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The long-awaited biography of the genius who masterminded Henry VIII''s bloody revolution in the English government, which reveals at last Cromwell''s role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn

"This a book that - and it''s not often you can say this - we have been awaiting for four hundred years." --Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall


Since the sixteenth century we have been fascinated by Henry VIII and the man who stood beside him, guiding him, enriching him, and enduring the king''s insatiable appetites and violent outbursts until Henry ordered his beheading in July 1540. After a decade of sleuthing in the royal archives, Diarmaid MacCulloch has emerged with a tantalizing new understanding of Henry''s mercurial chief minister, the inscrutable and utterly compelling Thomas Cromwell.

History has not been kind to the son of a Putney brewer who became the architect of England''s split with Rome. Where past biographies portrayed him as a scheming operator with blood on his hands, Hilary Mantel reimagined him as a far more sympathetic figure buffered by the whims of his master. So which was he--the villain of history or the victim of her creation? MacCulloch sifted through letters and court records for answers and found Cromwell''s fingerprints on some of the most transformative decisions of Henry''s turbulent reign. But he also found Cromwell the man, an administrative genius, rescuing him from myth and slander.

The real Cromwell was a deeply loving father who took his biggest risks to secure the future of his son, Gregory. He was also a man of faith and a quiet revolutionary. In the end, he could not appease or control the man whose humors were so violent and unpredictable. But he made his mark on England, setting her on the path to religious awakening and indelibly transforming the system of government of the English-speaking world.

Review

“Thomas Cromwell has famously defied his biographers, but no more. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book is subtle, witty and precisely constructed. He has sifted the vast archive to clear away the accumulated error, muddle and propaganda of centuries, allowing us to see this clever and fascinating man better than ever before, and in the mirror of his times. This a book that—and it’s not often you can say this—we have been awaiting for four hundred years.” — Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

“Thomas Cromwell is a wonderfully rich, detailed and demanding account of an extraordinary career....It’s a book to satisfy academic historians and the general reader alike. Nothing so dramatically and persuasively conveys the reality of life in these blood-soaked years.” Wall Street Journal

"MacCulloch threads Cromwell’s notes and other contemporary sources along with modern historians’ work to recreate his motivations. This comprehensive biography is ideal for passionate devotees of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels." Publishers Weekly

"A landmark portrait of a complex, confounding man.”— Booklist (starred review)

“MacCulloch’s monumental biography brings Henry VIII’s notorious minister to vivid, detailed life….A must-read biography of a man whose role in shaping English and Protestant history has long been misunderstood.” Library Journal (starred review)

"Triumphant and definitive… This is a masterpiece of documentary detective work, which buzzes with the excitement of a great historian immersed in archives. Acute, elegant and devastating.” —Dan Jones,  Sunday Times
 

“This biography is a major work of scholarship of the type that will reset academic understanding of Tudor politics for a generation … and golly, can MacCulloch make a Tudor paper trail seem exciting.”  — Financial Times



Praise for Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

“Immensely ambitious and absorbing.” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

“A landmark contribution . . . It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and surprisingly accessible volume than MacCulloch’s.” Jon Meacham, The New York Times Book Review

“A prodigious, thrilling, masterclass of a history book. MacCulloch is to be congratulated for his accessible handling of so much complex, difficult material.” —John Cornwell, Financial Times

Praise for Silence: A Christian History

“In MacCulloch’s hands, reading about Christianity often feels as soulful, as silently consuming, as prayer itself.” — Tom Bissell, Harper’s Magazine

Silence is excellent: beautifully written, factually dense, intellectually sophisticated.” — Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine

“Enjoyable and intelligent . . . MacCulloch is a gifted scholar and his ideas are always worth hearing.” — The Economist

About the Author

Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University. His books include Thomas Cranmer: A Life, which won the Whitbread Biography Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and the Duff Cooper Prize; The Reformation: A History, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Wolfson Prize; and Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, a New York Times bestseller that won the Cundill Prize in History. An Anglican deacon, knighted in 2012, he has presented many highly celebrated documentaries for television and radio. He lives in Oxford, England.

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Top reviews from the United States

Christian Schlect
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
To Make or Mar
Reviewed in the United States on November 11, 2018
This is a difficult book to rate. On one level it is an astonishing example of well-polished historical scholarship about a significant actor in centuries old English history. At the same time, I doubt if many American readers will be willing to plow through the level of... See more
This is a difficult book to rate. On one level it is an astonishing example of well-polished historical scholarship about a significant actor in centuries old English history. At the same time, I doubt if many American readers will be willing to plow through the level of dense detail knowledgeably presented here by Professor MacCulloch about a now obscure-- but then powerful-- political administrator during the reign of Henry VIII, an erratic ruler and one unlucky in love. (His many loves were even more unlucky.)

