Today in history — 28 July 1540 — Bishop Edmund Bonner presided over the marriage of King Henry VIII to his 5th wife Catherine Howard at Oatlands Palace. Whether intended or an ironic coincidence, Thomas Cromwell died the same day. Just as he was born, Cromwell was beheaded a base commoner, the only remaining title from the king he most faithfully served, Shearman.
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, is a study in contrasts. Bearer of a complicated legacy, Cromwell is often demonized for his role in the falls and ultimate executions of Elizabeth Barton, Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, Queen Anne Boleyn, Henry Pole, Henry Courtenay and several others. Vilified for his leadership and efficiency in orchestrating the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Thomas Cromwell with his king’s support and approval ended a way of life going back centuries.
In stark contrast, Thomas Cromwell is also heralded as the architect of the Henrican Reformation. A self-made man who rose from common beginnings in Putney, Cromwell brought the English language Bible to England and Wales, stabilized the English economy, patronized the arts, advocated for the poor and down-trodden, and as a “man of laws” changed the very face of Parliament, introducing the notion that governmental laws could and should be established and approved through representation of the people.
It is no surprise then that historian Edward Hall noted, “Many lamented, but more rejoiced,” when Thomas Cromwell was arrested on 10 June 1540.
With a life and legacy as intriguing and complex as Thomas Cromwell’s, I decided to reach out to several friends and contributors of Queenannboleyn.com — historians, novelists, bloggers and history lovers alike — to learn their thoughts about his greatest contributions (whether for the good or bad) — to English History. I hope you enjoy their thought-provoking opinions as much as I did.
Judith Arnopp, Historical Fiction Novelist
The popular view of Thomas Cromwell is as an upstart, a thug, while his talent as a politician is overlooked. He made some hugely unpopular decisions but I can’t name a single politician who hasn’t. Cromwell was low born; he rose above himself and trod on the toes of his betters, the English nobility. This, together with the Cleves marriage, was the key factor leading to his arrest and execution.
If we set aside the destruction of the beautiful abbeys, another aspect emerges. We see a visionary, a religious pioneer, a thinker. He was ruthless but he got things done. Nobody mourns the loss of the monasteries more than I but I think if he were confronted, Cromwell would say something like: ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.’
Understandably, Thomas Cromwell is not admired by Catholics but even those of a Protestant persuasion take a negative view, ignoring the fact that he was a prime mover in breaking away from Rome and establishing the Protestant church in England. Today we can only see falling buildings and the death of an innocent queen. Objectively, it wasn’t all bad.
His years in power launched the careers of Protestant leaders which after his death opened new political opportunities across the world. He redistributed wealth and property, loosening the hold of the aristocracy and severing the power of the Roman church over both king and country. His influence continues today; the monarch remains the Supreme Head of the Church in England and Cromwell’s introduction of the registration of all births, deaths, and marriages benefits us all, particularly historians. Even Henry VIII saw Cromwell as the best politician he ever had and afterward regretted his death. I am sure that, once we wash away the mud that smears his name, there are more positives to be found.
Editor’s Note: For more information about Judith Arnopp, visit her website at Judith Arnopp – Historical Novelist.
Terry Breverton – Historian, Welsh Cultural Expert, Documentarian
Not having read Wolf Hall, nor any other historical fiction at all for decades, my feeling is that his main positive contribution was enabling the Reformation, albeit Henry VIII remained a Catholic. Edward VI and Elizabeth progressed the swing towards Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Church had a negative impact upon creativity, thought, invention, power structures, liberty and equality since its creation. Without Cromwell, the country might have remained Catholic, and world history would be totally different. Concomitant with this probably positive contribution, there was the negative effect of seizing about a sixth of the country – monastic lands and riches – and enriching Henry VIII, but that megalomaniac wasted all of it. For someone like myself who loves historical remains, from hidden mottes and tumuli to cathedrals and castles, the massive destruction accompanying the Reformation was a terrible price to pay. Like Wolsey, Cromwell showed that the poor could rise to the top – but both paid the price. It also appears that Cromwell was a most unpleasant man, who enjoyed witnessing torture, including starving monks to death in disgusting conditions. There you have it – one positive and one negative contribution. I have been told that Hilary Mantel’s book is largely sympathetic to his character, but all power-seekers throughout the centuries are very deeply flawed.
