Thomas Cromwell stands out after Henry VIII himself as the most prominent figure in the Henrician Reformation of the 1530s. Tracy Borman recounts persuasively and engagingly the tale of the meteoric rise of this complex commoner to the highest offices and dominant influence at the court of Henry and his just as meteoric fall from grace and execution. Industrious, determined on wealth and power, brutal but also loyal to the king whose government he sought to consolidate and a friend to poor and ordinary people, he mastered for a time the intrigues of the court and the volatility of Henry, who is the real villain of the story. “A master of diplomacy and deception,” Borman writes, he was “the ideal courtier,” careful never to absent himself from court for any length of time lest his enemies dislodge him.
Born in Putney, a village west of London, in about 1485, Thomas was the son of a successful tradesman of modest means. His common origin, similar to that of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s earlier first minister, stirred consistent resentment and opposition among the king’s normally aristocratic councillors, just as it had for Wolsey, “the butcher’s son.” Little is known of his early years. He appears to have been largely self-taught. Later he displayed a detailed knowledge of the law, even though he never attended law school. In about 1503 he crossed the channel and spent nearly a decade on the continent, holding varying positions in the Netherlands, France and Italy, where he acquired a fondness for things Italian that remained with him all his life.
At one point he found a way to approach Pope Leo X in Rome, as the pope traveled through the city, to request an indulgence for the people of Boston. The pope, impressed by his boldness, immediately granted his request, and the incident, suggests Borman, gave him confidence in dealing with major figures. By 1514 he was back in England and had entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey, who became Henry VIII’s chancellor in 1515, and Cromwell eventually became the principal advisor to the cardinal, especially in legal matters, while also developing a lucrative private legal practice.
Meanwhile, by 1527 Henry had tired of his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to deliver a male heir, and he had promised to marry the much younger Anne Boleyn, with whom he had become infatuated. Wolsey was expected to obtain the necessary divorce from Pope Clement VII, and when he failed to secure it, he fell from favor and was dismissed. Cromwell for a time remained loyal to his patron but then gradually slid into the position vacated by Wolsey, joining the privy council in 1530 and then assuming other offices. But Cromwell never enjoyed the freedom of action that Wolsey had; Henry now became a much more “hands-on” ruler.
Cromwell then played a major role in convincing Henry that the only way to solve the issue of the divorce was to break with Rome. He was crucial in drawing up the legislation for parliament that ended with the Act of Supremacy of 1535. And he then took the lead in forcing acceptance of the new arrangement on the population. Unprecedented was the requirement that every Englishmen swear an oath acknowledging the new situation. Between 1540 and 1552, 883 persons were accused of treason for refusing to do so, and 308 were executed, including Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, for whom Cromwell had a grudging respect. The fate of More, Borman suggests, should have alerted Cromwell to the precariousness of his own position.
Cromwell was quick to notice that Henry was tiring of Anne Boleyn, especially after she failed to deliver the expected male heir. Initially Cromwell and Anne had cooperated on the divorce, but differences had developed between the two of them. Cromwell now framed Anne on charges of adultery, and Henry married his new inamorata, Jane Seymour, 10 days after Anne Boleyn’s execution. Jane Seymour died shortly after giving birth to the long-desired male heir, Edward VI.
Meanwhile Cromwell initiated reforms that made England a more united kingdom and qualified him as one of England’s greatest social and political reformers, according to Borman, proposing reforms in education, poor relief and trade. He saw to the passage of the main Reformation legislation through Parliament as well as many other laws that greatly enhanced the status of the institution. He was instrumental in the suppression of the rebellious Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537, and he strengthened royal control in the North, Wales and Ireland. He also oversaw the suppression of the monasteries, which greatly enriched the royal treasury.
By 1538 Cromwell’s star had begun to set. Chiefly responsible for this was his arrangement of the next marriage of Henry, with the German princess, Anne of Cleves, whose appearance and body odor Henry found repulsive and whom he eventually sent back to Germany after securing an annulment. In addition, Cromwell had begun for a time to advance Protestant ideas to which Henry objected and had embarked on a policy of alliance with Spain without Henry’s knowledge. His aristocratic enemies at court were always ready to pounce on him, and his pleas for mercy elicited no response from Henry. Convicted of treason, he was beheaded on July 28, 1540, professing the Catholic (not the Roman Catholic) faith. The same day Henry took his next wife, Katherine Howard.
Correction: Aug. 13, 2015
In an earlier version of this article misidentified one of Henry XIII's wives. Jane Seymour, not Anne Seymour, was Henry's third wife.