Book Review: Thomas Cromwell
Tracy Borman, Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant. Hodder & Stoughton, 2015 (PB)
In anticipation of Wolf Hall being shown on Australian TV, I bought Tracy Borman’s biography of Thomas Cromwell during a recent trip to the UK (the series started being shown on pay TV on 11 April). I never found Henry VIII and most of his six wives, with the exception of Anne of Cleves, very appealing, so his powerful minister was a foray into fairly unchartered waters for me. Incidentally it was Anne of Cleves, who was the stumbling block over which Thomas Cromwell eventually fell.
Tracy Borman provides the reader with a detailed story of Thomas Cromwell’s life, from his family background and most likely date of birth to his fall and execution. She makes extensive use of the available documents, which in this case are plentiful. At the same time the biography remains well readable.
The Thomas Cromwell emerging from the pages is a real person, with certain positive qualities, as for instance his loyalty to his friends and family as well as helping people less well off than himself. On the other hand, he can be extremely ruthless when it suits his purpose. The one constant though was his loyalty to his king, who became increasingly fickle and paranoid. Anne Boleyn is a case in point. While she was in the king’s favour, it suited Thomas Cromwell to ally with her. Once Henry had set his eyes on Jane Seymour, Cromwell used all his legal skills to drum up a case against her. The reader gets a glimpse of a character not unlike some in popular TV series, think of Walter White in Breaking Bad or Tony Soprano in The Sopranos.
While Ms Borman manages quite well to bring this complex character to life, she seems to be less sure of his religious convictions. For a man, who was so instrumental in bringing about the break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England, it would have been important to be clearer what his personal beliefs were. Sometimes Cromwell is described as holding evangelical beliefs, in other instances, Ms Borman stresses his adherence to a conservative faith. She claims that the latter is proven when Cromwell declares on the scaffold that he “die[s] in the Catholicke faith”. Here she shows the same misunderstanding of the term “catholic”, which marked one aspect of the debates surrounding the reinterment of Richard III. Catholic just means all-embracing and does not exclusively refer to the Roman Catholic Church. In my Australian Lutheran church, the creed as it was prayed every Sunday, contained until quite recently the term “holy catholic church”. It has now been replaced by “holy Christian church”, which conveys its meaning more clearly to most people.
There are also some minor points which might at least be misunderstood. Ms Borman talks about “the advent of the printing press in 1517” (p.43). However, Johannes Gutenberg printed the first books in the mid-1450s and William Caxton had set up his printing press in Westminster approximately 20 years later. So by 1517 the printing press was fairly well established.
Apart from these minor niggles, I enjoyed the book and have now more of an understanding into the storyline of Wolf Hall.