Thomas Cromwell: A Life

Author: Diarmaid MacCulloch
ISBN: 978-1-846-14429-5
Date: 2018
Price: £30
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Publisher: Allen Lane. Penguin, Random House

In late June 1535 Thomas Cromwell jotted down on a scrap of paper things he needed to see to immediately. Amongst the jottings, he noted he must decide ‘when Master Fisher shall go to execution, and so the other.’ Thus did he conceal from himself his squeamishness about doing something he wished he did not have to do, to arrange the execution of Sir Thomas More. This is just one tiny instance of the archival brilliance of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cromwell. This is the most exhaustively-researched biography of any sixteenth-century Briton and yet all the time MacCulloch spots telling and sometimes clinching detail or long-lost connection buried in the most unprepossessing places. I have long thought that his biography of Cranmer is the finest Tudor biography we have. I do not want to have to choose between that and this.

Thomas Cromwell got things done and Henry VIII became pathetically dependent on him. Henry, with all the terrifying psychological instabilities of Donald Trump, extreme narcissism, impulsiveness, vindictiveness, misogyny – made worse by the ever-greater agony of ulcerated legs that shortened his attention span – needed someone who would deliver whatever was the fancy of the moment. Cromwell did so and despite his increasingly barefaced pursuit of evangelical (protestant) beliefs, Henry knew that his overmighty servant would fall into line when it really mattered and would be the King’s good servant. So when it came to framing an old friend, Cromwell did not just hold his nose, he blocked his ears.

Perhaps the most brilliant of all the sections of this book is the one on the ‘lost years’ in Italy and the Low Countries when Cromwell started to build up the vast network of men who were to make him such a veritable Argus in the 1530s, all-knowing and all-discerning, and when he formed the evangelical impulses which were to set his default goals in the 1530s. The early sections also show how his time as Cardinal Wolsey’s expert on the recycling of monastic properties into prestigious progressive educational establishments with Wolsey’s name on them was to teach him to undertake a much vaster programme of spoliation in his later years. But his loyalty to Wolsey left him with a fury against the lesser men and woman who brought him down and whom he never forgave. Thus, MacCulloch demonstrates conclusively that Cromwell and Anne Boleyn always loathed each another and it was only a matter of when, not why, he would destroy her. And so on. This is a book of endless revelation. There is no better account in print of the Pilgrimage of Grace, for example, or of the theological battles of the late 1530s, or of Cromwell’s downfall.

This is a book to thrill the expert and to entertain the curious general reader. It is unsympathetic to the claims of the Universal Church, and MacCulloch’s empathy for his subject sometimes tips over into sympathy for his brutal willingness to do whatever it took to stay in power. But then, how many henchmen of such a capricious tyrant would survive nine years in office? What makes the 552 pages of text (and 170 pages of notes, bibliography and index) bearable is not only the clarity or argument but the endlessly pleasing, witty turns of phrase. ‘According to [one witness] the executioner needed forgiveness, for he did an unskilful job. The occasionally reliable anonymous Spanish chronicler disagreed in his own eyewitness account, and said the head was off in a stroke. Either way, even botched beheadings are soon over’. Not bad as a pay-off line for your 550-page protagonist.

Professor John Morrill, University of Cambridge and a permanent deacon in the diocese of East Anglia.

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