Who was Thomas Cromwell and why did former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon compare himself to a beheaded adviser to a king?
A report emerged Tuesday that Bannon had compared himself to Cromwell, an ambitious adviser to King Henry VIII in the 16th century. Bannon, who was fired by President Trump a year after he was hired to join his campaign, stepped down from his role at Breitbart News Network on Tuesday.
It’s not the first time a public official who was fired by Trump has referenced a famous figure from English Christian history. Former FBI director James B. Comey put himself in the shadow of an archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered after he fell out of favor with another king.
On Tuesday, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa reported that people close to Bannon said he “is wistful but has referenced Thomas Cromwell in recent days,” noting that he advised the king but it didn’t last. After he fell out of favor with the king, Cromwell was beheaded.
Cromwell, who was one of the most powerful advocates of the burgeoning Protestant Reformation, famously helped the king obtain an annulment to Queen Catherine so he could lawfully marry Anne Boleyn. The pope’s refusal to go along with Henry opened the door for Henry to split the Church of England from Rome and make himself head of the church.
Cromwell entered the royal service in 1530, contributing to policymaking at all levels but he never succeeded in dominating the king’s counsels, according to the book “The Reign of Henry VIII” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of history at Britain’s Oxford University. “Publicly he cast himself as the administrative genius whose flair was his ability to transform abstract ideas into practical measures,” MacCulloch wrote.
When the king wanted to rid himself of Anne Boleyn (who was beheaded), Cromwell was the one who obtained evidence against her so the king could marry Jane Seymour, according to MacCullouch. But the king, he wrote, did not need a partner, so Cromwell remained “the king’s servant.” Cromwell ordered clergy to defend the royal supremacy in sermons and abandon pilgrimages, restricted the burning of candles for saints and the dead, and ordered an English translation of the Bible to be placed in every parish church, according to MacCullouch.
After he fell out of favor with the king, Cromwell was beheaded in 1540 on the same day the king married his sixth wife. According to B.W. Beckingsale’s book “Thomas Cromwell: Tudor Minister,” the king later expressed regret for Cromwell’s killing.
Cromwell’s role in history is still contested today, and he has been portrayed in theater, book, movies and on television. Serving as the protagonist in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” which aired as a British mini-series in 2015, Cromwell comes across sympathetically, and some felt that Mantel’s portrayal overlooked his more negative traits.
Simon Schama, a respected historian, wrote in the Financial Times that some have gone too far in portraying Cromwell as someone who did the king’s “dirty work,” and that Cromwell was “a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.”
Bannon, who is Catholic, has made a self-referential comment to Cromwell in the past, including in a 2016 interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
In an interview on “60 Minutes” last year, Bannon charged that Catholic Church leaders who have been critical of Trump’s immigration policies “have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration,” saying “they need illegal aliens to fill the churches.”
In a previous interview with The Washington Post, Austin Ruse, the president of the Center for Family & Human Rights, described Bannon as “a nonpracticing orthodox Catholic . . . somebody who for whatever reason is not practicing the faith but who does not dissent from any of its teachings.” Ruse said in that interview he wonders if Bannon’s three divorces had put distance between him and the Catholic Church, which prohibits divorce and remarriage.
After he was fired amid an investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election, Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he believed Trump was ordering him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Comey whether he took comments Trump made in the Oval Office about Flynn as a directive. Comey replied, “Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ”
The reference goes back to an outburst from England’s King Henry II about the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket. The story passed down is that Henry II, who was frustrated with Becket, cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Becket was later murdered by four knights.