1540: Thomas Cromwell
It was on this date in 1540 that Thomas Cromwell fell by the instrument he had wielded so ably against so many others. While Henry strove to get his end away, Thomas Cromwell made the Reformation, setting his energetic hand to the needfully violent reordering of England. In almost a decade as the king’s chief minister, he had dissolved so many monasteries, annulled so many noble prerogatives, backstabbed so many courtiers, and sent so many of every class to the scaffold that most at court had some reason to hate him. (Cranmer was the only one to (cautiously) object to his old partner’s arrest.)
Every matter of importance in 1530′s England concerned Cromwell. He raised and then destroyed Anne Boleyn; he managed the realm’s religious turmoil so fearsomely that his ouster was one of the demands of the Pilgrimage of Grace; he did what he had to do in the matter of Sir Thomas More.
“Who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your majesty? He that was so advanced by your majesty, he whose surety was only by your majesty, he who loved your majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forward whatsoever was your majesty’s will and pleasure; he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your majesty; he that was such a servant, in my judgment, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had …
If he be a Traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him, or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas!”
-Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, writing to King Henry VIII upon news of the arrest of Thomas Cromwell
Though it may be, as Edward Hall recorded, that “many lamented but more rejoiced” at Cromwell’s fall from the very height of his power “and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night [of his execution], many wishing that that day had been seven year before” the reasons for it are murky.
The bedroom politics get all the press: Cromwell’s bit of marital statecraft arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a famous dud, but negotiations to end it were well on their way by the time of Cromwell’s arrest.
Why, too, should the minister have been ennobled Duke of Essex in April 1540, months after the disastrous union? That Cromwell, whose own security rested upon the stability of the realm, was a radical Protestant promulgating inflammatory religious ideas and he was condemned for both treason and heresy, incidentally giving the king wide latitude for just how painfully to kill his former servant seems to beggar belief.
Once fallen, Cromwell was kept alive long enough to add testimony to the Cleves divorce; that much is clear. But then why keep him alive still three weeks more?
In the end, maybe it was inevitable that one in his position, at his time and place, had to follow to the scaffold the many he had sent thither, just the Tudor version of that familiar “bad advisors” trope: it were not treason to murmur against the aide whose ill counsel did wrong by His Majesty, and so Cromwell stood to accumulate the share of hostility that properly belonged to his sovereign. As an expert practitioner of the game of power politics, Thomas Cromwell could hardly be in a position to complain.
Oh, and by the way with the German princess on the outs, the king’s wandering eye had fallen upon a niece of Cromwell’s enemy. On the day that Cromwell lost his head, Henry married Catherine Howard. No matter your brilliance, in Henrican England you only had to lose at court politics once, even if the king would be lamenting this injudicious trade within months.
Henry gave his loyal servant the easiest death, beheading on Tower Hill (although it turned out to be a botched job) alongside a Walter Hungerford, the first person executed under the Buggery Act.
Here are the events of the day from a more 'objective' perspective; a Charles Carlton: A Study in Interrogation explains:
On the afternoon of Thursday, the 10th of June 1540, a squad of Yeoman of the guard burst into the Council Chamber in Westminster Hall, and arrested Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister. They escorted him out through a postern to a boat waiting at Westminster Steps, rowed him down the Thames, and through Traitors' Gate into the Tower of London. Within this gaunt prison Cromwell was held till the early morning of July 28th, when the Yeoman marched him to Tower Hill to be executed for treason, heresy, bribery,and misuse of power. He climbed the scaffold, and addressed the crowd. He had come here to die, he confessed, and not to justify himself. He was a grievous wretch, who sought God's pardon. He had offended the King, and asked the crowd to pray that Henry VIII would forgive him. Finally, Cromwell insisted that he would die a Catholic, and that he had never waivered in a single article of the Catholic faith. Then, after a short paryer commending his soul to the Almighty, Cromwell laid his head on the block, and, as John Foxe records, "patiently suffered the stroke of the axe" swung "by a ragged and butcherly miser (who) very ungodly performed the office."
Edward Hall records Cromwell playing ball with a fine entry in the scaffold-speech genre that kept his son in the peerage.
I am come hether to dye, and not to purge my self, as maie happen, some thynke that I will, for if I should do so, I wer a very wretche and miser: I am by the Lawe comdempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For sithence the tyme that I have had yeres of discrecion, I have lived a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes. And it is not unknowne to many of you, that I have been a great traveler in this worlde, and beyng but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the tyme I came thereunto, I have offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeve me. O father forgeve me. O sonne forgeve me, O holy Ghost forgeve me: O thre persons in one God forgeve me. And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe, not doubtyng in any article of my faith, no nor doubtyng in any Sacrament of the Churche.* Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct us in the truthe, so the devill is redy to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but beare me witnes that I dye in the Catholicke faithe of the holy Churche. And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long live with you, maie long reigne over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I waver nothyng in my faithe.
And then made he his praier, whiche was long, but not so long, as bothe Godly and learned, and after committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office.
If Cromwell’s dying sentiment concealed any lasting bitterness for the crown, maybe his spirit would take some satisfaction a century later when another of his name and family rose high enough to behead a king.
So died one of England's greatest statesmen the architect of the Reformation and the Tudor Revolution Government. Just as his career has been the source of much historical debate, the events of the last seven weeks of his life, from his arrest to his execution,and his scaffold address especially, have been an irritant of contradiction and confusion.
Thomas Cromwell: A Study in Interrogation, Charles Carlton, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1973), pp. 116-127.
Edward Hall, The Union of the two noble and illustre families of York and Lancaster (London, 1548), pp. 246-47.
John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, ed. George Townsend, 8 vols. (London, 1834), V:402-03.
Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,