QAB Interview — Renowned Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch Discusses Thomas Cromwell

Editor’s Note: Today is Release Day in the United Kingdom for what we here at judge will become the definitive biography of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. Thomas Cromwell, A Life, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, is simply master-class. You can catch our review, HERE.

Professor MacCulloch graciously caught up with recently to discuss his ground-breaking research in and fascination with Thomas Cromwell. Grab yourself your morning coffee or tea and enjoy!


Diarmaid MacCulloch


You have written many books about the Tudor era; what fascinates you about that period in history?

Tudor England was something of an accidental choice for me in my first week as an undergraduate student in Cambridge.  I kept up my interests in several other periods (and I’m glad I did); I nearly did my doctorate on the Weimar Republic.  But in the end, it was the Tudors.  I grew up in remote English countryside, where my father was Anglican rector with a beautiful medieval church.  It had been dominated by a gentry family who remained Roman Catholics after the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, but had continued taking an interest in the church till they died out in the 1800s, with all their tombs and heraldic displays in the church building; that fascinated me, and still does.


You have written Thomas Cranmer, and Tudor Church Militant—Why was Thomas Cromwell the next Tudor figure you chose to research?

Not so much the next, but the ultimate figure, Henry VIII aside, and Henry has excellent biographies already.  I wrote Cranmer because the Archbishop was at the heart of the early English Reformation, and because discovering him let me get to know the whole of the early Tudor period.  His ally and partner in Reformation was Cromwell.  I’d long decided that it would be fascinating to see the same picture from his point of view.  And my old doctoral supervisor, Sir Geoffrey Elton, had been the man who knew more about Cromwell than anyone else in centuries, yet Elton never chose to write his life-story.  It was an obvious gap to fill.



First-hand materials in the British National Archives and the British Library included thousands of Cromwell’s surviving papers, which took you a decade to absorb. What was your research process to capture an accurate portrayal of Cromwell’s life? How does your research set this Cromwell biography apart from all other fiction or nonfiction accounts?

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
(Hans Holbein the Younger Miniature)

My research process was quite simple, but I’m pretty sure that no-one has done it quite like this before.  I sat down and read everything readily available in manuscript (plus some not so available), and took it all in, and as I read, I digested the information in the manuscripts I was reading into an intricate index system that I first developed for Cranmer.  Doing it that way meant that I was integrating the lives of the two men and the politics that swirled round them.  The indexes included a day-by-day, hour-by-hour listing of what happened.  It sounds simple, but of course it needs the experience to make the right choices and not get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff.  None of the other available biographies of Cromwell get close to doing that.  Hilary Mantel didn’t go quite that far either, but her formidable novelist’s intelligence enabled her to spot patterns that historians hadn’t clearly seen.


You are the first biographer to write about Cromwell’s childhood and early life in detail—why was this an important aspect of understanding the powerful, influential man mostly known for his later political life and demise?

It goes without saying that we are all formed by our childhood experiences, and our character is formed then, for good or ill.  Cromwell was from an obscure family, and that means that there are few available documents about his early days.  You just have to lean on the little we know, and also listen carefully to echoes in later documents – chance reminiscences from others who knew him early on.  What also needs to be done is clear away some Victorian downright lies about the early years, made up by a local historian apparently just to big himself up.  After that, you’re better able to listen for surprises, like the possibility that his father may have been Irish.


In THOMAS CROMWELL, you rejected reducing Cromwell to a one-dimensional corrupt pawn in the service of a cruel monarch. Why was it important to view him with nuance rather than as a binary hero or villain?

Very few people are binary heroes or villains.  With Cromwell, opinions differ sharply.  There are those who like him and those who loathe him, and their choice is generally on the basis of their liking or loathing the Reformation.  So Anglo-Catholic Cromwell has generally been as unpleasant as Roman Catholic Cromwell.  Cromwell the Protestant hero can be met with among his partisans right from the 1530s, not least the audience abroad, visible in the reports of German ambassadors or in letters of evangelical clergy and laity from the great Protestant cities of Strassburg or Zürich.  Clearly both sides can’t be wholly right; yet it’s unlikely that one extreme or other is entirely wrong.  The fascination is to find the truths on both sides.


Obviously, in an interview with, a question about the relationship (or lack thereof) between Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell is in order. Please clarify for our browsers your beliefs relative to the notion that Cromwell and Anne Boleyn were allies at any point that they intersected with one another. What brings you to this conclusion? Do you find the fall of Anne Boleyn a testament to Cromwell’s brutality solely or did he work in partnership with the King? 

