Henry VIII’S insidious advisor is back in his post and better placed than many to whisper into the ear of the impressionable young Edward VI
Tudor historian Tracy Borman on a world where Thomas Cromwell escaped execution
By the time of his execution on the orders of King Henrry VIII, Thomas Cromwell had clawed and fought his way from being a humble commoner to be known as one of the most influential and powerful men in all of England.
His fall from grace was by no means unusual; as victims of Henry’s sometimes irrational and increasingly volatile behaviour many had suffered the very same fate. But what if Cromwell’s career had not ended in this way?
What if Henry had not been swayed by Cromwell’s enemies and had continued to have him as his most loyal and trusted servant?
Such was the extent of the web of Cromwell’s influence that, had he been given the opportunity to continue the picture of history for decades, perhaps even centuries, could have been so drastically changed that it is difficult to imagine it could be attributed to the existence of just one man.
What would have happened to Cromwell’s rivals?
We can be sure that Cromwell would have had his revenge upon his two principal rivals, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, both of whom were responsible for persuading Henry to have Cromwell charged with treason. Each of these men had their own reasons to want Cromwell out of the way. As head of a principle family Norfolk relished power, influence and the king’s favour. Cromwell had got in the way of that and for him to be a commoner enraged Norfolk even more. Howard was to be stripped of his title and condemned to death by King Henry, only to be saved by the king’s own death. But with his political guile and the ear of the king, Cromwell could well have brought about Norfolk’s demise even sooner, playing on Norfolk’s ambition and the unfortunate family connection to Anne Boleyn, a person and a matter that Henry was desperate to forget.
In Gardiner, Cromwell had both a political and religious rival. Each had served the former Cardinal Wolsey and had clashed over their political ambitions in the king’s court.
Gardiner had, however, been kept away from the inner circle of influence with a number of overseas diplomatic postings and missions, something which Cromwell could arrange to continue and neutralise him as a threat. They also differed greatly over the form and speed of religious changes under Henry and with Gardiner out of the way Cromwell could have worked more quickly towards his goal of a more reformist England.
The Seymour brothers (Edward in particular) were also hostile towards Cromwell and had supported the plot against him, but they were pretty much untouchable because their sister Jane had given Henry his precious son. It could be that Cromwell would have been able to reinforce a family connection with the Seymours following the marriage of his son Gregory to Jane’s sister. The Seymours may have come around to the fact that Cromwell was better an ally than an enemy and their own thirst for power, embodied in Edward Seymour as Lord Protector of the young King Edward VI, could have been well supported and manipulated by Cromwell.
How could Cromwell have influenced Henry’s future behaviour?
Henry was notoriously difficult to control in the latter years of his reign, as he became increasingly paranoid and changeable. But Cromwell had proved more successful than most of the king’s other men in judging his mood and subtly influencing his opinions and decisions. He also realised that actions spoke louder than words, and had always made it his policy to find out the matters closest to Henry’s heart and to make it his business to work on them to his royal master’s satisfaction.
This had served him well for the decade before his fall and he would no doubt have continued with the same strategy – perhaps making amends for the Anne of Cleves fiasco by helping to find a suitable sixth bride after Catherine Howard’s adultery was discovered in 1541. The endorsement of the King’s favour would have left Cromwell in a strong position to serve and support young Edward, Henry’s successor.
Would the relationship with the Church have been different?
It is likely that Cromwell would have spurred Henry on to even greater reforms. In his absence Henry had reverted back to a more conservative stance, but – perhaps with the lure of further financial gains – Cromwell might have persuaded the king of the benefits of making the English church fully reformist.
By sidelining Gardiner and others like him Cromwell could have made this possible and would certainly have been the case under the Protestant Edward VI where Cromwell’s reforms could have been consolidated and had a greater impact, countering any threat of a return to Rome by undermining Roman Catholic support and isolating Princess Mary from her followers and power base.
What impact could Cromwell have had in Parliament?
In the years before his death, Cromwell had dominated Parliament, pushing through sweeping legislation to effect a thoroughgoing reformation in both religious and political life.
It was his favoured arena and his training as a lawyer gave him the skills to dominate debates there.
He would have continued to do so, and it’s interesting to speculate that he might have made Parliament a more powerful force, perhaps even one that challenged royal authority – as his successor (and relative) Oliver would do in the following century.
“cromwell could well have brought about norfolk’s demise even sooner, playing on norfolk’s ambition”
Could Cromwell have had any influence on the succession?
If he had lived until the close of Edward VI’S reign then we can be sure that he would have joined with John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland in ensuring Lady Jane Grey’s succession.
The idea of having the stoutly Roman Catholic Princess Mary on the throne would have been anathema to Cromwell.
In his will the young king had made his wishes for Jane Grey and her male heirs to succeed him very clear, and with Cromwell throwing his support behind Jane’s claim, Mary’s supporters may not have been so confident in fighting for the crown. Cromwell would have planned his moves with care and then used all his diplomatic manoeuvrings and political ruthlessness within the Privy Council to persuade and prevent them finding in Mary’s favour.
Both the princesses were still officially illegitimate and Cromwell would have used his skills as a lawyer to push the point in Jane’s favour.
As a Roman Catholic, Princess Mary may very well have been imprisoned rather than exiled to only then raise support for her cause. Princess Elizabeth may have befallen a similar fate at first, although as a Protestant would have endured slightly more leniency, to be perhaps then married off to one of the foremost Protestant families in Europe and helping to cement England in a Protestant alliance.
With Jane Grey on the throne a whole new dynastic line would have opened up, changing the thread of history as we know it. She was in her late teens when offered the crown and there is every reason to think she would have produced at least one male heir.
And there is every reason to think that had he survived, Cromwell would have been for her, as he had been for Henry, a true and loyal servant.
Elizabeth may never have reached the throne, becoming a far less significant figure in history
Lady Jane Grey facing the executioner’s axe. With Cromwell pulling the strings, this might well have been the fate faced by Mary I instead
Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, was one of Cromwell’s deadliest rivals and may have met his comeuppance had he survived Henry VIII’S wrath