1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
English statesman
(c. 1485 - 1540)

THOMAS CROMWELL, or CRUMWELL, earl of Essex. Of the life of Thomas Cromwell before he entered the service of Henry VIII., crowded with stirring incident as we know it was,

, the accounts that we possess are meagre and far from authentic. Even the year of his birth is unknown, but 1490 has been fixed upon as a probable approximate date. His childhood was passed near London—perhaps, as Eoxe says, close by Putney—where his father, according to Foxe, and also according to the stronger evidence of Chappuys, the ambassador from Charles V., carried on the trade of a blacksmith. During his boyhood he lost his father, and his mother then married a fuller, whence Pole's assertion, " pater ejus pannis verrendis victum quseritabat." It has been conjectured that, as a boy, Cromwell entered the household of Cecily, marchioness of Dorset, and that therefore his family must have possessed some influence ; but the letter referred to by Sir Henry Ellis as the only evidence of connection with the house of Dorset belongs in all probability to the period when he was engaged in the cloth trade.
While still in his teens Cromwell made his way to Italy, where he was to read Machiavelli, and acquire those views of conduct and statesmanship which determined his career. He first passed over to Flanders, and obtained a situation as clerk in the English factory at Antwerp. He then took service, there is good reason to believe, as a soldier in Italy; but the story narrated hy Foxe, that he was one of the duke of Bourbon's followers at the siege of Borne in May 1527, is extremely doubtful. The inaccuracy of Foxe is notorious, and there is evidence in letters of his own that Cromwell was in England in January 1527, and again in 1528. It nevertheless remains possible that during the interval he was at Borne on some diplomatic mission. Some time also he spent in the office of a merchant at Venice, with whom Pole claims to have had personal acquaintance; and Foxe asserts that, subsequently to his return to England, he paid another visit to Italy, being engaged by the leading merchants of Boston in Lincoln-shire to procure certain privileges from the Pope. The well-known story of the kindly help which he received while in distress from the Florentine banker Fresco-baldi, and the noble gratitude which he displayed in his prosperity, rests apparently on no more certain authority than a novel of Bandello and the statement of Foxe, though it is an interesting illustration of the fame which he acquired as a man who never failed to remember a kindness.
From his signature on the title-deed of a manor in Buckinghamshire, dated 1512, it appears that Cromwell was then practising, as we know he afterwards practised, as a scrivener—a combination of attorney and money-lender. He also for a time followed his step-father's trade of cloth-merchant. In 1523 he obtained a seat in Barliament; and he had most likely already entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey. That he had done so within two or three years after there is positive evidence to prove. His

