Thomas Cromwell’s Execution

NPG 6311; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex studio of Hans Holbein the Younger

On July the 28th 1540, Thomas Cromwell was executed at Tower Hill. He was one of Henry’s most devoted servants and yet he, like so many others, met the same end. One day before his death, he was visited by the archbishop of Canterbury [Thomas Cranmer] and Seymour to inform him of his death-sentence. Seymour added that “it was God’s will that you should live no longer. It seems you have learned well from the Cardinal.”

Hans Holbein's Portrait of Anne of Cleves

The reason for his imprisonment had been the King’s fourth marriage, a disastrous union which he did his best to make it better, but failed. And not only that, Cromwell had exaggerated on Anne’s grace and beauty, not to mention that he was doing a lot of things outside the King’s knowledge, and his Reformist tendencies outraged many Catholics, as well as his imposition over every noble family (regardless of their faith). When Cromwell was arrested on June the Tenth of that year, he tried to free himself from his captors, by imploring the council to remember all that he had done, and the power he had wielded, but his eloquence wasn’t enough to cause fear or doubt on any of them. His time had passed, and he knew it. Two weeks later, the marriage he had helped create, was annulled. Anne consented with the decree and wrote a letter of submission to the king, telling him that “though this case be most hard and sorrowful for me, for the great love which I bear your most noble person, yet having more regard to God and his truth, than to any worldly affection, I acknowledge myself hereby to accept the proof of the same.” She went on to repeat herself when she wrote to her brother later that month. She was later referred to as the King’s Sister and given expensive properties, making her one of the richest women in England.

Cromwell beseeched the King, writing to him, that he had been his most loyal servant, and everything he had done, had done it to serve the crown at the best of his knowledge. Yet Henry did with him as he did with all the other people he had put to death whenever they wrote or pleaded with him to save them; he ignored him. Stripped of all his titles and privileges he was condemned to die at Tower Hill instead of Tower Green which was usually reserved for the high-born. The message could not be clearer: As he had born to nothing, he would die being nothing.

On the way to the block, he met with the deranged Lord Hungerford, a former protégé of his, whose crime had been harboring a member from the pilgrimage of Grace, his wife had appealed to Cromwell but Cromwell, being loyal to the king, did nothing to help his old friend. Now in an ironic twist of fate, the two were to die on the same day. Cromwell, feeling sorry for him, tried to comfort him by saying “there is no cause for you to fear. If you repent and be heartily sorry for what you have done, there is for you mercy from the Lord, who for Christ’s sake, will forgive you.” But his words did little to comfort him. As Thomas Cromwell walked to the platform, he addressed the crowds:

James Frain as Thomas Cromwell in the Tudors.
James Frain as Thomas Cromwell in the Tudors.

“Good people, I have come here to die and not to purge myself, as some may think that I will. For if I should do so, I would be a wretch and a miser, a miserable man.
I am by the law condemned to die and thank my Lord God that has appointed me this death for my offence. For since the time that I have had years of discretion, I have lived as a sinner and have offended my Lord God, for which I ask Him heartily for forgiveness. And it is not unknown to many of you that I have been a great traveler in the world but being of a base degree, was called to high state … Since the time I came there unto, I have offended my prince, for which I also ask him for hearty amnesty. I beseech you all to pray to God with me that he will forgive me. Oh father, forgive me; Oh Son, forgive me; Oh Holy Ghost, forgive me; Oh three Persons and one God, forgive me.”

Then to dispel the rumors that he was a Lutheran, he added:

“And now I pray you that be here, to bear record that I die in the Catholic faith, not doubting any article of my faith nor doubting any sacrament of the church. Many have slandered me and reported that I have been a bearer of those who have maintained evil opinions, which is untrue.
But I confess that as God, by His Holy Spirit, instructs us in the truth, so the devil is ready to seduce us- and I have been seduced. Bear witness that I die in the Catholic faith of the Holy Church.
I heartily desire you to pray for the King’s grace and that he may long live with you in health and prosperity and after him, that his son, Prince Edward, that goodly imp, may long reign over you.
And once again, I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remains in this flesh, I waver nothing in my faith.”

This last confession was probably done to save his reputation, which he knew would be stained by the nobles. And reputation, even for dead men, was everything. If not for himself, then for his descendants, namely Gregory. He did not wish his bad name to stain the reputation of his son and family. Though some might judge him as a hypocrite and an opportunist, let us remember that everyone was a pragmatist (one way or another) back then. Cromwell played the game very well, more than any other player, but like his predecessor, he had flaws, and his belief that he was so secure that he could do whatever he wanted (including exaggerating on Anne of Cleves’ beauty and grace, to get the King into an alliance that would benefit his faith and increase his power) as well as the nobles’ envy of seeing a nobody rise to such a position of power, caused his demise.

