From lowly beginnings, Cromwell rose through the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to become Earl of Essex, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal, and Henry VIII’s chief minister.
Cromwell was instrumental in creating the legislation to support Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and England’s break from the Church of Rome.
Cromwell was a champion of religious reform and exercised his power to bring changes to the Church.
Cromwell supported an English translation of the Bible, allowing others to interpret God’s message, not just the Catholic Church. In 1537, he persuaded Henry VIII to order English Bibles into every parish church.
Meanwhile, the Crown’s struggling finances prompted Cromwell to survey the wealth of monasteries, which were significant land holders.
Cromwell resolved to dissolve the smaller monastic houses and redistribute their wealth. In early 1536 he sent out commissioners to oversee the closures. This decision was to have far-reaching consequences in Beverley and Yorkshire.
While Cromwell was politically astute, his position always relied on King Henry’s favour. Cromwell was gathering enemies who were jealous of his position as chief minister. The smallest political misstep from Cromwell could spell disaster.
Despite his very public career, curiously little is known of Cromwell’s private life. Hans Holbien’s portrait from 1532/33, on which this painting is based, shows Thomas Cromwell in the manner he is often described: a serious and dedicated bureaucrat. The letter in Cromwell’s hand and the papers strewn across his desk give the distinct impression that the artist has interrupted a man hard at work.
The 1530s: divorce, reform, martyrs