Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cromwell, Thomas (1485?-1540)
CROMWELL, THOMAS, Earl of Essex (1485?–1540), statesman, was the son of Walter Cromwell, also called Walter Smyth, who seems to have been known to his contemporaries, not only as a blacksmith, but also as a fuller and shearer of cloth at Putney, where he, besides, kept a hostelry and brewhouse. This curious combination of employments may be partly accounted for by the fact that the lease or possession of a fulling-mill had been in the family ever since 1452, when it was granted by Archbishop Kempe to one William Cromwell, who came from Norwell in Nottinghamshire, and of whom Walter seems to have been a grandson. Thomas Cromwell is commonly said to have been born about 1490; but Mr. John Phillips of Putney, who has made a careful study of evidences respecting the family from the manor rolls of Wimbledon, is inclined to put the date at least 'five years earlier. He had two sisters, Catherine and Elizabeth, the former of whom married a Welshman named Morgan Williams, and the latter one William Wellyfed; but we hear nothing of any brother. As a young man, by all accounts, he was very ill-conducted, and according to Foxe he used himself in later life to declare to Archbishop Cranmer ‘what a ruffian he was in his young days.’ For this Foxe, who obtained much of his information from Cranmer’s secretary, is a very good authority; but in other matters, which he states at secondhand, his account of Cromwell’s youth is vitiated by a strange confusion of dates, and has cast discredit upon facts which are perfectly consistent when read in the original authorities. A brief account of his career, which Foxe could not have seen, was given by Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, in a despatch to Granvelle in 1535. There it is said that he behaved ill as a young man, incurred imprisonment for some misdemeanor, and afterwards found it necessary to leave the country; that he went to Flanders, Rome, and elsewhere in Italy, and married, after his return home, the daughter of a shearman. These facts were no doubt ascertained by careful inquiry, and they are corroborated and amplified by other evidences. According to the Italian novelist Bandello, his going abroad was occasioned by a quarrel with his father, and he betook himself to Italy, where he became a soldier in the French service. This, as regards the family quarrel, is, in the opinion of Mr. Phillips, corroborated by an entry in the court rolls of Wimbledon manor, and Cardinal Pole confirms the statement that he was a common soldier in his early days. But according to Bandello, his military career came to an end at the battle of Garigliano, where the French were defeated in 1503 (and we may remark in passing that he could scarcely have been then only a boy of thirteen, as the ordinary date of his birth would make him). He escaped to Florence, where, being driven to ask alms in his poverty, he was relieved and befriended by the banker, Francis Frescobaldi, who had extensive dealings with England. Bandello’s information about Cromwell is accurate in the main, and, though perhaps a little coloured for effect, is likely to be right as to the Italian part of his career. We hope it is right also as to the way in which Cromwell, in the days of his greatness, repaid the debt with superabundant interest, when his old benefactor had experienced a change of fortune. In fact, Frescobaldi appears to have visited England in 1533, and on his return wrote to him from Marseilles, calling him ‘mio padrone’ (Cal. of Henry VIII. vol. vi. No. 1215). His name also occurs among Cromwell's memoranda of business to be attended to about that time (ib. vii. 348).
But here it must be observed that the court rolls of Wimbledon manor, according to Mr. Phillips, give evidence quite at variance with the statement that Cromwell was at the battle of Garigliano. It was early in 1504 that the family rupture seems to have occurred, and he could not have gone abroad before that year. His name appears upon the court rolls as Thomas Smyth, just as his father, Walter Cromwell, is called in many of the entries Walter Smyth, and his grand father John Smyth, and of this Thomas Smyth a good deal stands on record. He appears to have been brought up as an attorney and accountant by John Williams, the steward of Wimbledon manor; but his master died in 1502, and in 1503 he was admitted to two virgates (or thirty acres) of land at Roehampton, which had belonged to Williams, to qualify him for the vacant stewardship. Richard Williams, the son of the late steward, surrendered these two virgates at a court held at Putney on 26 Feb. 1504 (19 Henry VII), and Thomas Smyth then and there did fealty for them. But Thomas Smyth surrendered them again to the use of one David Dovy at a court held on 20 May following; at which court the jury presented that Richard Williams had assaulted and beaten the said Thomas against the peace of our lord the king, for which the court fined him sixpence. Mr. Phillips, moreover, finds reason to believe that this had some connection with family quarrels; for Walter Cromwell, the father, soon after takes to tippling, neglects his business, gets into debt, and is pursued by the law courts; is obliged also to part with the family copyhold at Putney to his son-in-law, Morgan Williams, Oliver Cromwell's great-great-grandfather.
