One of the most monumental falls from grace; the story of Thomas Cromwell is one of the most interesting in the history of rises and falls. Cromwell was a man from relatively humble beginnings, considering the power he wielded in later life-his father was a brewer and a pretty shady one at that! Records show that Walter Cromwell was fined up to 50 times for watering down his ale and once for fighting!
How did Thomas Cromwell become the second most powerful man in England? How was he able to make such changes to the political and religious landscape of England? Was he power hungry and ruthless? Or a true reformer?
Born in Putney in 1485 as a child Cromwell lived on Brewhouse Lane where his family ran a brewery. In the strict hierarchy of Medieval England, Cromwell's family was near the bottom-for an uneducated man not born of nobility to become Henry VIIIs 'go to guy' is pretty spectacular!
Cromwell started his climb to the top in 1502 when aged 17 he left England for mainland Europe. Historian John Foxe states Cromwell acted as a mercenary for the French and then ended up in the employ of a wealthy financier working in Europe's biggest bank in Florence. Whatever Cromwell got up to in his 14 years away from England, when he returned he was a well-educated man that knew the law and spoke several languages and was well-respected enough to marry a wealthy widow. Cromwell was readily accepted into Tudor high society.
It would be a very special mission on behalf of the Guilds of Boston, Lincolnshire that would get Cromwell noticed by influential people at King Henry VIIIs court. The Guilds made the bulk of their money from the sale of the 'stairway to heaven' indulgence to congregations of their churches in Lincolnshire. The license for this indulgence, granted by the Pope, was about to expire-without it the Guilds would see their revenues plummet. Cromwell was employed by the Guilds to negotiate to get the license re-issued. Cromwell went directly to Rome and sought out the Pope-it can only be said that he beguiled the Pope with flattery and indulged the Pope's sweet tooth with fancy English cakes! But, whatever the means, Cromwell was successful in his mission. It didn't take long before bigger and better things came knocking on Cromwell's door-upon his return from Rome he was offered prominent legal work in London. Cromwell became known as a man that could get things done, and rightly so as he had a proven track record-he was soon called to serve Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry VIIIs right-hand man.
Like Cromwell, Wolsey came from humble beginnings but he had benefited from a university education, unlike Cromwell. Wolsey wanted other boys like him from his hometown of Ipswich to benefit from an education and wanted to set up twin colleges-one in Ipswich and one in Oxford. Cromwell was employed to acquire funding to set up the two colleges, both to be named Cardinal College. It was during this assignment working on behalf of Wolsey that Cromwell first got a taste for dissolving monasteries for financial gain. To set up the college at Ipswich he shut down 12 monasteries and priories and to set up Cardinal College, Oxford he dissolved another 12.
When Cardinal Wolsey became embroiled in the King's 'great matter' Cromwell's position in court became tenuous. As a man of low birth status Cromwell needed the support of someone like Wolsey to further his career and continue to be successful. But, despite his tenuous position, Cromwell opted for a risky strategy of standing by his employer and spoke up for Wolsey-this could have backfired spectacularly. But it did not.
Cromwell was very worried for his position-he could see what he had worked hard for start to slip away. But, King Henry VIII still needed a solution to his 'great matter' and it was Cromwell that seized the opportunity to fix it for Henry.
Cromwell understood that the only way to galvanise support for a break from Rome, thus enabling the King to divorce Katherine of Aragon, was through parliament. Cromwell set to change the nature of the constitution and quash laws that saw the power of the Pope supersede those of the King Cromwell sought to demonstrate that since the 12th century England had been an empire and its ruler, therefore, an emperor. Cromwell based his 'facts' on myths and legends contained in a 12th century book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Cromwell succeeded turning myth into law and put England on the path to parliamentary democracy, as Cromwell's new law gave parliament the fundamental right to intervene in the constitutional affairs of the nation. As a reward Henry VIII made Cromwell Master of the Jewels and invited to join Henry VIIIs royal court.
But Cromwell was motivated by more than just a willingness to please the King. By 1533 a revolution was sweeping through Europe-the Reformation. The Evangelicals wanted a more simple religion based on God's word and believed every other teaching was superstition and should be rejected. In 1533 Cromwell started to reveal his reformist credentials and found a growing number of powerful Evangelicals within the royal court; one of whom was Anne Boleyn, King Henry's great love (for the time at least). Anne Boleyn persuaded King Henry VIII to appoint an unknown clergyman, Thomas Cranmer, as Archbishop of Canterbury, another Evangelical supporter. Cranmer quickly, and thanks to Cromwell's new law, annulled King Henry's marriage to Katherine and just 5 days later married Henry to Anne. As a result, Cromwell was promoted again; this time it would make him the second most powerful man in the country, second only to the King himself.
