I wanted to write about the Thomas Cromwell documentary that was on the other night as part of BBC2’s Tudor Court Season, “Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell”. Cromwell’s enduring image in history is one of a mindless thug who pillaged and dissolved monasteries, drove a wedge between England and Rome and thought nothing of removing his rivals. In the programme Professor Darmuid MacCulloch argued that Cromwell was so much more than this, that he was in fact a great statesman, religious reformer and a self-educated visionary who, motivated by religion and a desire to serve the country, laid the foundations for our modern state.
I’ve summarised MacCulloch’s main arguments below:
- Cromwell was employed to sort out a problem for the Guild of St Mary in Lincoln. They were making most of their money from selling indulgences at the Boston Stump (church) but their licence was about to expire. Cromwell travelled to Rome, arranged a chance meeting with the Pope and got the licence renewed. Cromwell’s reputation as a fixer grew but he also saw first-hand how corrupt the Church could be.
- Cromwell joined Wolsey’s household and quickly moved up the ranks by showing Wolsey how effectively he could get things done. Wolsey was also from humble origins and wanted other poor boys to have opportunities so he set about opening Cardinal Colleges in Ipswich (his home town) and Oxford. Cromwell was able to make this happen by closing down 12 monasteries for each College – his previous legal work had shown him how just much wealth there was in the church!
- In 1523 Cromwell was elected to Parliament as an MP. Not long after Wolsey became embroiled in the king’s “Great Matter”, his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Wolsey’s failure to make it happen led to him being charged with exercising a foreign authority against the King. Despite Cromwell’s reputation for treachery he remained loyal to Wolsey despite the danger to himself. Henry wanted to close both of the Cardinal colleges but Cromwell was able to defend Wolsey’s educational legacy by persuading Henry to keep them both open, although the college at Oxford was renamed Christchurch.
- Cromwell knew he was dependent on Wolsey for support and career advancement but tried to use the marriage crises to his advantage. Henry was trying to prove that English monarch were above Papal authority and latched onto a story about King Arthur from a 12th century book of historical myths that referred to England as an empire, which means it doesn’t have to adhere to papal authority. Cromwell stepped in and came up with a way to sell this idea to the nobility and English people.
- Cromwell knew only parliament could galvanise enough support for Henry’s religious revolution. Until now their role had mainly been to pass on petitions for the people and raise taxation but Cromwell persuaded them they could change the constitution and pass laws that would destroy the Pope’s power over the King. Cromwell set up bills including the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which stopped Katherine being able to appeal to Rome and effectively made England an empire. Cromwell had given parliament more power than they’d ever had, they were now able to intervene in the most fundamental constitutional affairs of the nation, a power they still have to this day. It also meant that from now on monarchs in England had to involve parliament in all their great decisions, which is in stark contrast to other European monarchs who received less restrictions to their power over the coming centuries. With these actions Cromwell effectively laid the foundation for the modern parliamentary state we live in today (although at the time he would have had no concept of parliamentary democracy)
- In 1532 Cromwell was given the title of Master of Jewels and invited to Court. He became determined to transform the relationship between Church and state, not just to please Henry but because he had been influenced by the reformist ideas sweeping Europe. The reformers sought a simpler form of Christianity based on God’s word from the Gospels and were known as Evangelical’s. They saw everything else as a superstitious hierarchy and hated the wealth and corruption they witnessed in the Catholic Church. It was the merchants from Germany and the Low countries who first brought ideas to England and it’s highly likely Cromwell encountered them when he was in Boston, Lincolnshire.
- By 1533 Cromwell was letting his reformist views be known and had powerful allies at court such as Anne Boleyn. As a reward for making Henry the Supreme Head of the Church in England Cromwell was promoted to principle secretary, which gave him control over all churches and monasteries. Cromwell knew the monasteries had great wealth but he also thought of them as unholy and corrupt and knew that by closing them down he had the opportunity to both advance his reformist agenda and make Henry wealthy. In total 800 monasteries were closed and the money was given to Henry. However, although this is Cromwell’s most destructive act it wasn’t motivated purely by greed. Cromwell was more than just a merciless politician; he really did believe in his reformist ideas and was genuinely trying to put a stop to what he saw as corruption in the Catholic Church.
- The other dark act for which Cromwell is remembered is engineering the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Anne and Cromwell had once been allies but fell out over how the money from the monasteries was being spent, she wanted it to go to good causes and Cromwell wanted to fill Henry’s coffers. In the programme MacCulloch takes the view that Henry wanted to get rid of Anne because she had failed to give him a son. Cromwell then facilitated this by making up evidence against her, possibly even using torture to make Mark Smeaton confess. The exact reasons for Anne’s downfall continue to be debated but it certainly looks like Cromwell played a major role which would make this his most despicable act by far!
