Presented byProf Diarmaid MaccullochHistorian

Hero or villain?

Thomas Cromwell was a man who rose up from the back streets of Putney to be Henry VIII's right hand man. In Wolf Hall he’s portrayed as an idealist who masterminded the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and helped create the Church of England.

But some think he was an arch-manipulator who used bullying and torture to bring about the execution of victims like Thomas More and Henry VIII's wife Anne Boleyn. As a servant to the King, Cromwell made difficult decisions that shaped his destiny.


Born the son of a scoundrel

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Diarmaid MacCulloch talks about Cromwell's humble beginnings. Clip from Henry VIII's Enforcer (BBC Two, 2013).

Around the year 1485 Thomas Cromwell is born in Putney, London, where his family runs a brewery.

Thomas’s father is a jack-of-all-trades: he works as a fuller, a blacksmith, a brewer and a tavern owner. His name appears at least 48 times on the manor court rolls for various misdemeanours, including watering down beer and assaulting his neighbours. The young Cromwell is, on his own later admission, something of a ruffian, and does not get on with his father who may have had him put in jail for an unknown offence.

How could you survive in Tudor England?

Cromwell had yet no sound taste nor judgement of religion, but was wild and youthful...

John Foxe, Tudor historian, 1563


Runs away from home



The Battle of Garigliano, 1503.

Sick of his father’s foul temper, Thomas – aged about 15 – runs away from home to seek his fortune.

He stows away on a ship bound for the Low Countries (the Netherlands). Wandering alone in France Cromwell may have joined England’s enemies in the French army or acted as a French soldier’s servant and pike carrier. A few years later Cromwell surfaces at the battle of Garigliano, near Naples, where the French army suffer a massive defeat at the hands of the Spanish. Cromwell flees the battlefield and travels in Italy.

Great Lives: Thomas Cromwell


Helped by a Florentine family



16th Century Florence.

A penniless Cromwell walks the streets of Florence and makes friends with a member of the Frescobaldi household.

Francesco Frescobaldi, part of a prominent banking family, takes pity on the young Cromwell, takes him in and soon sees his potential. Cromwell is keen to learn about the family business and proves himself a loyal servant. On one trip with his master he is left in Venice to act as an agent for a local merchant. Thomas travels to Antwerp and becomes a trader in his own right. He starts to practise law. He is now fluent in French and Italian and has good knowledge of Latin.

In Our Time: Florence's ruling Medici family


Persuades the Pope

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Cromwell tempts the Pope with sweetmeats. Clip from Henry VIII's Enforcer (BBC Two, 2013).

Cromwell returns to England and marries Elizabeth Wykys a widow from a gentry family. They have three children Gregory, Anne and Grace.

In 1517 he is approached by Geoffrey Chambers who needs help in seeking an audience with Pope Leo X to secure funding for the Guild of Our Lady in St Botolph's church at Boston in Lincolnshire. Thomas enacts an audacious plan - he knows of the Pope’s weaknesses for sweetmeats and suitably provided, lies in wait as the Pope arrives back from a hunting trip. His plan works and Cromwell returns to England with a growing reputation as a fixer.

V&A: Biography of Raphael & Pope Leo X


Enters service of Cardinal Wolsey



Henry VIII's chief adviser Cardinal Wolsey.

Cromwell’s detailed knowledge of Italy gets him a job working for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s powerful First Minister and right-hand man.

Wolsey is preparing a gargantuan tomb for himself using top Italian sculptors. Cromwell is put in charge of the cardinal’s ‘legacy project’, also creating a school at Ipswich and a college at Oxford University to commemorate him. Wolsey comes from humble beginnings too and recognises something of himself in Cromwell. Under his patronage, Cromwell gains access to the court as Wolsey’s trusted servant and his career advances swiftly. In 1523 he becomes a Member of Parliament.

Who was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey?Your Paintings: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey The History of Parliament: Thomas Cromwell

We communed of war, peace, strife, contentation, debate, murmur, grudge, riches, poverty... However… we might as well have left where we began…

Thomas Cromwell speaks, with rueful humour, about his time as an MP


Cromwell’s wife and daughters die



Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

Cromwell meets with terrible misfortune when his wife Elizabeth and two daughters Grace and Anne die of the ‘sweating sickness’.

There are scant records about Cromwell’s private life so we don’t know how this tragedy affected him, but he adores his only surviving son, Gregory.

