Thomas Cromwell’s downfall: Part 1 – The Arrest 10 June 1540

A surprising thing happened on the afternoon of 10 June 1540 – Thomas Cromwell was running late. Sure, he had been at Parliament in the morning, and had a Privy Council meeting at 3pm, but Cromwell didn’t need to go far between his two important tasks for the day. Cromwell was never late for anything, and no record exists explaining why Cromwell had to rush into a Privy Council meeting already attended by all members – and William Kingston, Constable of the Tower.

What was not a surprise was the arrest of Thomas Cromwell. Many were stunned by the news that the Lord Privy Seal, the King’s Chief Minister, the most powerful man in England, was suddenly arrested on vague charges, sent to the Tower on the King’s command. But in truth, the clues had been spread out of the course of the previous year, and Cromwell’s chief enemies, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, had slowly tightened the net around their common nemesis.

Parliament had been dissolved in July 1536 and did not sit again until Henry summoned his ministers in March 1539. Cromwell had ensured Parliament sat regularly from 1529, running yearly reformation parliaments, changing the nature of politics under King Henry. But the Pilgrimage of Grace, the death of Jane Seymour, and Henry’s increasing illness and paranoia had got in the way of Cromwell’s changes. Cromwell’s political to-do list was huge by 1539, although his religious reforms had continued without parliament and despite the rebellion of 1536-37.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

Cromwell gets unlucky

Just prior to parliament’s opening on 28 April 1539, Cromwell fell ill, which he described by letter to Henry as an ague or tertian fever (possibly malaria).[1] Cromwell suffered a number of near-fatal illnesses throughout his time at court, usually always in spring, managing to beat them every time. Cromwell’s 1539 illness was a brutal one, rendering the Lord Privy Seal bedridden at Austin Friars and then at St James’ Palace, which was kept for his use, through most of April and May. Cromwell was seen outside St James’ when a muster of Henry’s troops, led by Ralph Sadler and included Richard and Gregory Cromwell, marched past the Palace, but the amount of work he completed almost ground to a halt.

While Cromwell lay in his sickbed, Norfolk was ready to pounce. He summoned the Convocation of Canterbury, and invited Convocation of York members as well, and pushed reform through the House of Lords, where Cromwell was too ill to attend. Norfolk was the face of The Six Articles,[2] which rolled back Cromwell’s reformist changes. The Six Articles, mostly dealing with matters of the Eucharist, clerical celibacy, vows of chastity, transubstantiation, private masses and confessions, brought King Henry and England way back to Catholic practises. By the time the first session of parliament closed in June, Cromwell still had not appeared before the House of Lords or House of Commons, and the damage to the Reformation had been done.

Cromwell loses his cool

King Henry wanted religious unity in England before he went on progress, and set up a banquet at Cranmer’s place, Lambeth Palace, but refused to attend himself. Cranmer was already in a poor mood, as he had just sent his wife and daughter from England,[3] as his marriage was deemed illegal by the Six Articles. All sides of religious debate attended the banquet, Cromwell included, on 2 July 1539. After years of backstabbing, rumours and snide comments, Cromwell and Norfolk had the public fight that had long been brewing. Norfolk gleefully slandered Wolsey before the banquet and Cromwell snapped, accusing Norfolk of supporting Rome over England. Norfolk had begged to go to Rome with Wolsey when the cardinal expected to be made Pope in 1523, remembering every detail, down to the money Norfolk made during the negotiations to have Wolsey elected, acting as the ‘protector of the future Pope’ and sailed the Mary Rose, to accompany Emperor Charles’ ship from England.[4] These details enraged Norfolk, essentially being accusing as a traitor to his king and his country.

Duchess Anna, Daughter of Cleves

Cromwell accidentally picks the wrong queen

Cromwell wanted to push harder than ever to secure the Reformation in England. The monasteries were almost dissolved, and the delegation went to the German States to secure a royal bride and alliance with the Schmalkaldic League, with its powerful Lutheran army. Holbein brought home portraits of Anna and Amalia, Duchesses of Cleves in October 1539, and Henry decided to marry Anna in a rush.[5] There are no reports Cromwell ever bragged of Anna’s qualities, nor that Holbein’s over-exaggerated Anna’s beauty. Anna had a powerful Lutheran brother, Wilhelm, Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, and her sister, Sybilla, Electress of Saxony, wife to the head of Schmalkaldic League. Duchess Anna was perfect for England; young, beautiful, clever and well-connected. The duchess of a Lutheran state, which was still part of the Holy Roman Empire. She was strongly supported by her Lutheran family but was Catholic like her mother.[6] Cleves was the perfect ‘middle-way’ of religion, needed to secure alliances and peace.

