The fall of Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell was swift, deeply cynical and brutal to the point of savagery. And yet the worst part of it may have been that Cromwell saw it coming--and could not save himself.
Months before his arrest, Cromwell gathered his many servants and told them "what a slippery state he stood and required them to look diligently and circumspectly into their order and actions, lest, through their default, any occasion might arise against them."
Just as the nobility hated Cromwell's humbly born patron, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, they loathed and envied the self-made man whom the king relied on through the 1530s, the man who had risen from blacksmith's son and mercenary soldier to Lord Privy Seal and Earl of Essex. Joining nobles such as Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, in their hatred of Cromwell were the religious conservatives, led by Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Wolsey fell because he could not extricate Henry VIII from his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. And once it became clear that the King wanted out of his marriage to fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and Cromwell was not hastening to do so, the pack of enemies smelled blood.
Cromwell was arrested on June 10, 1540, in a way meant to cause as much humiliation as possible. The Duke of Norfolk ripped the Order of St. George from around Cromwell's neck while the Earl of Southampton tore the Order of the Garter insignia from his gown. "Traitors must not wear the garter," shouted Norfolk. Cromwell was then hustled directly to the Tower of London; within two hours, the treasurer of the royal household had emptied Cromwell's house of valuables while others ransacked his papers.
There was no trial. Cromwell was condemned of treason and "abominable heresies" and executed on July 28, 1540.
|An execution on Tower Hill in the 1550s|
But Cromwell did not die alone.
Following Thomas Cromwell to the scaffold erected on Tower Hill (not Tyburn, as some historians have written) was Sir Walter Hungerford. The decision to behead two men that day was unusual, though not unprecedented. Two noblemen that Cromwell had targeted for destruction--Henry Pole, Lord Montague, and Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter--died together in late 1538. But those two men, condemned without trial for treason, were lifelong friends, distantly related, and requested a joint execution.
Why was Sir Walter Hungerford chosen for this ghastly honour? Cromwell was the author of the Reformation, a brilliant and ruthless statesman. His enemies sent Hungerford on the same path, from Tower of London cell to scaffold. It's a mystery that still swirls around that hot, pitiless day. In this post, I examine the myths, the theories and evidence.
True or False: Hungerford Was a Nobody
One theory is that Sir Walter Hungerford was an obscure and debauched criminal, so despicable that it would taint Cromwell to share a scaffold with such a creature.
Hungerford was a man of dark secrets, it would seem. But he was not a nobody.
Although some followers of Tudor history may not have heard of Hungerford, his family was a distinguished one with generations of service to the royal family. Sir Thomas Hungerford was steward to John of Gaunt in the 14th century and built the grand Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset.
|A reconstruction of Farleigh Hungerford Castle in its heyday|
His son, Sir Walter, fought at Agincourt, served as an admiral and became Speaker of the House of Commons. The Hungerfords sided with the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses and accumulated much wealth, establishing a London house on the Thames near Westminster Abbey. Nonetheless, the family had an unpleasant reputation: "..their record for dishonesty, vice and violence seems to have been exceptional even in the unsqueamish age in which they flourished," reports one chronicler.
The Sir Walter Hungerford of our tale was born in 1503 and served as a squire of the body to Henry VIII. In May 1536, he was a member of the jury that heard the case of the accused lovers of Anne Boleyn--Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, and William Brereton. The King and Cromwell made it clear what verdict they expected to hear, and Sir Walter Hungerford delivered. Guilty, on all counts.
On June 8, 1536 he was summoned to Parliament as Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury. By this time Hungerford owned estates all over Wiltshire, especially in Heytesbury parish. He was a man on the rise.
True or False: Hungerford an Important Cromwell Ally
Sir Walter married three times (more on his unhappy marriages later). In 1532, his father-in-law, Sir John Hussey, wrote to Cromwell, saying that Sir Walter "much desired" an introduction. To make the best possible impression, Hungerford sent Cromwell "a patent of five marks a year." In other words, he bribed him. Through serving on the jury condemning Anne Boleyn's lovers and paying his patent of marks, Hungerford must have pursued his goal in just the right way, for soon after, Hungerford became Sheriff of Wiltshire, an important position. By all accounts, he then dedicated himself to enforcing the law and rounding up traitors to the King.
So yes, Hungerford was known to be a Cromwell client and ally, but there were many other men who fulfilled more important roles in the kingdom. Hungerford's influence did not extend beyond Wiltshire. He was by no means a principal supporter, nor was he a royal councilor. So why kill him with Cromwell?
True or False: Hungerford was a Dangerous Traitor
One of the most striking things about Sir Walter Hungerford was how marital unhappiness, if not violence, surrounded him. Either his stepmother, Agnes, or one of his wives was found guilty of murder and hanged. His marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of John, Lord Hussey of Sleaford, suffered when his father-in-law rebelled against Henry VIII in the religious rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. One of the aims of the pilgrimage was the removal of Cromwell. The rebellion failed; Hussey was executed. At around the same time, according to Elizabeth, her husband, Lord Hungerford, imprisoned her in the family castle and tried to do away with her.