Thomas Cromwell exeuction Tudors style

Finally, kneeling down to meet his ultimate fate, he prayed: “Oh Lord, grant me that when these eyes lose their use, that the eyes of my soul may see Thee. Oh Lord and father, when this mouth shall lose his use that my heart may say ‘O Pater, in mamus tuas commendo spiritum meum’” the asked the people to pray for the king, his son “and for all the lords of the council and for the clergy and for the commonalty. Now I beg you again that you will pray for me.” Spotting Thomas Wyatt the Elder, he called out to him, asking him to pray for him as well and told him not to weep “for if I were not more guilty than you were when they took you, I should not be in this pass.” He lastly turned to the executioner begging him “to cut off the head with one blow, so that I may not suffer.” Sadly, this was not to be.

His executioner, described as a “ragged and butcherly wretch”, delivered various blows to his skull and neck before he finally severed his head. While some despaired, others rejoiced. Henry Howard, the son and heir of the Duke of Norfolk, and cousin of the Queen-to-be, said of Cromwell that “the false churl is dead … Now he is stricken with his own staff.” Cromwell’s headless body was buried at the church of St Peter ad Vincula, the same place where Anne Boleyn was buried. His head was stuck on a pole on top of London’s bridge. On that same day, Henry VIII married Katherine Howard.

Sources:

  • Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant by Tracy Boarman
  • Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchinson
  • On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway
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Thomas Cromwell’s Fall from Grace

Thomas Cromwell by Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Holbein.

On June the Tenth 1540, Thomas Cromwell was arrested on flimsy charges of treason and heresy. “Thomas Cromwell’s arrest” writes Hutchinson, “was as ruthless as it was sudden.”

Thomas Cromwell had traveled to Westminster Palace to take his place on the Privy Council. After the council, when everyone went to dinner, his mortal enemy, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, stood up and raised his voice and shouted “Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit amongst gentlemen.”

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

When Thomas demanded to know what the hell was going on, the captain of the Guards, Anthony Wingfield and six more men came forward. Thomas Cromwell, as they predicted, did not go easily. He asked them what was the reason for his arrest, but the Captain of the Guards calmly told him that wasn’t his concern. He either went with them willingly and they wouldn’t hurt him, or else he resisted and they would use full force against him. Cromwell probably knew this day was coming. According to his latest biographer, Tracy Boarman; Thomas Cromwell was plotting against the Duke of Norfolk just as he was plotting against Cromwell. It was only a matter of who got there first.

Henry VIII of England.
Henry VIII of England.

Henry VIII could have easily stopped this from happening but Henry was the main force here. Norfolk loaded the gun, and Henry pulled the trigger. He was very dissatisfied with his fourth bride, Anne of Cleves. And although he had known of her pre-contract with the Duke of Lorraine, he agreed to marry her anyway because he needed the Cleves alliance so badly. Once he saw her, he tried to get out of this arrangement saying that she was ugly and that she wasn’t a virgin. But the truth is that Henry didn’t like her because of their first meeting. That first meeting on January of that year really determined their short marriage. Whereas Henry’s previous wives (including his first foreign wife, Katherine of Aragon) were very conscious of their roles as Queens and familiar with the pageantry and the culture of courtly love; Anne was educated in a very strict household. She had no idea what she was getting herself into. Or rather, her brother had no idea what she was going to getting his sister into. Anne was a fish out of water in the English court. Her garb was strange, she could barely speak English and she had no idea how to dance or engage in the types of conversation that other women of her adoptive country engaged on.
She was completely unprepared for this. And then came Henry VIII. He was no longer the handsome youth who had bedazzled so many women. He had grown morbidly obese and his ulcerous leg smelled bad. But being who he was, he still had a penchant for court drama so he thought of surprising his wife by arranging a playful visit to her. He and a few other courtiers dressed as bandits and arrived to Anne’s bedroom and started flirting with her ladies, including those she brought from Cleves.

You can imagine Anne’s horror as this happened. The leader of the bandits approached Anne and tried to speak with her and when he went too far –from Anne’s point of view- Anne pushed him away and told him to go away. For a man like Henry VIII with an ego the size of his realm, being told that he was disgusting and refused by in front of everyone, including his best friends, it was a huge humiliation. When he revealed who he was, Anne immediately apologized but it was too late. Her reaction made Henry make up his mind about her.

