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Thomas Cromwell

A Revolutionary Life


Diarmaid MacCulloch


(American Edition) New York: Viking, 2018

Hardcover. xxiv + 728 p. ISBN 978-0670025572. $40


Reviewed by Jean-Pierre Moreau

Université de Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle




Hilary Mantel’s novels devoted to the Henrician period (Winners of the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and in 2012) together with their television dramatisation created both waves of acclaim and cries of revolt, specially at her treatment of Thomas More presented as a religious fanatic and persecutor of ‘heretics’. The denunciation of More’s bigotry was one of the characteristics of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell who described More as a ‘blood-soaked hypocrite’. Catholics were furious with Mantel, and, in a snow-balling movement, with Cromwell and then with the man who had depicted Cromwell as the architect of all the dramatic changes of the 1530s, Sir Geoffrey Elton. Once considered the star of Tudor studies, Elton has seen his aura wane since the 1990s. Even before the 1960s, he had come under attack but Mantel’s books were an opportunity to go on destroying the statue he had erected to Cromwell at the origin of what he called ‘The Tudor Revolution in Government’, analysed in his famous study of 1953. After years of bitter struggle for or against Mantel, Elton and their supposed creature, if not creation, Thomas Cromwell, the latter has at last gained a fair assessment of his life and his role in English history with the monumental biography written by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

An outsider not knowing Diarmaid MacCulloch and his previous books might be led to think that this name is a sort of screen concealing the identity of a team of historians, in no case that of one single man. Those who have read his biography of Thomas Cranmer, which won the 1996 Whitbread Biography Award and many other prizes, will have no doubt of this kind. But they will remain amazed by the wealth of information packed in these pages including personal, sometimes intimate details in the lives of dozens of different persons living five centuries before us. Certainly MacCulloch knows more people of Henry VIII’s time than of Elizabeth II’s and in more detail of their families, antecedents, properties, political or religious ideas, ambitions and in many cases private thoughts. Then these people seem to become our own acquaintances; proximity with persons of all ranks and classes is what we feel when reading this book, a proximity enhanced by quotations from their correspondence and from an incredibly large range of sources. Hundreds of endnotes, many of them in abbreviated form, are squeezed (some will say crammed) within 120 pages of closely knit print.

A monumental study indeed and in the three different meanings of the word: 1) impressive size, with maps, 20 or so illustrations in the text, 45 colour plates, 25 pages of bibliography, 25 of general index; 2) a work of lasting value – no doubt the definitive study; 3) In the common English sense of the word, a landmark meant to keep alive the memory of some important event or person, in this case, the much abused minister of Henry VIII. But together with the description of one man’s actions, MacCulloch has captured a fascinating image of the inner workings of Tudor government as well as the tectonics of slowly moving social plates. If he does not endorse the paradigm of a revolution in government, still less of a ‘Tudor despotism’, he insists on Cromwell’s skilful management of Parliament and alludes to a religious revolution largely controlled if not engineered by the Vice-Gerent in Spirituals [practically Head of the English Church under the king] who no doubt accelerated the doctrinal landslide affecting England in the 1530s and after.

The subtitle of the American edition: ‘A Revolutionary Life’, absent in the UK version, is perfectly appropriate. Firstly, Cromwell’s influence helped turn his country towards totally new horizons even if he had to steer the ship of state under the eye of a terrible captain. These horizons are not limited to England but their European dimension is clearly established here. Until the fateful events of 1540, Cromwell managed to go as far as he could in promoting religious innovations including vernacular Bibles. We are shown that if Henry VIII wanted to control the Church, his minister shrewdly used this erastianism to endorse and support radical changes that the king came to (temporarily) accept. Secondly, MacCulloch’s portrait of Cromwell is itself revolutionary insofar as it is neither totally Eltonian nor in any way negative. It is a new evaluation of a man’s destiny and political action that will certainly awake some gnashing of teeth still revulsed by Cromwell’s ill-concealed support of doctrines inspired by Zürich or Strassburg Reformers (Bullinger and Bucer) even more, perhaps, than by Luther. Many traditional studies have found it easy to label Cromwell a Machiavellian. No simplification of this kind here; the man is not even, as sometimes said, a ‘heartless bureaucrat’ [125] but something like a hard-working civil servant who wanted orders obeyed and business getting done; '...his role now was what he did best: turning theory into practice at the king’s bidding, using his genius for improvisation and command of detail to achieve a practical result…’ [145]. Some readers will be surprised not to find him at the origin of the notion of empire so obvious in the 1533 Act in restraint of Appeals : his role was limited to ‘formulating it’ [note 41, p.620]. Surprise also at his rather late ‘discovery’ of the potentiality of Parliamentary power [52-53] or at his slow, almost reluctant, closing down of monasteries. He was not a prophet with visionary ideas but a multipurpose pragmatist who sometimes failed (Ireland) or stood on the brink of total overthrow even before 1540 (relationship with Anne Boleyn or triggering off of the Pilgrimage of Grace).

