Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell – A Review and Rundown

Posted By on May 25, 2013

Diarmaid MacCullochAs so many of you enjoyed my rundown on the Anne Boleyn programme, I thought I’d do the same for the Cromwell programme. It’s a sacrifice you know as it is impossible to hold a glass of wine while scribbling frantically and trying to balance both notepad and cat on one’s lap! All of the following information comes from the programme.

I switched the TV on in time to catch the coming up next advert, which asked whether Cromwell was an evil genius or political genius and ruthless political fixer. The programme then opened with Diarmaid MacCulloch standing in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and talking about how Thomas Cromwell had been installed as a Knight of the Garter there on 26th August 1537 and that it was the pinnacle of one of the most notorious careers in English history. Cromwell had pillaged and destroyed the monasteries, driven a wedge between England and Rome, brought down a queen, and, as a result, is seen as cynical, corrupt and manipulative; one of the nastiest people to hold power in England. But, MacCulloch, posed, is this view justified? Cromwell was also responsible for the first authorised English translation of the Bible being available to the people, he risked his life to support reform, he had a genuine religious zeal and the urge to serve his country, he was a visionary and laid the foundations of the modern state.

MacCulloch then went back to Cromwell’s beginnings in Brewhouse Lane, Putney, where his family ran a brewery. Cromwell is thought to have been born there in 1485 and it was a universe away from the royal court, a world of hereditary nobility reigned over by a divinely appointed monarch who deferred to the Pope on religious matters. MacCulloch described Cromwell’s father, Walter, as a scoundrel and explained that his name appears in the court records forty-eight times, the majority for being fined for watering down beer, but also an assault on a neighbour. Cromwell boasted to Archbishop Cranmer that he had been a ruffian in his youth and he is said to have told friends that he’d spent some time in jail, but in 1502 we know that Cromwell left England. What he did is not known for sure, but John Foxe wrote of how he served as a mercenary in the French army and an Italian author writes of how he went to Florence and was employed by a prestigious financier.

Cromwell returned to England in 1516. He was now well-educated in languages and the law, and was able to marry Elizabeth, the wealthy widow of a financier. He settled in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he got the reputation of a “fixer”, someone who got things done. When the Guild of St Mary’s Chapel’s licence for the sale of a special indulgence came up for renewal, the guild sought Cromwell’s help. Their wealth depended on the sales of this indulgence so they needed the licence. Cromwell led a trip to Italy to see the Pope himself and records show that £47 (the equivalent of around £28,000) was spent on Cromwell’s expenses. Cromwell arranged a chance encounter with Pope Leo X and tempted him with English delicacies, as the Pope was known for his sweet tooth. It worked, the Pope granted the renewal of the licence. Cromwell has shown that he was “an extraordinary fixer”.

Cromwell’s reputation grew and he was offered legal work in London, where he came to the attention of men who were influential at Henry VIII’s court. He ended up serving Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s right hand man, as a lawyer. Like Cromwell, Wolsey was a self-made man from humble beginnings, so Cromwell watched and learned. As Wolsey’s lawyer, he was in charge of setting up Cardinal College, Oxford, and Cardinal’s College School, Ipswich, in Wolsey’s name. Each of these required Cromwell to dissolve twelve monasteries and it appears that Cromwell got a taste for dissolving monasteries to finance other things. Cromwell had become the fixer-in-chief to the King’s fixer. With Wolsey’s help and support, Cromwell also became a Member of Parliament.

MacCulloch then went on to discuss the King’s Great Matter, Henry VIII’s quest for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It was Wolsey who was in charge of persuading the Pope that the marriage was illegal, but international politics were against Henry because of the fact that Emperor Charles V was Catherine’s nephew. MacCulloch explained that Anne Boleyn managed to convince the King that Wolsey was in league with the Pope and the King lost his faith in Wolsey. Wolsey fell from power. MacCulloch commented on how unfair this was, when Wolsey was actually only doing his job as the Pope’s representative. Cromwell stepped in to save Wolsey’s college and school and although the college was renamed Christ Church, it was saved. George Cavendish wrote of how he found Cromwell crying after Wolsey’s fall because Wolsey’s fall meant his fall too as he had been dependent on Wolsey.