Editor’s Note: Very few people in the world write as prolifically as Terry Breverton. The author of over sixty books, he is highly respected for his intimate knowledge of Welsh history, culture, and tradition, as well as his fascination with and expertise in pirates. Visit Terry on his facebook page! Cymru Am Byth!
Thomas Cranmer – Reverend, Archbishop of Canterbury, Religious Scholar, Translator, Liturgy Composer, English Linguistics Composition, Martyr
My very singular good Lord, in my most hearty wise I commend me unto your lordship. And whereas I understand that your lordship, at my request, hath not only exhibited the Bible which I send onto you, to the King’s Majesty, but also hath obtained of his Grace, that the same shall be allowed by his authority to be bought and read within this realm; my lord, for this your pain, taken in this behalf, I give unto you my most hearty thanks: assuring your lordship, for the contentation of my mind, you have showed me more pleasure herein, than if you had given me a thousand pound; and I doubt not but that hereby such fruit of good knowledge shall ensue, that it shall well appear hereafter, what high and acceptable service you have done unto God and the King. Which shall so much redound to your honour, that besides God’s reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within this realm. And as for me, you may reckon me your bondman for the same. And I dare be bold to say, so may ye do my Lord of Wurceiter. Thus, my lord, right heartily fare ye well.
Editor’s Note: In this letter from Thomas Cranmer to Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer expresses his appreciation and delight with Cromwell’s success in ensuring King Henry VIII’s authorization of an officially-approved English Bible. Cranmer also shared his thoughts on Cromwell’s achievements and greatest attributes in the following letter to King Henry VIII.
……. I heard yesterday in your Grace’s Council, that he [Crumwell] is a traitor, yet who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your Majesty, he that was so advanced by your Majesty; he whose surety was only by your Majesty; he who loved your Majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forwards whatsoever was your Majesty’s will and pleasure; he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your Majesty; he that was such a servant in my judgment, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had; he that was so vigilant to preserve your Majesty from all treasons, that few could be so secretly conceived, but he detected the same in the beginning? If the noble princes of memory, King John, Henry the Second, and Richard II had had such a counsellor about them, I suppose that they should never have been so traitorously abandoned, and overthrown as those good princes were.
…….. I loved him as my friend, for so I took him to be; but I chiefly loved him for the love which I thought I saw him bear ever towards your Grace, singularly above all other. But now, if he be a traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your Grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas! I bewail and lament your Grace’s chance herein, I wot not whom your Grace may trust. But I pray God continually night and day, to send such a counsellor in his place whom your Grace may trust, and who for all his qualities can and will serve your Grace like to him, and that will have so much solicitude and care to preserve your Grace from all dangers as I ever thought he had….. 14 June 1540.
Adrienne Dillard – Historical Fiction Novelist
Though Thomas Cromwell is most often associated with his contributions towards the Henrician Reformation, I find his contributions to the reformation of Henrician government to be far more intriguing. In just a shade over a decade, Cromwell managed to systematically disassemble the religious houses, found courts, streamline cumbersome government programs, and single-handedly expand the Tudor PR machine. Even more compelling is that fact that he was able to do this despite his humble birth. Cromwell destroyed the idea that one must be of noble birth to succeed. Much to the dismay of men like the Duke of Norfolk, Cromwell rose to grand heights based on intelligence, skill, and the power of manipulation. He paved the way for future generations of humble beginnings with high aspirations.
Editor’s Note: Adrienne is a frequent contributor to Queenanneboleyn.com. Her guest post The Black Legend of Lady Rochford has drawn more unique visitors to QAB than any other individual guest article so far published.
Charlie Fenton – Graduate History Student/ University of Kent, Book Reviewer
Thank you so much for asking me! That is some question and took me a moment to really assess what Cromwell’s achievements were. I think many just see him as a villain and don’t really see what good he did and what an impact he had on English History.
One of Thomas Cromwell’s greatest contributions to English history is his publication of Coverdale’s Great Bible. After some persuading, he was able to convince the King of France to release the unfinished book so that printing could continue in England. It was transported to England in February 1539 and printed in April of that year. He even admitted to the French ambassador that he had contributed £400 of his own money to this cause. This is arguably one of his greatest contributions to English History, as it set the way for the production of several versions of the English Bible in Edward VI’s reign and later the definitive King James Bible.
