Book Corner: Mistress Cromwell by Carol McGrath

MISTRESS CROMWELL presents the rise of Tudor England’s most powerful courtier, Thomas Cromwell, through the eyes of the most important – and little known – woman in his life . . .

When beautiful cloth merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Williams is widowed at the age of twenty-two, she is determined to make a success of the business she inherited from her father. But there are those who oppose a woman making her own way in the world, and soon Elizabeth realises she may have some powerful enemies – enemies who know the dark truth about her dead husband.

Happiness arrives when Elizabeth meets ambitious young lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Their marriage begins in mutual love and respect – but it isn’t always easy being the wife of an independent, headstrong man in Henry VIII’s London. The city is both merciless and filled with temptation, and Elizabeth soon realises she must take care in the life she has chosen . . . or risk losing everything.

Mistress Cromwell was first published as The Woman in the Shadows. What a treat of a book it is! Mistress Cromwell is a fabulous fictional account of the life and times of Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Henry VIII’s famous – some would say notorious – adviser.  It is an enjoyable, thoughtful story which gives the reader an insight into life in Tudor London, in general, and in a Tudor household in particular. Following Elizabeth from the funeral of her first husband, through her widowhood and new love and marriage with Thomas Cromwell, this is not the story of Henry VIII and the Tudor court, but of the ‘ordinary’ people without whom the Tudors would not have been able to sustain their glamorous court.

Written in colourful, vivid language that draws you in from the first page, Mistress Cromwell is a wonderful novel, full of life and imagery. And, of course, the fact I could find no picture of Elizabeth Cromwell – only ones of Thomas – serves to highlight how little information we have about the ordinary Tudor woman. Carol McGrath’s novel gives us a rarely seen insight into everyday life of the non-aristocratic family in Tudor London. However, if you were expecting melodrama, this book is not it; adventure and mystery are given equal billing, with murder, arson and secrets, ambushes in dark corners and some strange, scary personalities making this an exciting story which is not to be missed.

Cromwell’s rise to power at the Tudor court runs parallel with his family concerns, with the arrival of children and Elizabeth’s own business adventures. His mysterious past – as a soldier and adventurer in Italy – is alluded to and even comes in useful. Carol McGrath does an excellent job of portraying the enigma that is Thomas Cromwell; the courtier, soldier and statesman who is also merchant, husband and father. The characters are brought to life in vivid, vibrant detail, creating a tableau that is hard to forget even once the last page has been read.

For several hours, I spoke little and ate sparingly. Father went about the hall speaking with merchants. I wondered how I would manage but knew I must and would. A chair scraped beside me, jolting me out of my thoughts. I felt a light touch on my elbow and glanced up. The feast was ending. My merchant had left his place. Gone to the privy, no doubt. Instead, Father stood by my chair, with Master Cromwell by his side.

‘Lizzy, Master Cromwell is my new cloth middle-man. He would like you to show him your bombazine cloth. He has admired your mourning gown.’

I started. This was nothing new. Father always employed different cloth middlemen to sell his fabrics to Flanders, thinking each one better than the last but today, at my husband’s funeral it was not seemly. Master Cromwell was watching me through eyes of an unusual shade, not quite blue or grey.

He bowed and said, ‘Forgive me for staring, Mistress Williams, but you see I knew you as a child. Your father used our fulling mill in Putney.’ He smiled at Father.

That was why he was familiar. I stared back, and in a moment or two I had recollected a tough, wicked little boy, some years older than I, who taught me to fish in the river with a string and a hook with a wriggling worm at the end of it.

‘I do recollect you, Master Cromwell. We played together as children,’ I said, feeling my mouth widen into a smile. ‘Father sent your father our cloth to be washed, beaten, prepared and softened for sale. I remember climbing trees and stealing apples. You led me astray.’

Elizabeth Cromwell herself is a wonderful, strong character, facing the prejudices of the merchant class and her own family in order to take some control over her life. And Mistress Cromwell will make you want to know more Although a history buff would know what is to become of Cromwell and Elizabeth, the author cleverly manages to avoid inserting any hindsight into the story. If you don’t know what becomes of the characters, you will soon be scouring the history books for the true story.

Carol McGrath’s wonderful novel transports you through time and space to the streets of London and Northampton at the height of Henry VIII’s magnificent reign. With colourful, vivid imagery she recreates a world and its people which has been otherwise lost through the centuries. The city, the characters and the lifestyle have been brought back to life, recreating the vibrant world in which Thomas Cromwell would eventually rise to be the king’s chief statesman. The story follows Elizabeth’s life; her family, her business and her husband, cleverly demonstrating how these are affected and changed by her husband’s inexorable rise to power.

The attention to detail is phenomenal, showing many of the social conventions of the time, while not detracting from the story, nor making the reader feel like they’re in a lecture on social history. It paints a fascinating tableau of merchant life in Tudor London, portraying the struggles and successes facing a widow trying to keep her business going in a man’s world. Rich in detail in every aspect, Carol McGrath’s meticulous research has produced a novel which plunges the reader into the middle of Elizabeth’s household in Tudor London. From funeral and marriage arrangements, births and christenings, to the contents of a Tudor garden and the conduct of the cloth trade, Mistress Cromwell acts as a window into Tudor merchant society.

If you liked Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall you will love Mistress Cromwell by Carol McGrath. It shows the human side of the Cromwell family and is a treat for any lover of historical fiction, and especially for a fan of Tudor history. It is a novel not to be missed, and which must be devoured for both the meticulous detail and the wonderful story – especially the story.

This review first appeared on The Review.

About the author:

Based in England, Carol McGrath writes Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction. She studied History at Queens University Belfast, has an MA in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast and an English MPhil from Royal Holloway, University of London. The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 was shortlisted for the RoNAS in 2014. The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister complete this highly acclaimed trilogy. Mistress Cromwell, a best-selling historical novel about Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Henry VIII’s statesman, Thomas Cromwell, is republished by Headline. The Silken Rose, first in a Medieval She-Wolf Queens Trilogy, featuring Ailenor of Provence, was published 2nd April 2020 and comes out 23rd July 2020 as a PB. also published by the Headline Group. Tudor Sex & Sexuality will be published in 2022. Carol speaks at events and conferences. She was the co-ordinator of the Historical Novels’ Society Conference, Oxford in September 2016 and is an avid reader and reviewer, in particular, for the Historical Novel Society. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and Historical Writers Association. Carol lives in Oxfordshire with her husband. Website: Newsletter: for the signup page. Amazon.


My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.


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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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