A Cromwell Adventure: Part 14 – Did Thomas Cromwell Even Want Wolsey’s Position?

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, and Paul Jesson as Wolsey, in RSC’s Wolf Hall. MARILYN KINGWILL

November 30 marked the 489th anniversary of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s death. I considered writing an article on the fate of Wolsey, but there are already wonderful pieces on Wolsey’s demise (such as this by The Tudor Travel Guide), so I decided to go in a different direction.

The common belief prevails that Cardinal Wolsey fell out of favour hard and fast with King Henry over the legatine court debacle of May-July 1529. As Wolsey fell from grace, his lawyer Thomas Cromwell swiftly moved in and took his master’s place at the King’s side. Soon, Wolsey was dead at Leicester Abbey, dying onroute to his own execution. On the face of it, that is the story, but when you break it down, there are far more factors at play. Hilary Mantel’s version shows Cromwell saddened by his master’s fall, and then promoting himself at court. The Tudors showed a more ruthless Cromwell; a man who ignored his master in favour of the glitter of the royal court. But did Cromwell even want to work for the king?

Thanks to the work of Diarmaid MacCulloch, the details of Cromwell’s life prior to his time with Wolsey is no longer a mystery. From fighting in the French army, a decade living in Florence as a merchant and lawyer, a short stint working in Antwerp, followed by another decade of legal work split between London and Rome, Cromwell was well-known, well-liked and respected, and as a consequence of his travels and language skills, well-connected. By 1520, Cromwell had become fluent in Italian, French, Latin, and even a smattering of Flemish, Spanish, Greek and German. The early 1520s saw him going into service for Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, and within a year, was so beloved by the family that some referred to him in letters as a ‘dear brother.’[1] When Cromwell entered parliament for its sole sitting in almost a decade, it is likely that Thomas Grey got Cromwell elected, as Cromwell still did not work for Cardinal Wolsey. Only after this, through a mixture of mutual friends and allies, did Wolsey learn of the ‘finest Italian in England’, Thomas Cromwell, and how his skills could be valuable.

Wolsey was a man burdened by the role as cardinal as well as Lord Chancellor to King Henry. He had overseen much of England’s workings throughout Henry’s reign, and by the mid-20s, had total control, hence the restricted parliament sittings (no one can argue if no one can speak). But Wolsey’s grip on power, as a lowborn man, meant he had a good collection of noble enemies. Henry continued to favour Wolsey, meaning these enemies could do little. Wolsey continued his vanity projects, his colleges at Ipswich and Oxford, and the building of his magnificent tomb at his new palace, Hampton Court. Italians were the master artists of the period, and Wolsey needed someone who could work on his tomb and colleges and speak fluent Italian. Enter Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell had little to nothing to do with Wolsey’s work for the king or government. The colleges were huge undertakings for Cromwell, because, in order to pay for these projects, monasteries needed to be dissolved to pay for the works, and building materials gathered from the bones of these houses. From 1525, Cromwell was in charge of dissolving these small, and either corrupted or collapsing, religious houses. While this task made Cromwell plenty of enemies, it made him a surprising amount of friends, both papist and evangelical. A great many religious men wrote to Cromwell to beg for the safety of their houses, their people, even offering bribes to remain open. Cromwell, now a man writing with humanist and reformist tones, had friendships which crossed the divide between religious factions, friendships that lasted long into his reign over England. In overseeing the grand impending completions of the colleges in Oxford and Ipswich, Cromwell gained a huge understanding of religious houses and found where his own religious feelings lay within the quiet creep of the Reformation in England, all under the nose of a Catholic cardinal.

