by Beth von Staats
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 —
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, Vice-gerant and Chief Minister of King Henry VIII, suddenly is a very popular man in contemporary British culture. With the huge literary award winning acclaim for Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the Lord Privy Seal made an amazing resurgence, not only in recognition as an important historical figure but also in a greatly enhanced respect for Cromwell’s legacy.
The sinister antagonist in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons became a lead heroic figure himself in two positively reviewed plays based on Mantel’s novels performed by none other than the Royal Shakespeare Company. Launching Mark Rylance to the notice of Stephen Speilberg and subsequent large screen Academy Award-winning glory, a highly touted mini-series soon followed.
Was Thomas Cromwell really as heroic as Hilary Mantel’s prose would suggest or as conniving as Robert Bolt highlights in his screenplay? The answers are both “yes” and “yes”, for this brilliant and highly complex statesman had far more layers to his personality than most men, alive or dead.
A man of the 16th century, his decisions and actions often conflict with our modern sensibilities, and frankly occasionally to many living in his own era. Historians and history lovers will debate Thomas Cromwell endlessly, and justifiably so.
Some Tudor enthusiasts will argue that Thomas Cromwell was an evil historical villain of the highest order — a man capable of dissolving an entire nation’s monasteries, displacing thousands, while also orchestrating the deaths of any and all subjects with dissenting opinions, popular courtiers, Roman Catholic religious figures, and even a reigning queen consort.
In stark contrast, others will profess that instead Cromwell was a genius statesman worthy of admiration, a man who revolutionized Parliamentary Law, united the kingdom through nationalized government, successfully counseled King Henry VIII to refrain from fruitless wars abroad, patronized the arts and brought the English language Bible to all English and Welsh subjects (an accomplishment often unfairly attributed to Thomas Cranmer).
One can argue both mindsets convincingly, because this was a man with a mission, a man who wanted to make a difference, a man who sought to change how government works, a man who sought to bring scripture to all people, and a man who was 100% devoted to his God, his faith as justified solely by his faith, and the king he served with steadfast loyalty — all the way to the scaffold.
In short, Thomas Cromwell was a man who viewed that the means always justified the end, so long as that end was either his perception of God’s will or, more importantly to his tainted legacy, King Henry VIII’s will.
Most people who are familiar with Tudor Era history are very knowledgeable of the “evil side” of Thomas Cromwell. After all, whether by active manipulation for his own agenda or far more likely at the command of King Henry VIII, he was at the epicenter to the course of events that changed the face of England forever, many of the realm’s subjects laid displaced, destitute or dead in the process.
But, did Thomas Cromwell have a softer side? Was the King’s Chief Minister capable of compassion? Kindness? Fun? Love? Of course, he was, but with no memoirs and only a precious few private correspondences to guide us to this conclusion, how do we know? Let’s explore the ways in this admittedly incomplete accounting.
The Softer Side of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
Thomas Cromwell, Family Man
Admittedly, very little is known of Thomas Cromwell’s private life. Still, most people assume that beyond his commitment to his son Gregory, the Earl of Essex was distant, aloof and egocentric. In fact, Thomas Cromwell was a devoted “family man”. Married to Elizabeth Wykys in 1515, Thomas and Elizabeth Cromwell raised three children together, Gregory, Ann, and Grace.
Tragically, Cromwell’s wife died most likely of the sweating sickness in 1528. His two daughters perished together shortly thereafter. Poignantly, the will Cromwell wrote soon after Elizabeth’s death refers to his late wife and details careful provisions made for Gregory, Anne and “myne little daughter Grace”. These deaths obviously had a profound impact on Thomas Cromwell, as in an age where remarriage was not only common but expected, this wealthy and highly eligible widower remained single for the remainder of his lifetime.
Beyond Cromwell’s commitment to his immediate family, King Henry’s Chief Minister was gracious and loving to his extended family. Cromwell continued to share his home with his wife’s mother throughout her lifetime, laid provisions in his will for his sister who sadly predeceased him, and funded rich educations for not only all of his nephews and children of close family friends but also his niece.
Thomas Cromwell had a special affinity for his nephew Richard Williams, son of his sister Katherine. Cromwell’s influence was obvious, as his nephew requested to take Cromwell’s name after his own father’s death. Richard Cromwell, the great grandfather of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, entered his uncle’s service and became a highly successful courtier, ultimately serving in Parliament and as High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.
