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Thomas Cromwell: A Tudor Villain?

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell: A Tudor Villain?

Key facts about Thomas Cromwell

  • Thomas Cromwell was adviser to Henry VIII from 1532 until 1540
  • He was executed without trial for treason and heresyA belief or opinion that goes against the official Church doctrine.A belief or opinion that goes against the official Church doctrine.
  • He helped to introduce religious reform into England
  • He helped to change the way England was governed from a medieval system to a modern one

People you need to know

  • Anne Boleyn - the second wife of Henry VIII. Find out more about Anne Boleyn here.
  • Eustace Chapuys - a diplomatA person appointed by a state to conduct diplomacy with one or more other states or organisations.A person appointed by a state to conduct diplomacy with one or more other states or organisations. who served Charles V (the Holy Roman Emperor) as Imperial ambassador to England from 1529 until 1545.
  • Anne of ClevesGerman: Kleve, is located along the Rhine river, near the Dutch border.German: Kleve, is located along the Rhine river, near the Dutch border. - Henry VIII's fourth wife, whom Henry found unattractive. He had the marriage annulledTo be declared invalid.To be declared invalid. and she became the 'King's Beloved Sister'. Find out more about Anne of Cleves here.
  • Thomas Cromwell - a commoner, lawyer and politician who was Henry VIII's chief minister from 1532 until 1540.
  • Henry VIII - king from 1509 until 1547.
  • Kathryn Howard - fifth wife of Henry VIII.
  • Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk - adviser to Henry VIII, and uncle to Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard.
  • Reginald Pole - a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Thomas Wolsey - a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, who fell from favour in 1529.

Born around 1485, Thomas Cromwell rose from common stock to become, as Henry VIII's adviser, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. His fall was equally as great, and he was executed without trial on 28 July 1540 for heresy and treason. Down through history, he has been viewed as a cynical, MachiavellianSomeone who uses cunning and scheming to get what they want, with no regard for morality or other people. The term 'Machiavellian' is inspired by the Italian Renaissance writer Machiavelli's book 'The Prince' which was dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, on the Medici family's return to…Someone who uses cunning and scheming to get what they want, with no regard for morality or other people. The term 'Machiavellian' is inspired by the Italian RenaissanceA European revival of learning, art and literature influenced by classical history and culture. It started in Florence, Italy in the 14th century and spread to the rest of Europe in the 14th to 16th centuries. writer Machiavelli's book 'The Prince' which was dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, on the Medici family's return to…Poor Machiavelli, the Italian RenaissanceA European revival of learning, art and literature influenced by classical history and culture. It started in Florence, Italy in the 14th century and spread to the rest of Europe in the 14th to 16th centuries. writer, has had something of a bad press. The term Machiavellian is inspired by his book The Prince which was dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, on the Medici family's return to Florence. In writing the book, Machiavelli's aim was to flatter the returning ruler, and perhaps seek some new role for himself (so in this respect, the book itself could be said to be Machiavellian). However, he also wrote extensively on the benefits of republics, and many have argued that The Prince is either a satire or a shrouded example of why republics are the better form of government. upstart, who drove through reform for his own gain. More recently, historians and writers have looked through the propagandaBiased and misleading information used to promote a political cause or point of view.Biased and misleading information used to promote a political cause or point of view. to get a better understanding of the real Cromwell. They have shown him to be something of a Renaissance manA man with many talents or areas of knowledge, such as da Vinci.A man with many talents or areas of knowledge, such as da Vinci. and idealist who was charming, engaging, witty, and unconstrained by his humble origins: a remarkable man who lived in remarkable times.

Cromwell's early life

Cromwell became Cardinal Thomas Wolsey's man of business.
Cromwell became Cardinal Thomas Wolsey's man of business.

Cromwell was a self-made man from a relatively humble family. As the son of an ill-tempered and drunken shearman-blacksmith-brewer from Putney, he travelled Europe in his younger years, and even served as a mercenaryA professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army.A professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army. during the Italian wars in 1503. The beginnings of the fortune he made during these travels allowed him to set up as a merchant around 1510, with a particular interest in the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands.A region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands.. For the next 15 years, he also studied the law, allowing him to gain admission to Gray’s Inn in 1524. From there his reputation grew, particularly in what could be called ‘commercial law’. By the late 1520s he was working as Cardinal Wolsey’s man of business.Wolsey had been Henry VIII's chief adviser during the early years of Henry's reign. However, he fell out of favour after he failed to get Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, and died of natural causes on his way to face charges of treason. He entered parliament on the strength of his connection with the Cardinal, but managed to survive Wolsey’s downfall and was able to take his place as Henry VIII’s chief minister in 1532.

