Cromwell, Thomas

views updated May 14 2018

Cromwell, Thomas (c.1485–1540). Thomas Cromwell was the second of the great ministers to whom Henry VIII gave much trust and an imposing array of offices; he was the one most personally associated with the programme which made Henry VIII supreme head of the church in England.

1. Early career

Thomas Cromwell was born c.1485, the son of a Putney cloth-worker. In his early life he followed the French campaigns in Italy, and somehow acquired a broad education including some knowledge of business and law. He sat in the 1523 Parliament and entered the service of Thomas Wolsey, assisting in the dissolutions of religious houses used to endow Wolsey's college and school. Though he stayed with Wolsey longer than most after his disgrace, he escaped the wreck to join a group of intellectuals and administrators, including Edward Foxe, Thomas Audley, and Richard Rich, who were working on plans for Henry VIII to escape from the impasse in his divorce negotiations.

Cromwell became master of the king's jewel house in 1532 and principal royal secretary in 1534. Though he was thereafter to accumulate other offices including chancellor of the Exchequer, master of the rolls, lord privy seal, and great chamberlain, it was on his role as royal secretary, to which he gave unprecedented political importance, that his power rested. Thanks to the survival of vast amounts of his personal papers, seized before his attainder in 1540, his extensive contacts across the entire Tudor state can be documented.

2. Cromwell and the royal supremacy, 1532–1536

It is not certain exactly what role Cromwell played in the birth of Henry VIII's campaign for supremacy over the church. The arguments used to justify this campaign antedated Cromwell's rise to influence. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Cromwell drew the strands together, eliminated the more obviously implausible proofs, and recognized that parliamentary statute—hitherto used only for issues where church affairs bordered on secular concerns—offered the most public and authoritative way to announce and embody the new changes. Cromwell is thought to have been responsible for drafting the Supplication of the Commons against the Ordinaries in 1532. This parliamentary petition resurrected the protests against church courts originally made in 1529 in the attack on Wolsey; it was used to secure the submission of the clergy, which finally subjected canon law to secular review. Cromwell certainly took charge of the drafting of the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome (1533) and the Act of Supremacy (1534).

Parliamentary statute was only one of several means Cromwell found to secure consent to the supremacy. Using Berthelet, the royal printer, he saw to the publication of a sheaf of propaganda tracts, written by a range of intellectual clients and allies in both English and Latin, which justified the royal proceedings to readers of every level of education. Just as important was Cromwell's meticulous and ruthless treatment of high-profile opponents of the policy. The long examinations of Sir Thomas More, and his eventual trial and conviction for treasonably refusing the oath of supremacy, testify to Cromwell's anxiety to be seen to observe the forms of law; this trait can also be seen in his efforts to secure convictions of those implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536.

3. Cromwell and the Reformation

For all his ruthlessness, Cromwell gave away a hostage to fortune by his efforts to propel Henrician religious policy in a moderately protestant direction. As royal vicegerent in spirituals from 1535 Cromwell was responsible for the Ten Articles of 1536 and the royal injunctions of 1536 and 1538, which systematically attacked catholic teaching on works-righteousness, the cult of saints, offerings for the dead, holy relics and shrines, and religious festivals. On a wider front, Cromwell patronized ideas for social reform, especially improvements to poor relief and economic welfare schemes, similar to those being promoted in Europe at the same time. Though largely unsuccessful in the 1530s, these projects anticipated parts of the successful Tudor Poor Law reforms of the 1570s.

4. Cromwell and faction, 1536–1540

Thomas Cromwell never enjoyed the sort of ascendancy in Henry VIII's councils held by Cardinal Wolsey. The last four years of his life were a constant struggle to overcome rivals. Using parliamentary Acts of attainder he secured the judicial killing successively of Anne Boleyn and her household (1536), and the Courtenay and Pole families (1538). By this period Cromwell was seeking an alliance with pro-protestant princes in Germany who belonged to neither the French nor the Habsburg allegiance. In 1540 he brought about the disastrous marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves in pursuit of this policy. He had even intervened to protect preachers at Calais who were almost certainly pushing a harder protestant line than royal policy allowed. In self-defence he tried to accuse the lord deputy of Calais (who knew of his dealings there) of treason. Political and religious enemies led by the Norfolk and Bishop Stephen Gardiner momentarily gained the king's ear and convinced Henry that Cromwell was not only a traitor but an ultra-protestant ‘sacramentarian’ heretic; he was condemned untried by the weapon of parliamentary attainder which he had himself used so often, and executed on 28 July 1540.

