Henry VIII and Family

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Execution of Cromwell


On this day, the 28th of July, in 1540, Thomas Cromwell was executed. While researching Cromwell's actual execution, I found two differing stories. One story says that he was executed "in private on Tower Green," found here: http://englishhistory.net/tudor/citizens/cromwell.html.

and another story claims that he was executed publicly on Tower Hill. I found this story here: http://www.castles.me.uk/executions-beheading-tower-of-london.htm.

Of everything I have read, all can agree that Cromwell's execution was not an easy one, having an inexperienced executioner, a mere teenager doing the job. It is rumored that Henry VIII ordered this boy for the execution on purpose, so as to make Cromwell suffer more than necessary, however this has never been proven.

There were also rumors, as you can see on Showtime's "The Tudors" that the executioner was extremely hung over or drunk and therefore botched the execution. That is entirely made up and not an historical fact. But, you can't blame Michael Hirst for jazzing things up a bit in the name of entertainment, right?

So, what exactly happened on this day? How did Cromwell's execution actually take place? Here is what I can gather from my findings:

Cromwell's fall was swift; his enemies wasted no time ensuring he would never leave the Tower, "finding" additional evidence that he was a treasonous heretic and putting it before the King. It is said that Henry was so enraged, he swore that Cromwell's name would be abolished forever.

Cromwell wrote two letters to King Henry VIII, very desperate and pleading for the King's mercy. Poor Cromwell. Someone should have given him the memo that Henry was fresh out of mercy. *Morbid grin* Only one of these letters survived and I found an excerpt from the one surviving, tattered letter:

'God is God and knoweth both [my faithfulness] towards your Majesty and your realm.....how dear your person was, is, and ever hath [been]....therefore, most gracious Prince, I humbly submit me to your [Grace] and ask of God mercy for my sins, and of your Highness mercy and pardon for mine offences as to your high wisdom shall seem most convenient. And, Sir, that ever I have deceived you in any of your treasure, surely I have [not], and that God Almighty best knoweth......Sir, upon [my kne]es I most humbly beseech your most gracious Majesty [to be goo]d and gracious lord to my poor son, the good and virtu[ous lady his] wife, and their poor children...'

(Excerpt found at the AWESOME website, "The Tudors Wiki", found here: http://tudorswiki.sho.com/page/Thomas+Cromwell++-+Historical+Profile.)

Cromwell's execution was indeed botched, due to the executioner being but a young teenager and inexperienced as well. Cromwell was struck three times before he was finally killed.

After the execution, his head was boiled and put on a spike on London Bridge facing away from the city of London.

It wasn't long before Henry was lamenting his trusted servant's death, blaming his council for falsely accusing Cromwell and leading him astray with their accusations. Well, it wouldn't be King Henry if he wasn't blaming someone else for his mistakes, right?

My thoughts on Cromwell.... are pretty mixed. I am a very avid Anne Boleyn fan, so part of me feels like he got exactly what was coming to him. He was reaching too high, his plans for Reform were NOT the same as Henry's, and he was becoming more and more greedy. The only way to go once you reach the top is down, as most people close to Henry VIII soon found out for themselves. Cromwell was no exception.

I believe he could have saved himself, had he not gotten the King mixed up in the Anne of Cleves "debacle". I know he was trying to bring a powerful ally to England, however I do believe it was mostly selfish reasons that drove him to make the match for Henry. He mislead Henry about quite a few other things, especially during the Pilgrimage of Grace, and I think it was his short-sighted hunger for power and wealth that lead him to his ultimate fate.

I have to hand it to Michael Hirst, when Cromwell was executed on "The Tudors", I actually felt a bit sorry for him and was almost sad to see him go. He always has a way of making you feel sorry for the "villains" at the last moment.

What do you think? Do you think Thomas Cromwell was merely the King's good servant, or did he get what he deserved? Was he merely doing what he needed to do to survive in Tudor times, or was he being entirely too high handed in matters of government?

***Image found here: http://englishhistory.net/tudor/citizens/cromwell.htm

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. That's interesting. I've never heard that Cromwell may have been privately executed. How bizarre. What you may find interesting, though, is that there is a school of thought out there that Cromwell actually didn't have that big of a role in Boleyn's downfall.

