The only thing Ralph Sadler and Thomas Wyatt did to incur arrest was to be close friends with Thomas Cromwell. But that was enough for Thomas Howard and Stephen Gardiner – who had managed to have Cromwell executed at the end of July 1540 (the same day on which Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard…).
The only thing Thomas Cromwell had done wrong (well, at least as it relates to this case!) was to exist. Like Thomas Wolsey before him, Cromwell had overcome his commoner birth to become one of the most powerful men in the realm – but unlike Wolsey, Cromwell had done so outside of the standard religious route. Indeed, Cromwell was a reformist, the one who laid the legal foundation for the Church of England and then presented Henry with the detailed report of just how wealthy the monasteries were…. Small wonder then that the blue-blooded-and-inordinately-proud-of-it Duke of Norfolk and the jealous Bishop of Winchester wanted him gone. And of course when Henry fell in love with Norfolk’s niece, it was easy to convince him that Cromwell had arranged the Cleves marriage with malice in his heart.
But Sadler and Wyatt six months later? What was that about? Chapuys and Marillac (the Spanish and French ambassadors) were equally surprised – Marillac noted it “must be some great matter” because they were taken to the Tower with their hands bound and accompanied by 24 archers… Yet there was no record of what this “great matter” actually was – and then the men acquitted themselves and were released after only a couple of days (well, Sadler anyway – Wyatt was forced to promise to reconcile with his wife….that’s a story for another time). Moreover, only a month later the pendulum swung all the way back: for the first (and only), time Henry regretted an execution (“on the pretext of several trivial faults [Cromwell] had committed, [his Privy Council] had made several false accusations which had resulted in [Henry] killing the most faithful servant he had ever had”). That kind of timing makes it feel like Norfolk and Gardiner overplayed their hand – and once Henry saw through that, he saw through the original plot as well. Indeed, it was after this point that Henry really started to manipulate the people around him…this feels like the origin story of that emerging aspect of his personality!
[PS I know I gave short shrift to the actual people involved! So here’s some quick context: Sadler joined Cromwell’s household when he was only seven, became Cromwell’s secretary (and was named an executor of Cromwell’s will) when he was nineteen; Henry favored him after that, even mentioning him in his will) . Wyatt was the lyric poet whom Henry much admired (except for a short bout of jealousy during the early Anne Boleyn days) and trusted with diplomatic missions. But then Cromwell became Wyatt’s principal patron, making him a target…].
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