*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.
Thomas Cromwell’s administrative prowess, enigmatic personality, and the striking nature of his rise and fall provide rich material for both fans of Hilary Mantel’s novels and aspiring historians wanting to sink their teeth into the fraught world of 16th century Tudor England. For these audiences, I think Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life may become one of their more long-lasting guides and conversation partners. MacCulloch possesses impressive credentials as a religious historian of the English Reformation in particular and Christianity more generally, so from one perspective, it’s interesting to see him take on a biography of Cromwell, who is sometimes viewed as a coldly calculating, rather Machiavellian secular figure (4). One of MacCulloch’s aims in this work, though, is to subvert this estimation of Cromwell and show how his religious and political motivations were intertwined (4, 371).
In this biography, MacCulloch gives readers a serious work of scholarship, coming in at over five hundred pages in length, with an impressive number of pages of notes gathered in the back of the book. These details may give the impression that Thomas Cromwell is a struggle to get through—and it’s true that MacCulloch’s minutely reconstructed account of life in the English royal court shows no fear of diving into the historical weeds. However, his dry sense of humor shines through in the book’s prose, rewarding those willing to take a deep dive into Cromwell’s life while also possessing a sharp wit. MacCulloch is a master when it comes to telling an engaging historical narrative, and this biography is no exception. Continue reading