Saturday, January 25, 2014

Queen Elizabeth’s Parliamentary Diarist, Thomas Cromwell

by Beth von Staats

If we are lucky, we have a friend or two in our lives, people so close that we just know if God takes us early they will look out always for our children. Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell of Oakham, son of the executed Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, had such great fortune. Two loving friends, one closest to him, the other to his father, stepped up willingly, providing support and patronage to his children after his untimely death of the sweating sickness in 1551. Sadly, the same illness killed Cromwell's mother and two sisters during his childhood years before.

This monument to Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell, which is to the left of the altar at Launde Abbey Chapel, dates to 1551. It is said to be one of the finest examples of early English Renaissance sculpture in the country.

The situation resulting from Cromwell's death was quite overwhelming for his wife, Elizabeth, sister of the late Queen Jane Seymour. Not only was she left with seven of her own children, five by Cromwell and two by her first husband, Sir Anthony Ughtred, but also the four children of her dead brother, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. Though she ultimately remarried once more to John Paulet, 2nd Marquess of Winchester, securing the futures of children born of such complicated legacies was quite a task.

So just who were the men that "stepped up to the plate"?

Sir William Cecil, later Baron Burghley, was a very dear friend of Gregory Cromwell. Although how exactly they came together is not known, Lord Burghley's first position at court was working diligently for Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, when he was Lord Protector of the realm. Given Somerset's close familial relationship with Cromwell, this seems like the most plausible connection between the men. In any case, the friendship clearly was a close one, with Cromwell describing Cecil in his last will and testament as "my especial and singular good lord".

Sir Ralph's Sadleir's relationship to Baron Cromwell is far better documented. Sadleir, arguably as close to Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, as his own son, was raised alongside Gregory Cromwell at Austin Friars. Sadleir later worked for Thomas Cromwell until Cromwell's execution, enjoying his patronage and growing to great advantage in King Henry VIII's court. After some initial difficulties post execution, Sadleir rose further, knighted in 1542 and sharing the role of King Henry's Principle Secretary. Sadleir continued his service to the crown during the reign of King Edward VI as High Treasurer of the Army. In this role, Sadleir, Somerset and Cecil all came together at the Scottish Battle of Pinkie in 1547.

Sir William Cecil
(Arnold van Brounckhorst c. 1560s
So, although Gregory Cromwell chose a life away from court politics, instead focusing his attention to his service in Parliament and his estate at Launde Abbey, his closest friends and family were highly esteemed courtiers, and through their affinity for him and his father, patronized his children after his tragic death, opening doors otherwise closed. One of these children, named for arguably English history's most remarkable Parliamentarian, seized his opportunity and ran with it.

Thomas Cromwell, third and youngest son of Gregory Cromwell and Elizabeth Seymour, had not only the given name, but also the exhaustive work ethic and obviously high intellect of his magnificent grandfather. A Parliamentary member of the House of Commons for five consecutive terms from 1571 to 1589, Cromwell represented first Fowey in 1571, then Bodmin from 1572 to 1581, from there Preston in 1584, and finally Grampound from 1586 to 1588. The Fowey, Bodmin and Grampound appointments were secured almost assuredly through William Cecil, while the Preston appointment came through Ralph Sadleir.

This Regency Era engraving is
thought to be Thomas Cromwell, from
an original portrait (approx. 1560).
Unlike his Lutheran leaning grandfather, Thomas Cromwell was a Puritan by religion, described as "the model type of parliamentarian, deeply versed in the history and procedure of the institution... eminently responsible, but fearless in defense of liberty." Cromwell was exceptionally respected for his knowledge of Parliamentary procedure, resulting in his becoming one of the most valued and experienced committeemen of his time.

While serving in Parliament, Thomas Cromwell participated in over 100 committees, journaling the sessions of Parliament in 1572, 1576, 1581 and 1584. Cromwell's journal diaries now rest at the Trinity College library in Dublin. The topics, issues and concerns addressed through these varying committees illustrate many of the societal challenges of the Elizabethan Period, and include but certainly not limited to discussions about vagabonds, avoiding idleness, rogues, wharves and quays, relief of Vicars, forgery, slanderous practices, children of aliens, and most importantly, the Queen's safety.

