Thomas Cromwell: The Man Behind the Curtain

Thomas Cromwell

The Man Behind the Curtain

By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins

So many “Thomases” in the 16th century, it’s hard to keep them straight! Thomas Cromwell was beheaded July 28, 1540 by order of King Henry VIII for the crime of treason and heresy, but his real crime appears to have been his selection of Anne of Cleves to be Henry’s fourth wife. Cromwell was Henry VIII’s principle advisor and “fixer,” Lord Privy Seal (1534-1540), who used his considerable influence to gently and politically steer England in the direction of the 16th century religious reform. It is impossible to imagine a 16th English Reformation if it wasn’t for Thomas Cromwell who, in 1535, was given the added job of Vicegerent in Spirituals, effectively making him the lay head of the Church of England. 

He was a “complex and crabwise” enigmatic character, according to his biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch. For example, although he and Anne Boleyn were both passionate evangelicals (Protestants, before the word was used), they clearly didn’t like each other, and Cromwell was likely the behind-the-scenes engineer of the queen’s downfall, trial, and execution on what were likely trumped-up charges of incest and adultery. Under Cardinal Wolsey and with Henry’s support, Cromwell led the campaign to dissolve the monasteries and religious houses in England because they represented all the worst of Medieval Catholicism. He also supported evangelical leaders in high places and permitted the dissemination of new-learning literature (e.g., Erasmus’s Greek and Latin translation of the New Testament, 1516). His greatest lasting achievement was the provision of an authorised English Bible, making it available to all. Thomas Cromwell was the man in politics behind the curtain of the English Reformation.

There were lots of “causes” for the Reformation in England, including the intellectual impulses of the Renaissance and the rise of Humanism that led to the availability of the Bible in English, the religious movement that begun two hundred years earlier by John Wycliffe (the Lollards) to return the church to its biblical roots and to Justification by Faith, the abject corruption of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) that disgusted everyone with any moral sensibility, the writings of Martin Luther and other continental reformers that were arriving in the British Isles like food for hungry people, the rise of Nationalism, and the personal obsession of the King of England to have a male heir to the throne at any cost. Thomas Cromwell helped navigate this complex situation towards what, in the end, became a settled Protestantism of the Church of England that is thoroughly biblical, theologically reformed (Protestant), pastorally generous, and liturgically beautiful. Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, on the same day that his friend Thomas Cromwell was beheaded.

The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism.  See more at: