The Execution of Thomas Cromwell

Posted By on July 28, 2010

On the 28th July 1540, not only was King Henry VIII marrying his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, but his former trusted adviser and Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell was being beheaded as a traitor and heretic.

Thomas Cromwell had been denied a trial, instead an Act of Attainder had been used against him. In “The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant”, John Schofield writes about just what Cromwell was accused of:-

  • Releasing men convicted or suspected of treason
  • Misusing and expropriating funds
  • Taking bribes
  • Making appointments without royal approval
  • Being a “detestable heretic” who had spread heretical literature throughout the kingdom
  • Being a “maintainer and supporter of heretics
  • Speaking treasonable words – When preachers like Robert Barnes had been reported to him, Cromwell had said: “If the king would turn from it, yet I would not turn; and if the king did turn, and all his people, I would fight in the field in mine own person, with my sword in my hand against him and all other” and “if I live one year or two, it shall not lie in the king’s power to resist or let it if he would”1.
  • That he was a sacramentary, a supporter of Zwingli and someone who denied the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.

However, although Cromwell’s real crime was his support of the Anne of Cleves marriage and his failure to annul it, Schofield points out that his ruin “was not the Cleves marriage itself” but that it had “begun with the Lenten crisis, and it was sealed by Henry’s passion for Catherine Howard, stoked up by those feastings and entertainments laid on by wily Winchester at his Episcopal palace.”2 According to Schofield, this meant that Henry VIII “now saw his Lutheran Vicegerent as a threat to the king’s headship of the church, and, even more provocatively, the barrier to Anne’s removal and Catherine’s coronation.”3

Thomas Cromwell’s Execution

Although Cromwell wrote to the king proclaiming his innocence and begging for mercy, he was condemned to death, although it was unclear whether he would have to suffer the full traitor’s death  of being hanged, drawn and quartered or be burned at the stake as a heretic. In the end, the King commuted the sentence to beheading, even though Cromwell was not a nobleman by birth.

On the 28th July 1540, Thomas Cromwell climbed the scaffold and addressed the waiting crowd. He opened by saying “I am come hither to die and not to purge myself, as some think peradventure that I will”4 and then he continued by acknowledging that he had offended God and the King and asking forgiveness from both of them. Then he declared “I die in the Catholic faith, not doubting in any article of my faith… nor in any sacrament of the church”5 but Schofield points out that Cromwell was using gallows humour and irony here and was not referring to the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but instead was using the word “Catholic” in the way that Luther, Melancthon and Cranmer did, referring to the “Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” of the New Testament and Nicene Creed.  He continued by denying the charges laid against him and then said:-

“Many have slandered me, and reported that I have been a bearer of such as I have maintained evil opinions; which is untrue: but I confess, that like as God, by His Holy Spirit, doth instruct us in the truth, so the devil is ready to seduce us; and I have been seduced.”6

Although the words “I have been seduced” makes Cromwell sound as if he is confessing his guilt, Schofield explains that it was probably meants as a “sort of sweeping, general confession that all believers make from time to time, like “forgive us our trespasses”, or “all we like sheep have gone astray””.

Cromwell then committed his soul to Christ, calling on his mercy and stating his faith in the resurrection and justification by faith alone:-

“I see and acknowledge that there is in myself no hope of salvation, but all my confidence, hope and trust is in thy most merciful goodness. I have no merits or good works which I may allege before thee.”7

And with this attack on “the work righteousness of medieval religion” and a declaration of his Lutheran beliefs, Thomas Cromwell ended his speech, knelt at the block and was beheaded. The idea that his execution was botched comes from the chronicle of Edward Hall, where he says that Cromwell “so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the office”8, which suggests that it was not a “good” execution, but there is no firm evidence of this and there is no suggestion that the executioner was paid off by Cromwell’s enemies or that they got him drunk. Whatever the real story, it was a sad end to a man who had risen from his humble roots – son of a smith from Putney – to be the Earl of Essex and the King’s chief minister.

RIP Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary.

Notes and Sources

  1. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, John Schofield, p261
  2. Ibid., p264
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p268
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., p269
  8. Hall’s Chronicle, Edward Hall, p839

Comments on
"The Execution of Thomas Cromwell"

37 Responses to “The Execution of Thomas Cromwell”

  1. Fiz says:

    Not the least feeling of sympathy, Cromwell. You betrayed our dear Anne and destroyed her and her brother and other innocents. You screwed up over of Anne of Cleves. You destroyed and plundered the monasteries. You deserved everything you got.

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    Anne-fan Reply:

    RIGHT ON!

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    Nationalist Reply:

    May this bitch Thomas Cromwell rot in Hell for ever!!!Owing to him Anne Boleyn died without being guilty.. However after 4 years he got beheaded bybthe King too.He was the only person that got executed fairly.

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  2. Nancy says:

    I’m with Fiz. What goes around comes around.