But 1525 was a hard year for Wolsey. Before the introduction of Anne Boleyn and her affair with the king, Wolsey set out to impose the Amicable Grant, a tax or benevolence on the people. It was a tax of between 1/6 to 1/10 on laity goods, and 1/3 on clergy goods.  Henry wanted war with France, and Wolsey needed to fund it. Henry needed £800,000 to take France while the French king was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor, but no parliament would ratify such a heavy toll, and the whole idea had been shot down two years earlier. Loans taken out in 1522 and 1523 for a French invasion had not been paid, and the tax as far from amicable as the name suggested. The people opposed the tax and rebelled, with the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk having to ride out against their own people.[2] Wolsey had to concede defeat and sought peace with the rebels, and Henry sought peace with France instead. A back down, a humiliation, for Henry translated to humiliation for Wolsey. He had ruled England for a decade without question, and now people had learned they could stand up to him. Henry suddenly saw weakness, and thus, doubted his affection to Wolsey.

Soon after, Anne Boleyn beguiled the king. Already bearing a grudge against Wolsey for his refusal of her marriage to Henry Percy, Wolsey accidentally made a powerful enemy. The king wanted a new wife and a son, and sadly for Wolsey, Henry’s eyes fell on Anne, possibly the only woman who wouldn’t do as Henry pleased, or would listen to Wolsey. But by 1527, when Henry asked Wolsey to seek an annulment from the Pope, all seemed still fairly content between the king and his chancellor.  But the Pope refused to give a simple answer and was soon captured by the Holy Roman Emperor, meaning no answer on annulment would come. By late 1527, it was time to get serious; the Italians would need to come to Wolsey instead.

Through 1528, Cromwell was still working on dissolutions and Wolsey’s Italian artworks being made in a studio at Westminster. The year saw Cromwell lose this wife, and soon after, both his daughters. Cardinal Campeggio, sent from Rome to settle an annulment with Wolsey, didn’t arrive in England until October 1528 and face-to-face with Wolsey in London until May 1529, due to illness on both sides. Cromwell had little to do with Wolsey’s dealings on the marriage issues, though his writing is seen in some more international issues, possibly stepping in for his busy master.[3] Wolsey could smell the change in the air – he began making ever grander plans, elevating his idiot son higher than he ever deserved and kept pushing his expensive vanity projects, all while the king kept getting more impatient. The ground between Henry and Wolsey perhaps never truly settled after the mess of the Amicable Grant of 1525. By the time the legatine court sat at Blackfriars in May 1529, Anne Boleyn had spent months trying to gain a  faction of courtiers to come over to her side to oust Wolsey and his delaying tactics, but all came to little. Wolsey needed to trip up once more.

The case in the court of the King’s Great Matter (another post on its own), came to a close just under two months later, with Cardinal Campeggio ruling that the court could not make a decision based on lack of authority. This sabotage angered everyone, and threw Wolsey under the bus (donkey cart, perhaps?). Years of legal battles, theology debates, time wasted, lies told, trust broken, and probably a fair amount of sexual frustration, Henry was furious. Yet even then, Wolsey still wasn’t toppled.

Henry and Anne went on progress for the summer, giving Henry and Wolsey some time apart, as much as Wolsey tried to edge himself into the trip. It was not until September when the polarising Anne and her comrades finally managed to convince the king of Wolsey’s alleged premunire (usurping the king’s authority). Cromwell was working for his master as usual in London at this time, and but could not help but fall into the annulment’s shadow. Wolsey kept making choices that were clear to his servants that things were falling apart, and the rats started abandoning ship. Many hoped that when Wolsey went to the Tower, his servant Cromwell would too, for his crimes against the monasteries. The Duke of Norfolk already disliked Cromwell for monasteries closed, and Anne had similar thoughts.[4] In July 1529, Cromwell had started calling in his debts and wrote his will, not a man looking for a new post, or to climb over the corpse of his master. His reformist and humanist ideals were ignored as he wrote out the most traditional papist wishes for his death and included none of his noble or rich friends in his will, not even Wolsey himself. Long-time friends, lower men like himself, graced the pages that would see to the care of young Gregory and the Cromwell finances.[5] The country was in turmoil, and Cromwell painted the picture of a man with little will to go on at all, let alone a desire to meddle the king’s affairs.