Thus, if Thomas Smyth be Thomas Cromwell—a point of which it is said there can be no doubt—it could not have been before the summer of 1504 that he first went to Italy, and the absence of further mention of him in the court rolls for some years agrees well with the supposition that he went at that time. Bandello, therefore, was probably a year or so wrong in point of date. He was right that the occurrence of his seeking relief from Frescobaldi was soon after the battle of Garigliano, but it could have had no connection with the defeat of the French. We know, however, from another source that Cromwell did serve about this time for a while as a common soldier; and how his brief military career fits in with the rest of his biography it is difficult to determine. Bandello informs us further that Frescobaldi not only relieved him, but bought him a horse and gave him money, to enable him to return to his own country; and accepting this account we may believe that he returned, if not to England, at least to Flanders, for we are told that he was clerk or secretary to the English merchants at Antwerp; and it was probably after his unfortunate career as a soldier that he became reconciled to business. How long he continued at Antwerp we cannot tell, but he at length departed for Rome, on what we presume to have been his second visit to Italy. The circumstances are related by Foxe, who is likely to have been well informed in this matter, as it had to do with the affairs of his native town of Boston. One Geoffrey Chambers came to Antwerp on his way to Rome to obtain certain pardons or indulgences for the guild of Our Lady in St. Botolph's Church at Boston. The guild desired leave to choose their own confessor, who might, when occasion required, relax for them the severe rules of diet in Lent. They wished also to have portable altars, whereon they might have mass said in unconsecrated places when they travelled, and other privileges which the pope alone could grant. To accomplish such a mission, Chambers persuaded Cromwell to go with him as an associate. When they reached Rome some address was necessary to gain access to the pope without a tedious amount of waiting, and Cromwell contrived to waylay his holiness on his return from hunting with an English company, offering him some English presents, brought in with ‘a three-man song,’ after the fashion used at English entertainments. The surprise, the gifts, the music, and the unaccustomed language were all highly effective. The pope caused Cromwell and his friends to be sent for, and Cromwell still improved his advantage by presenting his holiness with some choice English sweetmeats, after which the pardons were not difficult to obtain.
In relating this story Foxe tells us that the pope from whom Cromwell thus succeeded in obtaining these indulgences was Julius II, and that he is accurate in this matter we may infer from the list of popes given by himself who confirmed the privileges of the Boston guild. Now Julius II's pontificate began in the end of that year in which the French were defeated at the Garigliano, so that if Cromwell came from the Low Countries to Rome about this matter it was his second visit to Italy. And it is even possible that Foxe may be right that the date was about 1510; but he is certainly wrong in some other statements, especially in saying that Cromwell saved the life of Sir John Russell, afterwards earl of Bedford, when on a secret mission at Bologna (which mission we know to have been in 1524 and 1525), and that he was with the Duke of Bourbon at the siege of Rome in 1527. Long before those dates he had returned to England, and was fully occupied with very different matters.
The late Professor Brewer found evidence (apparently in a letter addressed to Cromwell many years afterwards by a certain George Elyot) that he was a merchant trading at Middelburgh in 1512 (Brewer, English Studies, p. 307). If so, it would seem that he returned to the Low Countries after obtaining the pardons for Boston at Rome. On the other hand, we have a statement by Cardinal Pole that he was at one time clerk or bookkeeper to a Venetian merchant, and as the cardinal was personally acquainted with his employer the fact is beyond dispute. And from Pole's statement it would seem that this was in Italy before his return to England. His employer therefore could not have been, as Professor Brewer supposed, Antonio Bonvisi, who lived in London, and was besides a Lucchese, not a Venetian.
About 1513, after his return to England, Cromwell married Elizabeth Wykes, the daughter of an old neighbour, Henry Wykes of Putney, who had been usher of the chamber to Henry VII. Chapuys and Bandello agree that he married the daughter of a shearman, and, as the former says, served in his house, meaning apparently as his apprentice. But, strangely enough, Mr. Phillips finds that, though her paternity is undoubted, she was at this time the widow of one Thomas Williams, yeoman of the guard. It would appear, however, from the combined testimony, that her father, the usher of the chamber, was a shearman, and that Cromwell proposed to carry on one department of his own father's business, for which his experience in the Low Countries must have been a good preparation, for much of the traffic with those parts was in English wool and woollen cloths, and, his father's fulling-mill being close upon the river, foreign traders came up to Putney to make their purchases. Success in business often leads on from one line to another, and Cromwell became first perhaps a money-lender, and afterwards a lawyer, as he was originally intended to be, for we have frequent references to him in both capacities. Cecily, marchioness of Dorset, writes to him, as her son the marquis's servant, meaning perhaps his legal adviser in the division of the family property, to send her certain beds and bedding and deliver certain tents and pavilions in his custody to her son Leonard (Ellis, Letters, 1st ser. i. 219). But even as late as 1522 or 1523, after he had long been practising as a solicitor, the dressing of cloths appears to have been a distinct part of his business (Calendar of Henry VIII, vol. iii. Nos. 2624, 3015).
He was then ‘dwelling by Fenchurch in London’ (ib. Nos. 2461, 2577, 2624); but in 1524 we find him removed to Austin Friars (ib. vol. iv. Nos. 166, 1620, 1881, 2229, &c.), where he remained for about ten years, his residence there being ‘against the gate of the Friars’ (ib. vol. vii. No. 1618). During the whole of this period he was rapidly rising into prominence, and before the end of it he became the most powerful man in England next the king. He had already attracted the notice of Wolsey, who on his promotion to the see of York in 1514 appointed him collector of his revenues. It was probably by Wolsey's influence that he got into parliament in 1523, and here he seems to have distinguished himself by a very able and eloquent speech in answer to the king's demand for a contribution in aid of the war with France. The king had declared his intention of invading France in person, and was himself present in parliament—it would almost seem even in the House of Commons—during their deliberations. Cromwell asked what man would not give goods and life, even if he had ten thousand lives, to recover France for his sovereign? He enlarged upon the necessity of chastising the ambition and faithlessness of the French nation; but he confessed the prospect of the king endangering his person in war put him ‘in no small agony.’ He then discussed the financial dangers of an overbold policy, for all the coin and bullion of the realm, he reckoned, could not much exceed a million of gold, and would be exhausted in three years; and he intimated that there were difficulties in the enterprise which had not existed in former days. No doubt they might easily take Paris, but their supplies would be cut off, and the Frenchmen's way of harassing an enemy would bring them to confusion. In the end he insisted that the safest course was the proverbial policy of beginning with Scotland, and when that country was thoroughly subjugated it would make France more submissive. Thus ingeniously he pleaded the cause of the taxpayer, without saying anything that could possibly be distasteful to the court.
