Thomas Cromwell by J. Patrick Coby: a review

This book’s subtitle is “Machiavellian Statecraft and the English Reformation,” which pretty much sums up the author’s argument. It’s an adequate overview of Cromwell’s life and accomplishments, and does a satisfactory job of presenting alternative interpretations where the facts and interpretations are contested. Be aware that the author’s a political scientist; this book is much more about Cromwell’s politics than a proper biography. If that’s what you’re looking for, this book will fit your purpose.

All the same, it’s an odd production. The introduction says the intended audience is college students; one result is the discussion often assumes you’re nineteen, have read little history, and know little of politics. This is occasionally annoying. Evidently those nineteen-year-olds are allergic to academic footnotes, as many of the author’s assertions are unsourced and (more important) many of the academy’s disagreements are briefly described without adequate reference for those who might wish to follow up. This is somewhat mitigated by the last chapter, which is a fine essay on Cromwellian historiography, and by an annotated bibliographic essay. Neither, though, helps if you’re interested in following up a specific assertion.

Another strangeness: While there are no academic footnotes, the book’s full of asterisks which refer the reader to two glossaries–one of words and (often technical ecclesiastical) phrases; the other of short biographical sketches. This undermines, to my eye, any argument that traditional academic footnotes are overly intrusive.

The explanation is quite likely that this book began as a series of lectures, which cannot have footnotes but which might be provided with such reference materials. Better, in my opinion, to have supplied the notes retroactively.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.