The Fall of Thomas Cromwell 1540

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

So I’ve had several people saying that they want to read more about Thomas Cromwell. This is me obliging and trying to widen my field of knowledge (it can never hurt!), but bear in mind I don’t really know a lot about him, so you’re bound to disagree with things. Don’t be afraid to comment and pull me out on something! In this post, I intend to focus solely on his fall from power in 1540. (I apologise for the lack of page numbers for the Hutchinson text, but I’m using an e-book, so it doesn’t have page numbers).

Robert Hutchinson has written a biography of Thomas Cromwell, saying that his arrest was ‘as ruthless as it was sudden’.[i] Cromwell was only made Earl of Essex in April 1540 and at the beginning of June 1540 Henry VIII gave the command for his arrest. So, sudden, it definitely was. From this point of view, we can also see it as ruthless – how did Cromwell go in that short space of time from being Henry’s favourite minister and really high in royal favour, to being accused of undermining Henry’s intention for a religious settlement? Hutchinson goes on to describe Cromwell as a ‘wholly self-made man’ who was a ‘devious, ruthless instrument of the state’.[ii] Cromwell, as is well known, was the son of a Putney blacksmith, who was in Wolsey’s service until he fell into disfavour, and he rose at court allegedly due to the patronage of the Boleyns during Anne’s period in favour. He was definitely a self-made man, like Anne Boleyn was a self-made woman. This possibly explains why they were so close, until Cromwell turned against her. As for the ‘instrument of the state’ it is true that Cromwell did a lot of Henry’s dirty work, like questioning Anne’s ‘accomplices’ and taking charge at court when Henry was in seclusion after the death of Jane Seymour. However, he also had his own opinions, particularly on religion, and was not afraid to push those forwards, particularly when it netted him rewards, like the Earldom of Essex.

A large part of Cromwell’s fall was to do with religion and the balance at court. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, was outspoken against him, and in February and March 1540 Gardiner had allegedly decided that the

Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539

time was ripe for revenge for the treatment of John Fisher, Cardinal, and Bishop of Rochester, who was executed in 1535 for failing to accept the Royal Supremacy.[iii] How far this is true, I don’t know, but Gardiner did show himself after Cromwell’s fall to be very anti-Protestant, so it was at least feasible that he could do that, though I don’t know how close Gardiner and Fisher were, or whether it was purely motivated by religion. Alison Weir also suggests that it was Gardiner and the Catholic faction at court who, while Cromwell was dealing with Parliament in London, was at Greenwich with the King and began to poison his mind against Cromwell.[iv] This certainly lends credibility to the theory that Cromwell’s fall was the result of a religious coup, depending on whether or not the ‘evidence’ is true. Loades writes that Cromwell’s fall was not so much the fault of the Cleves marriage, as that he was under attack from Gardiner, Suffolk and Norfolk, thereby agreeing with Elton and Weir.[v] This had not been a problem until Cromwell began to make mistakes – he patronised too many evangelical preachers, and pushed the Protestant alliance too far, which was then betrayed. The international situation did not help, as the Emperor had a major victory in Ghent, and Cromwell was opposed to an alliance with the French.[vi] Combined together, these things were far more likely to bring down Cromwell, than the simple matter of the King’s unhappy marriage. After all, it would be relatively easy to divorce and remarry.

According to J.J. Scarisbrick, there was no evidence that Cromwell had crossed the king on religion or anything else, or that there were divisions within the Privy Council over foreign policy (allegedly Cromwell favoured an Imperial alliance, which would make no sense given his religious sympathies).[vii] Given this evidence, it makes it more likely that Cromwell’s fall was over either religion or the more popular explanation of the Cleves marriage. Loades also suggests that sometime in late May or early June, Henry became convinced that Cromwell was a heretic – a Sacramentarian (Christians who deny Roman Catholic transubstantiation (bread and wine into the body and blood) and the Lutheran sacramental union), who was stirring up religious trouble.[viii] Whether or not this is true, we know from history that Cromwell was promoting Protestantism, although how far his beliefs went are unknown. Whether this was the push Henry needed to get rid of Cromwell is also questionable, as Henry had trusted Cromwell almost since the fall of Wolsey in 1529, and surely even Henry VIII could not turn against his favourite that quickly. Even with Wolsey, it was a slow, gradual process.

Henry VIII c.1537.
Henry VIII c.1537.