Like his grandfather before him, Thomas Cromwell had ample opportunity to speak before Parliament. For example, he spoke against a bill concerning the English born children of foreigners and support of Paul Wentworth's motion for a public fast and daily worship. He was also often chosen to report to Parliament the progress of committees he actively and enthusiastically participated in.
Sir Anthony Cope, by Anthony van Dyck

Although Cromwell sent Queen Elizabeth hearty thanks for finally executing Mary Queen of Scots via Parliamentary motion, he also was not afraid to take her on if he believed the cause warranted. Evidently, Queen Elizabeth did not take kindly to Sir Anthony Cope presenting to the Speaker of the House of Commons a Puritan edition of the Book of Common Prayer, nor his bill abrogating existing ecclesiastical law. On March 13, 1587, Cromwell moved "to have some conference with the Privy Council of this House", because he disagreed strongly with the Queen's command to imprison Parliament's more extremely Puritan members who supported "Cope's Bill and Book".

To address the Queen's reaction and Cromwell's strong response, Parliament did what it still does best, established yet another committee, likely the most important Cromwell participated in. He dug in deep with great relish. Harking the memory of his grandfather, who once spoke with great clarity in opposition to King Henry VIII's request for funding a war with France, Cromwell prepared thoroughly, researching precedents to show that Her Majesty had no right to imprison Sir Anthony Cope, Peter Wentworth and the others supportive of their cause. He argued the men's principle liberties were violated, and illustrated through long history Parliament's role in disciplining its own members when such was appropriate. Thus, as his grandfather used Parliament to push the monarch's agenda and ultimate supreme authority, he instead pushed back to limit it.

Beyond Thomas Cromwell's Parliamentary service, he was appointed by the Privy Council to manage Norfolk affairs and quarrels, and then acted as a steward for his brother, Henry, 2nd Baron Cromwell, and later his nephew, Edward, 3rd Baron Cromwell. They were heavily in debt. Lucky him! The father of nine children, Cromwell died in 1611, leaving the world his diaries, now historians' most important source of Elizabethan Parliamentary law.


The History of Parliament, British Political, Social and Local History, CROMWELL, Thomas (c. 1540-1611), of King's Lynn, Norf., The article was originally published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981.

Wikipedia, Thomas Cromwell (Parliamentary Diarist) .

Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors, Sir Ralph Sadler (1507 -1587), (author is not identified)

Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors, William Cecil, Baron Burghley (1521-1598), (author is not identified)


Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 



  1. I am very interested to learn of where you found the engraving, which I see is by George Perfect Harding and is presumably of a lost portrait. The costume appears to be much more of the style of c 1540 rather than c 1560 - so could this perhaps be of Thomas's father Gregory? Where does the engraving feature and what exactly does the caption naming him as Thomas say and where does it appear? As a descendant of Gregory's daughter Frances, I should be very grateful for a posted reply.

    1. As a descendant of Gregory's daughter Francis, you also are a direct descendant of his father, Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. How exciting!

      I found the engraving in a simple google web search. Copies are being actively sold on the internet. The engraving has a footer entitled "Thomas Cromwell, Statesman". Although you note the attire more resembles the 1540's, there are several other Elizabethan attire enthusiasts that place the clothing to approximately 1560. In any case, this is all a best guess.

      Speaking of your descendant Gregory Cromwell, Baron of Oakham, here is an article by Teri Fitzgerald highlighting her thoughts of his remarkable life and exciting information of possible portraiture of him.

      Here also is an article I wrote about Gregory Cromwell for EHFA.

      Many Blessings!

    2. Thanks Beth, I had the same question! Your article was great.

  2. Thanks Beth. My problem with this is the collar tassels - which appear to date the portrait to c 1540, rather than c 1560. I would be interested to learn if anyone can produce a portrait from c 1560 with these. Also the problem with the miniature portraits recently being said to be Gregory is that that dated to 1543 shows the sitter with a ring with a merchant mark and has an early (1705) Danzig provenance (the Von Schwarzwald family). I think we would need a lot more in order to reliably identify them


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