Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant by Tracy Borman, book review: Grippingly well written


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May 1, 1536 was Henry VIII’s grand May Day Tournament at Greenwich Palace.

Anne Boleyn was resplendent as Queen. Midway through, the King surprised everyone by leaving for Westminster. The court knew something was afoot – and it was. On the following day, the Queen was arrested, along with her brother and four courtiers. Just over a fortnight later, she was beheaded for treason against the King. As Tracy Borman shows in this excellent, scrupulous biography, Anne’s shockingly fast fall from grace was largely engineered by Thomas Cromwell, a rather plain and overweight Putney-born man in his fifties whose intelligence and daring had made him the king’s closest advisor. “Cromwell rules all”, noted one commentator, in the following month.

HilaryMantel’s crafting of Cromwell in her bestselling novels has been a triumph: sensitive, intellectual, brutal, strong. But how different was the real man? Now, Borman has scoured the sources to explore the life and personality of the man who in effect created the break from the Church of Rome and her book is an impressive investigation into one of our most elusive characters in history.

Cromwell was effective and disciplined but his great opportunity came with the ‘King’s Great Matter’ – or his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon. “All such men shall first resort unto you to know the king my father’s pleasure,” said Princess Mary in May 1530.

Cromwell seized the chance to break from Rome and pursue his own advantage – and that of the King. Both men grew very rich in the process.

Cromwell was all powerful – but the court of Henry VIII was a terrifying place. He too, would fall – largely for arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. As Borman suggests, he was probably housed before his execution in the same apartments in the Tower where Anne Boleyn lived out her last days – a fitting reward. This deeply researched and grippingly written biography brings Cromwell to life, probing into his complex personality and exposes the Henrician court in all its brutal, glittering splendour.