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Thomas Cromwell and the ‘Catholic faith’

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Thomas Cromwell’s last words and moments on 28 July 1540 continue to cause quite a lot of discussion, and the following article is offered to try and clarify some points.

In Tudor times, condemned traitors were supposed to confess, abjectly and utterly, to the crimes of which they had been accused. Cromwell had not done this. True, in his letters to Henry VIII from the Tower of London he admitted that he had failed in this and that he had neglected his duties here and there, he was an unworthy servant of such a wonderful prince, and so on – all standard Tudor bowing and scraping. For all this he appealed to the king to show mercy. But though in mortal danger and not without fear, he was also composed, rational and at times bold. Because when it came to the main charges against him – sedition against the king and heresy against the Eucharist – he rejected them flatly, calling on God and the king’s conscience to witness. This was not what Henry wanted to hear, and when the letter was read to him it left him moved; he asked for it to be read over again, and again a third time.

On the scaffold there was the same combination of contrition and defiance. Yes, he had offended God and the king, for which he was sorry. He had lived a sinful life and needed divine forgiveness. All this is very general; almost anyone in his last hour could say the same.

From the account of Edward Hall, the Tudor historian and friend of Cromwell, he asked the crowd to pray with him: ‘O Father forgive me: O Son forgive me: O Holy Ghost forgive me: O Three Persons in one God forgive me.’ There is nothing here about the intercession of Mary and the saints. This contrasts sharply with the will he made in 1529, which began thus: ‘I bequeath my soul to the great God of heaven, my Maker, Creator and Redeemer, beseeching the most glorious Virgin, our Blessed Lady Saint Mary the Virgin and Mother, with all the holy company of heaven, to be mediators and intercessors for me to the Holy Trinity, so that I may be able ... to inherit the kingdom of heaven.’

Then a surprising statement for a man who had done so much to advance the Reformation: ‘I die in the Catholic faith, not doubting in any article of my faith, no nor doubting any sacrament of the church’. The Roman Catholic Church had, and still has, seven sacraments: baptism, the Eucharist, penance, marriage, confirmation, ordination and extreme unction. Cromwell and his allies had managed to exclude the last four from the English Ten Articles, 1536, though they were later restored in the King’s Book, 1543. Protestants recognised only the first two. So which church and which sacraments did Cromwell actually mean? Mind games on the scaffold, I think.

Cromwell continued: ‘Many hath slandered me and reported that I have been a bearer of such as hath maintained evil opinions, which is untrue.’ Almost certainly this refers to the two main charges against him of heresy and sedition, and again it was bold stuff – traitors were not supposed to protest their innocence. Perhaps to take the sting out of this he added, ‘But I confess that like as God by His Holy Spirit doth instruct us in the truth, so the devil is ready to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but bear with me witness that I die in the Catholic faith of the Holy Church.’

Then he asked the crowd to pray for Henry VIII and Edward. Then: ‘I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaineth in this flesh, I waver nothing in my faith.’ The italics are mine: he meant pray for me while I still live. He did not ask for prayers or masses for his soul when he was dead. A strange ‘Catholic faith’ this is turning out to be.

Hall continues: ‘And then he made his prayer …’, but he does not give the words of the prayer. For this we must turn to John Foxe, the Elizabethan historian and compiler of the martyrs. There is no reason to doubt Foxe, because he knew Ralph Sadler and others who had been close allies of Cromwell.

The words are these. ‘I see and acknowledge that there is in myself no hope of salvation, but all my confidence, hope and trust is in thy most merciful goodness. I have no merits or good works which I may allege before thee.’ This is justification by faith alone. Cromwell trusts only in the grace of God ‘to be in the number of them to whom thou wilt not impute their sins; but will take and accept me for righteous and just … Most merciful Saviour … let thy blood cleanse and wash away the spots and foulness of my sins. Let thy righteousness hide and cover my unrighteousness. Let the merits of thy Passion and blood-shedding be satisfaction for my sins …’

This is pure Lutheran, and it may be the reason why Hall, writing while Henry was still living, left it out. It was dangerous, as Henry had fallen out with the Lutherans and three days after Cromwell’s death, three of his Lutheran allies were burned for preaching the same thing.

But how could a man say ‘I die in the catholic faith’ and follow it up moments later with a thoroughly Lutheran last prayer? Many of Cromwell’s hearers might have missed the gallows humour, as many have done since.

The issue is one of terminology. Today, every Sunday, many church goers recite the words of the Creed – ‘I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church’ – and they are not Roman Catholics.

The same double use of the word ‘catholic’ was known in the sixteenth century.

There is nothing here except the faith of the true, ‘universal Catholic Church’ (ecclesia catholica). This was Philip Melanchthon in the Augsburg Confession, the first great Protestant statement of faith. He repeated this more than once in the revised version, known as the Variata in 1540: ‘In doctrine and in ceremonies, nothing contrary to Scripture or the Catholic Church is received among us.’ There is also Thomas Cranmer’s later work on the Eucharist, Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament: Cranmer was arguing for a very Protestant view of the Lord’s Supper, claiming that this was the one held by the ancient church.

John Rogers – Cromwell’s ally and Bible translator, and the first martyr in Mary’s reign – was asked by his interrogators whether he was ‘in the faith of the catholic church’. He replied, ‘The Catholic Church I never did nor will dissent from,’ and added that the ‘catholic faith signifieth not the Romish church: it signifieth the consent of all true teaching churches of all times and all ages.’

There was a polemical purpose behind this. Reformers claimed that they were the true catholics, loyal to Scripture and the faith of the catholic and apostolic church of the Creed, the faith that the Roman Church of the popes had corrupted.

So, what exactly did Cromwell mean by ‘catholic faith’? His last prayer answers the question. Gilbert Burnet, the seventeenth–century historian, said it was ‘certain’ Cromwell died a Lutheran. The expression ‘catholic faith’, he goes on, ‘was then used in England in its true sense, in opposition to the novelties of the see of Rome …’

By John Schofield

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