22 February 2015

"Thomas Cromwell"

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Subtitled, "The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant", Tracy Borman's biography of an extremely important but lesser-known minister of England's King Henry VIII was a Christmas gift from Jeremy. Cromwell, who ultimately lost his head to Henry VIII's growing paranoia, was the several-generations great uncle of Oliver Cromwell who a little over a century later was to preside over the execution of Charles I, himself a collateral relative of the great King Henry. That, of course, doesn't explain Thomas Cromwell's significance.

Quoting from Borman's epilogue is perhaps the simplest way of summarizing the who and the what of Thomas Cromwell:
One of the most brilliant legal minds of the age, Cromwell turned his hand to a host of businesses--all with dazzling success. ... During his meteoric rise to power, he masterminded some of the most seismic developments of the Tudor age: from the king's "great Matter" [the divorce from Catherine of Aragon] to the royal supremacy [over the Church of England], and from the "revolution" in government [rationalizing central power] to the transformation of religious life [from traditional Catholicism to the cusp of Protestantism]. In so doing, he changed the face of England for ever.
In particular, with regard to religious matters, Cromwell oversaw the destruction of England's monasteries and ensured that every church held a copy of the English Bible. Politically, he turned Parliament from an occasional consultative body into a regularly meeting source of law (albeit for the next 80 years still at the king's direction).

Borman provides a convincing account of how a common-born son of a blacksmith achieved so much. The book reads almost like a novel but Borman has an encyclopedic acquaintance with the events, characters, legal texts, and correspondence so that one is left with the definite sense that she's left nothing to uniformed imagination. And, unlike many American historians, Borman is not tone-deaf when it comes to matters of religion. She conveys an understanding of what the early Protestant faith of England was like and does not reduce it--or Cromwell's inconsistent expressions of it--to a mask for some "deeper" truth grounded only in material forces.

I could have stood more details about Cromwell's legal work and the details of his legislative reforms. Borman was, however, almost certainly correct to leave them out of this popular account. For those interested in some of them, especially as they pertain to the development of the law of contract in early modern England, might wish to download my article, The Puritan Revolution and the Law of Contracts.

In sum, a fine book that filled in many gaps in my knowledge of the life-and-death politics Henrican England. Thanks, Jeremy.

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