Cromwell’s future looked bleak, he’d lost his master and his wife had died, leaving him with two daughters and a son who was useless, but he managed to use the King’s crisis to climb back into favour and to show the King just what an “operator” he could be. The King had an idea. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the King’s of Britain”, which was more a series of myths than history, could be used to help the King’s cause. Geoffrey told the story of Arthur’s struggle with the Roman Empire and how Arthur became an emperor, rather than just a King. If Arthur had been an Emperor, then so was his successor, Henry VIII. Henry VIII was an emperor beholden to no one, not even the Pope. It was the King’s idea but it was Cromwell who showed him how to sell this idea to the nobility and people. Cromwell knew that Parliament was the key, so he set out to persuade the members that they had the power to change the constitution and to get rid of the power of Rome. Cromwell’s bill to set up this Empire of England is in the Parliamentary Archives in Westminster – the Act in Restraints of Appeals – and it claimed that the realm of England was an empire governed by one supreme King. Cromwell had given Parliament the power to intervene in the constitution and MacCulloch commented that this power has never been surrendered. The monarch now had to include Parliament in decision making, so this was where democracy started. Cromwell was rewarded for his hard work by being made Master of the Jewels in 1532, he was now part of the royal court.

MacCulloch then drew the viewers’ attention to Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell and how it showed a serious and attentive man. He explained that Cromwell’s motivation was not just to serve and please the King, he was also interested in the religious revolution, the Reformation which was sweeping through Europe at this time. Evangelicals turned to the Gospels, they went back to God’s word, and MacCulloch believes that Cromwell was introduced to their ideas during his time in Boston. By 1533, Cromwell was revealing his “evangelical credentials” and his most important ally was Anne Boleyn, who had persuaded the King to employ Thomas Cranmer, the man who was then able to annul the King’s marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne. The King was now the Supreme Head of the Church and Cromwell was his principal secretary.

MaCulloch then explained that the Church’s combined income was twice of that of Henry VIII’s estates and that Cromwell decided that he could combine his own religious agenda with raising money for the King. Cromwell was angered by the corruption in the Church. MacCulloch gave the example of Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, which pilgrims visited to see the relic of Christ’s blood from his crucifixion and to give offerings in return for a guaranteed entry to Heaven. Cromwell wanted this corruption stamped out, he wanted to discredit such relics and the monasteries that housed them. In 1538, the blood was examined and found to be honey clarified and coloured with saffron. Cromwell dissolved 800 monasteries and religious houses, and is often portrayed as a “mindless thug” trashing churches for financial gain, BUT Cromwell was genuinely against superstition and corruption and he made sure that the monks involved got their pensions.

MacCulloch admitted that the dissolution of the monasteries was Cromwell’s most destructive act and that there’s no denying that his politics were ruthless. He clashed with Anne Boleyn over the money from the monasteries and when her influence began to wane and Henry VIII showed that he wanted to discard her, Cromwell was willing to help. He “cooked up” evidence and tortured men to get rid of her, it was “his darkest deed”. This is what he is remembered for, conspiring to kill a queen and dissolving the monasteries, but he was also concerned with religion and the common good. In a time of growing poverty, Cromwell set up a “think tank” to tackle the problem and to try and improve the “common weal”. He came up with a bill to ease poverty and this was the first step towards the Poor Law that came in during Elizabeth I’s reign. Cromwell showed the way to a new welfare state.

Cromwell’s evangelical convictions still have an impact on our ideas of public morality today. He regarded the monasteries as centres of homosexuality and brought in an act against buggery. This was the first time that the state had tried to control private sexuality and it extended state power in a way that it still at the heart of our politics now.

Cromwell was prepared to risk his own position, and his life, for Protestantism. Evangelicals demanded the Bible in the vernacular, something that Henry VIII saw as a step too far. He had colluded in the effort to catch and execute William Tyndale, the famous Bible translator, but Cromwell managed to take advantage of the King’s cheery mood when Jane Seymour was pregnant and showed him an English Bible. Henry approved it and an order went out for every church to have an English Bible so that everyone would have the chance to read it. This cemented the divide between the Church of England and Rome.