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  3. Sue says:

    It was a risky business being close to the King especially when factions pulled together to oust you. Cromwell knew the stakes but it still must have hit him hard to have risen so high purely on his merits and not from birth rights and to fall so utterly. He called to an unmerciful Henry for mercy, mercy, mercy. He must have realized the irony of it all.

    The picture on this article isn’t Thomas Cromwell however, its George Neville. Check this page out : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hansholbeintheyounger11.jpg

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    John Reply:

    Why does it then say “LORD CROMWELL” at the bottom left?

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  4. gillyO says:

    Henry had a habit of hiding behind powerful ministers. He could send Wolsey and Cromwell out to do his dirty work and then claim it was all their fault, not his. Cromwell did his job well, maybe too well for us Anne supporters. I believe he was a brilliant man seduced by the power he could wield in the name of the King. Once he had a taste of that power he wasn’t going to yield it to anyone else. Hence the destruction of Anne and her party, and the determination of the nobility to do away with him. He was using power they thought they should have and when he bungled the Cleves marriage it gave them an opportunity to take him down. The fact they had to do it by Act of Attainder means that it was a coup, done when Henry was distracted by Katherine Howard. It was said that Henry soon regretted the loss of his “most loyal servant” and was furious at the council for removing him.

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  5. Rachel says:

    I agree with Gilly. Too many people are credited with actions that were fully Henry’s decision. Anne is often blamed for Henry’s rejection of Katherine, just as Jane is blamed for Henry’s execution of Anne.

    I did a research paper on Cromwell and I found he was quite a brilliant man. Despite some unscrupulous actions, he genuinely worked towards a more fair and balanced system. He began work to see that offices were given out for merit rather than favor. His taxation system offered more relief for the commoners. And he kept Parliment running for its long term. It’s amazing to think that for the time period, Cromwell was a completely self made man. He was not expected to overcome his station, but he did and he became the second most powerful man in the country.

    Whatever the reason for his downfall, Henry would never again have such an efficient government. It’s ironic to think that later on, Cromwell’s ancestor, Oliver Cromwell, would execute Henry’s ancestor, Charles I.

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    FabNayNay Reply:

    Oliver Cromwell was actually descended from Katherine Cromwell (born c. 1482), an elder sister of Thomas Cromwell, not his ancestor. And CharlesI was descended from Margaret Tudor, who was King HenryVIIIs sister.

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    Heather Reply:

    still related.

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  6. Meghan says:

    I wonder if Oliver Cromwell had any dealings with Anne’s Irish relatives when he plundered Ireland…anyone know?

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  7. Emma says:

    I don’t want to nit-pick but isn’t the sketch at the top of this article Geroge Neville ?

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    Claire Reply:

    Marilee Cody – see http://www.marileecody.com/cromsket.jpg – has it on her site as Thomas Cromwell and various other history websites have it as Cromwell but it also gets labelled as George Neville too, weird!

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  8. Emma says:

    I’ve just realised Sue made the same point about the sketch. Sorry about that. I thought that Henry did show Cromwell the mercy he asked for by the manner of his death. As Cromwell had all his titles striped from him he was once more a commoner and as such would usually have been hung, drawn and quartered.

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  9. vilhelm says:

    Sorry fiz, Cromwell helped more the English people saving them from the atrocious, cruel and usurious catholic church of the time. The never constant king Henry VIII would kill anyone on a whim, up to and including one of England’s greatest citizens.

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  10. It was a dangerous thing to even be known by name by most of these monarchs who had to listen to the reports of others to determine what was going on. Royalty did not have an accurate view of life around them and must have been terrified every day of their lives what with one plot or another to take their power and lives. They were tortured souls making a living hell out of the lives of all around them–the perpetual circle. Only once the public could read and write and newspapers reported what the public really thought, did the monarchs have a chance to get a glimpse of reality.

    It’s all entertaining to read about, but I’m certainly glad I don’t have to live it.

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  11. clare says:

    More nitpicking I’m afraid…
    In fact, Oliver Cromwell was not descended from Thomas Cromwell. He was descended from Thomas’s sister Kat. In fact, he should have carried the surname Williams but the children of Kat Cromwell and Morgan Williams chose to take the name of Cromwell as at the time his star was in ascent at the court of Henry VIII and their parents died when they were still relatively young.
    Neither was Charles I desended from Henry VIII. (Again) he was actually descended from Henry’s elder sister Margaret. An amazing and little known woman, who was married to the King of Scotland ( James IV) at the age of 13 and was the great grandmother of James VI of Scotland (James I of England) and was, therefore, great great grandmother of Charles I.

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    Claire Reply:

    Hi Clare,
    Feel free to nitpick but I don’t even mention Oliver Cromwell or Charles I in the article so I don’t understand. Are you replying to another comment?
    Thanks.

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  12. The Man says:

    Strange I thought brothers and sisters were related!

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    Jerome coleman Reply:

    Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell,must have caused the deaths of a million people in the British Isles ,they didn’t shape the country they destroyed it divided the people destroyed churches ,monasties which was asource of comfort and learning at the time for the poor and wretched

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    Malcolm Dobson Reply:

    Clare was, I think, responding to this comment from Rachel -

    ” It’s ironic to think that later on, Cromwell’s ancestor, Oliver Cromwell, would execute Henry’s ancestor, Charles I.”

