Book Review: Thomas Cromwell, from Commoner to Britain’s Principal Nobleman

 

Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch is a biography of Cromwell who, when remembered is credited with the dissolution of church properties and, along with Thomas Cramner, as one of the twin pillars of Britain’s Protestant Reformation.

MacCulloch provides a fresh appraisal of Cromwell in this book, a man more nuanced than Sansom’s bully, and as significant as Oliver Cromwell. MacCulloch reveals Cromwell receives too much credit for monastic dissolution, and was more equivocal about introducing Protestantism than commonly believed.

McCulloch spends considerable time on Cromwell’s early life, before his meteoric rise in the 1530s from an obscure lawyer to Henry VIII’s chief minister. This is valuable because it puts Cromwell’s actions in context.

A yeoman’s son, Cromwell left to make his fortune on the continent, returning after several years in Italy. On the strength of his Italian connections, Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey, who was then Henry’s leading minister. Through sheer ability Cromwell rose to become Wolsey’s chief deputy, playing a leading role in dissolving dysfunctional monasteries (experience he used later for Henry). Wolsey was tolerant of religious dissent, including that of Cromwell who already favored evangelism (the precursor of Protestantism).

Cromwell attracted Henry’s attention and transferred to Henry’s service, when Cromwell could further his religious beliefs. He maintained Wolsey’s tradition of toleration, initially remaining cordial to Catholics and friend to Princess Mary.

Henry advanced Cromwell, but at the price of Cromwell serving Henry’s whims, eventually forcing Cromwell to adopt positions he disliked. Yet Cromwell was well rewarded — rising from a commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman in just six years.

His fall was even swifter. When he displeased Henry (chiefly over promoting Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves) Cromwell was attainted, convicted of treason, and executed within one year.

MacCulloch’s biography is long, but rewarding. He brings Cromwell to life, stripping away myth to reveal a great, but flawed man.

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, 2018, 752 pages, $40

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

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  1. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Seawriter: Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

    I very much like the Matthew Shardlake books.  Not so pleased with Dominion, C.J. Sansom’s alternative WWII history novel, though.

    Think one of the best introductions to Cromwell on the screen is in A Man for All Seasons.  I don’t know of a good biography, so will be interested to read this one.  Thanks!

    • #1
  2. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Did you see the BBC movie Wolf Hall? Thomas Cromwell was in that.

    • #2
  3. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    She (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

    I very much like the Matthew Shardlake books. Not so pleased with Dominion, C.J. Sansom’s alternative WWII history novel, though.

    Think one of the best introductions to Cromwell on the screen is in A Man for All Seasons. I don’t know of a good biography, so will be interested to read this one. Thanks!

    I took a course on England 1485-1660 in college from David Underdown.  He thought that More was overrated.  A Man for All Seasons is a great movie but it has a significant bias towards More.

    • #3
  4. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Did you see the BBC movie Wolf Hall? Thomas Cromwell was in that.

    Nope. If a movie is newer than 15 years old, I probably have never seen it. I saw They Shall Not Grow Old in December, and I think the last movie – TV or big screen – I viewed before that was the SF movie Serenity.

    • #4
  5. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    There’s great interview with the author here, including a discussion of how Cromwell’s name should be pronounced (“Crummel”).  

    https://thehistoryofengland.co.uk/2018/11/11/261a-professor-macculloch-talks-cromwell/

    • #5
  6. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    I viewed before that was the SF movie Serenity.

    And a good one it was. Though I was upset when Wash and the preacher died.

    • #6
  7. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

    I very much like the Matthew Shardlake books. Not so pleased with Dominion, C.J. Sansom’s alternative WWII history novel, though.

    Think one of the best introductions to Cromwell on the screen is in A Man for All Seasons. I don’t know of a good biography, so will be interested to read this one. Thanks!

    I took a course on England 1485-1660 in college from David Underdown. He thought that More was overrated. A Man for All Seasons is a great movie but it has a significant bias towards More.