Those most likely to enjoy this book are those who are interested in the break with Rome in the 16th century and the establishment of a different way of religious observance within Christianity that ended up as the Church of England. (Along the way, I did learn for the first time the difference between monks and friars.)

For me the book is a poignant reminder why the U.S. Constitution intelligently bans bills of attainder; prevents a system of nobility; and establishes a barrier between church and state.
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William Varner
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A 400 Year Wait Rewarded
Reviewed in the United States on November 22, 2018
This is a major work written by a scholar whom I consider to be the greatest contemporary church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch. You will need determination and deep interest in the subject of early Tudor England to "survive" this in-depth biography of the man I call "the... See more
This is a major work written by a scholar whom I consider to be the greatest contemporary church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch. You will need determination and deep interest in the subject of early Tudor England to "survive" this in-depth biography of the man I call "the unsung hero of the Reformation." Cromwell was no saint, but neither was he the Machiavellian politico as he is often portrayed. This truly evangelical man survived longer than anyone could expect at the highest levels of Henry''s "government", all the while promoting in his own way the Evangelical cause. He also deserves a main chapter in the history of the English Bible.

Should you buy this 700 pages plus tome? You should know that the last 150 pages consist of thousands of densely packed endnotes and bibliography. MacCullough has dug through the mountains of papers and letters that survive from thirty years of Tudor figures like Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer and many others. Be prepared to learn about literally hundreds of players in this real life drama of love, intrigues, power plays, and betrayals. The shadow of Henry and his "Great Matter" (ending his marriage to Katherine) looms over it all.

You will better appreciate how Cromwell''s commitment to "evangelicalism" (preferred to the anachronistic "Protestantism") ever influenced his decisions as he rose to the highest level in the kingdom, even under Henry himself. After his death, the king referred to him as "my most faithful minister."

MacCullough calls Cromwell a "Nicodemite" - not a term of reproach (he applies it also to the young Elizabeth while Mary was ruling). Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John knows that Nicodemus was a quiet follower of Jesus who promoted His cause. You will appreciate how Cromwell''s sympathy with the Zurich branch of the Reformation (Zwingli/Bullinger) was a driving force in all his "political" moves. Cromwell was beheaded in 1540, but the term "martyr" is not appropriate. MacCulloch is an excellent guide through the tragic drama of that treacherous period.

A magnificent book by a truly gifted church historian.
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William F. Mcgrath
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
English is a difficult language...
Reviewed in the United States on November 23, 2018
For the detail-oriented history buff, this book provides endless minutiae, but it comes at a cost. The writing style, to this well-educated Yank, is very difficult to follow. The author is an academic historian, and he writes stilted prose, with no end of long, run-on... See more
For the detail-oriented history buff, this book provides endless minutiae, but it comes at a cost. The writing style, to this well-educated Yank, is very difficult to follow. The author is an academic historian, and he writes stilted prose, with no end of long, run-on sentences and occasional double-negatives. I found myself having to read many sentences several times, trying to figure out what the author was saying. I gave up frequently. Despite these tribulations, the story of Thomas Cromwell is fascinating; the author certainly knows his subject. If you are researching the history of the Tudor dynasty, particularly the reign of Henry VIII, you''ll find a wealth of references - almost a third of the book is devoted to bolstering the description of events and people mentioned in the main text. If you''re looking for a historical novel to read for pleasure, this book is probably not your best choice.
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Joel E. Mitchell
4.0 out of 5 stars
Cromwell in Painstaking Detail
Reviewed in the United States on October 31, 2018
In his exhaustive portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the author focused largely on Cromwell’s overseeing and subtly nudging the English Reformation in an Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) direction. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation was seemingly driven more by lust... See more
In his exhaustive portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the author focused largely on Cromwell’s overseeing and subtly nudging the English Reformation in an Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) direction. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation was seemingly driven more by lust and greed than concern for godly living or doctrinal purity. However, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s thesis is that Cromwell was driven, at least in part, by real (but cautiously concealed) Evangelical leanings.

MacCulloch’s biography is built on an examination of what must have been reams and reams of correspondence and court documents. The whirl of names, titles, legislation, favors granted, animosities provoked, etc. can be a bit dry and confusing, but no one can accuse the author of not being thorough!

