Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was an English statesman and adviser to Henry VIII, responsible for drafting the legislation that formalised England's religious and political break with Rome during the 1530s.

Image: Thomas Cromwell as the Earl of Essex, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger (Getty Images)


Thomas CromwellThomas Cromwell

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Modest beginnings

Thomas Cromwell was born around 1485, the son of a brewer, in Putney, London. He had a modest upbringing and left the capital for Europe when he was a teenager. He spent much of his early adulthood on the continent, initially fighting as a soldier in the French army, later becoming an accountant and merchant in Italy. He returned to England around 1512, studied law and married a wealthy widow.

Wolsey - friend and mentor

In 1520, in a pivotal career move, he became legal secretary for Cardinal Wolsey who was in service to Henry VIII. Wolsey became Cromwell's mentor and rapidly advanced his career. In 1523, Cromwell became a member of parliament, where he greatly extended the power of the house. During this time, he also started to dissolve monasteries - at this stage to help build a college and school for Wolsey.

However, Wolsey was to fall out of favour with Henry for failing to secure him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He died in 1530 on his way to stand trial for treason. Cromwell was distraught – not just for the death of his friend and mentor, but for the looming end of his own career.

King Henry VIII and the Reformation

After this huge setback, Cromwell had to earn the king's confidences directly. He rose swiftly after devising a clever strategy to enable Henry to divorce Catherine. By 1532, he was the king's chief minister.

The Pope had refused to annul Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. To bypass this, Cromwell suggested Henry make a break with Rome and place himself as head of an English church.

The resulting break with Rome also led to the closing of hundreds of religious houses, known as the dissolution of the monasteries. Between 1536 and 1540 Cromwell presided over the dissolution of 800 monasteries, with their great wealth passing to the crown. He was well-rewarded - Henry personally appointed him to the Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry, and then created him Earl of Essex in 1540.

Fall from grace

That same year, Cromwell persuaded Henry to agree to marry Anne of Cleves, a German princess who was a member of a Protestant defensive alliance. Henry had executed his second wife, Anne Boleyn, while his third wife Jane Seymour, had died following child birth.

Cromwell hoped that the marriage to the German princess would secure support against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, and strengthen the bonds of Protestantism.

Unfortunately, the marriage was a disaster and the alliance failed. In order to annul the marriage, Henry had to give humiliating evidence of its failings in a church court. He was furious and withdrew his support from Cromwell.

Cromwell had generally been distrusted and disliked by many of those in Henry's court; his arrogant manner and working-class origins were not approved of. After a final clash with the Duke of Norfolk, his fate was sealed. Cromwell was charged with heresy, treason and corruption and, despite his pleas for mercy, was executed at the Tower of London on 28 July 1540.