Cromwell tried many times to convince Anne to seduce Henry, to get on his good side but it wasn’t Anne who was at fault here, it was Henry. And it was Anne’s education. She hadn’t been told what she would be getting into, she hadn’t been prepared for this role the way her predecessors had been. Even her common predecessors. Anne Boleyn had served under three Queens, Jane under two. They knew state protocol, they knew all about courtly love. And Katherine of Aragon like Anne of Cleves, had been a foreigner but one who had grown in a court that treasured courtly love and were dressing good was everything. She was skilled in dance, music, art, everything. Anne had practical skills which were seen as very useful, but ultimately they paled in comparison to her other predecessors.

Henry VIII directed his anger at Cromwell. Cromwell tried to tell him that he couldn’t get out of this arrangement so easily. He had agreed to marry Anne of Cleves, and there was nothing else he could say that would justify his repudiation of her. So Henry married her. But he was very angry at Cromwell. And Cromwell was taking too many liberties with his privileges position. Though Boarman believes that Anne was as ugly as Henry saw her, she does admit that it may have all been a matter of perception. And that one of the people who added more fuel to the fire of disappointment is Cromwell. Cromwell probably knew Anne was no great beauty, but by no means was she ugly. She could enchant the King. But Cromwell as always wanted to make sure that Henry would fall in love with her before he got to lay eyes on her so he started bragging about her beauty, saying that her hair shined like the sun, that her eyes were like stars, that her skin was so fair, etc. Then there was also the religious factor. Thomas Cromwell was a very methodical and pragmatic man; he did what the King asked him to. But he was also a Reformist sympathizer and his sympathies were becoming more obvious to the King and his enemies.

Thomas Cromwell Tudors
Thomas Cromwell (James Frain) in the “Tudors”.

After Cromwell was apprehended by the royal guards, he lost it. He said very angrily “This then is the reward for all my services?” Then he turned to the members of the Privy Council “On your consciences, I ask you, am I a traitor?”

If Cromwell believed he was going to cause a big impression and leave everyone dumbfounded, he was sorely disappointed because soon after he asked this, everyone began yelling “Yes” and “Traitor”.

Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall).
Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall).

After Cromwell finally came to grasps with the situation, he eyed all the people who were just so happy to see him lose for once, and said lastly: “I have never thought to offend, but if this is to be my treatment, I renounce all claims to pardon and only ask that the King should not make me languish long.”

Thomas was immediately dragged away after that. He was completely shocked. He had been plotting against Norfolk because he knew Norfolk was plotting against him, and he believed that he would get out of this, but there was no getting out of this this time. This was the end and as he was dragged from the room and heard the council members’ cries of joy, he realized he his days were numbered.

Sources:

  • Thomas Cromwell by Tracy Boarman
  • Thomas Cromwell by Robert Hutchinson
  • The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell by John Schofield
  • Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family by Leanda de Lisle
  • On This Day in Tudor England by Claire Ridgway.

Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant

Thomas Cromwell Boarman

Thomas Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures of the Tudor court. He is cast either as a villain or a saint. In a man for all seasons he is the main villain who does everything in his power to convict the saintly Thomas More of treason. Thomas More in contrast, represents all the goodness in the world. But in real life, he wasn’t devoid of demons as Boarman shows us in this book. And neither was Thomas Cromwell whose reputation has been blackened since the nineteenth century. In actuality Thomas Cromwell was a man of many faces. The face he projected in the work place -in the Tudor court- was the face he likely wished to be remembered as. And then there was the face he kept at home, the one that people rarely saw or knew about, except for those he helped or were closest to him. As a man of his own times, subject to the era’s prejudices; Thomas was not devoid of cruelty. It was a dog-eat-dog world and coming from a lowly background, Thomas Cromwell had to be more ruthless than his enemies -the nobles- to advance in the world. But the Tudor statesman could also be loyal to a fault. He tried to help his master Wolsey as best as he could until he realized that he was finished and he had to move on.

As a father, Thomas Cromwell was diligent and attentive. In an age where parents were strict with their children and they were not far from hitting them to get results; Thomas Cromwell showed himself very different from most of his lower and upper class peers. While not much is known of his life with his wife and daughters, Boarman shows us his accounts to demonstrate that he did take an interest in his daughters’ education and wanted to give them significant dowries for when the time arrived for them to marry. As well all know, that time never came because they were taken shortly after his wife by the sweating sickness.

