Son of a small trader in Putney, details of Cromwell’s early life remain obscure, although his family were in comfortable circumstances and not quite as low-born as is sometimes suggested. Nothing is known of his formal education, but he left England, whether voluntarily, or to escape a troubled home is unknown. Cromwell travelled widely Europe, fought as a mercenary in the French army and then worked for an Italian merchant before returning to England, and taking up the law, specialising in conveyancing. He found a place in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, being appointed to Wolsey’s council in 1519. He served Wolsey faithfully, then transferred to service of King Henry VIII, becoming a Privy Councillor in 1531.
Cromwell was instrumental in finding a solution to the vexed problem of the annulment of the King’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Cromwell steered the Acts of Supremacy and Succession through Parliament. Initially a supporter of the new Queen, Anne Boleyn, he was involved in her downfall, whether acting on his own initiative or directly under orders of the King is disputed. Cromwell, as Vicegerent (ie the King’s deputy as Supreme Head of the Church in England) took a leading role in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace. His own religious beliefs appear to have been favourable to the Reformation of the Church.
Cromwell lost the King’s support in 1540 after promoting a disastrous marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves. Despite being promoted to the Earldom of Essex in April 1540, his enemies (who were legion) took advantage of the King’s unhappiness over the marriage to accuse him of treason. He was beheaded on Tower Hill in a botched execution. Henry later appears to have regretted the loss of his chief minister.