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on 15 February 2013
I've read a decent amount of literature and source material on Cromwell. This book is an adequate if flawed attempt at painting a picture of the man at the centre of Henry VIII's most turbulent period on the English throne.

To his credit, Hutchinson makes a concerted effort to tell Cromwell's story chronologically and based upon what is actually known about the man (i.e. not a great deal). In doing so he creates an entertaining narrative which is largely based on solid source material. At no point during my reading of this book was I bored.

Despite this, the author suffers from the all too common pitfall of the historian; that of bias. Somehow, Hutchinson manages to portray a confused disapproval of Cromwell. At times we see the author at pains to describe Cromwell the private man, whose apparent attempts at humane behind-the-scenes repentance are in direct contradiction with his more formal 'Machiavellian' state dealings, dealings which the author clearly believes were ideologically driven. This confuses the narrative and gives rise to unanswered questions regarding Hutchinson's mild condemnation of Cromwell. At other times (though thankfully rare), Hutchinson's conclusions are not well-founded in source material and verge on conjecture.

The fact that this is an entertaining narrative which reads well goes some way towards compensating for its contradictory pitfalls. The conclusion remains confused, with Cromwell being described as a man who would be at home in a 20th century totalitarian state; this in spite of the author having spent the previous chapter describing Cromwell's final and quite touching testimony.

All in all I wouldn't discourage anybody from buying Hutchinson's book purely for its entertainment value. However, I would advise against taking the authors conclusions too seriously and would point towards other more accomplished works on the topic of Thomas Cromwell for the more serious academic.
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on 24 February 2007
Thomas Cromwell is one of the most important men in both the history of politics and Christianity in this country, and the subject of this year's Booker Prize winning novel, Wolf Hall. I enjoyed this biography but was also irritated by it! While this is a detailed and colourful account of Cromwell's life, with a wealth of quotes from source material, it presents a seriously misguided view of the man. By failing to appreciate how important Cromwell's Christian faith was in making Cromwell who he was, he woefully misunderstands events using a liberal 21st century lens to distort the religious controversy of the day. For example, to describe William Tyndale's opposition of Henry VIII's divorce of Catherine of Aragon as "pompous and priggish" is ridiculous. A detailed examination of Cromwell's relationship with Cranmer and leading reformers is lacking and would have led to an altogether different conclusion. Moreover, to conclude as Hutchinson does that "No doubt Thomas Cromwell would have felt comfortable in the government of a twentieth-century totalitarian state" is extraordinary in the light of the testimony of Cromwell's final days in the previous chapter. It is always a mistake to judge people of a different age by the transient morality of the present day. Hutchinson does that and the fascinating narrative he provides us with is therefore let down at each turn by the conclusions he reaches. By all means read this book - it is certainly entertaining. However read Wolf Hall and John Scofield's biography of Cromwell published last year for a more accurate picture of what Cromwell was like as a man.
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on 12 May 2010
I bought this book with a view to gaining a bit of an insight into 'Henry's most notorious minister' but sadly I felt a bit shortchanged.

To me the book is hazy, sketchy and doesn't really make any discernable point. I wanted an alternative to the common stereotype of Cromwell as a dark villain but I found that a lot of the comment from the author portrayed this man as a one dimensional caricature. My lasting memories of Cromwell, based on this book are that a)he was fat/'corpulent' (this is repeated ad nauseum throughout the book) and that b)he was Henry's 'Henchman' and used brutality to 'crown his power'. Other than that, I can only remember the relish that Hutchinson takes in describing Cromwell's gruesome execution.

In Hutchinson's defense, he does chronicle Cromwell's lifetime on the basis of what is known (i.e not a lot): He chronicles Cromwell's early life through to his demise. As a reader, this journey was quite a protracted, repetitive and monotonous one. I admit to skipping a lot of the content because I couldn't gel with Hutchinson's style: I found it quite tabloid and lacking in substance.

