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Thomas Cromwell: man behind the English Reformation?

Please find attached here the presentation notes from the historical lecture delivered on 1 February 2019 by Pastor Jonathan Arnold. 

Intro to the Reformation

​It was a solemn period for Roman Catholics in certain areas of England, monasteries were being destroyed but the reformation in England had not yet started. Henry had not yet broken from Rome! What was the occasion for this destructive act? It was Thomas Cromwell on the order of Roman Catholic Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII Chancellor. Little did Wolsey know his successor would employ this same tactic to pave the way for the Reformations progress in England. However, we are not here to talk about Cardinal Wolsey, in fact Wolsey met his demise for failing to solve the King ‘special matter’ that would facilitate the Reformation in England.

This paper is about his successor Thomas Cromwell. Who helped resolve this special matter which illuminated the first glimmers of the English Reformation.

Today in this brief presentation I will talk about: Cromwell’s early life, his reforms and break from Rome, his Protestant influences, his link to the English Bible, his demise, and what we can learn from this unique and interesting historical character.

Thomas Cromwell’s life and administration spans part of the reign of Henry VIII and the Reformation in England. The English Reformation was not one particular event that can be linked to a date but it was a long process. The term ‘English Reformation’ has several aspects: a break from obedience from Rome, state control over the church, the removal of Catholic power structures and institutions such as monasteries, a change from Catholic worship and amended of worship to a more protestant form. Though the date of each change can be traced to a legislative change or canon, who was behind it and what was the motive are more difficult questions. Thomas Cromwell carried out a number of reforms to state and the church. He was one of the key people in this ‘Reformation’, a great administrator, faithful to the crown, a protestant but with flaws. Undoubtedly Thomas Cromwell’s work has a profound impact on English History, Protestant history.

If Henry’s motives of breaking from Rome where spurious, the carrying out of that break eventually had Thomas Cromwell as the architect. He was a self-made man who rose from dire poverty, Cromwell brought the English language Bible to England and Wales, stabilized the English economy and as a “man of laws” changed the very face of Parliament, introducing the notion that governmental laws could and should be established and approved through representation of the people.

Early Life

Cromwell was born in Putney, Surrey in 1485. His father was a blacksmith and owned an inn and brewery. He left his family at a fairly young age and travelled to the continent, we think spending time in the low countries and France. Eventually he ended up in Italy and was taken under the wing of Francesco Frescobaldi and Italian merchant. At some point prior to 1515 (when he was first married) he returned to England. Tragically his first wife and two daughters died. He established himself as a merchant and lawyer in London, secured a seat in the House of Commons in 1523 and became a member of Grays Inn in 1524. It was during this period, roughly 1516-1530 he is under the authority of Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor and chief advisor to the king. One of the reason Cardinal Wolsey picked him up to work for him was because he wanted his tomb to be prepared by the best artists/sculptures, who were, of course, Italian at the time. However, in 1529 Wolsey fell from power over King Henry VIII’s marriage annulment to Catherine of Aragon. Intriguingly Henry decided to take this tomb being prepared for Wolsey for his own, although he was never buried there. In fact, there are two angels in the Victoria and Albert Museum that you can go and see, and Nelson was buried in the black casket!

Cromwell managed to avoid the taint of being an advisor to Wolsey and by the end of 1530 he was appointed to the King’s privy council. Cromwell seemed cultured and charming, he even tried to look after widows, there are numerous letters where this is clear. Cromwell was seen as a shining light and in Wolsey’s absence was given more responsibly. He was to be the King’s chief minister in 1534 until his downfall in 1540.

