Today marks the anniversary of the 1540 tragic execution of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. Accused of sacramentary heresy and a host of other clearly manipulated charges, Cromwell was felled by the influence of the conservative faction of King Henry VIII’s court, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. As contemporary chronicler Edward Hall teaches us…
“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 years 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 [beaten hard], and by his means was put from it; for in deed 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.”
Recently I caught up with Teri Fitzgerald, researcher of the Cromwell family, to learn more about our Earl of Essex’s loved ones, namely those who “knew nothing but truth by him (that) both lamented him and heartily prayed for him”. Despite the known complexities of Thomas Cromwell, he was a man who was dearly loved. Let’s now meet those who mourned his loss.
Teri, can you tell us about Thomas Cromwell’s wife and two sisters? Do we know anything about his mother?
His wife’s name was Elizabeth Wykes (or Prior) and she was not the widow of Thomas Williams. She had a brother named Harry Wykes and her mother, Mercy, married a man named Prior. There were two sisters; they were not born in 1477/8 and 1487; which of them was the elder is unknown. Katherine married Welsh gentleman, Morgan Williams, who was not necessarily the brewer recorded at Putney, Greenwich and elsewhere; Elizabeth married William Wellyfed, who was not necessarily a sheep farmer, held land in and around Putney and seems to have been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s cook and keeper of his house at Lambeth. Katherine and Morgan Williams had died by the time Cromwell made his will in July 1529, leaving three sons: Richard, Walter and Gregory. Elizabeth and her husband both died early in 1533, leaving three children: Christopher (who taught his younger cousin, Gregory Cromwell, to read), William and Alice.
Thomas Cromwell’s nephew Richard took his last name after his father’s death and was close to Cromwell, working for his uncle through the years. My understanding is that Richard Cromwell, grandfather of Oliver Cromwell, was a favorite of King Henry VIII. What can you tell us about Richard Cromwell, his relationship with his uncle, and his relationship with the king?
Richard Cromwell (c.1510-1544) evidently regarded his uncle with esteem and affection and was the minister’s most trusted agent. By late 1529 he had adopted the name Cromwell. Thanks largely to his prowess in the tiltyard, he came to be a favourite of Henry VIII. Richard had been appointed as a gentleman of the Privy Chamber by 1539, and was knighted by the King during a tournament at Westminster in May 1540. By 8 March 1534 he had married Frances Murfyn (c.1520/1–c.1543), the daughter of Thomas Murfyn (Lord Mayor of London in 1518), and his second wife Elizabeth Donne. In the summer of 1544 he accompanied the King’s expedition to France and his death on 20 October was probably the result of the campaign that had ended a month earlier. He was survived by two sons, Henry (his heir) and Francis. The former, Sir Henry Williams alias Cromwell (1537-1604), was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1564; he was the grandfather of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.
Ralph Sadler, ward of Thomas Cromwell, thrived professionally during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I. Can you give us a sense of who Ralph Sadler was like as a person, his giftedness, and his service to both Cromwell and then the crown?
Sadler entered Cromwell’s household at an early age as his ward and at around the age of nineteen he assumed the role of his trusted secretary. He met his wife, whose name was Ellen, in Thomas Cromwell’s household where she was a servant of Cromwell’s mother-in-law, Mercy Prior. Ellen was the daughter of John Mychell of Dunmowe, Essex and the “widow” of Matthew Barre. They married in about 1534, convinced that Ellen’s first husband, Matthew Barre, who had gone abroad, abandoning her and their two little girls, was dead. More than eleven years after Ralph and Ellen’s marriage, Barre returned alive and well from Ireland and was overheard in a London tavern claiming to be the lawful husband of Sadler’s wife. Sadler was obliged to have his seven children by Ellen legitimised by a private Act of Parliament. Sadler was close to Cromwell and unflinchingly loyal, even if that loyalty put himself in danger. For example, it was Sadler who dared to give Cromwell’s letter pleading for mercy to the King. After Cromwell’s death, Sadler and his son, Thomas (Cromwell’s godson and namesake) kept a portrait of Cromwell in their possession. The portrait remained in the Sadler family until 1660. Sadler was an able and trusted servant to the Crown, esteemed as a soldier, diplomat and administrator.