After Cromwell's arrest, among all the letters found, was the one by Elizabeth accusing Lord Hungerford:
Here I have been for three or four years past, without comfort of any creature, and under custody of my lord's chaplain, which hath once or twice poisoned me, as he will not deny under examination. He hath promised my lord that he 'would soon rid him of me,' and I am sure he intendeth to keep his promise.In the same letter, she said she refused to eat or drink anything the chaplain brought her, claiming that food donated by "poor women" was "brought to my window in the night."
Was the letter genuine? It's hard to know--after her husband's death, Elizabeth married the courtier Sir Robert Throckmorton and gave birth to four daughters.
The treason charges against Sir Walter Hungerford are also mixed up with the Pilgrimage of Grace. According to his indictment, in October 1536, Hungerford pretended to arrest a vicar sympathetic to the rebels, William Bird. Instead, he employed him as chaplain for "several months." (This was not the same chaplain as the man who supposedly imprisoned his wife; Hungerford had a large household.)
But even if true, was this enough to condemn a man to death?
True or False: Hungerford was a Witch
The second crime that Hungerford was accused of was witchcraft.
|A 17th century witch|
Supposedly, on March 22, 1537, at Farleigh Castle, Hungerford called upon two men, Sir Hugh Wood and Dr. Maudlin, to use magic to predict how long Henry VIII would live. The spring of 1537 was a dangerous time. The Pilgrimage of Grace was suppressed, but it had been a frightening struggle for Henry VIII and Cromwell. Their enemies were being rounded up and executed.
At that time, Prince Edward had not yet been born; Henry VIII had no male heir. It wouldn't have been surprising if some people had questions about the future of the kingdom. But using prophecy to forecast the length of the life of the sovereign was high treason. This was the same charge that brought down Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham in 1521, also for supposedly employing minor religious figures to gaze into the King's future in his private castle. The similarity of the charges is striking--and suspicious.
True or False: Hungerford was a Moral Criminal
The third crime Hungerford was accused of was "the abominable and detestable vice and sin of buggery" with several servants. The Buggery Act was an act of Parliament passed in 1533, sponsored by none other than Thomas Cromwell. It was thought that he meant to use it to confiscate the property of monks accused of the crime.
Despite being married several times and fathering four children, was Hungerford gay? It's possible. Hungerford was the only person to be executed for the accused crime in the entire Tudor period. (Let me emphasize that being gay is not a crime at all!)
Another possibility exists. It's believed that in 1536, Anne Boleyn was charged with incest with her brother George as a shock tactic, the crime concocted to make it easier to condemn her on the shakier charges. Hungerford's enemies--whoever they were--might have tried the same thing in 1540.
July 28, 1540
A great many soldiers appeared on Tower Hill the day of the execution, in case of some last-minute defense of Cromwell. The chronicler Edward Hall said he was greatly mourned by the "common people." But there was no outcry on his behalf that day. Sir William Kingston, who listened to Anne Boleyn's terrified rambling while she was imprisoned, was still the constable. Perhaps it was Kingston who led Hungerford and Cromwell out to the hill and formally handed them over to the jurisdiction of the city of London for execution.
Eyewitnesses agree that Hungerford panicked before the crowd. Some modern historians refer to Sir Walter as well known for insanity. But the pragmatic letters he wrote to Cromwell just a couple of years earlier attest to Hungerford's being well able to function in society. It is likely that, during his weeks of interrogation and with the knowledge he would soon die on the block, Hungerford had a nervous breakdown, like Jane Boleyn would in late 1541.
Hungerford "seemed so unquiet that many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise," said one observer. Cromwell, who was about to make his final remarks to the crowd, took aside Sir Walter and said to him:
There is no cause for you to fear. If you repent and be heartily sorry for what you have done, there is for you mercy enough for the Lord, who for Christ's sake will forgive you. Therefore be not dismayed, and though the breakfast we are going to be sharp, yet, trusting in the mercy of the Lord, we shall have a joyous dinner.Cromwell was the first to die, in a bungled beheading infamous for its ghastliness. Hungerford followed. Both bodies were carted to the nearby Church of St. Peter ad Vincula, within the Tower walls. Their graves are a few feet from Anne Boleyn's. As Macaulay wrote, "In truth there is no sadder spot on earth than that little cemetery."
Because he was a traitor, Hungerford's estates and homes were claimed by the crown. Henry VIII gave Farleigh Hungerford Castle to his brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Seymour. It was not a small acquisition. Which is perhaps as good a reason as any for the destruction of Sir Walter Hungerford.
|The ruins of Farleigh Hungerford Castle today|
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award-winning historical trilogy The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, published by the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster. The protagonist is Sister Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice. The Crown was an Oprah pick; The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Suspense for 2016. To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com