This is also a masterpiece of documentary detective-work, which buzzes with the excitement of a great historian immersed in archives, interrogating not only the thousands of papers Cromwell left behind, but also the gaps left by a (presumed) shredding of evidence as Cromwell’s partisans sought to save him from the king’s wrath at the end.
Instead this is careful stuff, evidenced to the hilt - there are some 150 pages of notes, bibliography and index alone. When MacCulloch makes statements about his players' characters, he is more likely to be talking about their handwriting than anything else, and his reliance on original documents rather than modern commentators or edited editions is absolute. And though his preference for the rather modest formula 'A Life' gestures to a sense that he knows that this is unlikely to be the final word on Cromwell, it is hard to see how it could be surpassed.
...MacCulloch brings intimate knowledge of the reformation’s cross-currents, and rare patience for the niggling details on which the future of an entire continent hung. In other words, while it is unlikely at this point that any biography will displace Mantel’s Cromwell from most readers’ minds, MacCulloch’s is the one that historians have been waiting for... And though his preference for the rather modest formula “A Life” gestures to a sense that he knows that this is unlikely to be the final word on Cromwell, it is hard to see how it could be surpassed.
There is something of this determination to bring the quirks, warmth and light out of the dark material traces of Cromwell’s character in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s captivating and definitive new biography of Henry VIII’s most controversial of royal counsellors. Indeed, so nuanced and even-handed is his portrait that MacCulloch acknowledges that some might argue that he ‘underplays the… rapacity of Cromwell’s public career’.
This is not a book for the general reader. It will, or should be, cited as a book of the year, but most readers will find themselves bogged down by the wealth of necessary detail, by the intricacies of the web of Tudor connections on which he is brilliant: back then the personal was political. If MacCulloch has sense, he’ll follow this with a slim popular paperback... This isn’t to say it’s not terrifically readable, because it is. It’s witty — there are acerbic asides at every turn — but this is the work of a scholar.
In the quest for “the true Thomas Cromwell of history”, this heavyweight volume is intended to be a knockout blow. Mantel’s fulsome pre-publication puff (“the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”) certainly advertises one satisfied customer. A more dispassionate reading might find the historian-biographer, who must live and die by the written record, swamped by the teeming documents of Henry’s reign.
MacCulloch, a professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford, is very much on the Protestant side of the Reformation struggle. He believes that, although the evidence is sparse, Cromwell was indeed a grieving widower. However, this magisterial biography is not a polemic and it isn’t Thomas Cromwell, but his father, Walter, whose reputation gets a newly clean bill of health... MacCulloch, with wit and fine scholarship, sketches a distinctive Cromwell, the reformer, and yet leaves room for readers to make their own judgments on him as hero, villain — or something else.
What kind of man was the real, historical Cromwell? Six years in the making, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s huge biography attempts to answer that question in painstaking, sometimes even excruciating detail... There is a paradox at the heart of this epic work of scholarship. Despite the relentless accumulation of detail, Thomas Cromwell himself remains a mystery. He is as unknowable at the end of the book as he is at the beginning... Perhaps it needs a novelist of Mantel’s exceptional gifts to bring such an enigmatic character fully to life.