Who Was Gregory Cromwell? – How Fiction Became History by Teri Fitzgerald

Posted By on February 14, 2013

Launde Abbey Chapel – Resting place of Gregory Cromwell

Today we have a guest article from Teri Fitzgerald who has done extensive research into the life of Gregory Cromwell, son of Thomas Cromwell. Over to Teri…

What do we really know about Gregory Cromwell, the only son of Henry VIII’s chief minister and right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell? It was a revelation to me, after researching Thomas Cromwell, to discover how his son Gregory has been maligned by several historians. Curiosity drove me to discover if there was any truth to their portrayal of Gregory Cromwell. When it became obvious that there wasn’t, I set out to prove the allegations to be false and to explore the possible reasons for this unjustified criticism.

Thomas Cromwell’s first modern biographer, R. B. Merriman, who demonstrated a thinly-veiled contempt for his subject, also made a number of inaccurate assumptions and assertions about Thomas Cromwell’s son, Gregory, which included:1

  • Gregory Cromwell was around fourteen or fifteen in 1528
  • His tutor’s reports suggested he lacked intelligence (based on an inaccurate estimate of his year of birth and a single letter)
  • He was made a peer of the realm and summoned to Parliament in 1539
  • His father’s barony was restored to him in 1540
  • He died in 1557

Successive historians have accepted Merriman’s conclusions without questioning their accuracy and several writers have embellished his negative comments about Gregory’s character and abilities.

The Official Version

It has been generally accepted by historians that Gregory Cromwell was born around 1514 based on the misapprehension that he was fourteen or fifteen when he was at Cambridge in 1528.2 Gregory has been described by various historians as ‘a dull lad’,3 ‘a dull and plodding lad’, ‘stupid and slow beyond belief’,4 a ‘stolid and wastrel son’5 who was nevertheless married off to Lady Elizabeth Ughtred, the sister of Queen Jane Seymour. Gregory, according to one writer, ‘was to remain to Cromwell as his constant hope and disappointment.’6 It has also been asserted that a few months after Thomas Cromwell’s downfall and execution, his father’s forfeited barony was restored to him,7,8 then the simple-minded Gregory, perhaps in poor health,9 faded into obscurity and died in 1557.10

The Real Gregory Cromwell

The aim of this article is to show, by means of contemporary sources, that the above depiction of Gregory Cromwell is pure fiction. The primary sources present a very different picture:

  • Gregory Cromwell was around seven or eight in 1528.
    To date no-one has attempted to check the accuracy of Gregory Cromwell’s accepted year of birth, 1514. Sir Henry Ellis stated that ‘The date of Gregory Cromwell’s birth is not recorded, but it could hardly have been earlier than 1520.’11In fact, there is plenty of evidence in the primary sources to pinpoint the approximate year of Gregory’s birth and which suggests the later date of 1520.Merriman used the following letter from Gregory’s tutor, John Chekyng, to Thomas Cromwell written in July, 1528 to assess Gregory’s character and intelligence and concluded that he ‘appears to have been a dull and plodding lad’ and ‘stupid and slow beyond belief’ assuming the boy to have been a teenager.His son Gregory is not now at Cambridge, but in the country, where he works and plays alternately. He is rather slow, but diligent. He had been badly tutored, and could hardly conjugate three verbs when committed to Chekyng’s care, though he repeated the rules by rote. If this is Palgrave’s12 style of teaching, does not believe he will ever make a scholar. Will have to unteach him nearly all he has learned. He is now studying the things most conducive to the reading of authors, and spends the rest of the day in forming letters.13Merriman didn’t realize that Chekyng’s letter was describing a very young boy, about seven or eight years old. If he had read the letter carefully, he would have also realized that John Chekyng was criticizing John Palsgrave, Gregory’s previous tutor, and not insulting the child’s intelligence. Merriman failed to notice Chekyng’s next letter to Gregory’s father in November of the same year that refers to ‘little Gregory’.14There are several clues to Gregory’s age throughout his life. There are letters from his supervisors, tutors and mentors during his education that provide evidence of his age.
    They Include a letter from Margaret Vernon in 152815Your son is in good health, and is a very good scholar, and can construe his paternoster and creed.16 When you next come to me I doubt not that you shall like him very well.and another letter from Vernon, which can be dated to between September, 1529 and Whitsuntide 153017

    You promised that I should have the governance of the child till he was 12 years old.18 By that time he shall speak for himself if any wrong be offered him, for as yet he cannot, except by my maintenance…

    Letters to Thomas Cromwell from Gregory’s Cambridge tutor, John Chekyng, describe a ‘little’ boy who ‘plays’ and who is learning to read and write in July, 1528.19

    Gregory is not now at Cambridge, but in the country, where he works and plays alternately… He is now studying the things most conducive to the reading of authors, and spends the rest of the day in forming letters.

    and November, 1528
    Little Gregory is becoming great in letters.20

    Further, there are three key pieces of evidence that suggest that Gregory Cromwell reached his majority, i.e., eighteen, in 1538 and therefore point to a birth year of 1520:- His first official position was in 1538, when he became a justice of the peace in Sussex,21 his father alienated several properties to him and his heirs in November, 1538,22 the first in his own name, independently of his father and lastly, he became a Member of Parliament for Kent in April, 1539.23

  • His supervisor’s reports show that he was a capable scholar. Margaret Vernon stated in 1528 that he was ‘a very good scholar ‘,24 Henry Dowes remarked in 1535 on ‘the ripenes and maturitie of his wytte’25 and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk wrote to Gregory’s father in August, 1536 ‘Be sure you shall have in him a wise quick piece’.26
  • He became a Member of Parliament, having been elected as one of the knights of the shire for Kent and was summoned to Parliament in 1539 to sit in the House of Commons.27, 28
  • He was not raised to the peerage in 1539 as has been claimed by several sources.29
  • He was granted the courtesy title of Lord Cromwell, Baron of Wimbledon in April, 154030, 31when his father was created Earl of Essex. The courtesy title was forfeited after his father’s arrest and subsequent attainder in July 1540.
  • He was raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Cromwell of Oakham in 1540. This was a new creation with a different territorial designation and not a restoration of his father’s forfeited barony.32Thomas Cromwell had been 1st Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon.33
  • He led an active life managing his vast estates, dealing with shire administration and regularly attending the House of Lords.34 There is no evidence that he suffered from poor health and since he died very wealthy, it is doubtful that he was a wastrel.
  • He died in 1551. Several contemporary sources report his death from the sweating sickness in July 1551.35

His Accomplishments

Gregory Cromwell was an accomplished, intelligent, and successful man. He spoke both French and Latin, played the lute and virginals and had received an extensive education.36 He was athletic and his favourite activities were riding, hunting with the long bow and hawking.37

Elizabeth Seymour, Lady Cromwell, Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger – once thought to be Catherine Howard.

Gregory married Lady Elizabeth Ughtred, the sister of Queen Jane Seymour in 1537.38 Gregory and Elizabeth had three sons and two daughters.39 Gregory is known to have participated in the Great London Muster of 153940 and the May Day jousting tournaments at Westminster in 1540.41, 42 He was elected as one of the knights of the shire for Kent and summoned to Parliament in April 1539 to sit in the House of Commons.43, 44 He was created 1st Baron Cromwell of Oakham in 154045 and after being raised to the peerage, he attended the House of Lords. Gregory is known to have participated in the funeral of Henry VIII46 and became a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Edward VI in 1547.47, 48

Gregory enjoyed the friendship of such notable men as Sir Ralph Sadler and Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley).49 He survived the catastrophic fall from royal favour and subsequent execution of his father in 1540, as well as the ousting of his brother-in-law and patron, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, in 1549 and was a wealthy landowner, owning land and properties in several counties in the east of England, mainly in Rutland and Leicestershire.50

His family connections had provided him with wealth, property and privileges, however, it was his own intelligence and abilities, together with the remarkable education and training provided by his father, that enabled him to benefit from them during his life and to leave his wife and family well provided for at his death in 1551.51 He is buried in Launde Abbey chapel where there is a monument to him, to the left of the altar.52 Gregory was succeeded by his eldest son, and heir, Henry.

Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be a surviving portrait of Gregory Cromwell, however, given Thomas Cromwell’s patronage of Hans Holbein the Younger, it would be surprising if no portrait was painted during his youth or at the time of his marriage.

Unjustified Criticism

Some writers have simply accepted the findings of earlier historians without checking the primary sources and have repeated the various inaccuracies believing them to be a true reflection of Gregory Cromwell. Others, for various reasons, have shown real malice in their portrayal of the man.