By the time that Anna had finally reached England to marry King Henry in January 1540, international movements had ruined everything Cromwell had crafted. Henry was listening to the whispers of Norfolk and Gardiner, turning back to Catholicism. Anna’s brother Wilhelm had all-but declared war against Emperor Charles over the German state of Guelders. Once Henry married Anna, England would be in alliance and could have to fight against Emperor Charles. France swayed back and forth, helping to undo all negotiations of alliances between these formidable powers of Europe. Cromwell couldn’t undo the marriage contract; he had helped to create it, and it was water-tight.

The long-held rumours of Henry calling Anna ugly, “a Flanders mare,” have dogged the tale through the centuries, despite documents telling a very different story. Jousts were held in Anna’s honour; the people spoke of her beauty and kindness.[7] England quickly warmed to Anna, but Henry wanted out of any alliance that could mean war. Emperor Charles was furious that England would align with the reformers, but the Germans were also unhappy with the marriage, with Henry not backing them on matters of war, and not undoing the infuriating Six Articles. Cromwell had promised the German ambassadors he would crush Norfolk and the Six Articles, but had lost the power in parliament and convocations to do so.

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester

Cromwell makes a mistake

Despite all the troubles with Anna, Henry still believed in Cromwell, confiding in him about his impotence with Anna, and making Cromwell the Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain in April 1540. While the marriage was still sound, Cromwell had completed the Dissolution of the Monasteries and made Henry rich. Cromwell’s enemies, such as Norfolk and Gardiner, were stunned, as were Ambassador Chapuys and Ambassador Marillac. Gardiner and Cromwell had been together at dinner at Austin Friars only weeks before, where Cromwell made a mistake. Cromwell told Gardiner “if the king did turn from the Reformation, I would not turn from it; and if the king turned, and all his people too, I would fight them in the field, with my sword in my hand, against the king and all others.” [8] Cromwell had already lost many allies in parliament and at court as religious changes slowly peeled apart, and this comment would come back to haunt him.

Thomas Wriothesley

Cromwell has a slip of the tongue

In May, Cromwell again made a mistake. He had almost secured an annulment for Henry and Anna, based on a flimsy pre-contract from Anna’s childhood, and was in initial stages of an alliance with France, seen running around the May Day jousts like a crazed man, trying to juggle national and international diplomacy. But he made a rare misstep soon after, admitting aloud of Henry’s impotence to Thomas Wriothesley one tired evening.[9] So many little moments were beginning to add up against Cromwell, just as it had for so many others.

For a long time so many men had sneered at Cromwell’s power. Norfolk had Henry’s ear, as did Gardiner, Bishop Bonner of London, Sir Anthony Browne, and Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, all on the Privy Council. Cromwell’s life was still looking up in June 1540 – he had unlimited power in England, his son Gregory was happily married to Elizabeth Seymour and they had three healthy sons, Henry, Edward, and Thomas, at Leeds Castle. Richard Cromwell had just been knighted and called ‘the king’s diamond’ by Henry as he was given a diamond off his own hand. Ralph Sadler, a man so close to Cromwell he was practically a son, was now Principal Secretary to the king, shared with Thomas Wriothesley, one of Cromwell’s most loyal men, in a role Cromwell relinquished to them. Queen Anna’s marriage could be undone, giving Cromwell a chance to secure religious reform alongside Archbishop Cranmer.

Yet, for some unknown reason, Cromwell was late to the Privy Council meeting, where he was quickly called a traitor by most, if not all, of the councillors (though among them was his nephew Richard Cromwell, and close friends Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Audley, who never spoke against him). Even Richard Rich, a long-time colleague, did not defend his master. Sir John Russell, Sir Edward Seymour, Sir William Fitzwilliam and Sir Robert Radcliffe, while not on record as calling for Cromwell’s head, also did not defend the Lord Privy Seal. Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and head of the Privy Council, likewise did not speak against Cromwell (Cromwell was godfather to Suffolk’s son Henry[10] and probable godfather to Suffolk’s granddaughter Jane Grey). But Suffolk allowed Kingston to arrest Cromwell, who threw his cap on the table before the Council and cried, “I am no traitor! Your Grace, members of the Council, is this reward for good service done unto His Majesty the king? I put it to your consciences, am I a traitor as your accusations imply? Well, no matter, for I renounce all pardons or grace needed, for I never offended the king, and it matters only if the king himself thinks me a traitor, and he would never have me linger long!”[11]