By autumn 1529, Cromwell sat in conversation with Reginald Pole, two totally opposed men, and Pole recorded that Cromwell seemed a man confused, repeating Wolsey’s worries.[6] Soon after, Wolsey’s continued failure the find peace with France was the final straw and Henry had Wolsey arrested. Anne Boleyn and her accomplices had all the ammunition ready, and spectators lined up to see Wolsey’s barge leave York Place (soon to be Whitehall Palace), but turn not east to the Tower, but west to Esher instead. Reginald Pole left England at the same time, convinced Cromwell had also been arrested that day and would be soon be executed.[7]

The famous scene written by George Cavendish, of Cromwell crying while reciting from a primer, happened soon after, a continuation of this pattern of a man who did not think himself in the running to rise in the king’s favour. His wife had died, both his daughters, the projects he had worked so hard on were suddenly taken from him, he was hated by more powerful men, and was reduced to crying while reading the Our Lady Mattins at Esher Place.[8] But Cromwell had one thing on his side; he was not a nobleman, thus didn’t think like a nobleman. He sat with Wolsey, who lamented all his losses, a man complaining while sitting in relative comfort in a newly renovated manor house, with a retinue of servants to attend him. Cromwell noted that Wolsey owed his lay staff money and prayers, and from his own pocket and by guilt-tripping Wolsey’s clergy staff,[9] paid the innocent men and women of the household, those most likely to suffer first over Wolsey’s demise. Cromwell wiped his tears and decided to head back to London. Wolsey was down but not out.

On November 1, Cromwell left Esher, and through his friends made in his years working quietly, Cromwell got himself a place in parliament by November 3. Between Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, Sir John Gage, Thomas Rush, Thomas Alvard and William Paulet, negotiations with the Duke of Norfolk prevailed and Cromwell was admitted into parliament. Cromwell had a say in what came next for Wolsey and England. Alvard gave up his seat for Taunton to his friend Cromwell, a helpful friend indeed, as Cromwell was a hated man for his connection to Wolsey. Many were abandoning Wolsey and looking for other roles with noble masters, something Cromwell refused to do, as he was already widely hated at court for his dissolution projects and thought no place existed for him anyway. Bishop Fisher already calling the dissolution project heresy in parliament.[10]

Cromwell had an idea to help Wolsey and appeal to the man angry at the cardinal: King Henry. More dissolutions (as he was already hated, so there was no point in worrying about that) would enrich the king while proving Wolsey wasn’t a heretic, not if the king approved of such dissolutions. Cromwell stood in open parliament and defended Wolsey, gaining him the attention he didn’t want or need at such a time, in front of the king and all who had just signed a petition against Wolsey for premunire. Contemporary writers wrote of how this risky choice gave Cromwell a good reputation and an honest beginning for him before those ranked far above him.[11] One can only assume these men were annoyed that Cromwell’s speech was good, honest and legally sound. By mid-December, Thomas More closed parliament and Cromwell set out to make sure he could continue to bankroll Wolsey and his small household, in the hope Wolsey could return to the king’s side. Cromwell also tried to keep the cardinal’s colleges open after Wolsey’s premuniure charges and had to deal with losing the Italian masters who had been working on Wolsey’s tomb, as they no longer wanted the association with Wolsey’s immortality.

By this time, Stephen Gardiner, Wolsey’s secretary, was now the king’s secretary instead, harshly abandoning the man whom he owed so much. Cromwell and Gardiner, once on the same side, had suddenly become enemies. But while Gardiner was happy to turn his back on Wolsey in return for favour, Cromwell was receiving more favour in a totally different way. Cromwell had shown unwavering loyalty to Wolsey, and loyalty was something King Henry struggled to find (at least in his own mind).[12] Cromwell attracted the king’s attention due to his loyalty, his patience, and his studious behaviour in a time where many were crying out for sentences that carried a death penalty for Wolsey.

