Cromer, George (d. 1543), archbishop of Armagh, and lord chancellor of Ireland, is of uncertain background. It has been plausibly suggested that he was a member of ‘a solidly established Kentish family’ (Gwynn, 53–4). A scholar of Oxford University in 1497, he graduated MA. Referred to as Dr Cromer in Henry VIII's Book of payments in 1518, he secured a number of benefices in Canterbury, London and Chichester dioceses about the turn of the sixteenth century. In 1512 Henry VIII presented him to the mastership of Cobham college in Rochester diocese. Cromer was one of the king's chaplains. He may well have been consulted by Henry VIII while the king was writing his Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (1521).
It was on the king's recommendation that Cromer was provided to the archdiocese of Armagh, and the primacy of Ireland, on 2 October 1521. It is possible that Henry VIII favoured him because ‘he was a priest of some ability and ambition, who had shown his devotion to the king in person, and who could be relied upon to be a conscientious, resident pastor in Ireland, and politically useful too’ (Jefferies, Priests and prelates of Armagh, pp 83–4).
Primate Cromer arrived in Ireland before November 1523. He found himself the ordinary of a diocese which was sharply divided on political grounds: the southern parishes encompassed part of the highly anglicised Pale in Ireland, while the northern parishes, and his cathedral, were in part of the exclusively Irish lordship of Tyrone. As an Englishman, Cromer was inevitably viewed with some suspicion by the Irish elites, yet he managed to use the modi operandi long established by his predecessors to overcome the divide between the two ‘nations’ and to administer the archdiocese effectively.
It has been shown that the church in Armagh was well ordered and pastorally effective during Cromer's episcopate on the eve of the Henrician reformation. Within that portion of the archdiocese in the Pale, in particular, there was a dense network of churches and chapels served by resident priests to meet the pastoral needs of the laity. The clergy and their congregations there were intensively supervised by the archbishop and his archdeacon, and grievous sins were dealt with in an efficient manner in Armagh's consistory court. The evidence available to study the church in the Ulster portion of the archdiocese is less voluminous than that for the southern parishes, yet there too it seems that the church was far better ordered than conventional accounts of the church in the Gaelic lordships had supposed. Indeed, recent work has revealed that the church in the diocese of Armagh was going through a period of remarkable renewal on the very eve of the Henrician reformation.
Cromer's synodal legislation shows him to have been a conservative reformer. He constantly challenged his priests to strive for the highest standards in their priestly lives and ministries. Nonetheless, he was very much opposed to the Reformation. He was very distressed, during a visit to England in 1530–32, to witness Henry VIII's escalating campaign against the papacy. He employed his next synod in Ireland to prepare the clergy in his diocese against the religious maelstrom which was sure to cross the Irish Sea.
When Thomas Fitzgerald (qv), son and heir of the ninth earl of Kildare (qv), rebelled in 1534–5, ostensibly in a Catholic crusade against the heretical Henry VIII, Primate Cromer and Magister Cormac Roth, his archdeacon cum official principal, were both implicated in the rebellion. Cromer was removed from the office of lord chancellor of Ireland, to which he had been appointed in 1532, but was very fortunate to escape with his life. It is likely that the primate's high ecclesiastical office made his execution politically inexpedient. It has been suggested too that Cromer came to an arrangement with Deputy Leonard Grey (qv), a viceroy who was conservatively inclined in religion, whereby the primate conformed outwardly to the Henrician religious settlement without being obliged to implement the more radical religious decrees in his diocese.
The English crown effectively displaced the papacy in juridical terms in the ‘English’ parishes of Armagh, but beneath the veneer of conformity Archbishop Cromer worked hard to preserve the Catholic faith and practices against Henry VIII's decrees. The agendas set before the priests in the annual diocesan synods were resolutely conservative. The royal injunctions against images were largely ignored in the southern parishes of Armagh, and the efficacy of pilgrimages continued to be endorsed by the primate. The Ulster parishes of the archdiocese were largely immune to the Henrician reformation.
In Primate Cromer's last years he was beset by debilitating illness. He employed George Dowdall (qv), former prior of the dissolved community of Crutched friars at Ardee, as his chief commissary. Dowdall was a prominent conservative Catholic who, like his ordinary, conformed reluctantly to Henry VIII's schismatic church. On 23 July 1539 Cromer was suspended from office, on suspicion of heresy, by Pope Paul III who replaced him with Robert Wauchope (qv), first as apostolic administrator of the see and later, after Cromer died on 16 March 1543, as archbishop. Dowdall was consecrated as his royally appointed successor in December 1543.