Cromwell’s Reforms and a break from Rome

One of the most well-known reforms Thomas Cromwell enacted was the dissolution of the monasteries. But this was not his or Henry’s novel idea. It was first suggested by a Roman Catholic – Cardinal Wollsey. From 1526 to 1529 Cardinal Wolsey suppressed 29 monasteries with the permission of the Pope to fund Ipswich College and Cardinal College in Oxford which became King Henry VIII college and then Christchurch College. It was founded in the grounds of one of the suppressed monasteries (St Frideswide’s). Wolsey saw this as part of his legacy and his plans were expensive and extravagant. It is right to say there were previous suppressions on religious houses and disbursement of their revenues but nothing on this scale. There lands and goods were to be sold. This in turn created a considerable amount of legal work, and Cromwell’s skill in land conveyancing marked him out as the best man for the job. On 28 July 1524 he supervised the resignation by Sir John Longevile to Wolsey of his patronal rights in Bradwell Priory, Buckinghamshire. Another twenty-eight monasteries followed, with Cromwell and his team responsible in each case for selling their lands and goods. By August 1526 the documents relating to the houses which had been suppressed to fund the Oxford college alone filled thirty-four bags.[i]

Cromwell’s enthusiasm for his work is very apparent. On 2 April 1528 he wrote to Wolsey concerning Cardinal College:

The buyldinges of your noble colledge most prosperouslye and magnyfycentlye dothe arryse in suche wise that to every mannes judgement the lyke thereof was never sene ne ymagened having consideracyon to the largeness beautee sumptuous Curyous and most substauncyall buylding of the same.The monastic foundations Wolsey suppressed totaled an income of £1800.[ii]

Cromwell’s part in the English Reformation has been much debated. There was an argument that he hatched the plan to break with Rome and whispered it in Henry VIII ear to release him from his marriage. However, evidence suggests he was rising the ranks in court through 1530 1532. In fact, it was where the colleges were built that the King wanted possession of the land – this called upon Cromwell’s legal skill to transfer ownership. Cromwell gained credibility with the King. When the king’s policy of forcing the pope to come to terms had proved to be a failure (following Acts that placed pressure on the clergy in England)[iii]. It was, to all appearances, Cromwell who then came forward with a clear notion of how to achieve Henry’s purpose without the Pope. His policy consisted in making a reality of some large claims to supreme power that Henry had uttered at intervals.

He proposed to destroy Rome’s power in England and to replace it by the royal supremacy in the church. He was behind the first attacks on the papacy (1532) and the act against the payment by bishops of their first year’s revenue to Rome. He secured the submission of the clergy to the king in matters of legislation, and in 1533 he secured the passage of the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome, preventing ecclesiastical appeals to Rome (in matrimonial and testamentary cases). Its preamble embodied his political theory of the sovereign national state. Thereafter he was in complete control of the government, though he remained careful to pretend to be acting on the king’s authority. In 1534 he completed the erection of the royal supremacy with the passage of the Act of Supremacy.[iv] This confirmed the King’s rights of visitation as the supreme head of the church in the realm.[v] Cromwell was then made vicegerent by the King outranking another clergy.

After the break with Rome the monasteries existed as the main power structure and source of income of the church, they were gradually dissolved with the smaller first (less than 200) and then the larger monasteries until in 1540 Waltham Abbey was dissolved.  A year before the first Act of dissolution the Valor Ecclesiasticus, which was a survey of the finances of the church in England, Wales and some parts of Ireland in 1535 (not attempted since 1291) was completed.
The plan of dissolution was brought before parliament was in the spring of 1536. In the preamble of this act which was enacted to appropriate the smaller religious houses to the King we read:

“Forasmuch as manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living is daily used and committed among the little and small abbeys, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons, and nuns… and albeit that many continual visitations hath been heretofore had, by the space of two hundred years and more, for an honest and charitable reformation of such unthrifty, carnal, and abominable living, yet nevertheless little or none amendment is hitherto had…” 

Richard Hoyle argues a clever strategy was taken to the dissolution act as it contained an escape clause for smaller monasteries that were worthy to be preserved, so any member of parliament could conceive that this didn’t apply to their local monasteries or house and vote in favour. Hoyle argues this was a mark that the government could not secure the conscious approval of Parliament, but a gradual approach worked.  Following this Act the houses were surveyed and monks and nuns dispersed, items sold off and new tenants brought in.
In 1539 when the second dissolution Act came before parliament Darmaid MacCulloch argues this was recognised as a fait accompli after already approving the 1536 preamble. Some argue that this was a strategy from the beginning as viewed through the evidence of Thomas Cromwell’s office papers – but it is the only archive to survive and the vision may have been less consistent.

