Historians and Novelists on Thomas Cromwell

In 1531 Thomas Cromwell was appointed by Henry VIII to take control of the supervision of his legal and parliamentary affairs. Cromwell's work included the sale and receipt of land for the king; the supervising of building works at Westminster and the Tower of London; and involvement in various matters of law enforcement, such as hearing appeals and deciding the fate of prisoners and felons brought before him.

Cromwell developed a reputation for the leading expert in drafting legislation in Parliament. In January 1532 Cromwell called into question the right of the Church to make laws of its own. His main opponent was Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who argued that the Church's right to make its own laws was "grounded upon the Scripture of God and determination of Holy Church, which must also be a rule and square to try the justice of all laws, as well spiritual as temporal."

Henry VIII insisted that the Church should abandon its claim to make laws without royal permission. Thomas Cromwell fully supported the king in the House of Commons and successfully manipulated the mood of the members by encouraging their anti-clerical grievances. Sybil M. Jack has suggested: "There is little doubt that in his support for the royal supremacy Cromwell was influenced by genuine evangelical convictions. He was probably also acting with the enthusiasm of a recent convert."

Thomas Cromwell was sympathetic towards the radical reformers such as Robert Barnes. He had been prosecuted under Thomas Wolsey and had fled to Antwerp where he associated with Martin Luther. Cromwell invited him to return to England where he wrote pamphlets in the defence of the royal supremacy. "He also argued that the Catholic Church, with its elaborate hierarchy, its shrines, pilgrimages, relics and indulgences, was irrelevant to the human condition."

In January 1535, Cromwell was appointed as Vicar-General. This made him the King's deputy as Supreme Head of the Church. On 3rd June he sent a letter to all the bishops ordering them to preach in support of the supremacy, and to ensure that the clergy in their dioceses did so as well. A week later he sent further letters to Justices of Peace ordering them to report any instances of his instructions being disobeyed. In the following month he turned his attention to the monasteries. In September he suspended the authority of every bishop in the country so that the six canon lawyers he had appointed as his agents could complete their surveys of the monasteries.

Primary Sources
Thomas Cromwell
(Source 1) Thomas Cromwell by an unknown artist (c. 1530)

(Source 2) John Guy, Tudor England (1986) page 155

Thomas Cromwell was a self-made man - a man of action not a university-trained intellectual like More, Cranmer, or Reginald Pole. Yet the distinction should not be overdrawn, since in Italy he discovered wide intellectual interests. He read history as well as law, spoke fluent Italian and acceptable French, and wrote Latin and some Greek. Later he patronized writers and commissioned paintings from Hans Holbein the Younger. He had a sure grasp of rhetoric and (like Wolsey) was a natural orator. He made a formidable adversary in debate, sharp enough to defeat More, John Fisher, and Stephen Gardiner in verbal tussles. But his manner was usually relaxed and always engaging. When speaking, his face lit up; his conversation sparkled; and he cast roguish oblique glances when striking aphorisms. Most important, his talent for managing men and institutions was instinctive. John Foxe remembered him as `pregnant in wit ... in judgment discreet, in tongue eloquent, in service faithful, in stomach courageous, in his pen active'. A prodigious worker with a powerful and exact memory, Cromwell took the rounded view, was inwardly determined yet outwardly urbane.... Foxe claimed that, riding to Rome in 1516-18 on business for the Guild of St Mary, Boston (Lincs.), Cromwell learned the New Testament by heart in Erasmus's version, an exercise that seemingly laid the foundations of a lifelong understanding. Indeed, this story rings true: men said in the Renaissance that they had their best ideas on horseback.

Of course, for all his ease of manner, accessibility, and capacity for friendship, Cromwell had a dangerous edge. He was a politician who got things done. A degree of ruthlessness was the corollary of his single-mindedness, as his role in the putsch of 1536 indicated. On the other hand, Pole's charge that as early as 1528 Cromwell was a "Machiavellian" who held that the politician's art was to enable kings to gratify their lusts without offending public morality or religion was malicious.