One of his lesser-known but still significant achievements is his reaffirming of the traditional union of England and Wales as it was in Edward I’s reign. This meant that the Welsh were now to enjoy the same rights as the English and were under the same law. It was a difficult act to pass, mainly due to Henry VIII being against it as it could limit the power of any Prince of Wales, and was unresolved at the time of Cromwell’s death. However, it was finally fully implemented in 1543 and that is mainly down to Cromwell’s work earlier on. He succeeded in promoting stability and gaining acceptance for the royal supremacy in Wales.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out Charlie’s book reviews in Tudor Life Magazine!
Sarah Gristwood – Historian, Hitorical Fiction Novelist, Biographer, Broadcaster
Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch – Historian, Biographer, Teacher, Documentarian
Cromwell’s two greatest contributions to English history are his distinctive interest in and use of Parliament, and his energetic backing of a public Bible in English. On the first: he was clearly fascinated by Parliament from his first membership of it in 1523, and in his years of power, encouraged the forwarding of England’s break with the Papacy using Parliament, rather than what might have been the King’s preference for royal decree or proclamation. Parliament had never before been asked to make such a momentous decision. Cromwell used the Irish Parliament in the same way. After that precedent, English and indeed Irish Parliaments flourished, whereas this medieval institution atropied in most other European monarchies. Though Cromwell did not intend the long-term result, Anglophone democracy depends on his achievement.
On the Bible: pre-Reformation England was the only country in Europe where vernacular translation was illegal, since the Church had banned the only one available and did not commission or allow another. Cromwell encouraged and gave financial backing to successive translations from Coverdale and others and prevailed on Henry VIII eventually to give official status to the ‘Great’ Bible, having rescued its production from French censorship in Paris. The Great Bible was largely William Tyndale’s text where it existed, something which Henry VIII (who had connived at Tyndale’s judicial murder) probably never realised. This was an audacious move by Cromwell, crucial not just to the English Reformation but to the future of the English language.
Editor’s Note: Watch for Queenanneboleyn.com’s highlight of the highly anticipated release of Thomas Cromwell A Life, by Diarmaid MacCulloch on 27 September 2018. Also, as a “hint” towards what may lay inside what will surely become the world’s definitive biography of Thomas Cromwell, do enjoy Professor MacCulloch’s recent lecture ‘Thomas Cromwell: Enterprising Reformation’. (Anne Boleyn enthusiasts will find Professor MacCulloch’s thoughts of her ongoing rapport — or lack thereof — with Thomas Cromwell enlightening and in conflict with her eminent biographer, Eric Ives.)
Video Credit: Faculty of Theology and Religion Oxford (YouTube)
Hilary Mantel – Historical Fiction Novelist, Short Story Author, Journalist
“It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the Cardinal is apt — ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”
— Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall —
Stephanie A. Mann — Religious Scholar & Historian, University & Ministry Instructor, Non-fiction Writer, Blogger
One of Thomas Cromwell’s greatest contributions to English History, in my opinion, a negative one, is that he destroyed the consecrated religious life of England, thus forbidding English men and women from pursuing the vocations of monastic and mendicant life. His suppression of the monasteries particularly destroyed libraries, artwork, tremendous treasures of English polyphony, and architecture. The desecration of tombs and the remains of saints, abbots, and nuns was a horrific violation of common human decency. This contribution could not last: for a time, men and women left England to pursue those vocations on the Continent, but with the turning of the tide—through of all things, the French Revolution—English monks and nuns came back, founding new houses and restoring their roles of prayer, study, and hospitality. The Church of England, in its High Church, Anglo-Catholic wing, even experimented with religious orders in the nineteenth century. Monasticism and the eremitic life have been essential to Christianity since the earliest days of the Church, East and West.