Thomas Cromwell and Protestant influences 

Some say Cromwell was a political pragmatist using religion for political ends. But I think the evidence yields something far deeper seated in my view. Cromwell was protestant early on.

As early as 1524, Cromwell showed plainly his desire to reform the Church in England through his association with merchants such as Thomas Somer, a stockfishmonger who was a known smuggler of evangelical heretical books, including Tyndale’s New Testament[vi].

In a letter around 1527 a young Myles Coverdale wrote to Cromwell requesting books to help advance his studies, and in a eulogy laden with evangelical catch phrases he praised Cromwell for ‘for the fervent zeall, that yow have to vertu and godly study’ (State papers, 1.384). 

On the 19 November 1530 four men crossed Tower Bridge, John Purser, John Tyndale, Thomas Somer and an unnamed apprentice from the city. Above their head – pecasse contra mandata regis – to act or play against their king. Their crime? To distribute William Tyndale’s practice of prelates. They had stuck to themselves pages from Tyndale’s works that were subsequently burnt and they were pilloried as a warning to others. This demonstrates the dangerous game Cromwell was playing as a protestant in the Kings court.[vii] There was hope Cromwell’s influence would save them, but he could not.

By 1530, Thomas Cromwell’s faith demonstrated decisively a commitment to fostering of “the new learning” within the realm. Within a year, he was smuggling and organizing the translation and printing of Lutheran works, most notably The Apology of the Augsburg Confession by Philipp Melanchthon. With Sir Thomas More and John Stokesley, Bishop of London, actively pursuing heretics and burning smugglers at the stake, Thomas Cromwell took dangerous risks to foster his reformist religious agenda – all activities known, and likely far more unknown, accomplished with great secrecy before his service to or any protection from King Henry VIII.

For example, early in 1531 he persuaded the king to allow William Tyndale safe passage back to England only months after Henry had denounced him as a heretic. Stephen Vaughan (Cromwell’s Friend) was given the task of negotiating this with Tyndale in Antwerp. It looked possible until Vaughan sent a letter that included a copy of William Tyndale’s Answer to Thomas More, defending his enthusiasm for an English Bible. Henry was furious, and Cromwell sent a strongly worded letter ordering Vaughan to have nothing further to do with Tyndale. However, from the subsequent replies from Vaughan, he clearly has the impression that Cromwell encouraged continued contact with Tyndale – possibly indicating a secret postscript with Cromwell’s letters to keep communication. After two further meetings Cromwell gave up. [viii]

Thomas Cromwell and the English Bible

​After the staunch Catholic, Sir ThomasMore, had been executed on 6th July, 1535. Miles Coverdale felt safe enough to return to England. Archbishop ThomasCranmer and ThomasCromwell, were now the key political figures in England.

In 1536 Parliament met and following the unsuccessful trip of Edward Fox to the Dukes of Saxony (Lutheran), Cromwell and Cranmer help draft something called the Wittenberg Articles, Henry disliked them greatly and asked a compromise reached. The result? The 10 articles, they expressed reservation about purgatory, mentioned justification and faith, but included three sacraments: baptism eucharist and penance. Thomas Cromwell in sending the agreed instruction of parliament and the king out went beyond what was agreed by ordering every parish church should provide copies of the Bible in English and Latin. He attacked the cult of the saints and the use of images. This raised some opposition and there was the well know pilgrimage of grace in Yorkshire that resulted in rebel-controlled areas, Henry would eventually put down these uprisings but only after some months and some rebel controlled areas,

Cranmer and Cromwell still wanted the Bible to be available in English. This was a controversial issue as William Tyndale had been denounced as a heretic (and his supporters mentioned above) and ordered to be burnt at the stake by HenryVIII eleven years before, for producing such a Bible. The edition they promoted, although mainly the work of Tyndale, had the name of MilesCoverdale on the cover. Cranmer approved the Coverdale version on 4th August 1538, and asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England.[ix]

Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September 1538. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the CoverdaleBible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. “The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them.” Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that “besides God’s reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm.”

