28 July 1540 – The Execution of Thomas Cromwell

Jul28,2011 #Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of EssexOn this day in history, the 28th July 1540, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, was executed by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Cromwell had been arrested on the 10th June 1540 at a council meeting and a bill of attainder was passed against him on the 29th June 1540 for the crimes of corruption, heresy and treason, stripping him of his honours and condemning him to death.

On the 28th July, he climbed the scaffold on Tower Hill and addressed the gathered crowd. He opened by saying “I am come hither to die and not to purge myself, as some think peradventure that I will”1 and then went on to acknowledge that he had offended God and the King and asked for their forgiveness. He then declared “I die in the Catholic faith, not doubting in any article of my faith… nor in any sacrament of the church”2, however, as his biographer, John Schofield3 points out, Cromwell was using gallows humour and irony here and did not mean that he was dying a true Catholic. Cromwell was using the word “Catholic” in the way that men like Cranmer, Melancthon and Luther used it, referring to the New Testament “Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”, the one of the Nicene Creed, not the Church of Rome.

After this clever use of words, Cromwell continued his speech by denying the charges that had been laid against him and saying: “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.”4 Schofield does not believe that Cromwell was confessing his guilt here, but that he was making a “sort of sweeping, general confession” of sin, as was the custom in scaffold speeches.

Thomas Cromwell then committed his soul to his Saviour, Jesus Christ, calling on his mercy and stating his faith in the resurrection and justification by faith alone, a reformed idea:-

“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.”5

Here, Thomas Cromwell was making it clear that he held Lutheran beliefs and was indeed what many would call a heretic. He then knelt at the block and was beheaded “by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the office”6 – a botched execution in other words.

I know that many people think of Thomas Cromwell’s brutal end as karma, a case of “what goes around, comes around”, but I just can’t think like that. It is hard to know what his true involvement was in the downfalls of Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton, whether it was his idea alone or whether he was ordered to take action by the King, but whatever the case surely no-one deserves to die such an awful death.

In March 1541, under 8 months since Cromwell’s death, the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, reported Henry VIII’s regret at what had happened to the man he once relied on so heavily:-

“Directs attention to the instability of the people and this King’s impression of his ministers, whom (besides what Marillac writes to the King) he sometimes even reproaches with Cromwell’s death, saying that, upon light pretexts, by false accusations, they made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had.”7

What a shame that the King did not realise what a good man he had in Cromwell before he had him executed!

Notes and Sources

  1. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, John Schofield, p268
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid., p269
  6. Hall’s Chronicle, Edward Hall, p839
  7. LP xvi.590

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12 thoughts on “28 July 1540 – The Execution of Thomas Cromwell”
  1. I know a lot of Anne fans dislike Cromwell and blame him for Anne’s downfall but I don’t believe there is any strong evidence for this. I think he is generally under rated and blamed for a great deal of what happened in Tudor england. I even read one historian who blamed him for Katherine Howard’s fall despite the fact he was already dead at the time ! May his soul rest in peace.

  2. Sad for Cromwell that Henry didn’t have the same courage and loyalty his daughter Elizabeth would show to her chief minister (Cecil) when her nobles united to plot against him.

  3. Love him, or hate him, you have to admit he worked tirelessly for the King. He worked his way up through the ranks from humble beginnings, with shear hard work, diligence and intellect. Of course he would have removed anyone who would have been in his way, as they would have done him if the shoe was on the other foot, and he reaped the vast rewards given to him for being the King’s right hand man. After all the majority of his actions had the approval of the Henry, and were actively encouraged.
    Many of Henry’s favourites and close advisors ended up on the scaffold, when they didn’ deliver the goods or disagreed with him, I wonder how Cromwell deluded himself into thinking that he wouldn’t, eventually, follow in their footsteps, maybe he thought it was a risk worth taking. Or maybe the poor man thought that the un-waivering loyalty that he gave the King would be recipricated….Alas, no, he trod the path of the likes of Moor,Fisher etc, and became another notch on the executioner’s block. What ever black deeds he is credited with, he was a man of his times, and he ‘Paid in full’…. I hope he rests in peace.

  4. The sad truth – or at least a part of the truth – is that much of what transpired in Henry’s court was motivated by greed. Cromwell, coming from a modest background, wanted titles and wealth; as did Thomas Boelyn and many others. I often wonder how events would have transpired if those involved knew that no matter what they did, there would be no rewards of any kind. I wonder who then would have worked for a divorce, embraced Anne as the right Queen or fnally, turned against her. Sadly, it was fear of punishment and hopes of gain that influenced many of the nobles decisions and actions; not a sense of right or a strong foundation of values. But so few of that time or this, put what is right before “what can I get.”

    Sadly, Cromwell died a horrible death that no one deserves; but if not for his personal motivations, greed, and desires he may have been able to avoid it. Or he would have lost his head much sooner; with Henry’s delicate temperment, who knows!

  5. Cromwell I feel was “fitted up” as such by the likes of Edward Seymour and Charles Brandon, he had too much influence over the King and that would just not do as far as they were concerned. I do wonder how Charles Brandon, although the best friend of the King, managed to keep his head!

    1. Me too Tracey, especially when he married his sister, Mary Tudor, without permission, how risky was that… I suppose that because Mary was his favourite sister,and he and Brandon had known each other for many years, he showed him a lot of leaniency, so there was a little bit of humanity in that hulk of a King then…..:)

  6. It states “heresy and treason”, but what exactly was Cromwell executed for? He seems to have been a trustworthy person in Henry’s eyes.

    1. I think his end was fast forwarded because of the Cleves marriage, Henry didnt like her, and Cromwell had got it so solidly tie together that there could be no impedement to get out of it. Thats why the non comsumation ploy was used. There was also a lot of jelousy, and hate towards Cromwell because of his power and closeness to the King, of the other Nobles of the court that they saw a way to bring him down… thats my reading of it anyway. One of the terrible prices these men (and women) paid for falling from grace…. life seemed to be so cheap in those days, no matter how hard you worked for the King, damned if you do and damned if you dont. Well at least Anne of C had her wits about her, she really did come out of that unscathed. Unlike Henry, he went head long into a doomed marriage with poor little Catherine H, and ended up heart broken/battered ego, which ever way we see it.

  7. Hilary Mandel’s book “Wolf Hall” gives a fascinating perspective on Cromwell. A challenging read (it’s pretty thick) but well worth it. I understand she’s currently writing a follow up covering Anne’s downfall. Can’t wait…

  8. Is there any chance that after anne’s death that king Henry generally started to dislike cromwell once he saw his power and influence? in the past he had executed others who were just as loyal to him but were just as powerful. Is it also a possibility that he found out that the accusations towards anne boleyn were false and that was another reason he wanted to execute cromwell because he realised part of her death was due to his personal gain and not fact?

  9. What a terrible man Henry viii was. His advisors around him seem to have been truly evil also. I’ve just watched The Tudors, and I know it isn’t historically correct, but has given me better understanding, along with book reading how these people lived. I am so glad I wasn’t around in that time. What an awful way to go.

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