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Thomas Cromwell

Image from Wikipedia

He died 471 years ago this week.

Thomas Cromwell, Lord Great Chamberlain, Chief Minister of Henry VIII, Earl of Essex – he was feared, hated and envied. Like his predecessor Wolsey, he was a smart, ambitious man from humble beginnings.

He helped Henry rid himself of Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. He was a passionate advocate for the Reformation.  He provided most of the financial backing to make the Bible available in English.

In his precious free time he invited creative and spiritually inclined people to his home for long discussions.

Most important to descendants, he was a dear friend of our Sir Thomas Wyatt the Poet.

When Sir Thomas was imprisoned in the Tower during Anne Boleyn’s last days, it was Thomas Cromwell who assured his aging father he would be OK.

On May 5, 1536 Sir Tom was imprisoned in the tower. On May 11, Cromwell assured his father Sir Henry Wyatt that he would be released without charges. Unfortunately, Tom witnessed Anne’s beheading on May 19 – his sister there with her on the scaffold. He wrote wrote “enemies surround my soul.” He was released, as Cromwell promised, June 14.

Cromwell continued watching out for Tom’s welfare as long as he lived. When the king sent Tom away from home, he paid small debts and resolved household problems on his behalf. Like he didn’t have bigger fish to fry:-)

Cromwell’s downfall came when he encouraged Henry to marry Anne of Cleves; his reasons were political – he felt a German alliance would strengthen England.  A painting of Anne was commissioned and – like match.com – the image was far from reality.  Henry committed to wed a woman he had never seen.

Henry met Anne on new year’s day 1540; he couldn’t stand the way she looked or smelled. I imagine she felt the same. She was a virgin who didn’t understand where babies came from. He was a fat, wife-killing lech whose leg reeked from a chronic oozing infection.

Henry was very vocal about his displeasure. He said her breasts and belly felt soft and old; he couldn’t “perform”.  He was quick to point out the problem was not his – it was hers. She did not inspire his lust. Their marriage was never consummated and he started warning people if this continued, they could not expect he would father more heirs to the throne.

Henry blamed Cromwell; he became verbally and physically abusive, literally smacking his Chief Minister around.

On June 10, 1540, during a council dinner in Westminster Palace,  the Duke of Norfolk (Sir Tom’s godfather ) arrested Cromwell . “My Lord of Essex, I arrest you of high treason.”  The duke tore off the St George medal he wore around his neck and Lord Admiral Fitzwilliam (formerly his friend) snatched at the Order of the Garter.

Cromwell was furious. He responded “This, then, is my guerdon [reward] for the service that I have done. On your consciences I ask you, am I a traitor? I may have offended, but never with my will. Such faults as I have committed deserve grace and pardon; but if the King, my master, believes so ill of me, let him make quick work and not leave me to languish in prison.”

During his time in the tower Cromwell was ordered to give Henry everything he needed to annul his marriage to Anne of Cleves; this was accomplished on July 12.

It strikes me as tragic that Henry killed Cromwell for pairing him with a woman who became one of his few true and loving friends. Based on what I’ve read to date, she may have been his only friend.  Of course – knowing how he had disposed of Anne Boleyn, she had to be grateful to keep her head. She was glad to stay in England, where she had friends and freedom. Henry was generous with her, gave her homes (including the Boleyn’s Hever Castle) and visited often. There were rumors of a romance.

Henry had Cromwell executed July 28.  The king had a nasty habit of mixing endings with beginnings. That same day he left to marry Catherine Howard, the “firm” young bimp who would make a total fool of him. Of course she lost her head in the bargain.

Before the axe fell on Cromwell’s neck he prayed “Grant me, merciful Saviour, that when death hath shut up the eyes of my body, yet the eyes of my soul may still behold and look upon Thee, and when death hath taken away the use of my tongue, yet my heart may cry and say unto Thee, Lord into Thy hands I commend my soul, Lord Jesus receive my spirit, Amen.”

Remember how Anne Boleyn had a French swordsman who came in to assure her end would be swift? Cromwell was not nearly as fortunate, his execution was performed by an inept butcher. The Tudors series doesn’t hold true to the facts, but their fiction is interesting and their visuals powerful:

“In July 1540 there was much rejoicing at Cromwell’s fall, for he was generally regarded as a tyrant and a destructive force. Few friends dared to speak up for his reputation openly and his constructive work went unrecognized until long afterwards. Yet one contemporary who knew his worth set down his feelings in the jewel of a sonnet. ‘Gentle Master Wyatt’, as Cromwell had so often written to him on public affairs during his service on diplomatic missions, in 1540 at last returned to his native Kent, where he was to enjoy barely two years of retirement before he died.”(Sir Tom died in service to Henry VIII, so this source is incorrect or the king may have called him out of retirement for a special assignment.)This was Sir Tom’s sonnet for Cromwell:

“The pillar perish’d is whereto I leant;
The strongest stay of mine unquiet mind:
The like of it, no man again can find,
From east to west still seeking though he went.
To mine unhap; for hap away hath rent
Of all my join the very bark and rind;
And I, alas! by chance am thus assign’d
Dearly to mourn, till death do it relent.
But since that thus it is by destiny,
What can I more but have a woeful heart;
My pen in plaint, my voice in woeful cry,
My mind in woe, my body full of smart,
And I myself, myself always to hate;
Till dreadful death do ease my doleful state.”

According to The Cardinal and the Secretary, “His [Cromwell’s] fall had made it easier to justify to the courts of Europe his parting from Anne of Cleves, but by the time Catherine Howard had gone to the executioner he had come to realize that Cromwell had been unnecessarily sacrificed.”Henry became his own Chief Minister. “After Wolsey’s fall he had found that he needed Cromwell’s service, but after Cromwell’s disgrace no one of the same calibre offered himself. Indeed the problems were far less pressing now that Cromwell had made him master in his own house.””Seeing in the new men about him no hint of statesmanlike qualities .. the King came to conclude that Cromwell had been condemned ‘on light pretexts’.”

Henry was unable to find any man in his court who measured up to Cromwell and later referred to him as ‘the best servant he ever had’.”

R.I.P. Thomas Cromwell; you are remembered.

(Quotes and sonnet from The Cardinal & the Secretary by Neville Williams.)

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