Cromwell Reforms British Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Thomas Cromwell came to power rapidly in England during the early 1530’. He helped Henry VIII seize control of the church from Rome and move it slowly toward a reformed Protestantism.

Summary of Event

Thomas Cromwell played a dominant role in English politics during the 1530’. When Cardinal Thomas Wolsey fell from power (1529-1530) as a result of his failure to negotiate an annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s former servant and Collector of Revenues (1514-1530), emerged as the king’s principal adviser. Cromwell, who was appointed a member of the Privy Council in 1531, advanced Henry VIII’s interests and, for the most part, cooperated with the new religious leader, Thomas Cranmer, who was named archbishop of Canterbury. Protestantism;England Cromwell, Thomas Henry VIII Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas Cranmer, Thomas More, Sir Thomas Catherine of Aragon Boleyn, Anne Seymour, Jane Anne of Cleves Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas Henry VIII (king of England) Catherine of Aragon Cranmer, Thomas Boleyn, Anne Mary Tudor (queen of England) Seymour, Jane Elizabeth I (queen of England) More, Sir Thomas Aske, Robert Pole, Reginald Anne of Cleves Cromwell, Thomas

Thomas Cromwell aided England’s king Henry VIII in drafting the Act of Supremacy, which made Henry the head of the Church of England, and he helped rid the country of noncompliant Catholics, many of whom were beheaded. This illustration shows the beheading of John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester, in 1535.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Cromwell assisted Henry in securing his annulment from Queen Catherine, and he facilitated the arrangements for Henry’s 1533 marriage to Anne Boleyn. He was also instrumental in formulating and implementing the Henrician strategy of utilizing Parliament as an instrument of the Crown. During 1533 and 1534, Cromwell managed to persuade Parliament to pass a series of enactments that provided essential support for Henry VIII’s break with Roman Catholicism. Divorce;Henry VIII and That break was intrinsically linked to his marriage plans, which Henry justified based on his need for a male heir. In 1533, Parliament passed the Act of Annates, Annates, Act of (1533) which suspended payments by the bishops to the pope. The Act in Restraint of Appeals Restraint of Appeals, Act in (1533) , passed the same year, authorized the end of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and permitted him to marry Anne Boleyn.

In the following year, Cromwell guided through Parliament the Act of Succession, Succession, Act of (1534) which detailed England’s official line of succession. The act proclaimed that the children of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn would be the heirs to the throne, because their marriage was legal and legitimate. Mary, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was declared illegitimate. Cromwell added a provision to the Act of Succession stating that all Englishmen could be required to take an oath in its support. Anyone who refused would be declared a traitor. Also in 1534, Cromwell managed the Act of Supremacy Supremacy, Act of (1534) through the Parliament. The Supremacy Act declared the monarch to be the supreme head of the Church in England and thus formalized the break with the Roman pope. Protestantism;England In 1536, with the condemnation and subsequent execution of Anne Boleyn on charges of adultery (the equivalent of treason when the king was the victim), Cromwell managed a second Act of Succession Succession, Act of (1536) declaring that the children of Henry VIII and the new queen, Jane Seymour, would succeed to the throne. Like her half sister Mary before her, Elizabeth, Queen Anne’s daughter by Henry, lost her legal claim to succession.

Cromwell was instrumental in formulating the internal policy that led to the imprisonment and eventual execution of Sir Thomas More in 1535; More’s removal provided Cromwell with further opportunities for advancement. In response to resistance from Catholic loyalists and some Catholic noble unrest in northern England in 1535-1536, Henry VIII’s government suppressed the opposition to the king’s policies; the pro-Catholic effort was led by Robert Aske and assisted by Reginald Pole (later cardinal and adviser to Mary Tudor).

The Catholic suppression was followed by two other significant religious developments in 1536: the dissolution of the smaller monasteries and the announcement of the Ten Articles of Faith Ten Articles of Faith (1536) . Cromwell was deeply involved in the seizure of the many monasteries that were operating throughout England. Henry VIII denounced these Catholic institutions as dangerous, seized their buildings and land, and either sold or gave away the land to his loyal supporters. In 1539, the larger monasteries were seized in a second wave of antimonasticism Monasticism;England , and abbots lost the right to have seats in Parliament. The sale of monastery lands greatly replenished the king’s treasury.

