Thomas Cromwell, born c. 1485, was a man who rose up from the back streets of Putney to be Henry VIII’s right hand man. In Wolf Hall he’s portrayed as an idealist who masterminded the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and helped create the Church of England.
But some think he was an arch-manipulator who used bullying and torture to bring about the execution of victims like Thomas More and Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn. As a servant to the King, Cromwell made difficult decisions that shaped his destiny.
Born the son of a scoundrel
Around the year 1485 Thomas Cromwell is born in Putney, London, where his family runs a brewery.
Thomas’s father is a jack-of-all-trades: he works as a fuller, a blacksmith, a brewer and a tavern owner. His name appears at least 48 times on the manor court rolls for various misdemeanours, including watering down beer and assaulting his neighbours. The young Cromwell is, on his own later admission, something of a ruffian, and does not get on with his father who may have had him put in jail for an unknown offence.
Runs away from home
Sick of his father’s foul temper, Thomas – aged about 15 – runs away from home to seek his fortune.
He stows away on a ship bound for the Low Countries (the Netherlands). Wandering alone in France Cromwell may have joined England’s enemies in the French army or acted as a French soldier’s servant and pike carrier. A few years later Cromwell surfaces at the battle of Garigliano, near Naples, where the French army suffer a massive defeat at the hands of the Spanish. Cromwell flees the battlefield and travels in Italy.
Helped by a Florentine family
A penniless Cromwell walks the streets of Florence and makes friends with a member of the Frescobaldi household.
Francesco Frescobaldi, part of a prominent banking family, takes pity on the young Cromwell, takes him in and soon sees his potential. Cromwell is keen to learn about the family business and proves himself a loyal servant. On one trip with his master he is left in Venice to act as an agent for a local merchant. Thomas travels to Antwerp and becomes a trader in his own right. He starts to practise law. He is now fluent in French and Italian and has good knowledge of Latin.
Persuades the Pope
Cromwell returns to England and marries Elizabeth Wykys a widow from a gentry family. They have three children Gregory, Anne and Grace.
In 1517 he is approached by Geoffrey Chambers who needs help in seeking an audience with Pope Leo X to secure funding for the Guild of Our Lady in St Botolph’s church at Boston in Lincolnshire. Thomas enacts an audacious plan – he knows of the Pope’s weaknesses for sweetmeats and suitably provided, lies in wait as the Pope arrives back from a hunting trip. His plan works and Cromwell returns to England with a growing reputation as a fixer.
Enters service of Cardinal Wolsey
Cromwell’s detailed knowledge of Italy gets him a job working for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s powerful First Minister and right-hand man.
Wolsey is preparing a gargantuan tomb for himself using top Italian sculptors. Cromwell is put in charge of the cardinal’s ‘legacy project’, also creating a school at Ipswich and a college at Oxford University to commemorate him. Wolsey comes from humble beginnings too and recognises something of himself in Cromwell. Under his patronage, Cromwell gains access to the court as Wolsey’s trusted servant and his career advances swiftly. In 1523 he becomes a Member of Parliament.
Cromwell’s wife and daughters die
Cromwell meets with terrible misfortune when his wife Elizabeth and two daughters Grace and Anne die of the ‘sweating sickness’.
There are scant records about Cromwell’s private life so we don’t know how this tragedy affected him, but he adores his only surviving son, Gregory.
Wolsey falls from grace
Henry VIII is seeking a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry his new love Anne Boleyn.
Cromwell’s master Thomas Wolsey tries unsuccessfully to get permission from the Pope arguing that Henry’s marriage to Catherine is not valid because she is his brother Arthur’s widow. Egged on by Anne, Henry loses faith in Wolsey who is arrested and charged with acting against the King. Even when others turn against Wolsey, Cromwell remains loyal to his master. Fearing the worst, Cromwell writes his will and divides his estate amongst his family, relations and loyal servants.
Masterminds Henry VIII’s divorce
After suffering numerous family and career setbacks, things start to turn round for Cromwell.
Ever an ambitious man, he knows service to the King can bring ample rewards. He helps Henry devise a plan to break with Rome destroying the Pope’s power over his affairs and enabling him to divorce Catherine of Aragon. He persuades parliament Henry should be declared Head of the English Church. After Henry’s marriage is annulled and he marries Anne Boleyn, Cromwell quickly becomes his most trusted servant.
Shuts down the monasteries
Cromwell has long harboured Protestant sympathies which he may have developed during his days as a merchant in Europe.
Even during his years of service with Wolsey, when England is ostensibly a Catholic country, he is in discreet contact with English religious dissenters nicknamed ‘Lollards’. When Henry VIII realises how much wealth he could gain from closing monasteries, Cromwell responds with a reformist’s zeal, presiding over the dissolution of 800 religious houses in four years. The Crown seizes their property, hugely swelling the King’s coffers.
Engineers the execution of Anne Boleyn
In 1536 Anne Boleyn suffers a miscarriage, the unborn child is male.
Henry is desperate for a male heir and has fallen in love with Jane Seymour. Cromwell, who did much to bring about the King’s marriage to Anne, is asked to get rid of her. Despite working together, Anne and Cromwell have never been close. He uses intimidation and torture to force those close to Anne into making false confessions. She is tried for treason and adultery with five men and executed in 1536. Henry marries Jane a week later. Cromwell’s place as Henry’s right hand man seems secure.
Arranges King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves
In 1537 Jane Seymour dies after giving birth to Henry VIII’s longed for son and heir Edward VI.
Cromwell searches Europe for a suitable fourth wife for the king. Seeking an alliance with the reformist princes of Germany against the ongoing Catholic threat, Cromwell puts forward Anne of Cleves. Holbein is sent to Germany to paint a portrait of the princess. When Anne arrives in England, Henry is disappointed by her looks. He comments to Cromwell, “I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.” Cromwell persuades the king to go forward with the marriage. It is a fatal mistake.
Executed for treason
Cromwell is created Earl of Essex. But his luck is about to run out.
Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is a disaster and in order to get it annulled he has to give evidence in court of his failings in the bedroom. Henry is embarrassed and furious with Cromwell for setting up the marriage. Cromwell’s blue-blooded enemies in Henry’s court seize the opportunity to move against this former commoner. He is charged with treason and corruption and executed at the Tower of London. Within weeks, Henry VIII is lamenting the loss of “the most faithful servant I ever had”.
Thomas Cromwell Leaving a legacy
Modern politicians frequently talk about ‘leaving a legacy’. Cromwell’s not only outlived him, but still survives. He helped found the Church of England, with the monarch as head, set the precedent of using parliament to change the constitution, and introduced the first major secular laws over personal morality – normal practice today.
Cromwell’s innovations were considerable and, more than most politicians, he left permanent legacies. He instigated a Protestant England, launched the careers of Protestant politicians who, under later monarchs, put England on a dramatic new path across the whole world. He also ordered every English parish to keep a register of baptisms, weddings and funerals – the first time this had been a requirement.
During the Reformation, Thomas Cromwell presided over a redistribution of wealth beyond the wildest dreams of Lenin. It’s hard to imagine how any modern politician could have similar impact on national life. Thatcher’s privatisations are the closest recent parallel although on nothing like the same scale. And the central legacy of his legislative genius remains; the monarch is still the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
- Thomas Cromwell Biography and Profile (BBC)