Wolsey was sidelined, with Cromwell left behind to argue his cause. By February 1530, Cromwell was before the king, being tasked with overseeing all Wolsey-related affairs, renewing the Italian masters, the colleges, and Henry was keen to hear more of destroying church power through dissolution.[13] Cromwell was a reformist; Wolsey was a Catholic cardinal. Cromwell openly favoured neither in his work or letters, and defended Wolsey while denying papal authority. He spoke of dissolving monasteries but did not ally with Anne Boleyn and her evangelical accomplices, even though they shared a good friend in Thomas Cranmer. Rather, Queen Katherine was no enemy, and Anne Boleyn was left out of the equation. Cromwell told Henry to continue petitioning the Pope for an annulment, but not to worry too much if the Pope denied him, as Pope Clement’s supremacy might not matter; a thought Henry would have considered for years. The court was divided into three; Anne supporters, Katherine supporters, and Henry supporters, those who supported neither Katherine or Anne, and silent on the annulment. Cromwell fought for only Wolsey, and Henry relented and pardoned Wolsey of his perceived crimes and moved him to luxury at Richmond, angering Anne and her uncle the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk fought back, and Wolsey was sent north as Archbishop of York at Easter. The 200 miles between them made no difference; Cromwell did not seek a place at court, instead, he wrote to Wolsey constantly, and lived at Austin Friars and not closer to the king, who put Cromwell to work upgrading York Place into Whitehall Palace.

Cromwell spent the rest of 1530 working again as a private lawyer and renewing his merchant work with his friend Stephen Vaughan in the Low Countries, as if ready to prepare for a life post-Wolsey.[14] He also wrote to Wolsey, talking of the Lutheran sect around Henry (aka Anne), not favouring Luther himself, yet also not favouring papist beliefs. Around this time, his daughter Jane was born (the Jane in my books) to an unknown mother; a illegitimate baby, a mistake made by a careful man, a mistake he turned into a kindness by raising the girl. Cromwell sat quietly, floating in no  real direction at all.

Wolsey continued to make mistakes in the north; living beloved and lavishly, writing to Queen Katherine, the French king and the Holy Roman Emperor, in an attempt to be the saviour of England once all came crashing down when Anne Boleyn got ousted. When the king decided to dismantle Wolsey’s precious colleges in August 1530, Wolsey upped his attempts to blacken Anne, and wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor, suggesting an invasion. A rare Cromwell letter survives, where Cromwell urges his master to be more careful, as King Henry had lost the last of his patience .[15] Wolsey began to question Cromwell’s unwavering loyalty, and planned a ceremony for himself in York, to be enthroned before his sympathetic northern people. Henry snapped and had Wolsey arrested, but the cardinal died onroute at Leicester Abbey on November 30, after a number of serious health problems (and definitely not suicide as we saw on tv). Wolsey had become an international embarrassment, and Cromwell fought for an audience with the king and promised to make him the richest man in England. Cromwell’s seven years of service were suddenly over, and he needed to come out of it safely, not entangled in Wolsey’s poor choices. Henry instead rewarded Cromwell with a seat in parliament, a far higher position than the previous year, making  Cromwell a fresh round of enemies in the process. Trying to tie up the mess surrounding Wolsey had instead thrust Cromwell back into public view.[16]

Cromwell had ideas: raising funds for Henry, reducing clerical power, and resisting the Pope’s behaviour over the whole Katherine v Anne debacle.  By New Year 1531, rather than only sitting in parliament to preach his ideas, Henry made Cromwell a royal councillor as well. His friendships, his language skills, his precious experience with Wolsey, all alongside his unquestionable loyalty, made Cromwell perfect for Henry. While Cromwell had run up his fair share of enemies with monastery dissolution, he had a firm cast of friends and allies, and could finally speak openly without risking his dear cardinal. Cromwell may not have wanted Wolsey’s position or power, but he got it precisely by not scrambling for favour alongside everyone else. The rest is history.

