Cromwellian Complexity

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:

Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!

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.

5 thoughts on “Cromwellian Complexity


  1. As historians our responsibility is not to judge but to understand and explain the events and personalities of what L.P.Hartley called a ‘different country’. We have to think with our heads not our hearts and set aside our own convictions framed as they are by religious, political, sexual and cultural attitudes vastly at variance with those of the 16th C.
    What, then, can we say about Thomas Cromwell? Brilliant, industrious, ruthless, loyal to the king – certainly all those epithets apply. But so do others – visionary, politically acute, religious (he was one of the first readers of Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum and claimed to have learned it by heart) and, against the odds, he sponsored the first official English Bible). He was a man of contradictions but those contradictions appear more puzzling because we struggle to understand all the political and social cross-currents affecting survival in Renaissance princely courts. (Interestingly, all the adjectives cited above could be applied to Thomas More.)
    But, when thinking about Cromwell, we suffer from one enormous extra disadvantage – we know virtually nothing about the first 40 or so years of his app. 55-year life. A large chunk of that period was, apparently, spent in Florence. Think what that means: the power struggles of the Medicis and their rivals, the theorising of Machiavelli and others, the clash between municipal government and the Church, the mutual animosity of Florence and the papacy, the vivid memories of Savonarola and the bonfires of the vanities; to say nothing of the cultural impact of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rafael, etc. Then, on top of all that, thinking men had to cope with the initial impact of Luther’s Reformation. Somehow, we would need to try to take all that into account as the background to the major events of Cromwell’s years in power.
    It’s not a question of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ Cromwell or of branding him a murderer. There was not a politician in Henry’s reign who did not have blood on his hands (and women could be just as guilty – think of Mary Tudor and Catherine de Medici) and beyond them were the thousands who turned up to watch heretics burned, witches hanged or traitors decapitated. It was a bloody age. Deplorable? Certainly, from our modern perspective. But we’re not here to make value judgements from our modern perspective.


    1. As historian, I agree. However, the blog is a space where I can — as a person — express the feelings historical figures and events evoke in me. Moreover, I am postmodern enough to believe that cultural influences leads to subconscious bias in ALL cases; objectivity is a lie all scientists and academics tell themselves. Thus, in being open and honest about my own reactions, I allow the reader to determine if the facts effect them similarly, and if so, why not? Not to mention the fact we can never, ever REALLY know the mindset of the times. We can but speculate. That’s all history can be; historians doing their best to speculate wisely (and through the lens of training and knowledge) on the facts based on all the information they can get their hands on … and even then, the information is weighted for every historian.


      1. I agree completely. I drew a line early on between what –and how–I write as a historian, and what I read as a fan of historical fiction. I’ve also been able, like you, to state why I like or dislike a figure in history, without getting all priggish and pedantic about it.

        While the Tudor era is not my field, I know enough from research and reading to have a reasonably informed opinion. But what I’d say in a more formal venue about Cromwell, for example, is quite different than what I would say here.

        And here I think he’s reprehensible, on many levels, and without a shred of genius. It takes no genius whatever t murder and destroy and tear down and lie and steal and degrade.

        Lest folks forget, Elizabeth was responsible, during her reign, for far more deaths that either Mary Tudor or Catherine de Medici. A lot more.


  2. Just curious if you have any evidence that it was Cromwell … as opposed to someone else … that reported to Henry that Anne told Norris he looked for dead men’s shoes? Also, how do you reconcile Cromwell’s efforts to secure tax supported poor relief (read Schoenfield’s book; also mentioned by Loades and by Neville Williams in “the Cardinal and the Secretary”) with the idea that his motive for murder sprang out of Anne’s desire to use the proceeds of the monasteries for charitable purposes? IMO, it was Henry who wanted the wealth of the monasteries … and poor relief had no place in his plans for that money!


    1. Alas, no evidence … just reasonable supposition in that Cromwell was Henry’s chief minister by then.

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