principal employment was to collect the confiscated property of the monasteries granted by the Pope to Wolsey for the endowment of his colleges at Ipswich and Oxford; and the manner in which he performed this task, while it added very considerably to his purse, aroused numerous and vehement complaints. Indeed, many expected to see him mount the scaffold when his master's protection ceased 'to be of avail.
treasurer of Wolsey's household, to John Higden, dean of Cardinal College, and dated the 29th October of the seventeenth year of Henry VIII. i.e. 1525. (See Brewer, Calendar, <bc. vol. iv. part 1, p. 768). And there are extant two letters written in 1526, and addressed to Cromwell as " one of my Lord Cardinal's Council," and "counsellor ito my Lord's Cardinal's grace" (Brewer, Calendar, vol. iv. parti, pp. 1018-9). Sir Henry Ellis (Original Letters, 2nd ser. 2nd vol. p. 117) expresses the opinion that "he must have been in Wolsey's service at least as early as 1521."
Among the followers of Wolsey, however, he had made himself of the first importance ; and when ruin overtook the cardinal, it was on Cromwell that he leant. There are letters extant in Wolsey's handwriting, addressing Cromwell as a familiar friend, and earnestly begging his presence and advice ; and there is one in the handwriting of Cromwell, containing such counsel as might have been given by an equal, and, with an air that savours somewhat of hypocrisy, congratulating the fallen minister on being now " at liberty to serve God," and " banish and exile the vain desires of this unstable world." For his fidelity, and especially for his defence of Wolsey in the House of Commons, Cromwell received from his contemporaries the highest praise. His conduct appears to have been simply that of a man who, not forgetful of his own interests, wa3 honourably desirous of serving a patron to whom he was deeply indebted. At first he remained with the cardinal, whom he accompanied to his uncomfortable exile at Esher. But he was not long content to serve in unprofitable obscurity, and he was besides in some alarm for his personal safety. New and aspiring projects began to fill his mind. Cavendish, Wolsey's gentleman-usher and biographer, tells how on All-Hallows day he found him gazing out of a window at Esher, with his primer in his hand, employed, unlike his wont, in 8ayinghis matins. He complained with tears to Cavendish that, while he had received no promotion from the cardinal, he was like to share his fall, and announced his intention of riding to the court that very afternoon to stake his for-tunes on an interview with the king. An account of that interview has been given by Pole, who asserts that he re-ceived his information from some of the courtiers present. Trusting in Henry's love of power and his bitter irritation oagainst the Pope, Cromwell ventured to reveal the daring policy which he had conceived. The authority of the | Papacy in England was to be altogether abolished ; and thus, not only was the painful question of the divorce to be oeasily settled, but the allegiance of the clergy, then divided, as Cromwell proved by reference to the bishops' oaths, between their sovereign and their spiritual head, was all to be claimed by the former. And, besides, Cromwell appealed to the king's cupidity by showing that all the wealth of the clergy was at the disposal of the king, since they (in common, indeed, with the whole nation) had, by receiving Wolsey as Papal legate, fallen under the penalties of prasmunire. The boldness and originality of this advice, and the reputation for ability, address, and fidelity which he had gained, pointed Cromwell out to Henry as likely to prove a minister of no ordinary value; and he was at once taken into favour. The way, however, had been previously prepared. The duke of Bedford, whose life Cromwell had saved in Italy, spoke in his behalf; and he had recently laid several of thj other courtiers under obligations. He had advised the cardinal to advance his interest at court by conferring handsome presents on those who had the greatest influence with the king, and had himself undertaken to fix the amounts, and choose the recipients, of these gifts.
Thus Cromwell gained entrance into the king's service. His rise was rapid, for he possessed qualities which admir-ably fitted him for success as a minister of Henry VIII. He was capable of carrying on a strong and arbitrary government with a hand that shrank from no measure that seemed necessary, and an eye that never failed in its vigilance; and, whenever the king chose to act indepen-dently, he was supple enough to bend, and to bend grace-fully, to the inevitable. In him also the king found a servant who did not scorn to offer the flattery which he expected, who performed with zeal and care any service, however trivial, and who was ever ready to join heartily in the hunting, gambling, and other pastimes in which he delighted. That, with these qualities, he was of obscure birth was a circumstance in his favour; for the policy of humbling the nobility, which had been steadily pursued by Henry VII., had not been reversed by his son. Immediately, or almost immediately, after his interview with the king, Cromwell was appointed privy councillor. One more service he rendered to Wolsey, as the bearer of the king's gift of a thousand pounds; but his fortunes were no longer linked with those of the cardinal. By 1532 he had obtained the posts of master of the jewels and clerk of the hanaper ; in 1533 he was raised to the office of chan-cellor of the exchequer for life. By 1535 he had become master of the rolls, secretary of state, and, most important of all, had been appointed to the highest office in the church as vicar-general in ecclesiastical affairs,—a title which was afterwards changed (with what change of power, if any, is now unknown) for that of vicegerent. In 1536 he was made lord privy seal. In 1537 he received the Order of the Garter. And, besides these dignities and offices, he held those of great chamberlain, dean of Wells, chancellor of the university of Cambridge, justice of the forests north of the Trent, and Baron Cromwell of Oke-ham. On the 17th April 1540 he was created earl of Essex.
To narrate the details and trace out the effects of Cromwell's policy belongs to history. In this biography it is sufficient to consider the general character of the measures for which he was responsible, to estimate his aims and motives, and discuss the means which he employed.
A great scheme, consistently carried out, is manifest throughout the whole of his political career. All power was to be centralized in the hands of the king, or in those of the ministers whom he appointed; for the present, that is, in the hands of Cromwell himself. In secular affairs this centralization was already almost complete. Parlia-ment voted, and the judges decided, as the king wished; and juries could be readily frightened into abject submis-sion. The power of the nobles, which of old had been the

