When Thomas #1, Cardinal Wolsey, fell from grace in 1529 for failure to procure an annulment for King Henry from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Thomas #3, Thomas Cromwell, succeeded Wolsey as Henry’s chief advisor.
Details of Cromwell’s early life are sketchy, though we know he was born in 1485 in Putney (near London) to a working-class, though comfortably placed family. However, he must have received some legal training as he entered Thomas #1, Cardinal Wolsey’s service as a solicitor and was appointed to Wolsey’s council in 1519 and, after 1525, began working on the dissolution of some of the smaller monasteries with Wolsey, garnering a good deal of ill feeling in the process.
The obstacle to Henry’s annulment was the refusal of the Pope to grant it. So Cromwell decided the ticket to success was removing the Pope’s authority—letting the clergy in England be answerable to the King as head of the Church rather than the Pope.
Adherence to the long-held and extensive authority of the Catholic church was already in question; the idea was not entirely novel. Since 1517, Martin Luther and his Protestant followers had been protesting the role of the Church, particularly its more superstitious practices, including the very lucrative sale of indulgences (a way of speeding the soul of the deceased through purgatory and into heaven). Of Luther’s 95 Theses (read objections), number 94 specifically questioned the Church’s financial activities: Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Croesus, build the Basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money? Why indeed?
Cromwell began socialising the idea with Henry and his advisors; by April 1533, he had managed to get the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome through Parliament. It laid out his position on the sovereignty of the national state, preventing appeals to Rome in matrimonial and testamentary cases. This move was swiftly followed by Thomas #4, Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury, granting Henry’s divorce. In June 1533, the heavily pregnant Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen of England.
Thomases Cranmer and Cromwell were a double-act—a bishop and a lawyer—and not much to choose between them in their thirst for power.
The Reformation picked up steam after that. A year later, Cromwell introduced the final break with Rome: the Act of Supremacy, and Parliament approved it. The King was pronounced head of the Church. Message to the Pope: “You’re not the boss of me”!
Henry’s new wife, Anne Boleyn, had extreme Protestant leanings. She was well-educated and highly persuasive. Copies of the Bible, now translated into English, flew off the printing presses and into the hands of the public, much to Henry’s disapproval. The egalitarian portions of Protestantism did not appeal to him. His vision was of a new Church of England, much like the old, but with him at the Head and the revenues flowing to him, not to Rome. But, superstitious practices such as the saying of masses for the soul of the dead and other “indulgences” had been outlawed under the new management, and those revenues were severely curtailed.
Cromwell’s and Cranmer‘s beady eyes lighted on the monasteries as a potential source of cash. Wolsey had already shown them the way with the closure of 29 monasteries to fund a school and college in his name. In his new role as the King’s Vicar General, Cromwell had the power to visit and reform all monastic institutions and visit he did. In 1536, the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries (those with less than £200 gross income per annum) was passed.
Henry was distracted. His marriage to Anne Boleyn had failed to produce a male heir. Having set aside one wife, it wouldn’t be that difficult to do it again, would it? He began keeping company with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.
Until now, Anne had been one of Cromwell’s strongest allies, but she objected to the proceeds from the dissolution of the monasteries being paid into the King’s coffers. Instead, with some force, she asserted that the funds should be used for educational and charitable purposes.
Cromwell began investigating rumours of Anne’s infidelity; in April 1536, Anne Boleyn was arrested on charges of adultery and treason. Her subsequent conviction and execution were based on, shall we say, unconvincing evidence. But it certainly was convenient for the King and Cromwell.
Henry married Jane Seymour a month later, on May 30, 1536, and by all observations, was truly happy. Fate intervened, however. Jane died shortly after giving birth to the long-awaited male heir, Edward IV, in 1537. Henry was once again without a wife, this time from natural causes.
The dissolution of the monasteries picked up speed, with the larger monasteries being “invited” to dissolve. The Second Suppression Act of 1539 was passed. Protests were swept aside, dissidents were executed, and by 1540 all monastic institutions had ceased to exist, their property transferred to the crown. Cromwell began cracking down on anything with a whiff of “idolatry” and insisting that “one book of the whole Bible in English” be set up in every church.
That was going a step too far for Henry, who had never envisioned sweeping reform of doctrine. He appointed a parliamentary committee to present six questions to consider, and the Act of Six Articles was duly passed, reaffirming a traditional view of the Mass, the Sacraments, and the priesthood. Cromwell had overstepped in his zeal for reformation. Major mistake #1.
Meanwhile, Cromwell feared an alliance between England’s principal enemies, Francis I of France and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and urged a marriage with Anne of Cleves (Cleves being a duchy of the Holy Roman Empire) as a way of strengthening England’s position against France.
The marriage was duly arranged but proved disastrous on several fronts. Henry was repulsed by his bride and failed to consummate the marriage. The Duke of Norfolk, at Henry’s behest, had gone some way in soothing relations with Francis I of France, which shifted the balance of power; the alliance with Emporer Charles V through his marriage to Anne of Cleves was proving fraught, as England would be trapped into supporting the Holy Roman Emperor against their new ally, France. Major Mistake #2.
Cromwell’s stock fell quickly. His religiously conservative enemies, Bishop Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk, moved against him. Norfolk’s niece, the lively Catherine Howard, was introduced to distract the King from his marital troubles.
Cromwell was trapped. If he arranged an annulment of the marriage to Anne of Cleves, it would weaken him further. Henry stayed his hand while Cromwell ushered two unpopular bills through Parliament, one that allowed taxation for “general purposes” rather than a specific objective, the other to confiscate the assets of the Order of Saint John (having exhausted the assets of the monasteries, they’d moved onto religious charities). Once those were through, Cromwell’s fate was sealed.
His arrest came at a Council meeting at Westminster on June 10, 1540. Craftily, a Bill of Attainder was employed, preventing a trial. The King deferred Cromwell’s execution until his annulment to Anne of Cleves was arranged in case Cromwell needed to give evidence, but she agreed to an annulment and was treated with generosity as a result.
Cromwell was beheaded on Tower Hill on July 28, 1540, the same day the King married Catherine Howard.
Three of the four Thomases had all met the same fate. Onto Thomas #4, Thomas Cranmer. Any guesses on how things turn out for him?