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Thomas Cromwell

(c. 1485—1540) royal minister


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(c. 1485–1540).

Thomas Cromwell was the second great minister to whom Henry VIII gave much trust and the one most personally associated with the programme which made Henry VIII supreme head of the church in England. The son of a Putney cloth‐worker, he somehow acquired a broad education including some knowledge of business and law. He sat in the 1523 Parliament and entered the service of Thomas Wolsey. Though he stayed with Wolsey longer than most after his disgrace, he escaped the wreck to join a group of administrators who were working on plans for Henry VIII to escape from the impasse in his divorce negotiations.

Cromwell became master of the king's jewel house in 1532 and principal royal secretary in 1534. Though he was thereafter to accumulate other offices including chancellor of the Exchequer, master of the rolls, lord privy seal, and great chamberlain, it was on his role as royal secretary that his power rested. It is not certain what role Cromwell played in the birth of Henry VIII's campaign for supremacy over the church. The arguments used to justify this campaign antedated Cromwell's rise to influence. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Cromwell drew the strands together, and recognized that parliamentary statute offered the most authoritative way to announce the new changes. Cromwell is thought to have been responsible for drafting the Supplication of the Commons against the Ordinaries in 1532. He certainly took charge of the drafting of the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome (1533) and the Act of Supremacy (1534).

Just as important was Cromwell's ruthless treatment of high‐profile opponents of the policy. The long examinations of Sir Thomas More, and his eventual trial and conviction for refusing the oath of supremacy, testify to Cromwell's anxiety to be seen to observe the forms of law. Cromwell gave away a hostage to fortune by his efforts to propel Henrician religious policy in a moderately protestant direction. As royal vicegerent in spirituals from 1535 Cromwell was responsible for the Ten Articles of 1536 and the royal injunctions of 1536 and 1538, which systematically attacked catholic teaching. On a wider front, Cromwell patronized ideas for social reform, especially improvements to poor relief.

Thomas Cromwell never enjoyed the sort of ascendancy held by Cardinal Wolsey and the last four years of his life were a constant struggle to overcome rivals. Using parliamentary Acts of attainder he secured the judicial killing of Anne Boleyn (1536), and the Courtenay and Pole families (1538). By this period Cromwell was seeking an alliance with pro‐protestant princes in Germany. In 1540 he brought about the disastrous marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves in pursuit of this policy. Political and religious enemies led by the duke of Norfolk and Bishop Stephen Gardiner gained the king's ear and convinced Henry that Cromwell was a traitor and an ultra‐protestant ‘sacramentarian’ heretic; he was condemned untried by the weapon of parliamentary attainder which he had himself used so often, and executed on 28 July 1540.

Subjects: British History.


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