Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The King's Vicar - general.

Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540).

  • The establishment of the new religion under Henry VIII ushered in several Protestant rising stars, who grabbed their opportunities and positioned themselves in the right place for advancement. Their humble origin suddenly ceased to be a real obstacle to upward mobility, since as long as their service and loyalty can be guaranteed, the sky was the limit - or so they thought. Here is a brief account of Cromwell's early days.

    Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540), royal minister, was the son of Walter Cromwell of Putney, Surrey, who made his name there as a blacksmith, fuller, and cloth merchant, as well as the owner of both a hostelry and a brewery. The precise date of Thomas Cromwell's birth is uncertain, but could not have been after 1485. Very little is known about his early life in Putney apart from his own declaration to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer much later as to what a ‘ruffian he was in his young days’ (Acts and Monuments, 5.365). He is even said to have been imprisoned for a short while. Certainly life at home was not easy. Despite his property and local influence Cromwell's father drank heavily and was regularly in trouble. Between 1475 and 1501 Walter Cromwell was fined 6d. by the manor court on forty-eight occasions for breaches of the assize of ale, and he was also often reprimanded for allowing his cattle to graze too freely on public land. More seriously, in 1477 he was convicted of assault and fined 20d., and he was finally evicted from his manorial tenancy in 1514 after fraudulently altering documents concerning his tenure.

    Therefore, how did a man from such obscure and troublesome background rise to become Henry VIII's most powerful statesman? 

    His marriage to Elizabeth Williams, née Wykys (d. 1527) with whom he had his only surviving son, Gregory, was a good match for him. Elizabeth was the widow of Thomas Williams, a yeoman of the guard, and her father, Henry Wykys, was another Putney shearman who had also served as a gentleman usher to Henry VII. The marriage enabled Cromwell to seek his father-in-law's assistance in obtaining a foothold in the English cloth trade. 

    By 1520 Cromwell was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles. Most significantly he began to act for clients in several important suits, including an appeal from the prerogative court of Canterbury to the papal curia in October that year. Then in 1521 he acted for Charles Knyvett, formerly surveyor to Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham, who had resigned from Buckingham's service shortly before the duke's execution for treason on 17 May, and gave evidence against him. Knyvett now sought to recover offices he had lost following his resignation, as well as release from bonds to the value of £3100 which he had been forced to undertake on Buckingham's behalf. Cromwell prepared and corrected numerous petitions on behalf of his client, some of which were delivered to the king and some to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He failed on this occasion, but for the first time he had succeeded in making his name known in the highest circles of government. During the next few years he came increasingly into contact with the cardinal over legal matters. For instance, in 1521 he was employed by the London bakers' guild to draft petitions to both Wolsey and the lord mayor for licence to reform their craft. The following year he was instructed as an attorney in a case before the king's council and in another in which Wolsey was personally involved.

    By the time the Act of Supremacy was passed in 1534, Cromwell found himself securely positioned for the next stage of his career. A clause in the Act explicitly gave Henry the right 'to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies ... and enormities ... which by any manner spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may be lawfully reformed ... .' This prompted Henry to name three men who were to act as 'visitors' to the country's ecclesiastical institutions, and their titles which would resound through the Church of England for the rest of the decade were: Vice-generates et vicarios nostros generales.' Cromwell was already envisaged as the senior. However, in 1535 alterations were made to produce a final commission which named Cromwell as sole Vice-gerent or Vicar-general. 

    What implications did this have and how did this position facilitate his rise to even greater heights? 

    Cromwell moved into action on 3 June 1535 by issuing a circular letter to all the bishops ordering them to preach in support of the supremacy, and to ensure that the clergy in their dioceses did so as well. A week later he sent further letters to JPs ordering them to report any instances of his instructions being disobeyed. In the following month he turned his attention to the monasteries. Since early June the king and queen had been engaged on a magnificent progress to the west country which occupied them until the end of September. Cromwell caught up with the court at Winchcombe on 23 July and travelled with it for two months. Encouraged by Anne, Henry took the unusual decision to put business before pleasure and used the trip as an opportunity to visit towns where there was strong support for reform, and bestowed rewards on the local gentry who were largely responsible for this. Cromwell took this opportunity to launch his own visitation of religious houses by organizing the inspection of the monasteries in the west country, even investigating a few himself. In September he increased the pace by suspending the authority of every bishop in the country so that the six canon lawyers he had appointed as his agents could complete their surveys. When a newly established vicegerential court gradually restored power to individual bishops they were declared to be officers of state. When the king died their powers too would expire. Cromwell also withheld indefinitely certain rights which brought with them lucrative fees, such as those of visitation and probate, in the hope that their temporary loss would furnish incentives to obedience.