Throughout the book, MacCulloch assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of the major events of the Tudor period especially ones relating to Henry VIII’s marriages and relationship with the church. His goal is to describe Cromwell’s role and motivations in this history, not to give an “entry level” summary of it.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically throughout, though the author admits more than once to “blood on his hands.” I can’t help but wonder if in an effort to save him from being portrayed as a monstrous “mustache-twirling villain,” MacCulloch hasn’t gone a little too far in the other direction. Many of Cromwell’s actions (e.g. participation in the destruction of Anne Boleyn) seem to be more about personal vengeance and/or advancement rather than Protestant idealism. Whatever the case, this book filled in some gaps in my understanding of the Tudor period in general and the English Reformation in particular. I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period who appreciates (or at least doesn’t mind) painstaking detail derived from primary sources.
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TH
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Magisterial—But not for the faint of heart
Reviewed in the United States on December 26, 2018
I can authoritatively add little to what several thoughtful reviewers have written. McCullough''s research is as deep and broad as anyone could hope, much less expect. The writing and diction are as at high a level as I’ve read anywhere. One finds many wonderful turns of... See more
I can authoritatively add little to what several thoughtful reviewers have written. McCullough''s research is as deep and broad as anyone could hope, much less expect. The writing and diction are as at high a level as I’ve read anywhere. One finds many wonderful turns of phrase throughout but few memorable or beautiful sentences. T McCullough''s vocabulary is precise, well-honed, a quality I very much admire, though I suspect that many will find themselves resorting to a good dictionary to get a full sense of a given word’s meaning. Certainly, I did.

One reviewer comments difficulty in accessing the endnotes in the printed, bound edition, with which I began. I soon purchased the Kindle edition, primarily because of the printed edition’s ungainliness. Besides resolving that issue, it also deals nicely with the endnote issue, for tapping on the note number brings up the note on the page one is reading, and tapping on the page returns one to the body text.

McCullough and Mantell clearly respect one another, at least given their printed comments regarding the other, and Mantell has expressed admiration for the six-part television adaptation of her novels, Wolf Hall. I am grateful for Mantell’s novels and their adaptation, but McCullough''s excruciatingly detailed account of Cromwell’s actions and strategies provides substantial reason to rethink Mantell’s compelling but romanticized account, not to mention the television adaptation.

On balance, however, McCullough''s book has given me much more insight into the machinations by which Anglican Christianity came about than into the life and character of Cromwell. I do not intend the foregoing to be a criticism of Diarmaid’s magisterial effort but an affirmation of the view that, after all, Cromwell might not be biographable. Indeed, my present sense is that this volume is more an account of a crucial period of British history than the biography of a man.

This book requires dedication and effort. Giving it both is worth the while.
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Howard L Ritter, Jr., M.D.
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Daunting for any but the detail-oriented
Reviewed in the United States on November 24, 2018
In this superb, exhaustive biography, MacCullough offers the reader a wealth of detail that illuminates the events and experiences that informed Thomas Cromwell''s life and personality, but I suspect that there are many readers who have no ambition to become quite so... See more
In this superb, exhaustive biography, MacCullough offers the reader a wealth of detail that illuminates the events and experiences that informed Thomas Cromwell''s life and personality, but I suspect that there are many readers who have no ambition to become quite so wealthy. Its 550 pages (plus 150 pages of footntes) are written in a style that is both generally engaging but just as often densely complex, and just plain dense at around 500 words per page. I''m a fairly experienced reader, but I often found myself having to re-read (and sometimes subvocalize) a sentence in order to clearly grasp its meaning, if not to avoid actually misunderstanding it. Scholars will appreciate the sheer volume of information, but recreational readers like me may go astray following the copious peripheral detail, which often goes frankly tangential. The anachronnistic interweaving of disparate threads per page does not add to the ease of reading. This book hazards becoming the au-courant biography that everyone has on their coffee table but that no one reads...

Martin Gilbert''s magisterial Churchill was of an entirely different order at eight volumes, but I found his single-volume more-than-just-a-condensation version of the original far more readily accessible than this Cromwell, despite the significantly greater length of the former.

