on 29 October 2008
At last a book to make people question the commonly held view of Cromwell as Henry VIII's evil minister who got what he deserved when he was executed. Schofield restores Cromwell's reputation using a painstaking study of material from Tudor times to show how flawed the current view of the man is. Crucially, Schofield bases much of his work and understanding from the religious turmoil of the time. By understanding where Cromwell stood in the religious divide of the day Schofield provides a much sounder interpretation of events than other recent works including Robert Hutchinson's badly flawed but entertaining biography of the man. So why not 5 stars? The reason for that is perhaps Schofield sometimes goes too far in his enthusiasm to defend Cromwell from all charges. For example, the anaylsis of Cromwell's part in Anne Boleyn's downfall is fascinating but feels as though it has been forced too far to totally undermine the traditional view that Cromwell is the villain of the piece. The other reservation is that the editing of the book could have been better, not least when you compare the sub-standard reproductions of paintings compared with those in Hutchinson's inferior biography. All in all though this is a much needed and excellent work. Any one who reads it will be the better for understanding more about one of the leading religious and political figures in English history.
on 5 August 2009
How I wish more history books were like this. It's a model for what they should be: intelligent, analytical and completely cool-headed and dispassionate. Schofield engages with the reader, pausing to explain why he has reached his conclusions and why, based on the available evidence, he believes they are correct. Never does he use emotive language or melodramatic, creative ways of telling history, which sound good but leave the reader wondering how much of what they're reading is history and how much good storytelling. It's his very reticence, his need to weigh the evidence and carefully justify every important conclusion, that gives the book its authoritativeness.
Cromwell's career is also told chronologically, unlike those historical works that, for reasons best known to their authors, jump back and forth with no apparent logic, and leave the reader confused and frustrated. Unlike those works, The Rise And Fall of Thomas Cromwell has made me actually eager to read other works by the same author.
At least one of Schofield's conclusions is, however, seriously contentious: he is willing to entertain the possibility that Anne Boleyn might really have been guilty of more than just dalliance with the `lovers' with whom she was condemned, since they and others in her circle made confessions. However, he makes a pretty convincing case that Henry VIII made the decision to annul their marriage over a week before several people informed on her, and that the machinery to divorce her had already been set in motion before they did. Isn't it possible that, knowing of her impending downfall, these people sought to disassociate themselves and ensure their own survival, by providing evidence against her? Though to provide some justification for Schofield's theory, this evidence did compromise themselves. Whatever the case, this unconventional theory wasn't enough to spoil the book for me.
Five out of five. Regardless of whether I agreed with them, the reasons for Schofield's conclusions were given with exhaustive detail; never once did I have the sinking feeling that I was reading a second-rate work of history, which sought to dismiss existing beliefs about a controversial historical figure without bothering to provide a convincing reason for their dismissal.
If you have become interested in Thomas Cromwell through reading Hilary Mantel's recent novels or watching The Tudors on television and are looking for a serious historical biography of this fascinating historical character, then John Schofield's book is worthy of very serious consideration albeit with some provisos. On the positive side, this book is well researched (some of the chapters are based on the author's PhD thesis), written in authoritative, but always highly readable prose, it is well organized into chapters which whilst focusing on themes such as Cromwell's foreign and economic policies, his relationship with the Royal Women and religious outlook yet retain a clear chronology throughout. However, before you buy this book particularly if you are a serious student of history you need to be aware of a couple of key points. Firstly Schofield has almost nothing to say about Cromwell's life before 1527 and little more about his time in the legal profession up to 1531-no doubt this is largely due to the paucity of sources but it does mean this is not really a biography at all, but the story of a decade in Royal service. More importantly, Schofield sees an urgent need to reassess the career of Cromwell seeing nearly all previous work as hostile and creating a bloodthirsty stereotype out of what the author sees as a distinguished career. It is to Schofield's credit that very often his argument convinces with for example the economic and foreign policies of Cromwell emerging as coherent, well argued and skillfully executed. The problem is in seeking to readdress the balance, the book casts Cromwell as a statesman who hardly ever puts a foot wrong even when his strategy suffers reverses as over the Anne of Cleves Marriage debacle or the passing of the Six Articles in 1539. Similarly, he is keen to depict Cromwell as the driving force behind the Reformation in England, but he cannot really demonstrate where his passionate Protestantism came from or why he was so indifferent and even supportive of Anne Boleyn's fall in 1536 and her replacement by a Queen of Catholic views. Schofield's response is to argue Anne Boleyn was not that much of a Protestant anyway and that Cromwell had decided nothing could, or should, be done to save her. I fnnd this unconvincing as will others, although those who support G.W Bernard's view of Anne may find this plausible. My point is that this is a stimulating volume on a crucial figure in British history, but it needs to be read as does all Tudor history in conjunction with other sources in order to achieve a balanced understanding of the man and the issues he was involved with. With these caveats in mind, recommended.
