KS3 > The Reformation > MPs > Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell was one of Henry VIII’s most trusted officials, one of the most important figures in the Reformation, and very controversial to historians.
Born in Putney, London, he was the son of a blacksmith and alehouse owner. Little is known about Cromwell’s early life. At a young age he left England and had an exciting career in mainland Europe. He joined the French army as a soldier, worked for a banker in Italy, and as a merchant in the Netherlands. He returned to England sometime around 1515 and married.
He soon set up a successful business and law practice, and began working for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was then Henry VIII’s chief minister. It was because of Wolsey that Cromwell first entered Parliament.
Wolsey was given the job of getting Henry VIII his longed-for divorce from Catherine of Aragon. When Wolsey failed to secure Henry’s divorce he was removed from his office by the King. Cromwell remained loyal to Wolsey, but soon came to the attention of the King himself. He was appointed to the Privy Council in November 1530 and soon became its expert on parliamentary matters. His importance on Henry’s council grew, and before long he was the King’s most important minister.
We know that Cromwell was involved in developing much of the religious legislation passed in the Reformation Parliament, and that he was responsible for making sure it became law. This legislation made Henry the Supreme Head of the
Bible thought to belong to Anne Boleyn,
Stowe 956 ff. 1v-2
© The British Library (Illuminated manuscripts)
church and secured his divorce and marriage to Anne Boleyn, and it also made Cromwell’s career. He was made Vicegerent in Spirituals, second only to Henry in church matters, and organised the dissolution of the monasteries. Between 1536 and 1540 over 800 religious houses in England were dissolved and the lands sold off. The proceeds went to the King.
Cromwell remains a controversial figure. Some see him as scheming and ruthless, especially after he turned on Anne Boleyn and helped secure her execution for treason in 1536. He is also seen as the man who destroyed the wealth, literature and art of the English medieval church. However, others believe he was one of Parliament’s greatest figures, who brought in religious reforms and increased the power of the state. Most historians do agree that he had a genuine commitment to Protestantism. For example, Cromwell was largely responsible in convincing Henry VIII to allow the publication of the English Bible. A copy was placed in every parish church.
He was given the ancient title of Earl of Essex in 1540 – a big step up from the ale house in Putney. But by then his star was waning. He had made enemies in court, who found him ‘arrogant’. After his attempt to arrange a marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves, a German Protestant princess, was a spectacular failure, his enemies used the King’s anger against him. He was charged with heresy, treason and corruption, and executed on 28 July 1540. The Protestants lost one of their major supporters, and Henry’s religious measures were afterwards more conservative. Yet Henry was said to have greatly missed his chief minister, and his huge impact on the English Reformation cannot be denied.