Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life

Written by Diarmaid MacCulloch Reviewed By Kenneth J. Stewart

Lacey Baldwin Smith, the noted historian of Tudor Britain, wrote that explanations of how the Protestant Reformation unfolded in England could be divided in three. First, historians leaning toward Rome customarily attribute the upheaval to the marital escapades of King Henry VIII; the king ended papal jurisdiction in England because the Roman pontiff refused him the annulment he sought. This was not about doctrine but jurisdiction, and so a break with Rome was forced upon a nation which had no Roman quarrel of its own. Second, interpreters highlight earlier movements of dissent –extending back to Wycliffe and the Lollards and continuing into the reign of Henry—as the fertile soil out of which agitation for Reformation sprouted; here pre-existing native aspirations found a window of opportunity provided by Henry’s desperate search for a male heir. Third, others hold that England’s population was increasingly irreligious in the sixteenth century and largely indifferent to whatever religious agenda their monarch decided to pursue.

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s massive Thomas Cromwell is not a book seeking to explain the advance of England’s Reformation, and so it does not conform to any such line of interpretation. The Cromwell volume is rather a very comprehensive study of the rise to power of a man of humble origin who, after European (particularly Italian) mercantile experience, and some legal training, entered the service of the then-chancellor of the England, Thomas Wolsey (also the non-resident archbishop of York and a Roman cardinal). Wolsey was about to fall from royal favor because of his failure to secure for his king the desired papal annulment. Always loyal to his discredited master, Wolsey, Cromwell was nevertheless soon elevated to exercise the powers formerly wielded by the fallen Wolsey. Shortly, Cromwell became King Henry’s “fixer,” adept at introducing the monarch’s legislative agenda into Parliament.

In particular, Cromwell drafted legislation which secured for the king a made-in-England marriage annulment, terminated papal authority in England, set out what was required (an oath) for supporting Henry’s arrogation to himself of the title, “Supreme Head of the Church,” and ensured that the offspring of the second marriage (not the first) would stand in the line of succession.

Central to MacCulloch’s portrayal of Cromwell is the reality that King Henry as “Supreme Head of the Church” proceeded to vest in Cromwell (as Vice-gerent) the functional authority of directing the English Church away from the orbit of Rome into some still-to-be-determined alternative. In Western Europe the only alternative orbit to Rome was represented by the strident Protestantism of Saxony and Switzerland; for these King Henry had very little appetite.

It is at just this point that Lacey Baldwin Smith’s framework proves helpful. King Henry, we can acknowledge, was driven through these changes by a purely personal agenda. His Vice-gerent, however, turns out to have been a man familiar since his youth with remaining Lollardy, who grew to be acquainted with William Tyndale in the 1520s and was a known admirer of Erasmus and his writings. MacCulloch compares the evangelical Cromwell (p. 69) of the 1520s with the Italian evangelicals of that era (the “Spirituali”; pp. 72–73). Though his relationship with King Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was characterized by mistrust (she had helped bring on Wolsey’s downfall), their Protestant sympathies largely overlapped. Cromwell (though not his King) was thoroughly conversant with the English reforming “underground,” a loose-knit movement including clergy, preaching friars, university scholars, bankers, and printers. With such already-present human resources, Cromwell, whom MacCulloch terms “a vigorous impresario” (p. 189), re-oriented increasing swathes of the English Church towards the European Protestant movement as it existed in the 1530s in Saxony, Zurich, and Strassburg.

Wielding a well-nigh unlimited and unregulated discretionary authority, the Vice-gerent advanced first the inspection (and selective closure) of faltering monastic houses, encouraged diplomatic alliances with the German Lutherans and promoted the circulation of the Bible in English. It is surely one of the ironies of this story that by the time the translator, William Tyndale (1494–1536) was captured and executed at Antwerp as the outworking of King Henry’s antipathy toward him, Vice-gerent Cromwell was securing (p. 416) permission from the same King for the circulation of improved versions of Tyndale’s Scripture translation within England.

And yet this unregulated discretionary authority would prove Cromwell’s undoing, for his exercise of authority had made him many enemies in the church hierarchy, nobility, and regions where traditional Catholicism held fast. By 1540, Cromwell was accused of treason and condemned to death; then all influential friends such as Archbishop Cranmer could do was appeal for mercy toward him. Those who succeeded him in office would never be permitted to wield this same unregulated discretionary authority.

Yet, as he met his end, Cromwell left a still-minority Protestant movement within the Church of England much stronger than it had been at his rise to power a decade earlier, in free possession of vernacular Scriptures and (since about 1536) much more oriented to the orbit of Zurich and Heinrich Bullinger than to Lutheran Saxony (p.363). Cromwell had helped to set the stage for bold Protestant advance when at King Henry’s passing in 1547, he was succeeded by the energetically Protestant Edward VI.

In sum, this volume enables those interested in Reformation England to view the period 1520–1540 in much clearer light. Reading MacCulloch’s Cromwell is heavy going. Its 552 pages of text are augmented by 30 pages of bibliography and 150 pages of notes. Like the same author’s companion biography, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), this displays the fruits of the granular consultation of massive surviving contemporary sources: diplomatic, governmental, and personal. It is encouraging to find the then-contemporary chronicler, John Foxe, treated with general respect. Thomas Cromwell is, all in all, a tour de force.

Kenneth J. Stewart

Ken Stewart is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

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