On this day in 1540 Thomas Cromwell, who had for served as chief minister to King Henry VIII, was executed at Tower Hill in London. For nearly ten years Cromwell was one of the strongest and most powerful proponents of the English Reformation, coming to the fore through his engineering of the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533. During his years in power, he skillfully managed Crown finances and extended royal authority. In 1536, he established the Court of Augmentations to handle the massive windfall to the royal coffers from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He strengthened royal authority in the north of England through reform of the Council of the North, extended royal power and introduced Protestantism in Ireland, and was the architect of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, which promoted stability and gained acceptance for the royal supremacy in Wales.
During this period Cromwell made many enemies and there were no shortage of those who would try and to oust him from his position of power. In 1540 he arranged for Henry to marry the German Princess Anne of Cleves, who Cromwell hoped would help breath fresh life into the Reformation in England and help protect England against the possibility of a French / Imperial alliance. This appears to have been a costly mistake, as the king was reportedly shocked by her plain appearance and Cromwell was accused of exaggerating her beauty. The wedding ceremony took place on January 6th at Greenwich, but the marriage was not consummated. For Cromwell’s conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, the King's anger at being forced to marry Anne was the opportunity to topple him they had been waiting for.
Cromwell was arrested at a Council meeting on June 10th and accused of various charges. His initial reaction was defiance: "This then is my reward for faithful service!" he cried out, and angrily defied his fellow Councillors to call him a traitor. A Bill of Attainder containing a long list of indictments, including supporting Anabaptists, corrupt practices, leniency in matters of justice, acting for personal gain, protecting Protestants accused of heresy and thus failing to enforce the Act of Six Articles, and plotting to marry Lady Mary Tudor, was introduced into the House of Lords a week later and passed on June 29th.
All Cromwell's honours were forfeited and it was publicly proclaimed that he could be called only "Thomas Cromwell, cloth carder". The King deferred the execution until his marriage to Anne of Cleves could be annulled: Anne, with remarkable common sense, happily agreed to an amicable annulment and was treated with great generosity by Henry as a result. Hoping for clemency, Cromwell wrote in support of the annulment, in his last personal address to the King. He ended the letter: "Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy."
Cromwell was however condemned to death without trial, lost all his titles and property and was publicly beheaded on Tower Hill on July 28th 1540, on the same day as the King's marriage to Catherine Howard. The circumstances of his execution are a source of debate: whilst some accounts state that the executioner had great difficulty severing the head, others claim that this is apocryphal and that it took only one blow. Afterwards, his head was set on a spike on London Bridge.
The king later expressed regret at the loss of his chief minister and later accused his ministers of bringing about Cromwell's downfall by "pretexts" and "false accusations".
This scene was built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on the English Reformation; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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