Likely most telling of Cromwell’s commitment and love for family was his wardship of Sir Ralph Sadleir. In the 16th century, many people of means were wards of orphaned children of the rich, usually arranged as a sign of favor from the King. Such wardships were highly lucrative, as while the child remained a minor, the income from the deceased parent’s properties was diverted to the guardian.
Courtiers as esteemed as Saint Thomas More and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk gained substantial incomes from their wards. Brandon even married one of his wards, none other than Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. The 14-year-old Willoughby was initially contracted to his son.
Thomas Cromwell, in contrast, became the guardian of the 7-year-old Ralph Sadleir while his parents still lived at their behest in their desire for the child’s best interest. Instead of generating income from the arrangement, Cromwell raised Sadleir as his own, alongside his children at Austin Friars. Their freely given relationship was exceptionally close.
Due to Cromwell’s influence and patronage, Sadleir became King Henry VIII’s Principal Secretary and later was knighted by King Edward VI. Ultimately Sir Ralph Sadleir, an esteemed diplomat essential to England’s foreign policy with Scotland, became England’s most influential and wealthy commoner, far eclipsing both Cromwell’s own son and nephew.
Thomas Cromwell, Religious Scholar and Reformer
Many Tudor history lovers view that Thomas Cromwell’s belief system was devoid of true religious conviction, and point to his actions as Vice-gerant and Chief Minister as self-serving, in short, a way to gain properties and riches for himself at the expense of others. One historian goes so far as to list pages of Cromwell’s obsessive financial accounting to detail alleged exorbitant bribes and kickbacks garnished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as well as alleged bribes received to secure favor from the king through Cromwell’s influence.
Although Thomas Cromwell certainly became an extremely wealthy man and owner of extensive property, his wealth gained through the king’s pleasure, good fortune and, most tellingly, exceptionally hard work in no way discredits his obvious religious convictions.
Prior to 1531, Thomas Cromwell was a Roman Catholic. There is strong evidence of his convictions, including his success in gaining bulls for the Boston Guild’s Chapel of the Virgin Mary, St. Botolph’s Church. Yes, Cromwell did resourcefully entice His Holy Father with music and sweetmeats to gain advantage, but the fact remained, with his help, the Boston Guild received papal authority to sell indulgences in “perpetuity” – well, at least until the Henrican Reformation Cromwell authored criminalized the practice.
Though the example above more humorously illustrates Cromwell’s resourcefulness than truly reflecting his religious devotion, what he accomplished while on route to visit His Holy Father to secure these bulls most certainly does. Thomas Cromwell memorized in full Desiderius Erasmus’ 1516 translation of the New Testament, book by book, psalm by psalm, scripture by scripture, word by word.
Other small hints speak to Cromwell’s religious mindedness before his evangelical conversion. For example, George Cavendish teaches us in his biography of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey that he came upon Thomas Cromwell during a weak moment on the day Cromwell left Wolsey’s service. With English modernized for the reader, Cavendish records…
“It chanced upon me on the morning of Hallow’s Eve to come there into the great chamber to give my attendance where I found Master Cromwell leaning in the great window with a primer in his hand saying ‘Our Lady Maddens’ (which had been a very strange sight). He prayed not more earnestly than the tears from his eyes.”
Not long after leaving Thomas Cardinal Wolsey’s service, evidence begins to show plainly that Thomas Cromwell’s love of scripture was gradually drawing him toward more evangelical leanings. Gaining a seat in Parliament representing Taunton and securing employment in the king’s service as a low ranking councilor, Cromwell worked in partnership with his friend Stephen Vaughan through Dr. Augustine de Augustinis to secure the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, by German theologian Philipp Melanchthon, along with other Lutheran writings.
There is also ample circumstancial evidence to suggest Vaughan and Cromwell were smuggling evangelical works into England through Antwerp cloth merchants. Beyond this, Christopher Mont, another evangelical ally, was translating German religious works in Thomas Cromwell’s home.
Thomas Cromwell, Stephen Vaughan and Christopher Mont were playing with fire — quite literally. Concurrently, Lord Chancellor Thomas More and John Stokesley, Bishop of London, were both chasing, arresting, and burning at the stake people guilty of Lutheran heresies. Thus, it can hardly be argued that Thomas Cromwell feigned religious piety to gain wealth and riches. The fact is clear that he risked his career and life repeatedly to practice his faith and bring it to others.
