Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Merchant's Son -- Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell of Oakham

by Beth von Staats

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
(Miniature, After Hans Holbein the Younger)
Most historians paint Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell, as slow intellectually. Even writer Hilary Mantel, acclaimed author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, describes him through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell this way, "Gregory is a good boy, though all the Latin he has learned, all the sonorous periods of the great authors, have rolled through his head and out again, like stones."

It is unclear why historians and authors make this assumption, and perhaps do so through mistaking his age or unfairly comparing him to the brilliance of his magnificent father, second only to King Henry VIII in prestige at the height of his power. In fact, historians disagree on the year of his birth, either 1514 or 1520 depending on the interpretation of sources studied.

Gregory Cromwell, son of the King's Chief Minister and husband to a consort queen's sister, chose a life quite understandably, and some would argue intelligently, away from court politics. Thus, unlike his father and brothers-in-law, he died a natural death, albeit far too young to the same sweating sickness that called his mother and two sisters over twenty years earlier.

Gregory Cromwell was born on a date lost to history in Putney, Surrey, England sometime between 1514 and 1520. Son of Thomas Cromwell and Elizabeth Wyckes Cromwell, he enjoyed a privileged childhood common to those with accumulated riches through the merchant class along with his two sisters, Anne and Grace. Tragically, Elizabeth Cromwell died in 1528 and both sisters died soon thereafter.

Raised by his father, albeit from afar, Gregory Cromwell was placed as a young child with a close, albeit seemingly unlikely family friend, Margaret Vernon. This remarkable Roman Catholic nun was Prioress of Sopwell, St. Mary de Pre, Little Marlow and Malling nunneries. Cromwell was then provided with a rich and largely humanist education at Cambridge University, were he studied from 1529 to 1533.

Unlike modern standards, children often were educated by selected tutors at Cambridge, so as Sir Henry Ellis contends Gregory Cromwell may have arrived there as early as age 8, leaving without a degree as early as age 14. Historian David Loades, however, is firm in his belief that Cromwell began studies at Cambridge at age 15, leaving at age 21.

Most commonly, children from the merchant class did not complete degree studies during the Tudor era unless in divinity, and with his age also unknown with certainty, Gregory Cromwell’s level of intelligence can't be assumed. Letters from tutor John Chekyng to Thomas Cromwell, commonly sited to illustrate Gregory Cromwell's lack of astuteness, need to be held within the context of his age being disputed.

Sir Richard Southwell
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
As Thomas Cromwell continued to rise in prestige through his law practice, merchant endeavors, counsel to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and ultimate service to King Henry VIII, Gregory Cromwell was placed in the care of his father's prestigious friends Bishop Rowland Lee, Sir Richard Southwell and merchant Henry Dowes. By all accounts, Thomas Cromwell was highly involved in his son's upbringing, insuring an education reserved solely for the ruling class, along with exemplary mentoring from Vernon, Lee, Southwell and Dowes. Trilingual, Gregory Cromwell was fluent in Latin and French. He also played lute and virginals, and was reportedly athletic.

By 1537, Thomas Cromwell raised to the height of his power, then the King's Chief Minister, Vicar General, Vice Gerent, Baron of Wimbledon and Lord Privy Seal. At least 17 years of age and perhaps as old as 23, Gregory Cromwell was deeded his own estate and came into the service of his father.

In March 1537, Thomas Cromwell received a correspondence from the sister of Queen Jane Seymour, widow Elizabeth Ughtred seeking a monastery to provide needed income. Whether proposed by the Lord Privy Seal or her brother Edward Seymour, then Viscount Beauchamp and later Duke of Somerset, or encouraged by them both, Elizabeth Seymour Ughred married Gregory Cromwell the summer of the same year at the Seymour family estate at Wulfhall. Thus, the commoner born of a Putney merchant became brother-in-law to Henry VIII, King of England.

The marriage was at least a congenial partnership and more likely a loving one, as five children were born to the couple: Henry Cromwell, 2nd Baron Cromwell, Edward Cromwell, Thomas Cromwell, Katherine Cromwell, and Frances Cromwell. Further evidence that the marriage was loving is illustrated in a letter Gregory Cromwell wrote to his wife from Calais in 1539.