    I think Cromwell was ambitious but I also think he did what he had to do to survive in the court of Henry VIII, which was no easy feat. If you want to read a fascinating piece of historical fiction, I'd recommend Hilary Mantel's Wolf-Hall.

    1. I am in the middle of reading Wolf- Hall and find myself feeling he survived his grotty chidhood to become a caring ,loving family man. I could have wept when he lost his beloved wife, daughters, sister and brother-in-law to the plague. If only we could get rid of some of our useless m.ps as Henry was able to do.Ah well.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I would really love to know why you are an Anne Boleyn fan? She was fabulously ambitious and cruel to those who got in the way.

  3. In the beginning of Cromwells rise it seems as if he was a humble servent. However during the out break of civil war in England he showed little to no mercy to those innocent bystanders and even scorned Charles Duke of Suffolk for having insufficient numbers if hangings during that time. He did indeed reach too high and made many enemies in the process of success. His death was inevitable.
    Sidenote: I saw the episode of Cromwells execution on "The Tudors" and did, indeed feel sympathy for Cromwell during his final days.

  4. @Anonymous #1 - You are most welcome. I very much enjoy researching historical figures, my preference being Tudor era figures.

    I am an Anne Boleyn fan for many reasons. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time. She showed strength and intelligence and I greatly admire her for it. It is true she could be cruel to those around her how dared to cross her, I do not believe she should have paid for it with her life.

    I feel one cannot accurately judge actions in the 16th century from a 21st century perspective. We cannot fully know what is true and what is false or what drove a person to behave a certain way, but I do like to think there was genuine good in Anne and that she got blinded by her ambition, and made mistakes. I do not condone her cruel treatment of others.

    Thank you for reading! I enjoy answering questions from readers. :) I apologize for the delay in answering.

    1. I'm going to generally agree with everything you just posted - in almost any period of history, royalty is surrounded with greed, corruption and ill-intentions. Whatever the Boleyn family truly were like, they didn't deserve to be killed so callously.

      I know the romance and (in a way) ridiculouslness of the Tudor Dynasty is fodder for media, jokes and overall entertainment, but its sad to see such blatant disregard for human life. It also goes to show that a tyrant is not the only one to blame, its the people who enable him that are just as (if not more) guilty.

  5. @Anonymous #2 - Thank you so much for commenting on this post. I tend to agree with your view about Cromwell, most especially that his death was inevitable. :) Thanks for reading!

  6. All of the people in the Tudor court have positive and negative sides, depending on which book you read. I have read many books, novels and factual histories on the main charters. Sometime I am appaled, sometime sympathetic. All dependes on the author.

  7. I think by mentioning or referring to Showtimes "The Tudors" you do yourself damage. It is a complete load of codswallop and is aimed solely at the uniformed brain dead idiots with no interest in the real truth of the Tudor times.

    Apart from that your blog is very commendable and I suggest you stick to the truth and forget the rubbish put out for/as infotainment by ignorant people parading as knowledgable historians.

    1. I am currently watching "The Tudors" through Netflix; have seen up to Cromwell's execution. Concurrently, I am researching these historical people via internet websites dedicated to Tudor dynasty history. I am pleasantly surprised at how factual "The Tudors" television serial is. Of course, some details are not presented in accurate timeline. Overall, though, the presentation seems to be accurate enough to give a casual observer some sense of King Henry's reign and the events that took place then. Also, I noticed that even some of the actors' spoken lines are taken from actual written testimony and letters from the era. Pretty impressive considering "The Tudors" was produced as entertainment and not a historical documentary.

  8. Many modern historians view Thomas Cromwell as a victim of his job. By effecting the King's commands and wishes, which was necessary for his survival, he invetiably made enemies. Each time the King favored a new family based on his "romantic" intentions (first Boleys/Howards, then Seymours), other families were on the losing end. They families blamed the King's key advisors (Wolsey, then Cromwell) because they could not directly blame the King. There was also the classist thinking and prejudice -- many "high" born families resented Cromwell's rise to power because he was "low" born and this threatened the social hierarchy they depended upon.