It is not certain that this speech was actually delivered; but it exists to this day in manuscript in the hand of one of Cromwell's clerks (ib. vol. iii. No. 2958), and there can be no reasonable doubt of its authorship. It may even have served the purposes of the court to some extent; for as a matter of fact Henry did not invade France in person, as he had indicated that he would do. The man who was capable of using such ingenious arguments was pretty sure not to be lost sight of. He was not only skilful in reasoning, but had a very captivating manner, a good business head, and doubtless an extremely retentive memory, although Foxe's statement that he learned the whole of Erasmus's New Testament off by heart is worthy of little credit, especially considering that he dates it at a time when that work had not yet appeared. Of his pleasing address and con= versation we may form some conception from the warm expressions used by a business friend, John Creke, writing to him from Spain in 1522. ‘Carissimo quanto homo in questo mondo,’ the letter begins, and in the course of it we meet with the following passage: ‘ My heart mourneth for your company and Mr. Wodal's as ever it did for men. As I am a true christian man I never had so faithful affection to men of so short acquaintance in my life; the which affection increaseth as fire daily. God knoweth what pain I receive in departing when I remember our ghostly walking in your garden. It made me desperate to contemplate. I would write larger; my heart will not let me’ (ib. No. 2394).
We may even catch the flavour of Cromwell's witty conversation in a letter which he addresses to this same correspondent after the session of parliament was over. ‘Supposing ye desire to know the news current in these parts,’ he writes, ‘for it is said that news refresheth the spirit of life; wherefore ye shall understand that I, amongst other, have endured a parliament, which continued by the space of seventeen whole weeks, where we communed of war, peace, strife, contention, debate, murmur, grudge, riches, poverty, penury, truth, falsehood, justice, equity, deceit, oppression, magnanimity, activity, force, attempraunce, treason, murder, felony, consylu … (?), and also how a commonwealth might be edified, and also continued within our realm. Howbeit, in conclusion, we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is to say, as well as we might, and left where we began. … We have in our parliament granted unto the king's highness a right large subsidy, the like whereof was never granted in this realm’ (ib. No. 3249).
In 1524 Cromwell became a member of Gray's Inn, and in the same year Wolsey made use of his services in the great work on which he had set his heart—the suppression of a number of small monasteries with a view to the endowment of his two proposed colleges in Ipswich and Oxford. As early as 4 Jan. 1525 he commissioned three persons, of whom Cromwell was one, to survey some of these monasteries (ib. vol. iv. No. 989). On 1 Aug. 1526 an agent writes to Cromwell acknowledging receipt of orders to take down the bells of one of them—the abbey of Beigham in Sussex (ib. No. 2365). Cromwell himself was personally present at the surrender and dissolution of others (ib. 1137 (16), 4117). Necessary as the work was for a really great purpose, the demolition even of these small houses was exceedingly unpopular, and the way in which it was done seems to have been truly scandalous. Complaints were made to the king about the conduct of Wolsey's agents, and the king's secretary, Knight, wrote to Wolsey himself that ‘incredible things’ were spoken of the way in which Cromwell and Allen (afterwards archbishop of Dublin) [see Allen, John, 1476–1534] had executed their commission (ib. No. 3360). Wolsey's influence, it is to be feared, protected them from well-merited censure. Cromwell was addressed by correspondents as ‘councillor to my lord cardinal’ (ib. Nos. 2347–8, 3379). He was receiver-general of Cardinal's College at Oxford, and an equally important agent at Ipswich (ib. Nos. 3461, 3536, 4441). He drew up all the necessary deeds for the foundation of those colleges (ib. No. 5186). We have the accounts of his expenses in connection with both of them. All Wolsey's legal business seems to have passed through his hands, and he was still able to manage the affairs of a good many clients besides—among others of that same guild of Our Lady at Boston in whose behalf he had formerly gone to Rome (ib. Nos. 5437, 5460). In 1527 his wife died at Stepney. In June 1528 we find him staying with Wolsey at Hampton Court (ib. No. 4350). In 1529 Anne Boleyn wrote to him addressing him as ‘secretary of my lord,’ a post previously filled by Gardiner, whom the king had just before taken from Wolsey's service into his own (ib. No. 5366).
In July 1529, being then in very prosperous circumstances, he made a draft will (ib. No. 5772), which remains to us in manuscript, with bequests to his son Gregory, his sisters Elizabeth and Catherine, and his late wife's sister Joan, wife of John Williamson; to William Wellyfed, the husband of his sister Elizabeth, and their children, Christopher, William, and Alice; to Richard Williams (the son of his sister Catherine, who afterwards changed his surname to Cromwell and became ancestor of the great Oliver), who seems to have been then in, or to have just left, the service of the Marquis of Dorset; and finally to his daughters Anne and Grace. His son Gregory, who was summoned to parliament as Baron Cromwell a year before his father's death, was a dull lad, on whose education much pains was bestowed by different masters, and who was ultimately sent to Cambridge in 1528 with his cousin, Christopher Wellyfed. They were both placed, and apparently both at Cromwell's charge, under the care of a tutor named Chekynge, whose letters to Cromwell about their progress are not without interest (ib. Nos. 4314, 4433, 4560, 4837, 4916, 5757, 6219, 6722).