This is an excellent, well-researched and astutely written account of his life and one which adds many dimensions to the commonly held view of Cromwell as the Machiavellian presence in Henry's court; rather than present him as the one-dimensional, evil lawyer, Schofield writes about a man and one who seems to have been humane, sensitive and interesting. Recommended.
With thirty-three pages of notes, ten pages in both the bibliography and index, this five hundred page book is a scholarly text written by a very thorough researcher whose prose makes this a fascinating, chronological page-turner - not always the case with history texts, unless they are written by Simon Schama, David Starkey or Bettany Hughes.
John Schofield's subject, Thomas Cromwell, is not a well-known figure to most people and, for many from the general public who do know of him, it is possible they know him only through Robert Bolt's play and screenplay, "A Man for All Seasons", his myopic life of Sir Thomas More. In theatrical terms, it is definitely one of my favourite plays, but historically, it is not as accurate as it could have been. Played in the film by the late great Leo McKern, Thomas Cromwell emerges as the dark and shadowy figure who frequents the ale-houses to seduce the naives like Richard Rich and who devices the "legal" framework used to trap Thomas More. According to Schofield, it was not as simple as this with Henry playing a much stronger and very decisive role in all levels of decision-making.
Schofield depicts a powerful man who rose slowly in Henry's favour and, at the height of his powers, he was the most powerful man in England, with the exception of the King and here Schofield creates an interesting and unsurprising picture of Henry: "So the imposing title of Vicegerent, and the theoretically sweeping powers accompanying it, could be just a little misleading, because without Henry's approval there was not a great deal Cromwell could safely do." (P 334)
Cromwell was well-educated, despite his early upbringing which was poor in every sense; he was fluent in Italian, Latin and Greek, well-read and a lover and patron of the arts, e.g. it was Cromwell who sponsored Hans Holbien throughout his career. He loved history and was a great friend of Edward Hall, the leading Tudor historian and poetry, a close friend of Thomas Wyatt. Schofield is expansive in his assessment of Cromwell's interests (other than affairs of state) in "Patron and Persona".
Schofield's assessment of Anne Boleyn's rise and demise is fascinating, with detailed insights into Henry's mind and the thinking at the time, e.g. on 27th April 1535, it was more likely that Anne would have been "dismissed" in a similar way to Catherine rather than "destroyed" - "Most writers on Anne and Henry have simply assumed that in order to be rid of Anne and marry Jane, Henry had no alternative but to commit and act of judicial murder. This is the utterly wrong-headed assumption that spawns the many conspiracy theories surrounding Anne Boleyn, and the vilest of crimes and motives are liberally imputed to Henry, Cromwell or some other councillor." (P 191) Until the visit of the three unknown informers around 29th April, Henry was still intending to proceed with his royal tour of the south coast. By the 1st May, rapid change had taken over the court and, as Schofield puts it, "Around the Throne, the Thunder Rolls". Cromwell's role was always subservient to Henry who "was the one in overall control, and quite understandably in such a momentous case, he ordered his most distinguished councillors - Cromwell, Cranmer and Audley - to deal with various aspects of it." (P 203)
Much of Schofield's evidence stems from documents written by Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador and others in ambassadorial roles but he is not blind to their self-interests. Schofield dismisses any often made comparison with Machiavelli and, in the chapter entitled "The Widow's Helper", there is the other side to the high office and affairs of state, i.e. the daily grind of the civil servant (see pages 270-278).
