Cromwell, Thomas (c. 1485–1540)

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CROMWELL, THOMAS (c. 14851540)

CROMWELL, THOMAS (c. 14851540), English royal minister. Thomas Cromwell, earl of Essex, was principal secretary and chief minister to Henry VIII (ruled 15091547) and supervised the process by which the king became supreme head of the church in England. Born in Putney, in the county of Surrey, Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith, brewer, and cloth merchant. (The great-grandson of his nephew Richard, who took on his uncle's surname, was the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell [15991658].)

After an apparently unruly adolescence, the young Thomas Cromwell spent several years traveling on the Continent before establishing himself in London as a successful merchant and business agent, which included some legal work. By the early 1520s, he had begun to act for clients in a number of important suits, several of which brought him to the attention of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (c. 14751530). In 1523, he was elected to the House of Commons and the following year was appointed to Wolsey's staff. Here he managed the dissolution of nearly thirty monasteries to fund the cardinal's building projects in Oxford and Ipswich and came to supervise much of his legal work. When Wolsey fell from power in October 1529, Cromwell obtained a seat in the new Parliament and traveled to court on several occasions to represent the interests of the disgraced cardinal. He increasingly obtained Henry's confidence and, from June 1530, managed the receipt of Wolsey's college lands by the crown. The cardinal's death on 29 November 1530 enabled Cromwell to undertake further royal administrative and legal work, and he joined the king's council at some point toward the end of the year.

A skilled parliamentary draftsmen, by autumn 1531 Cromwell had taken control of the king's legal and parliamentary affairs. Although others formulated the policy relating to the king's divorce, Cromwell was responsible for much of its execution. He played a pivotal role in achieving the submission of the clergy in 1532 and secured parliamentary legitimacy for the royal supremacy through the management of Parliament and by supervising the drafting of all the major legislation, including the Act in Restraint of Appeals (1533) and the Act of Supremacy (1534). In 1532, he was also appointed master of the jewels, the first of many offices he accumulated, including clerk of the hanaper (1532), chancellor of the exchequer (1533), principal secretary (1534), master of the rolls (1534), lord privy seal (1536), and lord great chamberlain (1540).

When Henry confirmed him as his principal secretary and chief minister in April 1534, Cromwell's main priority was the enforcement of policy. All the king's subjects had to swear to the act of succession, and those in religious life were required to either swear oaths or make declarations indicating their acceptance of the royal supremacy. His appointment as the king's vicegerent, or vicar-general, in January 1535 also substantially increased his power over the church. Cromwell was not the butcher he has sometimes been characterized as, though he was not above manipulating the legal process to remove dissenters viewed as a particular threat, most notably Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded in 1535.

As vicegerent, Cromwell ordered two commissions, one to determine the lands and revenues of the church (Valor Ecclesiasticus, 1535) and another to investigate monastic life (the so-called comperta, 15351536). The latter included grossly exaggerated reports of corruption and vice in the nation's smaller religious houses and was used to justify the suppression of most of these in early 1536. Yet while Queen Anne Boleyn shared the evangelical convictions that Cromwell had held since at least the beginning of the decade, she was furious that the proceeds were not to be used for charitable purposes. Recognizing the serious threat to his position, Cromwell levied an almost certainly groundless charge of adultery against her, which led to the trial for treason and the execution of Anne and several of her closest supporters in May 1536.

Cromwell was now at the height of his powers, but the remaining four years of his life were to represent a constant struggle against conservative opponents at court. Working closely with archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (14891556), he sought to introduce an increasingly radical series of evangelical reforms, principally the Ten Articles (1536), two sets of royal injunctions (1536 and 1538), and the introduction of the English Great Bible (1540). Although Cromwell had Henry's complete support when he became a principal target of those who rebelled in the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536), there were signs from early in 1538 that the king was becoming uncomfortable about the pace of reform. The Act of Six Articles passed the following year was unambiguously conservative.

Cromwell managed to discredit or remove many of his religious and political opponents (as in the judicial killing of the Courtenay and Pole families in 1538). But he was fatally weakened by his masterminding of the king's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1539 (Henry abhorred her physically), which Cromwell believed would increase the prospect of an alliance with the Schmalkaldic League of Lutheran princes. Despite Henry's initial support, Cromwell's conservative enemies, led by Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, and Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, managed to persuade the king of the minister's treachery and heresy. After a dramatic arrest in the council chamber, Cromwell was condemned without a trial by parliamentary act of attainder (ironically, his favored means of dispatching opponents), and executed on 28 July 1540.

An efficient and pragmatic administrator, Cromwell's main function as chief minister was the execution and enforcement of the royal supremacy, and he was first and foremost the king's loyal servant. However, by using the influence this situation provided, he was able to introduce a number of reforms, both social and religious, and significantly advanced the evangelical cause during the 1530s.

See also Church of England ; England ; Henry VIII (England) ; More, Thomas ; Reformation, Protestant ; Tudor Dynasty (England) .


Beckingsale, B. W. Thomas Cromwell: Tudor Minister. Basingstoke, U.K., 1978. In the absence of a definitive biography, this remains the most comprehensive available.

Coleman, C., and D. Starkey, eds. Revolution Reassessed: Revisions in the History of Tudor Government and Administration. Oxford, 1986. Revises Elton's thesis.

Dickens, A. G. Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation. London, 1959.

Elton, G. R. Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell. Cambridge, U.K., 1972. Cromwell and the enforcement of the Reformation.

. Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal. Cambridge, U.K., 1973. Cromwell and reform.

. The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII. Cambridge, U.K., 1953. Elton's highly influential work on Cromwell and administration.

Merriman, Roger Bigelow. Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell. 2 vols. Oxford, 1902.

Howard Leithead

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Cromwell, Thomas (c. 1485–1540)

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