Even Thomas Cromwell’s decisions to send clergy to Europe for teaching from evangelical theologians and introduction of a Bible in English while at the height of his power held inherent risks. In fact, Cromwell’s staunch evangelical position contributed significantly to his ultimate downfall, him viewed as a huge impediment towards the goals of the conservative faction, most notably Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.
Thomas Cromwell, Philanthropist and Advocate for the Poor
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-gerant’s motivations were far from religious and lacked all charity. To her way of thinking, Cromwell’s goals were to 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 water ways 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 insure 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 obvious reason. Cromwell was born and raised “base born” himself, the son of the Putney town drunk.
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 there wages and board due to the Cardinal’s startling fall. On the last day Cromwell spent in Wolsey’s 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.
Thomas Cromwell, Mediator
As first a lawyer and then the King’s Secretary, Thomas Cromwell was often drawn in to mediate an endless variety of grievances, such as property ownership, fair compensation for purchases and services rendered, and marriage disputes. Even Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Norfolk sought Cromwell’s help in mediating issues between herself and her estranged husband, the powerful and ornery Thomas Howard. I can’t imagine that Cromwell enjoyed the task.
The most critical and historically relevant mediation Thomas Cromwell successfully brokered, however, was the submission of the Lady Mary to her father’s ultimate Supremacy and recognition that King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was never valid. Though Mary Tudor was not of like mind given her staunch loyalty to her mother and the bullying she endured by those councilors and clergy sent by the King to force the issue, Cromwell’s actions, in partnership with his ally in the cause Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, saved her life and eventually restored her to the succession that led to her ultimate Queenship. Who knew?
Thomas Cromwell, Life of the Party
When I look at the famous portrait of Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, I am struck by the seriousness and aloof nature Cromwell projects. It is a common perception, and with good reason given many historical accounts and popular historical fiction, that Cromwell was all-business, stern, aggressive, a henchman, a “work-a-holic” — in short, a man “lurking in the shadows” and cruel to the extreme.
Even the contemporary and admittedly hostile source, Cardinal and later Archbishop of Canterbury Reginald Pole described Thomas Cromwell to be the “Emissary of Satan”. Was he?
I will leave that to the historians and history lovers to debate, but I will say this. Thomas Cromwell was affable, surprisingly fun-loving, exceptionally witty, and a man who enjoyed a great party. There was not a courtier, minister, foreign diplomat, queen or maid in King Henry’s Court that didn’t add Thomas Cromwell’s lavish parties to their social calendars. In one perhaps apocryphal accounting, he is said to have paid 4000 pounds for an elaborate costume to entertain the king. Yes, Thomas Cromwell reportedly paraded around for His Majesty in costume – imagine that.
Thomas Cromwell’s quick wit was legendary. It seems the man had an answer for everything. To prove the point, I will highlight his thoughts as a young Parliamentarian, words that not only illustrate his wit, but also prove that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. In a 1523 letter to his friend John Creke, Cromwell writes:
“I among others have endured a parliament which continued by the space of seventeen whole weeks, where we commoned of war, peace, strife, contention, debate, murmur, grudge, riches, poverty, perjury, truth, falsehood, justice, equity, deceit, oppression, magnanimity, activity, force, attemprance, treason, murder, felony, conciliation, and also how a commonwealth might be edified and also contained within our realm. Howbeit, in conclusion we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is to say as well as we might, and left where we began.”
Touché! Britain’s ultimate Parliamentarian, politician and lawyer has the last word. Case closed. Let the deliberations begin.
Cavendish, George, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey.
Hutchinson, Robert, Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
Loades, David, Thomas Cromwell, Servant to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing, 2013.
Schofield, John, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, The History Press, 2011.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth von Staats is a history writer of both fiction and non-fiction short works. A life-long history enthusiast, Beth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is the owner and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers website, QueenAnneBoleyn.com.
Beth’s interest in British History grew through the profound influence of her Welsh grandparents, both of whom desired she learn of her family cultural heritage. Her most pronounced interest lies with the men and women who drove the course of events and/or who were most poignantly impacted by the English Henrician and Protestant Reformations, as well as the Tudor Dynasty of English and Welsh History in general.
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