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Thomas Cromwell: A Life

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  540 ratings  ·  109 reviews
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 Engl ...more
Hardcover, 1st U.K. edition, 728 pages
Published September 27th 2018 by Allen Lane
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Roman Clodia
Jul 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
As we would expect from MacCulloch this is a finely researched and detailed scholarly study of Cromwell. Given MacCulloch’s own research interests, it’s also one which reads Cromwell through his religious activities: here called ‘evangelical’ rather than the anachronistic ‘Protestant’.

If you want a personality study then this might disappoint: the sources simply don’t give us access to Cromwell the private man (for that go to fiction such as Hilary Mantel), so that when, for example, we learn t
...more
Gumble's Yard
Jan 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
UPDATE: Now starting on my read through of the trilogy (Wolf Hall for the third time, Bring Up The Bodies for the second) - this is proving an invaluable companion.

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I read this book in preparation for reading the long-awaited third volume of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant already twice-Booker prize winning trilogy about the Tudor-statesman subject of this biography by a renowned historian.

And the biography makes the links between
...more
Juliew.
Mar 10, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tudor
I want to say this seemed much more like a history of English Parliament and court happenings during Henry VIII's reign rather than a biography on Thomas Cromwell.Based supposedly on court records and Cromwell's archive of letters I found the lack of these glaringly obvious.While no doubt the author does present some I found the sections focusing on them quickly swept away while the author tended to move on rather than give a true study to them.I also found lots of secondary sources are used in ...more
Phee
Apr 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
A fantastic biography of one of my favourite historical figures.

I'm not sure what got me interested in Cromwell in the first place. Though a fun fact, Cromwell died on the 28th July which is my birthday so I feel a little link with him on this account.
Tudor history was only covered in minimal depth when I was at school. Though it is something I enjoy reading about for pleasure. I studied modern history whilst I was in higher education, something that I do regret now. I loved my modern history c
...more
Eric Anderson
Dec 10, 2019 rated it did not like it
I had a plan. It was a beautiful and logical plan that I was so excited to start. Having tried and failed to read Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” several years ago because I felt confounded by the politics of the Tudor period, I thought reading a biography about Thomas Cromwell would give me an informed background to start reading the novel again. “The Mirror and the Light”, the third part of Mantel’s much-lauded trilogy about Cromwell’s epic rise and fall is due to be published in March. So I want ...more
Czarny Pies
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Readers who know Tudor history very well.
Shelves: european-history
At the beginning of his biography of Thomas Cromwell (the chief Minister of Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540), author Diarmaid MacCulloch laments loudly on the tremendous gaps in the archival material. He then proceeds into 500 pages of daring inferencing which allows him to transform Thomas Cromwell with his thoroughly black soul into a great hero of the Anglican Church.
While singing Cromwell's praises, Diarmaid MacCulloch does acknowledge that Cromwell was a devious opportunist who advanced his o
...more
Ivor Armistead
Nov 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Finished with, but not finished. I read a lot of English history and think of myself as a buff, but I gave up on this biography of Thomas Cromwell after a couple of hundred pages. I don’t question the books contribution to Cromwell scholarship, but it’s not an easy read. Hence the three star rating.

Hilary Mantel, where is volume three?
Lyn Elliott
Nov 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a mighty work, based on deep scholarship, that demands attention all through its considerable length (550 pages in my edition, pus another 120 or so of notes and index).

MacCulloch’s prose is fluent and occasionally witty, and enables a non-expert reader like me to keep track of the great complexities of Cromwell’s life, of manoeuvrings for power and influence in government and in religion.

I recommend it highly for anyone interested in the Reformation or English history of this period.
...more
Marks54
Feb 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the best critical one volume biographies I have ever read. It is a huge detailed book that covers everything relevant to a complicated and important life with great style and an admirable focus. This book requires much context and is not for everyone. Cromwell was one of the major figures in early modern British history and had aspects of his life that are relevant to Brexit era Britain as well as Trump era America, although I do not want to stretch the point too much.