Hilary Mantel depicts him as more than eager to take vengeance on those who caused Wolsey’s fall from power. MacCulloch’s Cromwell is far from being bloodthirsty (no bringing up of bodies here) but he was adamant in his loyalty to the cardinal even after the latter’s death when most of the former protégés deserted him, Gardiner and More among many others. We are shown the pivotal importance of the years spent in the Lord Chancellor’s service especially when he helped create the cardinal’s ‘monstrous tomb […] outclassing the tomb of kings’ [54-55] and two memorial colleges (Oxford and Ipswich) supposed to ’shepherd his soul into the next life’ [56]; he learnt there how to proceed with monastic dissolutions. Throughout his life, he ‘behaved with decency’ [114] as is said of his dealing with Anne Boleyn’s father after her execution. Dozens of warm, friendly letters sent by all sorts of people including monks or abbots, Richard Kidderminster for example [63], testify to his good will and deep devotion to everyone around him, first and foremost to his son Gregory.

Not everybody will find this biography devoid of partiality but the present reviewer is satisfied that it is perfectly honest and fair. Not to be too long, two examples will suffice. If the author cannot avoid the word ‘heresy’, it is simply given its basic meaning of opinions going contrary to what is officially accepted, without any stigmatisation of ‘heretics’. Contrarily to a recent, knowledgeable study but crudely opposing ‘heretics’ and believers’ (as if heretics did not believe), the word hardly appears at all, replaced by the more adequate ‘evangelical’ or, with greater precision ‘anabaptist’, ‘sacramentarian’, ‘iconoclast’ and so on according to place and moment. No slur either on a term defining Cromwell’s attitude in religious debates: Nicodemism (hiding ‘one’s religious views and practice amid some degree of conformity to the surrounding official religion’) [72]. A whole school of historians find this highly blameworthy. Not so MacCulloch who sticks to facts while conceding ‘a strange sort of Nicodemism, which ran alongside and contributed to the Reformation that he promoted openly and aggressively in the name of Henry VIII during the 1530s: it was ‘hidden in plain sight’ [ 542-543].

Although highly erudite and meticulous, this study is never heavy going for well-wishing readers. This is largely due to the author’s lively, imaginative style and sense of humour. Just to get a glimpse of that: Alesius was ‘a pioneer among the procession of sententious Scotsmen explaining the English to themselves over the centuries’ [313] or the King of England’s continental search for a new spouse after Jane Seymour’s death becomes : ‘Henry’s omnivorous marital overtures abroad…’ [461]. Rejected Queen Anne [of Cleves] ‘…soon proved heroically resilient at the prospect of not being married to Henry VIII. She took a handsome settlement of English estates from her relieved non-husband, and concentrated very happily on not being married to anyone for another seventeen years of life…’ [529].

A lively style, particularly rich in formulas and colourful vignettes providing deep insights into particular events or little known characters: Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset [46-47] or ‘the maverick Carthusian polymath Andrew Borde’ [281] for example. This biography is not a novel but it often reads like one and MacCulloch knows how to use le mot juste as Flaubert recommended, an opportunity for a non-native speaker to learn a lot of vocabulary.

So, to conclude, this hefty yet highly enjoyable book brings something new to Tudor Studies with a shift in emphasis on the portrait of a prominent personality: from visionary or monstrous constitutional colossus (according to intellectual or ideological stance) to self-made contriver of administrative efficiency and religious upheaval. A remarkable man but not a superman, not devoid of weaknesses or ambiguities but not lacking in humane qualities either.



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