national safeguard against despotism, had been laid in the dust by the Wars of the Roses and the successful policy of Henry VII. The church alone retained a species of independence. That independence it was therefore Cromwell's first aim to destroy. The momentous contemporary events which suggested his scheme gave him the opportunity of effecting its accomplishment. It was the support of the Papacy which alone enabled the English clergy to make any stand against their sovereign ; and on the Continent that authority had been repudiated by several states. In England the king's mind was ripe for a breach with Rome ; and the new learning had spread a general desire for ecclesiastical reform. Henry was soon persuaded to sever every bond that united England with Rome. Parliament complied with its usual facility. The clergy were forced, as the price of escape from the penalties of praemunire, to acknowledge the king's headship of the church. And all Cromwell's foreign policy was directed to support this great revolution; England was to be placed at the head of a Protestant league which should defy the emperor and the Pope.
Such being Cromwell's policy, it was natural that he should make himself the recognized protector of Pro-testant heretics. He was unable to offer the slightest resistance to the passing of the Six Articles, by which Henry sought to fix the faith of England and terrify all parties into order, but he allowed no Lutheran to pay the penalties which the Articles enacted. He was the patron of Coverdale; and to him was due that, version of the English Bible known as the Great Bible, the first edition of which has taken his name. In 1539 he obtained the office of licenser of Bibles; and he distributed copies all over England, commanding that in every parish church whoever desired to read should have free opportunity. Whether he had any sympathy with doctrinal Protestantism is very doubtful. Foxe is a most insufficient authority for the statement that he abjured the errors of Rome on the perusal, while in Italy, of the Latin New Testament of Erasmus; it may, nevertheless, be true that he did read the New Testament, not without after results. But his stay in Italy, while it would tend to make him the enemy of the Papacy, would equally tend to make him altogether anti-theological in his habits of thought. Distress, however, seems to have driven him to the consolations afforded by the doctrines of the old religion. In his perplexity at Esher, he is said to have betaken himself to the repetition of prayers to the Virgin ; and his will, dated 1529, also goes to show that he was doctrinally no heretic. In it he orders the appointment of a priest at a salary of £6, 13s. 4d. per annum, to sing masses for his soul; for the same object he saddles a bequest to his brother-in-law and sister with £8 a year, and leaves 20s. to each of the five orders of friars in London; and he directs ¿£20 to be divided among poor householders that they may act as his beadsmen. It is possible, however, that this may merely have been a politic deference to custom. Both the last speech of Cromwell, which announces his return to Catho-licism, and his last prayer, which is Protestant in its tone, are of very doubtful authenticity.
The work for which Cromwell is popularly re-membered, that which earned him his distinctive title of " malleus monachorum," was the abolition of the monasteries. The means he employed to accomplish this measure were characteristic. Commissioners were sent to visit the monks and nuns, and give reports of whatever irregularities could be discovered in their conduct. The juggleries of pretended miracles were exposed; rough farces in ridicule of the priests, and even of the sacraments, were allowed to be acted in place of the mysteries or miracle-plays. Every shrine was destroyed, all its costly gifts being seized by the king. The bones of St Thomas a Becket, the hero of a signal triumph of the Papacy over the Crown, were dug up and burnt as those of a traitor; his name was removed from the service-book; his festival ordered to be neglected; every window erected to his memory ruthlessly destroyed; Cromwell even thought it worth while to publish a proclamation giving an official account of his treasons. A grant of the monastic property to the king was obtained from the Commons, who expected that the pressure of taxation would thus be relieved. And the nobles and wealthier commoners were conciliated by the chances that offered of cheap purchases 'of land.
For seven years Cromwell was supreme in the royal council, and supreme in all the departments of the administration. He was not altogether independent; every measure of importance had to be approved, and many were modified, by the king, who, moreover, often chose to act for himself in matters of the greatest moment, with-out even seeking his minister's advice. Yet during the period of his ministry Cromwell was certainly responsible for the general character of the government. The servant of a master who spared no life that endangered his authority or even disturbed his tranquillity, living in an age when to allow any to escape whose acts or avowed opinions were inconsistent with the policy of the Government would have been considered mere weak-minded lenity, he carried out the principles of his master, he followed the practice of his age, with stern and unvarying regularity. A position of unparalleled danger, both from traitors at home and from foreign attacks, had been assumed by the Government. The greatest promptitude and vigour were essential to safety. But during Cromwell's ministry vigour and promp-titude were carried to an extreme. Laws never equalled for severity in the history of England were enacted. No opposition was allowed to endure for a moment. It is true that the blood of More and Fisher, of the marquis of Exeter, Lord Montague, and the countess of Salisbury (the last of whom, indeed, was executed ten months after the death of Cromwell) was shed in no private quarrel. Cromwell's policy had been adopted by the king; and in some cases he was no more than the king's official agent. Yet that he fully sympathized with these severities is past a doubt. The condemnation of Exeter, Montague, and the-countess of Salisbury by attainder without trial was due to his suggestion. It was he, as numerous memoranda of his remain to prove, who enforced the execution of the laws of treason upon minor offenders. It was he who doomed " the Abbott Redyng to be sent down to be tryed and executed at Redyng with his complycys,"—" the Abbott of Glaston to be tryed at Glaston and also to be executed there with his complycys," and who ordered " that the evydens be well sortyd and the indytmentts well drawn against the said abbotts and their complycys," and " to send Gendon to the Towre to be rakkyd." He also—all attempts at persuasion proving futile—superintended the trial of the seven noble Carthusians of the Charterhouse, whom, breaking through the hitherto unbroken custom, he hanged in their clerical garb, that it might be vividly

