Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex

Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex, 1485?–1540, English statesman. While a young man he lived abroad as a soldier, accountant, and merchant, and on his return (c.1512) to England he engaged in the wool trade and eventually became a lawyer. He entered Parliament in 1523 and soon became legal secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, for whom he managed the suppression of minor monasteries. He avoided being disgraced with Wolsey in 1529, and by 1531 was serving Henry VIII as a member of the privy council. By 1532 he had become the king's chief minister and was responsible for drafting most of the acts of Parliament by which the Reformation was effected. He probably originated the idea of making the king supreme head of the church in England. As Henry's vicar-general after 1535, he supervised (1536–39) the visitation and suppression of monasteries and the confiscation of monastic lands and wealth. Much of Cromwell's unpopularity with the people, demonstrated by the Pilgrimage of Grace, derived from the ruthlessness of his agents in carrying out that project. He issued injunctions to the clergy, regulating their conduct and duties, assailed the worship of images and relics, and initiated a much-needed system of parish registers. He was made a baron and lord privy seal in 1536, lord great chamberlain in 1539, and earl of Essex in 1540. He negotiated the king's marriage to Anne of Cleves as a means of securing the North German princes as allies against the Catholic Holy Roman emperor Charles V. When Anne proved unattractive and the alliance failed, Henry allowed charges of treason and heresy to be brought against Cromwell by his bitter enemy, the duke of Norfolk. Cromwell was condemned by act of attainder and beheaded.

See biographies by R. B. Merriman (1902), T. Maynard (1950), A. G. Dickens (1959), T. Borman (2014), and D. MacCulloch (2018); G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953) and Reform and Renewal (1973).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: British and Irish History: Biographies