Three months after the making of this will, Cromwell's master, Wolsey, fell into disgrace. The great seal was taken from him on 17 Oct., and Cromwell was in serious anxiety lest his own fortunes should be involved in his master's ruin. The cardinal was ordered for a time to withdraw to Esher, or Asher, as the name was then written, and thither Cromwell followed him. He is commonly supposed to have shown a most devoted attachment to his old master in trouble, and as this view is set forth in Shakespeare, it is of course indelible. Nevertheless, the account of his conduct at this time given in Cavendish's life of Wolsey does not suggest an altogether disinterested attachment. ‘It chanced me,’ says the writer, ‘upon All-Hallow'n day to come into the great chamber at Asher in the morning to give mine attendance, where I found Master Cromwell leaning in the great window, with a primer in his hand, saying of Our Lady's mattins, which had been since a very strange sight. He prayed not more earnestly than the tears distilled from his eyes. Whom I bade good-morrow, and with that I perceived the tears upon his cheeks. To whom I said, “Why, Master Cromwell, what meaneth all this your sorrow? Is my lord in any danger for whom ye lament thus? or is it for any loss that ye have sustained by any misadventure?” “Nay, nay,” quoth he, “it is my unhappy adventure, which am like to lose all I have travailed for all the days of my life for doing of my master true and diligent service.” “Why, Sir,” quoth I, “I trust ye be too wise to commit anything by my lord's commandment otherwise than ye might do of right, whereof ye have any cause to doubt loss of your goods.” “Well, well,” quoth he, “I cannot tell; but all things I see before mine eyes is as it is taken; and this I understand right well that I am in disdain with most men for my master's sake, and surely without just cause. Howbeit, an ill name once gotten will not lightly be put away. I never had any promotion by my lord to the increase of my living. And thus much will I say to you, that I intend, God willing, this afternoon, when my lord hath dined, to ride to London, and so to the court, where I will either make or mar, or I come again”’ (Cavendish, Life of Wolsey, ed. Singer, 1825, i. 192–4).
It was the crisis of his fortune and the touchstone of his character. Simple-minded Cavendish could not believe that so astute a lawyer could have done anything in his master's service to endanger forfeiture of his own goods. But his old servant, Stephen Vaughan, then at Antwerp, was anxious about Cromwell's future fortunes also, though he trusted his ‘truth and wisdom’ would preserve him from danger. ‘You are more hated,’ he wrote to Cromwell, ‘for your master's sake, than for anything which I think you have wrongfully done against any man’ (Calendar, No. 6036). Perhaps so; but Cromwell possibly did not like to bear the sole responsibility of his acts in suppressing the small monasteries. He had reasons enough for wishing to go to court and explain his conduct, or make friends to shield him there. That he was in very bad odour for what he had done at Ipswich is evident from the expressions used by his fellow-labourer Thomas Russhe, who wrote to him at this very time: ‘You would be astonished at the lies told of you and me in these parts’ (ib. No. 6110). And we are informed by Cardinal Pole, who was then in London, and heard what people said, that it was commonly reported he had been sent to prison, and would be duly punished for his offences. It is true that he stood by Wolsey in his hour of need, but that hour was also his own. Wolsey was almost more distressed for his colleges than for himself, knowing how easily their possessions might be confiscated (as most of them were) on the pretext of his own attainder. Cromwell was interested to prevent inquiry into the complaints regarding the suppression of the monasteries for their endowment. Besides, Cromwell was known at court simply as Wolsey's dependent, and as such he had no reason to look for favour from the party of Norfolk and the Boleyns, who were now omnipotent. But he knew the ways of the world. He advised his old master to conciliate his enemies with pensions, and drafts still remain in his handwriting of grants to be made by Wolsey to Lord Rochford, Anne Boleyn's brother, of annuities out of his bishopric of Winchester and abbey of St. Albans (ib. Nos. 6115, 6181). He also made those nobles his friends by getting Wolsey's grants to them made legal and confirmed by the king—at the expense, of course, of the cardinal's bishoprics and colleges (Cavendish, i. 228–9). But he likewise relieved the cardinal's own necessities when, being compelled to dismiss his large retinue, he had not even the means to pay them the wages due to them, by getting up a subscription among the chaplains who had been promoted by Wolsey's liberality, and he gave 5l. himself towards a fund for the expenses of his servants.
But the chief service he did to Wolsey was when ‘the boke’ (or bill) of articles against the cardinal had been passed through the House of Lords and was sent down to the House of Commons. Cromwell was a member of that parliament, as he had been of that of 1523. He sat for Taunton, by whose influence nominated we cannot tell. The bill, in Brewer's opinion, was not a bill of attainder, for Wolsey had been already condemned of a præmunire in the king's bench, and if further proceedings had been intended by the king, they would not have been dropped. But it wore an ugly enough aspect, and Cromwell distinguished himself by pleading Wolsey's cause in the lower house, taking continual counsel with him as to the answer to be made to each separate charge, till at length the proceedings were dropped on his showing a writing signed by the cardinal confessing a number of misdemeanors, and another, sealed with his seal, giving up his property to the king (Cavendish, i. 208–9; Hall, Chronicle, ed. 1809, pp. 767–8).