His other great contribution to English History is also a mixed legacy because he encouraged his monarch to assert authority over both the State and the Church, which led to his own attainder by his monarch for, among other charges, heresy! Tracing this Erastian legacy through the history of England, with its twists and turns of recusancy, martyrdom, Civil War, Restoration, Test Acts, penal laws, etc, finally leads us to the British Colonies of North America. When those colonies win independence, they found a new nation that dares to tolerate, at first only on the Federal level, religious diversity in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, denying the State the authority to establish a church. These two examples demonstrate that few men and women achieve anything permanent, not even someone as consequential as Thomas Cromwell. The law of unintended consequences will catch up with most, if not all, legacies.
Editor’s Note: Stephanie A. Mann, author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, writes extensively for a variety of magazines and online publications. Do visit and enjoy Stephanie’s blog at Supremacy and Survival: The English Reformation.
Sarah Morris – Historical Fiction Novelist, Historical Non-fiction Author, Re-enactor
Who knows what the repercussions are when we drop a stone into a pond; how far will those ripples of change spread? I very much feel that way when I think about Thomas Cromwell and the pivotal changes he brought to England in the space of a decade. I am no great fan of Cromwell; how could I be as a loyal servant of Anne Boleyn. However, I appreciate that he was a visionary. He helped Henry see what hitherto was unthinkable, that he could break from Rome and be Head of the Church in England. As Sir Thomas More put it, once the lion knew his real power, it was the end of the dominance of the clergy in England. Did Cromwell therefore, bring in the dawn of a new secular era? I feel he did. How can we even begin to know how our society might have looked if the Catholic Church still dominated our everyday life? The ramifications are enormous. Of course, the Dissolution of the Monasteries cemented this terminal decline. As someone whose work centres around development and psychology, I feel certain that this was a pivotal moment in our national development, as we broke from an old mindset and embraced something that in its way was more expansive. Whilst I truly lament the loss of so many exquisitely beautiful buildings at Cromwell’s hands, perhaps the tearing down of these great abbey’s was the only way to bring about this change.
Editor’s Note: Can anyone channel Queen Anne Boleyn through re-enactment so brilliantly as Sarah Morris? I think not. Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of Anne Boleyn might be like? If so, do enjoy Sarah’s very popular QAB guest article A Day in the Life of Anne Boleyn – When the Ordinary Feels Extraordinary.
Elizabeth Norton – Historian and Archeologist
Thomas Cromwell made huge contributions to English history. His most important must, of course, be his role as the leading architect of the Reformation. It was Cromwell who shaped much of the policy, advised the king and was active in pushing through the changes. He was also a leading figure in the dissolution of the monasteries, which changed the shape of English towns and villages and profoundly altered society.
Although obviously of less overt importance, I would also like to highlight Cromwell’s induction of 1538 in which he ordered all parish churches to keep a record of baptisms, marriages and burials. This was the first countrywide system of recording the population and was very important in the creation of a modern state. With records of the people, a state can better tax and raise troops, for example. The fact that we often have detailed records of the life events of ordinary people dating back to the sixteenth century is down to Cromwell.
Editor’s Note: Most Tudorphiles know of and have learned of Elizabeth’s intimate knowledge of the Queens of England and the Tudor Dynasty, but did you know she is also a renowned archeologist? For more information about Elizabeth Norton’s broad focuses of study and her amazing history books, do visit her website.
Tony Riches – Historical Fiction Novelist
I could have written a whole book about this question – but here is my contribution: I believe Thomas Cromwell’s greatest contribution to British history was to show it was possible for a man from a modest background to rise to the top of society on merit, at a time when power and privilege were only really enjoyed by the nobility, who believed they were chosen by God to rule. He was able to do this by using the very modern skills of networking and media management (and wasn’t averse to using ‘fake news’ when it suited him.) Cromwell was a man ahead of his time, and like all modern politicians, his career ended in failure.
Editor’s Note: Queenanneboleyn.com unreservedly recommends Tony Riches’ Tudor Trilogy of novels highlighting the lives of the Welsh Tudors — Owen, Jasper and King Henry VII. For more information, visit Tony Riches Historical Fiction.
Claire Ridgway – Historian, Biographer, Teacher, Blogger, Travel Guide
For me, his greatest contribution was definitely his work, along with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in heralding in the English Reformation. Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn and break with the authority of Rome, but those two men made it happen. It was Cromwell who handled the legal side of things, all the legislation required for the break with Rome and for religious reform.
