28 July 1540 – The execution of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s most faithful servant

Thomas_Cromwell,_portrait_miniature_with_fur_collar,_after_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerOn 28th July 1540, the same day that Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, the man who had negotiated the King’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, was executed on Tower Hill having been found guilty by a bill of attainder of the crimes of corruption, heresy and treason.

Chronicler Edward Hall recounts his execution:

“And the. xxviii. daie of luly was brought to the skaffold on the tower hill, where he saied these wordes folowyng.

I am come hether to dye, and not to purge my self, as maie happen, some thynke that I will, for if I should so do, I wer a very wretche and miser: I am by the Lawe condempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For sithence the tyme that I haue had yeres of discrecion, I haue liued a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgeuenes. And it is not vnknowne to many of you, that I haue been a great traueler in this worlde, and beyng but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the tyme I came therunto, I haue offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgeuenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeue me. O father forgeue me. O sonne forgeue me, O holy Ghost forgeue me: O thre persons in one God forgeue me.

And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe, not doubtyng in any article of my faith, no nor doubtyng in any Sacrament of the Chnrche. Many hath selaundered me, and reported that I haue been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned euill opinions, whiche is vntrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct vs in the truthe, so the deuill is redy to seduce vs, and I haue been seduced: but beare me witness that I dye in the Catholicke faithe of the holy Churche. And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long liue with you, in healthe and prosperitie. And after him that his sone prince Edward, that goodly ympe, maie log reigne ouer you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I wauer nothyng in my faithe. And then made he his praier, whiche was long, but not so. long, as bothe Godly and learned, and after committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very vngoodly perfourmed the Office.”1

This Tudor statesman, who had served King Henry VIII faithfully for many years, had an awful end, his execution being botched by a “butcherly” executioner.

Thomas Cromwell had been arrested at a Privy Council meeting at Westminster on 10th June 1540, accused of being a traitor. He wrote to his master, King Henry VIII, from his prison in the Tower of London pleading his innocence and begging for mercy, but his pleas were ignored. According to Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador, writing to the Duke of Montmorency in March 1541, Henry VIII later regretted Cromwell’s execution, blaming it all on his Privy Council, saying that “on the pretext of several trivial faults he [Cromwell] had committed, they had made several false accusations which had resulted in him killing the most faithful servant he had ever had.”2

Thomas Cromwell was not the only man executed that day on Tower Hill, he was followed on to the scaffold by his client, Walter, Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury, who has gone down in history as the only man to be executed for the crime of “treason of boggery” (buggery)3 in the Tudor period. He was also charged with treason and using magic. Both men’s heads were displayed on London Bridge.

Tower Hill scaffold memorial plaque with Cromwell's name listed
Tower Hill scaffold memorial plaque with Cromwell’s name listed

Notes and Sources

  1. Hall, Edward (1809) Hall’s chronicle : containing the history of England, during the reign of Henry the Fourth, and the succeeding monarchs, to the end of the reign of Henry the Eighth, in which are particularly described the manners and customs of those periods. Carefully collated with the editions of 1548 and 1550, J Johnson, London, p. 839.
  2. In the original French: “soubz pretextes d’aucunes legieres faultes qu’il avoit commises, ils lui avoient mis sur plusiers faulses accusacions au moyen desquelles il avoit faict mourir le plus fidelle serviteur qu’il eust oncques.”, Marillac au Connétable (Montmorency), London, 3 March 1541, from Correspondance politique de mm. de Castillon et de Marillac, ambassadeurs de France en Angleterre (1537-1542); pub. sous les auspices de la Commission des archives diplomatiques, ed. Jean Baptiste Louis Kaulek (1885), Paris, p. 274.
  3. Wriothesley, Charles (1875) A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Volume 1, Camden Society, p. 120.

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20 thoughts on “28 July 1540 – The execution of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s most faithful servant”
  1. Just what evidence of treason was brought against Cromwell? Now I have never been a fan of Thomas Cromwell, but the so called evidence seems rather elusive. Some of the stuff he was accused of in the Act of Attainder are outlandish. For example he was accused of standing in the market place and declaring, taking his dagger out and pushing out his chest that if the King waivered from the path of reform that he would stand fighting in the streets and force forward with his purpose. Sounds like a drama, not reality. In fact it sounds like my Glasswedian uncle after he had a few on Saturday night. Henry allowed this nonsense to go through as there was no evidence for a trial and the accused could be declared guilty by act of Parliament. Now Cromwell may have been guilty of heresy, he had allowed reformed preachers into England, he had defended them, but he had also prosecuted Lambert and others. Cromwell was responsible for the persecution of Anabaptists and those who stuck to the papacy over the crown. However, he had done so as an agent of the crown. Cromwell got his orders from the King. Cromwell was accused of acting in many cases on his own authority but the specifics are not clear. If any of these things were true then he was guilty of treason. But where is the proof and the evidence? As for the corruption charges, well he did take bribes but that was how things were, surely and Henry must have authorized it. Some people today think that Henry was a patsey and Cromwell ran everything all by himself, doing as he pleased, but closer inspection of the sources shows that Henry knew more than he is given credit for. Cromwell would have had royal authority for most of his actions.