Norfolk pulled Cromwell’s golden collar from his shoulders, while Fitzwilliam pulled the garter from Cromwell’s leg,[12] as he was still wearing his parliamentary robes, no time to change between meetings. Cromwell was arrested as a traitor, almost eleven years after Reginald Pole had expected to see Cromwell rowed to the Tower alongside Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell’s work on securing a Schmalkaldic alliance showed he was in league with Lutherans and Calvinists across Europe, that he had contacted a marriage that Henry couldn’t remain in, and he had uttered treasonous words to Gardiner over dinner.[13] The Six Articles had got in the way of so many of Cromwell’s reforms, making him appear ineffectual, and Henry knew of Cromwell’s slip-up to Wriothesley about impotence. Cromwell had been betrayed by people close to him, and he left Westminster in a boat to the Tower, where he was housed in the Queen’s rooms – the same rooms Anne Boleyn had stayed in only four years earlier.

Wriothesley himself drafted letters that day to John Wallop, Nicolas Wootton and Christopher Pate in France that very day, talking of Cromwell’s arrest,[14] though letters from Wallop arrived to Cromwell in the following days, having not received the news right away. French Ambassador Charles Marillac wrote to King Francis that very day, writing, “I have just heard that Thomas Cramuel, keeper of the Privy Seal and Vicar-General of the Spirituality, who, since the Cardinal’s death, had the principal management of the affairs of this kingdom, and had been newly made Grand Chamberlain, was an hour ago led prisoner to the Tower and all his goods attached. Although this might be thought a private matter and of little importance, inasmuch as they have only reduced thus a personage to the state from which they raised him and treated him as hitherto everyone said he deserved, yet, considering that public affairs thereby entirely change their course, especially as regards the innovations in religion of which Cramuel was principal author, the news seems of such importance that it ought to be written forthwith. I can add nothing but that no articles of religion are yet concluded, and that the bishops are daily assembled to resolve them, and meanwhile Parliament continues. They were on the point of closing this when a gentleman of this court came to say from the King that I should not be astonished because Cramuel was sent to the Tower, and that, as the common, ignorant people spoke of it variously, the King wished me to know the truth. The substance was that the King, wishing by all possible means to lead back religion to the way of truth, Cramuel was attached to the German Lutherans, had always favoured the doctors who preached such erroneous opinions and hindered those who preached the contrary, and that recently, warned by some of his principal servants to reflect that he was working against the intention of the King and of the Acts of Parliament, he had betrayed himself and said he hoped to suppress the old preachers and have only the new, adding that the affair would soon be brought to such a pass that the King with all his power could not prevent it, but rather his own party would be so strong that Cramuel would make the King descend to the new doctrines even if he had to take arms against him. These plots were told the King by those who heard them and who esteemed their fealty more than the favour of their master. The King also sent word that when he spoke with me that he would tell things which would show how great was the guilt of said Cramuel and that said lord has so long been able to conceal it and the right opportunity now came to give orders.”[15]

Marillac also wrote to Anne Montmorency, Constable of France, saying, “what I wrote last is now verified touching the division among this King’s ministers, who are trying to destroy each other. Cramuel’s party seemed the strongest lately by the taking of the dean of the Chapel, Bishop of Chichester, but it seems quite overthrown by the taking of the said lord Cramuel, who was chief of his group, and there remain only on his side the Archbishop of Canterbury, who dare not open his mouth, and the lord Admiral, who has long learnt to bend to all winds, and they have for open enemies the Duke of Norfolk and the others. The thing is the more marvellous as it was unexpected by everyone.”[16]

Tomorrow – 11 June: Cranmer begs for Cromwell’s life. 

~~~

[1] TNA xiv no. 783, SP 7/I f.53, 16 April 1539

[2] McEntegart, Henry VIII, 152

[3] SP I/152 f. 118, July 1539

[4] Ibid 142-44, SP I/142 f. 105

[5] Foxe 1570, 1399.

[6] See Anna, Duchess of Cleves by Heather Darsie for full information

[7] See Anna, Duchess of Cleves by Heather Darsie for full information

[8] TNA xv no. 486, 10 April 1540

[9] BL MS Cotton Titus B/I f.273, 12 June 1540

[10] TNA ix no. 386, 18 September 1535

[11] TNA xv no. 804, 23 June 1540

[12] TNA xv no. 804, 23 June 1540

[13] Foxe 1570, 1399.

[14] TNA xv no. 765, St. P. viii.349, 10 June 1540

[15] TNA xv no. 766, Kaulek, 189, 10 June 1540

[16] TNA xv no. 767, Kaulek, 190, 10 June 1540

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