Thomas Cromwell Backs The Wrong Horse

The ‘flattering’ Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves that Thomas Cromwell presented to the King
The ‘flattering’ Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves that Thomas Cromwell presented to the King

by Ray Setterfield

August 22, 1540 — King Henry VIII and his fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, left Windsor Castle on this day for a tour of England – or Summer Progress, as it was known. It was less than two months since the downfall of Thomas Cromwell, the King’s right-hand man, who had paid with his life for backing the wrong horse.

The “horse” in question was Anne of Cleves, who Henry infamously described as “a Flanders mare.”

The King, relentlessly pursuing his quest for a male heir, had disposed of two wives – Catherine of Aragon, who was said to have been bullied by Henry to an unhappy death; and Anne Boleyn, who was executed on (probably) trumped-up charges of adultery. His third wife, Jane Seymour, died twelve days after giving birth to Henry’s one son, Edward, who lived only to the age of 15.

Although it would be three years before the King would marry again, the search across Europe for a fourth wife began almost immediately after Jane’s death. And it was led by Thomas Cromwell.

Henry’s right-hand man had endured a miserable childhood, born to a drunken blacksmith father who would beat his son upon the slightest provocation. Possibly to get away from him, Cromwell set out on a life of adventure at an early age travelling around Europe.

Over a period of several years he was a soldier, a clerk, a banker, and finally, a lawyer in London. And there, like so many ambitious men in the 1520s, he joined the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Wolsey was Henry’s chief minister until his fall from grace over his failure to secure an annulment of the King's marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. It was a failing that led to him being stripped of his many offices, his extensive property and all of his power.

Cromwell by that time had become Wolsey’s highly trusted servant and principal secretary – a protégé who soon took his master’s place as Henry’s most important and valuable advisor.

And he was brilliant. What the King wanted, Cromwell would arrange to happen. After Henry declared that Rome had no authority in England Cromwell brought in the necessary reforms to make it so. After the King declared that all monastic lands were forfeit Cromwell began closing the monasteries and selling them to the highest bidder.

The two men became close friends, but just as the monarch’s marital problems proved to be Wolsey’s undoing, so they would for Cromwell.

Henry issued instructions concerning the search for a new wife barely a month after Jane Seymour’s death. He ordered that no official overtures be made to any lady until he had approved of her looks. ‘The thing touches me too near,’ he said.

One possibility was the beautiful Christina of Milan, just 16 years old and one of the most sought-after heiresses. But when told of the King’s interest she is said to have replied: “If I had two heads I would risk it, but I have only one.” Apart from the King’s cruel reputation she was no doubt influenced by the fact that he had grown fat and was three times her age.

In any case, Cromwell was looking elsewhere. He wanted England to ally herself with a Protestant nation and Henry’s marriage to the German Anne of Cleves would fit the bill nicely. She was 24 years old, sister of the Protestant Duke of Cleves.

Henry agreed to marry Anne after seeing a portrait of her by the celebrated artist Hans Holbein and negotiations to arrange the marriage were in full swing by March 1539. Cromwell oversaw the talks and a marriage treaty was signed on October 4 of that year.

But it all went wrong when the King met Anne in the flesh. He found her not in the least bit attractive and thought the Holbein portrait was highly flattering. On top of that, she was neither intellectual nor flirtatious, both qualities that the King admired. She had no interest in books and possessed no musical skills – a problem since music was a passion for Henry.

The King believed the reports he had received of Anne’s beauty – including those from Cromwell – were exaggerated. “She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported,” he complained, and told Cromwell to find a way to stop the marriage.

This time Cromwell failed his King and on the day of the wedding – January 6, 1540 – Henry ominously told his advisor: “If it were not to satisfy the world, and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.”

Things would go from bad to worse. Henry spoke openly of how disgusted he was by Anne’s appearance – “struck to the heart” by distaste – and after their wedding night he said that he “left her as good a maid as he found her”.

Telling Cromwell that he had been unable to consummate the marriage, he said: “I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.” The marriage was annulled six months later.

The King turned on Cromwell, the moving force behind the marriage. He was condemned without trial for treason and beheaded at the Tower of London on July 28, 1540 – the very same day that Henry married his next wife, Kathryn Howard.

She had caught Henry’s eye while maid of honour to Anne of Cleves. The King seemed enamoured of his new bride but a little over a year later he learned that before their marriage she had had affairs.

The more he thought about it, the more angry Henry became until he was consumed by one of the rages that characterised his erratic final years. The result was that on February 11, 1542 a law was passed making it treason for an unchaste woman to marry the King. Two days later Kathryn Howard was beheaded.

Published: August 5, 2020
Updated: August 18, 2020

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