Cromwell was
...more
Theodore Kinni
Sep 18, 2018 rated it liked it
If you want to know everything there is to know about Thomas Cromwell, this is the book: 5 stars. As it turned out, I didn't, and quit after 200 pages: 1 star
Heidi Malagisi
Feb 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The 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. Diarm ...more
V.E. Lynne
Jan 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Thomas Cromwell has always defied biographers because so little is known of much of his life and many of his papers went missing, probably burnt, after his fall from power in 1540. Diarmaid MacCulloch has gone a long way toward redressing that situation by producing an exhaustive whopper of a book that gets as close as anybody is going to in portraying the life and career of Thomas Cromwell. There is quite a bit on his Putney childhood, and how it shaped his whole life, and the role that Italy p ...more
Trish
Oct 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Until Hilary Mantel wrote “Wolf Hall”, I had almost no knowledge of the extraordinary English “Reformation”; the Anglican Church only impinged on Scotland when that tyrannical Charles I and his son tried to impose their personal “papacy” on us, with murderous results.
Diarmaid MacCulloch has produced an informative and entertaining biography of Cromwell, who managed to survive working for that impossible, cruel, narcissistic, unpredictable King Henry VIII for longer than anyone could have imagin
...more
Simon Haisell
The Art of Dissimulation

"I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all."

3 o'clock in the afternoon on 10 June 1540, Lord Cromwell Earl of Essex was arrested for treason.

When news reached his household they knew exactly what to do. Servants built up the hearth, gathered up his personal papers and set about destroying their master's words. They worked silently and in great haste. Within the hour the King's Archers were at the door and the game was up.

T
...more
Richard Thomas
Jan 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It is very hard to find any fault with this biography of Thomas Cromwell. The author judiciously examines Cromwell’s life from his birth and youth in Putney, through his travels in Europe and his work with Wolsey to his ascent to power. His contribution to the governance of England through the political basis of the King in Parliament was fundamental to the stability of the country which survived the upheavals of the 17th century. He strikes a balance between the importance of describing the cri ...more
Adrienne Dillard
Apr 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2019
This is a tome only for those who feel like getting deep and sweaty into the nitty-gritty...not only of Cromwell's life, but the inner workings of the Tudor government, both secular and religious. Highly detailed and vastly referenced. My only note is that the very brief mention of Jane Boleyn came across as inordinately contemptuous, which made that particular chapter difficult for me to read.
Tim and Popie Stafford
Jan 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
A very detailed, gossipy account of Cromwell that takes great care to reveal its sources, not just in footnotes but in explanation of what we know and don't know, and what documents reveal just what. Not easy reading, but given my ardent love of Wolf Hall, I found it very engaging.
Socraticgadfly
MacCulloch shows once again how and why he is the dean of British Reformation historians with this magnificent, magisterial biography.

At core, MacCulloch shows that, while there would not have been an English Reformation without Henry VIII and his concern for his succession (obviously) that Reformation happened as it did do to the activity of Cromwell more than any other single person. And, that was with Cromwell regularly pushing the bounds and envelopes of both his official power, and even mor
...more
Peter
Mar 27, 2019 rated it it was ok
This is way too advanced a history to be read cold, I.e., without any background of the era or the people. Although the reviewer at the Financial Times spoke highly of it, I now realize such person probably read at Oxford or Cambridge, or, in any case has substantially more knowledge of this period of English history than little ol’ me. I found myself running into a deep forest of English place names, families and characters in the first 25 pages and thought I would stop while I could still see ...more
Johanne
Feb 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very good, very detailed. Not a light work and not a book to pick up if you are expecting behind the scenes at "Wolf Hall". This is solid, scholarly, biography, there are occasional flashes of wit but you need a good grasp of Tudor politics to hold on to this. Still, if you want to see the Tudor foundations of where we are now and the intelligent if sometimes erratic force behind them this is the book for you.
Joel Mitchell
Oct 28, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In his exhaustive portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the author focused largely on Cromwell’s overseeing and nudging the English Reformation in an Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) direction. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation was seemingly driven more by lust and greed than concern for godly living or doctrinal purity. However, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s thesis is that Cromwell was driven, at least in part, by real (but cautiously concealed) Evangelical leanings.