What do we know of Cromwell’s daughters Ann and Grace?
Other than their existence, very little: they were probably younger than Gregory and close in age given the sums set aside for their upkeep and marriage in Cromwell’s will.
Little known by many is the belief by historians that Thomas Cromwell had an illegitimate daughter named Jane. What do we know of her?
Cromwell had an illegitimate daughter named Jane, who was probably born around 1530/35. By 1550 she had married William Hough of Leighton in Cheshire, the son of Richard Hough and Christiana Calverley. William’s father acted as Cromwell’s agent in Cheshire, then in Ireland from 1535 to 1540. Jane and William came to the attention of the authorities as recusant Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I. They were survived by a daughter, Alice who married William Whitmore. Their son, another William Whitmore married an heiress, Margaret Beeston. Their daughter, Bridget married firstly Sir Edward Somerset, a younger son of the 4th earl of Worcester and after his death wed Thomas Savage, second son of Viscount Savage of Rocksavage. Bridget’s sister-in-law, Jane Savage, was the wife of John Paulet, 5th Marquess of Winchester, a descendant of Elizabeth Seymour’s third husband, John Paulet.
Gregory Cromwell — There are two school of thought related to the son of the king’s most faithful servant. Was Gregory Cromwell an “under achiever” or younger than many historians believe?
Gregory Cromwell (c.1520-1551) was born later than supposed, as was his wife, Elizabeth (c.1518-1568). Early historians were mistaken in their assumption that Cromwell’s son was around fifteen when he was at Cambridge in 1529, when in fact he was “significantly younger than twelve”. In 1846 Sir Henry Ellis examined a letter written by Gregory to his father in around 1533 realising the handwriting was that of a boy in his early teens, born about 1520. The young man was provided with an education suitable for a nobleman and he used it to his advantage. He shared his father’s talent for accumulating property, and when he died, he was immensely wealthy.
It is amazing when you think of it that Gregory Cromwell was brother-in-law to queen consort Jane Seymour. How was the match between Gregory Cromwell and Elizabeth Cromwell arranged? Though a brokered arrangement, did Cromwell and Seymour grow to love each other?
The match may have been suggested to Thomas Cromwell by Edward Seymour, who had negotiated his sister’s first marriage to Sir Anthony Ughtred, as his second wife, in 1530. Gregory’s letter to his “loving bedfellow” from Calais in December 1539 suggests they shared a genuine affection.
“….I am, thanks be to God, in good health, trusting shortly to hear from you like news, as well of yourself as also my little boys, of whose increase and towardness be you assured I am not a little desirous to be advertised. And thus, not having any other news to write, I bid you most heartily well to fare. At Calais, the 9th of December. Your loving bedfellow, Gregory Cromwell.”
When Thomas Cromwell was imprisoned, he wrote to the king pleading for the safety of his family and those close to him. I find it fascinating that Gregory Cromwell, Elizabeth Seymour Cromwell, Richard Cromwell and Ralph Sadler survived and then soon later thrived during the remaining reign of King Henry VIII. How did they all manage this while those close to others who fell during Henry’s reign, such as Thomas More’s children, faded off into obscurity?
After Cromwell’s death, his family were all too aware that political ambition could prove deadly, and that in order to survive it was essential to be discreet, outwardly compliant and to loyal to the Crown. Their family connections probably contributed to their future prosperity.
Thomas Cromwell — heretic, traitor or martyr?
He was certainly not a traitor, although his religious leanings and promotion of heretical books left him vulnerable to accusations of heresy. In 1540 Thomas Cromwell became the latest casualty in the ongoing struggle for influence over a capricious King. Cromwell was a visionary in a time of significant political, religious and social upheaval. He was brilliant politician, and a man of deep religious convictions, who had the misfortune to be Henry VIII’s most faithful servant.
How did Gregory Cromwell and Elizabeth Seymour pull off surviving the death of Jane Seymour, and more amazing yet the executions of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Seymour, and Edward Seymour? Just how remarkable was the resourcefulness of Elizabeth Seymour in particular in pulling off the improbable.