Cromwell's role in the religious turmoil of the times is also interesting and rather than dissolve the monasteries, Schofield argues strongly that Cromwell's wish and intention was to reform, thereby ensuring the wealth would continue to flow into the treasury making the King - his master to whom he was deeply loyal - the wealthiest monarch in Europe, rather than the one-off enrichment which did happen. Cromwell's activities in making the Bible widely available in English is dealt with in great detail too. Contingent on one's religious persuasion, Cromwell will appear differently, e.g. he was described to me recently as "that evil man"; others will view him as someone who followed his conscience and enriched the religion of our country.
Whatever one's views, Schofield has written a fascinating, detailed and thorough history of a complex man who, for many years, held high office and managed to keep his head while others did not, literally and metaphorically in a time of great constitutional and spiritual change. In all his roles, the man he creates, reads like a rounded person who was admired and liked by many, although obviously hated by others, tough, devious when necessary and willing to serve a mercurial monarch. "Rarely during the reformation can Protestants and Papists be found paying each other compliments, but we have seen Catherine of Aragon, Princess Mary, Thomas More and his wife, Alice, all thanking Cromwell for his personal kindness and consideration. There may a single word to describe such a man - but Machiavellian will hardly do." (P 303)
I am sure readers will not agree with everything Schofield writes, but he provides - without hints of bias - a great deal of persuasive and interesting material for the readers' careful consideration, as well as a text book example of how to research and write a history book.
on 30 December 2009
Excellent, a well researched book that gave a balanced picture of the man behind the political personna. Immensely readable I found this book fascinating as the character of Thomas Cromwell unfolds and he is revealed as a man with enormous political skill as well as being a very humane person. I thoroughly recommend this book. It must list as one of those people from history that one would like to have known or in modern parlance have as a dinner guest.
on 7 July 2012
I loved this book - neither an academic nor historian I can only endorse the other 4 and 5 star reviewers, so I wanted to add a lay person's view. I bought the book after being completely hooked by Wolf Hall; I wanted to find out more about Cromwell and was not disappointed. I completed the book astonished that a man's achievements could be so overlooked - he should be a hero and yet (along with Richard III) is widely regarded as one of English history's arch villains. The book's only failure was the failure to explain how these miscarriages of justice happen and why it takes 400 years and a scholar of Schofield's stature and perseverence to uncover the truth - it's not like we're short of experts on the Tudors.
I was a huge fan of this book! I've read hundreds of historic non-fiction but never really any on the Tudor ministers (Cromwell, More, William & Robert Cecil, Walsingham etc) but, having read Hilary Mantel's first two books on Thomas Cromwell I just felt I had to try and find out a bit more about him.
I'd always heard the usual history of him - portrayed as a very dark Machiavellian character - pulling the strings and manipulating people and events for his own purposes. Schofield's biography paints a very different picture of him. Yes sometimes he is caught up with events and has to make some harsh decisions but, it would appear from Schofield's biog, that he always had Henry's and England's best interests at heart - and why wouldn't he? Would he really bite the hand that fed him?
His relationships with Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as well as the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth are also provided here with a lot less bias and thoughtful analysis than most biographers in the past. What emerges is a far more human Thomas Cromwell with a good heart as well as a good brain.
Excellent stuff and thought provoking.
