem particularly difficult for Cromwell to resolve, as Henry's divorce from Anne would only lead to the king's marrying Norfolk's niece, Catherine Howard, thereby further threatening the minister's position. When he made his final desperate bid to strike out his conservative opponents Cromwell was forcing the king to decide between the two competing factions. As Henry dispatched his minister he was probably thinking more about the future than the past. With so committed an evangelical as his chief minister there would be little chance of achieving the religious unity he sought. Two days after Cromwell suffered, in a blunt statement intended to show his determination to end the years of religious strife since the break from Rome, Henry ordered the executions of the three evangelicals arrested in March, as well as three conservatives loyal to Rome.

Henry had sent Anne down to Richmond in the middle of June, "purposing it to be more for her health, open air and pleasure", though he himself remained to seek his pleasure in the capital, paying frequent visits to Mistress Katherine Howard at her grandmother's house in Lambeth. The Queen would not, of course, have understood all the ramifications of the power struggle currently in progress at Court (they remain more than somewhat obscure to this day), but she was certainly alarmed by the sudden arrest of Thomas Cromwell on a charge of high treason, which took place a few days before her own banishment. Cromwell had been the chief architect of the Cleves marriage, and Anne naturally regarded him in the light of a friend and mentor. Whether she was really afraid that she might soon be joining him in the Tower is difficult to say, but in the circumstances she could hardly be blamed for feeling nervous about her future.

(13) Melanie McDonagh, The Evening Standard (17th September 2009)

Hilary Mantel's Tudor novel, Wolf Hall is a kind of one-volume compensation for all the times the Man Booker prizewinner has been bought and not read.

And that's the trouble. Because it's so readable, so convincing, it risks being taken as a true version of events. And that's scary. Because one of the things it does is to reverse the standing of two Thomases: Cromwell and More. The novel does a grave disservice to More who was, whatever else you say about him, one of the great men of the Renaissance.

In Wolf Hall, you don't get the author of Utopia, Erasmus's favourite companion (these things are mentioned but with a sneer). You don't get the humanist and the humorist. What you get is a heretic-hunter, whose wit is turned to dry sarcasm and whose world view is simple religious fanaticism. This is Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons turned on its head. Granted, Bolt's play wasn't historical verity either but it was, in depicting Thomas More as the martyr of conscience, truthful.

All right, historical fiction is just that: fiction. But nowadays, we know so little history, the Wolf Hall version may well pass for reality, especially when it's true to some extent (the sympathetic portrait of Cardinal Wolsey is perfectly credible). Certainly its prejudices are congenial to the liberal-individualistic mindset that dominates our intellectual life. We may read the novel, or at least the reviews and that's what's going to stick.

For the simple-minded dinner-party liberal, the Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight. Indeed, if the prevailing mindset in Britain right now is a kind of secular Protestantism then Thomas Cromwell as drawn by Hilary Mantel is its man.

Trouble is, there is a reason why Cromwell has had a longstanding reputation as a complete bastard. The tally of the executions over which he presided - including those for heresy - far surpassed More's. And unlike More, he was unlikely to have been swayed by the notion that what he was doing was for the good of souls.

(14) Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, The Catholic Herald (2nd February, 2015)

We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.

It is not necessary to share Thomas More&rsquos faith to recognise his heroism &ndash a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England&rsquos history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.

(15) Hilary Mantel, The Daily Telegraph (17th October, 2012)

About the year 1533 Hans Holbein painted a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer in the service of King Henry VIII. Hans (as he was casually called) was not yet established as Henry&rsquos court painter, but drew his sitters from minor courtiers and the Hanseatic merchant community. He was not seen as a remote genius, more as a jobbing decorator who you would call in to design a tassel, a gold cup, a salt cellar or the scenery for a pageant. Thomas Cromwell had not yet acquired his status as Henry&rsquos chief minister as the paper on his desk informs us, he was Master of the Jewel House. A gregarious, cosmopolitan man who had spent time in Italy and the Low Countries, he was probably better placed to know Holbein&rsquos worth than many of his courtier contemporaries. The politician and the painter, both due to rise rapidly at Henry&rsquos court, were bound together by a network of shared friends and shared interests.