________________

[1] LP 4i no.1881 1526

[2] Guy, Tudor England p103

[3] LP 4ii no.4441, Capon to Cromwell 1 July 1528

[4] LP 4iii no. 5458, Capon to Wolsey 12 April 1529

[5] LP 4iii no. 5772

[6] Mayer,Correspondence of Pole vol 1 p212

[7] ERP I, 127 xxviii

[8] Cavendish, Life of Wolsey p260

[9] Cavendish, Life of Wolsey p275

[10] Scarsbrick, Fisher, Henry VIII and the Reformation Crisis p158

[11] Herbert, Life and Raigne of King Henry Eighth p266

[12] Cavendish, Life of Wolsey p274

[13] LP 5 no. 11799 December 1530

[14] LP 4iii no. 6744 Vaughan to Cromwell 30 November 1530

[15] LP 4iii no. 6571 Cromwell to Wolsey 18 August 1530

[16] Spanish Calendar 5i no.228 21 November 1535

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 4: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Sampson Strong’s portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church (1610)

Most people know Thomas Wolsey – Cardinal, Lord Chancellor, de-facto ruler of England. For the twenty years of Henry VIII’s reign which was not filled with wife drama, it was Wolsey there every day, earning him the nickname of alter rex, meaning the other king. This was a blessing and a curse.

Wolsey’s birth is not recorded, but estimated at around 1473 to his butcher-father Robert and his wife Joan. Wolsey received a quality education at Ipswich School, Magdalen College School and then Magdalen College in Oxford. He became a priest in 1498 in Wiltshire, though he stayed at Oxford as Master at Magdalen College School and dean of divinity, before entering several households as a personal chaplain.

By 1507, Wolsey entered the household of King Henry VII, who preferred commoners to entitled nobles, and became the royal chaplain, and secretary to Edward Foxe, a bishop and the Lord Privy Seal. In just one year, Wolsey was trusted enough to be sent to Scotland to renew an alliance with King James IV.

When Henry VII died in 1509, young Henry VIII wanted many changes, and Wolsey was named almoner (charged with distributing money to the poor in England), which was also a seat on the Privy Council. Henry VIII was an excitable young man with no experience and no lover of details, and Wolsey’s dedication to bearing the weight of responsibility soon made him one of Henry’s favourites.

Wolsey had one difference to others in Henry’s inner circle; he was not conservative like the other councillors Henry inherited, and Wolsey would change his stance to suit Henry’s whims. Henry wanted war with France in 1512, and those who did not agree slowly lost their places at court, but Wolsey’s mind-changing saw him elevated all the way to the highest post in the land, Lord Chancellor, in 1515.

Along with Lord Chancellor, he was also a Canon of Windsor, Bishop of Lincoln, and a member of the Privy Council in a short space of time, and would amass titles over his reign. The Pope also made him a cardinal in 1515, setting Wolsey up for endless success, as Henry let Wolsey do as he pleased. Wolsey controlled Henry’s rage when his sister, Mary, Dowager Queen of France (who had been sold off to help with a peace treaty) secretly married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, when the French king dropped dead. Wolsey saved the Duke’s head from the block, generosity which was never returned. Wolsey’s endlessly raised taxes on the commoners, earning him derision from them, while the nobles derided him as a commoner rising too high at the court.

England’s delicate peace with France held after Mary returned to England in 1515, and then the King of Spain died in 1516 and the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. With Wolsey named Papal Legate (Pope’s representative), it allowed him to promote peace treaties between these countries, culminating in the Field of Cloth and Gold treaty between England and France in 1520 and the Treaty of Bruges with Charles V, King of Spain/Holy Roman Emperor, one year later.

By now, Wolsey was all-powerful on all fronts and independent from the Pope in Rome, making decisions at home and abroad, and ruled England with King Henry. He was now one of the wealthiest men in England. While small wars continued to break out around Europe, the peace treaties between England and other nations remained largely intact throughout the 1520’s.