As a politician, Cromwell was highly pragmatic and this helped him in the difficult years following the demise of his master, Cardinal Wolsey. Yet he wasn’t without his faults. While he helped Henry get his annulment and his much wanted union with Anne Boleyn (recently elevated to Marques of Pembroke) and then her demise after she failed where her predecessor had failed, and made him rich with the money begotten from the dissolution of the monasteries; he was also arrogant and over-confident. As he grew more powerful and more sure of himself, he believed that nothing would bring him down. After all, his network of spies was immense, for every move one noble made, he was two steps ahead of him. And what was more, the king trusted him. The money made Henry one of the richest Kings in Europe after all, the treasury was overflowing with money, in addition to making him Head of the Church and helping him submit the opposition with an iron fist. But as the old saying goes “too much pride can kill a man” and that is exactly what happened in Thomas Cromwell’s case.

After the King lost Jane Seymour, Thomas Cromwell wasted no opportunity to push forward for a new alliance. While he favored an Imperial alliance since Anne’s downfall was on its way; he was more interested in promoting religious reform. When all of the King’s outrageous proposals to France and the Empire failed, Cromwell convinced him to turn to Cleves. Cromwell was very astute to know how dangerous Henry was at this stage, yet so powerful he had become, that he believed he could keep on his hold on the King. This proved to be a grave mistake. By the late 1530s the King’s behavior was becoming more unpredictable, and he started to distrust Cromwell, possibly (as Boarman explains) suspecting of his Protestant sympathies. Cromwell realized this and believed his best bet lay with the King’s wife to be. If he brought the King into the Schmalkadic League, it would drive England further away from the Roman Catholic powers, and if Anna of Cleves gave him a Duke of York, it would make Cromwell strong again. None of these things proved true. Cromwell over-exalted Anne of Cleves’ appearance. Besides telling Holbein to draw a favorable portrait of Anna; he also gave extreme compliments about this unknown bride, telling the King that there was no bride more beautiful than and that the sun shone upon her, etc. Age was catching up with Henry at this time. He was no longer the young man he had been when he married his first Consort or when he’d begotten his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy. He was now morbidly obese, suffering from an ulcer on his leg, and tyrannical. It was a far cry from the athletic, noble, handsome, scholar he had been in his younger years. If Anna was to his liking, she could make him feel young as he once was. She was after all a year older than his eldest daughter, the Lady Mary (whom Cromwell negotiated [in theory] a marriage between her and the future queen’s brother, the now Duke of Cleves. Yet Cromwell saw Mary as a threat. Even if the girl were to turn, she would still be a threat, so while he told the ambassadors to praise her, he also said not to overdo it so they wouldn’t convince the Duke to take her as a possible wife. Ironically, that is exactly what Cromwell did with Anna). When the day finally came to meet her, it proved a disaster and Henry was reputed to have said “I like her not” and urged Cromwell to break his engagement. Cromwell the faithful servant that he was, but also interested in this alliance, told Henry he could not since they were already promised and so the King was forced to marry his unwanted bride. But Henry was not one to be patient. Once an idea got in his head, nothing was going to take it away. He got rid of Anna, and once again Cromwell helped him for his own sake; and after he did, he paid the price for his initial mistake by being arrested at a dinner in 10 June 1540 on charges of treason. He was executed a month afterwards, and on the day he was executed, Henry married the cousin of his direst enemy (the Duke of Norfolk). The bride was Katherine Howard and in another ironic stroke of fate; Henry would also annul his marriage to this woman and like her cousin Anne Boleyn, cut her head.

In the epilogue, Boarman states that while Henry didn’t feel any remorse for Cromwell initially, he did at the end and according to some sources said that he needed a Cromwell. We will never truly know if this is how Henry felt, or he was just saying this so he could press his councilors to work harder to get what he wanted. In the end though, one thing was clear: His master secretary was loyal. He did everything and anything to get what the King desired, regardless of how he might have felt. And like so many of his contemporaries he was ruthless in getting his own way. His mistake? Was becoming too overconfident. You didn’t bet lightly when it came to Henry VIII, by 1539 Cromwell should have known that –especially since he had been witnessed to his master Wolsey’s downfall.

Cromwell is for posterity a mysterious figure and perhaps that is how he wanted to be. To be two steps ahead of his enemies, he wanted to keep the image of the ruthless and conniving man; he succeeded. For many years people have seen him in such a way, and fiction has not been too kindly to him until recently. While Boarman credits Hilary Mantel’s novels for revitalizing interest in Cromwell, I think the interest for him has always been there and hopefully it will continue to be, and he will be seen for the complex individual that he was –neither villain nor heroic, but a consummate politician, a good father, and a survivor first and foremost.

