Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor Court have had something of a resurgence in popular culture. While Showtime’s melodramatic “The Tudors” focused on Henry VIII and his six wives, Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies dramatized the political rise of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Tracy Borman’s vivid new biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, is a timely addition to histories of the era.
Cromwell was born a commoner and rose to power through a blend of native intelligence and dogged workaholism. This aspect of Cromwell is what we see in Mantel’s novels, rendering him a sympathetic figure. The importance of Borman’s biography of Cromwell is that she creates a more balanced portrait of a contradictory and ruthless man.
Borman, who is chief curator of Britain’s royal palaces, blends the private and the public Cromwell, so we glimpse his personal generosity (he was always kind to widows and orphans) as well as his single-minded Machiavellian statesmanship. Torture and executions were tools for Cromwell to maintain his importance to the king, but they were tools that could also be turned against him.
Thomas Cromwell is a readable portrait of a complex man and the violent history he made.