This is my review of Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant by Tracy Borman.
Thomas Cromwell is perhaps best known for the Dissolution of the Monasteries, both to raise money for Henry Vlll and to disband subversive centres of loyalty to the Pope. He also masterminded the legislation required to make the King head of the Church of England and to declare invalid his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Tracy Borman portrays Cromwell as a man of contrasts. He was ruthless in disposing of enemies by "act of attainder" which meant they could be convicted and executed without the right to put their case in court. He used torture to extort a probably false confession that the circle of young men surrounding Anne Boleyn, including her own brother, had been her lovers. Yet when his friend the poet Thomas Wyatt was inadvertently arrested in this affair, Cromwell found the time to reassure and get him released. There is irrefutable evidence that Cromwell took bribes, for instance in return for letting farmers stay on their lands affected by dissolution of religious houses. When enlarging his property at Austin Friars, he moved the garden fences to encroach twenty-two feet on neighbours' land, confident that no one would dare to challenge a rising star in the King's service. Yet he regularly ensured that dozens of poor people were fed at his gate, and often helped friends and acquaintances in trouble.
Largely self-taught, highly intelligent with a remarkable capacity for hard work, Cromwell also possessed a perhaps unexpected wit and charm. In the poisonous, back-stabbing hothouse of the Tudor court where Cromwell was despised for his working class origins as a blacksmith's son, he had to be a tough risk-taker to achieve what he did, although arguably he went too far in frustrating and humiliating his nemesis the mighty Duke of Norfolk. Ostensibly Cromwell's undoing was the unfortunate choice of an unattractive fourth bride for Henry, "the Flanders mare", Anne of Cleves. In fact, he overreached himself in deviating from his usual pragmatism to follow a sincere belief – his continued support for the introduction of Protestantism, one of his main achievements being the installation of an bible in English in a large number of churches. This alarmed a King who was at heart a conventional Catholic (papacy apart) and allowed himself to be convinced that Cromwell was plotting his downfall. Capricious and paranoid with advancing age, "a little over seven months after the former chief minister's execution" the king was heard to reproach his ministers for having persuaded him "upon light pretexts" to execute " the most faithful servant he ever had".
Tracy Borman has made a complex history accessible to those with no prior knowledge, also providing enough fresh detail to hold an informed reader. My sole criticism is the lack of consistency in including some quotations in modern spelling, others in the written anarchy of the day which make them hard to read, together with the way many words have changed in usage. Cromwell's spelling seems particularly mangled: " your most….obbeysand ….subiett and most lamentable seruant and prysoner".