Thomas Cromwell: A Life | Book Review

Thomas Cromwell: A Life

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Allen Lane

ISBN: 1846144299



There have been many biographies of Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, but surely few so weighty or well-researched. Like many, my interest in Thomas Cromwell was catalysed by Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and the Mirror and the Light. Cromwell is atypical of Tudor dignitaries in that he was lowborn. The son of a blacksmith, he was self-made and self-educated. From these inauspicious beginnings he rose to the right hand of a capricious and unstable king. Cromwell bullied lords and dined with dignitaries. He liquidated a centuries-old religious order and ushered in political foundations that remain to this day. Not a bad biographical subject.

The book has a broader scope than the chronicling of a politician’s life and death. It explores the macro and micro factors behind the King’s ‘Great Matter’ – the break from Rome and from Catholicism. What became rapidly clear to me was that this break was not clean; it was incredibly complex, with numerous factions pulling in different directions. The dissolution of the monasteries and the management of such a power vacuum was also a hugely complex administrative task and one for which Cromwell’s bureaucratic mind was perfectly suited. I found it difficult not to draw parallels with Brexit; people were pulling at strings for their own ends without knowing what these strings were attached to. Ministers and power-seekers sold the break with Rome as far easier to achieve than it was, and any opinion to the contrary was seen as unpatriotic and dangerous.

The focus upon ecclesiastical and regional politics results in some parts of the book being rather dry, and the child in me would have liked MacCulloch to linger more over set piece events such as Anne Boleyn’s downfall or Cromwell’s imprisonment in the tower, but the author is right to judge that the real interest lies in the build-up to these events rather than in the grisly end results.

These build-ups all have one thing in common – they all revolve around the wishes and temperament of Cromwell’s raison d’etre, King Henry. Something which struck me was the risk of proximity to the crown. That there was power and riches to be had at Henry’s side is obvious, but the risk seemed massive. Stephen Gardiner, Cardinal Wolsey, the Duke of Norfolk, Reginald Pole, Bishop Fisher, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell himself were all either executed, imprisoned, or had their lives imperiled by Henry. This does beg the question of whether the gains really were worth the risk. MacCulloch explores this magnetism with aplomb, which is not to say that Henry comes across well. Rather, he is exposed as a petulant coward who cannot face the consequences of his own temper.

This was one of the best historical biographies that I have ever read – exhaustively researched and an exploration of a complex character rather than the illustration of a pre-judgement on behalf of the researcher.

*Thanks for reading, folks. Find my other reviews below*

Peter Carey – A Long Way from Home

W.C. Ryan – A House of Ghosts

Val McDermid – A Place of Execution

Richard Cohen – How to Write Like Tolstoy

George Orwell – 1984

John Sampson – The Wind on the Heath

Michelle Paver – Wakenhyrst

Jess Smith – Way of the Wanderers

Zadie Smith – Feel Free

Max Hastings – Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes

Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon the Great

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Kamila Shamsi – Home Fire

Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Ellipsis: Three magazine

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.

Not necessarily in that order

15 thoughts on “Thomas Cromwell: A Life | Book Review

  1. thanks,Matthew, I probably needed this. Did a lot of English History at school esp the time of the Tudors. Have avoided Mantel’s trilogy so far but under your gentle prodding should at least give them a look 🙂 this bio can wait a little longer 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great, Matthew. So many interesting insights—including the comparison with Brexit.

    If you found this one of the best historical biographies, it will go on my must read list. Thanks.

    I believe I missed a new short story. I must find that now!

    Liked by 2 people

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