    Cromwell got stuff done. He was an efficient and effective public servant. The problem was, he was not popular and the nobles resented him. Cromwell spied on people and acted in defence of his view of the new monarchy, upset the old regime and made enemies. Then, as with Anne Boleyn, he made a mistake which allowed his enemies to frame him. Cromwell turned to the German League and to Prince William of Cleves to arrange a marriage and alliance against the Catholic powers in Europe. The league also got positive assurances and agreements from Henry Viii and the alliance offered a buffer against the Empire. Anne of Cleves, the Dukes sister was to seal the deal. Anne did not turn out to be what Henry wanted. Henry was angry but went through with the marriage. However, six months later and Anne was persuaded to agree with a divorce. Henry blamed Cromwell and the vultures swooped down on their prey.

    Norfolk and other nobles somehow persuaded Henry that Cromwell was plotting with the league and other charges and Henry agreed to his arrest. Cromwell was also told to testify that Henry had complained to him that he could not sleep with Anne of Cleves and the marriage was not consummated which he did, got his divorce, attainted Cromwell and married Katherine Howard on the same day as the execution. Cromwell was abandoned by the King as others had been, may have been guilty of treason, but more likely, he was a scapegoat for the Cleves marriage and the unwelcome involvement of the league in English politics and religion. Henry may have computed his death sentence but it was terrible as he was executed by someone who bundled it. He suffered terribly and it took several strokes to severe his head. As we know, six months later a depressed Henry missed his efficient servant and blamed his councillors for making him execute the best servant that he had through deceit.

    1. What goes around comes around and there would have been many poor souls that had been sent off to where it is they go that lay in wait to face this conspiring wretched beastie that had destroyed their lives and character.

  2. Henry VIII was a selfish, ungrateful, vicious man. His life makes one happy that there are no more absolute rulers left in the western world.

    1. We enjoy now at this point in history, that schism was and always will be a detestable form of heresy and the principle factor in the downfall of the great European continent in it’s strong homogenous form as established by the wonderful Emperor Charlemagne.

  3. Great comment yet again Banditqueen. Thanks yet again too!
    Rather ashamed to admit (perhaps I think old ladies should know better?), but Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall affects the way I see him now and I even hear Mark’s voice when I read things he has said (oh no!) … just as I was definitely influenced by Paul Scofield”s sensitive portrayal of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (that is, a man who is successful in many different types of activity). Conscious of it, try not to, but……..how about you? Do you have a screen Thomas and if so, who?

    1. I have to admit Paul Scofield looked the most like and portrayed the best characteristic Thomas More, but Rylance does have a haunting presence which makes me think of him as Cromwell. However, the actor from the Tudors, sorry name escapes me was the best Cromwell, at his best and worst, a more holistic Cromwell. Jeremy Norman is my favourite Thomas More, but then I do think he is dishy.

      1. James Frain played Cromwell in the Tudors, and I agree he was the best Cromwell.

        I agree on Jeremy Northam also. 🙂

  4. Cromwell bought it because of the Cleves marriage, plain and simple. He failed to understand that his master would find no happiness married to a stranger. He arranged a marriage he thought would benefit England, and which he probably thought would satisfy Henry, but failed to note the warning signs along the way. It should have been clear that Anne had led an extremely sheltered life from the reports of the envoys, one could almost say cloistered. The barriers of culture and language were formidable, and Henry, accustomed to more worldly women, unsurprisingly, would not find her appealing. Who would pay? Cromwell the architect of the marriage.

    1. I wish I shared your confidence that it was only the Cleves marriage that cost Cromwell his life. That Henry didn’t like Anne (although he had been warned that it would be considered improper for Anne to learn music) isn’t enough to warrant an execution. If Cromwell had been nobly born, for example, he could have survived, just as the Duke of Norfolk did, because he wouldn’t have faced unified enmity. Alternatively, the results would have been quite different (again IMO) if Henry had wanted to marry someone not close to Cromwell’s enemies.

      Seriously, when you think of Cromwell’s advanced ideas for poor relief (including government sponsored public works to provide jobs for those that needed work), combined with things like Thomas More’s advanced ideas on women’s education, it appears that Tudor England could have been a much better place … if they realized that people could work together without agreeing on religion and if Henry put some of these ideas into action instead of being a selfish monster.