Gregory’s father, Thomas Cromwell, was by no means a popular figure. As Henry VIII’s chief minister, he had attempted to modernize government at the expense of the privileges of the nobility and church. He was nominated by the king to oversee the destruction of the monasteries, used his office to promote religious reform and was one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation.

Harsh measures carried out while he was in office caused deep resentment and made him many enemies among religious conservatives. Since Thomas Cromwell’s death this resentment has persisted, and a number of writers acting under the compulsions of ideology have taken a delight in blackening his name and disparaging his son.

For others, who believe that Henry VIII was an innocent bystander in his own court, Thomas Cromwell will always be remembered as the villain who allegedly brought down Anne Boleyn, her brother, George, and her faction single-handedly and sent them all to the scaffold. Their distaste is reflected in their depictions of the man and his son, Gregory.

The question is, can the vilification of an innocent man ever be justified because of the perceived sins of his father? Surely historical figures, who are unable to defend themselves, should be treated with respect.

It has been said that we filter all our ‘truths’ through our own prejudices and points of view. No two people view the same person or situation in quite the same way. It would appear that historians are no exception. They are only human after all and make mistakes. It only goes to show that when it comes to history, we shouldn’t believe everything we read.

External Links

Notes and Sources

  1. R. B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 1902, vol. I, p. 12, 53, 145, 301 – http://archive.org/stream/thomascromwell00merruoft#page/n65/mode/2up. Merriman repeats the same mistakes that were made in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1888, vol. XIII., pp. 195, 201-203
  2. Walter Farquhar Hook, The Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. 6, 1868, p. 122 – http://archive.org/stream/a587901706hookuoft#page/122/mode/2up
  3. Dictionary of National Biography, London, 1888, vol. XIII, pp. 195 – http://archive.org/stream/dictionaryofnati13stepiala#page/194/mode/2up
  4. bid., p. 53
  5. Robert Hutchinson, Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister, 2007, p. 132-133
  6. B. W. Beckingsale, Thomas Cromwell: Tudor Minister, 1978, p. 18
  7. R. B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 1902, vol. I, p. 145, 301
  8. Dictionary of National Biography, London, 1888, vol. XIII, pp. 201
  9. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Gregory Cromwell – http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/member/cromwell-gregory-1516-51
  10. Dictionary of National Biography, London, 1888, vol. XIII, p. 202
  11. Henry Ellis, Original Letters Illustrative of English History, third series,1846, vol. I, p. 338 Introductory note – http://archive.org/stream/originallettersn3s01elliuoft#page/338/mode/2up
  12. John Palsgrave, author of L’éclaircissement de la langue française/ Tutor to Mary Tudor, the King’s sister and Henry Fitzroy. He composed L’esclarcissement de la langue francoyse (printed in 1530 in London and dedicated to Henry VIII). This book — written in English despite its French title — is said to be the first grammar of the French language. Its purpose was to help Englishmen who wanted to learn French.
  13. Letters & Papers, vol. 4, 4560, 27 July 1528
  14. Letters & Papers, vol. 4, 4916, 8 November 1528
  15. Letters &Papers, vol. 5, Miscellaneous, 18, 1531
  16. Letters &Papers, vol. 5, Miscellaneous, 18, 1531Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: The Education of the English Kings and Aristocracy, 1066-1530, 1984, p. 130 At that time, young children practised reading from religious texts, the primer, containing the Paternoster, Ave Maria, Creed and other common prayers and liturgical books like the antiphonal and the psalter. In the case of boys, the learning of Latin grammar also involved religious material. An elementary exercise might take the form of studying and analysing the basic prayers in their Latin forms.
  17. Letters &Papers, vol. 5, Miscellaneous, 17, 1531
  18. t was not unusual for gentlemen at that time to place their young children in the care of nuns. As a rule the boys in nunneries were very young. It was not considered appropriate for them to stay with the nuns later than the age of nine or ten (Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c.1275 to 1535, 2010, pp. 263, 267, 570). The nuns were permitted to educate only the girls. It was customary for young boys, up to the age of nine or ten, to be supervised by nuns, but not taught by them, and so they were usually accompanied by a male tutor(Dowling, Humanism in the Age of Henry VIII, 1986, pp. 86-7, 160, 176, 192-4) as was Gregory Cromwell (Letters & Papers, vol. 5, 15, Miscellaneous, 1531).
