Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein the YoungerAt 3pm on the 10th June 1540 Thomas Cromwell, the Earl of Essex and Henry VIII’s right-hand man, was in the council chamber at Westminster when the door swung open and the Captain of the Guard strode into the room with a royal warrant for Cromwell’s arrest on a charge of treason.

The French Ambassador, Charles de Marillac, reported Cromwell’s arrest in a letter dated 23rd June:-

“As soon as the Captain of the Guard declared his charge to make him prisoner, Cromwell in a rage cast his bonnet on the ground, saying to the duke of Norfolk and others of the Privy Council assembled there that this was the reward of his services, and that he appealed to their consciences as to whether he was a traitor; but since he was treated thus he renounced all pardon, as he had never thought to have offended, and only asked the King not to make him languish long.

Thereupon some said he was a traitor, others that he should be judged according to the laws he had made, which were so sanguinary that often words spoken inadvertently with good intention had been constituted high treason. The duke of Norfolk having reproached him with some “villennyes” done by him, snatched off the order of St. George which he bore on his neck, and the Admiral, to show himself as great an enemy in adversity as he had been thought a friend in prosperity, untied the Garter. Then, by a door which opens upon the water, he was put in a boat and taken to the Tower without the people of this town suspecting it until they saw all the King’s archers under Mr. Cheyney at the door of the prisoner’s house, where they made an inventory of his goods, which were not of such value as people thought, although too much for a “compaignon de telle estoffe.” The money was 7,000l. st., equal to 28,000 crs., and the silver plate, including crosses, chalices, and other spoils of the Church might be as much more. These movables were before night taken to the King’s treasury—a sign that they will not be restored.”1

The Spanish Chronicle also reported Thomas Cromwell’s arrest:-

“As usual, they all went to the Parliament at Westminster, and when they came out and were going to the palace to dinner, the wind blew off the Secretary’s bonnet, and it fell on the ground. The custom of the country is, when a gentleman loses his bonnet, for all those who are with him to doff theirs, but on this occasion, when Cromwell’s bonnet blew off, all the other gentlemen kept theirs on their heads, which being noticed by him, he said, ” A high wind indeed must it have been to blow my bonnet off and keep all yours on.” They pretended not to hear what he said, and Cromwell took it for a bad omen.

They went to the palace and dined, and all the while they were dining the gentlemen did not converse with the Secretary, as they were wont to do, and as soon as they had finished all the gentlemen went to the Council-chamber. It was the Secretary’s habit always after dinner to go close up to a window to hear the petitioners ; and when the gentlemen had gone to the Council-chamber, the Secretary remained at his window as usual for about an hour, and then joined the other gentlemen ; and finding them all seated, he said, “You were in a great hurry, gentlemen, to get seated.” The chair where he was in the habit of sitting was vacant, and the gentlemen made no answer to his remark ; but just as he was going to sit down the Duke of Norfolk said, ” Cromwell, do not sit there ; that is no place for thee. Traitors do not sit amongst gentlemen.” He answered, ” I am not a traitor ; ” and with that the captain of the guard came in and took him by the arm, and said, ” I arrest you.” ” What for? ” said he. ” That you will learn elsewhere/” answered the captain. He then asked to see the King, as he wished to speak with him ; and he was told that it was not the time now, and was reminded that it was he who passed the law. God’s judgment ! for he was the first to enact that the King should speak to no one who was accused of treason.

Then the Duke of Norfolk rose and said, ” Stop, captain ; traitors must not wear the Garter,” and he took it off of him ; and then six halberdiers took him by a back door to a boat which the captain had waiting, and he was carried to the Tower ; and the Council sent a gentleman, who was said to be Knyvett, to go to his (Cromwell’s) house, with fifty halberdiers, and take an inventory of everything they might find, and hold it for the King.’ “2

John Schofield, author of “The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant”, writes of how “despite the lure of Catherine [Howard] and her faction, Henry drew back from the destruction of Cromwell”3 because he “knew what an outstanding chief minister he had”4 and that nobody measured up to Cromwell. However, it was clear in early June 1540 that “Cromwell was not about to ‘relieve the king’ by ridding him of Anne [of Cleves] and giving him Catherine”5 and this was reported to the King by Thomas Wriothesley who had tackled Cromwell about the issue. Cromwell knew that the King wanted to replace Anne with his new flame, the Duke of Norfolk’s niece, “but he would oppose or stall on Anne’s divorce”6 while he searched frantically “for something that would convict his rivals of illicit links with Rome”7, for proof that they were Papists. Cromwell knew that to back the divorce was “to preside over the effective collapse of the Reformation”8 and all that he had worked for.