The late Professor G R Elton rejected the picture of Cromwell as 'the prime instigator and enforcer of harsh Tudor treason laws; (and) a ruthless, sinister, unsmiling Machiavellian who cynically cut down Anne Boleyn and all others who dared oppose him'. Cromwell was born in Putney the son of a poor blacksmith whose wife remarried a shearman. By his own admission he was a ruffian in his younger days during which he travelled throughout Europe as a soldier, then became an accountant. Despite having no formal education he became fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Latin and Greek and on his return to England became a lawyer. He journeyed to Rome to renew two papal pardons for the town of Boston. Combining his legal and commercial interests he became part of Wolsey's household and within three years was appointed to his council. In 1523 he became a Member of Parliament in which he spoke against Henry V111's plans to invade France drawing attention to the limitations of the logistics, suggesting the king would be better advised to invade Scotland France's traditional ally. The speech revealed 'a dry worldly-wise sense of humour and a judgement of mankind and human affairs that is mature and realistic but neither contemptuous not cynical.' Cromwell had a reputation for making money and being generous with it. His main role under Wolsey was the administration of the Cardinal's colleges. In religious terms he was a Catholic humanist gradually becoming disillusioned with abuses in the Church.
King Henry was convinced he had transgressed in marrying his dead brother's wife Catherine of Aragon. He applied for an annulment which, according to Professor Scarisbrick, was permissible under Canon Law but Catherine's nephew, the Emperor Charles V, held the Pope captive and prevented the annulment from being considered. Henry took matters into his own hands, banished Catherine from court and moved Anne Boleyn into her her old rooms. While Wolsey was dealing with 'The King's Great Matter' Cromwell continued his normal business affairs despite the loss of his wife and two daughters to illness in 1528 which, together with the removal of Wolsey from office, left him vulnerable to intrigue by the anti-Wolsey faction at court. Elected to Parliament a second time he was obliged to pander to the Boleyns (largely at Wolsey's request) but after joining the King's administrative staff steered clear of factions. Cromwell's promotion to Henry's Principal Secretary was not sudden but was earned by 'the old-fashioned, unglamorous virtues of hard work and ability'.
During 1531 Henry softened his line towards Lutherans who he had previously denounced as heretics. Lord Chancellor Thomas More was ' was rampaging violently against Luther's English admirers' executing Protestants and listing Lutheran books as heretical. Although interested in Lutheran theology Cromwell kept his own counsel while advising Henry on the wisdom of establishing good relations with both Catholic and Protestant states. The break with Rome in 1532-3 was not attributable to Cromwell. In 1485 the Lord Chief Justice had stated the king was accountable directly to God. Similarly, Cromwell had no influence on Henry's decision to divorce Catherine. 'The nationalist, independent anti-papal climate pre-dated Cromwell's rise to power'. While Cromwell may have drafted anti-papal legislation it was the king himself who forced the legislation through declaring the pope had 'no power over him'. Schofield concludes, 'The English schism was the outcome of Henry's love affair, his goal of supreme power at home and of contemporary European power politics. It was not primarily due to Cromwellian ambitions or machinations'.
The execution of the Maid of Kent by means of an Act of Parliament was not Cromwell's doing although he was ordered to prepare the indictment. Cromwell re-directed the wealth of the Church into the king's coffers for the benefit of the king not Cromwell. While he supported what the king did, the prime mover throughout was the king himself, not least because of the absence of a male heir to throne. Neither is there any evidence that Cromwell plotted the downfall of More. Indeed, he advised More to consider the consequences of resisting the king and similarly advised Fisher
to throw himself on the king's mercy. Cromwell and Cranmer tried to bring a peaceful solution between the king and Catholics opposed to him but without success. It was Rome's decision to make Fisher a cardinal which led to his execution and Cromwell's 'unenviable task of having to explain and to try and justify the executions to foreign courts'.