Wolsey's gratitude was effusive. ‘Mine only aider,’ he calls him, ‘in this mine intolerable anxiety;’ and there is a whole series of letters addressed to him at this period beginning with expressions no less fervent (Calendar, vol. iv. Nos. 6098, 6181, 6203–4, 6226, 6249, &c.). Yet some months later, when this particular crisis was passed, and Wolsey, deprived of his fattest benefices, was sent to live in the north simply as archbishop of York, leaving Cromwell to protect his interests at court, it does not seem that his confidence in him was altogether unbounded; and though he disclaimed any suspicion of his integrity when Cromwell charged him with mistrusting him, he confessed that it had been reported to him Cromwell ‘had not done him so good offices as he might concerning his colleges and his archbishopric.’ He, however, was faithful to him in the parliamentary crisis, and it was by his efforts ultimately that Wolsey obtained his pardon (ib. No. 6212). His conduct had such a look of honesty and fidelity about it, that it raised him in public estimation, and won favour for him at court, so that Stephen Vaughan's anxiety about his fortunes was soon set at rest. ‘You now sail in a sure haven,’ wrote Vaughan to him from Bergen-op-Zoom on 3 Feb. 1530, and he hopes it is true, as reported, that Cromwell was to go abroad in the retinue of Anne Boleyn's father, then Earl of Wiltshire and ambassador to the emperor.
Whether this was really contemplated at court it would be rash to say, but that it was even talked about shows the marvellous progress made by Cromwell out of danger and difficulty into the sunshine of court favour within a very few weeks. From this time, in fact, his rise was steady and continuous. The preparation for it had been well laid beforehand. Not merely his legal attainments and his commercial success, but his knowledge of men acquired in foreign countries, his fascinating manners, his sumptuous tastes and his interest in the pursuits of every man that was thrown into his company, had already fitted him for a career of greatness. Among even his early correspondents were men more distinguished afterwards. Miles Coverdale, not yet known as a reformer, writes to him from Cambridge (ib. vol. iv. No. 3388; see also v. 221). Edmund Bonner, equally unknown in the world, reminds him of a promise to lend him the ‘Triumphs of Petrarch’ to help him to learn Italian (ib. No. 6346). Among his servants were Ralph Sadler, afterwards noted in Scotch embassies, and Stephen Vaughan above mentioned, who was frequently afterwards his political, as at this time his commercial, agent in the Netherlands; and the things which Vaughan procures for him thence are not a little curious. An iron chest of very special make, difficult to get, and so expensive that Vaughan at first shrank from the purchase, two ‘Cronica Cronicarum cum figuris,’ the only ones he could find in all Antwerp, and those very dear, and a globe, with a book of reference to the contents (ib. Nos. 4613, 4884, 5034, 6429, 6744), are among the number.
Notwithstanding a reference, already quoted from an early correspondent, to his ‘ghostly walking,’ and the fact that he received letters from Coverdale speaking of his ‘fervent zeal for virtue and godly study’ (ib. vol. vi. No. 221), it is pretty certain that no religious change had yet come over him, and it may be doubted whether that change, when it did come, was not merely a change in externals, in conformity with the political requirements of a new era. In his will he makes the usual bequests for masses. In his letters he hopes Lutheran opinions will be suppressed and wishes Luther had never been born (ib. No. 6391). Yet it was apparently at this very time, just after Cardinal Wolsey's fall, that he found means of access to the king's presence and suggested to him that policy of making himself head of the church of England which would enable him to have his own way in the matter of the divorce and give him other advantages as well. So at least we must suppose from the testimony of Cardinal Pole, writing nine or ten years later. Henry, he tells us, seeing that even Wolsey (who was supposed, though untruly, to have first instigated the divorce) could no longer advance the project, was heard to declare with a sigh that he could prosecute it no longer; and those about him rejoiced for a while in the belief that he would abandon a policy so fraught with danger. But he had scarcely remained two days in this state of mind when a messenger of Satan (whom he afterwards names as Cromwell) addressed him and blamed the timidity of his councillors in not devising means to gratify his wishes. They were considering the interests of his subjects more than his, and seemed to think princes bound by the same principles as private persons were. But a king was above the laws, as he had the power to change them, and in this case he had the law of God actually in his favour; so if there was any obstacle from churchmen let the king get himself declared, what he actually was, head of the church in his own realm, and it would then be treason to oppose his wishes.
Pole confesses that he did not hear Cromwell address this speech to the king, but he had heard all the sentiments contained in it expressed by Cromwell himself; and it was owing chiefly to the impression he had formed of the man in one particular conversation that he thought it necessary for his own safety to go abroad early in 1532, when it had become manifest that the king was chiefly guided by his counsels. This conversation, which took place at Cardinal Wolsey's house, must have been in 1528 or 1529, just after Pole's first return from Italy, and was highly characteristic of both the speakers. Cromwell asked in a general way what was the duty of a prudent councillor to his prince. Pole said, above all things to consider his master's honour, and he went on to give his views as to the two different principles of honour and expediency, when Cromwell replied that such theories were applauded in the schools but were not at all relished in the secret councils of princes. A prudent councillor, he said, ought first to study the inclination of his prince, and he ended by advising Pole to give up his old-fashioned studies and read a book by an ingenious modern author who took a practical view of government and did not dream like Plato. The book was Machiavelli's celebrated treatise, ‘The Prince,’ which Cromwell must have possessed in manuscript, for it was not published for three or four years after. Cromwell offered Pole to lend it him, but perceiving that Pole did not appear to relish its teaching he did not fulfil his promise.
