Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and Chief Minister to King Henry VIII

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, 1532

Born in Putney, Surrey, c. 1485, Thomas was the son of Walter Cromwell whose various professions included blacksmith, fuller, cloth merchant, brewer and hostel owner. His mother’s maiden name is believed to be Meverell, a gentry family from Staffordshire. Walter frequently served as a juryman, and at one point, he became a constable. He was able to secure good marriages for his daughters. His eldest daughter Katherine married Morgan Williams, an aspiring Welsh lawyer and the younger daughter Elizabeth married a farmer, William Wellyfed. Katherine and Morgan’s son Richard changed his name to Cromwell and worked in Thomas’ service, being particularly adept in the suppression of monasteries. Richard’s great-grandson was Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England in the 17th century.

Cromwell rose up the social ladder from humble beginnings, garnering resentment and hostility later in his life, just as Cardinal Wolsey had. We know little of Thomas’ childhood other than his confession to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer relating what ‘a ruffian he was in his young days’, as recounted in John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’. Thomas may even have been imprisoned at some point. His life at home could not have been easy, as his father was a hard drinker and frequently in trouble himself. They would evict Walter from his manorial tenancy in 1516 due to fraudulently altering certain documents regarding his tenure.

Either because of his own wicked behavior, an argument with his father or some other reason, Cromwell left his family to travel on the Continent. Although accounts of exactly where he went and what he did are imprecise, it seems most likely he joined the French army, fighting in the battle of Garigliano in Italy on December 28, 1503. Once he left the French army, he entered the household of the merchant banker Francesco Frescobaldi. He would eventually tour the Low Countries for some time and work as a cloth merchant. While there, he made many contacts among English merchants and learned several languages.

It appears he returned to Italy for a short time as the records of the English Hospital in Rome show he stayed there in June 1514. Cromwell returned to England and married Elizabeth Williams, née Wykys, and together they had one surviving son, Gregory. It was an agreeable match for Thomas. Elizabeth was a widow and the daughter of a Putney shearman who served as a gentleman usher to King Henry VII. Taking advantage of his father-in-law’s network of connections, Cromwell was able to gain a foothold in the English cloth trade. Along with his experience as a business agent, his role often overlapped into work in the law, although he had no professional training. He also enhanced his earnings by engaging in some moneylending as well.

 Cromwell traveled to Rome on a mission to request indulgences for the guild of Our Lady of Boston in 1518. Records indicate he was successful. By 1520, Thomas was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles and acting for clients in several significant suits, some of which led to petitions being delivered directly to the king and to Henry VIII’s chief minister Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, bringing him to the attention of those in high circles.

By 1523, he was a member of Parliament for a now unknown constituency and he began his rise in government service. In 1524, they elected him as a member of Gray’s Inn as an attorney. Because of his skill in land conveyancing, Cromwell came into Wolsey’s service and he worked on the dissolution of thirty monasteries, a project started by Wolsey to raise money for his building projects and colleges. Cromwell’s ruthlessness in the project was remarked upon, with some even accusing him of corruption.

Cromwell’s wife died in 1527. By 1529, he was one of Wolsey’s most trusted advisors. Upon Wolsey’s fall from grace that same year, Cromwell worried he would go down with him. In the end, the situation only made him more determined to make something of himself. He gained the backing of several influential courtiers and formed good relationships with the king’ lawyers. Sir Christopher Hales, the attorney-general, may have been the first one to introduce Cromwell to the king.

He also had the support of some of Wolsey’s former servants, such as Thomas Heneage and Dr. Stephen Gardiner. He did all of this in record time and by 1530, he was a member of the king’s council and in charge of land transactions relating to Wolsey’s college projects and the supervision of building works at the Tower of London, as well as acting in matters of law enforcement. By now his influence was palpable and men such as the 2nd Earl of Essex and the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, were approaching him with requests for assistance.

In the recent session of Parliament, Cromwell actively wrote and passed various legislative acts, including some bills attempting to get the much sought-after divorce the king desired. He appeared to be acting as the king’s agent, working to execute policy which had originated elsewhere. Henry was increasingly convinced of his right to have complete jurisdiction over all matters spiritual and temporal, a solution to the divorce Anne Boleyn and her circle favored. Evangelical ideas had highly influenced Cromwell by this time, and he was in discussions with Stephen Vaughan and Miles Coverdale. He had expressed anti-clerical sentiments as early as the 1520s.

Throughout the 1530s, Cromwell persistently urged the king to implement evangelical reforms and towards that end, he worked on legislation to acknowledge the king as supreme head of the church in England. By the autumn of 1531, Cromwell had complete control of the king’s legal and parliamentary affairs and had joined the inner ring of the king’s council.

After the resignation of Thomas More in the spring of 1532, the king rewarded Cromwell and his son with the grant survivorship of the lordship of Romney in south Wales. Appointments as master of the jewels, clerkship of the hanaper and Chancellor of the Exchequer followed this. The posts were for life and gave him a position in three major institutions of government: household, chancery, and treasury. These promotions in government, along with his commitment to the evangelical cause, brought him into conflict with those who leaned toward the conservative and Roman Catholic segment of government.

The death of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury in the summer of 1532, allowed Henry to appoint his own man, Thomas Cranmer, to the position with the aim of ridding himself of Queen Katherine. Cromwell worked to pass legislation to clear the way for Cranmer to declare, once and for all, the king’s divorce. Once Anne Boleyn became pregnant, a secret marriage ceremony ensued. The laws were passed and by April 1533, all was in place. With the marriage to Katherine declared illegal, the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was made lawful and any children by her would inherit the throne. Relations with Rome had soured to where Henry allowed Cromwell to unleash a movement to discredit the papacy and begin a public relations campaign to advance the acceptance of Anne Boleyn as queen.

