Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Execution of Thomas Cromwell

The Execution of Thomas Cromwell

       Today is the anniversary of the execution by beheading of Thomas Cromwell, which event took place in 1540.

      Cromwell's life is a story of rags to riches. Born to an apparently abusive father in the hamlet of Putney, Thomas fled to Europe where he pursued a career as a mercenary, later joining an Italian trading/banking house as a clerk. Upon his return to England he worked with Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, then Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII. Notwithstanding Woolsey's fall consequent to his inability to secure from the Pope an annulment of the marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell remained in Henry’s good graces. Even as Sir (later Saint) Thomas More became Lord Chancellor in succession of Wolsey, Cromwell continued an apparently preconceived program of accumulating senior offices and with those offices increasing authority. Ultimately, he became the fulcrum through which Tudor policy under Henry VIII was implemented, including effecting the downfall of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn on spurious charges of adultery. It was, however, another of Henry's wives, Anne of Cleves, who would precipitate Cromwell's fall. Cromwell had promoted the cause of a marriage with Anne as a way of making an alliance with the Lutheran league in Europe, thinking they would serve as a counterbalance to both France and the Holy Roman Empire (and expected treaty of cooperation between them never came to pass). That marriage was, at best, a disaster, Henry having no attraction to Anne and allegedly never consummating the marriage. Anne had the good sense to accept an annulment of the marriage, a transaction supported by Cromwell in letters requested of him while already in the Tower of London. Anne of Cleves was not, however, the sole reason for Cromwell's fall. Rather, he as well fell victim to jealousy of members of the nobility who disliked the fact that a commoner had risen so high (conveniently ignoring that he had been made Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain) and charges of Protestant/Lutheran sympathies by Catholic counselors including the Duke of Norfolk (Thomas Howard) and Stephen Gardiner (Bishop of Winchester). 

      After the fall (there was no trial; he was attainted) and execution of Cromwell, Henry lamented his loss and accused various of his counselors of misdeeds and stripping him of one of his greatest advisors.

     In recent years Cromwell's fame has increased exponentially by reason of the three-part biographical novel of him written by Hillary Mantel, the first volume having been Wolf Hall. The first and second installments of the “biography,” the second being Bring Up The Bodies, were as well made into a TV series by the BBC. The third volume, The Mirror and the Light, was released earlier this year. While those books are incredibly well written and are quite enjoyable, the true study of Cromwell's life is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life (2018).

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