    2. Cromwell acted as a king’s Councillor should on that occasion, bring a potential ally to his master by marriage as many kings/noblemen had done before.

      Henry had been lucky in his first 3 marriages by being able to marry a woman who at the time fulfilled the Henrician vision of a perfect wife.

      Henry and his council had never delved into the matters of alliance forming marriage since Henry had his wives near at hand. Anne’s decided lack of any recognised courtier’s skill provided her initial failure. Henry’s own ego proved to be her downfall.

      That AoC wasn’t the perfect new queen only hastened Cromwell’s downfall. Norfolk was waiting with a bevy of Howard-related nymphettes to be placed into the new queen’s household in order to provide either valuable intelligence on the new queen or possible amours with the king.

      Cromwell had stood on far too many noble toes as he climbed to power..Now they could put him back in his place far more rapidly and brutally than the last man who gained Henry’s complete trust, Wolsey.

      1. Great comment Anyanka, succinctly put. I agree, Anne wasn’t party to the courtly ‘games’, Cromwell’s background combined with Henry’s character….was never going to have a good outcome. Think Anne was an intelligent lady, I admire the pragmatic way she dealt with the aftermath as The King’s Sister…she was a quick learner!

    3. Henry Viii wanted a foreign match and was perfectly fine with such an arrangement. Cromwell made enquiries with many courts including Cleves and Henry went through all of the candidates. Yes, others fell out of the race and went on to marry someone else or the political situation changed, making the Duchy of Cleves the best match. It was normal for monarchs to marry virtual strangers and Henry needed an alliance and military aid and cash, all of which could come from the wealthy Duke of Cleves, Anne’s brother. However, Henry set aside a dowry and then acted with stupidity. He decided to get dressed up like a romantic hero and pay Anne a visit. She didn’t see through his disguise and Henry was humiliated. After that he tried to get out of the marriage but failed. Henry found it hard in the bedroom and things went downhill. He blamed Cromwell but it wasn’t this marriage which led to his arrest and execution but the conspiracy of the nobles he had offended over the years who took advantage of the loss of favour and trust from the King to make up a dossier of lies as evidence of treason and heresy. He was accused of conspiracy with the German Princes to promote the Reformation and heretical beliefs, conspiracy with foreign powers, of promoting an aggressive religious policy contrary to the King’s and of protecting heretics and traitors. The charges in the Act of Attainder are farcical. The failure of the marriage he may well have promoted opened the door for treason charges, but there was more to his fall than that.

  5. Having just completed a tour of what centuries ago was Henry’s Northern Progress, gaining a more complete (yet woefully inadequate) understanding of the reasons for and results of the journey, reading till I’m blue in the face, every source on Henry’s life and times, I find I am less and less enamored with his man Cromwell and certainly his sponsor. Originally ignorant, I was ambivalent, leaning one way and another as I gained knowledge of the utterly base behavior exhibited by the king and in his abject sycophancy, Cromwell. No action was to extreme, no bounds acknowledged, as they together destroyed an admittedly flawed Church. Not, it seems to cleanse the land of a parasitic Catholicism, but for undisguised personal advancement, Royal and lay alike. I am of English extraction but am separated from England by 5 generations. I live near Seattle.

  6. Cromwell was absolutely vile. One of his victims was 68 year old Lady Margaret Pole, whose entire family was victimized by him, in part because her son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, didn’t support Henry’s marriage to Anne. Six months after her home was searched and she was arrested and imprisoned, Cromwell claimed to have found a Catholic item in her home that proved her allegiance to Rome. Odd that it took six months after the search for this to come to light. The “find” was fabricated. After some two years in prison, Lady Margaret was beheaded by an amateur who hacked away at her neck and shoulders until her head came off. Henry, Cromwell, and others who did his bidding, sending good people to their deaths, hopefully have a special place in hell. An interesting side note re: Henry and “hell”: before he removed some 8,000 monks, nuns and friars from the English landscape, Henry had endowed a convent of Franciscan nuns which his father had established next to his palace. In return, the nuns vowed to pray for henry VIII’s soul, in perpetuity. Even after the Dissolution – after his break with Rome – after the destruction that he wreaked on the Church and after the remaining nuns left England – they continued to do so.

    1. Margaret Pole was not executed until May 1541 and Cromwell was executed in July 1540 so he certainly cannot be blamed for Henry’s treatment of her. The Poles were victims of Henry VIII, not Cromwell.

      1. Yes, Claire. Thanks for clearing up some
        Muddiness. The Poles were anti Henry, anti-reform, Cromwell or no Cromwell—they were unabashed papists

  7. Definitely Paul Scofield and mark Rylance, for me. Even seeing the portrait of the real Cromwell has not altered my image of him! Thanx, to those two amazing actors.

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