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Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex

attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger
watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1532-1533
1 3/4 in. (44 mm) diameter
Purchased with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund, 1994
Primary Collection
NPG 6310


A fine brush has been used on Holbein's minia…

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 or 1498-1543), Painter, printmaker and designer; son of Hans Holbein the Elder. Artist associated with 308 portraits, Sitter associated with 25 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This portrait of Thomas Cromwell may be one of the first miniatures Holbein painted. It was made during his second visit to England in 1532 when Cromwell was advancing as a trusted councillor of the king. The mount has been cut from a playing card of the suit of spades. This portrait is mounted in the same case as another, later, miniature of Cromwell.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 6311: Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (source portrait)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 10
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 143 Read entry

    A merchant and lawyer, Thomas Cromwell rose to prominence through his work for Cardinal Wolsey. He became Henry VIII's chief minister and played a key role in persuading Parliament to declare the king 'Supreme Head' of the Church of England. A strong advocate for religious reform, he was instrumental in the dissolution of the monasteries and the appropriation of their assets by the Crown. However, he had a number of powerful enemies at court, including the religious conservatives, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. Four years after orchestrating the downfall of Anne Boleyn, he was himself executed on a charge of treason and heresy. Henry married his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, on the day of Cromwell's execution but later regretted the death of 'the most faithful servant he had ever had'. Holbein was taught the technique of miniature painting by Lucas Horenbout while he was working at the English court, and this may be one of the first miniatures that he painted. It seems to derive from the same sitting as that which produced Holbein's half-length portrait of Cromwell (Frick Collection), which incorporates a letter in the foreground that addresses Cromwell as Master of the Jewel House and can therefore be dated to the brief period in which he held that post. Other surviving works suggest that Holbein made his miniatures by scaling down the preparatory drawings that he made for his portraits in oil.

  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 10
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 33
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 33 Read entry

    Holbein is known to have painted Thomas Cromwell sometime between April 1532, when Cromwell became Master of the Jewel House, and April 1533, when he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, since a bill survives addressed 'To our trusty and right well beloved Councillor, Thomas Cromwell, Master of our Jewel House'. But how this miniature relates to the commission is unknown. Indeed, it is not necessarily by Holbein himself, although no contemporary is known to have been master of such a fine and fastidious technique. What is indisputable is that it shows Thomas Cromwell, the great Tudor statesman and chief architect of the Reformation, at an early stage of his career.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 208
  • Walker, Richard, Miniatures: 300 Years of the English Miniature, 1998, p. 18 Read entry

    Holbein was taught the art of miniature painting on vellum by Master Lucas, but according to Carel van Mander 'as far excelled Lucas in drawing, arrangement, understanding and execution, as the sun surpasses the moon in brightness'. Thomas Cromwell, as principal secretary to Henry VIII, negotiated the dissolution of the monasteries, the fall of Anne Boleyn and Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves, which finally led to his own downfall and execution on Tower Hill.

    This exquisite miniature of Cromwell, a discriminating collector himself, is one of the jewels of the NPG collection, acquired with generous help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the National Art Collections Fund. Widely attributed to Holbein, it could be his earliest-known 'limning'.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1532back to top

Current affairs

A convocation of English clergy ratifies Thomas Cromwell's Submission of the English Clergy, thereby surrendering all control of the English Church to King Henry VIII. Sir Thomas More resigns as Lord Chancellor in protest.
Pope Clement VII threatens to excommunicate King Henry VIII.
Anne Boleyn is made Marchioness of Pembroke.

Art and science

Thomas Cromwell's miniature portrait is painted, probably by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger.
The first collected edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's works is published by William Thynne.


Suleiman I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire invades Hungary and fails to conquer Vienna for a second time.
The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro defeats and captures Atahulpa, emperor of the Incas.

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