His second greatest contribution, in my view, is his work with Parliament. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his documentary on Cromwell, talked about Cromwell being a visionary and laying the foundations for the modern state, and I very much agree with that. He gave Parliament the power to intervene in the constitution and made it so that Henry VIII, and the monarchs who followed him, had to involve Parliament in what they did. His work had a major impact on the country and really did change history.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to visit Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files and The Tudor Society. Queenanneboleyn.com highly recommends treating yourself to a membership with The Tudor Society, especially if you love English History. Tudorphiles Unite!
Gareth Russell – Historian and Historical Fiction Novelist
The truth is that I had to think long and hard about this, because I believe Thomas Cromwell’s impact on British history was overwhelmingly negative. He has provided far more joy from the haunting prose of “Wolf Hall” than he ever did in life. Cromwell’s most significant achievement was how instrumental he was in securing the country’s Break with Rome. Yet even here, that should be qualified by saying that, of course, for hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries that achievement was hardly to his credit because he did so through brutality, deception, and a mountain of ruined and ended, lives. Cromwell’s finest achievements lay in policies of worthy banality – and I say that sincerely as a compliment to him. For instance, his decision to make mandatory parish-level records of baptism, marriages, and funerals immeasurably furthered our understanding of the English and Welsh populations – as well as being a real boon to future historians. It is in those areas of bureaucracy that Cromwell shone. In areas of high politics, his actions, like those of so many tied to Henry VIII’s government, were frequently appalling.
Editor’s Note: Folks, as mentioned at the start of this article, today marks the anniversary of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine Howard. Please take a few minutes to read Queenanneboleyn’s review of Gareth’s phenomenal biography Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, 5th Wife of King Henry VIII. The book is both brilliantly researched and enchantingly written.
Sandy Vasoli – Historical Fiction Novelist
Thomas Cromwell, statesman extraordinaire, was one of those unique individuals who come onto the world stage only rarely. A common man born, he survived his young life through honing the raw abilities he had been gifted with: intelligence, observation and intuition, determination and sense of purpose, and the discipline to keep his mouth shut when it behooved him to do so. His early travels allowed him to grow intellectually, but also in the observation and absorption of cultural differences and how they impacted human behavior. The time he spent as a protegee of Cardinal Wolsey refined his knowledge and opinions of the state of theology at that time. Quietly, he served his master well, while developing his own and very pointed views of the Roman Church and how it operated in England and throughout the Christian world.
When the time came for him to switch masters and begin to provide Henry VIII with brilliant administrative service, he was ready. The joining of two superb forces: Henry Tudor and Thomas Cromwell, propelled the Henrician court into England’s Renaissance. Henry, a vividly creative and highly intelligent entity, was fully supported and bolstered by Cromwell, whose abilities provided the perfect complement to the King. The accomplishments which were achieved during that illustrious period – the 1530’s – were in large part due to the fact that Henry’s ideas had a sounding board in Cromwell, and those that were adopted were executed brilliantly by his chief councellor. Adding Anne Boleyn’s bold inventiveness to the mix enhanced the ingenuity of the early 1530’s.
Therefore, I believe it’s impossible to pinpoint any specific contribution Cromwell made to glorious Tudor England as the most important, but instead consider his ability to collaborate with Henry and support him on the concepts which made great strides at the time, and to drive impeccable execution of the details which allowed those concepts to take shape and flourish, marking the period as one which will always be remembered.
Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered what Henry’s love letters to Anne Boleyn looked like or whether Anne was in love with Henry as much as he with her? Sandy shared her opinions along with authorized photos of Henry’s writing in his own hand here at QAB on 18 May 2017… Anne Boleyn: A Woman in Love, by Sandy Vasoli.
Beth von Staats – Blogger, Historical Articles, Historical Flash Fiction/ Short Stories
With the unfair luxury of being able to read the responses of other contributors prior to publication, I have decided to discuss contributions Thomas Cromwell made towards English History not otherwise highlighted, namely his strong advocacy on behalf of the poor, elderly and disabled. As others have noted, Cromwell’s Parliamentary contributions were revolutionary. Though likely not recognized by him at the time, from Cromwell’s genius, the very thought that government could be managed through laws crafted by the representation of the people was born.