The Swiss Reformed connections

During Cromwell’s time in office there were negotiations with the Smalcaldic league in Germany and the Augsburg confession was translated into English in hope, however, Henry did not take it up – although that might have been Cromwell and the translator Richard Taverner’s aim[x]. It is alleged that Cromwell used is powers from protestant ends, maybe even linked to the Reformers in Switzerland. There is a fascinating link now being exposed between him and the Swiss reformers and not the Germany and it is argued in a recent book that he had significant meetings with Swiss reformers.

In 1537, at the height of his career, he did something very dangerous for no seemingly political gain: he established semi-clandestine relations with the far‑away Swiss city of Zurich, simply because its thoroughgoing (and non‑Lutheran) version of the reformation was the one he wanted England to follow, despite the king’s evident hatred of Zurich’s brand of Protestantism.

There was a student exchange between Zurich and Oxford in 1537/38, host of young swiss men came across, hosted by the Marquis of Dorset, (family name Grey, later lady Jane Grey, whom Cranmer would support to take the throne.

Cromwell’s Demise

What caused Cromwell’s demise? An issue with Henry’s marriage? His religious beliefs? His possible claim to the throne through a relative?

It is well known Cromwell arranged a marriage that was politically advantageous, Henry was not impressed with Anne of Cleaves, his third wife-to-be, when he saw her and immediately was not interested. This was a grave problem for Cromwell and contributed to his demise. Cromwell’s fall cannot be attributed to any one mistake or decision, although the Cleves marriage was the single most important factor in undermining the king’s confidence in him. It was also a problem particularly difficult for Cromwell to resolve, as Henry’s divorce from Anne would only lead to the king’s marrying Norfolk’s (opponent of Cromwell) niece, Katherine Howard, thereby further threatening the minister’s position.

As loyal as Thomas Cromwell was to Henry VIII through his ten years of faithful service, eventually he crossed the religious line of the King over an issue the monarch never wavered upon. The truth of the matter was that Thomas Cromwell had clear links to Lutherans and Reformers who did not take the middle road so often held by Henry VIII.

King Henry VIII, though hateful of the papacy, still held close many Roman Catholic tenants, particularly the notion that abundant good works combined with faith were needed for salvation. This disagreement in religious belief ultimately became a sticking point in the King Henry VIII’s relationship with his most faithful servant, enabling the king to ultimately order Cromwell’s execution after his detractors, most notably Stephen Gardiner and other high-ranking conservative clergy, along with Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, orchestrated Cromwell’s arrest and imprisonment upon certainly false charges.

Two days after Cromwell suffered, in a blunt statement intended to show his determination to end the years of religious strife since the break from Rome, Henry ordered the executions of the three evangelicals arrested in March, as well as three conservatives loyal to Rome. 

King Henry therefore executed Cromwell for the ‘right’ reason: he was a heretic. But there was more beyond religion and marriage. Cromwell married his son Gregory to Queen Jane Seymour’s sister, and thus made himself King Henry VIII’s uncle by marriage. Henry made a specialty of killing people who were potential dynastic rivals to himself and his children, so even if Cromwell had not been a Protestant, he might have had his head chopped off to stop him taking the throne. You did not have to make the attempt, you just needed someone with a grudge to whisper to the king that you might try.

John Foxe, later writing about Thomas Cromwell, described him in the following manner:

In this worthy and noble person, besides divers other eminent virtues, three things especially are to be considered, to wit, flourishing authority, excelling wisdom, and fervent zeal to Christ and to his gospel. First, as touching his fervent zeal in setting forward the sincerity of Christian faith, sufficient is to be seen before by the injunctions, proclamations, and articles… that more cannot almost be wished in a nobleman, and scarce the like hath been seen in any.

It is a bit over the top but undoubtedly Thomas Cromwell has protestant beliefs. His political cunning was something we would balk at today, but he accomplished a break from Rome and an administrative reform that set England on a protestant path, of sorts. Thomas Cromwell was a complex historical figure, and opportunist, an emphatic Protestant – who was used greatly to improve Protestantism in England.


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