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Cromwell, Thomas, Earl of Essex (1485–1540) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Other than the fact of Cromwell’s birth at Putney, little is known about his early life. He apparently went abroad at a young age and lived for a time in Italy. While in Italy, his detractors charge, Cromwell learned the tools of unscrupulous politics; it is more fair to say, however, that Cromwell gained a valuable education that prepared him for his role in government. After 1510, he resided in the Low Countries for a year or two before returning to England around 1512. By 1520 he had entered Cardinal Wolsey’s service as his solicitor and had developed a reputation as a successful lawyer. When Wolsey fell from power in 1529, Cromwell became a member of Parliament, where his talent attracted the attention of the king. He entered Henry’s service early in 1530, was sworn into the council at the end of that year, and reached Henry VIII’s circle of top advisers one year later. He soon achieved several high offices: in 1532 he obtained the office of master of the jewels, in 1534 he became principal secretary and master of the rolls, and in 1536 he received the office of lord privy seal. Indeed, he had so many governmental and administrative responsibilities that at the end of his life he wrote to Henry, “I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness, that I am not able to answer them all.’’

Cromwell quickly and decisively made an impact on the Henrician government. In 1532, Cromwell employed his well-honed executive and parliamentary skills in the service of Henry’s most pressing matter: his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He saw to the drafting and passage of legislation that legally enacted Henry’s claims of sovereign power by replacing Roman authority with the monarch’s supreme headship over church and state. The 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome cleared a legal pathway for Henry to obtain his divorce from the Church of England, of which he was now the head, and from that point forward Cromwell saw to the passing of other legislation to complete the construction of the royal supremacy. This legislation enacted in law what monarchs had often claimed—the sovereignty of the English state.

Cromwell’s practice of enacting the king’s policies through parliamentary statute, furthermore, resulted in greater government efficiency and greater activity in Parliament; the collection Statutes of the Realm allows 1,092 pages for legislation passed during the 294 years from Magna Carta till Henry’s accession, while the laws of Henry’s thirty-seven-year reign fill 1,032 pages alone. Cromwell’s other important legislative and administrative efforts include the initiation of laws for the incorporation of Wales, the abolition of abuses of sanctuary, and the creation of a smaller and more powerful Privy Council. Since Henry was notoriously uninterested in legislative and administrative details, Cromwell alone was responsible for these actions.

Cromwell’s responsibilities and influence also loom large in the area of religious policy. In January 1535, Cromwell was appointed vice-regent, vicar general, and special commissary, offices that allowed him to administer the powers granted to Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. Perhaps Cromwell’s most notorious and controversial work in this capacity was his supervision of the dissolution of the monasteries. During 1536–40 Cromwell suppressed monastic houses through pressure and persuasion. Despite considerable opposition, by 1540 all monastic institutions were dissolved, and their property had been absorbed by the Crown. Although the nature and strength of Cromwell’s personal religious beliefs are subject to much debate, he came to be associated with pro-Reform policies. It was largely due to Cromwell’s support that the Bible was made available in English; thanks to his persuasive efforts, Henry required that a Bible be placed in every church in the realm, though this requirement was not always met.

To a certain extent, Cromwell’s pro-Reform policies also guided his diplomatic efforts. To safeguard England against Continental powers, he desired an alliance between England and the German Lutheran princes. The prospect of this alliance was not always pleasing to Henry, who preferred to claim Catholic orthodoxy for himself and his nation. In 1539 Cromwell attempted to force such an alliance by convincing the king to take as his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, whose family was closely tied to the Lutheran duke of Saxony. The king found his new wife distasteful, and by February 1540 the international situation was such that the German alliance that the marriage represented was no longer necessary. Cromwell’s fall came quickly due both to the failure of the Cleves marriage and to the successful maneuverings of his enemies. He struggled to retain power, being created earl of Essex and lord great chamberlain as late as April 1540, but early in June his enemies persuaded Henry that he was both a heretic and a traitor. He was arrested on 10 June and condemned without a hearing; his arrest was kept secret, and his scaffold was carefully guarded because the government feared his popularity in London. His pleas to Henry, which recounted the “labors, pains, and travails” taken for a king whom he labeled “more like a dear father… than a master,” obtained for him no mercy, and he was executed on 28 July. His death marked the end of efficient government during Henry’s reign.


Cromwell is one of the more controversial figures of Henry’s reign, and the controversy begins in his own day. He was bitterly attacked by conservative rivals such as Gardiner and Norfolk. The Act of Attainder that they brought against him frequently asserted the fact of his comparatively low birth; it accused Cromwell of heresy and of pretending to have power over the king. On the other hand, Cromwell’s pro-Reform policies earned him a place among Foxe’s martyrs. Foxe attributes to Cromwell “such a dexterity of wit as England shall scarcely have again.” Because Cromwell resisted attempts to restore papal authority in England, Foxe terms him “a mighty… wall and defense of the church” and rather extravagantly pronounces him a “valiant soldier and captain of Christ.” Merriman, Cromwell’s earliest twentieth-century biographer, is more equivocal in his assessment. He finds Cromwell unscrupulous though patriotic and remarks that Cromwell’s goal was “the elevation of the crown to absolute power on the ruins of every other institution which had ever been its rival” (164). Among recent historians who decry either a decrease in the church’s power or the English break from Rome or both, Cromwell has received little praise. Maynard, himself a Roman Catholic, is revolted by Cromwell, remarking that “his cold-bloodedness is more appalling than the fierce animosity of the King he served” (1). Maynard proposes that Cromwell held a cynic’s indifference toward religion, that his politics were driven by a similarly cynical opportunism, and that he manipulated the king into effecting a break from Rome that the conservative king would never have determined on his own.

Other historians have resisted excessive praise or condemnation of Cromwell and have, I argue, presented a more evenhanded picture. Dickens provides a balanced evaluation of his impact on the English Reformation. While acknowledging unfair practices in the suppression of the monasteries, Dickens nevertheless gives Cromwell due credit for implementing many basic reforms under Henry as well as for overseeing the publication of an official English Bible. Elton, among others, has rehabilitated Cromwell in the political arena. At times, Elton may go too far in asserting the revolutionary nature of Cromwell’s actions and ideas, yet by emphasizing the governing role that Cromwell gave Parliament as the necessary executor of the king’s policies, Elton substantiates his claim that Cromwell was England’s first parliamentary statesman. Beckingsale, Cromwell’s recent biographer, writes a balanced assessment of his subject. He notes as a matter of course that Cromwell’s principal aim was to please the king by enacting his policies. He stresses, however, that Cromwell was not a mere agent of the king because he used Henry’s aspirations, which were most often personal and dynastic, as a means to transform the nation. This transformation came about through Cromwell’s transposition of Henry’s marital issues into issues of common law, political theory, and theology. In sum, Cromwell must not be judged by the standards of any age but his own. Those involved in Tudor government were often harsh and arbitrary in their exercise of power, and Cromwell is no exception. However, he showed the highest respect for the letter of the law and thus did not encourage despotism. His political contributions—the necessary, if unequal, partnership between Crown and Parliament as well as the ushering of Protestantism’s voice onto the English political stage—shaped the future of the nation. As he acknowledged in a letter to Henry at the end of his life, he had not yet fulfilled all of his duties; further political and religious developments that built upon the foundations he had laid were reserved for future generations.

Crookes, Sir William [next] [back] Cromwell, Oliver(1752–1853) - Soldier, Chronology

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