But the portrait is not a friendly one. Holbein would soon paint The Ambassadors, rich and splendid and symbol-laden, one of the icons of Western art. There are no metaphors in his Cromwell picture. There is no echo of his portrait of Thomas More: none of that swift intelligence, intensity, engagement with the viewer. What you see is what you get. Cromwell looks like a man hard to reach and hard to impress. He does not invite you to conversation. His posture is attentive, though, as if he might be listening to someone or something beyond the frame.

Of course, a Tudor statesman who commissioned his portrait didn&rsquot want to look bonny. He wanted to look powerful he was the hand, the arm, of the state. Even so, when (in my novel Wolf Hall) the portrait is unveiled, Cromwell himself is taken aback. &ldquoI look like a murderer,&rdquo he exclaims. His son Gregory says, &ldquoDidn&rsquot you know?&rdquo

It is as a murderer that Cromwell has come down to posterity: as the man who tricked and slaughtered the saintly Thomas More, the man who ensnared and executed Henry&rsquos second queen, Anne Boleyn who turned monks out on to the roads, infiltrated spies into every corner of the land, and unleashed terror in the service of the state. If these attributions contain a grain of truth, they also embody a set of lazy assumptions, bundles of prejudice passed from one generation to the next. Novelists and dramatists, who on the whole would rather sensationalise than investigate, have seized on these assumptions to create a reach-me-down villain. Holbein&rsquos portrait is both the source of their characterisation, and a reinforcement of it.

It is important to realise, though, that what we are seeing is not what Holbein painted. There are various copies, some of better provenance than others. But it seems the original was lost, just as the original Thomas Cromwell was lost when he was beheaded on Tower Hill in the summer of 1540. Copies, representations of a representation, may blur or coarsen or obscure. This is what happened to Thomas Cromwell&rsquos reputation. In the minds of academic historians, Cromwell&rsquos importance was established in the last century by the great Tudor historian G&thinspR Elton. But Elton was interested in Cromwell&rsquos record as a statesman. He did not leave us a biography. Others have attempted it but while we have ample sources for what Cromwell did, we have much less to show us what he was. So the biographies are records of a life&rsquos work, not of a man&rsquos life, and in the mind of the general reader, he has been reduced and simplified: all we have is a malign mask held before an actor&rsquos face. It is as if the man Holbein painted has been erased. When I began writing about him, people would look at me in puzzlement, and ask, &ldquoThomas Cromwell&hellip do you mean Oliver?&rdquo
So why build a massive project around an ugly Tudor politician, condemned by posterity as a corrupt torturer? The first thing to say is that when I began I felt that I could cut Cromwell down to size. I intended one novel, to take him through from his obscure birth around 1485 to his death on the scaffold in 1540. I meant to trace his path from his origins in Putney, where his father was a brewer and blacksmith, though the serpentine twists of fortune that brought him to Henry&rsquos right hand and made him one of the major architects of the English reformation. I meant to follow him to wealth and power and magnificence, then stand back and watch as the king turned his back on his newly created Earl of Essex: as he sent Cromwell&rsquos enemies to pull his house apart and impound his papers, as he bundled him into the Tower and (after a period of weeks for him to complete the work on the current royal divorce) sent him to the scaffold, where, according to one source, he was butchered by an incompetent executioner.

But fiction is inherently unpredictable. Even when you know the end of the story, you don&rsquot know how you&rsquore going to arrive there. There is a choice of route maps, but at a fork in the road you hesitate the scenery is not as you imagined. The plain straight line on the paper is obscured, in reality, by dense thickets, and the ground under your feet, reassuringly solid when you began, now feels marshy, quaking. When I began to write Wolf Hall, I jumped, within the first unpremeditated line, behind the eyes of a 15-year-old boy, lying on the ground in his own blood, at the mercy of his father&rsquos fists and feet. &ldquoI was a ruffian in my younger days,&rdquo Cromwell said it was perhaps the only piece of autobiography he proffered. I took him at his word and made him a ruffian. I had no quarrel at that stage with his status as villain. I only thought he must be interesting. But once I had made that fictional leap, I was pulled away from the easy, received version. The picture changed. My character scraped himself up from the ground and staggered into his future. From behind those small eyes, the sharp eyes of a good bowman, the Tudor world looked complex and unfamiliar. The angles were different. Light and shadow fell in unexpected places.

