Thomas Cromwell: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Downfall (1539-1540)

Henry VIII was widowed in October 1537, when Queen Jane died in childbed. Cromwell almost immediately sought a suitable replacement – preferably a wealthy, healthy princess who would counterbalance the threats to England from the France and the Empire, which were still making noises about invading England to restore Papal authority. He lit upon the sisters of the Wilhelm, Duke of Cleves, as likely candidates. Cleves, like England, had thrown off Papal authority, but had not got far down the road of Lutheranism. It was also one of the duchies that made up the Empire, so an alliance would be bound to irritate Emperor Charles.

Hans Holbein, Henry’s court painter, and probably a friend of Cromwell, was sent to paint the Ladies Amelia and Anna. The portrait that was delivered of Lady Anna was so delightful that Henry was prepared to ally with a more religiously radical regime. The wedding was arranged and Anna of Cleves duly arrived in England.

Henry, not quite as young and handsome as he had once been, raced to meet her, disguised as a merchant. Anna, sick and weary after a dismal channel crossing, not recognising in the corpulent, aging, burgess the romantic prince of her dreams, greeted him coldly and failed to exert any charm she may have had. Henry was not impressed. Always gentlemanly in his demeanour to ladies, he treated Anna with the utmost courtesy, but he expressed his private feelings to Cromwell saying that ‘She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported’ and that he would not put his head into the ‘yoke’ of marriage with her, if there were any alternative.

No alternative could be found and the marriage went ahead. No doubt Cromwell was hoping that Henry would overcome his personal repugnance and settle down with Anna. But Henry could not overcome his feelings – and was soon engaged in a more pleasing relationship. The Duke of Norfolk’s niece, Katheryn Howard, was one of Anna’s new maids-of-honour and the King became infatuated.

Norfolk, who had resented Cromwell becoming Henry’s chief minister instead of himself, and Cromwell’s old sparring partner, Bishop Gardiner, who was implacably imposed to the innovation in religion, with which Cromwell was increasingly associated, saw their chance. Cromwell’s patronage of Robert Barnes, an ardent reformer who was accused of heresy was an opportunity for Gardiner to tar Cromwell with the same brush, knowing that Henry, who was becoming increasingly concerned about a drift away from Catholic doctrine, would not tolerate heresy in his chief minister.

Through a masterly handling of the opening session of the new Parliament in April 1540, Cromwell managed to diffuse the growing religious controversy. He also resigned his position of Secretary to two of his supporters, to try to increase his support on the Privy Council. Norfolk and Gardiner, however were just biding their time.

Cromwell was promoted again, to be Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain, a largely ceremonial post and the French Ambassador believed him to be as high in Henry’s favour as ever. But on 10th June 1540, the blow fell. Cromwell attended a Privy Council meeting at Westminster. The King was absent and the other Councillors had all assembled before Cromwell’s arrival. On entrance, he looked for a seat, and was told that there was no seat for him amongst gentlemen. Norfolk then arrested him for high treason and personally tore off the collar of St George that Cromwell wore as a Knight of the Garter.

Not surprisingly, Cromwell protested his innocence, but no notice was taken and he was dragged off to the Tower. Norfolk would not have taken such a step without Henry’s approval, and yet it is difficult to believe that Henry can really have given credence to such spurious claims as that Cromwell wanted to marry Henry’s daughter, Mary, and seize the throne. He must have been convinced that Cromwell’s repeated conferences with the German Lutherans meant that Cromwell himself was infected with ‘heresy’. If that were the case, there could be no mercy.

Cranmer wrote to Henry, almost protesting Cromwell’s innocence:

Who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against Your Majesty – he whose surety was only by Your Majesty…who studied always to put set forward whatsoever was Your Majesty’s pleasure…For who shall Your Grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him?

Cromwell wrote to Henry from the Tower, ‘with the quaking hand of the most sorrowful heart of your most sorrowful subject and most humble servant and prisoner.’

He had never knowingly committed any offence against the King, and if, in the course of his multifarious tasks he had accidentally broken any law, he begged for mercy.

Henry believed that Cromwell might still be of some use to him. He wanted his marriage to Anna annulled and Cromwell could help him to achieve that end. Not only was the delicious morsel of Katheryn Howard being laid before him daily by Norfolk and Gardiner, but the political motive for the marriage had also disappeared, as Francois I of France and the Emperor Charles were once again fighting for Milan.

Cromwell confirmed that Henry had entered the marriage unwillingly, and not consummated it. The marriage was annulled, and Anna, after initial hesitancy, accepted the King’s terms with a good grace, remaining in England, honoured and respected, as the King’s ‘sister’ and friend. Cromwell, although just as keen to please, received no benefit from his help. An Act of Attainder had already been passed, condemning him to death. Nevertheless, he wrote again to Henry pleading for ‘mercy, mercy, mercy’.

His words fell on deaf ears. Unlike Wolsey, with whom Henry had had a warm, personal relationship, Cromwell was no more to him than a servant. There was no hesitation. Cromwell, now stripped of his new titles, was executed on 28th July 1540. In the speech from the scaffold purported to be his, he confirmed his faith in the Catholic Church, and all of its sacraments. After a bungled execution, requiring at least three blows, his head was displayed on London Bridge, no doubt as a mark of gratitude for a man who had served his king so faithfully. The King mourned by marrying Katheryn Howard the same day.

This article is part of a Profile on Thomas Cromwell available for Kindle, for purchase from Amazon.