Obviously, Thomas Cromwell was the architect of the Henrican Reformation and driving force of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During the course of four short years, every abbey, monastery, and priory – literally every religious house in England and Wales, no exception — was dismantled; all nuns, monks, friars and priests displaced with small pensions; and all poor reliant on the religious houses for charity scrambling for food and emergency housing. If we are to believe Queen Anne Boleyn who chastised Thomas Cromwell in 1535, the Vice-Gerent’s motivations were far from religious and lacked all charity. To her way of thinking, Cromwell’s goals were to fill the King’s treasuries, reward and buy off allies and courtiers through the sale of property at bargain prices, and line his own pockets. Enraged, she famously threatened to have his head smitten off. Was Her Majesty’s thinking fair and accurate? In short, no.
In the same year Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell “spiritedly debated” how monastery proceeds should be dispersed, Cromwell began drafting legislation that ultimately resulted in the “Relief of the Poor Bill of 1536”. Prepared after a year-long investigation of the causes of poverty, Cromwell set about, albeit unsuccessfully, to seek a revolutionary solution to the challenges faced by the poor and downtrodden.
Cromwell’s ideas included a highly elaborate plan of public works, erecting new buildings, repairing poorly maintained harbors, and dredging waterways throughout the kingdom in exchange for fair pay for work completed. The legislation also proposed free medical care for abandoned or orphaned children, the disabled, elderly or chronically ill. Of course, this all would be policed by officials to ensure no abuse. Although the ultimate law that was submitted to Parliament was less far-reaching that the original drafts, the ideas were revolutionary just the same.
Now is this all sounding a bit familiar? Was Thomas Cromwell world history’s first socialist? Did he influence the thinking of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and more recently Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders? Perhaps so, but indirectly of course. Unfortunately, Cromwell’s originally proposed Bill to benefit the realm’s most vulnerable failed to pass Parliament. Had Cromwell’s efforts succeeded, his legacy of charity and compassion for others would have been indisputable.
Even before Thomas Cromwell held power second only to King Henry VIII, he showed strong support for the common man. He had an obvious reason. Cromwell was born and raised “base born” himself. George Cavendish teaches us in his biography of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey that Thomas Cromwell was greatly concerned for the plight of Wolsey’s servants who were to abruptly lose their wages and board due to the Cardinal’s startling fall. On the last day Cromwell spent in Wolsey’s direct paid service, he indignantly shamed the clergy to pony up some of their lavish wealth to provide each servant a month’s wages.
Cromwell dug into his purse and tossed five pounds in gold of his own money on the table, and chided, “Now let us see what you chaplains will do.” The men, embarrassed by Cromwell’s assessment of their lack of charity, contributed substantial funds dispersed to those displaced by Wolsey’s misfortune.
Thomas Cromwell throughout his lifetime contributed to a variety of worthy causes and was a strong patron of the arts, but most likely, the people most tragically impacted by his execution beyond his blood family and the six men, three evangelical and three Roman Catholic, executed in his wake, were the over 200 men, women, and children a day that were fed through “doles” at his London home. They were abruptly left hungry and scrambling to find a meager meal.
Editor’s Note: Here is some cheeky self-promotion. Do visit my blog here at Queenanneboleyn.com, The Tudor Thomases.
Alison Weir – Historian, Public Speaker, Biographer, and Historical Fiction Novelist
Thank you for asking me to contribute. It’s a hard question to answer, because the greatness of Cromwell’s achievements is highly debatable, even today. Yes, he helped to mastermind the break with Rome and the New Monarchy of the 1530s, but Catholics would still not see those as great achievements.
On a broader level, his reforms of the Privy Council and local administration helped to lay the foundations of modern England, while his interest in social welfare indirectly helped to determine later Tudor poor law policy – his ideas becoming influential long after his death.
But you can’t get away from the brutality of his politics!
Editor’s Note: Watch for Queenanneboleyn’s interview with Alison Weir in October 2018. Topic? We will learn of Alison’s and Siobhan Clarke’s research into holiday celebrations in Tudor England, as well as their new history book A Tudor Christmas.
I’m delighted to hear that you are offering something on TC on Queenanneboleyn.com . I hope you will be successful in steering readers away from the soap-opera treatment of historical events and the distortion of Mantel’s interpretation.