Trouble appeared in 1527 when Henry wanted an annulment from his Queen Katherine, aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor/King of Spain. As Katherine refused to agree, the Pope had to get involved, but the Pope was trapped during the Sacking of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor’s soldiers. The Pope could either side with Henry VIII or Charles V, and Wolsey desperately pleaded for his King. Several failures led to Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio (fresh from Rome), as papal legates, being intent on settling the issue in London. Campeggio stalled the decision for around a year, before suspending it indefinitely in mid-1529. By now, Henry was so desperate to ditch Katherine for Anne Boleyn, that all the work Wolsey had done meant nothing. All Wolsey’s peace efforts, taxation laws, reformation of the justice system, inspections to crush corruption and abuses by the Church, and building of huge colleges meant nothing. Henry wanted Anne Boleyn.

By October 1529, Wolsey was stripped of his titles, lands and power. He sat ill and poor for six months outside of London before being sent to York. But by November 1530, Henry was ready to crush Wolsey, who was arrested on treason charges, to be brought back to London. Wolsey had been writing to the Pope behind Henry’s back, promising that Anne Boleyn would never been queen. Halfway back to London to be put on trial, Wolsey fell ill and died on his sickbed at Leicester Abbey on 29 November 1530, leaving behind a mistress of ten years, and two adopted-out adult children.

Also left behind was his lawyer and advisor Thomas Cromwell, who would go on to fill Wolsey’s place beside Henry VIII go further than Wolsey in terms of change in England and also break down the Catholic Church.

Up next… Katherine of Aragon…

 

 

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 2: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell as played by James Frain in Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’

Thomas Cromwell – lawyer, politician, religious reformer, mercenary, charmer, merchant, party thrower, country changer, money-lender, queenmaker. When people hear the name Cromwell, they think of Oliver Cromwell. Wrong century. Thomas Cromwell is the only man in English history you need to know. He managed to destroy the Catholic Church’s hold in England and their greatest queen all at once, and became a common man who took over England, and the nobility couldn’t do a thing about it. Here is a short and simple introduction.

Cromwell’s birth is not recorded, but thought around 1485, in Putney, to mother Katherine and father Walter, a blacksmith, merchant and brewery owner. He was simply another common baby born, along with two sisters, around Putney Hill.  In his own words, he was a ruffian as a child. At some stage, Cromwell left home and travelled to France, became be a mercenary in the French army, marched into Italy, and fought as a soldier in the battle of Garigliano in December 1503, all by about 18 years old.

Then Cromwell’s life turned around. Starving and homeless, Cromwell found himself in Florence, where he met a banker named Francesco Frescobaldi, an English-speaking merchant who took him into his household, giving him a home and a job. Working as a merchant on Frescobaldi’s behalf, it is believed Cromwell worked successfully in Florence and the Low Countries (what is now parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). He created his own network of merchants in English, Italian and Flemish, though very little is known of this empire-building part of his life. But he is recorded as a patient in a Roman hospital in June 1514, and Cromwell pops up in Vatican archives as an agent for the Archbishop of York and working for the Roman Rota (like a Catholic Church court system).

Cromwell doesn’t appear anywhere until his name appears back in England, when he married Elizabeth Wyckes in 1515, a girl who also grew up in Putney, but was a widow after her first husband, a Yeoman of the Guard, passed away. Three children came into Cromwell’s life – Gregory in about 1520, Anne and then Grace soon after.

Cromwell found himself a job in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. England’s most powerful man, a favourite of King Henry. Henry was inclined to leave the heavy lifting in the kingdom to Wolsey. With his knowledge as a lawyer (yes, that happened somewhere along the way), in 1517 Cromwell returned to Rome to visit Pope Leo X on Wolsey’s behalf, where he was said to have charmed the Pope into seeing him and granted the papal bull (like a decree or patent) he required for his master. He returned a year later to again see the Pope, such was Wolsey’s trust in Cromwell.

By 1520 Cromwell was doing well, in both legal and merchants circles in England. He continued his work for Wolsey, but also earned money as a lawyer and cloth merchant, and in 1523, won a seat in parliament (the where’s and how’s are not firmly established). But parliament was dissolved (Henry and Wolsey disliked people making decisions for them), and Cromwell was accepted to Gray’s Inn (like passing the bar for lawyers) in 1524.

