Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex

Infobox Person
name = Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex

image_size = 180px
caption = Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532–3
birth_date = 1485
birth_place =
death_date = death date|1540|7|28|df=y (55)
death_place =
occupation = Government
spouse = Elizabeth Wykes
parents = Walter Cromwell
children =

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex (c. 1485 – 28 July 1540) was an English statesman who served as King Henry VIII's chief minister from 1532 to 1540.

Early life

Cromwell was born about 1485 in Putney, the son of Walter Cromwell ("c." 1463–1510), variously described as a clothworker; [John Guy, "Tudor England" (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 154. ISBN 0192852132] a smith; [G. R. Elton, "England under the Tudors: Third Edition" (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 127.] and an alehouse keeper. [Arthur Kinney, "Tudor England: An Encyclopedia" (Garland Science, 2000), p. 172.] Details of Cromwell's early life are scarce. Before 1512 he was employed by the powerful Florentine merchant banker family, the Frescobaldis, in cloth dealing at Syngsson's Mart in Middelburg in the Netherlands. Documents from the archives of the Vatican City show that he was an agent for Cardinal Reginald Bainbridge and dealt with English ecclesiastical work before the Papal Rota. [Kinney, p.172.] Cromwell was fluent in Latin, Italian and French.

When Bainbridge died in 1514, Cromwell returned to England in August of that year and was then employed by Thomas Wolsey, where he was put in charge of important ecclesiastical business despite being a layman. By 1519 he had married a clothier's daughter, Elizabeth Wyckes (1489–1527); they had a son Gregory. After studying law, he became a Member of the English Parliament in 1523. After the dissolution of that Parliament, Cromwell wrote a letter to a friend joking about its unproductiveness:

I amongst other have endured a Parliament which continued by the space of xvij whole weeks, where we communied of war, peace, stryfe, contencion, debate, murmmur, grudge, riches, poverty, penwrye, truth, falsehood, justice, equyte, discayte, oppression, magnanymyte, activity, force, attempraunce, treason, murder, felony, counsil, [ation] , and also how a common wealth might be edeffyed and continued within our realm. Howbeyt in conclusion we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that yes to say as well as we might, and left where we began. [Stanford E. Lehmberg, "The Reformation Parliament, 1529 – 1536" (Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 1–2.]

In 1524 he was appointed at Gray's Inn. In the late 1520s he helped Wolsey dissolve thirty monasteries in order to raise funds for Wolsey's grammar school in Ipswich (now known as Ipswich School) and the Cardinal's College, Oxford. In 1529 Henry VIII summoned a Parliament (later known as the Reformation Parliament) in order to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In late 1530 [Elton, p. 129.] or early 1531 [Lehmberg, p. 132.] Cromwell was appointed a royal counsellor for parliamentary business and by the end of 1531 he was a member of Henry VIII's trusted inner circle. [Elton, p. 129 and Lehmberg, p. 132.] Cromwell became Henry VIII's chief minister in 1532, not through any formal office but by gaining the King's confidence. [Elton, p. 129.]

King's chief minister

Cromwell played an important part in the English Reformation. The parliamentary sessions of 1529–1531 had brought Henry VIII no nearer to annulment. [G. R. Elton, "King or Minister? The Man behind the Henrician Reformation" in "Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Volume I" (Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 183.] However the session of 1532—Cromwell's first as chief minister—heralded a change of course: key sources of papal revenue were cut off and ecclesiastical legislation was transferred to the King. In the next year's session came the fundamental law of the English Reformation: the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533 which forbade appeals to Rome (thus allowing for a divorce in England without the need for the Pope's permission). This was drafted by Cromwell and its famous preamble declared:

Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.

When Cromwell used the label "Empire" for England he did so in a special sense. Previous English monarchs had claimed to be Emperors in that they ruled more than one kingdom, but in this Act it meant something different. Here the Kingdom of England is declared an Empire by itself, free from "the authority of any foreign potentates". This meant that England was now an independent sovereign nation-state no longer under the jurisdiction of the Pope. [Elton, "England under the Tudors", p. 161.]

Cromwell was the most prominent of those who suggested to Henry VIII that the king make himself head of the English Church, and saw the Act of Supremacy of 1534 through Parliament. In 1535 Henry VIII appointed Cromwell as his last "Vicegerent in Spirituals". This gave him the power as supreme judge in ecclesiastical cases and the office provided a single unifying institution over the two provinces of the English Church (Canterbury and York). As Henry VIII's vicar-general, he presided over the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which began with his visitation of the monasteries and abbeys, announced in 1535 and begun in the winter of 1536. He was created Baron Cromwell on 9 July 1536 and Earl of Essex on 18 April 1540. He was also the architect of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542, which united England and Wales.

Cromwell also became patron to a group of English intellectual humanists whom Cromwell used to promote the English Reformation through the medium of print. These included Thomas Gibson, William Marshall, Richard Morrison, John Rastell, Thomas Starkey, Richard Taverner and John Uvedale. Cromwell commissioned Marshall to translate and print Marsilius of Padua's "Defensor pacis", for which he paid him £20. [G. R. Elton, 'An early Tudor Poor Law' in "Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Volume II" (Cambridge University Press, 1974), pp. 152-3.]