In this vein, I would respectfully suggest that condensation and a lightening of sentence construction, subsequently published as a sort of a "Shorter Cromwell", would bring the Lord Privy Seal to a wider audience. Having said that, I feel compelled to state that I''m going to finish it (while re-reading "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies"), regardless of what I would have done otherwise. Unless a condensed version appears soon...
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J. P Spencer
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Fabulous history of the most important years of Henry VIII''s reign
Reviewed in the United States on January 30, 2020
The 1530''s in Tudor England were a fascinating (if bloody - lots of beheadings and burnings) time and at the center of all of it was Thomas Cromwell. Interest in Cromwell has swelled in the wake of Hilary Mantel''s Wolf Hall trilogy and while a serious academic work,... See more
The 1530''s in Tudor England were a fascinating (if bloody - lots of beheadings and burnings) time and at the center of all of it was Thomas Cromwell. Interest in Cromwell has swelled in the wake of Hilary Mantel''s Wolf Hall trilogy and while a serious academic work, MacCulloch''s biography is a great companion to the novels. In fairness, this is less a biography and more of a history of the middle part of Henry VIII''s reign if nor no other reason than that there is little more to go on here that official governmental documents and letters. But from this, MacCulloch has done a masterful job of explaining the complexities of Henry''s disputes with Rome as well as the English Reformation. Moreover, the author, who is both a deacon and a professor of religious history is well placed to explain the structure of the Church in England and how that structure played out in Tudor England. I learned much and enjoyed it thoroughly.
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Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Not likely ever to be equalled.
Reviewed in the United States on January 9, 2019
Monumental achievement in every sense. Total immersion in the man, the millieu against the broader backdrop of the Protestant Revolution. It permitted me the luxury of a graduate seminar that at this stage of my life I would otherwise never get to attend.
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Top reviews from other countries