Cromwell as chief minister

During the eight short years at the height of his power, Cromwell was a busy man. He had come across reformistSupporting the European Reformation of religion, where Protestants split from Catholic beliefs and practices, or supporting reform in a more general way.Supporting the European Reformation of religion, where Protestants split from Catholic beliefs and practices, or supporting reform in a more general way. ideas while on the Continent and now back in England he pushed the ProtestantSomeone following the western non-Catholic Christian belief systems inspired by the Protestant Reformation.Someone following the western non-Catholic Christian belief systems inspired by the Protestant Reformation. ideas, distancing England from Rome and dissolving the monasteries.The Dissolution of the MonasteriesA set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 that disbanded the Catholic monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland. It including taking their income and property and dismissing their members.A set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 that disbanded the Catholic monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland. It including taking their income and property and dismissing their members. brought £1.3 million into the state’s coffers and saw the transference of land from the medieval period's biggest land owner to the Crown. Those who disagreed with the process or the reasons behind it were imprisoned, tortured and executed. It was one of the biggest upheavals in English history, directly affecting 12,000 monks, nuns and others in religious orders (at a time when the population was estimated to be about 2.75 million). He also used his experience of the city states of Italy to change politics and governance in England. This work made statute, rather than royal decree, central, leading historians such as Elton to name him a parliamentarianA supporter of parliament, particularly during the Civil Wars of 1642-1651.A supporter of parliament, particularly during the Civil Wars of 1642-1651..For example Cromwell's Act in Restraint of Appeals, was passed by Parliament (rather than by royal decree) in 1533 and prohibited all legal appeals to Rome under canon law. However, it also established England as a sovereign state, free from foreign (specifically Roman) interference. He acquired a number of formal roles during his rise, none of which he seemed to neglect and for each he worked hard.These role included Master of the Jewels, Clerk of the Hanaper, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Principal Secretary, Master of the Rolls, Lord Privy Seal, Vicar-General, Vicegerent in spirituals, as well as nominal offices such as the Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. If you want something done, ask a busy man! He was involved in the familial concerns of the King, including the rise and fall of Anne BoleynThe second of Henry's wives, she was executed for treason after being unable to provide Henry with a male heir. She was also accused of adultery and incest, although it is likely that none of the accusations were true. and famously pushed the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves, with disastrous consequences (at least for himself).Anne of Cleves was Henry's fourth wife, whom Henry was not at all attracted to. Their marriage was annulled on the grounds that it had never been consummated, but the whole affair proved deeply embarrassing to Henry. She became known as the King's Beloved Sister and outlived Henry and the rest of his wives.

Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves

Cromwell the man

As one of the main proponents in severing the link with Rome, Cromwell has been painted both as a man of no faith (in the Machiavellian sense of serving that which best served himself) and a man of extremely strong Protestant conviction. It is likely we will never know exactly what he thought, as he never made his own religious views known. We therefore have to look at his actions to achieve any idea. Many see his actions as derived from deep religious belief, inspired by his time on the Continent. Diarmaid MacCulloch points to the fact that he was in close contact with reformists on the Continent, without the King’s permission or knowledge, a dangerous course of action for someone who didn't truly believed in the cause. Others suggest that the break with Rome was merely political manoeuvring to secure Cromwell’s own position. He remained friends with the Catholic Abbess Vernon, something which might have been unlikely if he truly believed in reformist ideas.Although we don't know the Abbess' own religious views, it would seem likely that she believed in the Catholic cause. It also seems likely that she wouldn't associate with someone who deliberately set out to destroy Catholicism in England. Furthermore, he continued to own a number of traditional religious items and images, and still seemed to believe in the power of saints and indulgences.According to his will, he wanted 'our blessed ladie Saynct Mary the vyrgyn and Mother with all the holie companye of heuen to be Medyatours and Intercessours' for his soul. He also left money to friars in London to pray for his soul. Elton suggests a half-way point, that he was quietly religious and relied more on individual connection with deityA non-specific supreme being in monotheistic traditions, or a god or goddess.A non-specific supreme being in monotheisticBelieving only in one god, such as in Christian and Muslim beliefs. traditions, or a god or goddess. than on some rigid dogma. To Elton, his guiding principle was not the Christian god, but the nation state. It must also be remembered that in these early days of the ReformationThe split from the Roman Catholic Church of protestants, inspired by people such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli. there were no hard and fast rules, and the two labels of Catholic and Protestant had not yet been clearly defined.Geoffrey Elton famously lectured and wrote on the 'Tudor Revolution in Government' in the 1950s. In it he proposed that Cromwell was the main means of changing the medieval form of government into a modern, bureaucratic one.

So where has his bad reputation come from? Undoubtedly, he oversaw some cruel acts: the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Anne Boleyn having already been mentioned. He also introduced harsh new treason laws, which encouraged informants and denouncements, and have led many to accuse him of having an immense spy network. They say he used this network for his own gain, but also acted quickly and efficiently against potential enemies of the state.

