Thomas Cromwell, earl of Essex, born toward the close of the 15th century, died July 28, 1540. The exact date of his birth is unknown, though one account says he was born in 1498. His father, one of the Lincolnshire Cromwells, moved to the capital, and had an iron foundery at Putney. Cromwell's father died when the future statesman was very young, and the accounts that are given of the orphan's early days, are unworthy of confidence. He is said to have been a clerk at Antwerp, and to have been one of a party which went on a private mission to Rome. The first clear sight of him represents him a ragged youth in the streets of Florence, in 1515, where he attracted the attention of Fres-cobaldi, a great banker who had extensive business connections with England. To his inquiries, Cromwell stated who he was, and that he had been page to a French foot soldier. Frescobaldi took him to his house, relieved his wants, and furnished him with the means of returning home. He found his mother, who had married a second time, again a widow, and he carried on his stepfather's business, that of a clothier. This brought him into connection with the court, as he furnished the royal liveries.
After holding some post in the household of the marchioness of Dorset, he finally passed into the service of Wolsey, who saw his talent, and as early as 1525 employed him to visit and break up certain small monasteries, the property of which had been granted by the pope for the foundation of colleges. He remained with Wolsey until the cardinal's ruin in 1529, and contended so ably in the house of commons against the bill of impeachment introduced for the completion of the minister's fall, that he caused'it to be thrown out. This fidelity to his patron won him great applause, including. that of Henry VIII., who could appreciate generosity in others if he could not practise it himself. His talents, too, must have recommended him to the king, who appointed him his secretary and government organ in the house of commons. This necessarily made him the leader of the English reformation. Promotion rapidly followed his entrance into the king's service. He was knighted, sworn of the privy council, and appointed to several offices.
The high posts of secretary of state and master of the rolls soon followed, and he was elected chancellor of the university of Cambridge. In 1535 he was created vicar general, or visitor general, with power to visit all the monasteries in England, and issued a commission for a general visitation of the religious houses, the universities, and other spiritual corporations. He did not become vicegerent in ecclesiastical matters until July, 1536, having just previously been created Baron Cromwell and lord privy seal. The visitorial power was executed with great vigor, the other side said with great cruelty and gross injustice. The proceeding was one of the first importance, and struck a deadly blow at the ascendancy of Rome in England. The king was satisfied with Cromwell's doings, and the work of the reformation was much advanced. Sweeping changes were made in the religious system of England. The articles that were adopted by the convocation of 1536 were not acceptable to either Protestants or Catholics, but the government, of which Cromwell was chief minister, was strong enough to enforce them. The complete edition of the English Bible, known as the "Great" or "Crumwell," was published three years after, with the arms of Cromwell on the title page.
He was now at the height of his power, was created earl of Essex, constable of Carisbrooke castle, and lord of Okeham, and received valuable estates made up from the possessions of the dissolved monasteries. But he had enemies on all sides. The nobles hated him as an upstart; the people murmured at the taxation imposed upon them; the Catholics lay in wait to entrap him, in which they soon came to have the support of the king, who wished to be his own pope, and was tired of his fourth wife. With the view of connecting England with the Lutherans, Cromwell had promoted the marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves. The lady was very pious, very virtuous, and very ugly. Henry was disgusted with her, and refused to regard her as his wife. An attempt to form an Anglo-German league failed, and Henry was left alone at the very time when Charles V. and Francis I. were drawing together, and the Lutherans were deluded by the emperor. Cromwell continued to protect the Protestants, and only a few days before his fall he sent a Catholic bishop to the tower. On June 10, 1540, he was arrested, on the charge of high treason, while sitting at the council board, and sent to prison. Parliament was in session, and a bill of attainder was soon passed.
The only friend Cromwell found was Cranmer, who desired he should be spared. The prisoner made a pathetic appeal to the king, who was moved by it, but would not pardon him. He was beheaded July 28, suffering cruelly at the hands of an unskilful executioner. Government had the baseness to place in his mouth a dying speech that he never made, but which has passed into history, so that he was represented to have died in the faith of that church which he had done so much to overthrow in England. There are few great men of whom so little is accurately known as Thomas Cromwell. He played for eight years the highest part in England, and in one of the most fruitful of revolutions. He stamped his mind on the English constitution in church and state. That he was guilty of many acts of injustice and cruelty is indisputable, but his memory is entitled to the plea that he was placed in a position where no man could have preserved his virtue. The best account of Cromwell is to be found in Froude's "History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth." - Cromwell was married to a lady of the name of Williams, by whom he had one son, Gregory, who was made Baron Cromwell of Okeham, at the same time that his father was created earl of Essex. This son was married to Elizabeth Seymour, a sister of Henry VIII.'s third queen.
The posterity of this couple long enjoyed the titles of Lord Cromwell and earl of Ardglass (1624), the last earl dying in 1687.