Karma and Cromwell or a Waste of a Brilliant Mind?

Posted By on July 28, 2014

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

On this day in history, 28th July 1540, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and Henry VIII’s former right-hand man, was beheaded on Tower Hill. He had been arrested on 10th June 1540 at a council meeting, and a bill of attainder passed against him on 29th June 1540 for the crimes of corruption, heresy and treason.

After a speech in which he denied the charges against him and affirmed his faith in the resurrection and justification by faith alone, he knelt at the block and suffered an awful death at the hands of “a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the office” (it took a number of blows to behead him). You can read all about his execution, and that of one of his clients, Walter, Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury, in my article 28 July 1540 – The Executions of Thomas Cromwell and Walter Hungerford.

Every time I write about Thomas Cromwell’s arrest or execution I receive comments here or on The AB Files Facebook page such as “Karma’s a bitch, Master Cromwell”, “he got everything he deserved…”, “what goes around comes around…” etc. and I will eat my hat if I don’t receive at least one like that today. Obviously some people hold him responsible for the fall of the Boleyns, which saw six innocent executed, and the dissolution of the monasteries, but does anyone deserve to die such a death? Really?

Personally, I don’t hold him responsible for either of those events, I lay the blame at Henry VIII’s door and see Cromwell as, in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s words, “Henry VIII’s enforcer” or Henry’s “fixer”. Cromwell’s fall was about humiliation and revenge, not a crime he had committed. Henry VIII was angry and humiliated – he’d been forced to marry a woman he wasn’t attracted to and he’d had to admit that he had been unable to consummate the union – and the Duke of Norfolk was seething over the dissolution of Thetford Priory, the resting place of his ancestors, and someone had to pay. Cromwell had risen too far in some people’s eyes and they were just waiting for him to make a mistake. He was vulnerable after the Cleves affair, so they attacked and turned the King against him. What a waste of a brilliant mind! Of course he was brutal and ruthless, and there is much to dislike about him, but he was not a monster and there is much to admire about his rise from his humble beginnings in Brewhouse Lane, Putney, where his family ran a brewery, to his position as Henry VIII’s chief adviser.

Thomas Cromwell is a fascinating character – he spent time serving as a mercenary in the French army, he worked for a financier in Florence, he learned the law and in his early 20s led a trip to Italy to see the Pope about the renewal of a guild’s licence for the sale of indulgences – he arranged a chance encounter with Pope Leo X and tempted him with English delicacies. The Pope had no problem granting the licence. Cromwell then went on to serve as a lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey and as a Member of Parliament, and it wasn’t long before he was spotted by the King. Cromwell played a major role in the break with Rome, persuading Parliament that it had the power to change the constitution and to get rid of the power of Rome. As Diarmaid MacCulloch explained in his documentary on Cromwell, Cromwell had given Parliament the power to intervene in the constitution and MacCulloch and this power has never been surrendered. The monarch now had to include Parliament in decision making, so this was where democracy started, with Cromwell being the King’s “fixer”. Wow, what a man! And that’s just giving you a taster of his career. You can read more about Cromwell’s rise and his incredible career in my precis of MacCulloch’s documentary – see Henry VIII’s Enforcer – The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell.

So today I will be remembering Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s “most faithful servant” and thinking “what a waste…”.

Trivia: Henry VIII came to regret Cromwell’s fall. Marillac, the French ambassador, reported in March 1541 that the King sometimes reproached his ministers “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.” (LP xvi. 590)

By the way, if you’re after a good book on Cromwell then I’d recommend John Schofield’s The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, it’s the best one I’ve read.

24 thoughts on “Karma and Cromwell or a Waste of a Brilliant Mind?”

  1. Gail Marion says:

    Run afoul of Henry and there was no going back.

  2. Clare says:

    But don’t let’s forget that Cromwell brutally tortured poor Mark Smeaton with some Christmas decorations….the fiend!

    1. Gail Marion says:

      There is no agreement among historians as to whether or not Smeaton was subject to physical torture.

      1. Clare says:

        That was a joke Gail, because Mantel comes up a bizarre plot where Cromwell locks Mark in a cupbaord with Christmas decorations to make him confess, which he does. It has to be the most ludicrous plot in the history of historic fiction.

      2. Claire says:

        It was just a “Bring Up the Bodies” joke. In the novel, there is a weird bit where Smeaton is locked up in a cupboard full of Christmas decorations and pracock feathers to unhinge him. He’s in a real state when he is let out.

        1. Dawn 1st says:

          Crikey!!! what did he do? tie Smeaton up with tinsel, or bash him with baubles to get the confession?? lol… or maybe he threatened him with the Christmas Fairy, George that is!!! sorry that was bad of me 🙂

  3. Nymeria says:

    After reading “Wolf Hall” by Hillary Mantel, I really fell in love for Cromwell. He’s a very ambitious person and I really like him because of that and his attitudes. He’s a very misunderstood person.

