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.