Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540).
Thomas Cromwell was from a modest background , born in Putney, the son of a smith. A ready wit, a nimble tongue and a diligent worker he qualified as a lawyer and became an agent for whomsoever needed one abroad in Europe. In this role he liked to travel and familiarised himself in several tongues. It was as an agent for the English merchants in Antwerp that he was noticed by Erasmus at the papal court in 1510. A notable achievement of Cromwell was to learn off by heart during his travels, the Erasmus edition of the New Testament. Possessed of a sharp and penetrating mind, and a solid judgment, as well as great ambition; he became a protege of Cardinal Wolsey. In this role he clung to the Cardinal`s cloak tail all the while there was gain to be made. But when Wolsey`s downfall occurred so the young Cromwell hurried off to the Court to seek his fortune. Among his colleagues in the household of the cardinal were Sir Thomas More later Chancellor of England; Stephen Gardiner later Bishop of Winchester and of the kings council.
While working as solicitor for Wolsey he was given the task of closing down some small monasteries and gathering in their benefices which went towards two colleges that Wolsey was setting up. He learnt well the rationale for closing the monasteries which he was to use again at a later date and on a grander scale.
At Court he sought to use the friendship of Sir Christopher Hales to gain access to the king, whom Henry rebuffed. However, Lord Russell, Earl of Bedford, stepped into the breach explaining that Cromwell had saved his neck when Bedford had been taken prisoner in Bologna when on an errand for Henry. On reflection Henry arranged to see Cromwell in Whitehall Gardens that afternoon. In a remarkably candid conversation Cromwell advocated that Henry follow the example of the German princes and throw off the yoke of Rome.
“Sir .. the pope refuses your divorce … But why do you ask his consent ?. Every Englishman is master in his own house, , and why should you not be so in England ? Ought a foreign prelate to share your power with you ? It is true the bishops make oath to your majesty, but they take another to the pope immediately after, which absolves them from the former. Sir, you are but half a king, and we are but half your subjects . This kingdom is a two headed monster. Will you bear with such an anomaly any longer ?...become once more a king, govern your kingdom in concert with your lords and commons. Henceforward let Englishmen alone have any thing to say in England; let not your subject`s money be cast anymore into the yawning gulf of the Tiber; instead of imposing new taxes on the nation, convert to the general good those treasures that hitherto only served to fatten proud priests and lazy friars. … Rely on your parliament; proclaim yourself the head of the Church in England. Then you shall see an increase of glory to your name, and of prosperity to your people. “
Henry was pleased with the ideas propounded and asked Cromwell to substantiate his case. This enabled Cromwell to produce a copy of the papal oath. Henry was filled with indignation and felt the necessity of bringing down the foreign authority which dared to dispute his authority in his own kingdom. Cromwell was rewarded immediately with a ring from the kings finger, and was subsequently made a Privy Councillor. Following the meeting Cromwell went to the Convocation of the see of Canterbury being held at Westminster and there accused them of falling under the law of praemunire for swearing loyalty to the Pope. To be quit of the charges it cost the two sees of Canterbury and York the very great sum (for those days) of £118140.
Cromwell`s fortunes soared, he was knighted and made master of the kings jewel house; and in 1534 became Master of the Rolls, a singular honour for one from such modest beginnings. In 1537 he was made a Knight of the Garter and Earl of Essex. Even greater honour came his way when he was made vice regent to the king in which role he issued many of the injunctions that changed the church, including the most important – the provision of a Bible in English in every church in the land.
But of all these things Thomas Cromwell has his niche in the Reformation for his work on the dissolution of the monasteries. He had convinced Henry to suppress the chantries then the friars houses and the smaller monasteries. But this program of change grew to take in all the monasteries, convents, and abbeys which were overthrown. A strong driver for change was the need for revenue not only to sustain Henry`s life style, but the decision to build a national Navy. Hitherto ships were hired when needed along with their captains, usually bent on buccaneering and piracy. Henry saw the need for a fleet under his command and was determined to have it as a bulwark for the protection of England in the wars with France and Spain. Enormous sums were poured into building the great warships such as the “Mary Rose” built between 1509 -11 that tragically sank in 1545.
Some 367 monastic establishments in all were abolished and in many cases physically taken down as stone from them were cannibalised by local people for buildings and homes. An interesting side issue was that removal of stones, and demolition, prevented use as schools and the like. But if they had been allowed to be used for another purpose, the physical building would also have been available in the event of any resurgence of the church of Rome. This was, perhaps, a prudent forethought since on her accession to the throne in 1555, Queen Mary yielded all ownership to the Pope
A man such as Cromwell, with vice regal powers, second only to the king, was bound to have enemies. His nemesis was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, as sly and devious a papist as there ever was. For some time Gardiner was ambassador in Europe and in that role spread malicious words against the marriage of Anne of Cleves and Henry. As it happened, her brother in law, prince of Saxony, opposed the marriage, thinking that she should marry another German prince. To Henry, Gardiner suggested how nice it would be for the common weal if there were an English King and English Queen on the throne; this served to diminish Henry`s opinion of Cromwell who had arranged the marriage.
He was arrested in the House of commons on 10 June 1540 and taken to the Tower. On 17 June he was attainted by parliament mainly on the allegations of the prelates of heresy and for aiding and rescuing many people from jails around the country who had been incarcerated by the prelates. The Bill of Attainder was passed in Parliament on 19 June 1540. In the event he was blamed for the failure of marriage of Anne of Cleves to Henry ( who now had eyes on Catharine Howard). Ironically Cromwell suffered death because he had earlier placed in law that anyone imprisoned in the Tower should be put to death without examination. On 28 July 1540 he was beheaded at Tower Hill.