In June the long struggle came to an end. The nobles sprang on Cromwell with a fierceness that told of their long-hoarded hate.
Henry VIII Makes Himself Head of the Church of England, featuring a series of excerpts selected from A Short History of the English People by John R. Green published in 1874. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
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Wolsey, hated as he had been by the nobles, had been supported by the Church; but churchmen hated Cromwell with an even fiercer hate than the nobles themselves. His only friends were the Protestants, and their friendship was more fatal than the hatred of his foes. But he showed no signs of fear or of halting in the course he had entered on. So long as Henry supported him, however reluctant his support might be, he was more than a match for his foes.
He was strong enough to expel his chief opponent, Bishop Gardiner of Winchester, from the royal council. He met the hostility of the nobles with a threat which marked his power. “If the lords would handle him so, he would give them such a breakfast as never was made in England, and that the proudest of them should know.”
He soon gave a terrible earnest of the way in which he could fulfil his threat. The opposition to his system gathered, above all, round two houses which represented what yet lingered of the Yorkist tradition, the Courtenays and the Poles. Courtenay, the Marquis of Exeter, was of royal blood, a grandson through his mother of Edward IV. He was known to have bitterly denounced the “knaves that ruled about the King”; and his threats to “give them some day a buffet” were formidable in the mouth of one whose influence in the western counties was supreme.
Margaret, the Countess of Salisbury, a daughter of the Duke of Clarence by the heiress of the Earl of Warwick, and a niece of Edward IV, had married Sir Richard Pole, and became mother of Lord Montacute as of Sir Geoffry and Reginald Pole. The temper of her house might be guessed from the conduct of the younger of the three brothers. After refusing the highest favors from Henry as the price of his approval of the divorce, Reginald Pole had taken refuge at Rome, where he had bitterly attacked the King in a book, The Unity of the Church.
“There may be found ways enough in Italy,” Cromwell wrote to him in significant words, “to rid a treacherous subject. When Justice can take no place by process of law at home, sometimes she may be enforced to take new means abroad.” But he had left hostages in Henry’s hands. “Pity that the folly of one witless fool,” Cromwell wrote ominously, “should be the ruin of so great a family. Let him follow ambition as fast as he can, those that little have offended (saving that he is of their kin), were it not for the great mercy and benignity of the Prince, should and might feel what it is to have such a traitor as their kinsman.” The “great mercy and benignity of the Prince” was no longer to shelter them.
In 1538 the Pope, Paul III, published a bull of excommunication and deposition against Henry, and Pole pressed the Emperor vigorously, though ineffectually, to carry the bull into execution. His efforts only brought about, as Cromwell had threatened, the ruin of his house. His brother, Lord Montacute, and the Marquis of Exeter, with other friends of the two great families, were arrested on a charge of treason and executed in the opening of 1539, while the Countess of Salisbury was attainted in parliament and sent to the Tower.
Almost as terrible an act of bloodshed closed the year. The abbots of Glastonbury, Reading, and Colchester, men who had sat as mitred abbots among the lords, were charged with a denial of the King’s supremacy and hanged as traitors. But Cromwell relied for success on more than terror. His single will forced on a scheme of foreign policy whose aim was to bind England to the cause of the Reformation while it bound Henry helplessly to his minister. The daring boast which his enemies laid afterward to Cromwell’s charge, whether uttered or not, is but the expression of his system–“In brief time he would bring things to such a pass that the King with all his power should not be able to hinder him.”
His plans rested, like the plan which proved fatal to Wolsey, on a fresh marriage of his master; Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, had died in childbirth; and in the opening of 1540 Cromwell replaced her by a German consort, Anne of Cleves, a sister-in-law of the Lutheran Elector of Saxony. He dared even to resist Henry’s caprice when the King revolted on their first interview from the coarse features and unwieldy form of his new bride. For the moment Cromwell had brought matters “to such a pass” that it was impossible to recoil from the marriage, and the minister’s elevation to the earldom of Essex seemed to proclaim his success.
The marriage of Anne of Cleves, however, was but the first step in a policy which, had it been carried out as he designed it, would have anticipated the triumphs of Richelieu. Charles and the house of Austria could alone bring about a Catholic reaction strong enough to arrest and roll back the Reformation; and Cromwell was no sooner united with the princes of North Germany than he sought to league them with France for the overthrow of the Emperor.
Had he succeeded, the whole face of Europe would have been changed, Southern Germany would have been secured for Protestantism, and the Thirty Years’ War averted. But he failed as men fail who stand ahead of their age. The German princes shrank from a contest with the Emperor, France from a struggle which would be fatal to Catholicism; and Henry, left alone to bear the resentment of the house of Austria and chained to a wife he loathed, turned savagely on his minister.
In June the long struggle came to an end. The nobles sprang on Cromwell with a fierceness that told of their long-hoarded hate. Taunts and execrations burst from the Lords at the council table as the Duke of Norfolk, who had been intrusted with the minister’s arrest, tore the ensign of the garter from his neck. At the charge of treason Cromwell flung his cap on the ground with a passionate cry of despair. “This, then,” he exclaimed, “is my guerdon for the services I have done! On your consciences, I ask you, am I a traitor?” Then, with a sudden sense that all was over, he bade his foes make quick work, and not leave him to languish in prison.
Quick work was made. A few days after his arrest he was attainted in parliament, and at the close of July a burst of popular applause hailed his death on the scaffold.
This ends our series of passages on Henry VIII Causes Himself to be Head of the Church of England by John R. Green from his book A Short History of the English People published in 1874. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.