The Reverend Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Kt., Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, is that increasingly rare thing in Britain of the early Twenty First Century, a public intellectual. As comfortable in front of a television camera as he is in the lecture hall MacCulloch allies robust scholarship with a lively and engaging style. Importantly he is willing to introduce and discuss challenging historical and theological points head on and not succumb to the temptation to dumb down in order to appeal to an increasingly religionless public. Diarmaid Macculloch is very good at explaining what has happened and how it relates to us today. He is a natural teacher, on and off the screen.
Thomas Cromwell, it might be thought, does not suffer from a lack of attention. He is an historical figure of almost mythical proportions. His influence reaches down to us today in both the physical and political landscape of the country. He has received much attention through the centuries. If that were not enough, Hilary Mantel has brought him alive to us today through Wolf Hall. Disentangling Cromwell the Mantel TV superstar and Cromwell the historical figure must have presented MacCulloch with a considerable challenge. It is one he has risen to.
This is an epic biography. Six years in the researching and writing. Cromwell the monastery destroyer, the framer and destroyer of Thomas More, the protégée of Cardinal Wolsey, the relentless Protestant is a familiar enough figure, but what emerges here is an altogether more sophisticated and subtle practitioner of high politics. Set out for us is how the beginnings of the state as we know it began to emerge, how our national church was fashioned, how former monastic lands were distributed, how he protected the memory and legacy of Wolsey, and more besides. An extraordinary amount of his work survives in the institutions and structures that he influenced.
Like Wolsey, Cromwell worked his way to the top from humble beginnings. It must be to King Henry VIII’s credit that he was open to recognising political and administrative talent and exploited it for his own benefit, regardless of where it was to be found. A professional politician Cromwell was a power operator to his fingerprints. At the height of his career he wielded perhaps more direct power than any modern Prime Minister, but of course when his fall from grace came it was more brutal and final than a modern British leader would suffer.
Cromwell was no mere apparatchik or simple administrator and MacCulloch draws out the breadth and depth of his interests and learning. Capable of course of violence he was also educated, sophisticated and intellectually adroit. This biography provides the fullest portrait of this hugely influential and interesting character. It is sumptuously produced and elegantly written. If you want to improve your understanding of how Britain, and England came to be, and why it is the way it is, reading Diarmaid Macculloch’s Thomas Cromwell – A Life is a very good place to start.