Boarman weaves a good factual tale of betrayal, intrigue, and paternal love. And while she gets right all the things regarding Cromwell, including his charity to his friends and the poor widows whom he gave homes and money; her portrayal of the second, fourth and fifth wives are questionable. Recent biographers and historians have dispelled myths regarding Katherine Howard as the harlot and giddy young girl as well as of Anne’s appearance. Nevertheless, this biography continues to be one of the most groundbreaking biographies about the once maligned councilor in the court of Henry VIII. For many years, Cromwell was depicted as a conniving, amoral, uncaring, cold, cruel man whose thirst for blood could not satiated. In one of the most iconic historical dramas of the 60s ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’, he was a one-dimensional character whose specter lingers there at the court. First he helps Anne rise then he is the cause of her downfall. There is no emotion in his face, he looks more like a mobster hit-man than the intelligent, cunning politician he really was. In the Six Wives of Henry VIII and its movie version Henry VIII and his Six Wives, in the 70’s, he is pretty much the same. It is not until the Tudors, the semi-historical drama, where James Frain finally gives birth to a multi-dimensional (and likeable) Cromwell. A Cromwell who is neither hero or villain but a human being like you and me who loved, who hated, and hoped. Hilary Mantel’s most recent portrayal in her Cromwellian saga ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ and the adaptation of these on TV, presents us with a more positive portrayal –one that has inspired people to look at him in a different way. This biography offers the same, using primary sources and revealing a man of many faces, one he presented to the king, another he presented to his enemies, and another he presented to his family and friends.

The Queen vs Tudor Haman

Anne Boleyn threatening Cromwell  in "The Tudors"
Anne Boleyn threatening Cromwell in “The Tudors”

On the second of April 1536, Anne Boleyn’s almoner John Skip launched delivered a sermon attacking Thomas Cromwell. In his sermon, he quoted the Old Testament, reminding the people of evil councilors such as Haman who served King Ahasuerus. Haman got so powerful that people said he ruled. He started persecuting the Jews and was about to exterminate them when the Queen (Esther, who was a secret Jew and changed her name to hide her identity) stood up against him and expose him for what he was: a liar. The King rewarded his wife by stopping the persecution against her people and executing Haman, severing his head from his body. It was clear that by evoking the memory of the ill-fated Haman, Anne sent a powerful message to Cromwell: There was only room for one. Contrary to popular belief, that they were die hard enemies; the Tudor court was filled with allies who were often turned enemies and the other way around. Anne and Cromwell were initially allies but they differed on one big issue: what to do with the money begotten from the dissolution of the monasteries? As the King’s advisor. It was clear what Thomas Cromwell wanted: To make the King richer by filling up his coffers and reward his faithful subjects by giving them the lands he’d confiscated from the church, making them grateful to Cromwell as well. In great contrast, Anne wanted to use the money to fund educational programs and other charitable causes.

Esther accusing Haman of corruption and exposing his evil ways. Anne did the same, using her almoner John Skip, invoking this story to compare Cromwell with him.
Esther accusing Haman of corruption and exposing his evil ways. Anne did the same, using her almoner John Skip, invoking this story to compare Cromwell with him.

Both of them however, leaned towards Reform, yet they had different ideas of how to approach it. A lot has been said about Anne’s religious inclinations with many books and TV shows portraying her as a conniving, opportunistic woman who used the Reform to her own benefit. But we must remember that everyone, regardless of their background, was going to use his or her religion for their own benefit –and that of their families.

“Although Chapuys referred to Anne and her father as ‘more Luther than Luther himself’, it is more correct to say that both shared the humanist ideas of promotion of the scriptures in the vernacular.” (Norton)
“Although Chapuys referred to Anne and her father as ‘more Luther than Luther himself’, it is more correct to say that both shared the humanist ideas of promotion of the scriptures in the vernacular.” (Norton)

Interested by Luther but not entirely convinced by his ideas, she was influenced nonetheless by him and other Reformists. Once he made his intentions clear to marry her, she used her new position to influence the King and support Reform. Henry VIII however, was a Catholic at heart. Even though he separated from the Church, he wanted to keep the Church traditional. The separation from Rome however, must have seen for Anne, her brother and father like a small triumph. Anne kept a French bible with her and ordered an English translation of it and that she kept on her household for everyone to read it. Cromwell as the King’s servant, had to keep his loyalties in check. He had to be more cautious, and do everything in his power to make his sovereign happy. Yet he too showed Reformist sympathies, and while not popular among the nobles, he had merchant friends, and others on the common people he had helped, as well as investing most of his time building a network of spies that made him grow over confident in the late 1530s.
Sources:

  • Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
  • Six Wives, the Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey
  • Six Wives and the many mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • Boleyn Women by Elizabeth Norton