Cromwell took on more work and started to become more powerful under Wolsey at this time. In 1525 he did Wolsey’s dirty work and closed corrupt monasteries, to redirect their money into building The King’s School, Ipswich (now Ipswich School) and Cardinal College in Oxford (now Christ Church, part of Oxford University). Cromwell was one of Wolsey’s council members by 1526 and his secretary in 1529. Then things took their dramatic turn.

Thomas Cromwell, as played by Mark Rylance in BBC’s ‘Wolf Hall’

Around 1528-1529, Cromwell’s wife and two daughters all died of sweating sickness (a bit like the plague without the boils). King Henry was trying to divorce Queen Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey and another Cardinal, Lorenzo Campeggio from Rome, sat in legatine court to decide on whether the King could gain an annulment. When the court folded, Henry turned on his well-known rage, and Wolsey was fired, banished and humiliated. Cromwell was determined not to suffer the fate of his master and friend.

Anne Boleyn hated Wolsey with a passion, and Cromwell moved out of the Cardinal’s shadow and charmed his way into working directly for King Henry. In late 1530, Wolsey died on his way to execution (you couldn’t make this up) and Cromwell set to making Anne Boleyn queen, and also breaking the stranglehold of the Catholic faith in England. Countries like Germany (or the areas that make up modern Germany) were reforming, creating the Protestant faith, freeing Catholics from the Latin scriptures and suffocating nature of the Church. Cromwell found that reforming the Church was the way to ensure Anne Boleyn could be queen. Cromwell got himself into a prime role beside the king, and got himself back into parliament, and completed a series of law changes which stripped the Church’s power and made annulment possible (I’m massively over-simplifying here). Anne Boleyn gained her crown in June 1533, and Princess Elizabeth was born three months later. The Pope had not annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, but by now the Church of England existed and Henry was the leader, not the Pope. Cromwell was a hero in Henry’s eyes, and hated by pretty much everyone else.

In 1534, Cromwell was King Henry’s chief minister, plus in parliament, and running the royal treasury, the royal jewel house, the steward of Westminster and many other titles. With the chance to continue reforming religion, Cromwell had Henry’s blessing to continue with destroying the Catholic Church, interrogating and killing clergymen, weeding out corruption, and famously had everyone in England swear an oath stating Henry ruled the Church, not the Pope. When famous haters of reform, and Queen Katherine supporters, Sir Thomas More (now Saint Thomas More) and Bishop John Fisher (now also a saint) refused to take the oath, Cromwell had them both beheaded in June 1535. The King appointed Cromwell Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General of England, and Cromwell conducted an extensive census, so he could start taxing monasteries around the nation (the monasteries had money pouring from every gap, powerful in their communities and known for corruption). By now, Cromwell was unpopular with most, but loved by King Henry ever more. Cromwell had total power over the Church in England, which made him as powerful as Henry himself.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A recreation kept by The National Trust for Scotland in Aberdeenshire

Viceregent Cromwell passed a law suppressing lesser monasteries in England, so their funds could be directed to Henry’s accounts. Queen Anne did not like this, and turned on her precious Cromwell, forgetting he was the power that made her Queen. She had her chaplain preach against him before the royal court, making him an enemy. Anne wanted the monastery money sent to the people for education and charity, while Cromwell followed Henry’s orders and gave it to the royal accounts. Already Anne Boleyn had failed in giving Henry a son that she promised, and now she had Cromwell, England’s real power, against her.

With Jane Seymour, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting, catching Henry’s eye, Anne became unpopular with the King (the only person who liked her). So when Henry wanted a new queen, a pretty blonde girl was ready, and Cromwell was more than ready to destroy the queen had made only a few years earlier. He had his power and the dissolution of religious control. Anne Boleyn had to die.

