The Mirror and the Light explained: Why wasn’t Cromwell put on trial?

If you have read all of The Mirror and The Light, you will have noticed that, unlike Anne and George Boleyn (who were put on trial in Bringing up the Bodies), Thomas Cromwell was never tried in court. Instead, an Act of Attainder was passed after which he was, as he put it, legally dead. But what was the Act and why wasn’t he tried?

Acts of Attainder

Acts of Attainder were used in England between the 14th and late-18th centuries. They were a piece of parliamentary legislation that declared an individual(s) guilty of a serious crime, such as treason, and “attainted” them – their lands and titles would be returned to the crown rather than inherited by their heirs. They could be used against people who were already dead, for example an Act of Attainder was passed against Richard III and John Howard, duke of Norfolk who both died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Or, they could be used against a living person, thereby depriving the accused of a trial by a jury of their peers and preventing them from presenting a defence.

A number of notable figures were subject to an Act of Attainder in the late-15th and 16th-centuries, many of whom were then executed ie: George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence (1478); Elizabeth Barton, Maid of Kent (1534) Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (attainted 1539, executed 1541); Queen Catherine Howard (1542); Thomas, Lord Seymour (1549).

Acts of Attainder were passed against both Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk and Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk, however, both men escaped execution. The 2nd duke because Henry VII chose to imprison and later release him; the 3rd duke because Henry VIII died before he could be executed.

Why use an Act of Attainder against Thomas Cromwell?

  1. To ensure he was found guilty. It is highly unlikely Cromwell would have been acquited if he had been put on trial for treason. Juries were drawn from his “peers”, in his case the other Peers (noblemen) – several of whom were known to hate him and resent his rise to power – and he had lost the support of the King. Criminal trials in Tudor England were also stacked against defendants who were not allowed to have legal representation; they had to present their own case, and call and examine their own witnesses. However, Cromwell was not an average defendant; he was a lawyer and could be expected to present a robust defence. Denying his a trial ensured that there was no chance that he would be able to defend himself and gain an acquital.
  2. It was an efficient tool. When Cromwell was arrested on 10 June 1540, Parliament was in session. An Act of Attainder could be dealt with as part of the usual business of Parliament (you can see the first reading of the Act listed in the journal of the House of Lords alongside four other items of business here).
  3. To deny Cromwell a voice. A trial was an opportunity for the accused to tell their side of the story and present themselves in a positive light. George Boleyn (d. 1536) defended himself energetically and eloquently, denying all the charges against him. Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (d. 1547), is said to have defended himself for 8 hours, again arguing his case with eloquence. Although both men were found guilty, their defences and demeanours were noted by contemporaries, and and have formed part of their historical reputations. In contrast, Cromwell was denied the chance to have his story heard by his contemporaries. Historians have access to his letters to the King in which he begged for mercy but these were private; the average person in 1540 would have heard the story of Cromwell’s fall as told by his enemies.

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