Thomas Cromwell was a human being, and like the rest of us he was caught somewhere between an ape and an angel. He was a man, and both the monster and the maven were a myth. He was devoted and ruthless, loyal and backstabbing, loving and heartless. To those whom he felt himself pledged he was an unceasing ally. To those who stood in his way, he was an unceasing adversary. All of his attributes – good or bad – were products of his breathtaking intelligence.
His admirers point out that he was a steadfast and trustworthy servant, as well as a loving father. His detractors point out that he was unethical, and that his only moral compass was his master’s wishes. Both sides agree that Cromwell was brilliant and always got the job done, but quibble over whether or not the ends ever justified his means.
I don’t like Thomas Cromwell. I am on Team Anne Boleyn, and he murdered her. Some say he did this at the behest of Henry VIII, and thus is less culpable. However, a man is not a tool, unconnected morally from the services rendered. If Henry had stabbed Anne, then the knife he wielded would have been innocent as a passive object. Cromwell wasn’t passive; he was an active participant in the queen’s death. He is even suspected of having tortured court musician Mark Smeaton to get “evidence” against Anne.
Moreover, I think that Henry wasn’t the source of that particular river of blood. I think Cromwell, threatened by Anne’s resistance to his money-motivated religious reforms, needed her gone and acted with savage efficiency to get rid of her. He bore the tale of “dead men’s shoes” to the king and played it up. In my opinion, he used Henry’s tottering grasp on reality and rising paranoia to convince the king Anne was a traitor, and therefore used the king’s will as a cat’s paw to slaughter her. To me, he is the model of Iago, convincing Othello to kill Desdemona but because he hated the wife, not the husband. Worse, I don’t think he hated Anne. She was simply an obstacle to remove. Neither did he care about the five innocent men he murdered alongside her. One of the men, William Brereton, was even Anne’s active enemy, but because he opposed Cromwell’s policies Brereton was accused of bedding the queen as a ploy to destroy him.
For myself, nothing else that Cromwell does with his life – no matter how tirelessly allegiant he was to those he loved and served – can overshadow the fact he was willing to murder 6 people to get what he (or the king) wanted.
Cromwell, in a delicious piece of irony, was arrested on 10 June 1540 for the “crime” of having followed the king’s orders and secured a marriage with Anna of Cleves. Unlike Anne Boleyn and her accused suitors, Cromwell wasn’t even given the benefit of a make-believe trial. Instead, an Order of Attainder was issued and Cromwell was beheaded at the king’s pleasure after a few weeks in the Tower.
In a letter to Henry, the monarch he had served so unswervingly, Cromwell wrote the heart wrenching postscript of:
However, the king was no more merciful to Cromwell than Cromwell had been to Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, William Brereton, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, and Francis Weston. Like them, Cromwell died an innocent victim of Henry VIII’s mercurial wrath. Like them, Cromwell died because that’s what the king wanted even though he had never broken faith with his prince.
The only justice in Cromwell’s death was karmic.