MacCulloch went on to explain Cromwell’s “flavour” of Protestantism, how it was the radical Zwingli that Cromwell was influenced by. Zwingli rejected the Catholic teaching on the mass, transubstantiation, and believed that the bread and wine were just symbols of Christ’s body and blood. Henry had burned people at the stake for holding these beliefs, so it was risky to believe it and Cromwell could have been burned as a heretic. In 1537 a group of Oxford graduates visited Zwingli’s hometown of Zurich to meet Zwingli’s successor, Bullinger. They seemed to have been sent by the Church of England, but actually they were sent by Cromwell. It was risky business then, but five years after Henry VIII’s death the Church of England accepted Zwingli’s teaching and this is Cromwell’s greatest legacy.

MacCulloch commented on how Cromwell must have felt unstoppable at this time. He had been rewarded with wealth and property, and had been made a Knight of the Garter. Then, he was made the Earl of Essex. He was now one of the nobility, he was invincible, or so he thought. Then, Jane Seymour died and Henry VIII needed a replacement. This was Cromwell’s chance to ally England with the forces of the Reformation and he visited Cranmer to gain his support. Cranmer advised against it, saying that the King should be free to marry whoever made him happy and someone who could speak English. But Cromwell had decided on Anne of Cleves and sent Hans Holbein to paint a portrait of her. Henry was happy with the miniature that was sent back but was shocked when he met Anne for the first time. The marriage went ahead, but Henry wanted out of it. To get out of the marriage, Henry was forced into a public admission of his impotence and so looked for someone to blame for his humiliation: Cromwell. MacCulloch believes that Cromwell could have retrieved the situation but he just couldn’t stop himself, he made enemies. Thetford Priory was the setting of his act of self destruction. It was a special place for the Duke of Norfolk and his family, being their place of burial, so Norfolk tried his hardest to stop it being dissolved. Cromwell, however, was intent on dissolving it. Norfolk was forced to dig up the bones of his ancestors; it was the ultimate humiliation and Norfolk was set on revenge. Cromwell already had enemies, people who had resented his rise in the 1530s, but he’d always been protected by the King’s patronage but the King was angry with him now. It didn’t take much for Norfolk and others to persuade the King that Cromwell was a heretic and traitor, and Cromwell was arrested, taken to the Tower and an act of attainder was used against him.

Cromwell tried desperately to work his magic on the King. He wrote a letter begging the King for mercy and the postscript is quite “pathetic”. Henry did show some mercy, he did commute Cromwell’s sentence to beheading, but he didn’t pardon his servant. The executioner botched Cromwell’s execution. Some sources say that it took several blows to behead Cromwell, and one account has it taking half an hour for him to die. His head was then put on a pike on London Bridge and his body was buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, just yards away from the Queen he had conspired to bring down.

Within months, Henry VIII was lamenting the death of his faithful servant, but the belief that Cromwell was a “ruthless thug” has endured. MacCulloch spoke of how Cromwell was a “supreme politician, ruthless operator” and that he didn’t “shrink from violence”, but that he was also a “great statesman” and “a man of principle” who laid down the foundations for the constitutional monarchy, cut England off from 1000 years of Roman obedience, led a religious revolution and reshaped our history for good. He concluded, “I give you Thomas Cromwell, remaker of this Realm.”

It was an excellent programme. There were a few bits that I couldn’t agree with, like MacCulloch’s statement that Cromwell had tortured people in 1536 during Anne’s downfall, but I loved the fact that MacCulloch ‘fleshed out’ this fascinating man. Too often we pigeon-hole or label these 16th century people. They become two dimensional and we have to label them as saints or sinners, martyrs or monsters, victims or tyrants, when actually they are multi-faceted and don’t fit our neat little boxes or labels. Just as Anne Boleyn was not a saint, Cromwell was not a monster. He had an amazing career and really did change England for ever. Thank you Diarmaid MacCulloch for a wonderful hour of excellent history.

If you missed the programme, you can watch it here:

or on BBC iPlayer

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap