On this date, July 28th, four hundred and sixty one years ago, Thomas Cromwell was led out onto Tower Green, Tower of London, and beheaded by order of King Henry VIII. He had been tried in absentia the previous month, and having no chance to defend himself, had been found guilty of fabricated charges of Sacramental Heresy. He died bravely, and according to Edward Hall, “he patiently bore the stroke of a ragged, and butcherly miser.” However, regardless of today’s anniversary, this post will not dwell on the sorry end of England’s most revolutionary of ministers. Instead, it will be looking into some of the lesser known aspects of Cromwell’s term in power. One that is especially over looked by historians who only seem interested in feeding into the demonisation of Thomas Cromwell; and it’s impact on one of the other great Cromwellian myths. His role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn.
It was in 1535, following the first wave of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, that we’re told Thomas Cromwell and Queen Anne Boleyn argued, and began a blood feud that would end with her downfall and execution. The row, we’re led to believe, was about the distribution of proceeds from the reclaimed monastic lands. Queen Anne is supposed to have remonstrated with Cromwell about how this money should be put to far better uses, such as protecting the poor and needy; whereas Cromwell, (presumably), wanted to spend it all on sweets.
However, it was in this same year that Cromwell drafted a truly revolution set of reforms that completely explodes this theory for the myth that it undoubtedly is. The legislation in question is the Poor Relief Bill of 1535. Nothing like it had been proposed before, and sadly, nothing like would be seen again for a very long time after the MPs defeated the Bill.
Cromwell, and his army of staff, spent a year investigating the causes of poverty. Among their conclusions were: cruel employers, ill health/incapacity, crime, and bad living conditions/poor upbringing.
With the chief causes of poverty identified, Cromwell then set about drafting what he believed to be the remedy, and the result, (for it’s time), can only be described as revolutionary. Eminent historian John Schofield goes into great detail about this in his 2008 Cromwell biography (The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell), and has this to say:
“An ambitious plan of public works was then laid out. It included new buildings, repairs to harbours, highways, and fortresses, and scouring and cleansing of water courses; all under the direction of officers reporting to a central council.” (p103).
The poor, until now, had been almost wholly dependent on hand outs (“Alms”) from the monastic houses. However, what Cromwell was doing was empowering the poor to be able to stand on their own two feet, and better themselves through their own hard work. Because, in return, the labourers would be paid “reasonable wages.” But, also among Cromwell’s listed causes of poverty, were the terminally ill, and the incapacitated. So, the legislation did not stop with helping the able bodied to empower themselves.
“There would be free medical treatment for poor persons unable to work through sickness, and provisions were made for those too old, or terminally ill. Officials would be appointed to make sure no one was abusing the system… They would record the details of men who had become impoverished through no fault of their own and were unable to live on their wages, either because they had too many children to feed, or because they were victims of robbery, or some natural disaster.” (p104).
Public funds would become available to compensate the victims, and the ill. Child beggars were to be taken off the streets, and hired as apprentices to learn a skill, and make a valuable contribution to society.
So much for the greedy, ruthless Thomas Cromwell who was only interested in lining his own pockets from the lands of the God fearing, selfless monks! However, flippancy to one side. There is another point that needs to be made, at this juncture. Unsurprisingly, this Bill was rejected when put before Parliament in the autumn of 1535. So, something that Cromwell badly wanted was rejected. Cromwell who, we’re told time and time again, was supposed to have had Parliament “in his pocket”, and none dared refuse him anything lest they should feel the sharp edge of his wrath? In light of the failure of this Bill, we once again see that Cromwell didn’t quite have everything his own way. It was a bitter setback for him, and the Bill that was eventually passed by Parliament had been somewhat watered down.
So, what did he and Anne Boleyn fall out over, exactly? Because it surely wasn’t Cromwell’s lack of care for the most vulnerable sections of Tudor society. If this argument ever actually happened at all, and there is doubt over it, then it happened one full year before Anne Boleyn’s eventual downfall, and there was no evidence of long running bad blood between them (Anne referred to Cromwell as “her man”, several times over that period).
This, however, is not just about exposing the myth of Cromwell’s “Boleyn vendetta”. It’s about showing the man behind the “blood stained henchman myth”. It shows that Cromwell never forgot his roots. He never abandoned his people, despite the fact that his star had long entered an altogether higher orbit. It showed that he wanted to take this nation, and build it into something bigger, stronger, and much more progressive. As with everything he did, he was hindered every step of the way by the Conservative nobility who feared the effects of the “upstart” Cromwell’s legislation.
In conclusion, Thomas Cromwell is one Tudor personality that has been long in need of reassessment. John Schofield’s excellent biography, “The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant”, and the much more established, (and excellent), works of Professor G.R Elton, have all gone a long way towards doing just that. However, the pantomime villain version of Cromwell makes for better drama, and this is a tragedy. For we’re losing one of England’s greatest revolutionary’s to myth, hysteria, and sentimentality over a few ruined abbeys.
~Hannah, 28th July, 2011~
- Elton. G.R. “England Under The Tudors”. (1990 Edition) Routledge.
- Hall, Edward. “The Chronicle of Edward Hall” (online)
- Schofield, John. “The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant”. (2008) History Press LTD