(Source 3) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 168

Thomas Cromwell was not a Lutheran... He agreed with Luther on the need for vernacular scriptures, but remained ambivalent on the central Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone. The best general description of his beliefs is that they were Erasmian or Evangelical, or alternatively of the "new learning". This regularly set him at odds with conservative bishops such as Stokesley and Gardiner, who saw the Supremacy in terms of the defence of the Catholic faith as they knew it, and had no time for innovations.

Cromwell regularly protected Evangelical preachers such as Hugh Latimer, and pressed Henry, discreetly but persistently, to accept an English translation of the Bible. He also policed the enforcement of the Act of Supremacy, and set up the commissions required to administer the oaths required by the Act of Succession. The king's confidence in his secretary's judgement in religious matters was demonstrated in January 1535, when he created him Viceregent in Spirituals for the purpose of conducting a general visitation of the Church...

Cromwell, as Viceregent, consistently licensed Evangelical preachers to spread the word of reform, but these were regularly challenged by conservatives bearing Episcopal licences, with the result that there was confusion and not a little strife.

(Source 4) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 220

It was Thomas Cromwell who had finally convinced the King of' the advantages of severing the Church of England from Rome. Cromwell's promotion to the King's service from Wolsey's had been arranged in 1521 by the Cardinal, when Cromwell was thirty-five. The son of a blacksmith, a thick-set bull of a man with black hair and small, porcine eyes, Cromwell had led a somewhat disreputable early life, and had soldiered as a mercenary in Italy, where he may have learned to admire the Machiavellian ideal of political expediency. Upon his return to England in 1513 he had taken up law, and in this capacity had attracted the attention of the Cardinal, to whose service he had been recruited the following year. To great intelligence and ability Cromwell added a complete lack of scruple, although he always professed to be a devout Christian. It was this facet of his unattractive personality that would in time make him essential to the King. Unscrupulous and efficient, his spy network, instituted after his rise to favour following the disgrace of Wolsey, was to become a model for future governments.

(Source 5) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 196

Henry VIII formed a high opinion of Cromwell's abilities, and took him into his service; for though Henry had many able diplomats, he had no administrator and political manager of Cromwell's calibre. Here was another useful tool to be employed as an agent... There is no reasons for believing that Cromwell had any great interest in the "new learning" and in Lutheran doctrines in the days when her was serving the hated Cardinal Wolsey...

After he (Cromwell) had become Henry's chief minister, and played the leading part in the attack on the Church and on the Pope's supporters, the Catholics held him responsible for the anti-Papal policy. Cardinal Pole wrote in 1539 that after the fall of Wolsey, Henry was on the point of abandoning the divorce, and of submitting to the Pope's authority, when Cromwell appeared on the scene; he was an emissary of Satan who admired Machiavelli's book, The Prince. According to Pole, Cromwell suggested to Henry that he should proclaim himself Head of the Church of England, for then he could obtain a divorce from Catherine without bothering about the Pope.

But there are several inaccuracies in Pole's story; and it is absurd to suggest that Henry put forward his claim to be Supreme Head of the Church of England at the suggestion of a man who had only entered his service, in a very subordinate position, a few months earlier.

(Source 6) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 182

The so-called Supplication against the Ordinaries... emerged (prompted by Cromwell). This was a fist of complaints against the church, shared by many English people, from the "Lutheran" Boleyns to much humbler persons whose lives were bedevilled by the frequent need to pay ecclesiastical fees and tithes or the clergy's unfair use of the weapon of excommunication. While the King at the top of society was able to say proudly that he cared "not a fig" for all the Pope's excommunications, those lower down could find their lives ruined by such undeserved bans.

Thomas Cromwell, who apart from his administrative and financial abilities, shared the reformist tendencies of the Boleyns, shaped the Supplication into a form in which it was first presented to the King, then passed back to the clergy. In future all clerical legislation would need the royal assent, while past legislation was to be investigated, given that it was now deemed to have sprung from the King's sovereignty (not the Pope's). These radical suggestions were at first rejected by the Convocation of the clergy, under Archbishop Warham. But under threat, the Convocation succumbed. The Submission of the Clergy was made on 15 May 1532. It followed parallel pressure on parliament.