    Yes, brothers & sisters are related, but a brother is not the ancestor of his sister’s children.

    (If I could nit-pick Rachel’s comment further, Charles was (not) Henry’s descendant, not his (not) ancestor).

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  13. fred page says:

    It would have been impossible for Cromwell to have risen from such lowly beginnings without exceptional talent. As a British republican, I can only wonder at the esteem held for the Royals of Europe following their hideous history.
    This tyrant executed or at least ordered the death of over 60,000 people during his reign of terror.
    I don’t know if there is a heaven and hell but I’ll tell you this much.
    If there is then ‘Old Nick’ must have made a nice few quid melting down the crowns and coronets of these despots.
    In 1066 one bunch of Scandanavian ganger thugs defeated another bunch of Scandanavian ganger thugs after which the victor ‘William the Bastard’ carved up our country and divided it amoungst his mates, thus forming the basis of our aristocracy, the legacy of which we still live with today.
    Cromwell like his namesake and relative Oliver were of course men of their times but at least they came from common folk who rose via ability , not birth, and constructed the basis of our democracy.

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  14. Tim says:

    I hope Cromwell died a nice slow pain fill death. No mercy just pain……

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  15. Tim says:

    I hope Cromwell died a nice slow pain fill death. No mercy just pain……

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    Marco Reply:

    Foolish Tim. I, for that matter, question the intellect of people that use your kind of words. You must be a youngster, still wet behind the ears and hiding behind mommy’s skirt.

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  16. Tim says:

    I hope Cromwell died a nice slow pain fill death. No mercy just pain……

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  17. Tim says:

    I hope Cromwell died a nice slow pain fill death. No mercy just pain……

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    Nationalist Reply:

    Yes my friend :) May this ******* ******* [edited] Thomas Cromwell rot in Hell for ever!!!I am very glad he got beheaded!!

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    Claire Reply:

    Nationalist,
    Whatever your opinion of Thomas Cromwell, please can you refrain from using offensive words on this blog – thank you so much.

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  18. Tom says:

    Fred up there obviously suffers from class envy and is clearly a socialist. Probably a blue collar type. He needs to bone up on his history, however, because it is considerably flawed.

    The UK is not a democracy nor should it be. Democracies are evil by their very nature. It’s a code word used by socialists to undermine the status quo. Shame, shame.

    God save the queen and the constitutional monarchy!

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  19. Bobby says:

    Thomas was my long ago grandfather so I cant hate him for things he did. I will say theres little to debate that he did infact do a lot of back stabbing.

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  20. utkarsh says:

    Henry viii was a coward and lustful man. He used Wolsey and Cromwell to his advantage and whrpen he got bored with a wife he made new scapegoats of his ministers and got a new bed mate. The stupid king was never satisfied even by gracious ladies like Catherine of Agar nor the beautiful Anne Boelyn. The king behaved most cruelly with sweet Mary and Elizabeth. The king was never sure what to follow, catholic or protestant or lutheran cult and kept swinging. Even his religious orientations were dictated by his sexual appetite. Cromwell was a loyal servant like Sir Moore but faced a cruel fate. Without him, Henry viii would have lost his life or throne long ago.

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  21. sarah baker says:

    i think thomas cromwell was a good friend to henry and to anne and a good servant to them also henry has no right to send cromwell to be beheaded like that its so cruel and its not fair on his family i thought henry was his loyal friend to thomas cromell i watched a programme called the tudors on tv many thanks miss sarah patricia baker

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  22. Mary says:

    Anne Boleyn was wicked and cruel and she got what she deserved. When you do wrong it always come back to haunt you. She was not not a good person. Any Anne fans out there must be just like her and I feel sorry for you. Treating people like s**t doesn’t make you innocent and sweet. What Thomas Cromwell did was not right either but it doesn’t excuse the fact that she did the same thiing. Other’s were also excuted because of her and they did nothing to deserve it. She was also a backstabber not just Thomas Cromwell.

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    Nationalist Reply:

    Are you kidding??? Thomas Cromwell was a bustard and he got ehat he deserved here for a lot of years.Owing to his inducements Anne Boleyn got beheaded by the King of England.She was innocent!!!It was good that 4 years after Anne Boleyns death,Thomas Cromwell got beheaded too.He finally got what he deserved this son of a bitch!!!May Thomas Cromwell rot in Hell for ever!!!!

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  23. Adam says:

    Savagery – a few comments on this page prove how little we’ve come in 500 years.

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  24. mia88 says:

    The Royals like Henry would do well to emulate the Kings and Emperors in other countries like China, Korea, Japan etc…..they keep their Queens but for side thrills, have a whole gaggle of concubines ( mistresses if you like )……if only Henry had use this ‘system’, instead of having to resort to beheading etc , the outcome will be vastly different, hehehe

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