I saw that the man in Holbein&rsquos painting was a man inured to loss. He was in his late forties at the time of the painting. His wife and daughters were dead, gone most probably in the epidemics of the late 1520s. The loss was not, by the standards of the time, particularly remarkable, but he did not marry again or try to replace them. He had tied his fortunes to those of Thomas Wolsey, the king&rsquos cardinal, the flamboyant and charismatic minister who dominated the political scene until Henry turned against him and broke him in 1529. It was a proceeding of craven ingratitude on Henry&rsquos part, and Cromwell, who loved the cardinal, had to fight to survive him: a hard man, a determined man, and one with little to lose. He set out to win over Henry and to make himself indispensable. &ldquoI will make or mar,&rdquo he said, picking himself out of the wreckage. It was, said a contemporary, &ldquoever his common saying&rdquo.

The awful fascination of this making, this marring, riveted my attention, and when I gota little over half way through Wolf Hall, I saw &ndash not gradually, but in a flash of insight &ndash that one book would not tell this story. The battle for England&rsquos soul was under way. England had broken from Rome. Anne Boleyn was queen. The king&rsquos favourite, Thomas More, was locked in the Tower, wrestling with his conscience, while Thomas Cromwell tried to tempt him to the side of life, to a capitulation to Henry&rsquos will. The story is more nuanced than the one familiar to us from A Man for All Seasons. More&rsquos death was a defeat for Cromwell More&rsquos surrender would have been his victory, a glorious propaganda coup for the new church. In the teeth of Cromwell&rsquos efforts, More organised his own martyrdom. Once I began to see the complexity of the contest between the two men, my story could not hurry past it. It was the climax of the narrative, and after it the reader must put down the book.

So: there will be a second novel, I told my bemused publisher. It will take us from the day of More&rsquos execution to Cromwell&rsquos own end, some five years. I should not have been so certain. Last autumn, writing the story (overfamiliar, you would think) of the final days of Anne Boleyn, I found myself rigid with tension and rinsed by fear. It is the privilege of the imaginative writer not to retell but to relive. It did not feel like a privilege to inhabit those rooms alive with whispers, pattering with footsteps: running feet scurrying to desert, the feet of men and women rushing to save themselves. In Anne&rsquos last days courtiers were ready to slander and twist and lie. The court was seething with unspeakable secrets that were, nevertheless, trying to speak themselves. About a fortnight (in writer&rsquos time) before Anne was due to die, I made another sudden and alarming discovery. The head that was to fall was Medusa&rsquos head and its glance would turn my project to stone.

I had, in fact, written a second book, and with the arrest of Anne it was almost complete. Whereas the action of Wolf Hall sprawls across the borders of Europe and spans more than a lifetime, Bring up the Bodies directs the reader&rsquos attention to the events of nine months, and within that nine months to an intense period of three weeks and within that three weeks, to the hour, to the instant of compromise and betrayal, to the loose word and the flickering thought that changes history&rsquos course. At the end of the book, the king has his heart&rsquos desire: a third wife. Cromwell has given him what he wanted, but for both king and minister there is a price to pay. The last chapter is called Spoils. In the political arena, no victories are uncomplicated, and all contain the seeds of defeat. And on the personal level, the ghosts who trail Cromwell are joined by another spectre, the quicksilver phantom of a laughing, narrow-bodied woman, who clasps her hands around her throat and says, &ldquoI have only a little neck.&rdquo

I am still surprised to find that I am writing a trilogy. The Mirror & the Light will (I swear) conclude the enterprise. It will have taken a decade. Sometimes people ask me what I think now of Thomas Cromwell. Nothing, is the answer. I don&rsquot think anything. He is a work in progress. I am not in the habit of writing character references for people I only half know. When I&rsquove finished, and he&rsquos decapitated, and a year has elapsed, I might be able to tell you. I am not claiming that my picture of him has the force of truth. I know it is one line in a line of representations, one more copy of a copy. All I can offer is a suggestion: stand here. Turn at this angle. Look again. Then step through the glass into the portrait and behind those sharp eyes: now look out at a world transformed, where all certainties have dissolved and the future is still to play for.

