Book Review – ‘Thomas Cromwell’ by Tracy Borman


Tracy Borman 'Thomas Cromwell'
Tracy Borman ‘Thomas Cromwell’

Tracy Borman, Thomas Cromwell: the Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) Hardback, ISBN 978-1-444-78285-1

Title: The title is pretty much what it says – a historical biography of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s servant, and the one that always managed to do what Henry wanted. Even when he was imprisoned at the end of his life, it was his evidence that enabled Henry to annul the Cleves marriage. He succeeded where Wolsey failed. Untold? You’ll have to read it to see what you think.

Preface: The preface includes a discussion of the influence of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on the perception of Thomas Cromwell. This drives the need for a rehabilitation of Cromwell, not just seeing him as a villain. There is also a discussion of the popular Holbein portrait as a prelude to introducing the key sources. Key aspects of Cromwell’s character are also brought into play – pragmatism, loving husband and father, measured and ruthless.

Citations: There are clear citations throughout the text with links to the endnotes at the back of the book. There is plenty of information given within the endnotes – sometimes similar sources where you might find contrasting or supporting information, with all details so it is easy to track down. Endnotes are also divided down by chapter to make it even easier to find the section you want.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

Contents: It is a clever idea to give the chapter titles early modern language from surviving sources – but the link between the title of the chapter and the contents of the chapter isn’t always made clear from the beginning. Nevertheless, it is a well-organised book, and I like the fact that the chapters aren’t too long.

Genre/Audience: It is my opinion that this book is aimed more at a scholarly audience than a popular audience as there is a lot of source discussion, aimed more at historians than those merely interested in Cromwell’s life, or reading about him for the first time. It assumes you have at least a general background knowledge of the period. It combines the fields of history, biography and politics.

Concepts: The book looks at the key parts of Cromwell’s life – his time in Wolsey’s household, the great matter and his role in resolving it, the fall of Anne Boleyn, the dissolution of the monasteries and his fall from grace. However, some descriptions that are merely the author’s opinion are not always obviously so. There are also lots of personal judgements – you don’t tend to be in doubt as to who Borman likes and dislikes.

Sources: There was a very good selection of both primary and secondary sources, and a comprehensive bibliography – included sections on printed primary sources, archival, books and articles. There were also lots of survey texts listed, which Borman obviously used to give the background to Cromwell’s London. Borman also appears to have made good use of the existing biographies on Thomas Cromwell.

Tracy Borman
Tracy Borman

Illustrations: I loved the inclusion at the beginning of the book of basic maps to show key locations in Cromwell’s life, particularly the locations of his houses compared to those of the royal court. Overall, there is a good selection, largely in colour, including illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, portraits, places, primary sources like letters, and some religious images, too.

Other works: Other works on Thomas Cromwell include Thomas Cromwell: the Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister by Robert Hutchinson and Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII by David Loades. Other works by Tracy Borman include Elizabeth’s Women: the Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror, Witches: a Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction, and, due to be published in 2016, The Private Life of the Tudors.

My Rating: 17/20

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