"....I am, thanks be to God, in good health, trusting shortly to hear from you like news, as well of yourself as also my little boys, of whose increase and towardness be you assured I am not a little desirous to be advertised. And thus, not having any other news to write, I bid you most heartily well to fare. At Calais, the 9th of December. Your loving bedfellow, Gregory Cromwell."

Initially residing at Lewes, Sussex, the couple moved and resided at Leeds Castle until the fall of his father. In 1539, Gregory Cromwell was called to Parliament. He served in the House of Commons and later the House of Lords for the remainder of his lifetime, witness to the arrests and executions of Henry Howard, and brothers-in-law Thomas Seymour and Edward Seymour, as well as the arrests of Thomas Howard and Stephen Gardiner, the two men most responsible for his father's fall from grace, resourcefully remaining unscathed through each.

In 1540, Gregory and Elizabeth Cromwell survived the sudden arrest, imprisonment and execution of Thomas Cromwell, further risen to 1st Earl of Essex, through their own resourcefulness, along with assistance most likely from some or all of the following courtiers: Sir Ralph Sadler, Sir Richard Cromwell, Sir Edward Seymour, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Upon the Earl's arrest, his property, money and belongings were seized, leaving Gregory and Elizabeth Cromwell homeless. Where they lived until the dust settled is unknown, but they obviously would have needed assistance from one of Elizabeth's brothers or one of Cromwell's powerful friends.

This portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger
 commonly identified as Katherine Howard
is thought by some art historians to actually
 be Elizabeth Seymour Cromwell. 
Although Gregory Cromwell's marriage to the sister of the King's favorite wife and relation to Edward Seymour clearly helped the cause, he effectively deflected attention away from himself enough so that no known interrogation or arrest took place. Elizabeth Cromwell also very astutely intervened on their behalf by writing a letter directly to King Henry VIII. The remarkable letter's conclusion is noteworthy.

".... Most humbly beseeching your majesty in the mean season mercifully to accept this my most obedient suit, and to extend your accustomed pity and gracious goodness towards my said poor husband and me, who never hath, nor, God willing, never shall offend your majesty, but continually pray for the prosperous estate of the same long time to remain and continue. Your most bond woman, Elizabeth Cromwell"

Within five months of the execution, the tide had turned back in Cromwell's favor enough so that King Henry VIII named him Baron Cromwell of Oakham.

For the remainder of Gregory Cromwell's life, he chose willingly to refrain from the intrigues and inherent dangers of his father and brothers-in-law, so did not engage in service directly to the monarchy. Knighted on the day of King Edward VI's coronation, he primarily lived at his estate at Launde Abbey, managing his increasingly vast wealth and properties, while also serving in the House of Lords.

Does this demonstrate the decisions of a weak man? An intellectually slow man? If looked upon in it's most negative light, perhaps so. Instead, given Gregory Cromwell's life experiences, it seems far more likely that he was an intelligent and prudent man who learned through the tragic executions of his father and brother in-law, ultimately Lord Protector and King in all but name, that hard work and steadfast service to the crown is a dangerous business indeed. Then again, he may also wanted to enjoy the one thing his magnificent father was unable to provide him, despite his riches, prestige and powerful connections, a real family life.

Tragically, on July 4, 1551, Gregory Cromwell was unable to side-step his last major life hurdle and died suddenly of the sweating sickness, leaving his wife alone to raise her two sons from a previous marriage, their five children and the three children of her brother, Edward Seymour. Gregory Cromwell's youngest son, Thomas Cromwell, ultimately continued his father and grandfather's legacies through his highly respected service as a Parliamentarian in the House of Commons. His remarkable diaries are the world's most cherished source of Elizabethan Parliamentary Law.



Erler, Mary C., Thomas Cromwell's Abbess, Margaret Vernon, History Today.

Mantel, Hilary, Wolf Hall, Fourth Estate (UK)

Loades, David, Thomas Cromwell, Servant to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing

Schofield, John, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, The History Press

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell


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



  1. I'm currently reading David Loades book on Thomas Cromwell. Thank you for the post!

    1. David Loades' biography is excellent!
      Here is my review of the book on Queenanneboleyn.com.
      Professor Loades certainly does NOT have a high opinion of Gregory Cromwell, as you will soon learn. :-)

  2. Great post. I think that Gregory's wife sounds spirited and interesting.

    1. Thank you, Annina. Elizabeth Cromwell was quite accomplished in her own right.

  3. It sounds to me like Gregory was very clever indeed. Good post. Thanks.


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