(Source 7) Derek Wilson, Hans Holbein: Portrait of an Unknown Man (1996)

Cromwell was a ruthless lateral thinker and a friend of the reform movement... Duke William V, a serious-minded twenty-two year-old, had just inherited from his father. Because of a territorial dispute with Charles V he needed allies. By inclination and education William was an Erasmian. His father had put the church in his territory under state control and instituted a reform programme. William was happy to allow Lutheran preachers to operate but declined to join the Schmalkaldic League, although one of his sisters was married to its leader, John Frederick of Saxony. He thus had a great deal in common with Henry VIII. And he had two more, unmarried, sisters. To Cromwell it seemed the ideal solution. Influence in the Rhineland would give England a powerful bargaining position and a Cleves match would signal clearly her religious position.

Thomas Cromwell
(Source 8) Thomas Cromwell by unknown artist (c. 1536)

(Source 9) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012)

In the spring of 1540 Thomas Cromwell was created earl of Essex; his bright particular star was still in the ascendant. He was conducting the primary affairs of the nation; soon after his elevation he committed the bishop of Chichester to the Tower of London on the charge of favouring those who refused the oath of supremacy. He had also threatened the bishops of Durham, Winchester and Bath with the consequences of royal displeasure.

Yet there were always mutterings against him. He treated the nobles with a high hand, so that the duke of Norfolk in particular became his implacable opponent. He was accused of being over mighty and over-wealthy, and of recklessly squandering the king's treasure.

On the morning of 10 June 1540, he took his place in the Lords, as usual; at three in the afternoon of the same day he proceeded to his chair at the head of the council table. Norfolk shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." "I am not a traitor," Cromwell replied. Whereupon the captain of the guard, and six other officers, came to him.

"I arrest you."

"What for?"

"That, you will learn elsewhere."

In his fury Cromwell threw his cap down on the stone floor of the chamber. "This, then," he said "is the reward for all my services." The members of the council then erupted in a fury of antagonism, screaming abuse and thumping their fists on the table.

It is impossible to unravel all the private suspicions and antagonisms that led to his fall. He was hated by many of the nobility who resented the fact that the son of a blacksmith should have risen above them. Those of the old faith detested him for his destruction of their shrines and monasteries. The public accusations against him were manifold. He was accused of taking bribes and of encroaching on royal authority in matters like pardoning convicted men and issuing commissions. He was indeed guilty of all these, if guilty is the right word. They were really activities that came with the job, and had previously been tolerated by the king. Bribery was the only way, for example, that the system of administration could work.

Another set of charges concerned Cromwell's beliefs; he was accused of holding heretical opinions and of supporting heretics in court and country. It was claimed that he was a Lutheran who had all the while been conspiring to change the religion of the nation; as the king's ambassador to the emperor put it, he had allowed the impression that "all piety and religion, having no place, was banished out of England". Letters between him and the Lutheran lords of Germany were discovered, although it is possible that they were forgeries. It was reported to the German princes that he had indirectly threatened to kill the king if Henry should attempt to reverse the process of religious reform; he had said that he would strike a dagger into the heart of the man who should oppose reformation. If such a threat had been made, then Cromwell was guilty of treason. It was of course the principal charge against him.

He was allowed to confront his accusers, but he was not permitted a public trial before his peers. He was instead subject to an Act of attainder for treason, a device that he himself had invented. The bill of attainder passed through both Lords and Commons without a single dissenting vote. Only Cranmer endeavoured to find a good word for him, and wrote to the king remarking on Cromwell's past services. "I loved him as a friend," he said, "for so I took him to be."

It is sometimes asserted that Cromwell's fate was largely the consequence of the fatal alignment between religion and politics, but the bungled marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves also played some part in the matter. The French king and the emperor had failed to forge an alliance, so Henry no longer needed the princes of Germany for allies; the marriage had proved to be without purpose. Although Cromwell had expedited the union at Henry's request and with Henry's approval, he could not wholly shield himself from the king's frustration and anger.

