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Summary Article: Cromwell, Thomas, Earl of Essex (c. 1485–1540)
from Encyclopedia of Tudor England

Between 1532 and 1540, Thomas Cromwell was chief minister of Henry VIII and the manager, if not the architect, of the program of legislative and administrative reform that abolished papal authority and erected the royal supremacy. With the support of the king, Cromwell controlled, either directly or through his personal agents, virtually all phases of government in the 1530s.

Cromwell was born in Putney near London, the son of a cloth worker and alehouse keeper. Little is known for certain about his early life. He is said to have left home at about 18 and to have gone soldiering in Italy, where he may have fought for the French at Garigliano in December 1503. He spent some years in the service of the Frescobaldi, powerful Florentine bankers, but by 1512 was in the Netherlands trading cloth. Shortly thereafter, he entered the household of Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, the English representative at Rome. As the cardinal’s agent, Cromwell conducted much ecclesiastical business at the papal court. In August 1514, one month after Bainbridge’s death, Cromwell returned to England. Valuing Cromwell’s experience of Rome and his knowledge of trade, finance, and languages—he knew Latin, French, and Italian—Cardinal Thomas Wolsey took Cromwell into his service in about 1515. As Wolsey’s chief man of business for ecclesiastical affairs, Cromwell made several trips to Rome and in 1519 was admitted to the cardinal’s domestic council. About this same time, Cromwell married Elizabeth Wykes, the widowed daughter of a cloth merchant, by whom he had two children.

Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s was chief minister to Henry VIII and played a crucial role in the establishment of the royal supremacy. (Library of Congress)

Cromwell sat for an unknown constituency in the Parliament of 1523. Among his extant papers is a speech criticizing the 1523 Anglo-French War, an oration, if delivered that year in the Commons, that likely raised the ire of the king, even if, as some historians have surmised, it was a ploy by Wolsey to have Parliament stymie a foreign policy that the cardinal himself opposed. In 1524, Cromwell was admitted to Gray’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court of the common law in London; by 1529, he had completed the suppression of some 30 small monasteries, whose revenues were diverted to Wolsey’s new educational foundations—a grammar school at Ipswich and Cardinal College, Oxford. By 1530, Cromwell had also made contacts with various London printers, thereby acquiring a knowledge of publishing that helped him manage the propaganda campaign for the royal supremacy in the 1530s.

On Wolsey’s dismissal in October 1529, Cromwell, fearing that he would fall with his master, drew up his will. However, within a month, Cromwell had secured the seat for Taunton in the Reformation Parliament and, by late 1530, was sworn into the Royal Council. Cromwell quickly made himself the council’s expert on parliamentary affairs, deftly maneuvering government legislation through the Commons. By early 1533, when he became the king’s principal secretary, Cromwell was Henry’s chief man of business. Over the next seven years, Cromwell became the driving force in almost all departments of government. He managed Parliament, directing the legislative program that swept away the pope and made the king head of the English Church. He also oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries; initiated a series of financial and administrative reforms that expanded the reach of royal government; extended, through legislative action, the authority of the king in Parliament into Wales and various private franchises; and implemented, as royal vicegerent, the newly recognized ecclesiastical authority of the Crown. He played a central role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and, with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, became a leader of the reformist party at court, having overseen the issuance of the Ten Articles in 1536 and the later royal injunctions that mandated the keeping of parish registers and the provision of an English Bible in every church. In 1539, he supervised the publication of the Great Bible.

Cromwell also advocated an alliance with the Lutheran princes of Germany, and his fall in 1540 is often ascribed to the failure of Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves, which union Cromwell had promoted to further his foreign policy. However, by 1539, Cromwell’s support of reform and reformers had outstripped the king’s conservative doctrinal views, and the resulting wavering of royal confidence allowed the minister’s many enemies, led by Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, and Bishop Stephen Gardiner to convince Henry that Cromwell was secretly working against the royal will, especially in matters of religion. Evidence that Cromwell had protected and promoted heretics in Calais and England combined with the Cleves fiasco and the failed foreign policy it represented toppled Cromwell. Having been named Lord Privy Seal in 1536 and in July of the same year raised to the peerage as Lord Cromwell, the minister’s career seemed to reach its height in April 1540, when the king created Cromwell Earl of Essex. The promotion, however, was only a prelude to disaster; on 10 June 1540, Cromwell was arrested as he sat at council. Condemned for treason and heresy by bill of attainder, Cromwell was beheaded at the Tower of London on 28 July.

See also Council Royal/Privy Council; Printing

Further Reading
  • Elton, G. R. Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1972.
  • Elton, G. R. Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Commonweal. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1973.
  • Elton, G. R. “Thomas Cromwell’s Decline and Fall.” In Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government, Vol. 1, Tudor Politics/Tudor Government, 189-230. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1974.
  • Elton, G. R. The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes Under Henry VIII. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1953.
  • Hutchinson, Robert. Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. Dunne New York, 2009.
  • Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant. History Press Charleston, SC, 2008.
  • Slavin, Arthur J. “Cromwell, Cranmer, and Lord Lisle: A Study in the Politics of Reform.” Albion 9 (1977): 316-336.
  • Copyright 2012 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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