(16) Joan Acocella, The New Yorker (19th October, 2009)

In the Living Hall of the Frick Collection, on either side of a fireplace, there are portraits by Hans Holbein of the two most illustrious politicians of the court of Henry VIII. On the left is Sir Thomas More, Henry&rsquos lord chancellor from 1529 to 1532, who, when the King needed an annulment of his marriage, and therefore a release from the duty of obedience to the Pope, was too good a Catholic to agree to this. For his refusal, he forfeited his office and, eventually, his life. Holbein&rsquos portrait shows him thin and sensitive, with his eyes cast upward, as if awaiting the sainthood that the Church finally bestowed on him, in 1935. On the right side hangs Holbein&rsquos portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the minister who did for Henry what More wouldn&rsquot. He wrote the laws making the King, not the Pope, the head of the English Church, and declaring the English monasteries, with all their wealth, the property of the Crown. To achieve these epochal changes, he had to impose his will on many people, and that is clear in Holbein&rsquos painting. Cromwell is hard and heavy and dressed all in black. His mean little eyes peer forward, as if he were deciding whom to pillory, whom to send to the Tower.

More and Cromwell were enemies, and history has taken More&rsquos side. Good examples are Robert Bolt&rsquos 1960 play, &ldquoA Man for All Seasons,&rdquo and the 1966 movie that Fred Zinnemann based on it, both with Paul Scofield, as a saintly More, and Leo McKern, as Cromwell, the very picture of skulking evil. Shortly before Bolt&rsquos play, though, the eminent British historian G. R. Elton had begun claiming, in successive writings on the Tudors, that Cromwell wasn&rsquot so bad. Under him, Elton wrote, English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period, and you can&rsquot make that kind of revolution without breaking eggs. Elton&rsquos research revealed, furthermore, that under Cromwell only about forty people per year were killed in the service of the Crown&rsquos political needs. That&rsquos a pretty cheap omelette. Yet Cromwell is still widely seen as the warty toad in the garden of the glamorous Henry VIII. In the Showtime series &ldquoThe Tudors,&rdquo he is, unequivocally, a villain. Earlier this month, a new biography was published: &ldquoThomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII&rsquos Most Notorious Minister&rdquo (St. Martin&rsquos $29.99), by Robert Hutchinson, an English writer of popular history books. Already in his preface, Hutchinson calls Cromwell &ldquoa devious, ruthless instrument of the state,&rdquo a man who showed no compunction about &ldquotrampling underfoot the mangled bodies of those he had exploited or crushed.&rdquo

But now the excellent novelist Hilary Mantel has joined the tournament, with Wolf Hall, a five-hundred-and-thirty-two-page novel portraying Cromwell as a wise minister and a decent man. Mantel is not new to revisionist projects. In her 1992 novel &ldquoA Place of Greater Safety,&rdquo about the French Revolution, she performed the amazing feat of making Robespierre a sympathetic man. Her interest is in the question of good and evil as it applies to people who wield great power. That means anguish, exultation, deals, spies, decapitations, and fabulous clothes. Mantel recently told an interviewer that she had long planned to write about the Tudors: &ldquoAlmost all the stories you might want to tell are lurking behind the arras.&rdquo Some are quite bawdy, which, if we can judge from the Tudor playwright Shakespeare, is true to the period. A waiter at an inn advises Cromwell not to order the pottage: &ldquoIt looks like what&rsquos left when a whore&rsquos washed her shift.&rdquo

Partly, no doubt, for this high color, which few people dislike, Wolf Hall last week won the Man Booker Prize, the U.K.&rsquos most valued literary award. It was heavily favored the London bookie William Hill gave it ten-to-eleven odds, the shortest ever accorded to a nominee.

Mantel doesn&rsquot hide Cromwell&rsquos bad deeds, or not always. She mentions the bribes he took, the spies he placed in important households. She tells us that he could kill. His servant Christophe, a ruffian whom he brought back from a trip to France, says that the other boys in the minister&rsquos employ perform innocent tasks. &ldquoOnly you and me, master,&rdquo he says to Cromwell, &ldquowe know how to stop some little fuckeur in his tracks, so that&rsquos the end of him and he doesn&rsquot even squeak.&rdquo But Cromwell, as G. R. Elton emphasized, avoided killing. During the conflict over the annulment, Mantel&rsquos protagonist tries again and again to persuade More to make some concession, and thereby save his life.

