Thomas Cromwell: an ill-fated power in the land

Thomas Cromwell: an ill-fated power in the land Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell: A Life

by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Allen Lane, €35)



“The evil that men do lives after them, / the good is oft interred with their bones…’  This apposite quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar comes to mind when reflecting on this magisterial book written by Diarmaid MacCulloch about the life of Thomas Cromwell (1485 c.-1540).

MacCulloch is professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University and the author of a biography of Cromwell’s friend Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) first published in 1996 (revised 2016).

This book seeks to answer the question ‘how did a brewer’s son come to transform England in the 1530’s?’ It is a chronological biography of a controversial figure and not a thematic approach.

Following an apprenticeship served under Thomas Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520’s, Cromwell for nine years (1531-1540) was a servant of Henry VIII (1491-1547). Cromwell had been born in Putney of parents whose social ranking MacCulloch places between yeoman and minor gentry. MacCulloch does not accept Hilary Mantel’s view of the brushes Cromwell’s father had with the law. Instead he sees the fines paid by Walter Cromwell as a licence fee paid in connection with Cromwell senior’s business selling ale.

MacCulloch is too much of a gentleman to unpick the detail of  Hilary Mantel’s novels. Indeed he pays her the complement that they are “novels set in the 16th Century with a profound knowledge of how that era functioned”.


This endorsement raises the question of how historians should communicate the fruits of their research to the public, which funds that research, and what licence the historian will allow the novelist: a debate which will not be settled here.

Cromwell masterminded the implementation of Henry’s policies. These stemmed from a quest for the stability of the realm through the provision of a male heir. The possession of the throne by Henry Tudor rested upon his father’s victory at Bosworth Field (1484), but the fragile dynasty was threatened by potential claimants of Plantagenet stock, some from time to time plotting treason.

Cromwell often acted on his own initiative pursuing his own evangelical policies and building considerable personal landholdings. Cromwell proclaimed his loyalty to Wolsey his fallen master by taking the chief on Wolsey’s heraldic shield for the fesse on his own: a point that cannot have been lost on the King and others who could read heraldry as we now read corporate logos.

In taxation of the clergy and the dissolution of the monasteries, Cromwell expanded a process of reform begun by Wolsey. In Henry’s quest for a male heir, Cromwell oiled the process of the divorce of Catherine of Aragon to facilitate the Boleyn marriage, but never forgave her role in the downfall of Wolsey. They may both have been religious radicals: never friends, nor  Anne his patron, Cromwell seized the opportunity to destroy her in 1536.

As a servant of the King, Cromwell cannot escape moral responsibility in implementing his monarch’s often violent decisions. He sought to persuade Ss Thomas More (1478-1535) and the ailing Bishop John Fisher of Rochester (1469-1535) to accommodate themselves to the Act of Supremacy. He failed, but in doing so made it clear to More, with whom a mutual respect continued to the end, that old friendships counted for nothing against the Minister’s loyalty to the King.

More, like Cromwell, knew just how difficult it was to head off King Henry’s destructive whims. It was not made easier by Queen Anne nerving the King against compromise by her impertinent clamour. In this, it was only the King and his estranged queen who would die in their beds.

Cromwell held a variety of state offices (such as Master of the Rolls, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Privy Seal), and made a lot of money during his years of service to Henry. His favourite forum was parliament and his hand is to be seen in the annotation of draft bills as he pondered their detail; his legacy is significant and MacCulloch impliedly points to the need for legal historians to assess that further.


This book is well illustrated. Surviving portraits of Cromwell are reproduced, including the title page (now attributed to Holbein) of the Great Bible. This shows the King delivering the Bible in English to Cromwell and Cranmer for distribution to Church and populace. It began the process of shaping modern English, and in opening the Bible to the common reader, was probably Cromwell’s greatest and lasting achievement.

MacCulloch stakes out his purpose clearly. It is to provide a biography of Thomas Cromwell, but not a history of England at the time. He fulfils his task admirably, gainsaying the Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton’s opinion that no biography of Cromwell could be written.

In doing so a vast array of minor players are assembled in this work of great learning. MacCulloch often cross references their appearances in the text, but the general reader (who may baulk at its length) would be greatly aided by short biographical footnotes.

Mantel saw Cromwell as an observer, well highlighted in the BBC series of her book Wolf Hall: a stateable view given the apparent destruction of the ‘out tray’ of Cromwell’s correspondence noted by MacCulloch.


MacCulloch laments this loss but has uncovered a personality of immense administrative ability and indefatigable energy. That perhaps is to be expected of a man to whom MacCulloch credits the setting of the compass for the modern English state and by extrapolation the USA.

What is unexpected is the private man who, following the death of his wife and two daughters in 1529, never re-married, but supported an illegitimate daughter. He distanced his son from the pestilence of London and the viperous Tudor court by arranging his education in Cambridge, and Ludlow on the Marches of Wales, with summers spent in East Anglian parsonages. The private and the public persona interacted as that son married a Seymour  ‘of Wolfe Hall’,  and so became the King’s brother in law.

Cromwell courted Catherine’s daughter, the Lady Mary in the aftermath of the execution of Anne Boleyn. His purpose was not amorous but to secure her acquiescence in the succession. Here MacCulloch notes the growing ties between the Tudors, Seymors and Cromwells as the Lady Mary and Queen Jane acted as godparents to Cromwell’s grandchildren.

Cromwell was building up animosities on the conservative side of Henrican politics which lead to his fall in 1540.

Appointed the King’s vice-gerent (not regent) in ecclesiastical matters in the wake of the Act of Supremacy (1534), MacCulloch points out that Cromwell sat in the House of Lords above the two archbishops and opposite his nemesis the Third Duke of Norfolk also Earl Marshall of England. Norfolk seized the opportunity to strike when Cromwell’s ambition (like MacBeth’s) “o’re leaped itself”.

The parvenue privy councillor, recently created Earl of Essex, returned from the House of Lords to the council board on Thursday, June 10, 1540. Norfolk dramatically tore the collar of St George from Cromwell’s neck. He was conveyed to the Tower to await his fate. Cromwell’s associates deserted him. Save Cranmer, Cromwell had neither friends nor access to the King to preserve him.

His execution followed quickly on the dissolution of the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves: a disastrous initiative in foreign affairs for which Cromwell bore the King’s ire. The processes used against him were precisely those he had masterminded against others.

This is a sympathetic biography whose copious detail is skilfully and stylishly presented. It is an essential companion to the reader who wants to understand the background to Tudor policy in Ireland. The serious reader of novels which explore the emotions and dilemmas of the time will also enjoy cross checking their detail.


MacCulloch’s finely produced book is worth every cent of its cover price. It brings a sense of balance to an enigmatic personality, suggesting solutions where motives and emotions can often only be implied. In doing so it will provoke further thought and indeed argument about 480 year old matters that remain relevant to our times, as England pursues another Brexit from a different Treaty of Rome.

Rev. Robert Marshall, a priest ordained in the Church of Ireland, is Deputy Diocesan Registrar of the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough.

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