By April 1534, Cromwell was Henry VIII’s principal secretary, allowing him to enrich himself accordingly. His style as an administrator was very personal, and he had a hard time delegating. His principal strength was his attention to detail as well as overseeing operations, which were pragmatic and flexible. He showed the ability for radical innovation and ingenuity, such as the development of the court of augmentations to administer the Dissolution of the Monasteries, along with the court of wards and the court of the first fruits and tenths.

Cromwell demonstrated evangelical and humanistic tendencies and dedicated himself to introducing social-reform to improve the common weal. His proposals introduced ideas for restructuring education, agriculture, trade, industry, poor relief, and the common law. He passed laws to help the poor and furthered hopes of evangelicals by introducing English Bibles in every church.

Henry and Anne Boleyn had a tempestuous relationship and Anne failed to give the king the much sought-after son. Henry’s eyes had turned to one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour and Cromwell was given the task of creating a case against the Queen. He came up with a formidable list of fictitious charges, made arrests and tortured Anne’s musician Mark Smeaton, who made a confession of sorts. The men accused, as well as the Queen, were tried and found guilty, and executed, leaving Henry free to marry Seymour.

Cromwell’s enforcement of the royal supremacy led to rebellion in the north, the Pilgrimage of Grace, in 1536. The rebels blamed the king’s evil councilors for the suppression of the monasteries. The king aggressively quashed the rebellion, but the incident forced Henry to make political reforms, most notably within the privy council. This left Cromwell even more dependent on the king’s grace and favor, and resulted in this executive body coming to be dominated by Cromwell’s conservative opponents, who plotted his downfall. These included, among others, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, and they worked hard to convince the king that Cromwell was a heretic and a traitor.

Cromwell retaliated by trying to eliminate some of his opponents on the council while still keeping Henry’s favor. The king elevated him to the Earldom of Essex. Then Cromwell greatly miscalculated in making an alliance with the Germanic states by brokering a marriage with Anna of Cleves. Anna’s brother, Wilhelm, had entered a dispute with Charles V over the ownership of the strategically located and economically important Duchy of Guelders. The claims of both men were tenuous, but by the time of Anna’s marriage to Henry, the argument had reached the point where they were on the brink of war. Because of the Cleve’s alliance, Henry was about to be drawn into an unwelcome conflict with the Hapsburg Empire.

A Secret Council convened to consider a legal basis for extricating Henry from the Cleves alliance and his marriage to Anna. They agreed upon an arrangement to protect Anna’s honor and extricate England from the looming debacle of war. They tasked Cromwell with writing a memorandum, suggesting Henry did not like Anna, and declaring the marriage had never been consummated. Anna would confess to this and the annulment of the marriage would allow both parties to wed again. In addition, they decided the marriage was legally void because of Anna’s pre-contract of marriage with Frances of Lorraine.

They arrested Cromwell on June 10, 1540. He protested his innocence and wrote pleading letters to the king, which were ignored. His enemies didn’t want Cromwell to go to trial and convinced the king to bring a bill of attainder before Parliament, which was approved at the end of June. Cromwell was executed by beheading on Tower Hill on July 28th. Henry’s reign suffered a substantial loss after the death of Cromwell. He was ruthless but effective, and Henry never found another administrator to match his capabilities. The government, from this point forward, consisted of a Privy Council and would never again be dominated by a single, omnipotent minister.

Further reading: “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life”, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant” by Tracy Borman, “New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603” by Susan Brigden, “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” by Heather Darsie, “In the Shadow of Burgundy: The Court of Guelders in the Late Middle Ages” by Gerard Nijsten, entry on Thomas Cromwell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Howard Leithead

10 thoughts on “Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and Chief Minister to King Henry VIII

  1. I love reading all these emails, little bits of information and history I didn’t know about. Keep them coming.


  2. Hello Susan
    I am an old fan that dropped out during an episode of bullying. My page was Marie Queen of Scots. How refreshing to reconnect as you are a first class historian and a mentor. Recently, since the page, I have been reading many of the articles on your blog. My research is centered around women primarily, but have just dipped my toe into the gothic kings. Thank you for your articles, consider me a fan.


    • Dear Marieqs, Thank you for your kind words and for being a fan. It’s good to hear from you, I’m really sorry about the bullying. Please keep up your research and writing and block the bullies. People need to hear more about women’s history. Best, Susan


  3. Goes to prove that there were plenty of opportunities for capable, cunning men to rise through the ranks in Tudor England. Henry VII did not want to be beholden to the old hierarchy, with his tenuous claim to the throne; he made good use of the loyalty of commoners.

    Henry VIII was easily manipulated, yet, with his mercurial temper, not a monarch to take for granted. If a queen was not safe, who was? Yet, it was a time of hubris. So many, many people toppled by Henry, still, more clamored for the chance to rise and profit! Lemmings running toward the cliff.

    There were more sensible and successful people who served the Tudors, but for those qualities, history barely whispers. The William Petrie comes to mind.

    Cromwell balanced his life on a knife’s edge. It was a dangerous time to serve the king, watch one’s back, and maintain balance. How could anyone lie easy at night once allowed into Henry VIII’s confidence?

    Deadly times.

    Thank you!


  4. I find Thomas Cromwell so fascinating and more sympathetic than what I had originally perceived before learning more about it. It is so sad he lost his wife and two daughters all in short succession of each other. Great write up about him!


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