The Independent: What was the 'sweating sickness'?


Wolsey falls from grace

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Diarmaid MacCulloch explains how Cromwell was devastated by the news of his mentor's fall. Clip from Henry VIII's Enforcer (BBC Two, 2013).

Henry VIII is seeking a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry his new love Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell’s master Thomas Wolsey tries unsuccessfully to get permission from the Pope arguing that Henry’s marriage to Catherine is not valid because she is his brother Arthur’s widow. Egged on by Anne, Henry loses faith in Wolsey who is arrested and charged with acting against the King. Even when others turn against Wolsey, Cromwell remains loyal to his master. Fearing the worst, Cromwell writes his will and divides his estate amongst his family, relations and loyal servants.

History Today: The rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey

I am like to lose all that I have laboured for all the days of my life, for doing of my master true and diligent service.

Thomas Cromwell contemplates his fate after the fall of Wolsey


Masterminds Henry VIII’s divorce



Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn watched by Queen Catherine of Aragon.

After suffering numerous family and career setbacks, things start to turn round for Cromwell.

Ever an ambitious man, he knows service to the King can bring ample rewards. He helps Henry devise a plan to break with Rome destroying the Pope’s power over his affairs and enabling him to divorce Catherine of Aragon. He persuades parliament Henry should be declared Head of the English Church. After Henry’s marriage is annulled and he marries Anne Boleyn, Cromwell quickly becomes his most trusted servant.

How Henry VIII used sex and power to secure his legacyThe life of Henry VIII

What abomination, what devilish and horrible sin is it to be a flatterer or an evil councillor to a prince?

Thomas Cromwell in a letter to a friend


Shuts down the monasteries



The ruins of Tintern Abbey.

Cromwell has long harboured Protestant sympathies which he may have developed during his days as a merchant in Europe.

Even during his years of service with Wolsey, when England is ostensibly a Catholic country, he is in discreet contact with English religious dissenters nicknamed ‘Lollards’. When Henry VIII realises how much wealth he could gain from closing monasteries, Cromwell responds with a reformist’s zeal, presiding over the dissolution of 800 religious houses in four years. The Crown seizes their property, hugely swelling the King’s coffers.

What was the Reformation?In Our Time: Dissolution of the monasteries


Engineers the execution of Anne Boleyn

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Cromwell uses torture and deception to bring about the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn. Clip from Henry VIII's Enforcer (BBC Two, 2013).

In 1536 Anne Boleyn suffers a miscarriage, the unborn child is male.

Henry is desperate for a male heir and has fallen in love with Jane Seymour. Cromwell, who did much to bring about the King’s marriage to Anne, is asked to get rid of her. Despite working together, Anne and Cromwell have never been close. He uses intimidation and torture to force those close to Anne into making false confessions. She is tried for treason and adultery with five men and executed in 1536. Henry marries Jane a week later. Cromwell’s place as Henry’s right hand man seems secure.

What did King Henry VIII really want from a wife? Who was Anne Boleyn?


Arranges King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves



Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves.

In 1537 Jane Seymour dies after giving birth to Henry VIII’s longed for son and heir Edward VI.

Cromwell searches Europe for a suitable fourth wife for the king. Seeking an alliance with the reformist princes of Germany against the ongoing Catholic threat, Cromwell puts forward Anne of Cleves. Holbein is sent to Germany to paint a portrait of the princess. When Anne arrives in England, Henry is disappointed by her looks. He comments to Cromwell, "I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse." Cromwell persuades the king to go forward with the marriage. It is a fatal mistake.

Your Paintings: Six wives of Henry VIIIYour Paintings: Anne of Cleves


Executed for treason

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Cromwell begs for mercy in his last letter to the King. Clip from Henry VIII's Enforcer (BBC Two, 2013).

Cromwell is created Earl of Essex. But his luck is about to run out.

Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is a disaster and in order to get it annulled he has to give evidence in court of his failings in the bedroom. Henry is embarrassed and furious with Cromwell for setting up the marriage. Cromwell’s blue-blooded enemies in Henry's court seize the opportunity to move against this former commoner. He is charged with treason and corruption and executed at the Tower of London. Within weeks, Henry VIII is lamenting the loss of “the most faithful servant I ever had”.

Thomas Cromwell: a very modern politician?The life of Henry VIII

Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy!

Thomas Cromwell, last letter to Henry VIII, 1540