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.
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)