Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life By Diarmaid MacCulloch

Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, 2018

It’s not every civil servant who becomes the subject of a master painter’s skill, and yet as soon as you turn the corner at New York’s Frick Collection, there you see it: a centerpiece painting by the great Hans Holbein, full of the warmly deepened reality he crafted so perfectly in portrait after portrait. The subject is a squat man with the hoggish face of a prosperous grain merchant; his age is difficult to guess, like so many people sitting for hours as their pictures are painted, he looks both impatient and uncomfortable in his fine clothes. He seems to be half-squinting at the equally beautiful Holbein portrait right next to his own: Thomas More, who looks slightly more comfortable in his fancy dress but not one bit happier. Both men had their heads chopped off at the order of King Henry VIII, and in these portraits, in their very different ways, they both seem to think that might someday happen.

Almost 60 years ago, curious onlookers largely ignored the Cromwell portrait in order to gaze upon Sir Thomas More, speculate about him, and chat as if they knew him ... because those onlookers had seen Robert Bolt’s hit Broadway play A Man for All Seasons or Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winning movie adaptation of the play. In the wake of that runaway success, fiction had made More real to these people in ways history books had not. They encountered his portrait and instead of asking the usual museum-going tourist’s question “Who’s this?” they smiled and said, “Oh, it’s you.”

And now, it’s Cromwell’s glowering, suspicious portrait that elicits “Oh, it’s you,” and the reason is once again fiction: Hilary Mantel’s enormously successful back-to-back historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which fleshed this particular grasping, backstabbing civil servant in absolutely unforgettable prose. As 60 years ago, so too now: a blockbuster fictional treatment flushed dozens of new biographies into print to capitalize on heightened popular interest. This influx is both fun and frustrating for the handful of readers who were interested in Cromwell before the hullabaloo: fun because it’s always nice to see more interest in your pet subjects, frustrating because a great many of these books sadly feel as rushed-to-press as they probably were.

2018 sees a towering exception to this pattern: Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life by the great Diarmaid MacCulloch, a work by one of our greatest living historians that was years in the making and lays out a wonderfully eloquent and challenging massive new interpretation of Cromwell’s life and times. MacCulloch’s book dives deep into the brambles of Tudor documentation, reads all the old accounts afresh, and presents to readers a portrait every bit as complicated and suggestive and enhanced as the one by Holbein.

And yet, even MacCulloch himself can’t escape Wolf Hall. His book would be virtually invisible to browsing readers if it didn’t come with a cover-blurb by Hilary Mantel, for instance, and lo, it has a corker: “This is a book that - and it’s not often you can say this - we have been awaiting for four hundred years.” And likewise, MacCulloch must address the Booker winner in the room immediately, in his book’s first sentence: “Thomas Cromwell’s name has happily become much more familiar in the last decade, thanks principally to Hilary Mantel’s inspired novel series beginning with Wolf Hall.” You have to admire the tiny squeak of defiance in that “principally.”

Readers drawn to this book by their love of Wolf Hall will find a world of fact in the place of a narrative of fancy, and such is MacCulloch’s own storytelling gifts that most of those readers will happily keep reading for the whole 700 pages. Cromwell’s rise, flourishing, and fall traced an entire broad arc of Henry’s reign, and MacCulloch illuminates the familiar story of that arc with new color and emphasis and argument. This is downright thrilling biography, and it’s guided by the author’s desire to show a more balanced accounting of Cromwell, a man who was neither the dockyard bully of Robert Bolt’s play nor the omni-competent Shakespearean hero of Mantel’s novels. “I have tried to show that while there was selfish greed enough among the King and his leading councillors, eagerly imitated by the wider group of his subjects who had funds to invest in suddenly available church lands,” MacCulloch writes, “there was a degree of idealism and reforming enthusiasm in Cromwell’s vision of what it all meant.”

He promptly adds: “The balance between idealism and rapacity was easily tipped,” and if there’s a minor criticism to be leveled at this masterpiece, it’s that for all his historian’s remove, MacCulloch isn’t entirely free of Wolf Hall. He describes in definitive detail the many liturgical and especially legal innovations Cromwell worked so industriously to implement, but he gilds it all with just a bit more sympathy than the Cromwell of his own records usually warrants.

And of course his book goes where Hilary Mantel’s books have yet to venture: to the block. Cromwell was condemned to death and executed in July of 1540. MacCulloch is wonderfully mandarin about it all: “On the day of Cromwell’s execution, 28 July 1540, the King took his mind off it by getting married to Katherine Howard,” he writes. “Just as in Anne’s case, Cromwell could with full legal propriety have been burned at the stake, and maybe his enemies sought that.”

He was spared that fate and beheaded instead - famously ineptly, although even at this last moment, MacCulloch prefers the account that says otherwise and describes a single clean stroke. With Olympian detachment, MacCulloch writes: “Either way, even botched beheadings are soon over.” Easy for him to say.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is