It was at the beginning of 1531 that Cromwell was made a privy councillor, not many weeks after the death of his old master Wolsey. The leading men about the king were at that time the Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn's father, now Earl of Wiltshire; and for some time Cromwell seems only to have acted a subordinate part, though Pole must have taken alarm at his growing influence, even in 1531. All that seems to have been entrusted to him at first was the legal business of the council. There is a paper of instructions given by the king (though doubtless drawn up by himself) concerning such business to be laid before the council in Michaelmas term 1531 (Calendar, vol. v. No. 394). It relates to prosecutions to be instituted (chiefly for præmunire), exchanges of crown lands, and bills to be prepared for parliament. As a mere tool of the court in matters like these it appears that he was becoming very unpopular, and it is particularly noted that when, in the beginning of 1531, the clergy were pardoned their præmunire by act of parliament, and the House of Commons got a rebuff from the king for complaining that laity were not included in it, some of the members complained that Cromwell, the new-made privy councillor, had led them into difficulties by revealing their deliberations to the king (Hall, Chronicle, p. 775).
His rise into the king's favour appears to have been somehow connected with a violent quarrel with Sir John Wallop, just after Cardinal Wolsey's death. ‘Wallop,’ according to Chapuys, ‘attacked him with insults and threats, and for protection he procured an audience of the king, and promised to make him the richest king that ever was in England.’ A master of the art of money-making himself, he knew what might be done in that way if the crown would use its authority to the utmost. Even as privy councillor he did not feel himself debarred from taking charge of a vast number of private interests; and his correspondence grew enormously, with hints of douceurs and even very distinct promises in numerous letters, for services of various kinds. To assist him in these matters he drew up a multitude of what he called ‘remembrances,’ which by-and-by became more distinctly memoranda of matters of state, to be talked over with the king. On 14 April 1532 he was appointed master of the jewels, and on 16 July following clerk of the hanaper. In the same year he was made master of the king's wards. On 17 May he obtained for himself and his son Gregory in survivorship a grant from the crown of the lordship of Romney in Newport, South Wales. About the same time he took a ninety-nine years' lease from the Augustinian friars of two messuages ‘late of new-builded’ within the precinct of the Austin Friars, London, where he had dwelt so long; and doubtless it was at the new building of those houses that he was guilty of a singularly arbitrary act recorded by Stow in his ‘Survey of London’ (ed. 1603, p. 180). He not only removed the palings of his neighbours' gardens twenty-two feet further into their ground, and built upon the land so taken, but he even removed upon rollers a house occupied by Stow's father that distance further off, without giving the occupant the slightest warning beforehand; and each of the neighbours simply lost so much land without compensation (see a letter which seems to have some bearing on this in Cal. vol. vii. No. 1617).
Influential as he was, however, he was at first but a subordinate member of the council. No mention is made of him in the despatches of the imperial ambassador Chapuys until the beginning of 1533, when the marriage with Anne Boleyn had taken place; at which time he mentions him as one who was powerful with the king (ib. vol. vi. No. 351). To keep on good terms with the imperial ambassador, and plausibly answer his remonstrances after the king had repudiated the emperor's aunt and married another woman, required more delicate diplomacy than the titled members of the council could command, and Cromwell became from this time the constant medium of communication between the king and Chapuys. The crisis, indeed, seemed at first so dangerous that English merchants withdrew their goods from Flanders, and Cromwell himself, fearing invasion, got the most of his valuables conveyed into the Tower. But the fear of war passed away and Cromwell's influence grew. He was commissioned by the king to assess the fines of those who declined to receive knighthood at Anne's coronation, and managed the matter so skilfully as to raise a good sum of money for the king. In the latter part of the year his supremacy in the council was undoubted. ‘He rules everything,’ writes Chapuys. The proud spirit even of Norfolk was entirely under his control, and the duke was fairly sick of the court (ib. Nos. 1445, 1510).
On 12 April 1533 he was made chancellor of the exchequer; in April 1534, if not earlier, he was appointed the king's secretary, and on 8 Oct. following he was made master of the rolls. According to Sanders he would have been present at the trial of Lord Dacre in July but for a fit of the gout, and believed he could have compelled the peers to bring in a different verdict from the acquittal which they unanimously pronounced. ‘Thank my legs!’ he said to Dacre in reply to an insincere expression of gratitude for imaginary intercession. And though Sanders may not be the best authority for this, the fact of Cromwell's illness at that time is confirmed by a contemporary letter (ib. vol. vii. No. 959). The fact of his brutality in similar cases is indisputable. It is shown by his own censorious letters to Bishop Fisher at the beginning of the same year, aggravating in every possible way the frivolous charge of treason brought against an old man almost at his death's door with age and infirmity, and blaming every reasonable excuse as a further aggravation of the crime (ib. Nos. 116, 136, 238).
