Thomas Cromwell: a thug in a doublet?

For most of the five centuries since Henry VIII sent his chief minister to the scaffold, historians have cast Thomas Cromwell as a scheming, rapacious vulture. But does this characterisation really do him justice? Diarmaid MacCulloch investigates

Hans Holbein's portrait of the "pudgy, watchful" Thomas Cromwell. England's aristocracy never forgave this publican's son for proving that a man could govern just became he had talent, says Diarmaid MacCulloch. (Gustavo Tomsich/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Poor Thomas Cromwell. He has rarely been given a good press – even in the triumphant island story as told by the champions of Protestant England, in which the pope’s deluded followers were repeatedly put in their place so the British empire could flourish and spread Christian civilisation far and wide. In that telling, Henry VIII receives all the credit for leading Tudor England in walking tall – and he had the glamour that his most effective minister notoriously lacked.

The various surviving copies of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell – showing him as pudgy and watchful, expensively but plainly dressed – are distinctly unflattering to this busy royal minister, to the extent that I wonder if vengeful Catholics in Queen Mary Tudor’s reign destroyed any pictures that presented him in a kinder light.

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