Thomas Cromwell was born around 1485 in Putney, Surrey, the son of Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith, cloth merchant and brewer. He did not have a promising start in life, but through his belief in himself and hard work he grew to become an important figure in the government of King Henry VIII.
Little is known of Cromwell’s early life, although it is believed that he travelled to Europe in his youth and spent many years there. He may have travelled in France and fought for their army; also spending time in Italy where he worked as a banker.
He did however return to England in 1515 when he married Elizabeth Wyckes. This marriage produced three children, but Elizabeth was to die in 1529, followed shortly after by her two daughters; only his son was to survive Cromwell.
Shortly after his marriage he entered the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Cromwell’s career and rise to prominence was now to start.
Thomas Cromwell was sent by Wolsey on many missions including Rome where he was to negotiate a papal bull (public decree or charter) with Pope Leo X around 1518.
In 1523 he became a member of parliament and as he had trained as a solicitor he followed this with entry to Gray’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court in 1524.
Cromwell learnt a lot while being in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, but when Wolsey fell from the king’s favour in 1529, having failed to secure a divorce for King Henry VIII, Cromwell distanced himself from Wolsey to secure his own position.
In 1529 Cromwell became member of parliament for Taunton. He was to gain favour with the king and by the end of 1530, he was appointed by King Henry to the Privy Council.
Henry VIII was determined to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn and the only way to secure this was to break with the Catholic Church in Rome (English Reformation) and Thomas Cromwell became a prominent supporter in this.
Cromwell was instrumental in securing Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and having already married Anne Boleyn, this marriage was now declared valid by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.
Cromwell held much power ruling the government and making many changes, although this gained him many enemies; he did however keep in King Henry’s favour. He also formed the Act of Supremacy in 1534 resulting in parliament naming Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Over the years Cromwell gained many honours and titles from Henry VIII including, Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1533, Principal Secretary in 1534 and Lord Privy Seal in 1536.
He was instrumental in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 – 1540 seeing the break-up and sell-off of many religious buildings including monasteries, abbeys, convents and priories, the money from this going to the crown.
Cromwell was heavily involved in the execution of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn and his subsequent marriage to Jane Seymour, however this third marriage did not last long as Jane Seymour died shortly after childbirth.
It was Cromwell’s insistence in securing Henry’s fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves that would ultimately be his downfall. When meeting Anne of Cleves, Henry was repulsed by her, but pressured by Cromwell to form a political alliance he did go ahead with the marriage on 6 January 1540, however the marriage was not to be consummated.
Even with the disagreement between Henry and Cromwell, he was still favoured by the king, and honoured with the title 1st Earl of Essex in April 1540 followed by the position of Lord Great Chamberlain, but his enemies including Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk now had ammunition against him.
Thomas Cromwell’s downfall was swift. He was arrested at a Privy Council meeting on 10 June 1540 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was condemned to death and beheaded in a public execution on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540. He had not even been given a trial.
As a final insult, Thomas Cromwell’s head was placed on a spike on London Bridge.