Thomas Cromwell was not stupid, he realised that he was in danger and Schofield points out that he had already begun to set his affairs in order, making sure that his friends, dependents and servants were all well provided for. He knew that it would come to Henry VIII choosing between him and Gardner/Norfolk, between Anne and Catherine, he knew his master.

While some people feel that Thomas Cromwell’s fall and execution were the result of karma, for Cromwell’s involvement in the fall of Anne Boleyn, I simply cannot agree that Cromwell deserved his fate and I don’t feel that he was solely responsible for Anne’s death. He was a servant of the King, he did the King’s will, he was an instrument, a tool, and that’s that. Just my opinion, but nobody deserves the death that Cromwell suffered: a botched execution.

Notes and Sources

  1. LP xv. 804
  2. Chronicle of King Henry VIII. of England: Being a Contemporary Record of Some of the Principal Events of the Reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI (The Spanish Chronicle), p98-99
  3. The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, John Schofield, 2008 hardback edition published by the History Press, p255
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p256
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p253

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23 thoughts on “10 June 1540 – Thomas Cromwell’s Arrest”
  1. Claire

    You are right that Thomas Cromwell did not deserve such a death. It was brutal.

    But someone had to pay for the Kings political maneuvers and undecided policies. Henry was so wishy washy in many of his decisions that the people closest to him ultimately paid the price when someone else was able to influence Henry. Once Henry had also achieved what was his goal then he did away with those around him who assisted him. In Henry’s own way he was extremely intelligent because he let others around him take the risks while he took the glory.

    The reign of Henry was bloody,violent and politically unstable. You never knew where you stood with Henry.

    Did Cromwell deserve to die ? He like Wolesley made a political blunder and was caught by his enemies. Cromwell let down his guard and in swooped the opposition. The papists thought that by getting rid of Cromwell it would stop the reformation. At this point nothing could or would stop the reformation. Henry held too much power due to the dissolution of the church and the ousting of Rome. There was no going back.

    I also think that there was resentment among the nobility that Cromwell like Wolesley came from humble beginnings. So, as is said “What goes up must come down.”

    My own personal feeling is that Cromwell spun his own web and got caught in it.

    I wonder if Henry now could justify the execution of Anne Boleyn by saying it was all Cromwell’s fault.

    I wish that I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall to know the truth of it all. But knowing what I know from this time period looking back to the Tudor reign, I would rather be a serving girl or merchant’s wife or daughter then be a noblewoman.

    1. “The papists thought that by getting rid of Cromwell it would stop the reformation. At this point, nothing could or would stop the reformation. Henry held too much power due to the dissolution of the church and the ousting of Rome. There was no going back.”

      Perhaps Cromwell should have gambled on that and not tried to stall the annulment of Henry and Anne of Cleves. He should have just done what Henry wanted and then work around the political disadvantages the annulment would cost him. I can understand he didn’t want to undo all of his previous progress, but betting that he could ‘manage’ Henry was his fatal mistake.

  2. I guess you can count me among those who think Cromwell did reap the rewards of what he had sown. He helped Anne and became on of her ‘friends’ when it suited him and would win him points with the King. He had learned from Wolsey how to rise through diligence and making sure the King got everything he wanted. And, like Wolsey, the King’s desire for a particular woman did him in.I agree there was great jealousy and prejudice regarding both men, as they were commoners who rose to great heights. But both had been ruthless to others in their climb and I think what goes around comes around. I do hate that his execution went poorly–well, since I’m basically against any death penalty, I hate he was executed to start with…He was a strident reformist, though, so there must have been good in him, too. I love the complexity of all these 16th century men–what a time!

  3. Claire,

    No one deserves such a gruesome death. Cromwell was too proud, ruthless and sometimes gloated at those he caused to fall. That said, one must not forget that he did nothing without Henry’s approval.