    1. Claire says:

      I didn’t like the Cromwell of Mantel’s novels, I just couldn’t empathise with him at all.
      Yes, ambitious and intelligent.

      1. Sonetka says:

        I love the books but do think it’s terribly convenient how all the people Cromwell ended up killing were nasty in some way. Mark Smeaton the possible pederast, the four “lovers” who were (not actually) in the masque … it’s done with absolutely incredible artistry but at the same time I keep thinking of that exchange from “True Lies”. “Have you ever killed anyone?” “Yes, but they were all bad.”

      2. Hannele says:

        I did like Mantel’s Cromwell a lot, but find that his character was modern rather than that of 16th century. The same applies to his values.

        Also, in order to make Cromwell sympathic, Mantel made Anne a bitch. Of course, much was based on mere gossip.

        Despite this, It’s a great novel.

  4. Michelle LaRoche says:

    I have to agree with you that the guilty party was Henry VIII. He was the king, so any final decisions rested with him. Cromwell was the flunky who carried out Henry’s wishes. Yes he profited from his association with the king, but ultimately he paid a very heavy price for associating with a vindictive, nasty man who thought only of himself and his public image.

    Rest in peace Thomas Cromwell.

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, Thomas Cromwell definitely played his part but I do believe that he was the King’s servant and was the man who brought about the King’s wishes.

  5. Sandi Vasoli says:

    No doubt Cromwell was highly intelligent, driven, a man who was able to make things happen, and an integral part of the political machine of the Tudor court and the government at that time. It has been made evident many times in the past and will be in the future: when one is at the center of a complex body politic, sometimes things go badly wrong and spin quickly out of control.

    This is how I feel about Cromwell, and his part in the downfall of Anne and the men who went to their deaths along with her. That circumstance was certainly the result of a tangle of events and emotions which ran amok. Cromwell had his place in it, surely, but was it all his doing? Of course not.

    I feel that way about Henry as well. Somehow I can’t see him as strictly an evil force whose machinations caused the deaths of his wife and former best friends. There’s a lot behind his sign-off of their death warrants, but I feel that the situation for him also went out of control, and he did little to put it right.

    Cromwell was the force behind events that were very good in Anne’s lifetime…among them her coronation and support for reform.

    Both Cromwell and Anne are examples of the principle that with great advantage comes great risk.

  6. Esther says:

    I think Cromwell was truly a man ahead of his time … in 1535, he tried to get a bill through Parliament to provide public works projects as a way of caring for the poor and unemployed. (This, and the fact that he fed 200 poor a day, tells me that he didn’t really object to Anne’s idea that the wealth of the monasteries should be used to care for the poor … it was Henry who wanted that money for other purposes.)

    Also, I think that Hilary Mantel’s idea on Mark Smeaton was an example of psychological torture inflicted by Smeaton on himself by his own fears.

  7. Gwen says:

    Karma isn’t the word I’d use. Nobody deserves to die that way. Plus, the tangled mess of who instigated Anne’s removal is still an area of huge debate. But, I do think he came a cropper on the laws he helped come to pass. As Henry’s paranoia grew the Treason laws that Cromwell helped Henry introduce would find many victims, unfortunately.

  8. Banditqueen says:

    Thomas Cromwell was not the victim of karma as there is no such thing. However Cromwell did build up a pool of enemies, Norfolk the best of them. It is clear that he cooked his own goose with the Cleves marriage which was to his own advantage. When this failed like Wolsey he too was naked to his enemies. Cromwell was one of the great statesmen of history, an excellent, ruthless and efficient administrator, the widows help and indispensable to the King. Before the failure of the Cleves marriage Henry would never have listened to the accusations of the nobles against Cromwell but now he was open to the lies against him.

    I am also convinced that Cromwell was up to something, there is evidence of secret agreements with the German league, he was also making political policies without the king being totally aware of things. Some of this could be used to convict him as Henry was angry at the marriage. But most of the stuff against him was poppycock and his own laws and practice used to bring him down. Norfolk et al brought the information that Cromwell was up to no good and his fate was sealed. Henry was persuaded to allow for the act of attainer rather than a trial, persuaded of his guilt, kept him alive long enough to testify in the divorce of Anne of Cleves and then disposed of him as he no longer had any use for him.

    I have no love for Cromwell but no I don’t believe he deserved to die like this. Who gave him such a terrible lousy executioner? IT TOOK SEVERAL STROKES TO REMOVE HIS HEAD.
    Henry regretted Cromwell s death later on. Surely he could have been dismissed? Even if he was working with the Germans there was probably not enough evidence of treason which may explain why he was not tried as the act of attainer did away with the need for this.