5. Assessment

Thomas Cromwell presents the paradox of a statesman of great breadth of vision, who pursued his goals with a degree of judicial brutality only previously seen in times of civil war. Many of his policies display pragmatic calculations of factional advantage as much as, or more than, political principle. His creation of the courts of revenue now looks more like wasteful inflation of his own patronage than modern ‘bureaucratic’ innovation. The Privy Council was conjured up to throw a smoke-screen over the Cromwell clique's role in government in 1536, rather than to create an efficient executive committee of the crown. Yet after the bloody backbiting of the 1530s was over, many of his achievements were rediscovered and adopted to become part of the foundations of early modern government.

Euan Cameron


Beckingsale, B. W. , Thomas Cromwell (1978).

Thomas Cromwell

views updated May 23 2018

Thomas Cromwell

The English statesman Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (ca. 1485-1540), was the chief minister of Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540 and was largely responsible for revolutionary reforms in the English Church and in administration of the state.

Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, near London. His father, Walter Cromwell, was a fuller and shearer of cloth who also worked as a blacksmith, innkeeper, and brewer. Perhaps an unruly youth, Thomas received little formal education. About 1504 he traveled to Flanders and Italy, where he served as a mercenary soldier. While abroad he had an opportunity to learn French and Italian and to observe something of the diplomatic maneuvers of the European powers. When he returned to England about 1513, he married Elizabeth Wykes, whose father was also a shearer. Their only son, Gregory, proved dull and despite an elaborate education never achieved prominence.

In 1514 Cromwell entered the service of Thomas Wolsey, the great cardinal who dominated both Church and state. Cromwell's administrative abilities were soon recognized, and he became involved in all of Wolsey's business, especially the suppression of certain small monasteries and the application of their revenues to new colleges founded in Ipswich and Oxford. During this period Cromwell evidently studied law; in 1524 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the Inns of Court. He also entered Parliament and in 1523 may have delivered a famous speech denouncing Henry VIII's war in France and its accompanying taxation.

When Wolsey fell from power, Cromwell attached himself directly to the court. In 1529 he was elected to the Reformation Parliament, the later sessions of which he helped manage for the King. In 1532 he began to accumulate government offices, and he so gained the confidence of Henry VIII that he became the King's chief minister. He drafted the act in restraint of appeals, passed by Parliament in 1533 to allow Henry's divorce to be granted in England without interference from the Pope, and subsequent legislation which affirmed royal supremacy in religion and provided for a Church of England independent of Rome. His great ideal was the establishment of England as an "empire," completely self-contained and owing no allegiance to any external power.

Although he was not a priest, Cromwell was now named the King's vice-gerent, or deputy, in spiritual affairs. He was largely responsible for legislation which authorized the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of their property by the King. Although more interested in politics than theology, he was probably a sincere Protestant and certainly a supporter of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

In secular affairs Cromwell sought efficiency above all. He instituted revolutionary reforms, especially in financial administration. His multiplicity of offices—the King's principal secretary, lord privy seal, master of the jewels, clerk of the hanaper, master of the rolls, chancellor of the Exchequer, and master of the court of wards—gave him control over virtually every aspect of government. Unlike Wolsey and his predecessors, Cromwell was never lord chancellor; he can be regarded as the first chief minister of a new type, a layman basing his influence on the office of principal secretary. In 1536 he was ennobled as Baron Cromwell of Oakham, in the county of Rutland, and in 1540 he was created Earl of Essex. Although his magnificence never approached Wolsey's, he enjoyed the considerable wealth which he acquired. He had four houses, all in or near London; friends and foreign ambassadors later recalled their pleasant walks in his gardens.

Cromwell always had his enemies, mainly religious conservatives like Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, or members of the old aristocracy like Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. After Cromwell arranged the King's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, these foes combined to topple him, charging that he was an overmighty subject and a heretic. He was not given a trial but was condemned by a bill of attainder. On July 28, 1540, he was beheaded on Tower Hill. A clumsy executioner made the scene more than usually horrible, even by Tudor standards.

Although often criticized for his ambition, political ruthlessness, and plunder of the Church, Cromwell was a genuinely affable man, an administrative genius, and a loyal adviser to the King. It is doubtful that Henry VIII could have secured his divorce or devised his great scheme of ecclesiastical nationalization without Cromwell.

Further Reading

Most of Cromwell's extant letters are printed in Roger B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (2 vols., 1902). There is no satisfactory biography of Cromwell. His work in secular administration is best described in Geoffrey R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953), while his influence in the English Church is discussed in Arthur G. Dickens, Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation (1959).

