QAB Book Review: “Thomas Cromwell Servant to Henry VIII”, by David Loades

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“Thomas Cromwell… had a vision of state as a sovereign nation living under a law which was controlled by Parliament. The king he saw as the head of the executive, whose pleasure and honour had always to be respected, but within the boundaries laid down by the law.” ~~ David Loades

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Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex and Chief Minister of King Henry VIII, suddenly is a very popular man in contemporary British culture. With the huge literary award winning acclaim for Hilary Mantel’s brilliant  novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the Lord Privy Seal made an amazing resurgency, not only in recognition as an important historical figure, but also in a greatly enhanced respect of Cromwell’s legacy. The sinister antagonist in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons now is lead heroic figure himself in two positively reviewed plays based on Mantel’s novels performed by none other than by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a touted mini-series is in the works. Thus, it comes as no surprise that on the cover jacket of Thomas Cromwell, Servant to Henry VIII, the first words illustrated are not the biography’s title, nor the highly respected historian’s name, but instead a complimentary quote from historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel. Although this may be great marketing, I found the choice disconcerting. David Loades’ biography is an outstanding achievement that stands on it’s own merits, Mantel’s kind words aside.

For those of us who love Tudor history, there is a plethora of biographies detailing the professional life of Thomas Cromwell written by respected historians such as John Schofield, Robert Hutchinson, Geoffrey Elton, and J.P Coby. It’s anticipated that even Diarmaid MacCulloch will be entering the “Cromwell Biography Club” soon. With a few of these biographies already sitting on my bookshelf, I was initially reluctant to add yet another, but Thomas Cromwell, for better or worse, “comes with the package” when you write historical fiction focusing on his Tudor Era ally Thomas Cranmer, so I “sucked it up” and read yet another. I am absolutely thrilled I did!

Not only are David Loades’ views of Thomas Cromwell balanced, but his explanations of what I always found to be “Cromwell quandaries” are as thought-provoking as they are enlightening. Even after reading two previous Cromwell biographies, I never could sort out in my mind where in general his decision making authority ended and King Henry VIII’s began, what Cromwell’s real involvement and motivation was in the fall of Anne Boleyn, what exactly Cromwell’s own personal religious views were, who — Cromwell or Henry VIII — drove the choice to completely unravel the monastery system so entrenched in English culture, what were the dynamics that resulted in Cromwell’s dramatic fall from grace, and just what exactly was his political philosophy. For me, previous explanations of these ongoing “Cromwell quandaries” of mine were often just too over-simplified, exceptionally convoluted or just not explored comprehensively. David Loades, in his highly readable and instructive writing style backed up with solid research, finally answered these questions in my mind once and for all. From a historical fiction writer’s perspective, I see why Hilary Mantel thinks so highly of him. The facts clearly established, we can now go on with the work at hand — filling in the blanks.

Loades’ research and resulting conclusions are often compelling and fascinating. Although much of the chronology of Thomas Cromwell’s professional life is well established, Loade’s interpretation of Cromwell’s motivations and intentions through his career is thought provoking to say the least, with common misconceptions dispelled very convincingly. The Thomas Cromwell Loade’s describes is a highly complex man with principled values commonly ignored or disputed, a man who took calculated risks in moving his reformist religious agenda — risks that ultimately led to his undoing, and a man whose political philosophy I misunderstood and over simplified until reading Loades’ compelling instruction. Also striking in this Cromwell biography is Loades’ expertise of King Henry VIII, which when combined with his research of Cromwell, paints a convincing accounting of the complex working relationship between these men with most often shared, but sometimes strikingly different, political and religious priorities. For those interested in the various recounting and research completed of Thomas Cromwell through the years, this biography also includes a very interesting and thorough historiography.

David Loades taught English Tudor Era history for 16 years at the University of Wales. It is no surprise then that this outstanding biography of Thomas Cromwell takes a significant teaching tone in it’s presentation, a testament to Loades’ professorial experience. I found this a major strength, as his ability to explain complex concepts in an interesting and understandable way greatly enhanced my understanding of not only the material he presented, but in Thomas Cromwell as the compelling and brilliant man he obviously was.

Add Thomas Cromwell Servant to Henry VIII, to your collection of Tudor Era biographies. I promise, like Hilary Mantel, you will not be disappointed.

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Professor David Loades
Professor David Loades

Professor David Loades is a highly acclaimed English historian who is Professor emeritus at the University of Wales. Currently honorary member of the history faculty at the University of Oxford, Professor Loades lectures extensively and is a highly prolific writer of historical biographies covering almost every imaginable facet of English Tudor Era history. For an extensive listing of the comprehensive works of Professor David Loades, visit his website at http://davidloades.co.uk/.

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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