(Source 10) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985)

By 1540 the invasion threat had receded, but the conservatives kept up their pressure on the King, insisting that Cromwell was a secret sacramentary, intent on destroying the Church that Henry had created in England. Henry was by nature suspicious, and age had not mellowed him. Furthermore his passion for Catherine Howard encouraged him to believe what the conservatives were telling him. He made up his mind with typical suddenness, and on 10 June 1540 Cromwell was arrested. A Bill of attainder was pushed through Parliament, condemning him as a heretic and traitor. The charges were flimsy, but Cromwell could make no effective rebuttal, for, as he told Henry in one of a number of letters in which he pleaded for mercy, "I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all". He was kept alive for six weeks so that he could give evidence in the divorce action between Henry and Anne of Cleves, and then, on 28 July, was led to the scaffold.

(Source 11) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

It was typical of the King that he would never accept responsibility for anything which seemed to be going wrong, and someone (probably Gardiner) succeeded in convincing him that Cromwell was responsible for the unseemly quarrels which were disrupting his Church.... Very suddenly everything which had recently gone wrong, including the Cleves marriage, became Cromwell's fault, and his alone.

(Source 12) Melanie McDonagh, The Evening Standard (17th September 2009)

Hilary Mantel's Tudor novel, Wolf Hall is... so readable, so convincing, it risks being taken as a true version of events. And that's scary. Because one of the things it does is to reverse the standing of two Thomases: Cromwell and More. The novel does a grave disservice to More who was, whatever else you say about him, one of the great men of the Renaissance....

For the simple-minded dinner-party liberal, the Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight. Indeed, if the prevailing mind set in Britain right now is a kind of secular Protestantism then Thomas Cromwell as drawn by Hilary Mantel is its man.

Trouble is, there is a reason why Cromwell has had a longstanding reputation as a complete bastard. The tally of the executions over which he presided - including those for heresy - far surpassed More's. And unlike More, he was unlikely to have been swayed by the notion that what he was doing was for the good of souls.

(Source 13) Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, The Catholic Herald (2nd February, 2015)

We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.

It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognise his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.

(Source 14) Hilary Mantel, The Daily Telegraph (17th October, 2012)

It is as a murderer that Cromwell has come down to posterity: as the man who tricked and slaughtered the saintly Thomas More, the man who ensnared and executed Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn; who turned monks out on to the roads, infiltrated spies into every corner of the land, and unleashed terror in the service of the state. If these attributions contain a grain of truth, they also embody a set of lazy assumptions, bundles of prejudice passed from one generation to the next. Novelists and dramatists, who on the whole would rather sensationalise than investigate, have seized on these assumptions to create a reach-me-down villain. Holbein’s portrait is both the source of their characterisation, and a reinforcement of it.

Sometimes people ask me what I think now of Thomas Cromwell. Nothing, is the answer. I don’t think anything. He is a work in progress. I am not in the habit of writing character references for people I only half know. When I’ve finished, and he’s decapitated, and a year has elapsed, I might be able to tell you. I am not claiming that my picture of him has the force of truth. I know it is one line in a line of representations, one more copy of a copy. All I can offer is a suggestion: stand here. Turn at this angle. Look again. Then step through the glass into the portrait and behind those sharp eyes: now look out at a world transformed, where all certainties have dissolved and the future is still to play for.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Study sources 3 and 5. Was Thomas Cromwell a supporter of Martin Luther?

Question 2: Sources 1 and 8 are contemporary paintings of Thomas Cromwell. Do you find one portrait more sympathetic to Cromwell than the other?

Question 3: Give as many reasons as you can why Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540. Sources 9, 10 and 11 will help you in answering this question.

Question 4: Writers have disagreed about the merits of Thomas Cromwell. Select three sources that are critical of Cromwell and three sources that praise him. Explain the reasons why you have selected these sources.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here