The English statesman Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (ca. 1485-1540), was the chief minister of Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540 and was largely responsible for revolutionary reforms in the English Church and in administration of the state.
Thomas Cromwell was born in Putney, near London. His father, Walter Cromwell, was a fuller and shearer of cloth who also worked as a blacksmith, innkeeper, and brewer. Perhaps an unruly youth, Thomas received little formal education. About 1504 he traveled to Flanders and Italy, where he served as a mercenary soldier. While abroad he had an opportunity to learn French and Italian and to observe something of the diplomatic maneuvers of the European powers. When he returned to England about 1513, he married Elizabeth Wykes, whose father was also a shearer. Their only son, Gregory, proved dull and despite an elaborate education never achieved prominence.
In 1514 Cromwell entered the service of Thomas Wolsey, the great cardinal who dominated both Church and state. Cromwell's administrative abilities were soon recognized, and he became involved in all of Wolsey's business, especially the suppression of certain small monasteries and the application of their revenues to new colleges founded in Ipswich and Oxford. During this period Cromwell evidently studied law; in 1524 he was admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the Inns of Court. He also entered Parliament and in 1523 may have delivered a famous speech denouncing Henry VIII's war in France and its accompanying taxation.
When Wolsey fell from power, Cromwell attached himself directly to the court. In 1529 he was elected to the Reformation Parliament, the later sessions of which he helped manage for the King. In 1532 he began to accumulate government offices, and he so gained the confidence of Henry VIII that he became the King's chief minister. He drafted the act in restraint of appeals, passed by Parliament in 1533 to allow Henry's divorce to be granted in England without interference from the Pope, and subsequent legislation which affirmed royal supremacy in religion and provided for a Church of England independent of Rome. His great ideal was the establishment of England as an "empire," completely self-contained and owing no allegiance to any external power.
Although he was not a priest, Cromwell was now named the King's vice-gerent, or deputy, in spiritual affairs. He was largely responsible for legislation which authorized the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of their property by the King. Although more interested in politics than theology, he was probably a sincere Protestant and certainly a supporter of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
In secular affairs Cromwell sought efficiency above all. He instituted revolutionary reforms, especially in financial administration. His multiplicity of offices—the King's principal secretary, lord privy seal, master of the jewels, clerk of the hanaper, master of the rolls, chancellor of the Exchequer, and master of the court of wards—gave him control over virtually every aspect of government. Unlike Wolsey and his predecessors, Cromwell was never lord chancellor; he can be regarded as the first chief minister of a new type, a layman basing his influence on the office of principal secretary. In 1536 he was ennobled as Baron Cromwell of Oakham, in the county of Rutland, and in 1540 he was created Earl of Essex. Although his magnificence never approached Wolsey's, he enjoyed the considerable wealth which he acquired. He had four houses, all in or near London; friends and foreign ambassadors later recalled their pleasant walks in his gardens.
Cromwell always had his enemies, mainly religious conservatives like Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, or members of the old aristocracy like Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. After Cromwell arranged the King's disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, these foes combined to topple him, charging that he was an overmighty subject and a heretic. He was not given a trial but was condemned by a bill of attainder. On July 28, 1540, he was beheaded on Tower Hill. A clumsy executioner made the scene more than usually horrible, even by Tudor standards.
Although often criticized for his ambition, political ruthlessness, and plunder of the Church, Cromwell was a genuinely affable man, an administrative genius, and a loyal adviser to the King. It is doubtful that Henry VIII could have secured his divorce or devised his great scheme of ecclesiastical nationalization without Cromwell.
Most of Cromwell's extant letters are printed in Roger B. Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (2 vols., 1902). There is no satisfactory biography of Cromwell. His work in secular administration is best described in Geoffrey R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953), while his influence in the English Church is discussed in Arthur G. Dickens, Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation (1959).
Beckingsale, B. W., Thomas Cromwell, Tudor minister, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.