Thomas Cardinal Wolsey
(Sampson Strong)

The complication in understanding the relationship of Anne and Cromwell has always been the undoubted fact that together with her brother George, to whom she was very close, she was working in the same religious direction as the royal minister.  Yet as far as Cromwell was concerned, the great fact which shaped their relations for the rest of her life, and which makes sense of the events which now played out at Court over more than half a decade, was that she was the person most responsible for destroying his dear master the Cardinal.  Equally, for Anne, Cromwell was the Cardinal’s man, promoted to the King by the Cardinal’s friends, and Wolsey’s right-hand man in the months when his fate was still in the balance; that outweighed Cromwell’s undoubted part in clearing her path to the throne.  She was probably responsible for slowing Cromwell’s further progress into royal service rather than furthering it in the early 1530s, and his eventual lead in her destruction in 1536 is not surprising.

Queen Anne Boleyn
(Artist Unkown)

Anne’s execution was followed briskly by Cromwell acquiring the knighthood that eluded throughout her reign, together with a peerage, and one of the highest political offices in the realm as Lord Privy Seal.  One of the unnecessary Ptolemaic epicycles of historiography in the 1530s is to see the fall of Anne Boleyn as a Catholic conspiracy, ‘taken over’ by Cromwell.  It is clear instead that from the beginning in winter 1536, it was in fact Cromwell that steered the moves, making overtures to the Lady Mary that eventually resulted in her admittedly reluctant submission to the King after Anne’s death.  Of course conservatives at Court enthusiastically joined in the destruction of Anne in 1536 and had great hopes for its consequences, as did every Catholic in the land and beyond.  Yet they were disappointed.  The responsibility for Anne’s destruction remains squarely with Cromwell, as he cheerfully admitted.  At least he thought of her as a worthy adversary, as he observed in a remarkably frank debriefing with the imperial ambassador Chapuys on 24 May 1536: ‘he emphatically praised the sense, wit and courage of the late Concubine, and of her brother’.  Cromwell did not abandon or betray a partner in Reformation.  With Anne dead, the Reformation which he sought suddenly became much less complicated.

Of course, Cromwell would always have to work in a roller-coaster collaboration with the King’s tempestuous emotional appetites.  If the royal passions had not veered so decisively towards Jane Seymour that Henry once again broke all decencies, destroying Anne and then immediately marrying a successor, no-one could have achieved the result of May 1536 when Anne died.  Yet the person who did achieve it was Wolsey’s best servant.  From the sidelines, other wounded admirers of the Cardinal, including those who helped to bring Cromwell into the King’s service in 1530, rejoiced at what the architect of Wolsey’s legacy project had achieved.  It was a monument for the Cardinal far beyond the skill of Italian craftsmen.


How has your personal relationship with Catholicism, and as an Anglican deacon, influenced the way you viewed Thomas Cromwell and his contributions to the Reformation?

Having a feel for the resonances of religion is essential for understanding Tudor England and sixteenth-century Europe generally, and it helps to know what it feels like being on the inside of religion.  I do come at the subject with a formation as an Anglican, which thankfully is not a recipe for any particular ideological outlook, Anglicanism being the cheerfully if decorously shapeless thing that it is.  But there is a difference between being an Anglican historian and an historian who is an Anglican, just as there’s a difference between being a Roman Catholic historian and an historian who is a Roman Catholic.  I’d hope to be an historian who is an Anglican.


How did Thomas Cromwell’s dedication to the Reformation help shape the United States as a Protestant power? What, if any, parallels do you see between the political landscape during the Tudor period to the political climate in the U.S. today?

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon

Cromwell was instrumental in creating a Protestant Reformation out of Henry VIII’s break with the Pope, which might not have had any Protestant implications at all. England became a Protestant power, and not just that, but very much thanks to him, a particular sort of Protestantism, not Lutheran but ‘Reformed’, the Reformed Protestantism of Switzerland and John Calvin’s Geneva.  That is the religion of the first English settlers in both Virginia and New England; so Cromwell is at the heart of American religion.  Of course it’s not a simple relationship, because the New England settlers were also rebelling against the Protestant Church of England for not being Reformed enough.  And Cromwell was the servant of a monarch who on a bad day has pre-echoes of Donald Trump, though always a great deal more competent and intelligent.  Steve Bannon liked to boast that he was Trump’s Thomas Cromwell.  Perhaps he ought to have remembered that Cromwell got his head chopped off as a result.


What surprised you most about Thomas Cromwell’s life and legacy while you researched and wrote this book?

I was surprised (and gratified) at how important religion was in his story; he was not a cynical or secular figure, but someone who took real risks in manipulating Henry VIII’s break with Rome towards his own religious vision.  And I was also surprised to find that he was not the master-mind of a total dissolution of the monasteries, and how accidental and hiccupy the road to total dissolution was.  We also need to remember that six Tudor monasteries were not totally dissolved, but became brand-new cathedrals that survive as cathedrals in England to the present day.


What is the subject of your next book?

‘Sex and the Church’: a history of sex, gender and the family in Christian tradition from before Jesus Christ to the present day.



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.

Beyond all aforementioned, Diarmaid MacCulloch is a frequent contributor to The Guardian. CLICK HERE for a listing of his book reviews and articles –> Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Guardian. To purchase one of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s brilliant books, CLICK HERE –> Books by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

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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