Holbein's portrait of Thomas Cromwell that hangs in the Frick Gallery

Who was the real Thomas Cromwell?

Henry VIII's fixer was as complex as Hilary Mantel's fictional portrayal
November 15, 2018

Thomas Cromwell lived an astonishing life. Born into obscurity in 1485 (the year the Tudor dynasty began), he was Earl of Essex when executed 55 years later. Between times he served as the right hand of Cardinal Wolsey and as Henry VIII’s chief minister, directed the dissolution of the monasteries, was touted as a royal match (for the future Mary I), and acquired a reputation for ruthlessly Machiavellian omniscience.

Posterity has not been kind to Cromwell. In the 20th century, he was the brutal counterpoint to Thomas More’s principled sophisticate; the zealot who tortured and killed to prosecute a revolution that had as much to do with greed as doctrinal purity.

The publication in 2009 of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall began to change this, and it is fitting that Diarmaid MacCulloch’s spectacular new biography pays tribute to her accomplishments. Cromwell the man is hard to gauge: though his archive is voluminous, it is notably impersonal. In addition to industry, his biographer therefore needs moral, historical, psychological and political imagination. MacCulloch has these in spades, and his book is a triumph.

Formidable and occasionally cruel, but driven by personal loyalties, religious belief, bookish curiosity and commitment to his family, this Cromwell is also a pragmatist just as concerned with the old-fashioned politics of patronage as with the bureaucratic centralisation of state power.

MacCulloch’s writing is lucid throughout and the narrative never gets lost in the painstakingly interrogated documentation on which it depends. My only quibble is minor. Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell now hangs alongside his portrait of Thomas More in the Frick Collection, New York. MacCulloch contends that this juxtaposition is to Cromwell’s disadvantage. True, Holbein’s More is the very model of studied virtuosity. But his Cromwell is a masterpiece; one supremely self-confident artist depicting another, warts and all.

Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Allen Lane, £30)