The subject is close to my heart and I am currently working on a novel about his formative years, to be published towards the end of 2019. More important is the imminent appearance of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography which, I’m sure, will dispel several misapprehensions.
To come to your question, there is ONE contribution Cromwell made which far outweighs his other achievements – an officially-approved English Bible. His accomplishment of the break with Rome (which I’ll come back to in a moment), his breaking of the monastic orders, his PR campaign against the abuse of clerical power – in a sense all these are negative triumphs. He knew that permanent change rested on the establishment of a rival authority to the pope (and, though he’d never have dared say so, to the king). Once the Great Bible had been put in every church there could be no going back. The way TC went about this is nothing short of amazing. He tried to reconcile Henry and Tyndale. That proved impossible. Then, while the king was sending out agents to capture Tyndale or have him dealt with by the Emperor, TC was encouraging the translator to continue his work in Antwerp. He enlisted Miles Coverdale and John Rogers to the task of producing a vernacular text. He talked Henry into agreeing to the circulation of a Bible that would ‘unite’ his people (To what extent did TC realise that it would do no such thing?). He organized printing in Paris, under the noses of the Catholic authorities, because that was where the best printworks were to be found. He poured his own money into the project. When the printer was raided he had plates and sheets salvaged and brought to London for Richard Grafton to complete the work. He got Henry to endorse the resulting text, which was, in no small measure, Tyndale’s.
Because we live in a secular age, this truly remarkable story is glossed over in popular treatments of the period. Even if we airbrush from the record the emergence of England as a Protestant nation, there are other important by-products of the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. One was the encouragement of education – people wanted to read for themselves this hitherto-banned book to see what all the fuss was about. More fundamentally, the open Bible fed the growth of individualism. When readers could make their own contract with God, without the mediation of priests the way was open to assert other freedoms – including unquestioning obedience to divinely-appointed monarchs.
That brings us to the second of Cromwell’s major contributions – the development of the role of parliament. The minister’s work on preparing legislation and steering it through both houses was nothing short of prodigious. The English Reformation was embedded in statute. This enhanced the importance of the assembly and was an important stepping stone in the evolution of the British constitution. Our current problems concerning extricating Britain from the EU provide striking testimony of just how difficult it is to bring about revolution by law. Cromwell had to handle, not only the king, but also the Council and parliament. His concerns were not confined to state-church relations. He had grand plans in mind for trade, agriculture and poor law. He did not win all his battles but his comprehensive schemes for improvement of the commonwealth achieved much.
Thirty-one years after Cromwell’s execution, another principal secretary to the sovereign (Elizabeth I), inveighing against current abuses in urgent need of redress, wrote,
‘… shall I name one who hath been in our age and wish him now to live to cure so great a canker? Would God England had a Cromwell.’ Thomas Wilson, Discourse on Usury, 1571, p.182
Editor’s Note: Derek Wilson is a highly renowned and prolific writer of both fiction (pen name D.K. Wilson) and non-fiction. For more information, visit his website at Derek Wilson: Historian of Fact, Faith, Fiction and Fantasy.
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder – Poet, Courtier, Diplomat
I am exceptionally appreciative of everyone’s contributions today. As a complex intellectual genius and a man of violent times, there should be no surprise that there are such varied and divergent opinions about the life contributions of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. A man of the 16th century, his decisions and actions often conflict with our modern sensibilities, and frankly also to many living in his own era. Historians and history lovers will debate Thomas Cromwell endlessly, and justifiably so.
It seems appropriate that Cromwell’s friend, the great Tudor Era poet Sir Thomas Wyatt — our last contributor alphabetically — will have the final word.
THE pillar perish’d is whereto I leant,
The strongest stay of my unquiet mind;
The like of it no man again can find,
From east to west still seeking though he went,
To mine unhap, for hap away hath rent
Of all my joy the very bark and rind,
And I, alas, by chance am thus assign’ d
Daily to mourn, till death do it relent.
But since that thus it is by destiny,
What can I more but have a woeful heart;
My pen in plaint, my voice in careful cry,
My mind in woe, my body full of smart;
And I myself, myself always to hate,
Till dreadful death do ease my doleful state.