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The Rise of Thomas Cromwell

Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII
Michael Everett
Yale UP


From the Introduction

This book is a study of Thomas Cromwell's early political career, specifically, his rise to power. Although it adopts a biographical approach, in the sense that it examines a man's early life and public career, it is not a full biography. Instead, it considers Cromwell's greatly neglected life and activities before he entered Henry VIII's service, then focuses on his political career under the king during the early 1530s, and ends with his appointment as the king's secretary in April 1534. By examining all of Cromwell's activities during these years, and not only those which supposedly prefigure his later life and work, this book offers a reinterpretation, not only of Cromwell himself, but also of the nature of politics at the Henrician court.

Who was Thomas Cromwell?

Thomas Cromwell (c.1485-1540) was the son of a Putney blacksmith and brewer who rose to become Henry VIII's chief minister throughout much of the 1530s. During that momentous decade Cromwell played a key role at the heart of government, amassing a considerable collection of offices and positions. Having acquired legal expertise in his early life and working as Cardinal Wolsey's legal fixer in the mid-1520s, Cromwell entered the king's service in 1530. By April 1532 he had been made master of the king's jewels, and this was soon followed by his appointments as keeper or clerk of the hanaper in July 1532; chancellor of the exchequer in April 1533; and finally principal secretary in April 1534. Following this meteoric rise, which is the subject of this book, Cromwell then became master of the rolls in October 1534; vicegerent in spirituals in early 1535; lord privy seal in July 1536; and earl of Essex and great chamberlain in April 1540. For almost ten years, therefore, Cromwell was at the centre of some of the most significant events in English history. He helped steer through the legisla­tive changes which enabled the break with Rome, masterminded the disso­lution of the monasteries and oversaw the union between England and Wales. Cromwell's ministry also witnessed the implementation of parish registers in 1538, ensuring for the first time that all births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales were recorded. He was similarly instrumental in the production of the Bible in English, a notable cultural landmark, as well as a religious one. As one historian has put it, Thomas Cromwell was a royal minister 'who cut a deeper mark on the history of England than have many of her monarchs'. His spectacular political career was then followed by an equally spectacular fall. In mid-1540, quite suddenly and without warning, Cromwell was arrested and charged with treason. He was beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 July.

Unsurprisingly, given the role that he occupied in such a formative decade, Cromwell has already received considerable attention from histo­rians. Yet what is striking about many existing studies is that all too often one particular aspect of Cromwell's life or career is emphasised, and then used to interpret or explain everything else. The earliest, and in recent years most influential, interpretation of Cromwell was the one put forward by the Elizabethan historian and martyrologist John Foxe. In his Acts and Monuments, first published in 1563, Cromwell was the 'valiaunt Souldier and captayne of Christe' who, driven by his zeal to 'set forwarde the truthe of the Gospel', sought 'all meanes and wayes to beate down false Religion and to aduaunce the true'. Foxes Cromwell was a figure entirely motivated by his religious faith: 'His whole life was nothing els, but a continuall care and trauaile how to aduaunce 8c further the right knowledge of the Gospell, and reforme the house of God'. It was an attitude that continued to find advocates among some late sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers. Raphael Holinshed also thought Cromwell 'a fauorer to the gospell, and an enimie to the pride of prelates'. Gilbert Burnet, in his History of the Reformation, similarly argued that Cromwell 'did promote the Reformation very vigorously' and was 'certain he was a Lutheran'. Other writers, however, were becoming less certain of Cromwell's religious affiliation. Jeremy Collier, writing at the beginning of the eighteenth century, readily acknowledged that 'Cromwell was no papist at his death: but then, it is pretty plain, he was no Protestant neither'.