  9. Dawn 1st says:

    I’m a strong believer in if you play with fire you will inevitably get burnt, which is on the same lines of karma and reap what you sow kind of thing. And Cromwell did definitely get burnt, metaphorically speaking.

    I personally see him as a victim of his own brilliance really, he fell into the trap of believing he was perhaps ‘safe’ on the King’s reliance and favour, and enjoyed all the trappings that came with it as so many had before him. Intellect doesn’t always guarantee common sense.

    If this brilliant mind of Cromwell had been channelled more for the good, instead of being used for a King who was hell bent on getting his own way in everything, then perhaps he would be remembered more favourably and as a whole, instead of in the main, being linked to the downfall of Anne and her family. Sad really, and a such a waste, just like all the those that went before him.
    His execution was a barbaric botch up, and a terrible ‘reward’ for someone who was in all fairness, a loyal servant to the most difficult of Masters, the King.

  10. Hannele says:

    To Dawn 1st:

    If Cromwell had not associated with the King, nobody would know anything about him, because as a private person, he simply could not have done anything remarkable. After all, he was not a scholar and writer like Thomas More.

    It is easy to us ordinary people with average talents to condemn ambition. It is like to condemn adultery when we are happily married and never have fallen in love with another.

    But let us image how a man with great talents would feel if he simply stood by watching much less talented people to doing things which he could do much better – and even more so if he also thought that the politics were wrong and he knew the right course.

    1. Dawn 1st says:

      I wouldn’t say that if he hadn’t been associated with the King that would have been a nobody or never have done anything remarkable, after all he had travelled through being a mercenary, had an aptitude for learning languages, and had many contacts in the business world, also dealt with church matters for the Archbishop of York, so became well known through his own merit in those circles.
      He may not have had a formal education to become or recognised as a scholar, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t educated, or have an astute mind. Wolsey must have seen that in him to take him on.

      I wasn’t condemning ambition, I am sorry if it came across that way, everyone has ambition to some degree, but it was a very risky business then, what I was trying to convey was that he seemed to follow suit of many of those working for the King, because of the complexity of the monarch it was difficult to channel abilities for the general good, instead for the ever changing mind of Henry, as Wolsey had. So to keep what he had achieved, and his head, for as long as possible anyway, he did what he had to do, and got ‘burnt’ for it as many had before, and after. Plus the fact he had made many powerful enemies on his success, which was the norm then too.
      I still think he was a victim of his success, as was his tutor Wolsey…these of course are my simplistic way of seeing things.

      The adultery comment I am not quite sure about the comparison to ambition, I think adultery is a lack of personal restraint and respect for their partner, whether you have fallen in love with another or not, ambition is achieving your goals and aspirations, on the whole a good thing.

      I don’t quite understand your last comment either, as there are always those that are and or see themselves as ‘more talented’ but are not in the position to do anything.

  11. Hannele says:

    I agree. What harm did “the four lovers” actually to Wolsey who knew nothing about their play. It was nothing for which one should die.

    If Cromwell really wanted to revenge for Wolsey, then the objects should have been those nobles who brought Wolsey down, and of course chiefly Henry himself.

  12. Ben says:

    Having just finished ‘Wolf Hall’ and now reading ‘Bringing up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel, I find it fascinating to read to read these novels of that time in English history, as well as that of Thomas, an ancestor of mine some 12 generations back. As a genealogist a double bonus. In my thinking, Thomas was a man ahead of his time, and given his humble beginnings, a man made good with an interesting path throughout his life, to that position of ‘right hand’ man of the king. Nobility is no guarantee of intelligence, whereas Thomas was a man of ‘street smarts’ and getting things done.
    He had his enemies to thank for his downfall, but to me the saving feature in all of this was Henry’s later regret at losing such a capable person in his circle and that of England. These were tumultuous times in England with Thomas in the middle of it all.

  13. I know I won’t be popular by saying this but from my perspective on what I have read and viewed on various doco’s, seems to me Thomas was merely a puppet ti the King….he (Thomas) appears to have been quite a smart man who was largely ignored and too often ridiculed for his ideas and opinions. The most recent TV series, “Wolf Hall” has left me wanting to learn much more!

  14. Jacki Milbank says:

    It was a brutal time where the King and his Lords could get away with anything….so long as they were in favour. We can never know the true characters of any of these people – sadly – everything recorders at the time will be biased one way or another.

  15. Janis McNeil says:

    Did anyone dare to voice any objections to the executions back then? Especially when they were botched, and the person died a horrible death, like Thomas Cromwell and Margaret Pole? Or to the awful drawing and quartering?

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