The Earldom of Essex was first created in the twelfth century by King Stephen – and in 1540, the title was a formidable symbol of the aristocracy bestowed upon the son of a blacksmith. Unfortunately, Thomas Cromwell did not get to enjoy this unprecedented honor for very long: he would be arrested on June 10 and then executed July 28.
The elevation ostensibly came as a well-deserved reward for the man who had liberated Henry from not one but two marriages he no longer wanted, who had replenished the realm’s coffers by dissolving the monasteries, and who had ensured the country’s safety through an alliance with the Protestant League. The fall resulted from the accusation that those actions had been motivated by Cromwell’s personal religious beliefs rather than desire to help the King.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII (best show ever) hinted that the elevation was actually draconian – a way of raising Cromwell high to make his fall more dramatic. The episode has Cromwell reacting with a wan smile to the news, and responding, “I know how Your Majesty rewards his servants. My gratitude will be as long as my life.”
There is a lot to be said for that interpretation – the elevation came at a time when Henry was actively seeking to annul his marriage to Anne of Cleves, which Cromwell had engineered….so Cromwell should have smelled a rat (though he probably just assumed it was Henry’s leg – sorry, couldn’t help myself). In The Path to Somerset, I portrayed the honor as somewhat Machiavellian – a reward yes, but also a way for Henry to add pressure for Cromwell to get the annulment concluded.
But whatever it might have been, the earldom guaranteed that Thomas Cromwell would be spared a gruesome traitor’s death (nobles were generally able to avoid hanging, drawing, and quartering since simple beheading was more in keeping with their status). That alone made it the greatest honor possible.
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