It was indeed remarkable that Gregory and his wife not only survived Thomas Cromwell’s fall from power, but that of the Duke of Somerset as well. Cromwell’s letter to the king from the Tower had moved the King, but it was not enough: it was evident that he feared for his family. Elizabeth’s letter to the King, with her connection to the late Queen Jane, may have saved them from ruin.
Did Gregory Cromwell and Elizabeth Seymour enjoy a relationship with their nephew King Edward VI? Three of their children were within 3 years of age of Edward. Is there any record of these children knowing Edward as either prince or king? Did they enjoy any meaningful relationship?
Whether or not Gregory, Elizabeth or their children had a relationship with their royal nephew is a mystery. Elizabeth’s brother-in-law certainly came to Edward VI’s attention. Clement Smith, a devout Catholic, who was married to her younger sister, Dorothy, earned a rebuke from the young King for hearing mass once too often.
Are there any direct descendants of Gregory and Elizabeth Cromwell (and thus by extension Thomas Cromwell) that browsers would find of interest?
- Henry Ughtred (c.1533/4-1598), a soldier and shipbuilder, was the son of Elizabeth Seymour and her first husband, Sir Anthony Ughtred. He married Elizabeth (d.1576), daughter of John Paulet, Lord St. John (later 2nd Marquess of Winchester) and widow of Sir William Courtenay (d. 1557). In 1586 he left to seek his fortune in Ireland with his stepson Sir William Courtenay (1553-1630). He died in Munster during the Irish rebellion of 1598.
- Thomas Cromwell (c.1540-c.1611), third son of Gregory Cromwell and Elizabeth Seymour. His diaries of proceedings in the House of Commons are an important source for historians of parliamentary history during the period when he was a member.
- Edward Cromwell, 3rd Baron Cromwell (c.1560-1607), eldest son of Henry Cromwell, 2nd Baron Cromwell (1538-1592) and Mary Paulet (d. 1592), took part in the Essex rebellion and only survived due to the intercession of Robert Cecil. He was released after several months’ imprisonment and fined the staggering sum of £6,000. Having fallen into royal disfavour and faced with mounting debts, he was forced to sell off part of his lands. He later settled in Ireland.
- Katherine Cromwell (d. 1621), only daughter of Henry Cromwell, 2nd Baron Cromwell (1538-1592) and Mary Paulet (d. 1592), married Lionel Tollemache (1562-1612). Their descendants were the wealthy Earls of Dysart who were related by marriage to several prominent noble families.
- Lady Ann Strode was murdered at Parnham House, near Beaminster, Dorset in 1645 by a soldier under the command of Colonel Thomas Fairfax. Lady Ann was the widow of Sir John Strode (c.1561-1642), son of John Strode (d.1581) by his first wife Katherine (c. 1541), elder daughter of Gregory Cromwell and Elizabeth Seymour.
I understand that you find the life of Elizabeth Seymour Cromwell fascinating. What can you tell us about Lady Cromwell that browsers may find admirable and/or interesting?
It is remarkable that Elizabeth Seymour has practically disappeared from the history of the period. She has been dismissed as merely “the daughter of a knight and wife of a gentleman” despite her royal connections. Elizabeth could claim kinship to both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard – they were her second cousins. When Jane Seymour married Henry VIII, Elizabeth became the King’s sister-in-law and, after the birth of an heir, aunt to the future Edward VI. Moreover, she was the daughter-in-law of Thomas Cromwell, the most powerful man in England, after the King, and a worthy subject for a portrait by Hans Holbein.
ABOUT TODAY’S GUEST
Born in Sydney, Teri Fitzgerald is a retired systems analyst with a passion for history. Well acquainted with the Tudor court from an early age, Teri is presently researching the work of Hans Holbein and the Cromwell family. In 2016 her article on Gregory Cromwell, co-written with Diarmaid MacCulloch, was published in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.
Teri Fitzgerald and DIARMAID MacCulloch (2016). Gregory Cromwell: Two Portrait Miniatures by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 67, pp 587-601 doi:10.1017/S0022046915003322