The Act of Supremacy carried through parliament in November 1534 gave legislative sanction to that which was the keystone of Cromwell's policy, and at the beginning of the following year the king appointed him his vicar-general to carry it into effect. He received also a commission on 21 Jan. 1535 to hold a general visitation of churches, monasteries, and clergy, and he was frequently addressed as ‘general visitor of the monasteries’ (ib. vol. viii. Nos. 73, 75). On 30 Jan. he was one of the commissioners for tenths and first-fruits in London, in Middlesex, in Surrey, and in the town of Bristol (ib. Nos. 129, 149 (41, 42, 74, 80)); but his position there was perhaps merely formal, as in the commissions of the peace. The use he made of his visitation and other powers was soon made manifest. He was the king's vicegerent in all causes ecclesiastical, supreme over bishops and archbishops, commissioned thoroughly to reform the church from abuses which its appointed rulers had scandalously allowed to grow; so the preamble to his commission expressly said. Under his direction proceedings were taken against those first victims of the Act of Supremacy, Reynolds, Hale, and the Charterhouse monks. Accompanied each time by two or three other members of the council he repeatedly visited More and Fisher in the Tower before their trial, for the express purpose of procuring matter for their indictment. He defended their executions afterwards with the most audacious effrontery against the clamour raised in consequence at Rome, while at home he was made chancellor of the university of Cambridge, in the room of the martyred Bishop Fisher. He ordered the clergy everywhere to preach the new doctrine of the supremacy, and instructed the justices of the peace throughout the kingdom to report where there was any failure. It was a totally new era in the church, such as had not been seen before, and has not been since: for what was done under a later and greater Cromwell was an avowed revolution, not a tyranny under the pretext of reform.
He also appointed visitors under him for the monasteries, whose galling injunctions and filthy reports on the state of those establishments paved the way for their downfall. Early in 1536 an act was passed dissolving all those monasteries which had not two hundred a year of revenue, and granting their possessions to the king, who, by Cromwell's advice, sold them at easy rates to the gentry, thus making them participators of the confiscation. On 2 May Cromwell was one of the body of councillors sent to convey Anne Boleyn to the Tower, and before whom she knelt, protesting her innocence. He was also one of the witnesses of her death. Her fall led indirectly to his further rise; for it was doubtless owing to the disgrace that had befallen his family that her father on 18 June surrendered the office of lord privy seal, which was given to Cromwell on 2 July. On the 9th he was raised to the peerage as Baron Cromwell of Oakham in the county of Rutland. At the same time he presided as the king's vicegerent in the convocation which met in June, where grievous complaints were made of the propagation of a number of irreverent opinions, even in books printed cum privilegio. A little later he issued injunctions to the clergy to declare to their parishioners touching the curtailing of rites and ceremonies, the abrogation of holidays, and the exploding of superstitions.
From this time his personal history continues to be till his death the history of Henry VIII's government and policy, tyrannical and oppressive to his own subjects, and wary, but utterly unprincipled towards foreign powers. Just before he was made lord privy seal he had a correspondence with the Princess Mary, the shamefulness and cruelty of which would be incredible if it were not on record. The death of her mother at the beginning of the year had left her more than ever defenceless against her father's tyranny; but the execution of Anne Boleyn removed her most bitter enemy, and it was generally expected that her father's severity towards her would relax. Henry himself indirectly encouraged the belief, and the princess was induced to write letters to him soliciting forgiveness in so far as she had offended him. These overtures for reconciliation (which ought rather to have proceeded from the king himself) Cromwell was allowed to answer in the king's name; and he rejected a number of them in succession as not sufficiently submissive. She was not allowed to use general terms; she must confess that the king had been right all along, and that her disobedience had been utterly unjustifiable. If she would not do this, Cromwell told her he would decline to intercede for her and leave her obstinacy to find its own reward. At last, as the only hope of being allowed to live in peace, she was forced to confess under her own hand that she was a bastard, and that the marriage between her father and mother had been incestuous and unlawful!
That a man like Cromwell should have been very generally hated will surprise no one. When the great rebellion in the north broke out in the latter part of this year, one of the chief demands of the insurgents was that Cromwell should be removed from the king's council, and receive condign punishment as a heretic and traitor. But the rebellion was put down and Cromwell remained as powerful as ever. He was elected a knight of the Garter on 5 Aug. 1537 (Anstis, Hist. of Garter, ii. 407), and in the same year he did not think it incompetent for him, a layman, to accept the deanery of Wells. He already held the prebend of Blewbery in Sarum, which was granted to him by patent on 11 May 1536. In 1538, when the Bible was printed, or rather a few months before it was printed, he issued a new set of injunctions to the clergy in which they were required to provide each for his own church ‘one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English.’ They were also ordered for the first time to keep parish registers of every wedding, christening, and burial—an institution for which posterity may owe Cromwell gratitude. On 14 Nov. 1539 he was appointed to oversee the printing of the Bible for five years and to prevent unauthorised translations. Yet, powerful as he was over church and state, those who had good means of knowing were aware that he retained his position only by an abject submissiveness and indifference to insults, which was strangely out of keeping with his external greatness. ‘The king,’ said one, ‘beknaveth him twice a week and sometimes knocks him well about the pate; and yet when he hath been well pomelled about the head, and shaken up, as it were a dog, he will come out into the great chamber, shaking of the bushe [sic] with as merry a countenance as though he might rule all the roast’ (State Papers, ii. 552). Such was the high reward of his great principle of studying the secret inclinations of princes. After two or three years the greater monasteries followed the smaller ones. One by one the abbots and priors were either induced to surrender their houses or were found guilty of treason, so that confiscation followed. Cromwell directed the examinations of several of these abbots; and he himself received a considerable share of the confiscated lands. Among these were the whole of the possessions of the great and wealthy priory of Lewes, extending through various counties as far north as Yorkshire, which were granted to him on 16 Feb. 1538. Those of the great priory of St. Osith in Essex, and of the monasteries of Colchester in Essex and Launde in Leicestershire were granted to him on 10 April 1540. He also obtained a grant on 4 July 1538 of a portion of the lands taken from the see of Norwich by act of parliament. On 30 Dec. 1537 the king appointed him warden and chief justice itinerant of the royal forests north of Trent. On 2 Nov. 1538 he was made captain of Carisbrook in the Isle of Wight, and on 4 Jan. following constable of Leeds Castle in Kent. This is far from an exhaustive account of what he received from the king's bounty, or helped himself to by virtue of his position, even during the last four years of his life, when he was lord privy seal.