    The final stage in the process came in the summer 1536, when Cromwell was 'made high vicar over the spirituality under the King and sat divers times in the Convocation house among the bishops as head over them.'  His powers had now been extended, because his visitation, the original reason for granting them, had run its course. The ultimate symbol of his new position was his promotion above the Archbishop of Canterbury in the ranking of precedence in the House of Lords, in May 1539. 

    Dr Ayris described Cromwell's position at this stage: 'from 1535, Cromwell effectively eclipsed Thomas Cranmer [Archbishop of Canterbury] as the principal minister of the King's spiritual jurisdiction'. It would be the Vice-gerent who would take the lead in guiding Cranmer through the political crisis of Spring 1536, which destroyed his great patroness: Anne Boleyn. 

    Cromwell's fall 


    A crisis was developing in Calais. Cromwell had clashed with Lord Lisle, the king's deputy, on several occasions during the past few years over the activities of reformers in the pale. The problem was largely that while Lisle, his wife, and the leading members of the council there were all ardent conservatives implacably opposed to religious reform Cranmer had found it expedient to move some evangelical ministers there away from England. When the earl of Hertford had made a visit to inspect the defences earlier in the year Lisle took the opportunity to complain about Cranmer's evangelical commissary John Butler and others whom he regarded as sacramentaries—deniers of the real presence in the eucharist. By the beginning of May the news had spread round the court, and on the 6th Cromwell, still convalescing, wrote to Lisle asking him to look into the matter. Encouraged by the developments at Westminster the deputy rounded up his opponents and sent them to London for investigation. Incensed by what he saw as a witchhunt Cromwell appealed unsuccessfully to Lisle to halt it. On 12 June one of the MPs for Calais, Thomas Broke, made an over-impassioned speech in the Commons against the six articles and joined the others under investigation.

    At this time of evangelical despondency it took very little to raise spirits. Cromwell was able to carry a contentious Statute of Proclamations, giving proclamations issued by king and council the same legal force as parliamentary statutes, and in the last week of June both houses of parliament agreed on minor concessions on clerical marriage and chastity. These, and Cromwell's positive view of the Calais evangelicals' chances, were enough to give him hope, but overall the situation remained very bleak. The six articles were passed shortly before the session ended on 28 June. Their positions now untenable, bishops Latimer and Shaxton resigned immediately. Foxe recounts a story that when the king organized a reconciliatory dinner in Cranmer's honour at Lambeth Palace shortly afterwards, Cromwell became embroiled in a bitter argument with a leading noble, probably Norfolk, who had impugned Cardinal Wolsey's honour. The first weeks of July marked a new low point for Cromwell. Most of the evangelicals before Cranmer for investigation following the new act had been reported by Lisle, who continued to provide a stream of new charges; the archbishop had no option but to imprison many of the accused. On 12 July the French ambassador Marillac informed François I that Henry had ‘taken up again all the old opinions and constitutions, excepting only papal obedience and destruction of abbeys and churches of which he has taken the revenue’ (LP Henry VIII, 14/1, no. 1260).

    But then Cromwell's influence with the king suddenly began to revive. During July the conservative bishops gradually returned to their dioceses. In August an outburst from Bishop Gardiner, in which he called the evangelical Robert Barnes a heretic, was enough for Cromwell to have him expelled from the privy council, and Bishop Sampson also went at the same time. By the autumn Henry's mood had changed noticeably and the Lutheran Burchard was back. Cromwell was very much in favour again. After two years of indecision Henry finally accepted his proposal that he should marry Anne, the sister of Duke Wilhelm of Cleves, agreeing to the treaty in early October. While the duke was no protestant, neither was he close to either pope or emperor, and the treaty considerably increased the prospects for an alliance with the Schmalkaldic League of Lutheran princes. Henry also showed more support for Cromwell in his enthusiasm for promulgating the Great Bible. He commissioned Cranmer to compose an official preface to the second edition, and in a proclamation released on 14 November granted the vicegerent responsibility for licensing all Bibletranslations for the next five years. The situation also improved radically for the Calais evangelicals. Taking advantage of the death of Bishop Stokesley of London on 15 September, Cromwell and Cranmer released the vast majority of them in mid-November, while delaying proceedings against the others.

