That being said, let’s move on to Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s political agent in the break with Rome. Cromwell was born in 1485 in Putney, Surrey—the son of a blacksmith who also had a limited trade in wool cloth. Little is known of his youth and he seems to have had the ambition to be a ne’er do well. In his late teens he ended up on the continent where he served as a mercenary (a soldier for pay) in the army of the King of France, fighting in Italy. Giving up the uncertainty of a fighting life, in his late twenties he lived in Rome where he served as an agent for the English Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, Archbishop of York, at the Roman Curia. It is unlikely that Cromwell had much formal education though in his years as a soldier he picked up a number of languages including Latin, Italian, and French, which made his service very valuable. He obviously was bright and quick-witted—not to mention industrious—to achieve the importance he attained as Bainbridge’s agent with almost no formal education. It was probably his connection to Bainbridge that brought Cromwell to the notice of Cardinal Wolsey, Bainbridge’s successor in York. Cromwell was employed in several embassies to the Holy See and in 1523 was “elected” to Parliament. I put “elected” in quotes as he seems to have been planted there by virtue of what would later be called a pocket borough to help get Wolsey’s policies through the House. During these years he seems to have studied law and in 1524 was elected a member of Grey’s Inn—one of the Inn’s of Court. This would be equivalent today to graduating Law School. He was a most industrious and loyal member of Wolsey’s circle and one of the tasks entrusted to him by Wolsey was the suppression of about thirty small monasteries that Wolsey wanted to close and appropriate their revenues for his educational projects at Ipswich and Oxford. It would provide valuable experience for later.
In 1529 Wolsey fell but Cromwell, like the proverbial rat abandoning the proverbial sinking ship, cut himself lose from the Cardinal’s service just in time to save his own neck. Henry recognized the valuable service that Cromwell had rendered the Crown under Wolsey’s tenure and was determined to make use of this very capable servant. In 1530 Cromwell was appointed to the Privy Council—the King’s cabinet. Cromwell determined to impress Henry by succeeding where Wolsey had failed—namely in winning the King the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon so that Henry would be free to marry Anne Boleyn. This effort won him the loyalty of Anne and the Boleyn faction. Cromwell was savvy enough to know that the pope would never grant the annulment due to the political ties between the Pope and Katherine’s nephew, the Emperor Charles and so Cromwell set out to break the bonds that tied England to Rome. It was Cromwell that devised the legislative program that between 1531 and 1536 would cut the Church of England loose from the papacy and, at the same time, firmly establish the King at its helm. Henry was not, as I have pointed out in previous entries, one who much enjoyed the work of kinging and delegated as much of the labor as he could to free himself to hunt, eat, and commit adultery. (In his younger days he had also enjoyed tennis, wrestling, and jousting but older and fatter, it was now hunting, eating, and adultery.) On January 21, 1535 Henry appointed Cromwell vicegerent (or vicar-general) for ecclesiastical matters and it was really Cromwell who would direct the processes of the English Church for the next five years until his fall from power and execution on July 28th 1540. I am not finished yet with Cromwell as he will play a huge part in the next several entries as we examine the Church under Henry, but while on the scaffold he would proclaim that he “died in the traditional faith” he does seem personally to have had strong Lutheran leanings and fostered many who would in the next reign and in Elizabeth’s reign bring the Church of England into full-blown Calvinism. I think he was probably more of a religious dilettante than a convinced Protestant—or Catholic, for that matter. He had never studied theology and like Cranmer was more a man of politics than principle. In fact, I would say that he was more theologically principled than Cranmer for while Cranmer hid his Protestant sympathies until Henry was in the grave, Cromwell would be responsible—as we shall see—for some rather dramatic Protestant innovations such as the closing of the monasteries and the dismantling of many shrines and images in the churches and cathedrals of England.