    Henry used him as a scapegoat when Cromwell “failed” him in Henry’s eyes; he “tricked Henry into marrying an undesirable wife and did not get rid of her quickly so that he could put Katherine Howard on the throne and, more important to Henry, in his bed.

    Cromwell certainly was also an able counselor, secretary, courtier and could accomplish more tasks than any other man in Henry’s court.

    Cromwell lived in the Tudor court which was ruled by an absolute tyrant, who changed the rules to keep not only his courtiers, but his people off balance. It is to Cromwell’s credit that he kept his head so long in those dangerous times!

  4. This case shows very well why Henry VIII has been called the Tudor Stalin: Kill your best servant out of paranoia; absolutism could be weird! Cromwell’s letter to Henry where he suddenly wrote in a corner “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” is a poignant reminder.

    At least he wouldn’t probably have suffered more than was usual at his execution: Modern medicine says that you would become unconscious immediately as soon as the axe strikes the area of the spinal cord; it doesn’t matter really whether the head goes off or not. There is a similar effect with “professional” hanging.

    1. I saw a documentary about execution and the medical professionals said that the decapitated victim would feel intense pain for 15 seconds or so even after the head came off. Doctors at accident scenes of decapitated people said they had looks of absolute horror on their faces and in France with the guillotine, they studies beheaded “criminals” and found many of them were still moving their lips and eyes for up to a minute afterwards. It takes some minutes for brain death to occur and there is still feeling until this occurs.

      1. That’s interesting. TV programme experts obviously don’t agree on this. Whatever the case, one must not underestimate the adrenaline shock when the axe hits the spinal cord. Movements of lips, eyes, or bizarre facial expressions aren’t a proof the victims are still conscious, that the brain is still working properly; let’s hope they are more like in a coma at that moment — coma patients can very well move their eyes and even react to stimuli without feeling/experiencing anything.

        1. It is hard to say who would be right in this as different professions have different ideas on this subject, i suppose the only ones that really know are the are the poor people that were the victims of this form of execution and unfortunately they can’t comment. Maybe the look of horror on the accident victims face has something to do with seeing what is coming, and beiing able to do nothing about it as it is happening so fast. From what I have understood is as soon as the spinal cord is severed, any body movement after that is just nerve reactions, a shock wave of energy that has no feeling. But what ever the correct answer is lets be thankful it weren’t us. Anyway as far as execution went, if done correctly of course, there was far worse…… hung, drawn and quartered, what sick twisted mind thought that one up. Evil.

        2. Yes, none of us knows. There are people with “near-death” experiences, but they woke up again, so they can’t really know either. There are not even they same standards of “brain death” all over the world, and of course this is only an artificial criterion that was introduced in connection with organ donation. A decapitated person’s brain would very soon suffer from severe blood shortage, but some 15 seconds of intense pain may be realistic. Sadly, there are probably few deaths without any suffering beforehand: even when you die in your sleep you may have an unpleasant dream with your deadly heart attack.

        3. Some coma patients do sho9w evidence of being in pain, which is why after many years in hospital, their life support is switched off. This happened in the USA after a young girl went into a coma after drug OD at a party. She was in a coma for 15 years, the parents split up because the mother wanted life support switched off but the father didn’t. The case was dragged through every court in the land. The doctors wanted it switched of as the girls hands were curled into claws and her limbs were horribly twisted into painful positions. She groaned with pain and her blood pressure and heart rate were raised, both signs of pain. Her life support was finally switched off after a 15 year battle.

        4. Still no proof that the girl felt pain consciously; the symptoms of pain may be expressed by the basic functions of the body, while the cerebrum (or telencephalon) isn’t intact enough to experience it as pain. Btw, I don’t deny that people suffered at executions; but I think that the greatest problem for them was psychological, to come to terms with your death, not the technical process of decapitation itself.

  5. It didn’t seen to matter how hard you worked for the King, in his policies or his personal life, how many times you did things contrary to your own conscience, trying to ignore those who suffered in the wake of you doing the Kings buisness. if you made any slight slip up, all past merits were forgotten, and you ended up in front of the executioner.

