Thomas Cromwell is one of the most famous – or notorious – figures in English history. Born in obscurity in Putney, he became a fixer for Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520s. After Wolsey’s fall, Henry VIII promoted him to a series of ever greater offices, such that in the 1530s he was effectively running the country for the King. That decade was one of the most momentous in English history: it saw a religious break with the Pope, unprecedented use of parliament, the dissolution of all monasteries, and the coming of the Protestantism. Cromwell was central to all this, but establishing his role with precision has been notoriously difficult.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography is the most complete life ever written of this elusive figure, making connections not previously seen and revealing the channels through which power in early Tudor England flowed. It overturns many received interpretations, for example that Cromwell and Anne Boleyn were allies because of their common religious sympathies, showing how he in fact destroyed her. It introduces the many different personalities contributing to these foundational years, all worrying about what MacCulloch calls the ‘terrifyingly unpredictable’ Henry VIII, and allows readers to feel that they are immersed in all this, that it is going on around them. For a time, the self-made ‘ruffian’, as he described himself – ruthless, adept in the exercise of power, quietly determined in religious revolution – was master of events. MacCulloch’s biography for the first time reveals his true place in the making of modern England and Ireland, for good and ill.