Thomas Cromwell, born c. 1485, was a man of humble beginnings who used his wits to become the most powerful figure in England after King Henry VIII. He was neither priest or papist, but a ruthless, pragmatic lawyer and a master of political intrigue. His legal acumen gained him the patronage of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. When Wolsey fell from favor, Cromwell became Henry’s trusted advisor, playing a pivotal role in the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the king’s union with Anne Boleyn, and the break with the Roman Church.
Cromwell dissolved the monasteries, confiscated their property, and sold them to the gentry. While many of the nobles benefited from the sale of clerical lands, others had relatives dedicated to religious service. Furthermore, the nobility resented Cromwell’s influence with the king and his pro-monarchy, anti-nobility policy.
Nevertheless, the vast wealth redistribution strengthened the Crown’s Treasury and created new landed gentry loyal to the king. He instituted reforms of the English government, making it more efficient and bringing it under tighter Crown control. He streamlined the justice system, promoted education, and cracked down on corruption and abuses of power, earning him both admiration and resentment.
In accomplishing the king’s goals, enemies were inevitable. His accomplishments were undeniable, yet his methods often left a trail of blood and broken alliances. After Jane Seymour’s death, Cromwell arranged Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves whose brother, William, was a leader of the Protestants of Western Germany. Henry disliked his new wife immediately and the marriage was dissolved six months later on the grounds the union was never consummated.
Powerful factions at court, including Henry’s new advisors and Anne of Cleves’ powerful family, sought Cromwell’s downfall. They convinced Henry that Cromwell had betrayed him, ending in his arrest for heresy and beheading in the Tower of London on July 28, 1540.