Who Murdered Thomas Cromwell?
On 28 July 1540 Thomas Cromwell was brutally and publicly murdered. This talented politician who, viewed from any historical perspective, stands head and shoulders above most men of his generation, was despatched on trumped-up charges. Even Henry VIII within a year denounced those who had tricked him into sacrificing 'the most faithful servant I ever had'. Who, then, committed this murder? It matters not whether we approve or disapprove of Cromwell; whether we regret the manner of his passing or are happy that he got his comeuppance. The fact is unassailable: Cromwell was a victim of culpable homicide, by person or persons who can be known and named. Who should historians place in the dock to answer for this crime?
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. His hatred of Cromwell was based on both personal and doctrinal grounds. In 1532 the 'upstart' had eased him out of his position of secretary to the king, an office traditionally occupied by a senior clergyman. Three years later the 'semi-educated' Cromwell was appointed chancellor of Gardiner's university of Cambridge, a post invariably held by a cleric with academic credentials. Worse than all that, in 1535, this 'mere layman' became Vicegerent in Spirituals, the king's personal representative in all matters ecclesiastical. Thereafter, he not only supervised the dismantling of the monastic system and filled important church posts with his own 'cronies', he led the 'New Learning' assault on ancient doctrine. Gardiner was hindered from opposing the man he regarded as his rival by the fact that he was kept busy on overseas diplomatic missions. Not until 1539, when he was once more ensconced in the royal council could he begin his counterattack. He used parliament to buttress traditional doctrine, notably the Act of Six Articles which threw the weight of the law behind persecution of heretics (those who refused to accept the Catholic doctrines specified in the Act). Gardiner also waged pulpit warfare. The Lenten sermons of 1540 at St Paul's Cross became a slanging match between the bishop and his appointees versus preachers put up by Cromwell. In March three of Cromwell's evangelical friends were thrown into the Tower and Gardiner ensured that the king was made well aware of the danger of 'creeping heresy'. It now became obvious to close observers such as the French ambassador that the bishop and the minister were locked in a fight to the death.
Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Like Gardiner, Howard hated Cromwell the man and also what he stood for. He was the proud representative of England's ancient nobility and had watched with distaste turning to alarm the rapid rise of the Putney brewer's son. Norfolk believed that lineage, not talent, was the passport to the councils of kings. He also made no secret of his rejection of religious change. England was never merry, he asserted, since the New Learning came in. As for the English Bible Cromwell had striven manfully to introduce, Howard vowed that he would never read it. Until the spring of 1540 the Duke of Norfolk well outranked Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon, even though Cromwell had established that in parliament's seating arrangements the king's Vicegerent in Spirituals took precedence over all the peerage. But then the minister mopped up the vacant ancient earldom of Essex and the court office of hereditary Great Chamberlain. Such events made Howard puce with rage. There seemed to be no way to stop Cromwell. Unless...
Henry VIII. The secret of success as a royal minister was, as Wolsey had once put it, 'to give the king what he wants'. Cromwell had taken that message to heart. He had established the royal supremacy and buttressed it with parliamentary statute and he had poured into the king's coffers enormous wealth taken from the church. But he had also nudged Henry into believing that what he wanted was the same as what his minister wanted. By the end of the 1530s the cause dearest to Cromwell's heart was the establishment of a Christian (and for Cromwell 'Christian' increasingly meant 'evangelical') commonwealth based firmly on the Bible. But there was only so far that Henry would go in the direction of religious reform. He had a sincere loathing of heresy. He was determined that his subjects should believe what he believed and though this was not, simply, 'Catholicism without the pope' it was certainly not Lutheranism or, horror of horrors, the radical and often violent religion that went under the name of 'Anabaptism'. It was a matter of pride to Henry that he should have the reputation of being an orthodox Christian king (even though he reserved the right to define 'orthodoxy'). When Gardiner suggested to him that Cromwell was an aider and abetter of Anabaptists in the English enclave of Calais he was ready to prove his genuine Christian faith by rooting out such heresy even among those close to the throne.
Thomas Cromwell. We have to consider the possibility that the minister brought about his own downfall. He became over confident in his dealings with rivals and, above all, with the king. To further reform at home and to check the power of Catholic regimes in Europe Cromwell championed an alliance between England and the Lutheran princes of Germany. Henry was prepared to enter into discussions with the members of the Schmalkaldic League, in rebellion against the Emperor but the price they demanded - allegiance to their statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession - was a price the king was not prepared to pay. Cromwell threw his usual caution to the wind and pressed on regardless. His determination to push Henry into a marriage with the sister of the Duke of Cleves (not a Lutherna, though sympathetic to their cause) was largely motivated by religion but also served the purpose of preventing Henry marrying a daughter of the English aristocracy and, thereby, changing the domestic balance of power. The fiasco of the Anne of Cleves match is well known but there is an aspect of it that is rarely stressed. Henry's failure to consummate the marriage was basically the result of his own weak sex drive. He was frenetically sensitive on this issue, could not allow it to be so much as mentioned by anyone, and was probably in denial over the issue. Cromwell, therefore, committed a serious faux pas when he took the queen on one side and tried to counsel her on the secrets of the bedroom. It was Henry's anger over this that seriously weakened Cromwell's position and gave his enemies the chance they were looking for. Cromwell now needed friends but his own hubris had distanced himself from any who might have come to his aid. His last piece of folie de grandeur was a supreme snub to the duke of Norfolk over Thetford Priory. This was marked for demolition and Howard pleaded with Cromwell to spare it because it was the burial place of his ancestors. The Vicegerent, determined to show the proud aristocrat who was boss, rejected the plea and forced Norfolk to remove the remains of generations of Howards to a new resting place.
Gardiner, Howard, the king - all had motive and means to kill Thomas Cromwell. The fusion of their grievances provided the opportunity. It might be that Cromwell, by employing his usual clear-headedness, could have avoided the ministrations of the bungling headsman. But he did not (perhaps because he was ill in the summer of 1540). To that extent he was complicit in his own murder.