Why was Thomas Cromwell executed in 1540?


Ambitions for Power

It was said that for over then years Cromwell had been building up his power and wealth, trying to make himself as great as the King. Among the evidence was the claim that Cromwell had been planning to marry Henry's eldest daughter, Mary Tudor, and so become a central member of the royal family. Such ambition, to rival the King in terms of power, was treason.

However, this charge was not true! There is no evidence to support either that Cromwell was so ambitious in general or that he had any plans to marry Mary.

So these were 'trumped-up' charges, false accusations created to win the verdict 'Guilty of Treason' and ensure that Cromwell was executed.

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Cromwell's Enemies

The Duke of Norfolk wanted to see the end of Cromwell as Henry's Chief Minister because:

  • Norfolk believed nobles like himself should be the King's advisers, not low-born upstarts such as Wolsey and Cromwell. 
  • Without Cromwell, Norfolk would be closer to the King. This would give him a greater chance of rewards.
  • Norfolk was a Catholic, deeply opposed to the religious changes promoted by Cromwell.

So Norfolk led the campaign against Cromwell, just as he had against Wolsey. Norfolks plans did not lead directly to Cromwell's downfall because Norfolk and his allies faced problems. The King had confidence in Cromwell and that made it hard to get rid of him.

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The Cleves Marriage

The King wanted a wife - and this time he wanted a foreign wife. Henry wanted a wife to seal an alliance with another ruler to make France and the Empire think twice about invading England.

Henry's advisors did their research on Anne of Cleves, getting portraits painted and listening to reports of her. Henry made sure he was well informed and finally made the decision himself. 

Unfortunately, Anne did not live up to her portraits, at least in Henry's eyes. Henry took an immediate dislike to her. If he had known what she was like, he said, "she should not have come within this realm".

Henry went ahead with the wedding. After, Henry demanded a divorce from Anne.

For Cromwell, arranging the divorce was easy because the marriage had never been consummated. Henry was deeply angry with Cromwell for arranging such a humiliating marriage. This seemed to be the opportunity Norfolk and his allies had been waiting for because Henry's confidence in Cromwell had fallen.

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Religious Differences

Religion mattered to Henry. He knew even kings could suffer the pains of hell if they not had lived according to the Church's laws. He had been a loyal son of the Catholic Church until the need for the annulment led to setting up the Church of England.

However, as the 1530s continued, Henry had second thoughts about even the few steps he had taken towards Protestantism. In 1539, he supported the Act of Six Articles which adjusted the country's religion again.

In 1540, Cromwell's enemies told Henry that Cromwell was supporting preachers who were opposing the Act of Six Articles and wanted to make the Church more Protestant. They said Cromwell should have been prosecuting these men but instead he was protecting them. Worse, they said Cromwell wanted to make the Church far more Protestant.

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Henry's Personality

It is probable that by 1540 Henry's health was making him more likely to turn against even such a loyal minister as Cromwell. The handsome, fit king of 1530 became an old, angry tyrant, his waist ballooning from a trim 32 inches to a gross 52 inches. 

Henry had always been quick to blame others for his problems. Now he became more unpredictable and his mood swings grew worse. 

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