Some anecdotes are recorded by his admirer, Foxe, of the mode in which he personally exercised authority at this time. Two cases, both of which are highly applauded by the martyrologist, may serve as examples. Happening to meet in the street a certain serving-man who ‘used to go with his hair hanging about his ears down unto his shoulders,’ he asked him if his master or any of his fellows wore their hair in such fashion, or how he dared to do so. The man for his excuse saying that he had made a vow, Cromwell said he would not have him break it, but he should go to prison till it was fulfilled. So also happening to meet one Friar Bartley near St. Paul's still wearing his cowl after the suppression, ‘Yea,’ said Cromwell, ‘will not that cowl of yours be left off yet? And if I hear by one o'clock that this apparel be not changed, thou shalt be hanged immediately, for example to all others.’ The friar took good care not to wear it again.
In 1539 he was made lord great chamberlain of England. The same year he negotiated the king's marriage with Anne of Cleves, which took place in January following; and, as if specially in reward for his services in this matter, he was on 17 April 1540 created Earl of Essex. But his career was now near its close. On 10 June the Duke of Norfolk accused him of treason at the council table, and he was immediately arrested and sent to the Tower (Journals of the House of Lords, i. 143). A long indictment was framed against him for liberating prisoners accused of misprision, for receiving bribes for licenses to export money, corn, and horses, for giving out commissions without the king's knowledge, for dispersing heretical books, and for a number of other things; in addition to which it was hinted in foreign courts that he had been so ambitious as to form a design of marrying the Princess Mary and making himself king. He was, however, refused a regular trial. The lords proceeded against him by a bill of attainder, which was read a second and a third time without opposition on 19 June. It was then sent down to the commons, where it appears to have been recast, and reappeared in the lords on the 29th, when it was approved in its altered form, and passed through all its stages. In the upper house Cromwell had not a friend from the first except Cranmer, whose good offices only went so far as timidly to plead with the king in his favour before the second reading of the bill. Out of doors he had the sympathy of those who disliked the catholic reaction: for his fall was mainly due, not merely and perhaps not even so much to the king's personal disgust at the marriage with Anne of Cleves, which he had negotiated, as to the fact that the alliance with the German protestants, of which that marriage was to have been the seal, had served its purpose; there was nothing more to be got out of it.
Cromwell was left in prison for nearly seven weeks after his arrest; and whether he was to be beheaded or burned as a heretic was for a time uncertain. In the interval he wrote to the king disowning all traitorous intentions and imploring mercy. The king did not answer, but sent the lord chancellor, the Duke of Norfolk, and the Earl of Southampton to visit him in prison, and extract from him, as one doomed to die, a full confession of all he knew touching the marriage with Anne of Cleves. It was in Cromwell's power, in fact, by revealing some filthy conversations that he had had with the king, to supply evidence tending to show that the marriage had not been really consummated, and to put these conversations upon record was the last service the fallen minister could do for his ungrateful master. Cromwell wrote the whole particulars and concluded an abject letter with the appeal: ‘Most gracious prince, I cry mercy, mercy, mercy!’ But the king, who, according to Burnet, had the letter three times read to him, left the writer to his fate. On 28 July he was brought to the scaffold on Tower Hill, and after an address to the people, declaring that he died in the catholic faith and repudiated all heresy, his head was chopped off by a clumsy executioner in a manner more than usually revolting.
A year before his death he had seen his son Gregory summoned to parliament as a peer of the realm, and the title of Baron Cromwell, previously held by his father, instead of being lost by attainder, was granted to the young man by patent on 18 Dec. following his father's execution. Gregory had married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Seymour, a sister of Jane Seymour, and widow of Sir Anthony Oughtred. He died in 1557, and was succeeded by his eldest son Henry. Henry's grandson, Thomas, fourth baron Cromwell, was created Earl Ardglass in the Irish peerage 15 April 1645. The earldom of Ardglass expired in 1687, and the barony of Cromwell became dormant in 1709.
[Poli Epistolæ (Brescia, 1744), i. 126–7; Bandello, Novelle (Milan, 1560), ii. 140 sq.; Ellis's Letters, 2nd ser. ii. 116–25, 160–1; Cavendish's Life of Wolsey; Hall's Chronicle; State Papers of Henry VIII; Calendar of Henry VIII, vols. iv. and following; Foxe; Burnet; Kaulek's Correspondance Politique de Castillon et de Marillac; Sander's Anglican Schism (Lewis's translation), 146–7; Doyle's Official Baronage; manuscript Calendars of Patent Rolls in Public Record Office. For many new facts relating to Cromwell's family and early life the writer has relied on information communicated to him privately by Mr. John Phillips in addition to what the latter gentleman has made public in the ‘Antiquary’ for October 1880, and the ‘Antiquarian Magazine’ for August and October 1882.]