L. Marriott
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Very Good.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 29, 2018
Got it day of release, took it and read it on a half term holiday in Cyprus. So first thing to say, is it''s a big old tome, you won''t need any sun cream on your chest if you read it by the pool that''s for sure! So, who is it suitable for? It has an academic focus -...See more
Got it day of release, took it and read it on a half term holiday in Cyprus. So first thing to say, is it''s a big old tome, you won''t need any sun cream on your chest if you read it by the pool that''s for sure! So, who is it suitable for? It has an academic focus - consistent engagement with the primary sources, addressing the controversies of the time (e.g., extent to which TC was driven by religious belief or plain opportunism) and because of this, some may find it tougher to get into. Others, and I fall into this camp, will be very pleased. This is not flashy, narrative history, although the story is there, but thoughtful analysis, providing an understanding of the boundaries and limits of our ability to know what actually happened. It is also particularly good on the relationship between Anne Boleyn & TC...debunking the idea that they were allies and showing the complexity of the situation. I think overall, in terms of being for or against TC, it is quite ''warts and all'' (the book can''t resist using this phrase either..) and well balanced. I also liked how it deals with the fact that many readers will have preconceived ideas about TC because of his place in popular culture - specifically because of the Mantel books. It debunks many of the inaccuracies. So, in summary an excellent and well balanced addition to Tudor history.
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John Sheldon
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Good but it is not a biography of Cromwell
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 5, 2018
In many ways, this is an excellent history of Thomas Cromwell''s place in the history of the church and religion in the 1520s and 1530s. It has been meticulously researched and is highly convincing. Admittedly, it is unnecessarily long and contains far too much, rather...See more
In many ways, this is an excellent history of Thomas Cromwell''s place in the history of the church and religion in the 1520s and 1530s. It has been meticulously researched and is highly convincing. Admittedly, it is unnecessarily long and contains far too much, rather boring, detail. But the author has done fine job. The only trouble is that the political and governmental biography of Thomas Cromwell is peripheral to the author''s main interests which is ecclesiastical history. So, each chapter is full of references to Cromwell''s role as an evangelical reformer and the broader picture is quite thin and lost in the never-ending references to religious history. So, in the end, I was disappointed and, in places, somewhat irritated.
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CAROL MCGRATH
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Who was Thomas Cromwell?
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 8, 2018
Who really was this man? I studied him in depth, I thought, when writing a novel ''The Woman in the Shadows'' inspired by his wife and whilst writing this novel I realized by the 1520s Cromwell was most likely a closet evangelical, ambitious and pragmatic. I wish I had read...See more
Who really was this man? I studied him in depth, I thought, when writing a novel ''The Woman in the Shadows'' inspired by his wife and whilst writing this novel I realized by the 1520s Cromwell was most likely a closet evangelical, ambitious and pragmatic. I wish I had read this biography then. It is a considered, exquisitely researched and wonderful biography that shows delightful flashes of dry humour. I am stunned by Diarmaid McCulloch''s investigation which is ''in depth'' and his analysis which is solidly supported and penetrating. All the players that touched Cromwell''s life haunt this book''s pages and are vividly described, both enemies and friends. Historical Biography is very different from recreating these personalities for a novel. Biographies can be dry. This one is not that but it is intellectual and very erudite. Once I appreciated its style I was captivated by it. It certainly ought to win prizes. I am so pleased to have read it. Cromwell is not excused here but he''s explained within the scope of the climbing the greasy pole at the Tudor Court, his work for Thomas Wolsey ( Thomas Wolsey himself is well-analyzed here which is very important if one is to understand in part some of Cromwell''s motivations). We come to see a King who is changeable and obsessed, factions at court and importantly New Learning and an emergent English Reformation. This last, Cromwell''s involvement with evangelicals is important as he becomes less pragmatic and more confident. Eventually, see Cromwell struggling to survive and we understand his ''bad-luck'' after the mistake with the Cleves marriage as well as the hawks in the background waiting to bring him down. Simply Cromwell was human and there are many parts to a man. I was thrilled to see him explained so fully in this superb biography. Even so, Thomas Cromwell remains an enigmatic personality.
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Livfoss
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Interesting but tough
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 28, 2019
I came to this book, like so many others, because of Hilary Mantel''s novels about Cromwell, and also because I''ve seen several television documentaries by Diarmaid MacCulloch, where he is always clear, interesting, humorous, obviously very knowledgeable, and doesn''t talk...See more
I came to this book, like so many others, because of Hilary Mantel''s novels about Cromwell, and also because I''ve seen several television documentaries by Diarmaid MacCulloch, where he is always clear, interesting, humorous, obviously very knowledgeable, and doesn''t talk down to the viewer - one of the very best history presenters on present-day TV. As a consumer of this kind of information, but as someone with no formal historical training, I wanted to find out what Thomas Cromwell was "really like". Well, you certainly learn a lot about Cromwell from this book, which as a non-historian I would say is an evidence-based chronicle of his public life (almost entirely) and his effect on the very turbulent times in which he lived. Clearly MacCulloch knows a tremendous amount about his subject and has gone to the source documents to back up almost all the things he says. It is clear that the book is a major achievement by a serious scholar (and probably for other scholars contains a good deal of revisionist thinking, which of course passed me by completely.) There is a lot (an enormous amount, in fact) of very fine detail, which I personally found very difficult to follow - simply remembering the names and relationships of the enormous cast of characters was for me pretty overwhelming. MacCulloch''s humour is not lacking, though often quite buried, sometimes emerging into the light, as in his discussion of the 10 Commandments; but in the end my ambition to read the book like a novel, where one remembers the plot as the narrative goes on, defeated me. Of course through the book one understands the outline of his career but very many of his activities just get lost in the detail. Perhaps it was silly of me to want to read the book in this way, so I can''t blame MacCulloch for my feeling of inadequacy. Another key problem for me was the context: most of the book is about ecclesiastical shenanigans of one kind and another. It is plain from the book that the church in Britain since the Middle Ages (or even earlier) had become a very complex and very corrupt organisation, with abuses like absentee priests, money moving around in distinctly un-Christian ways, jobs and property being handed out for totally secular reasons, appalling punishments like burning being somehow thought of as being compatible with biblical teaching, actual pastoral care being a low priority for many priests, etc. Although the monasteries disappeared during Cromwell''s time, the church''s enormous spider''s web of privilege, influence and corruption on the whole (it seems) stayed intact. For me, MacCulloch just didn''t go out of his way to explain this monster enough - it was great when he explained friaries, but that was an exception to his general assumption that his reader would understand the lie of the Christian land that Cromwell had to deal with - at least it looked that way to me. Lastly, I was surprised how little was said about ordinary people: MacCulloch shows that Cromwell''s origins were not really as humble as Mantel suggests in her novels: nevertheless Cromwell must have been quite near the bottom of society at some points. We hear about his "servants" for example, but these aren''t his groom, butler and chambermaid, but generally quite posh and well-educated agents and employees - we don''t really see into his household at all, or get much of an idea what his life was like outside the office, as it were. Maybe Mantel just had to make that part up because of the lack of documentary evidence. Anyway, did I find out what Cromwell was really like? I would say dimly, rather than vividly. Perhaps that''s why people read novels. So, my recommendation to non-historians is to read it slowly, make notes, and if you have the time (I don''t think I have, myself), refer to other books which will give you more context about social and church life in sixteenth century Britain.
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Joyce Moss
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCullough
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 16, 2018
This biography of Cromwell puts all others into the shade. This is due to MacCullough''s depth of research and his being able to gather it all together into a picture of a very clever and complex man. He even is able to revise views of Cromwell''s youth and connections by...See more
This biography of Cromwell puts all others into the shade. This is due to MacCullough''s depth of research and his being able to gather it all together into a picture of a very clever and complex man. He even is able to revise views of Cromwell''s youth and connections by painstaking digging in the archives. He is also honest about the limitations of the evidence, since Cromwell''s "intray" was largely destroyed in 1540, as he points out. Its very much "warts and all" but does show Cromwell''s real commitment to the evangelical cause, in a very dangerous time and serving a very dangerous king.
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