Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister for one of the most turbulent periods of his reign, has long been regarded as one of the most important and influential men in Tudor politics, with some describing him as the ‘architect of the English Reformation’.
Propelled into popular consciousness by Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, interest in Cromwell has never been greater.
Here are 10 facts about the son of a blacksmith who went on to become one of the most powerful people in 16th-century England.
1. He was the son of a Putney blacksmith
Cromwell was born around 1485 (the precise date is uncertain), the son of a successful blacksmith and merchant, Walter Cromwell. Not much is known for certain about his education or early years, other than that he travelled in mainland Europe.
His own accounts of the period suggest that he may, briefly, have been a mercenary, but he certainly served in the household of the Florentine banker Francesco Frescobaldi, learnt several languages and developed an extensive network of influential European contacts.
2. He originally set himself up as a merchant
On his return to England, somewhere around 1512, Cromwell set himself up as a merchant in London. Years of building contacts and learning from merchants on the continent had given him a good head for business.
However, this didn’t satisfy him. He began to practice law and was elected a member of Gray’s Inn, one of London’s four Inns of Court, in 1524.
3. He rose to prominence under Cardinal Wolsey
First serving as an adviser to Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, Cromwell’s brilliance was noted by Cardinal Wolsey, at that point Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and trusted adviser.
In 1524, Cromwell became a member of Wolsey’s household and after years of dedicated service, Cromwell was appointed as a member of Wolsey’s council in 1529, meaning he was one of the cardinal’s most trusted advisors: Cromwell had helped dissolve over 30 small monasteries to pay for some of Wolsey’s bigger building projects.
4. His talent was noticed by the King
Wolsey fell from favour in 1529, when he was unable to obtain Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This failure meant Henry VIII began to reappraise Wolsey’s position, in turn noticing exactly how much wealth and power the cardinal had accumulated for himself during his service.
Cromwell successfully rose from the embers of Wolsey’s downfall. His eloquence, wit and loyalty impressed Henry, and as a lawyer, Cromwell and his talents were much in need in Henry’s divorce proceedings.
Cromwell began to direct his attention towards the ‘King’s Great Matter’, winning the admiration and support of both Henry and Anne Boleyn in the process.
5. His wife and daughters died of the sweating sickness
In 1515, Cromwell married a woman named Elizabeth Wyckes, and the pair had three children: Gregory, Anne and Grace.
Elizabeth, along with daughters Anne and Grace, all died during an outbreak of the sweating sickness in 1529. No one is quite sure what caused the sweating sickness, but it was highly contagious and often deadly. Symptoms, including shivering, sweating, dizziness and exhaustion, would come on rapidly and the illness normally lasted 24 hours, after which a victim would either recover or die.
Gregory, Cromwell’s son, went on to marry Elizabeth Seymour in 1537. At the time, Elizabeth’s sister Jane was Queen of England: Cromwell was ensuring his family was allied with the powerful and influential Seymours.
6. He was a champion of royal supremacy and the break with Rome
It quickly became apparent to Cromwell that the Pope was never going to permit Henry the annulment he desired. Instead of pursuing a dead-end, Cromwell began to advocate for the principles of royal supremacy over the church.
Encouraged by Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, Henry decided that he would break with Rome and establish his own Protestant church in England. In 1533, he secretly married Anne Boleyn and annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
7. He amassed a substantial fortune
Both Henry and Anne were extremely grateful to Cromwell: they rewarded him very generously for his services, granting him the offices of Master of the Jewels, Clerk of the Hanaper and Chancellor of the Exchequer, which meant he had positions in the 3 major institutions of government.
In 1534, Cromwell was confirmed as Henry’s principal secretary and chief minister – roles he had held in all but name for several years. This was arguably the zenith of Cromwell’s power. He continued to make money through various private ventures too, and by 1537 he had an annual income of around £12,000 – the equivalent to around £3.5 million today.
8. He orchestrated the Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Dissolution of the Monasteries began as a result of the 1534 Act of Supremacy. During this period, Cromwell spearheaded the efforts to dissolve and expropriate religious houses across England, enriching royal coffers in the process and further cementing his role as Henry’s invaluable right-hand man.
Cromwell’s personal religious beliefs are unclear, but his ongoing attacks on the ‘idolatry’ of the Catholic church and attempts to clarify and enforce new religious doctrine suggest he at least had Protestant sympathies.
9. He played a key role in Anne Boleyn’s downfall
Whilst Cromwell and Anne had originally been allies, their relationship was not to last. Following a dispute over where the proceeds of the dissolution of the lesser monasteries should go, Anne had her chaplains publicly denounce Cromwell and other privy councillors in their sermons.
Anne’s position at court was already precarious: her failure to deliver a male heir and fiery temper had frustrated Henry and he had his eyes on Jane Seymour as a prospective future bride. Anne was accused of adultery with various men from the royal household. She was later tried, found guilty and condemned to death.
Historians debate exactly how and why Anne fell so swiftly: some argue it was personal animosity which spurred Cromwell on in his investigations and evidence collection, whilst others think he was more likely to be acting on Henry’s orders. Either way, it was Cromwell’s forensic and single-minded investigations which proved fatal to Anne.
10. Henry VIII’s fourth marriage hastened Cromwell’s dramatic fall from grace
Cromwell maintained his position at court for several more years, and if anything, was stronger and more secure than ever following Anne’s demise. He orchestrated Henry’s fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves, arguing the match would provide a much-needed Protestant alliance.
However, Henry was less than pleased with the match, supposedly dubbing her the ‘Flanders Mare’. Exactly how much blame Henry laid at Cromwell’s feet is unclear given he made him Earl of Essex shortly afterwards.
Cromwell’s enemies, of which he had many by this point, took advantage of Cromwell’s momentary lack of favour. They convinced Henry to have Cromwell arrested in June 1540, saying they had heard rumours Cromwell was plotting Henry’s downfall in an act of treason.
By this point, the ageing and increasingly paranoid Henry required little persuading to have any hint of treason crushed. Cromwell was arrested and charged with a long list of crimes. He was condemned to death without trial, and beheaded less than 2 months later, on 28 July 1540.