    One of the biggest problems you had at Henry’s court was the higher you rose, the more enemies you made, all hell bent on taking your place. They wait for that time when you made a mistake and are a littlle vunerable, then they strike, and my , how fast you fell. Yes he did some butchering himself in the name of the King, but in the
    end he, himself became another victim in the web of Tudor Court Life.

    Like him or not he was a great states man, and it is very sad that his end was not swift one.

  6. I never fully understood why cromwell was executed. was it simply because henry didn’t like anne of cleves?

    1. Hi Lara, if you go onto the related posts above’ The execution of ThomasCromwell’ it tells you a bit more about the reasons why. 🙂

    2. I Lara think it was a multitude of reasons, that probably what you said just being one of them. I cannot seem to think that this reason and just this one alone could of or would of done so, done this to be honest. It probably was a contributing factor though.

  7. “Who hastens to climb seeks to revert…” Thomas Wyatt

    “The only difference between you and me Mr. Cromwell is that I shall die today…and you tomorrow”. Sir Thomas More

    1. What evidence do you have of that? There is nothing to support this theory. Henry employed Cromwell because he had served Wolsey and he was the man he needed as his replacement. Cromwell had nothing to do with the downfall of Wolsey.

      There isn’t any evidence that Henry resented Cromwell for the death of More, in fact Cromwell was sent several times to change More’s mind. Henry is reported to have blamed Anne Boleyn but the source isn’t that reliable.

  8. I believe Thomas Cromwell had just simply lived all of his nine lives and made too many enemies along the way, but now he was open to those enemies, just as Thomas Wolsey had been open to his and Anne had been opened to hers. A bit of convincing evidence, otherwise meaningless was shown to Henry and whispers made into his ear by an even older friend, someone who could handle Henry and it was enough to persuade the paranoid and malleable King to order the arrest of his best minister. Cromwell may well have had this coming for some time, but he had regained favour after Henry’s disappointing meeting with Anna of Cleves and in fact his fall had nothing to do with Henry’s failed marriage. Neither did Henry’s apparently dissatisfaction with Anna’s appearance have anything to do with his ending her marriage. He invented that. Cromwell and the others all invented the same story on Henry’s orders in order to get out of a politically dangerous marriage. Many of the charges which were brought against him at the Parliament that passed an Act of Attainder against him were complete nonsense, sounding more like something from a dramatic play than a legal process. Cromwell’s enemies had joined forces against him and he was vulnerable. His death was terrible because although he was granted a simple beheading it went wrong. Depending on how you interpret the sources, it was either a rascal who was drunk or someone inexperienced who executed him. It took a number of blows to end his misery. Not only that but his execution is particularly notorious because he shared the same platform as Lord Walter Hungerford who was the first person executed under the Buggery Act 1536. He was accused of raping his daughter, incest and sodomy. To add insult to injury, miles away in the secluded palace of Oatlands, Henry was marrying for the fifth time, this time to the pretty, seventeen year old Kathryn Howard. Henry definitely didn’t have any shame. Sometime in 1541 Henry was suffering from depression and told his Council that they had deceived him into executing Cromwell, the most faithful servant he ever had.

  9. I can tell you exactly what people experience in a coma. My husband was in one long enough to know. He heard everything said about him, he remembers me reading to him, he had a number of extremely vivid dreams, which seemed very real and he doesn’t normally have lucid dreams or remember them and he had several out of body experiences. In fact he recalls more from the coma than before or afterwards. You can not compare the experience of execution but some doctors say the pain of beheading is possible but only for a micro second. It’s possible that the brain retains the memory for up to 20 minutes afterwards. However, lips moving is just a reflex action, nothing more. Medical opinion on the brain during a coma and experience is very divided. Physical death can occur several times in a coma because the organs shut down to allow the body to recover. Revival happens because the person isn’t brain dead. If you have ever been there when your husband heart stopped and he was revived you know what I am saying. Every time they turned him over his heart stopped for 10 seconds and restarted again. It was his breathing tube pressing down and they had to remove that to his throat but boy did it have the staff baffled! There are a lot of sites on the experience of people in coma, it is a subject for study in itself. Go to the ICU Steps website. Many experiences are on there. The brain is the least understood organ we have and we really can only go on the person themselves for the experience.

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