Thomas Cromwell is on my mind, having just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the last of her award-winning trilogy on his life.
Born around 1485, of humble origins in London, Cromwell rose to become an MP, then in 1524 an advisor to Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, right hand man of King Henry VIII. Somehow Cromwell survived the fall of Wolsey in 1529, when King Henry blamed Wolsey for the failure to get the pope to agree with annulling his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had not produced a son and heir.
In 1530 the King appointed Cromwell to the Privy Council and over the following years gave him many other titles, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal and Great Chamberlain. Thomas Cromwell became the second most powerful man in England, second to King Henry of course, but always resented by the traditional aristocracy. He always had jealous enemies.
In 1532 the supremacy of the king over the church in England was confirmed, the Lord Chancellor and anti-protestant Sir Thomas More resigned and was subsequently executed. The marriage to Catherine was annulled at Dunstable Priory, delegitimising her daughter Mary as heir. Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533. All was orchestrated by Cromwell. In 1534 he was formally confirmed as first minister (compare today’s prime minister).
In 1536 came the act for the suppression of the lesser monasteries, Cromwell’s scheme to seize the wealth and lands of the monasteries, which provoked rebellion in the north of England with first the Lincolnshire Rising and followed by the Pilgrimage of Grace. These rebellions were seen off by Henry and those loyal. Those responsible were first persuaded to delay and later pursued and executed.
Anne Boleyn had not agreed with the religious changes, there were rumours of affairs, and she had also not produced a male heir. Cromwell was instrumental in her trial, fall and execution and the annulment of this marriage, delegitimising her daughter Elizabeth as heir. Henry married Jane Seymour.
Queen Jane died in 1537, after the birth of her son Edward, the longed-for male heir.
In 1538 the religious reform extended to the larger monasteries, which were invited to surrender, a process completed by 1540. Those that resisted, such as Richard Whiting at Glastonbury, were executed. The wealth and lands went to the King and his favoured lords. But the king resisted further religious reform.
Also in 1540 Cromwell had succeeded in arranging a ‘political’ marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves, which was never consummated as neither party seemed to regard the other with any favour. But political winds were changing on the continent and it is believed that Henry blamed Cromwell for this alliance and the failure to extricate him from the marriage. Conservative forces briefed against Cromwell and the king allowed him to be arrested, tried and executed by July. At the same time, Anne agreed to annulment of the marriage and Henry married Catherine Howard.
Ten years was all it took for the once-humble Thomas Cromwell to dissolve the great monasteries of England and be instrumental in the king undertaking his second, third and fourth marriages, and for others to follow through with the fifth. Whatever we think of his dissolution of the monasteries, he seems not to have deserved the fate of beheading eloquently described by Hilary Mantel.
In fact Mantel’s books tell the whole story of Cromwell’s period in power, from the imagined perspective of the man himself. The whole trilogy is a tour de force, requiring great stamina for a complete reading, but very rewarding.
At the end of the day, Thomas Cromwell was a mere pawn on the European chessboard, in the game being played out by the English, French and Holy Roman kings/emperor, the Protestants and the popes of the Roman Catholic Church. He was dispensable when no longer convenient for his master.
King Henry VIII was a monster ego, who manipulated all to his own perceived personal advantage. We have not a jot of sympathy for him. Just beware today’s monster egos that seek similar over-arching power.
Featured image: Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein
Hilary Mantel trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light