    On a related issue, Anne Boleyn has been romaticised and has many fans. However, many historians see her as cruel, murderous and clever, but not highly intelligent or as astute with political matters as her predecessor Katherine of Aragon. (Just look at Katherine's ability to match wits and political skills when Henry's advisors were trying to get rid of her -- she prevented so many of those attempts and lasted much longer than most people would have in that scenario.) Anne did encourage the death of many people, some based on small grudges. She also pressed for Queen Katherine and Princess Mary to be declared traitors based on their opposition to Anne's usurption of the throne. Anne knew full well that traitors were put to death, and if she had her way Katherine and young Mary would have been executed. I think Anne was intelligent, but not as intelligent as she herself believed. She was able to manipulate Henry by promising his greatest desire (the birth of a son), playing hard to get, and prodding his ego/sense of entitlement, but those charms wore off rather fast. (Remember, back then it was believed the woman determined the sex of the baby, and Anne's sister had already given Henry a son, so Anne's promise of a son was seemingly credible.) In the end, Anne was caught in her own traps: Queen's can be replaced, the King will get what he wants no matter what the cost, twisting laws, words, traditions to get the outcome you want is acceptable. Like a bad chess player, she failed to see the long-term view. She also failed to make necessary alliances while Queen and instead used her power/position for revenge and personal interests. Of course, some think she was just a pawn used by her family and the bad decisions were not hers. Maybe there is some truth to all the different views.

  9. I am as well an avid Anne Boleyn fan. She was by far the most ambitious and cunning woman of her era. However, I do feel utmost pity and sympathy for Princess Mary when she was declared a bastard. Having watched "The Tudors", I actually cried out to the screen for the King Henry VIII to show mercy as Cromwell, I feel, was his most true and humble servant. Not one soul ever stood by him and defended him against the "treason" he committed against the queen.

    I do not know why I am so interested in 16th century England. I have such great respect for Anne Boleyn as she really did fight (I feel) for her own rights, as a woman to be treated equally.

  10. I think Anne was many things as the times called for. She was ahead of most women being able to read and write. She knew how to use what ever "Femmin Wiles" she may have had but she also took the King away from the gloom court of Spanish Papal regiment. Such as it may have been. I think in the end she would have been happy to retire with the Title of Marchioness of Pembrook for herself and all of her children had her family assisted at the time.HA! HA! She certainly would have had enough money and whatever was needed to remain at court. Paranoia is a terrible thing as we can see in society today and the courts all over Europe did nothing if not breed it. I think that in part is what affected her attitude to Catherine and Mary. I too feel one of the most tragic figures in all of this mess was Princess Mary. I guess maybe being a Princess except for Disney isn't all it's cracked up to be in this day and age.

  11. I think Thomas Cromwell over reached himself beliving he could hasten the "type & manner" of religion to Henry's court. Obviously this was not used against him by his "betters" when they hastened his downfall. I don't think he was as greedy as most certainly not for power or money. He had both and knew he could go no higher without Henry being there in front of him. I think he just got to greedy with the possibilities of moving further from Rome with Henry to lead the way into a middle ground of what was out there on offer.

  12. Being a historian myself, I think the Showtime version of the Tudors life is one of the few entertainment pieces of royal history that has as many factual truths as it does. Granted the things that are wrong are very wrong, such as Henry's sister marrying the King of Portugal. However, I am glad to see that so many people actually took an interest in history because of this. So let's not speak so poorly of people who watched it. On that note "anonymous", have no pity on "bloody mary", she was a greater murderer than her father. She was born bitter. After all, who would've wanted Henry VIII for a father in law. As for Cromwell, the "Tudors" very much humanized him. He was a greedy blood sucking leach first, a selfish heartless bastard second, and a humble servant last.

  13. I have to disagree with Penny Castillo's assessment of Mary. Between his religious persecutions, the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and other causes, some 70,000+ people were executed directly because of Henry VIII.

    In contrast, fewer than 300 people were executed because of Mary (the most common figure is 287).