Cromwell's new role saw him gain massive power over churches and monasteries and it was during this period that he began his controversial dissolution of the monasteries. Cromwell knew from his days of working for Wolsey that closing monasteries was a lucrative business. Now, as a keen reformer of the church in England too, he saw it as an opportunity not only to raise funds for the King but to also make the move away from the Catholic religion and pursue his own evangelical agenda.
Cromwell began to discredit the monasteries by exposing certain truths about their religious and 'holy' relics that they used to attract scores of pilgrims and thus extort a lot of money out of them. In 1538 Cromwell sent the holy blood (said to be that of Jesus) that belonged to Hailes Abbey to be examined. The 'blood' turned out to be nothing more than clarified honey coloured with saffron. It was a hoax. And it was all Cromwell needed to close this monastery down. Revenue from this monastery alone was twice the income of the King. In all Cromwell was responsible for the closure of 800 monasteries and religious houses-money poured into the coffers of the King.
The dissolution of the monasteries showed Cromwell to be both a dedicated reformer and a ruthless politician. Monasteries provided for the poor and homeless of England on a massive scale. Once Cromwell started to close significant numbers of them did people start to notice the problem of the poor and homeless. This spurred Cromwell into creating a think tank to work out how to help the poor and homeless. Cromwell passed a law that stated the poor and homeless had to be put to work, which, some argue, was the first step to the Poor Law of 1601. However, the ruthless politician emerged when he and Anne Boleyn spectacularly fell out over the money gained from the closure of the monasteries-she wanted it used for good causes rather than it just going to the crown. Anne Boleyn may have gotten her way if her most important ally, King Henry VIII, had not fallen out of love with and if she had not have had a second miscarriage. Henry's go to guy had to solve the problem of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell did this most ruthlessly-he tortured false confessions out of Anne's closest friends and conjured up stories of incest with her brother. Anne was beheaded.
Cromwell was becoming more and more confident in his evangelical pursuits, even going as far as risking his life to reform the church. Cromwell took the opportunity to gift a copy of the English Bible to King Henry VIII-at a time when granted Henry VIII was in high spirits; his wife, Jane Seymour, was on the brink of giving birth, with what Henry believed was the long awaited heir. Cromwell was risking his life because Henry detested the idea of an English Bible and had executed the man, William Tyndale, responsible for its translation. But, just ten days after receiving his copy from Cromwell Henry approved the English Bible and Cromwell was quick to pass a decree stating that every parish church should have a copy. For the first time in the history of the church in England people had access to their religion-it was no longer for the privileged few that could read Latin. Also, with the introduction of the English Bible Cromwell had widened the gap even further between the church in England and the church in Rome. The road to true reformation was set.
During Cromwell's rise to the top he had made many enemies, especially amongst the conservative nobility. But before the Anne of Cleves debacle Cromwell had had the support of King Henry VIII and was almost invincible-now that he did not have Henry's support he was vulnerable and the conservative nobility took the opportunity to bring him down. The Duke of Norfolk headed a campaign against Cromwell and convinced the King, whom did not take much convincing, that Cromwell was a traitor. Cromwell was quickly arrested and carted off to the Tower of London.
Cromwell made a grovelling apology to the King, appealing for mercy many times-but to no avail. Cromwell was beheaded on 28th July 1540 at Tower Hill. He asked the axeman to cut his head off with one blow so that he would not suffer. It took several blows and up to 30 minutes of hacking away before Cromwell's head was severed from his body. Cromwell's head was put on a pike and displayed on Tower Bridge and his body was buried yards away from the very queen he was determined to see die as a traitor (ah, the irony). Within months Henry was lamenting the death of his go to guy, describing Cromwell as the most faithful servant he had ever had.
Cromwell was no doubt ruthless and not afraid of using extreme measures to his own ends. But he was also a great statesman-overseeing the end of a thousand years of Roman obedience, masterminded a religious revolution and lay the foundations a constitutional monarchy.
Cromwell went from the son of a pub landlord to the second most powerful man in England, changing the country's political and religious landscape forever, to a humiliated 'traitor'. The fall was a great one. Can you think of one greater?