‘The Story of Parliament’: Thomas Cromwell

Earlier this year the History published ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of parliament in Britain’ to mark the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s parliament in 1265. The book is a brief introduction to the full 750 years of parliamentary history, aimed at the general reader, and available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament bookshop.

Over the next few months we’ll be publishing some tasters of ‘The Story of Parliament’ from a number of the academics who contributed to the book. We start with a short introduction to Henry VIII’s chief minister and one of the most significant figures in the development of Parliament, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has been the recent focus of attention thanks to Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-Winning novels, but his importance in guiding royal policy through Parliament, in particular the Reformation Parliament of 1529-35, makes him one of the period’s most significant politicians and administrators.

This article was originally written by Dr Paul Cavill, Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge University.

Thomas Cromwell by Jacobus Houbraken (© Palace of Westminster)

Thomas Cromwell by Jacobus Houbraken
(© Palace of Westminster)

As Henry VIII’s leading minister in the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell dominated the decade’s parliaments. The son of a Putney blacksmith, Cromwell was born around 1485. Returning to England in the 1510s after continental adventures, Cromwell acted as a general land agent. One of his many clients possibly helped him get elected to parliament in 1523. There he may have delivered a speech urging the conquest of Scotland.

In 1524, the king’s minister Cardinal Wolsey recruited Cromwell to oversee the building of his new colleges in Ipswich and Oxford. This experience eased Cromwell’s transition to the king’s service after the cardinal’s fall in 1529. With Henry’s favour, Cromwell was again elected to the Commons, where he quickly demonstrated his ability as a royal spokesman. He helped to draft the most important bills in the Reformation Parliament. He then masterminded the nationwide enforcement of the break with Rome.

Cromwell joked how in 1523 he had “endured a parliament” that, after 17 weeks of inconclusive debate, had “left where it began”. By contrast, radical decisiveness characterised the parliaments that Cromwell managed, as an MP and, from 1536, as a member of the Lords. By using parliament to confirm the royal supremacy and overhaul government, Cromwell gave it a more important constitutional role. Although early ideas of parliamentary sovereignty may have influenced him, Cromwell was primarily seeking efficient means of advancing his royal master’s interests. Cromwell’s papers reveal a cultured man of the world, interested in religious and social reform. He may have gone too far for Henry VIII. His reputation as a Protestant sympathiser contributed to his fall from power and his execution in 1540.

PC

Dr Paul Cavill is Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge University. He studies the political and religious history of Tudor England, and is author of The English parliaments of Henry VII, 1485–1504 (Oxford, 2009).

‘The Story of Parliament’ is available at the Parliamentary bookshop for £14.99. You can purchase it here.

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