His mastery of the black arts of spin and propaganda, of flattery, patronage and sudden betrayal, make the most ruthless modern politicians seem mild by comparison.
He ran a spy network that was the nearest thing a 16th-century regime could get to the Stasi, saw off his foes with trumped up charges of adultery and revelled in the torture of his enemies.
He must have paid his own way through the Inns of Court, qualifying as a barrister, no doubt encountering scorn from the better-born lawyers surrounding him.
The Prince describes with unflinching candour the grim truth about how power is actually seized and held on to in the world of men.
Machiavelli observed that: 'A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.' Likewise he said that while it is important for a successful ruler to honest, merciful and humane, in reality he should eschew these qualities as they will only make him weak.
Now, Thomas Cromwell - not to be confused with the better known Oliver Cromwell of the following century - is back in the news.
He is the brooding subject of Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning novel, Wolf Hall, which delves deep into the psychology of his pathological lust for power, and his total absence of scruple in attaining it.
Eventually he would rise to the most senior levels of the judiciary, becoming Master of the Rolls.
Meanwhile he was noticed by Cardinal Wolsey, also from humble origins, the son of an Ipswich butcher - though the Church was always more open to the low-born - and the second most powerful man in the kingdom after the King.He would become a master of languages, speaking Latin and Italian fluently, though whether he was taught these at school seems unlikely.More probably, with his quick, brilliant brain, he picked them up on his mysterious travels, on which he embarked some time in his teens.Armed with such dangerous ideas, he went on to the Netherlands, where he established the beginnings of his own personal fortune as a merchant, probably in the lucrative wool trade. He came back to England, a small island kingdom, still in many ways in the Middle Ages: a King who went jousting, a court bedecked in cloth of gold and finery, and politics dominated by a hereditary caste of grand aristocrats.Henry's court very much spoke the language of chivalry and justice, while paying lip-service to the more humanitarian side of the new, humanist ideals.Henry was lazy and bored by administration, delegating it to the Cardinal.