    The reason why Henry gets off easy for tens of thousands of executions, while Mary gets a bad rep for only a couple hundred, is because Mary was on the losing (as in, not necessarily *wrong*) side of history. Protestants in England had centuries to slander her name as the last great enemy of Protestantism in their country, and had the same amount of time to cover up Henry's injustices, since most of the deaths on his watch were Catholic, and since he laid the foundations of the Anglican Church.

    Protestantism in 16th c. and especially 17th c. England was far more radical and dangerous than most of its Continental varieties. It is interesting to think that in most places of Europe, local religious issues were settled relatively quickly as the majority of most populations tended to agree that they were Catholic or some form of Protestant. Most of the religious conflicts on the Continent were between separate powers, not due to internal strife (the Thirty Years War is a difficult one to discuss, as some would argue it to be internal strife within the HRE, but since the HRE was a confederation of sovereign states, and each state was relatively homogeneous on its own, it is difficult to pin down the exact nature of its strife).

    The only countries to truly suffer great internal strife for long periods of time over religion were England and (to a lesser extent) France. In England, the Protestants eventually won out and demonised the Catholics. In France, the Catholics eventually won out and demonised the Protestants.

    But in the end, from an objective standpoint, Henry VIII was infinitely bloodier than Mary I (to a factor of over 230 times as bloody!).

    History Buff '88

  14. Henry VIII was a moody jackass and quite frankly I think he was a terrible monarch, who only managed to achieve what good he did through the luck of having good advisers.

    I too have mixed feelings about Cromwell, but I firmly believe that unless the man was a serial killer, rapist or paedophile, nobody deserves such a cruel death.

  15. I enjoyed reading your site so much I just stumbled on to it after watching an old Tudors episode, I am a fan if the show , it actually got me watching many many documentaries on the English Monarchy. I detest both of the Cromwells (being a Catholic) so hearing he may of had a botched hanging made me smile. Funny, I always preferred Anne Boleyn over Catherine myself . Everyone wanted Anne dead if it wasn't her I'm sure it would have been some other younger woman.

  16. I appreciate all of the different comments and views on this blog post. Some think that Cromwell was to be pitied, the way Henry VIII treated him, but I think some of those views may change as Wolf Hall comes to the US. For those who have already seen it in the UK, I would be interested to know if seeing Wolf Hall either changed or solidified your opinions of Cromwell. Thank you all for reading!

  17. Thank you very much for your well written and informative piece about Cromwell!!! I did watch Wolf Hall, and I was fascinated by the "outing" of Thomas More, as a religious fanatic, and his role in torturing a number of "heretics" and sending others to be burned at the stake.....You see, we didn't learn these facts about the good "saint," in Catholic school. I was both enlightened and revolted by the falsehoods taught to us.....as a fallen away catholic, and old pagan, for decades, I wasn't totally surprised by this, but still jolted a bit....Thomas More was neither Paul Scofield, in that movie portrayal, nor " a man for all seasons." from an old warlock

    1. Thank you for the wonderful compliment and I am glad you are enjoying reading my posts. I was raised Catholic too, although I am now much more in the pagan realm. Both Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Moore are complex characters and it is always fun and interesting to dig a little deeper to see what makes up the man behind the reputation.

  18. A fall from grace often seemed a side effect of serving close to King Henry VIII. Has any research been done on the King's psychology?

  19. ZenGirl-Regarding your question of any research into King Henry VIII's psychology. I'd have to make sure you are addressing the question of possible mental health issues. Having a professional degree in mental health counseling, I would be willing to go out on a limb and say that the king more than likely suffered from a possibility of numerous mental health diagnoses. Bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, or narsasitic personality disorder could all be possible diagnoses. However, I believe his greatest complication resulted from having been trampled on by his horse when thrown off during a joust. If this is factual, it could very well be that all of the mood swings and inability to control his impulsive behaviors were the result of a possibly traumatic brain injury. Looking at the span of his life, this theory could have merit based upon the drastic changes in his mood and such after the accident. I don't know if intetpreted you question as you intended to ask it, but my answer is a hypothesis that I have not heard before. Human behavior is so intriguing.