Cromwell had Anne Boleyn arrested and tried in May 1536 of adultery, with her brother George, Henry’s close friends and staff Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and court musician Mark Smeaton. Also tried was Thomas Wyatt, court poet and diplomat, but he was a friend of Cromwell, and was spared. In court, Cromwell had the judges find Anne and the men all guilty of adultery and sentenced to death, all with the King’s blessing. All the heads quickly rolled and Henry married Jane Seymour ten days later.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A 1859 engraving published in Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, Germany.

Now Baron Cromwell and Lord Privy Seal, Cromwell enjoyed total control, passing more laws destroying anything Catholic related, and even great monasteries in England were pulled down. The Church was pulled from the people and Protestant changes were forced upon everyone. Henry got his beloved son from Jane Seymour, only to have her die in childbirth in July 1537. But Cromwell had his own troubles as the commoners were marching in their tens of thousands, calling for his head over the changes being made to their country. The famous Pilgrimage of Grace against Cromwell failed, and English Bibles turned out over England while Catholic relics were gathered and destroyed. By mid 1539, the Catholic Church was more or less wiped out thanks to Cromwell’s extensive law changes. But Henry was sick of the changes, unhappy with the unrest in England, and in need of wife number 4.

The famous sole surviving painting of Thomas Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It is said it was hidden to protect it from being destroyed – but by whom?

Queenmaker Cromwell found Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, from a Protestant nation (Cleves was tiny country/province now in Germany), but Henry, now a fat old man, said his new German bride was too ugly for him (again, this is massively over-simplifying). Cromwell took the blame for Henry marrying a German girl he wouldn’t (or many say couldn’t) bed. Like Henry’s libido, Cromwell’s favour had run out.

But in April 1540, Henry made Cromwell an earl and named him Lord Chamberlain. Trouble was, Cromwell’s huge list of enemies had pushed teenager Catherine Howard forward as a new bride. Cromwell was the man who married Henry to an ‘ugly’ woman, and his enemies had fresh meat for him to defile. Henry turned on Cromwell, having him arrested on heresy and treason charges, but mostly because Anne of Cleves wasn’t pretty enough. A serious of false charges were thrown at Cromwell, tossed in the Tower, and he was beheaded, in what is mentioned as the worst beheading ever (as in, the executioner needed to butcher him to get the head off) on 28 July 1540. Henry married Catherine Howard the same day, only to cut off her head less than two years later (Anne of Cleves got an annulment, kept her virginity, and lived happily in England for all her days).

Henry soon regretted losing Cromwell, and a replacement never took Cromwell’s place beside Henry. The vast amounts of money Cromwell made for Henry was squandered in a petty French war in 1545, and all Cromwell had done was lost. His son Gregory (who had married Jane Seymour’s sister) died in 1551 of sweating sickness, and there was a rumour of a bastard daughter named Jane, though none of that has been proven (you shall have to read my book for that).

the famous sole surviving painting of Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It was hidden so it couldn’t be destroyed – but by whom, and where?

Cromwell’s Protestant England caused countless deaths, with Henry’s son being a Protestant king, his daughter Mary a Catholic queen and then Queen Elizabeth back to Protestant. Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s only child, made the country firmly Protestant and the changes to law and government made by Cromwell were built on to help shape what England has become.

Cromwell disappeared from history, only one portrait of him surviving, his paperwork all destroyed during his trial. In 1953, Geoffrey Elton wrote of Cromwell, studying and discovering, while Henry was a mastermind and despot, it was Cromwell who held the real power of the era. Cromwell brought government from the medieval times to the modern age and was portrayed as the bad guy, until the last decade, where tv and books have tried to show Cromwell in a more positive light.

My first Cromwell book will focus on his creation of Anne Boleyn, the second about the creation of Jane Seymour, and finally the creation of Anne of Cleves, all books covering his creation of Protestant England. Thomas Cromwell is no longer a forgotten genius.

Check back for very regular updates on posts about all the character of Frailty of Human Affairs, out September 1.