QAB Book Review: “Thomas Cromwell, A Life” by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Editor’s Note: Thomas Cromwell, A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch releases today in the United Kingdom and on 30 October 2018 in the United States of America.



Thomas Cromwell – I admit I was curious. With two major biographies by David Loades (sadly now deceased) and Tracy Borman in the “post Wolf Hall era”, John Schofield’s outstanding research, and John Hutchinson’s comprehensive list of bribes and property acquisitions all readily available on Amazon to anyone with an interest, is there really anything new to learn about English History’s only Vicegerent of Spirituals? After all, it is now common knowledge that Cromwell was a grand host, the literal “life of the party”, wearing costumes paraded before King Henry VIII. We also know he was “the neighbor from hell” — a poor snog coming home to find his house pulled off its foundations and moved so Cromwell could grow fig trees on his grounds at Austin Friars. We even know about the “bastard daughter”, his rumored childhood ruffianism, and even the candies and jellies Cromwell laid before the Pope. What else could there possibly be?

Enter Diarmaid MacCulloch. The world-renowned religious historian and eminent biographer of Cromwell’s friend and ally Thomas Cranmer created the perfect bookend to his award-winning research of England’s first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas Cromwell, A Life is a master-class biography at its finest, not only for the breadth and comprehensiveness of MacCulloch’s research of Cromwell’s remarkable life but far more still his analysis of what it all means and just how pervasively the commoner from Putney not only influenced his own times but far more so the future of British culture, government, and religion — and by extension, the United States.

As the title of MacCulloch’s Cromwell biography implies, this book details a life story — the magnificent life of an uncommon common man who through intellectual genius, exhaustive work ethic, drive for excellence, passion for learning, giftedness in alliance and relationship building, and the courage of conviction, not changed the course of history but also pervasively influenced the future evolution of British government, culture and religion. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s task was monumental. As MacCulloch explains, most of Cromwell’s out-going correspondences were lost, destroyed at the time of his own destruction. Thomas Cromwell was a highly complex personality, little of his private life known. Finally, add this essential fact. The man covered his tracks and did a great job of it.

With many of the events of history (but delightfully not all) already highlighted by previous historians, the strength Thomas Cromwell, A Life is instead Diarmaid MacCulloch’s insightful analysis. His world-renowned expertise in religious history helps shape for us a clear understanding of just how pervasive Thomas Cromwell’s influences in England’s Protestant Reformation were — and still are. MacCulloch provides our clearest glimpse yet of the sneaky derring-do Cromwell was up to, how subversive and forward thinking his efforts to bring religious reform to England were, and just how truly heretical by King Henry VIII’s standards Thomas Cromwell’s belief system was.

Historical events shared by previous historians are here shaped by context, with emphasis placed on how events highlighted influenced the future — both in the short and long term.  Consequently, sometimes historical events glossed or presented as “footnotes to history” in previous Cromwell biographies are viewed by Professor MacCulloch with far more importance. His focus on analyzing Cromwell’s friendships, alliances, “frenemies”, rivals, and familial priorities is also enlightening. MacCulloch’s ability and willingness to dissect complex historical events, delve into the minutia, assess the facts of the situation, and then explain complicated concepts in understandable terms is a huge strength of this biography. This stated where common sense reigns, he looks no further. Yes, folks. Write this down. If your son marries the King of England’s sister-in-law — especially in medieval and early modern history — that is a big deal.

With all the phenomenal accomplishments Thomas Cromwell knowingly and sometimes unknowingly attained, it would be easy for Thomas Cromwell, A Life to become a brilliantly researched and engrossingly composed hagiography. Diarmaid MacCulloch resists the temptation. Thomas Cromwell was a brutal man living in brutal times, and there is no white-washing that fact. Though he disagrees with historian Eric Ives regarding their early alliance or lack thereof, MacColluch lays the blame for Anne Boleyn’s fall, along with the five men destroyed with her, squarely at Thomas Cromwell’s feet. They were not alone. We learn quite pointedly not only of Cromwell’s brilliance but also his brutality — not always exhibited for reasons of self-preservation. After all, in Cromwell’s world, one could believe inwardly one way and outwardly act another. MacCulloch explains just how critical this belief was to defining Cromwell as a person — and how the philosophy behind it influenced not only him but several of his contemporaries and those who followed.

Beyond the obvious academic richness of Thomas Cromwell, A Life, I commend Diarmaid MacCulloch for significantly loosening his writing style and conventionalizing his diction and tone from his earlier published work. Though the book is comprehensive and discusses advanced historical topics, the average English history lover will have no difficulty in understanding the content. (Thomas Cranmer, A Life – a far denser read for a novice – was published over 22 years ago. Where did the time go?) Thomas Cromwell, A Life, instructive and professorial, also highlights MacCulloch’s delight with the topic of his research. Readers can feel the excitement in his writing tone and increased pace in writing cadence when MacCulloch highlights a new revelation or explains the concepts and historical events he finds most fascinating. And why not? There is plenty to be excited about. Today Diarmaid MacCulloch will be knighted once again, this time “the eminent biographer of The Tudor Odd Couple”, bookend biographies for the ages. Huzzah!



Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of History of the church and fellow at St. Cross College, Oxford University, is an expert in the History of Christianity. A prolific researcher, teacher, lecturer, biographer and history writer, Professor MacCulloch has been honored with the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Whitbread Biography Prize and the Duff Cooper Biography Prize for Thomas Cranmer, A Life; the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the British Academy Book Prize for Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490 – 1700; and, the 2010 Hessell-Tiltman Prize and Cundell Prize for A History of Christianity.

If Professor MacCulloch looks familiar, you likely have enjoyed his teaching of religious history on television and radio in a variety of documentaries highlighting the life of Thomas Cromwell, the History of Christianity, how God made the English, and sex in the church. Though honored as a Knight Bachelor by Her Majesty the Queen in 2012 and elected a Fellow through the years of the Society of Antiquities of London, the Royal Historical Society, and the British Academy, Professor MacCulloch is cherished most for his articulate, engaging, and down-to-earth teaching style that enthralls his peer historians, college students, and history buffs alike.


Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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