One of the leading historians of the English church offers a nuanced and appreciative but not hagiographic portrait of the Tudor politician and religious reformer who served—and then was sent to execution by—Henry VIII.
In this significant biography of Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485-1540), MacCulloch (History of the Church/Oxford Univ.; All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy, 2016, etc.), the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Wolfson Prize, among other awards, explores every aspect of his subject’s life, including his thoughts about his son Gregory’s education, his relationships with Thomas Wolsey and Anne Boleyn, his hope that the government would formulate a systematic strategy for alleviating poverty, and the sometimes-risky expenditures he made to promote his career. But the book is most notable for the author’s insistence that Cromwell’s motives were not, as some have sketched them, coldly Machiavellian but rather deeply religious. MacCulloch argues that Cromwell craftily promoted an evangelical religious agenda while giving outward appearances of support for a more traditional form of Christianity. The author discusses Cromwell’s role in the dissolution of the monasteries, his secret lending of support for the publication of an English Bible, and his pressing of the clergy to preach on the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments and make the texts available in English so that children could learn them. He also intriguingly connects Cromwell’s religious instincts to reformers in Italy. The biography culminates in a sensitive treatment of Cromwell’s downfall, a moving reading of his last speech, and the suggestion that he is key to understanding English Protestantism and the English empire into the 18th century. The few false notes—the prose sometimes has the feel of an awkward fairy tale (“A time there was when a son was born to humble parents…”), and the penultimate sentence’s foreshadowing of the decline of the United States is out of place—can be forgiven.
A deeply researched, important biography that will set the standard for future Cromwell studies.