Additional Sources

Beckingsale, B. W., Thomas Cromwell, Tudor minister, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978. □

Cromwell, Thomas (1485–1540)

views updated May 11 2018

Cromwell, Thomas (14851540)

Chief minister to King Henry VIII of England and a key figure in the Protestant Reformation that established the Church of England. Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, the son of a humble artisan. He traveled to the continent as a young man and was employed by a merchant bank of Italy as a broker in the Netherlands. He also served in Rome as an agent for an English cardinal, Reginald Bainbridge. In about 1512 Cromwell returned to England, where his abilities as a lawyer brought him to the attention of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who hired him as a secretary. Cromwell was elected a member of the English Parliament in 1523; he was favored by Henry for his support of the king's efforts to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He became a counselor to the king in 1530 and was named chief minister in 1532. Cromwell played a key role in the Reformation of England. Under his guidance, the English government threw off papal authority and placed church property under the control of the king, church courts answerable only to the pope were dissolved and replaced by royal courts, and the Church of England was founded. Cromwell wrote an important law known as the Act in Restraint of Appeals that denied anyone convicted of the right of appeal to the pope. He also guided important legislation known as the Act of Supremacy that recognized Henry as the head of the Church of England. The king appointed Cromwell as viceregent in spirituals, giving Cromwell the authority to investigate the religious orders and seize and distribute their property. For his role in directing the English Reformation he was rewarded with the noble title of Earl of Essex.

Cromwell ran afoul of many powerful nobles in England, however, and was also despised by many commoners for his ruthless methods in seizing church property. He incurred the anger of the king after the death of Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife. He advised the king to marry a German princess, Anne of Cleves, in order to tie England more closely to Protestant princes of northern Germany in an alliance against the Catholic emperor, Charles V. Unhappy with his German bride, however, Henry abandoned her and allowed Cromwell to be arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London at the instigation of Cromwell's sworn enemy, the Duke of Norfolk. Soon afterward Cromwell was convicted of treason and heresy and beheaded.

See Also: Henry VIII; More, Sir Thomas

Cromwell, Thomas

views updated May 21 2018


Earl of Essex and chief agent of henry viii in establishing the King's position as Supreme Head of the English Church and in organizing the dissolution of religious houses; b. Putney, England, 1485?; d. Tower Hill, London, July 28, 1540. Cromwell was the son of Walter Cromwell, a tradesman. In his youth Thomas served as a soldier with the French in Italy; became accountant to a Venetian merchant; and returning to England about 151213, began to practice law in London. In this capacity he was employed by Cardinal Thomas wolsey in the dissolution of some small monasteries and in supervising the new educational foundations to be built from their revenues.

Upon Wolsey's fall (1529), Cromwell attracted the favorable notice of the King by his ability and wit. He was soon given high office, including vicar-general in things spiritual and visitor general of the monasteries. He was ambitious, skillful, grasping of power, and prudent in affairs, knowing his own advance to be dependent on his capacity for increasing the King's power and wealth. His ideal was a popular one among the intelligentsia of the Renaissance worldthe ideal of a prince whose despotism was benevolent, making for order and prosperity by the imposition of his own will. The concentration of all authority, religious and civil, in the hands of the reigning prince was an alternative to the papacy and an expression of this ideal. The Defensor Pacis by Marsilius of Padua, a 14th-century Italian humanist, was an exposition of this thesis; Cromwell had caused it to be translated for Henry's benefit. It is known too that Cromwell was a student of Niccolò Machiavelli's treatise Il Principe. This manual of statecraft advises unscrupulous action, when necessary, provided it succeeds, and every kind of dissimulation used to ensure success. These principles certainly underlay much of the policy of Henry and his ministers, notably in the achievement of the dissolution of the monasteries and the suppression of the pilgrimage of grace.

Bibliography: r. b. merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, 2 v. (Oxford 1902). p. wilding, Thomas Cromwell (London 1935). a. g. dickens, Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation (New York 1960), with bibliog. g. baskerville, English Monks and the Suppression of the Monasteries (New Haven 1937). g. r. elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government (Cambridge, England 1953). p. hughes, The Reformation in England, 3v. in 1 (5th, rev. ed. New York 1963) v.1, 2. j. gairdner, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 63v. (London 18851900; repr. With corrections, 21 v., 190809, 192122, 1938; suppl. 1901) 5:192202. g. r. elton Policy and Police (Cambridge 1972). g. r. elton Reform and Renewal (Cambidge 1973). a. j. slavin, Thomas Cromwell on Church and Commonwealth (New York 1969).

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