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

38390462The stories of King Henry VIII and the men around him have fascinated generations of historians, but there was one man who has received a negative reputation for his actions. He was the supposed son of a butcher who rose to be Henry VIII’s right-hand man, until his dramatic fall in July 1540. Thomas Cromwell was credited for helping Henry with his Great Matter, the fall of Anne Boleyn, the establishment of the Church of England, and the disastrous marriage between Henry and Anna of Cleves. Diarmaid MacCulloch has taken on the challenge to figure out who Thomas Cromwell really was by sifting through all remaining archival records that we have from this extraordinary man. It is in this book, “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” that MacCulloch masterfully explores the story of this man who changed English and European history forever.

Personally, I have never read a book about Thomas Cromwell, but I did want to learn more about his role in Henry VIII’s government. I had heard great things about this particular book and I wanted to read a definitive biography about Cromwell. Although at first, I was a bit intimidated reading something so academically written, I am really glad that I embarked on this journey to discover the truth of this much-maligned historical figure.

MacCulloch dives into the life of Cromwell by trying to piece together his early years and his Italian connections in the clothing trade. Cromwell did not receive a normal education of the day as he almost taught himself, which made him appreciate books and literature even more. It was these connections and his hard work which allowed Cromwell to rise to a position where he was working under Thomas Wosley. The lessons that Cromwell learned from Wosley would be beneficial as he took over as the King’s right- hand man after Wolsey’s fall from grace.

It is the decade that Cromwell served as Henry’s administrative polymath that is MacCulloch’s main focus. This part might trip up casual history students as it is very academic. My suggestion, if you are a casual history student, is to take your time to fully understand the steps that Cromwell took to change the political and religious landscape of England to make sure Henry was happy. It was not always an easy task, but with great risks came great rewards, such as the title of Vice-Gerent in Spirituals. Cromwell’s fingerprints could be seen all over the establishment of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the expanding powers of Parliament. There were those who were not exactly thrilled with all of these changes, however, the only opinion that truly mattered was the one that belonged to Henry VIII, and he was happy with Cromwell’s work.

Cromwell was not just a politician, he was a father to a son named Gregory Cromwell. It was interesting to learn that even after his wife died, Thomas Cromwell never remarried and raised Gregory as a single father. It was when Cromwell got involved in Henry’s personal life that matters got tricky for Cromwell. Obviously, many people are familiar with Cromwell’s role with Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace. However, it was the marriage between Henry and Anna of Cleves that would be the incident that brought Cromwell from the pinnacle of power to death’s door.

MacCulloch’s biography is truly a triumph. It is academic, both in its meticulously researched contents and its writing style, yet it remains engaging and thought-provoking. Although at times, this book was challenging, it was one of those books that you feel proud to read. If you want a fabulous book about the life of Thomas Cromwell as well as the changes that he helped create in the Tudor government and the establishment of the Church of England, “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” by Diarmaid MacCulloch should be included in your collection.