As for More, he comes off badly, as a man who combines a milky piety with an underlying cruelty. We see him humiliating his wife in front of guests (&ldquoRemind me why I married you&rdquo), and we get the list of the &ldquoheretics&rdquo he imprisoned and tortured. Mantel acknowledges that he was a renowned thinker and writer, but she turns this to his discredit. At his trial, he s******s when a clerk makes a mistake in Latin. Years earlier, in Mantel&rsquos account, he gave the same treatment to Cromwell. To earn a few pence&mdashor perhaps just to get a meal&mdashCromwell, when he was seven, worked as a kitchen boy in the house of a cardinal where More was a student, and he had the job of delivering to the scholars, before they retired for the night, a mug of beer and a loaf of bread each. Bringing More his snack, he found him reading a big book. He had had no formal education he was curious, and he asked More what was in the book. &ldquoWords, words,&rdquo More replied. Cromwell, in one of his last interviews with More, asks him if he remembers their exchange that night, and More says no. Of course not. Why should he have taken a minute to tell a servant what was in a book, let alone remember the episode many years later? But Cromwell remembers, and as he is assembling the evidence against More he thinks of it. Mantel admires self-made men. (Her father was a clerk. Her mother went to work in a textile mill at the age of fourteen.) Hence, in part, her defense of Robespierre, and of Cromwell.

(17) Marc Morris, History Today (25th February, 2015)

As the BBC&rsquos adaption of Wolf Hall draws to a close, there can be little doubt that the rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell is complete. Gone is the crude, shouting bully of Robert Bolt&rsquos A Man for All Seasons, haranguing and persecuting the saintly Thomas More. In his place we now have a new Cromwell, more human, more humane &ndash subtle, soft-spoken, witty, grief-stricken, conscientious. Such is often the way with historical personalities: their reputations rise and fall as we choose to regard them in new ways or in the light of new evidence. Historians and biographers must endeavour to provide us with balanced, accurate portraits of their subjects. Creators of historical fiction are not bound by such constraints.

No one knew this better than Cromwell himself, who was something of a pioneer in the field. As viewers of Wolf Hall will know, his overriding concern as chief minister of Henry VIII was the king&rsquos quest for a queen who could produce a male heir &ndash a quest which led to England&rsquos break with Rome and the beginning of the English Reformation. In advancing this policy, Cromwell was happy to re-write history to a degree that would make even the most inaccurate historical fiction of our own day seem like sober reportage by comparison.

Consider, for instance, what Cromwell did with Thomas Becket. In the early 16th century, as for the previous 350 years, Becket was England&rsquos foremost saint, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had famously clashed with Henry VIII&rsquos namesake ancestor, Henry II, defending the rights of the universal Church against the contradictory claims of the English Crown. As everybody knew, that story had ended in bloody fashion in December 1170, when four royal knights murdered the archbishop in his own cathedral, instantly transforming him into the most famous martyr in Europe.

Cromwell denied all of this. According to his propaganda, Becket had died because of an argument with the Archbishop of York that became a brawl in the streets of Canterbury. The so-called martyr had piled into the fray in order to lay into one of his opponents and ended up being cut down in the scuffle. The murder, in other words, was all the fault of the Church. Poor, blameless Henry II had nothing to do with it.

Thomas Cromwell and his reputation

Thomas Cromwell was a brutal enforcer to a tyrannical king an unscrupulous, ambitious, ruthless and corrupt politician, who cared nothing of the policy he implemented as long as it made him rich.

This is a Cromwell that Catholics in the immediate aftermath of Henry’s reformation would have recognised, a vision articulated by Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500-1558). For Pole, Cromwell was just one of the jackals that surrounded the throne, feasting on the flesh of the church mad with lust for power and riches:

‘an agent of Satan sent by the devil to lure King Henry to damnation’

Pole needed Satan in the story – both to emphasise Cromwell’s evil nature and actions, and to explain how someone of such low birth could have got to where he had, against all the natural laws and the great chain of being. Pole’s narrative was picked up and expanded, by following Catholic writers Nicholas Sander (c.1530-1581) and Robert Persons (1546-1610), though they accept that maybe Cromwell had a genuine interest in promoting evangelism.

And although we have no words from Hans Holbein, it is difficult to read his portrait in any other way than a heavy, joyless, bureaucrat.

Cromwell was one of England’s finest statesman, who while being at times ruthless, worked with tireless skill and innovation to build a modern, integrated and powerful king and kingdom, and advance the cause of a reformed religion.

