London | Hodder & Stoughton | 2014 | 450 pp.
On the Adult Non-Fiction shelves at 920 CRO
Summary: Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s right hand man for about a decade from around the time his master, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, came to grief for not managing to secure Henry his divorce from Katherine of Aragon to Cromwell’s own spectacular fall and execution in July 1540.
Famously having been of lowly birth – his father was a blacksmith and a beer brewer who several times was convicted of watering down his ale – Cromwell rose through the ranks in both Wolsey’s and then Henry VIII’s courts to become Lord Great Chamberlain and the most powerful man in England besides the king. His loyalty to the king and to his friends is well known and an implacable enemy. Those who fell foul of his enmity included Henry’s second Queen Anne Boleyn.
Cromwell is credited with advancing the Reformation in England when he orchestrated the Dissolution of the Monasteries which made Henry fabulously wealthy. He introduced the distribution of the Bible in English, ordering a copy to be made available to the people in every church in England. Family historians have a lot to thank Cromwell for – it wasCromwell who instructed that every clergyman should “keep one book or register, wherein ye shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening and burying, made within your parish for your time.” (P300)
In the end Cromwell’s fall from power was very swift, coming only weeks after having been made earl of Essex. But he had incurred the wrath and the jealousy of the nobility over years for rising above his station and for the religious changes and upheaval. After fending off several previous attempts to bring him down his enemies, headed by the duke of Norfolk, finally succeeded – arriving for a meeting of the Privy Council on 10 June 1540 he was taken by surprise and arrested on charges of treason and heresy. By the end of July he’d been executed.
Review : I have to declare myself as a lover of Tudor history and (reluctantly) acknowledge this book might not be for everyone. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of detail of the official part of Thomas Cromwell’s life; he documented everything himself, had an army of secretaries and there are court reports, reports of foreign ambassadors, etc. The details of his private life, especially his early life and domestic life, are fairly sketchy and there is a bit of conjecture going on, but Tracy Borman has written a very readable account. On a scale out of 5 I would give it a 4.
If you prefer to read your history in novel form, Hilary Mantel cannot be beaten. The first two books in her Thomas Cromwell series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both deservedly earned her the Booker Prize (it’s been an agonising wait for the last one) and the British TV adaptation of Wolf Hall was great too. (I had the great fun of watching it with a friend who knew nothing of the story so, like Anne Boleyn at the time, did not know what was going to happen).
The Shardlake books by C J Sansom are another very good series of historical detective novels with the Dissolution of the Monasteries as the backdrop.
Reviewed by: Alba