  19. Letters & Papers, vol. 4, 4560, 27 July 1528
  20. Letters & Papers, vol. 4, 4916, 8 November 1528
  21. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Gregory Cromwell – http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/member/cromwell-gregory-1516-51
  22. Letters & Papers, vol. 13, 2, 967-54, November, 1538
  23. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Kent – Constituencies – http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/constituencies/kent
  24. Letters &Papers, vol. 5, Miscellaneous, 18, 1531
  25. Henry Ellis Original Letters Illustrative of English History, third series, 1846, vol. I, pp. 341-343
  26. Letters & Papers, vol 11, 233, 5 August 1536
  27. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Gregory Cromwell
  28. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 Kent – Constituencies
  29. R. B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 1902, vol. I, p. 145 ; Dictionary of National Biography, London, 1888, vol. XIII, p. 201
  30. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1808, vol. 3, England, p. 815 – http://archive.org/stream/chroniclesofengl03holiuoft#page/814/mode/2up
  31. Charles Wriothesley, A Chronicle Of England During The Reigns Of The Tudors: From A.D. 1485 To 1559, ed. W.D. Hamilton, vol. I, (new series XI), 1875, p. 116-117 – http://archive.org/stream/achronicleengla04hamigoog#page/n178/mode/2up
  32. Letters & Papers vol. 16, Grants, December, 379-34, 1540 ; Letters & Papers, vol. 13, part 1, 1519-2, July, 1538 ; Letters & Papers, vol. 13, part 2, 967-54, November, 1538
  33. Letters & Papers vol. 11, Grants, July, 202-14, 1536 ; Francis Blomefield, An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, vol. 9, 1808, Launditch Hundred: Elmham, pp. 486-495
  34. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Gregory Cromwell
  35. The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, vol. III, 1913, pp. 557-558 – http://archive.org/stream/completepeerageo03coka#page/556/mode/2up; John Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials, 1822, vol. II, part I, p. 493-494 – http://archive.org/stream/ecclesiasticalme0201stry#page/492/mode/2up; The Travels and Life of Sir Thomas Hoby, Kt of Bisham Abbey, written by himself, 1547-1564, edited for the Royal Historical Society by Edgar Powell, 1902, p.73 ; Barbara Winchester, Tudor Family Portrait, 1955, p. 270
    Gregory Cromwell died in July, 1551, the same month as Henry Brandon, the young Duke of Suffolk and his brother Charles.
  36. Henry Ellis, Original Letters Illustrative of English History, third series, 1846, vol. I, pp. 341-345
  37. Ibid., pp. 343-345
  38. John Schofield, The Rise & Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, 2011, p. 288
  39. Douglas Richardson, Kimball G. Everingham (editor), Magna Carta Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families, 2nd ed., 2011, p. 111
  40. Wriothesley, A Chronicle Of England During The Reigns Of The Tudors: From A.D. 1485 To 1559, ed. W.D. Hamilton, vol. I, (new series XI), 1875, p. 95-97
  41. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1808, vol. 3, England, p. 815
  42. Charles Wriothesley, A Chronicle Of England During The Reigns Of The Tudors: From A.D. 1485 To 1559, ed. W.D. Hamilton, vol. I, (new series XI), 1875, p. 116-117
  43. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Gregory Cromwell
  44. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 Kent – Constituencies
  45. Letters & Papers vol. 16, Grants, December, 379-34, 1540
  46. Hutchinson, Robert, The Last Days of Henry VIII, 2006, p. 226
  47. The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, vol. III, 1913, pp. 557-558 – Gregory Cromwell – http://archive.org/stream/completepeerageo03coka#page/556/mode/2up
  48. John Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials, 1822, vol. II, part I, p. 36 – http://archive.org/stream/ecclesiasticalme0201stry#page/36/mode/2up
  49. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Thomas Cromwell – http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/cromwell-thomas-1540-1611
  50. Letters and Papers, vol. 13, part 2, 967-54, Grants, November, 1538 ; Letters and Papers, vol. 16, 580-49, Grants, February, 1541 ; James Wright, The History and Antiquities of the County of Rutland, 1684, p. 97
  51.  The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982 – Gregory Cromwell
  52. Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland, 2nd ed. revised by Elizabeth Williamson, 2001, p. 198 and plate 28
    The monument to Gregory Cromwell, which is to the left of the altar, is said to be one of the finest examples of early English Renaissance sculpture in the country.
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