Thomas Cromwell is Beheaded Most Ungoodly

attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1532-1533

Thomas Cromwell climbed the scaffold to his execution and addressed the crowd. “I am come hither to die and not to purge myself, as some think peradventure that I will.” Translation: I’m being screwed. I’m not admitting guilt. Let’s get this over with. He was officially charged with high treason. He’d come so far, started out the poor son of a smith, and had risen to be Henry VIII’s chief minister and the Earl of Essex. And now he was about to be beheaded in the Tower of London. As he committed his soul to Christ and rested his head against the chopping block, he was maybe wondering how it had all gone wrong. Right before the axe came down, he hit it: Oh yeah, I was born in 15th century England and my boss is a sociopath.

Getting in trouble was remarkably easy in Tudor England and just about everything was a crime. Gossiping, drunkenness, and believing in the wrong religion were harshly punishable and sometimes executable offenses. Women could get burned at the stake for adultery. Poisoners were boiled to death by being dipped for hours into any boiling liquid (wine, water, tar, oil, dealer’s choice really). High treason got you drawn and quartered, during which they were dragged by cart to a gallows where they were hanged but – to their chagrin – not killed. They then had their penis and testicles cut off, their stomach split open, and their intestines removed. Their head was cut off, parboiled, and left at the city gate for a warning not to visit that town.

Among the crimes under “high treason” were speaking against of the king, counterfeiting, and imagining the king’s death, all while making the unfortunate mistake of having been born in 15th century England. Cromwell’s crime was that he had exaggerated the attractiveness of Henry’s arranged wife, Anne of Cleves, and then failed to get Henry out of his marriage. Oh and for repeating the, I’m guessing confidential, information that Henry had been unable to get the royal pecker up to consummate his marriage to the evidently homely Anne. If Anne was upset by this, she didn’t let on. She gave him the annulment he desired and received a generous settlement in return, including a palace, a castle, and no sex with Henry VIII before being beheaded.

If Henry VIII enjoyed one activity, it was executing people, and friends, wives, or trusted advisors weren’t safe from his fury. For Cromwell’s unforgivable infractions against the royal penis’s owner’s royal ego, Henry came up with some faux charges and had Cromwell executed. If Cromwell (or his testicles) had something to be thankful for, it’s that he was beheaded instead of drawn and quartered. But Cromwell can’t have been too surprised, if for no other reason that getting executed was one of the easiest ways to die in Tudor England. It ranks up there among playing sports, having bad teeth, poxes both small and English (syphilis), and drowning (laundry in river, slippery rocks, heavy wool dresses – the quiet pandemic). Life ended for most around or before the age of 35 and was almost always violent or involved awful rashes. Women often died during or after childbirth by fever, infection, or being twelve years old. So, with the chances of dying badly at about 87% and being executed at about 70%, what was one to do?

One Drank.

One drank a lot.  

The Tudor period has been called the golden age of the alehouse with an estimated 12,000 alehouses popping up between 1550-1700. Ales were brewed by women and each alehouse boasted special ingredients; one alewife used hen poop (how this was not an executable crime is beyond comprehension). In alehouses people got drunk, smoked tobacco, and forgot their problems (see above: ways to die in Tudor England). People played games like skittles, shove-groat, or bull-baiting, which seems dangerous with or without alcohol. It was the place to be robbed, cheated, and murdered. Think Hell Angels’ afterparty at Altamont, but ungoodlier.       

Despite the dangers, people loved alehouses and drinking, which they did every day. Everyone drank ale (kids too) because it was the safe alternative to the bowls of cholera known as “water.” Ale was weak and a good source of vitamin B. These facts gave everyone an excuse to get drunk, as if your chance of getting hanged and your testicles cut off on a daily basis wasn’t enough. Beer started to move in later, and was called mad dog because of its enhanced strength. Wine was enjoyed by those who could afford it (royalty and nobility).

With drinking adored by the masses, it’s probably not surprising that it was considered a problem by the Crown. Limitations were put on drinking and punishments were set for drunkenness. People caught publicly intoxicated were made to wear the ‘drunkard’s cloak’ which was a hollowed out beer barrel. This sounds bad, but as a gossiper was forced to wear a leather mask over their head with a metal gag stuffed in their throat (scold’s bridle), then the freedom of a loose barrel seems pretty comfy. Nevertheless, punishment didn’t stop anyone from drinking, least of all the Tudors. Henry VIII spent 6 million British pounds in one year, with which he and his court washed down 8200 sheep, 2330 deer, 1870 pigs, 1240 oxen, 760 calves, and 53 wild boar. Elizabeth’s court drank 600,000 gallons of beer a year. Henry was known to drink wine cascading down from a 13 foot fountain. Sounds damn jolly.  

But not for Cromwell. There’s a probably apocryphal story that Cromwell’s enemies got the executioner drunk so that he would botch the beheading. He did botch it, but whether booze helped him is forever to be speculated upon. It took three whacks to get the job done and when it was Cromwell could at least be happy that he’d outlived the life expectancy by twenty years. Henry would bitterly regret executing Cromwell. But then he probably stood under his wine fountain and felt better.

So, what to drink?

If you want to be authentic, then drink ale with hen poop in it. If you want to be Tudor authentic then drink wine from a 12 foot fountain and eat 8 thousand sheep. If you’re feeling particularly decadent, you can follow a simple online recipe which predicts what Henry VIII would drink these days. If you want to do this, get a big mug, put two giant scoops of chocolate ice cream into it, and then fill the mug up with cold Guinness. This, for the purposes of full disclosure and pure gluttony, is how I will be celebrating the horrible death of Thomas Cromwell. It’s what he would’ve wanted. Well, that or a sober executioner.

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