Meanwhile, though in England it was John Foxe (1516-1587) that created the story that would dominate the English view. For him, Cromwell’s whole life

‘was nothing else but a continual care and travail how to advance and further the right knowledge of the gospel and reform of the house of God’

Between the 16th and 19th centuries this was broadly how the story went a negative Catholic view, and a triumphant English, Protestant one.

The 19th century saw a more nuanced story – which was bad news form Cromwell’s reputation. The Romantic movement and the movement for Catholic emancipation saw Cromwell castigated for the destruction of the monasteries. Radicals like William Cobbett (1763-1835) condemned Cromwell for being part of a greedy grab for wealth on the part of the evil rapacious Henry and his evil and rapacious nobility. For Cobett, ‘the brutal blacksmith’ was:

‘Perhaps of all the mean and dastardly wretches that ever died, this was the most mean and dastardly’

James Froude, a committed Protestant who rather unconvincingly presented Cromwell as a single minded religious reformer, and the architect of England’s transformation, rather than Henry VIII:

‘Cromwell’s intellect presided – Cromwell’s hand executed’

But by and large Cromwell’s reputation fell into the dark side. A F Pollard (1869-1948) saw Henry VIII as a mastermind, and Cromwell was not to get in the way of that viewpoint. R B Merriman (1876-1945) described a minister who was a wholly secular figure, with no redeeming evangelical principles, the subservient hireling of a despotic king, intent on nothing but raising the crown

‘to absolute power on the ruins of every other institution which had ever been its rival’

Into this walked G R Elton and his 1953 Tudor Revolution in Government. Elton argued that Cromwell planned and introduced a new model of government, no longer controlled by the king through the royal household, but directed by bureaucratic departments of state. A Government enriched and empowered by the dissolution, and building a modern relationship between the centre and the regions, sweeping away the old franchises and local liberties that stood in the way of a single integrated modern state.

‘Wherever one touches him, one finds originality and the unconventional, and his most persistent trait was a manifest dissatisfaction with things as they were … he remained all his life a questioner and a radical reformer’

Even more, Elton has Cromwell working to a master-plan, a grand strategy. Elton’s thesis has not really survived, or not in its entirety anyway these days Cromwell’s evangelism is stressed more strongly, alongside his desire to serve the king. But there have nonetheless been plenty of historians prepared to fight his corner. J J Scarisbrick’s 1968 biography of Henry VIII is still often quoted as the definitive work. He paints a picture of a king in control of strategy through his reign none the less, he accords Cromwell a starring role

‘Far from being the ruthless Machiavellian of legend, Cromwell was a man possessed of a high concept of the ‘state’ and national sovereignty, and a deep concern for Parliament and the law an administrative genius one who may have lacked profound religious sense (though instinctively favourable to some kind of Erasmian Protestantism), but something of an idealist nonetheless. That the 1530s were a decisive decade in English history was due largely to his energy and vision.’

B W Beckinsale in 1978 painted a generally positive picture of a reforming minister and rational reformer with a passionate distaste for superstition and treason and quoted Archbishop Cranmer for a final assessment:

‘such a servant, in my judgement, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had’

But generally in the more popular view, it is the brutal, corrupt thug that has defined his reputation in more recent times. Here is Alison Weir:

‘To great intelligence and ability Cromwell added a complete lack of scruple… his unattractive personality…would …make him essential to the King. Unscrupulous and efficient, his spy network…was to become a model for future governments.’

And a recent biographer, Robert Hutchinson:

‘an ambitious and totally corrupt statesman… an opportunistic jack-the-lad, a ruffian on the make’

Hilary Mantel’s books have therefore transformed his reputation she depicts him as a sensitive gregarious, talented conscientious family man, determined to serve his king. Along the way, she has also painted a negative picture of Thomas More, and together this has sparked a response. The excellent Spartacus Educational site quotes a couple of these. Firstly, the Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies:

‘It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.’

Secondly, by Melanie McDonagh in the Evening Standard had an interesting theory as to why Cromwell’s reputation may be in a more positive phase:

the Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight. Indeed, if the prevailing mindset in Britain right now is a kind of secular Protestantism then Thomas Cromwell as drawn by Hilary Mantel is its man.

There is one thing all these commentators agree on is that the 1530’s were a decade that changed England forever and for good or ill Thomas Cromwell was a leading architect of those changes.

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