The Ten Articles of Faith were primarily the work of Archbishop Cranmer and a group of bishops, but Cromwell, as Henry VIII’s key adviser, was involved in their composition. By this time Cromwell, in addition to serving on the Privy Council, had acquired the titles of the king’s principal secretary, master of the rolls, and Lord Privy Seal; in these capacities there was very little that was not within his jurisdiction. The Ten Articles of Faith constituted an attempt to move England theologically toward the reformed Protestant positions. While the English church had formally eschewed Rome’s authority and declared King Henry to be its supreme head, there had as yet been no substantive shift within the church away from Catholic doctrines. Writing the Ten Articles of Faith was a cautious first step, by omission, toward a mildly Lutheran form of Protestantism. No identifiably Protestant concepts were evident in the document. Rather, some essential Catholic doctrines—on the sacraments and the Catholic view of the Eucharist (transubstantiation)—were not mentioned.

Cromwell, representing Henry VIII, supported Cranmer in his efforts to move the country toward Protestantism. Henry and his court were largely theologically conservative, but they recognized that those who supported Catholicism were usually the friends of France and enemies of England, and, conversely, those political entities that were Lutheran were usually pro-English. The English breech with Rome, motivated by Henry’s desire for a divorce rather than any ambition toward comprehensive reform, nonetheless unavoidably identified England as a Protestant nation. Because this identification was a result of circumstances as much as of ideology, however, the Crown’s gestures toward true reform were somewhat halfhearted. When mounting opposition to the Ten Articles of Faith manifested itself during the next few years, Henry VIII and Cromwell withdrew their support from Cranmer. Instead, the Crown issued the Six Articles of Faith (1539) Six Articles of Faith (1539) , which supported traditional Catholic theology.

Cromwell’s ascendancy in power continued in 1539, when he was named Lord Great Chamberlain of England. His sudden fall came the very next year, however, precipitated by Henry’s short-lived marriage (January-June, 1540) to the German princess, Anne of Cleves. Cromwell initiated the plan for the marriage, anticipating that it would result in an English alliance with north German Lutheran states. When Anne arrived for the wedding, however, Henry was not pleased with her physical appearance. Once they were married, the status of their sexual relationship was also a source of dissatisfaction. Henry was aware, moreover, of Cromwell’s unpopularity at court and of accusations that Cromwell was a Protestant. Blaming Cromwell, whom he had recently named the earl of Essex, for his unhappiness, he turned on his loyal aide and ordered his execution in the Tower of London without trial.


Throughout the period from 1531 to 1540, Thomas Cromwell reformed and developed the bureaucracy that came to serve as the backbone of the English political system. He sought to increase the efficiency of the bureaucracy and the accuracy and timeliness of information imparted to the king. This increase in bureaucratic efficiency served in turn to increase Henry VIII’s control over his nation. Cromwell also enhanced Henry’s power through an effective partnership with Parliament. The government became more centralized, finances were improved after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, and the king was able to survive the turbulence associated with his multiple marriages, turbulence that might well have doomed a less ably supported monarch. Historians have recognized Cromwell’s efforts and have concluded that his policies and procedures constituted a genuine revolution in government that survived the chaos of the sixteenth century and served as the foundation of the modern English system of governance.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beckingsale, B. W. Thomas Cromwell: Tudor Minister. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978. Still the best biography of Thomas Cromwell, Beckingdale’s highly readable study portrays Cromwell as an effective and loyal servant of Henry VIII who, at times, was the victim of his own zealousness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernard, G. W. “Elton’s Cromwell.” In Power and Politics in Tudor England: Essays. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Reexamination and critique of G. R. Elton’s biography of Cromwell. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elton, G. R. Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1972. An important study by one of the most important Tudor historians of the past half century, based on extensive use of archives. Cromwell emerges as the dedicated enforcer of Henry VIII’s policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graves, Michael A. R. Henry VIII: A Study in Kingship. London: Pearson Longman, 2003. In this biography of Henry VIII, Cromwell is viewed as a talented but not too perceptive agent of the king, an individual who overextended his political reach and fell victim to his own overreaching.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and His Court. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. A well-written study that addresses the complex political and religious shifts that dominated Henry VIII’s court throughout his reign; the focus on Thomas Cromwell during the 1530’s portrays an ambitious and talented adviser who came to assume too much.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Derek A. In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Court of Henry VIII. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Wilson’s study advances an interpretation of Cromwell as one of the disposable figures in the Henrician era; Henry VIII was always in command and discarded those who came under his broad interpretation of “treason.”

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

Aug. 22, 1513-July 6, 1560: Anglo-Scottish Wars

1515-1529: Wolsey Serves as Lord Chancellor and Cardinal

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Categories: History