I would say that if you are looking for a book that describes Cromwell's life from cradle to grave then, by all means give it a bash. If you are interested in Cromwell and want to 'read around the subject' then it would serve as a basis of comparison against (arguably) more worthy titles.
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I've read a lot about Thomas Cromwell, I've formed my own opinions and I'm aware that other people won't necessarily share them, For me, Cromwell is without a doubt the marmite of historical figures and you either like him or you hate him, you're entitled to that opionion but; you're not writing this book and, if you were, maybe you'd give people a chance to make up their own minds by presenting the facts in an unbiased fashion. Hutchinson hasn't done that, he's obviously enthralled by his subject, aren't we all, but he takes a lot of liberties throughout this text. We will only ever know what Cromwell did, we will never know what he was thinking, or how he was feeling, when he did it. There's no doubt Cromwell was a master politician; violent, greedy, avaricious, wonderfully cunning and seemingly possessed of no conscience, he was the perfect support act for that giant of a monarch Henry VIII and Hutchinson presents him in this way, but there's too much assumption. I'm probably the only person in the Country who loathed Wolf Hall because of it's feeble attempts to get inside the mind of this man, Hutchinson has had a better stab at it but; although this is a decent book and it does recount a lot of historical fact accurately, it just misses the beat for me and relies too heavily on how Hutchinson believes Cromwell would have been, rather than on the facts.
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on 30 December 2009
Full of personal colour reflecting the author's perspective as a 21st century 'liberal', this books fails utterly to place Cromwell's actions and methods in the context of Tudor sensibilities. This is disappointing given the quite extensive source material he clearly had access to. Hutchinson is quick to damn individualsand demonstrate his personal 'taking of sides' rather than the measured historical viewpoint I expect from a scholar. The book does not dig nearly deep enough into what the various players were doing and why. The Tudor period was one of massive change in social, religious and political life un the England. This sense of revolution and upheaval - and the way in which it was shaped by the towering personalities of the day - is completely lacking in this portrait of Cromwell. By our standards, yes he was a pretty venal, vicious, vindictive and cruel man. But then so was every other leading political figure of the day. Given that so much of Cromwell's legacy outlived the man, this surely deserves better credit than he is given here.

To be honest, this book failed to both entertain or to enlighten.
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on 19 May 2016
Who was he and where did he come from? These are key questions we ask about modern state-builders like Hitler and Stalin. Shouldn’t we be asking the same sort of questions about early modern state builders like Cromwell? Hutchinson has no difficulty in using words like Stalinist and totalitarian to describe Cromwell’s Machiavellian statecraft during the reign of Henry VIII but fails to answer the two key questions to which readers of historical biographies really deserve answers.

Before his meteoric rise to power in England, Cromwell worked for the Frescobaldi bank in Florence. Hutchinson mentions that he may well have worked for a Venetian banker as well, before finding work in a merchant house in Antwerp. Undoubtedly, all three cities were key European financial centres in the early modern period where Cromwell would have learned the unique role that financial power plays in the achievement and maintenance of political power. Certainly, he was ready to implement such ideas by the time he returned to England. By then he was plotting a path to political power and influence through usury and the law. Cromwell also used his financial and legal acumen to snap up the possessions of nobles who had been attainted for treason, like the Duke of Buckingham in 1521. These financial extortions from the nobility had been the stock-in-trade of previous Tudor statesmen, like Sir Reynold Bray, who had masterminded many of the expropriations that occurred under Henry VII’s regime. Hutchinson connects Cromwell’s career to the example set by Wolsey. The cardinal had sponsored Cromwell’s political career by securing him a Parliamentary seat in the first place. What both men seem to have brought back from Italy was a solid understanding of how financial domination begat political domination. Their master, the king, like them, would have been familiar with Machiavelli’s ideas wherein money and power are the basis of all political life:

to obtain power it is essential to ignore the moral laws of man and of God; that promises must be made only with the intention to deceive and to mislead others to sacrifice their own interests; that the most brutal atrocity must be committed as a matter of mere convenience; that friends or allies must be betrayed as matter of course as soon as they have served their purpose. But, it is also decreed that these atrocities must be kept hidden from the common people except only where they are of use to strike terror to the hearts of opponents; that there must be kept up a spurious aspect of benevolence and benefit for the greater number of the people, and even an aspect of humility to gain as much help as possible.
It is held that the vast mass of the people are oblivious and gullible, and therefore will believe a lie which is repeated again and again, regardless of how obvious may be the fundamental facts to the contrary.
Matters should be so ordered that when men no longer believe of their own accord, they may be compelled to and therefore by force.
p76
Chapter VI of "The Prince" by Machiavelli

Hutchinson is quite right to link Cromwell with modern dictators like Hitler and Stalin. They shared the same totalitarian agenda and used the same Machiavellian resort to force to carry it through. Hutchinson shows clearly how Cromwell used the reformation legislation to create a brutally authoritarian national security state in which men’s consciences counted for nought. All were to bow before the king’s own doctrine of infallibility-it was called the Royal Supremacy. Those like the Carthusians, who implacably refused to acknowledge the king’s religious supremacy, suffered cruel deaths that struck terror into the whole population. Though Hutchinson vividly captures the sense of fear that must have pervaded men’s hearts during this period of acute trauma in English history, he doesn’t seem to register the shock and awe doctrine at the heart of Cromwell’s Machiavellian statecraft. The revolution from above he pushed through abrogated extraordinary spiritual power to a lay prince. Lingard, writing in 1825, put it succinctly: the spiritual supremacy of a lay prince was so repugnant to the notions to which men and been habituated that it was everywhere received with doubt and astonishment.
Naturally this doubt and astonishment was shared by potential enemies abroad, particularly Catholic Spain. As Henry’s paranoia about an impending attack increased, Cromwell sought an alliance with the Protestant German princes. The means by which he sought to bring about this alliance turned into the Cleves debacle that gave his enemies, Norfolk and Gardiner, the chance to take out their detested adversary once and for all. Cromwell didn’t suffer the agonies of torture and disembowelment he had used during the period of political terror that helped birth his confessional state. He must, however, have wondered how the king came to dispose of him with such alacrity. Perhaps on the scaffold Cromwell came to realise that the king had read Machiavelli more carefully than he had!
From the king’s point of view, Cromwell had outlived his usefulness. The reformation and national security measures that defined opposition as treason were on the statute book. Moreover, the massive wealth and property the Crown expropriated through dissolution of the monasteries was used to cement the loyalty of key noble families to the new Tudor state. Such families, like the Cecils who are still with us today, had come to see their wealth and power as guaranteed in perpetuity, as long as they demonstrated complete loyalty to the Tudor national state Cromwell had done so much to create.
Hutchinson’s book contains a wealth of source materials which he has used to sustain a refreshingly racy narrative. The comparison he makes implicitly between Cromwell and modern dictators is wholly apt. However, I am not convinced that Hutchinson is wholly aware of the fact that the top-down system of elite management Cromwell brought into being during the reformation is still very much with us today.
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on 9 February 2013
Rather disappointed by this work. From this biography it appears that whatever Thomas Cromwell did, it was done for venal reasons. If he helped someone it was for personal gain, if he didn't then that too was for personal gain, or spite. I'm remminded of the old saying that "Nothing can be cut so thin it has but one side" in the case of this book Robert Hutchinson has had a darned good try.
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on 24 January 2013
Henry's Tudor court is a topic close to my heart.
This book is well written and very informative.
It's back on the book shelf waiting to be read again...!
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on 11 July 2009
Interesting to read more about the man in the background during this incredible period of English history, but found the author's style, to be honest, quite smug. Also, too many 'maybe's, 'probably's and what people were thinking etc. I enjoyed it but some of it irritated me!
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on 21 February 2015
This biography gives a competent overall view of Cromwells life. Its easy to read and of acceptable quality with regard to detail and research. I will however recommend tracy bormans biography of Cromwell as that book has greater amount of detail and research.
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