When Erasmus was trying to retrieve the arrears of his pension from the living in Aldington, Kent, the incumbent refused on grounds that it was his predecessor who had promised to pay his pension. Cromwell sent Erasmus twenty angels and Thomas Bedyll, a friend of Cromwell's, informed Erasmus that Cromwell "favours you exceptionally and everywhere shows himself to be an ardent friend of your name". [G. R. Elton, "Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal" (Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 31.]


Cromwell had supported Henry VIII in disposing of Anne Boleyn and replacing her with Jane Seymour. During his years as Chancellor, Cromwell had created many powerful enemies for himself; mainly due to the inordinate generosity he showed himself when dividing the spoils from the dissolution of the monasteries. His downfall was the haste with which he encouraged the king to re-marry following Jane's premature death. The marriage to Anne of Cleves, a political alliance which Cromwell had urged on Henry VIII, was a disaster, and this was all the opportunity that Cromwell's opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, needed to press for his arrest. Whilst at a Council meeting on 10 June 1540, Cromwell was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Cromwell was subject to an Act of Attainder and was kept alive by Henry VIII until he could be divorced from Anne.

He was privately executed at the Tower on 28 July, 1540. It is said that Henry VIII intentionally chose an inexperienced executioner: the teenager made three attempts at chopping Cromwell's head before he succeeded. After execution, his head was boiled and then set upon a spike on London Bridge, facing away from the City of London. Edward Hall, a contemporary chronicler, records that Cromwell made a speech on the scaffold, professing to die, "in the traditional faith" i.e., Catholicism, and then "so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged Boocherly miser whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office". Hall said of Cromwell's downfall:

Many lamented but more rejoiced, and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night, many wishing that that day had been seven year before; and some fearing lest he should escape, although he were imprisoned, could not be merry. Others who knew nothing but truth by him both lamented him and heartily prayed for him. But this is true that of certain of the clergy he was detestably hated, & specially of such as had borne swynge, and by his means was put from it; for in dead he was a man that in all his doings seemed not to favour any kind of Popery, nor could not abide the snoffyng pride of some prelates, which undoubtedly, whatsoever else was the cause of his death, did shorten his life and procured the end that he was brought unto. [Sir Henry Ellis (ed.), "Hall's Chronicle" (London, 1809), p. 838.]

Henry came to regret Cromwell's execution. Around eight months after his execution Henry accused his ministers of bringing about Cromwell's downfall by false charges and he said he now realised that Cromwell was the most faithful servant he had ever had. [J. J. Scarisbrick, "Henry VIII" (Penguin, 1971), p. 496.]


The inscription on the paper lying on the table in the original portrait describes Cromwell as "Master of the Jewell House", an official position that he occupied for just one year from 12 April 1532, thus neatly dating the portrait ("illustration, upper right").

Thomas Cromwell's daughter-in-law was Elizabeth Seymour, sister of Queen Jane Seymour. Elizabeth was married to Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell.

The Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), was descended from Thomas Cromwell's sister Catherine Cromwell. Oliver was Thomas's second great grandnephew.

In New York's Frick Collection two paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger hang in the same room, one depicting Thomas Cromwell, the other one Thomas More, whose execution he had procured. [ [ Frick Collection] ]

Fictional portrayals

Cromwell has been portrayed in at least fourteen feature films and television miniseries. [ [ IMDB] ] His most famous appearance was in Robert Bolt's play (and later film) "A Man for All Seasons", where he was played on Broadway and in the film by Leo McKern. He is the primary antagonist of the story and is portrayed as being both ruthlessly ambitious and jealous of Thomas More's influence with the King. Cromwell is also a supporting character in William Shakespeare's "Henry VIII". He is subject of "Thomas Lord Cromwell", a 1602 play of unknown authorship attributed to the initials W.S. (as such once thought to be a Shakespeare work). He has also been portrayed in the film "Anne of the Thousand Days" by John Colicos, in "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" (1970) by Wolfe Morris, in "Carry On Henry" (1970) by Kenneth Williams, in "Henry VIII and His Six Wives" (1972) by Donald Pleasance, and by James Frain in the ongoing series "The Tudors" (2007). He also appears as a main character in the first two Matthew Shardlake historical crime fiction novels by C. J. Sansom, "Dissolution" and "Dark Fire".



*G. R. Elton, "England under the Tudors: Third Edition", (London: Routledge, 1991) ISBN 0-416-70690-8.
*Sir Henry Ellis (ed.), "Hall's Chronicle" (London, 1809).
*G. R. Elton, "Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal" (Cambridge University Press, 1973).
*G. R. Elton, "Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Volume I" (Cambridge University Press, 1974).
*G. R. Elton, "Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government: Volume II" (Cambridge University Press, 1974).
*John Guy, "Tudor England" (Oxford University Press, 1990).
*Arthur Kinney, "Tudor England: An Encyclopedia" (Garland Science, 2000).
*Stanford E. Lehmberg, "The Reformation Parliament, 1529–1536" (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

External links

* [ A biography of Thomas Cromwell] with details on his policies
* [ A genealogical page] listing some details of the Cromwell family back to the 12th century
*An [ ancestor chart] of Walter Cromwell, father of Thomas; not necessarily reliable

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