Cromwell, Thomas ca. 1485–1540 Chief Minister to English King
Chief minister to English king
Thomas Cromwell, faithful adviser to Henry VIII, played a significant role in the development of modern England. His policies on religion, relations with foreign powers, and government organization strengthened the king's authority. Cromwell's most far-reaching action involved the restructuring of the English church.
Born into a working-class family in London, Cromwell left England at an early age to fight in Italy. Upon his return home, he practiced law and came in contact with friends of the statesman Thomas More. Around 1514 Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He handled most of Wolsey's legal affairs and supervised the closing of several monasteries. Funds from the sale of monastery lands helped found a grammar school and a college that later became part of Oxford University.
In 1529 Cromwell entered Parliament. While there, he attracted the attention of Henry VIII and soon became an adviser to the crown. Over the next three years, Cromwell played a leading role in arranging the king's break with the pope and the Catholic Church. He wrote some crucial legislation, such as the Act in Restraint of Appeals (1533), which declared England an empire, free to do as it wished in both church and secular* matters. Over time Cromwell accumulated official positions, which allowed him to centralize some government functions. He also took an interest in social and economic reform.
Cromwell made his greatest mark on the English church, which he reorganized beginning with the creation of the Act of Supremacy in 1534. This act named Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Cromwell oversaw the king's religious affairs and strictly enforced the new royal supremacy over the church. Cromwell generally encouraged religious reform—most notably through an English translation of the Bible—and worked closely with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who shared common goals.
Cromwell's relationship with the king soured in the late 1530s with his eagerness to forge an alliance between England and a German Protestant prince. Cromwell arranged a marriage for Henry and the prince's sister, Anne of Cleves. However, Henry found Anne unpleasant and unattractive. In addition, England's alliance with the Protestant prince was likely to increase its isolation from European powers.
Archbishop Cranmer annulled* the marriage, but Cromwell's mistake gave his enemies ammunition against him. They convinced Henry that Cromwell was a traitor, leading to Cromwell's arrest in 1540. He was stripped of his offices and executed without a trial. Henry VIII quickly regretted his loss, mourning Cromwell as "the most faithful servant" he had ever had.
- * secular
nonreligious; connected with everyday life