But was this all of his own doing? Cromwell was undoubtedly clever, had his own goals and priorities and pushed through many unpopular reforms. His king, Henry VIII, was known to be whimsicalGiven to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behaviour, or given to whimsy and fanciful notions.Given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behaviour, or given to whimsy and fanciful notions. and could therefore be manipulated. However, it is not possible that Cromwell was controlling the King or dictating his actions. Henry was of sound mind and experienced in affairs of state. That Henry could have been completely unaware or disapproving of the changes implemented between 1532 and 1540 is unlikely, so the responsibility surely cannot rest with Cromwell alone.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and aristocratic enemy of Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and aristocratic enemy of Thomas Cromwell

Some of Cromwell's reputation might be put down to simple snobbery – that a commoner could raise himself so high and, worse, do a good job, did not do him many favours with the aristocracy, particularly when they were on the wrong end of his efficiency: Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, lost his family burial place at Thetford Priory during the Dissolution. A further reason for his emotionally cold reputation is his relationship with his family: Cromwell had a wife who died of the sweating sicknessA serious illness during Tudor times that appeared first in England and then spread to the Continent. It is not known exactly what disease it was, but it claimed many lives between its appearance in 1485 and its disappearance after 1578.A serious illness during Tudor times that appeared first in England and then spread to the Continent. It is not known exactly what disease it was, but it claimed many lives between its appearance in 1485 and its disappearance after 1578. in 1528, with their two daughters dying afterwards, leaving a surviving son who didn’t possess the talent of the father, and towards whom Cromwell showed little affection. Surely this meant he was unfeeling and not easily touched by human sentiment? Yet it would seem that his friends, at least in his younger years, didn’t feel the same: correspondence between them was friendly and nostalgic. He could also be charitable, with hundreds fed at his gates, and didn’t forget friends when they needed help.

History has not been kind to Cromwell either. Two sources used by historians in particular paint him as scheming and cold. One source is the reports of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial resident ambassador, to whom it would seem Cromwell fed misinformation in a delicate diplomatic dance.Potentially such as the real reason for the breakdown of the marriage between Anne Boleyn and Henry. The second source is ‘An Apology to Charles V’ written by Reginald Pole in 1538. Both of these are biased: in the first account, it would be surprising for Cromwell to be shown in an open and honest light, and in the second - an apology to a foreign, powerful, Catholic king – a scapegoatA person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others.A person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others. would be required, as to lay the blame for a king’s actions at the king’s door would be an act of treason.

Furthermore, as Elton has said, the 1530s was a time of revolution, spiritually, politically and socially. Cromwell was at the head of that revolution, pushing his Renaissance ideas of a nation state separate from outside influence. But it is easier, once the hardship is over, for those benefiting from the revolution to distance themselves from the necessary acts to get them there. Revolutionaries tend not to make many friends. And revolutionaries that upset those in high places tend to suffer the consequences. It was the debacle over Anne of Cleves that provided Cromwell’s enemies with the opportunity they needed: a chance to bend the King’s ear, and to turn him against Cromwell. Cromwell was arrested at a Privy CouncilA monarch's private advisers.A monarchA king, queen, or emperor's private advisers. meeting, imprisoned and shortly afterwards executed. The King never heard his pleas, and Cromwell was never given a trial. His main opponent was Norfolk, whose niece, Kathryn Howard, married Henry VIII on the same day as Cromwell’s execution. Henry later regretted having Cromwell killed, and accused his advisers of having 'upon light pretexts, by false accusations ... made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had'.Marillac to Montmorency, ‘Henry VIII: March 1541, 1-10,’ in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 16, 1540-1541, ed. James Gairdner and R H Brodie, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1898, 282-289. British History Online, accessed July 10, 2017, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol16/pp282-289. But the execution provided him with a very useful scapegoat for the nastier aspects of the religious, political and social revolution he oversaw.

Things to think about

  • Was Cromwell a religious man and, if so, what religion did he follow?
  • Did Cromwell do anything good for England?
  • How much did Henry VIII support Cromwell's reforms?
  • Did Cromwell deserve his bad reputation?
  • Did he deserve to be executed for treason and heresy?

Things to do

  • You can visit what remains of the places Cromwell lived. There is a blue plague at 3 Brewhouse Lane, Putney, London, in the vicinity where he was born (the original cottage has long since gone). Cromwell's later home in London was at Austin Friars. It was seized in 1540 and sold to the Drapers' Company, who turned it into their hall. This was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt, but you can still walk past it (or get married there). It's on Throgmorton Street, London EC2N 2DQ.
  • Cromwell has become a figure of interest recently due to Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall. Although a work of fiction, and not be taken as anything approaching historical fact, it will provide a different idea of the man and the time.

Further reading

Tracy Borman's biography of Cromwell, Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII's most faithful servant is a light and interesting read. For more scholarly works on Cromwell, the ReformationThe split from the Roman Catholic Church of protestants, inspired by people such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli. and the Tudor state, try reading the books of Geoffrey Elton, such as Reform & Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal (Wiles Lectures) and England Under the Tudors.