    Oh, I agree.  It is biased towards More.  My own personal bias is always away from Henry VIII, wherever that takes me.  But MFAS is just a terrific movie, and Paul Scofield is unbelievably good.  I haven’t seen the newer treatment in Wolf Hall, as I find Hilary Mantel (author of the books) so obnoxious, and I think her prose is tedious and pretentious.  (I don’t like that whole present tense thing, right out of the box.)  Perhaps the TV series is better.  Certainly the critics liked it (not always a recommendation, in my view).  It’s possible I’m missing something, I don’t know.

     

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter: Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell.

    Collateral descendant. Thomas Cromwell had a sister who had a son Richard Williams, who took his famous uncle’s surname, sort of like Augustus took the Cæsar name. Richard was Oliver’s great-grandfather. By patrilineal descent, Oliver should have been Oliver Williams. 😁

    • #8
  9. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    She (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

    I very much like the Matthew Shardlake books. Not so pleased with Dominion, C.J. Sansom’s alternative WWII history novel, though.

    Think one of the best introductions to Cromwell on the screen is in A Man for All Seasons. I don’t know of a good biography, so will be interested to read this one. Thanks!

    I took a course on England 1485-1660 in college from David Underdown. He thought that More was overrated. A Man for All Seasons is a great movie but it has a significant bias towards More.

    Oh, I agree. It is biased towards More. My own personal bias is always away from Henry VIII, wherever that takes me. But MFAS is just a terrific movie, and Paul Scofield is unbelievably good. I haven’t seen the newer treatment in Wolf Hall, as I find Hilary Mantel (author of the books) so obnoxious, and I think her prose is tedious and pretentious. (I don’t like that whole present tense thing, right out of the box.) Perhaps the TV series is better. Certainly the critics liked it (not always a recommendation, in my view). It’s possible I’m missing something, I don’t know.

     

    I agree that Scofield is wonderful in the movie.

    • #9
  10. Isaiah's Job Member
    Isaiah's Job
    @IsaiahsJob

    Thomas Cromwell as depicted in Wolf Hall and Hilary Mantel’s books was one of the reasons I took the right of confirmation into the Anglican Communion (though there were certainly others). Though, generally, when I’m asked why I’m an Episcopalian I say “Because I really like Henry the Eighth.” It’s a real conversation stopper. 

    • #10
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Did you see the BBC movie Wolf Hall? Thomas Cromwell was in that.

    Nope. If a movie is newer than 15 years old, I probably have never seen it. I saw They Shall Not Grow Old in December, and I think the last movie – TV or big screen – I viewed before that was the SF movie Serenity.

    Can’t stop the signal.

    • #11
  12. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Leo McKern’s humor and intelligence really made Cromwell come alive in Man for All Seasons. As More says, Cromwell is a very able man.

    • #12
  13. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    She (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

    I very much like the Matthew Shardlake books. Not so pleased with Dominion, C.J. Sansom’s alternative WWII history novel, though.

    Think one of the best introductions to Cromwell on the screen is in A Man for All Seasons. I don’t know of a good biography, so will be interested to read this one. Thanks!

    I took a course on England 1485-1660 in college from David Underdown. He thought that More was overrated. A Man for All Seasons is a great movie but it has a significant bias towards More.

    Oh, I agree. It is biased towards More. My own personal bias is always away from Henry VIII, wherever that takes me. But MFAS is just a terrific movie, and Paul Scofield is unbelievably good. I haven’t seen the newer treatment in Wolf Hall, as I find Hilary Mantel (author of the books) so obnoxious, and I think her prose is tedious and pretentious. (I don’t like that whole present tense thing, right out of the box.) Perhaps the TV series is better. Certainly the critics liked it (not always a recommendation, in my view). It’s possible I’m missing something, I don’t know.

     

    I enjoyed it. It’s a miniseries, so there’s plenty of time with the characters. Jonathon Pryce does an excellent job as Wolsey, and Anton Lesser gives a less perfect but more human More. Not the biggest fan of Claire Foy, but she does well as Anne Boleyn.  Well worth spending a hour a night for a week on, and it’s free on Amazon Prime.

    • #13

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