- However, McCulloch doesn’t want these dark events to overshadow our view of Cromwell as a great statesman and uses Cromwell support of the Common Wheel (i.e. public good) as an example. After the monasteries were closed there was an increase in homelessness and unemployment which was new and frightening to the people. Cromwell believed the state should help the poor so he set up a think tank to improve the Common Wheel, eventually setting up a parliamentary bill that forced all able bodied people to work. This was the first step to a comprehensive poor law, which was eventually passed in 1597 during Elizabeth I’s reign. These poor laws were not reformed until the 19th century and paved the way for the welfare state we have today.
- Cromwell’s religious convictions also made him want to get involved in public morality and he passed an act making homosexual sex illegal. This was the first time the state had interfered in private sexual behaviour and was a huge extension of their power, one which still exists in our politics today. Personally I’m not so sure that was a great achievement by Cromwell, I’ll let you decide!
- Cromwell also brought religion to the common people by helping to get the Bible translated into English. The Bible had previously always been in Latin so had to be read and interpreted by a clergyman. The reformers demanded a Bible for the people but this was too much change for Henry who, despite his split from Rome, was still a devout Catholic at heart. Cromwell risked everything by giving Henry a copy of the English Bible but he’d cleverly chosen the right moment. Jane Seymour was pregnant at the time and Henry was in a good mood so he made a dramatic U-turn and approved it! Cromwell issued an order for all parishes to get the Bible in English. He had now given everyone a chance to read the Bible in their own language and cemented the divide between the Church of England and the Church of Rome.
- Cromwell was willing to risk his life for his evangelical cause. Despite having no links to Switzerland, a group of academics from Oxford met with Pastor named Bollinger. He was the successor to a controversial reformer named Zwingali who had attacked not only Catholic corruption but also the sacred Eucharist (Mass). Zwingali didn’t believe the bread and wine really turned into the body and blood of Christ and held a communion in his own Church that viewed the bread and wine as purely symbolic. This caused widespread fury, Henry himself saw it as the worst kind of blasphemy as did Thomas Cramner. MacCulloch believes Cromwell was the only person with the means and motivation to have sent the academics to Switzerland. This shows immense bravery as Henry would have burnt him at the stake if he’d found out. Cromwell also knew that Henry would never accept these radical teachings but accepted he was playing a long game. In this end it paid off, just 5 years after Henry’s death Zwingali’s communion was accepted in England and the break with the Church in Rome was complete. MacCulloch believes this “theological revolution” was Cromwell’s greatest legacy.
- In 1537 Cromwell was made a Knight of the Garter and was then given the ancient title of the Earl of Essex, after the previous Earl died without a male heir. Cromwell was now part of the hereditary nobility and had social status as well as money and property. This angered the nobility who had always resented his rise to power.
- When Jane Seymour died in 1537 Henry needed a new wife and Cromwell wanted to ally him to the reformation forces. Despite Cramner’s misgivings Cromwell used a miniature Holbein portrait to persuade Henry to marry Anne of Cleves. However, she didn’t live up to expectations and Henry wanted out. In order to annul the marriage Cromwell made Henry testify in a Church court that the marriage had not been consummated. This was very humiliating for Henry, he needed someone to blame and Cromwell fell out of favour. With no ancient lineage to back him up Cromwell relied totally on Henry’s patronage, without it he had nothing and this put him in a dangerous position.
- Cromwell may well have been ok had he not shut Thetford Priory. This was protected by the powerful and influential Thomas Howard who had ancestors buried there. In 1539 Norfolk tried to save the priory and lobbied to have it turned into a college to preserve the family tombs. But Cromwell’s evangelical zeal overtook his political skills and on 16th February 1530 he forced the priory, one of the last 2 in England, to surrender it’s monasteries. Norfolk was forced to rebury his relatives, he was humiliated and starting plotting revenge.
- During the 1530’s Henry’s patronage had protected Cromwell from his enemies. Now, with Cromwell out of favour, Howard had Henry’s ear and he soon persuaded him that Cromwell was a heretic and traitor. On 28th July 1530 Cromwell was beheaded in a botched execution but within months Henry was regretting his decision calling Cromwell the most faithful servant he’d ever had. MacCulloch laments that despite this we still have this enduring image of Cromwell as nothing more than a mindless thug.
- The programme concluded by saying that Cromwell was indeed a supreme politician and a ruthless operator who didn’t shy away from violence to achieve his ends. But we should not forget he was also a great statesman and a man of principle who “cut England off from 1000 years of Roman obedience”, forged a religious revolution and laid the foundations for our constitutional monarchy.