    On 27 December Anne of Cleves arrived at Dover, greeted with lavish celebrations. On New Year's day 1540 the king caught his first glimpse of her at Rochester. However, it was immediately obvious that she was not the beauty Holbein had portrayed, and Henry found her physically repulsive. The wedding ceremony on 6 January at Greenwich was unavoidable and Cromwell took the blame. The conservatives instantly saw this as a chance to topple him, and there were pulpit confrontations across the country. In March Robert Barnes was imprisoned in the Tower together with two other notorious evangelicals, William Jerome and Thomas Garrett. After his stand-off with Gardiner over Barnes in the previous August, Cromwell recognized the danger the bishop now posed and arranged a conciliatory dinner in an attempt to resolve their differences. In Calais, Lisle was in close contact with the conservatives in London, and the duke of Norfolk arranged for a new commission of carefully chosen conservatives to investigate heresy there. Appointed on 9 March, on 5 April they reported ‘great division’ in the pale. Thirteen heretics were sent back to London, five of whom were recipients of the vicegerent's direct patronage. Cromwell was in deep trouble.

    On 10 April Ambassador Marillac reported that Cromwell was ‘tottering’, and even speculated about who would succeed to his offices. Two days later parliament opened with another speech by Audley repeating the king's demand to find a middle way in religion, and the appointment of two new committees to resolve this was announced. On 17 April Lord Lisle arrived from Calais at Norfolk's invitation. Yet still Cromwell enjoyed the king's protection. Although he resigned the duties of the secretaryship to his protégés Ralph Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley about this time he did not lose any power: indeed, on 18 April Henry confirmed his standing by granting him the earldom of Essex and the senior court office of lord great chamberlain. Cromwell set in motion the process of setting up the court of wards (the bill was read in the Lords for the first time on 3 June), and with renewed vigour he lashed out again at his conservative opponents. Lisle had come to London in the expectation of promotion in the peerage. Instead, on 19 May, he was taken to the Tower on suspicion of treason, never to leave it. By the end of the month two leading conservative members of the current parliamentary committees, Sampson and Dr Nicholas Wilson, had joined him. But Cromwell's attempts to rid himself of his opponents were looking increasingly desperate. At the same time Norfolk and Gardiner plotted his own downfall. On 1 June Marillac reported that ‘Things are brought to such a pass that either Cromwell's party or that of the bishop of Winchester must succumb’ (LP Henry VIII, 15, no. 737). With further arrests expected drastic action was required.

    On 10 June Cromwell arrived slightly late for a meeting of the privy council. As he entered the chamber the captain of the guard came forward and arrested him, presenting charges of treason and heresy. Surprised and furious Cromwell threw down his bonnet, appealing to the consciences of those present. But realizing this was useless he begged for a speedy dispatch. Norfolk went over and ripped the George from around his neck, relishing the opportunity to restore this low-born man to his former status, while the earl of Southampton untied the Garter from his knee. Finally the prisoner was led out through a side door which opened down onto the river and taken by boat the short journey from Westminster to the Tower.

    The news of the arrest was announced by Audley to a silent House of Lords in the afternoon, while men appointed by the king seized Cromwell's house at Austin Friars. A week later a bill of attainder was introduced into the Lords. Containing a long list of indictments ranging from treason, heresy, and corruption to plotting to marry Princess Mary, it was passed on 29 June. Cromwell's last service to Henry was to confirm details of their private conversations which could be used as evidence that the marriage with Anne of Cleves had not been consummated. Terrified for his life he closed the letter with the plea, ‘Most gracyous prynce I crye for mercye mercye mercye’, though he of all people should have known the futility of this (Merriman, 2.273). But by 28 July, when Cromwell walked out onto Tower Green for his execution, he had recovered his composure. In his speech from the scaffold he denied that he had aided heretics, but acknowledged the judgment of the law. He then prayed for a short while before placing his head on the block. He suffered a particularly gruesome execution before what was left of his head was set upon a pike on London Bridge as the usual warning to traitors.

    Sources: ODNB. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 1996.


    1. Fantastic post Mary. He was quite a character! After reading about him, fictionalised in Wolf Hall it was great to read a proper history of the man. Wonderful piece of research. Thank you so much for sharing

    2. Thank you for that great article Mary!

      But do you know where I can find further information about Cromwell and his authorities? What was he supposed to do in his different offices and how did he used the power given by them?

      Thank you for your help and best wishes