In order to push the Cleves marriage in 1539, it has been said that Crowell sacrificed Court politics to promote it.[ix] If this is true, then it was possible that part of the blame for his fall actually lies with Cromwell himself. Lots of people have to sacrifice one thing to achieve another, but in the environment of Henry VIII’s court, where factional politics ran riot, it was a dangerous thing to do and Cromwell paid with his life. David Starkey argues that Cromwell probably would have been able to fight his way out of the difficulties he was in as a result of the Cleves marriage, but he had too many enemies on the Council and had not moved to get rid of them, which was unusual, but it was possibly because he saw the court as a more immediate threat.[x] The threat from the court was simply the threat that came from Henry – Cromwell had to make sure Henry was happy and satisfied before making a move on the Council, possibly because Henry would have stopped anything which would bring down Suffolk in particular, his close friend. Antonia Fraser does put some emphasis on the failure of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, stressing that Henry’s eye soon moved onto Katherine Howard, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting (who was to become his fifth wife), and subtly suggesting that it was possibly this which put Cromwell in Henry’s bad graces.[xi] Katherine Howard was a niece of the Duke of Norfolk, that great enemy of Cromwell’s and, more importantly, a part of the Catholic faction. This is possibly where the idea of Cromwell being a heretic originated.

So what do I think? I think that the religious turmoil at Henry VIII’s court played a huge part in bringing down Thomas Cromwell. The fact that he was charged with subverting the King’s religious policies really puts a stamp on this. But I do think that the failure of the Cleves marriage was also a part of it, because the Catholic faction would not have been strong enough to bring Cromwell down unless he had made that mistake.

[i] Robert Hutchinson, The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister (London: Hachette UK, 2012)

[ii] Ibid

[iii] G.R. Elton, Policy and Police: the Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1985) p. 216

[iv] Alison Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London: Random House, 2011) p. 433

[v] David Loades, Henry VIII (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011) p. 289

[vi] Ibid, p. 289

[vii] J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968) p. 377

[viii] Loades, Henry VIII, p. 290

[ix] Elton, Policy and Police, p. 168

[x] David Starkey, The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London: Vintage, 2002) p. 99

[xi] Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London: Phoenix Press, 2002) p. 386

15 thoughts on “The Fall of Thomas Cromwell 1540

  1. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find
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  2. FWIW, I find the sacramentarian angle plausible. I’m neither a historian nor a history student but I have some knowledge of theology and Reformation history.

    No doubt the marriage with Anne of Cleves was also a factor: it’s easy to imagine Henry getting pissy about it, given how invested he was in his sundry marriages! But Henry needed a justification of a more legal nature. Heresy was a promising angle for Cromwell’s enemies to exploit.

    Theological disputes may seem trivial to us moderns, but of course they were a very big deal not so long ago — and not least during the tumult during the 16th C. Reformation. Moreover, the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist (and, relatedly, the mass as the performance of a sacrifice by a priest) was not a minor doctrine.

    The sacraments are fundamental to the practice of Christian faith, and the real presence is at the heart of one of the sacraments. Even among Protestants, Luther (in contrast to Zwingli) retained the doctrine of the real presence as something non-negotiable. So Henry wasn’t alone in his abiding attachment to that particular dogma.

    The Six Articles affirmed the real presence and made it a test of orthodoxy. In fact, Henry progressed only a short distance down the path of the Reformation. He remained a Catholic, except for his (not insignificant!) repudiation of the Pope, which was motivated in whole or in part by political (and marital) ends.

    So if Cromwell’s enemies followed up the marriage fiasco by successfully alleging that Cromwell denied the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that’s a sufficient combination to account for his execution. It’s doubtful that Cromwell actually denied the real presence, given his Lutheran sympathies, but of course such allegations needn’t be true to be lethally effective.


    1. I understand what you’re saying, and having also studied theory as a part of my history degree, I do have knowledge of these aspects. I do think that heresy was an easier aspect for Cromwell’s enemies to exploit, nevertheless, his enemies used everything they could to bring him down. I think the failure of the Cleves marriage gave his enemies the excuse they needed to push Henry VIII to take action against him.

      The Eucharist seems minor to us, is all I meant, and I do understand how important it was then. It was the main controversy in the 16th century, and even later. It was the main difference between Catholics and Protestants, along with the belief that the Pope is not the head of the Church on earth.


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    1. Wow thanks! I try to write as often as I can. I don’t really know much about Cromwell, only what I’ve discovered while writing my BA and MA theses. However, I am looking to expand all of the while so I will surely write something similar soon!


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  7. Helene,

    Two excellent books about Cromwell have been written by the reformation historian John Schofield. One is called, quite simply, ‘The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell’; the second is more of a study of the reformation as a whole and is called ‘Cromwell to Cromwell’. I find Schofield a much more balanced read about Thomas, his life and his achievements. As you said above you wanted to learn more about everyone’s favourite Tudor minister, I thought I would recommend them to you.



    1. Thanks! I’ve looked briefly at buying the Schofield one, though may have to wait until I have more money! I haven’t really heard of the Cromwell to Cromwell one except through your Goodreads account, but I might give it a go so thanks! Any other recommendations would be much appreciated!


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