One of the many irrational beheadings Henry VIII ordered as an older king was the execution of his loyal and indispensably helpful minister Thomas Cromwell.
As I explained in Blood Will Tell, I think Cromwell’s sudden and inexplicable judicial murder was the result of Henry’s deteriorating brain function due to McLeod syndrome:
In what seemed to be a show of faith in his minister, Henry had Cromwell made the earl of Essex, High Chamberlain of England, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as bestowing other titles and honors on him, on April 18, 1540. It is usually assumed that Henry wanted to give Cromwell a false sense of security before he struck but that may not have been the case. If Henry was being affected by McLeod syndrome he might well have been sincerely desirous of rewarding Cromwell for his faithful service. The abrupt about face, wherein Henry had Cromwell arrested and pitched into the Tower less than two months after making him a nobleman, may have been uncalculated. Henry may have experienced a sudden conviction, born of paranoia, that Cromwell had arranged the alliance with Cleves as part of a plot to harm the king’s peace of mind and happiness. It is also possible that Cromwell’s downfall was instigated by the courtiers who surrounded Henry, rather than by the king himself. There can be no doubt that the newly created Earl of Essex had many enemies at court and that those enemies encouraged Henry to destroy him. Cromwell had been the target of powerful enemies for years, however. It was only after the debacle of Henry’s union to Anna of Cleves that Cromwell fell from favor. It seems probable that the king’s unhappiness with his marriage provoked Henry to turn arbitrarily and illogically against Cromwell. Such a strong and irrational reaction almost demands a mental illness to explain it …
Cromwell was executed on July 28, 1540. Prior to his death, Cromwell managed to perform one last service for the king, in order to guarantee that Henry obtained his much-desired annulment. The former chief minister wrote a long letter detailing everything he remembered about the marriage and why it should be rendered void. At the bottom of the letter he wrote the personal plea, “Most gracious prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!” However, the king who had once assiduously sought a way to avoid executing the duke of Buckingham for much greater crimes no longer had any mercy. The once rational and romantic Henry had become a either a megalomaniac or a victim of paranoia and impulsiveness.
Perhaps Cromwell’s downfall would generate more sympathy if he had not frequently used Henry’s emotional instability for his own ends. When it had suited him Cromwell had encouraged Henry’s bloody vengeance. Cromwell had indisputably encouraged and abetted Henry’s remorseless malevolence towards Anne Boleyn, as well as the innocent men who died along with her. Having helped create a monster Cromwell was destroyed by it.
The swiftness of Cromwell’s fall, when it is compared to the length of time it took Henry to decide to rid himself of Wolsey, again highlights how much Henry changed during the 1530s. Prior to what may be the onset of McLeod syndrome, the king did not find it so easy to kill his ministers and closest advisors. In contrast to his precipitous imprisonment and execution of Cromwell, Henry vacillated about dismissing Wolsey even when the Cardinal was caught aiding Henry’s enemies. In contrast to Wolsey’s slow and unsteady decline in the king’s favor, Cromwell was legally murdered less than four months after being imprisoned. In his later years Henry developed a pressing need to punish those around him for any difficulties he encountered. Cromwell, having been so instrumental in arranging the marriage Henry abhorred, was a natural target for the king’s senseless wrath. It made no difference that Cromwell only contrived the match because he had the king’s express permission to do so. Henry was not rational and he wanted blood to appease his ill-temper. Since his power was nearly absolute within his own kingdom, Henry was able to indulge in his frustration and ire at Cromwell’s expense. Unlike the hesitant dismissal of Wolsey undertaken by the younger Henry, the older Henry was able to destroy men with much less thought and much greater ease.
Henry would later regret his hasty termination of Cromwell, and rage at his courtiers about, but Henry had to learn the hard truth that once you kill someone you cannot call “do over” and get them back.