Catherine of Aragon regarded Cromwell as a friend, Anne Boleyn hated him because he had served under Wolsey and she wanted the money from the monastic dissolution to go to her. 'Cromwell was Henry's appointment, not Anne's'. Cromwell, pragmatic rather than dogmatic, admitted 'it is not in mine, nor any man's power to persuade the king'. It was Henry who tired of Anne not Cromwell who tried to get rid of her.. When Anne miscarried Henry took it as a sign of divine disfavour. The idea that Anne's downfall was the result of a conspiracy headed by Cromwell is nonsense. The driving force behind the fall of Anne was the king himself, the perpetrators were the Seymour party. There is evidence Anne was unfaithful to Henry, though the extent was exaggerated, but such evidence came from within the Boleyn party not Cromwell. Anne was executed, her place taken by Jane Seymour who gave the king the male heir he wanted but died shortly afterwards. Apparently the king did not see this as divine disfavour.
Anne of Cleves was one of several potential queens for Henry, it was Cromwell's misfortune to have suggested one to whom Henry took an instant dislike. 'Henry needed a love match and he did not find one with Anne'. Thanks to the machinations of traditionalists at court Cromwell paid the price, a decision Henry later regretted. An excellent well balanced discussion based on impeccable contemporary sources and assessment of later interpretations. Five stars.
on 4 October 2015
It is a delight to read this historian. Schofield really is a historian: he never plays the primitive 'I'll tell you the facts' line. A true scholar, he lays out his evidence meticulously, and submits his conclusions to rigorous discussion. The reader leaves this work well satisfied by Schofield's cleansing of Thomas Cromwell's image of the besmirching it has suffered at the hands of 'hearsay' writers who have never bothered to consult the primary and circumstantial evidence (of which there is plenty, as Schofield demonstrates) from which Thomas Cromwell's personality, deeds and principles can be reconstructed reliably.
Necessarily, Henry VIII also emerges in high relief in this discourse, and he, too, is cleansed, both of the unqualified 'magnificent Renaissance Prince' myth and the equally fantastical 'depraved and diseased lecher' one. Schofield leaves us contemplating the capricious, despotic monarch who allowed the judicial murder of his brilliant, faithful servant Thomas Cromwell (on the face of it for traitorous heresy, but actually because the 50-year-old monarch was enraged when he learned that Cromwell is not minded to facilitate his marriage to the 19-year-old Cathrine Howard who had caught his delusional, romantic eye), and now is watching the descent of his country into war and financial disaster, the curse upon him uttered by his once-admired and admiring theologian Philip Melanchthon ringing in his ears.
Having read this superb work, I have some grasp of the conditions in England, from the 1500s onward, that made the rise of the ghastly Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans pretty much inevitable.
on 25 January 2014
Following the Hilary Mantel novels I wanted to read a more detailed account of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell. This is a very well-researched and annotated book that provides an erudite and even-handed account of the immense contribution that Cromwell made to the life and governance of England during the reign of Henry VIII, and his parallel role in attempting to secure the future of the Reformation. In addition to the detailed chronology, well supported by references, it provides a sophisticated analysis of the pros and cons of the Cromwell background, his facility in statecraft and diplomacy in pursuit of stability, his loyal support and advice to the King, his able management of Parliament and the finances of the realm, and his dealings with the many citizens who sought his aid under his various roles and responsibilities. It provides an evidential approach to the problem of challenging previously-held views by some less exacting historians about the severity of the role of Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries, and it casts him as a very subtle long-thinking operator in support of the theological developments inspired by Luther and other leaders of the Reformation. It also highlights his personal financial contribution to the placement of a Bible in every parish church in England. Finally, come the sudden fall of Cromwell at the hands of a King who had been persuaded to put prejudice before common sense and reason, we see the brave way in which Cromwell did not trim or recant, but took it on the chin, and went to the scaffold retaining his own beliefs and intellectual loyalties intact. I am not widely read in history at this level of detail, but the book makes me want to read more, because it not only conveys a vivid portrait of the times, but it also teaches that these times were redolent with skilful people of immense determination, who would have done well in any age, not least our own. Indeed it makes some of our own claimants to fame in the celebrity age seem somewhat shoddy by comparison. John Schofield is to be congratulated for producing a reasoned and scholarly account that will, I believe, stand up to the most exacting scrutiny by experts far more knowledgeable about these matter than I.