impressed upon the imagination of the .people that there was no longer any law in England higher than loyalty. And that he had not visited Italy in vain is proved by a very characteristic letter written in August 1537 to Michael Throgmorton, once a spy of his own, now a follower of Cardinal Pole's, in which, after hinting that both master and servant may yet obtain mercy by submission, he breaks into a threat—" There may be found ways enough in Italy to rid a traitorous subject. Surely let him not think but, when justice can take no place by process of law at home, sometimes she may be enforced to take new means abroad." In private matters Cromwell's temper was equally arbitrary. Stowe's father, for instance, as the chronicler himself narrates, had his house removed upon rollers, without his consent or even knowledge, to make room for Cromwell's buildings in Throgmorton Street, London; and Foxe, partisan as he was, gives other instances.
Such a career could not fail to surround Cromwell with numerous and implacable enemies, and to afford many real grounds of accusation. His private expenditure had been splendid; he was fond of adding house to house ; and two hundred poor persons were daily fed at his door. The cost of the system by which he supported his power had been enormous. Presents had been freely lavished upon men of influence, and an army of spies and agents had been maintained and generously rewarded. Such expenses his private fortune and the grants he had received from the king were quite inadequate to support; and it was easy to prove, not only that he had been in the regular habit of receiving gifts from suitors and others who desired his favour, but that much of the public money had been used by him without passing through the public treasury. He was the patron of heretics. His promises of a full treasury and relieved taxation had not been fulfilled; taxation, indeed, had been increased; and, for that and many other reasons, his government was now extremely un-popular. The nobles, almost to a man, and most of the clergy, were his foes; but perhaps his deadliest enemy was his old companion in the service of Wolsey, Stephen Gardyner, bishop of Winchester, whom he had in vain attempted to crush under the Act of Supremacy. That part of his policy of which the accomplishment was desired by Henry was completely achieved, and Henry had no longer any interest in supporting him. He had, besides, committed a fatal mistake. His enemies had potent means in their possession for kindling against him all the fury of which Henry's nature was capable. It could be proved, beyond the possibility of doubt, that he bad been long engaged in negotiations with the German Protestant princes without the knowledge of the king, whom, besides, to further his plans, he had involved in the hateful marriage with Anne of Cleves. His danger had not been unforeseen; and two years before his fall he is said to have arranged his affairs, so that his family, and his servants, to whom he was always a thoughtful and generous master, should not be left unprovided for. But the blow fell unexpectedly. On the 10th of June 1540 at the council table, the duke of Norfolk rose and accused him of high treason. Witnesses were present to swear that he had declared that he would fight in support of his opinions, " sword in hand, against the king and all others," and that in a year or two he would have so far carried out his policy that the king should no longer be able to resist it. In vain he passionately exclaimed against the absurdity of charging him with treason. His enemies had attained their revenge. In rude triumph the duke of Suffolk stripped him of his George; the earl of Southampton tore the Garter from his knee. He was immediately removed to the Tower. That night in the city the bells of the churches rang out peals of joy, bonfires blazed, and many of the citizens held exultant revel. His friend Cranmer alone uttered a word in his favour. A bill of attainder, accusing him of pecula-tion, extortion, bribery, contempt for the nobility, heresy, and treason, was passed with acclamation. Twice in vain he appealed to the king for mercy in terms of the most pitiful entreaty. Having drawn up a statement concerning Henry's relations with Anne of Cleves, adapted to facilitate her divorce, he took the opportunity to protest against the in-justice and illegality of condemning him unheard, and con-cluded with a pitiful cry for " Mercy ! mercy ! mercy !" And again, in a letter which he contrived to convey to the king by the hands of his old servant, Sir Balph Sadler, he attempted to defend himself, especially against the charge— which he well knew would be one of the most fatal brought against him—of having divulged certain of the royal secrets, and once more, in humble but passionate language, besought pardon. Henry was moved, but remained inexor-able ; and, on the 28th July 1540, Thomas Cromwell was beheaded.
Original information concerning the career of Thomas Crom-
well is to be found in Brewer, Calendar of State Papers of the Reign
of Henry VIII.; Sir Henry Ellis, Original Letters; 1-ieginald Pole,
Apologia ad Carolum V. ; and Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials, and
Memorials of Abp. Cranmer. Foxe and Burnet, on one side, and
Lingard, on the other, are partisans ; and even their statements of
fact are most inaccurate. (T. M. W.)