MacCulloch’s biography is built o
...more
Kirk Lowery
May 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, biography
This was a difficult read. First, my sense of the chronology of Tudor England is pretty shaky. And the author likes to jump around chronologically as he's describing people and events. So it's easy to get lost. And speaking of getting lost, there are a plethora of people and places that I've never heard of. It's like he's writing to his Oxford grad students, assuming a familiarity with Tudor England politics, economy, church life and organization, and culture.

Having said that, I found the book h
...more
Rachael Mellen
Jun 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I read the Kindle version of this book which though less cumbersome to hold does have its drawbacks, such as navigating to footnotes and back. This study of Cromwell's life is probably the most comprehensive available and is based largely on the author's reading of Cromwell's surviving correspondence. The author claimed in a podcast that he knew Cromwell better than anyone else! Even so, I found it quite readable and not at all pedantic and would recommend it to the truly interested amateur as w ...more
Janet
Jul 10, 2019 rated it liked it
This is really a book for people who are familiar with the history of the Tudor era, and want to get the details of what Cromwell was doing when. I did enjoy reading it because MacCulloch's prose style is wonderful, and his frequent sardonic comments were great. Unfortunately for a historically illiterate American (me), reading this book was like trying to put together a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle with a very blurry picture of what the final product was supposed to look like. I did finish the book ...more
Clare Boucher
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The great Tudor historian Sir Geoffrey Elton thought that Thomas Cromwell was unbiographable. Very few documents written by Cromwell survive and MacCulloch speculates that his household/supporters destroyed his ‘out tray’ on his arrest. What we have is the ‘in tray’. This provides fertile ground for a novelist, but makes the task of a biographer much harder.

What we have here is a detailed account of the politics and administration of England in the late 1520s/1530s. As always, MacCulloch made me
...more
Emma
Sep 24, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-reviews, history
I have mixed feelings about ‘Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life’. I enjoyed learning more about the messy beginning of the English Reformation through the life of one of its chief architects, and this book contained lots of interesting insights that were completely new to me. (I was particularly fascinated by Cromwell’s enduring and unexpected loyalty to Cardinal Wolsey.) I also appreciated Diarmaid MacCulloch’s scrupulous research and the fact that his prose was pleasantly light despite the ...more
Kim
Jun 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A richly detailed account of the extraordinary life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from a low-born family and became the second most powerful man in the court of King Henry VIII. MacColluch presents Cromwell as neither hero nor villain, but as a man with keen wit and intelligence who managed to navigate the troubled political waters of his time while enacting sweeping reforms that affected English politics for centuries after his death.
Andrew Klynsmith
Excellently written, excellently read into audio format, full of brilliant research, a lightness of touch and appropriate humour. I learned so much about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Lord Privy Seal, in this salutary tale of a man who didn't learn well enough the adage, "He who would dine with the devil better have a long spoon."
T P Kennedy
Apr 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very good read. A well developed authoritative telling of the life of Cromwell set in a broader context. This makes for a better read than the Mantel trilogy. The greed, cunning and faith of Cromwell are laid bare through his words and deeds. The author doesn't judge Cromwell but lines up lots of evidence to allow for the reader's judgment. It's quite a roller coaster of advances and reverses towards the end of the volume. Great fun.
Caroline
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well. This was interesting. As a historian of the English reformation, MacCulloch packs a lot of credibility, and I'm in no position to judge his assertions. Having said that - this was a slow but compelling read. (I have to say that my eye moved quickly through some of the discussions of how a certain person was connected in the webs of court and nobility to another; but that's ok...) His piecing together of what Cromwell might have been doing before he came back to England as a young man and g ...more
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