Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister
Thomas Cromwell and his first master Cardinal Wolsey had much in common: both were commoners whose loyalty lay entirely with the Tudor crown rather than with any one noble faction, but they were also supremely adept at lining their own pockets in order to fund a magnificent lifestyle. Of the two, however, Cromwell was the more politically adroit, and in 1529 he successfully avoided being dragged down by Wolsey’s fall and, with single-minded energy, clawed his way up the slippery slope of Tudor power politics to become Henry VIII’s chief minister for little over a decade.
Hutchinson’s intimate knowledge of the period is compelling, but I found this book less satisfactory than his previous works. Cromwell is described as having “low animal cunning, a capacity for raw deceit”, while “scruples was a word unaccountably missing from his vocabulary”. This was no doubt true, but it seems too easy to compare Cromwell’s nascent civil service and accompanying legislation to the present introduction of ID cards, or the techniques he used during the Dissolution of the Monasteries to the treatment of political prisoners by 20th-century totalitarian regimes. However, this portrait offers a minutely detailed picture of a corrupt and bloody period of Tudor history dominated by religion and vicious power struggles, and fuelled by venality and the King’s desire for an heir.