a Quoted by Froude, History, vol. i. p. 585.
Apologia R. Poli ad Carolum V. p. 126.
i Ellis, Original Letters, 1st series, vol. i. p. 218. It is made up of directions to Cromwell concerning a bed and certain other articles of furniture.
Brewer, Calendar of State Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII. vol. i. p. 446.
The signature of Cromwell as witness is affixed to a paper drawn up to prove the transfer of certain letters from Sir W. Gascoyne, the

Cavendish (Life of Wolsey, p. 276), says that a bill had been passed in the House of Lords to " have my Lord Cardinal condemned of treason, . . . against which Master Cromwell inveighed so dis-cretely, with such witty persuasions and deep reasons that the same would take there no effect." But Herbert quotes the articles of the bill, because, he says, "our vulgar chronicles misreport them," and proves that it was not a bill of impeachment, but one intended to disqualify Wolsey from being restored to office (Life of Henry VIII. pp. 408-16, Murray's ed.). He adds, " These articles were presented to the Lords, and then sent down to the Lower House, where Thomas Cromwell (obtaining the place of a burgess) so wittily defended his master that no treason could be laid to his charge. And upon this honest beginning Cromwell obtained his first reputation." Mr Brewer (Calendar, &c. vol. iv. Introd. p. 553), however is inclined to believe that Cromwell risked nothing by his defence of Wolsey. The bill was dated 1st Dec, when Cromwell Was already in the king's service ; and there is no reason to believe that Henry was in favour of the measure, which, on the contrary, was likely to be distasteful to him as intended to limit his prerogative.
s Apologia ad Carolum V. pp. 120-121, quoted by Tytler, Life of Henry VIII. p. 308

Dean Hook [Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. i. p. 120) asserts of Cromwell that it is " more than doubtful whether he ever understood Latin at all." But the evidence points decidedly in the opposite direction. Latimer writes to him partly in Latin (Strype, vol. i. pt. i. p. 512) ; in a letter to Henry VIII. he quotes in that

language part of a letter from Melanchthon which he had received (Strype, vol. i. pt. ii. p. 403) ; and Coverdale addresses him in terms which could not have been applied in those days except as an insult to any man ignorant of so common an accomplishment.

Ellis, Original Letters, 2d series, vol. ii. p. 121. Such entries,, it must in fairness be remembered, do not imply that the cases haoS been prejudged ; as to the facts of the charges there was no doubt.

Froude, History, vol. iii. p. 44-48.

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