Monday, July 27, 2015

English Reformation Martyr: Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex

by Beth von Staats

after Hans Holbein the Younger
line engraving, possibly 18th century
© National Portrait Gallery, London

"Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!"
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex –

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, is a study in contrasts. Bearer of a complicated legacy, Cromwell is often demonized for his role in the falls and ultimate executions of Elizabeth Barton, Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, Queen Anne Boleyn, Henry Pole, Henry Courtenay and several others. Vilified for his leadership and efficiency in orchestrating the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Thomas Cromwell with his king's support and approval ended a way of life going back centuries.

In stark contrast, Thomas Cromwell is also heralded as the architect of the Henrican Reformation. A self-made man who rose from dire poverty, Cromwell brought the English language Bible to England and Wales, stabilized the English economy, patronized the arts, advocated for the poor and down-trodden, 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.

It is no surprise then that historian Edward Hall noted, “Many lamented, but more rejoiced,” when Thomas Cromwell was arrested on 10 June 1540.

John Foxe
by Martin Droeshout
line engraving, 1620s-1630s
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Painted by his detractors as a traitor and “secret sacramentarian”, a sinful heretic who not only denied Roman Catholic transubstantiation, but also the Lutheran sacramental union, Thomas Cromwell died via a botched beheading from an inexperienced executioner on Tower Hill, his severed head speared onto a spike placed in exhibition on London Bridge.

Though most view Thomas Cromwell as either a “hero of the common man” or “evil incarnate”, 475 years ago today, 28 July 1540, Cromwell died as neither. Instead, as much as most people rarely consider the possibility, this complex intellectual genius who changed the face of England died a religious martyr for his faith. Martyrist John Foxe honored him alongside other heralded Protestant martyrs in his famous, albeit heavily biased historical accountings -- and justifiably so. As Foxe proclaimed in his Book of Martyrs:

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.

How could this be? Thomas Cromwell, a religious martyr?

Foxe's assessment of Cromwell's “fervent zeal to Christ and to his gospel” is not overstated. 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.

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 chasing heretics, burning six evangelical smugglers at the stake, Thomas Cromwell certainly 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.

"My prayer is that God give me no longer life than I shall be glad to use my office in edification and not in destruction."
 – Thomas Cromwell

To all living in 16th century Tudor England, there was only one true religion, all those disbelieving heretics. The problem became disagreement on what exactly the true religion was. 16th century religion was serious business. Unfortunately for the subjects of the realm, just what religion one was to adhere to changed with the theological whims of the reigning monarchs and was particularly confusing during the reign of King Henry VIII. Overstep the mark of the king’s ever changing religious philosophies, and a person would quickly become the victim of judicial murder.

after Unknown artist
line engraving, possibly late 18th century
© National Portrait Gallery, London
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 actually never wavered upon. The truth of the matter was that though a sinner by his own admission, Thomas Cromwell, like other evangelicals and Lutherans, believed heart and soul in justification by faith alone. Once King Henry VIII understood what this all meant upon digesting a rousing sermon by Cromwell's rival Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, at St. Paul's Cross on the first day of Lent 1540, Thomas Cromwell's days were numbered.

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.

Perhaps most convincing of Thomas Cromwell's “fervent zeal to Christ and to his gospel” was his speech to those witness to his execution. Though many people, particularly historical fiction writers and arm-chair historians, mistakenly assume Cromwell recanted his Lutheran beliefs by proclaiming, “I die in the Catholic faith, not doubting in any article of my faith...” during his final speech, he, like Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, Philipp Melanchthon and other Lutherans and evangelicals, used the term “Catholic” to mean the “Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”. To this day, Lutherans and Anglicans are Catholics. What they are not are papists or “Roman” Catholics, neither term used by Cromwell.

Instead of the recantation many assumed was offered, Thomas Cromwell professed clearly and pointedly to those in witness, to his family, to his king, and to his God his steadfast belief that his salvation could only be justified through his faith and his faith alone. He prayed at the block,
I see and acknowledge that there is in myself no hope of salvation, but all my confidence, hope and trust is in thy most merciful goodness. I have no merits or good works with I may allege before thee... Of sins and evil works, alas, I see a great heap... but through thy mercy, I trust to be in the number of them to whom thou wilt not impute their sins; but will take and accept me for righteous and just...

With Thomas Cromwell's staunch Lutheran beliefs intact, like Cardinal John Fisher, Sir Thomas More, John Frith, John Lambert, the Carthusian Monks, Father John Forest, and his blessed William Tyndale before him, Thomas Cromwell died a religious martyr to his faith. Though often forgotten, ignored or dispelled, that truth remains undaunted.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
by Pieter Stevens van Gunst
line engraving, published 1707
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Surviving Partial Letter Composed by
Thomas Cranmer to King Henry VIII
14 July 1540

........ I heard yesterday in your Grace's Council, that he [Crumwell] is a traitor, yet who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your Majesty, he that was so advanced by your Majesty; he whose surety was only by your Majesty; he who loved your Majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forwards whatsoever was your Majesty's will and pleasure; he that cared for no man's displeasure to serve your Majesty; he that was such a servant in my judgmentt, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had; he that was so vigilant to preserve your Majesty from all treasons, that few could be so secretly conceived, but he detected the same in the beginning? If the noble princes of memory, King John, Henry the Second, and Richard II had had such a counsellor about them, I suppose that they should never have been so traitorously abandoned, and overthrown as those good princes were:

........ I loved him as my friend, for so I took him to be; but I chiefly loved him for the love which I thought I saw him bear ever towards your Grace, singularly above all other. But now, if he be a traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your Grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas! I bewail and lament your Grace's chance herein, I wot not whom your Grace may trust. But I pray God continually night and day, to send such a counsellor in his place whom your Grace may trust, and who for all his qualities can and will serve your Grace like to him, and that will have so much solicitude and care to preserve your Grace from all dangers as I ever thought he had........ [14 June 1540.] 

Sir Thomas Wyatt
By J. Thurston, engraved by W.H. Worthinton after
a drawing by Hans Holbein the younger in the
Buckingham Library from Charles Cowden Clarke,
The Poetic Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt

Sir Thomas Wyatt's Poem Heralding
the Execution of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex

THE pillar perish'd is whereto I leant,
The strongest stay of my unquiet mind;
The like of it no man again can find,
From east to west still seeking though he went,
To mine unhap, for hap away hath rent
Of all my joy the very bark and rind,
And I, alas, by chance am thus assign' d
Daily to mourn, till death do it relent.
But since that thus it is by destiny,
What can I more but have a woeful heart;
My pen in plaint, my voice in careful cry,
My mind in woe, my body full of smart;
And I myself, myself always to hate,
Till dreadful death do ease my doleful state.
– Sir Thomas Wyatt


Coat of Arms
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, K.G.
1485 - 28 July 1540



Cranmer, Thomas, Archbishop, Letter of Thomas Cranmer to King Henry VIII, Regarding Thomas Cromwell, Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.

Foxe, John, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 195. Thomas Cromwell.

Loades, David, Thomas Cromwell, Servant to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2013.

Schofield, John, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant, The History Press, Gloucestershire, 2008.

Wyatt, Thomas, THE pillar perished is whereto I leant, Luminarium: Renaissance Literature.

Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers.


  1. This was such a moving post. How precarious life was in the Tudor court!

  2. Thanks so much for the fascinating and well researched piece. I've been watching Masterpiece Theatre's Wolf Hall and enjoying the Thomas Cromwell character, so your insights were most helpful. Henry VII's only god seemed to be himself and his pleasures. At least Cromwell worshiped and glorified God.


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