Like his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell came from a modest background: his father was variously a cloth merchant, fuller and blacksmith, and the owner of both a brewery and a hostelry (where he allegedly watered down the beer). Born around 1485 in Putney, Cromwell’s birthplace is now, ironically, where the Green Man public house stands. He acknowledged that he had been a ‘ruffian … in his younger days’, when he left his family for the Continent and became a mercenary who marched with the French army. He later entered the household of the Florentine banker, Francesco Frescobaldi.
Returning to England, he married Elizabeth Wyckes and had three children. In 1523, he became a member of the House of Commons, and in 1524, he was elected as a member of Gray’s Inn and entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey. He served Wolsey as his lawyer and was heavily involved in the dissolution of nearly thirty monasteries, which raised the funds to found both The King’s School, Ipswich and Cardinal College, Oxford. When Wolsey fell from power in 1530 he was appointed to the Privy Council.
(Pictured: Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger, c1532).
Thomas Cromwell was possessed with genuine reforming zeal and a loathing for what he perceived to be the superstitions and corruptions of the Catholic monks. Along with his fellow Protestants, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, he was instrumental in the achievement of the break with Rome. At the height of his career, Cromwell was central to the annulment of the marriage to Catherine, the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the execution of Thomas More, and the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1536 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon, and in April 1540 he became Earl of Essex. Yet his support for the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves led to his abrupt downfall in 1540, followed by his botched execution on 28 July 1540 and his head on a pike on London Bridge. He was 55 years old when he died.
That other famous Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell, the Parliamentarian leader during the English Civil War and later Lord Protector, was a great-great-grandson of Thomas Cromwell’s sister, Katherine Williams, whose husband assumed the Cromwell name.