- Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England by Kevin Sharpe
Oxford, 293 pp, £12.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 19 821877 X
In the early 17th century, more perhaps than in any period of our history, political argument was argument about the past: about precedents and about pedigrees. Sir Robert Cotton, an antiquary in politics, is a perfect focus for a study of the connections between antiquarian research and political conflict. History, an anchor in the choppy seas of political and social change, became to monarchs and parliaments alike the arbiter of controversy: Cotton, as Mr Sharpe shows, became to monarchs and parliaments alike the arbiter of controversial historical evidence. A distinguished 18th-century antiquary recalled without exaggeration that Cotton had been ‘consulted as an oracle by the privy councillors and greatest men in the kingdom upon every difficult point relating to the constitution’. Cotton’s friend Sir Simonds D’Ewes called him ‘that unmatched antiquary’, ‘the famous antiquary of Europe’.
Vol. 2 No. 5 · 20 March 1980
SIR: Your reviewer Blair Worden (LRB, 21 February) has a name for flaying historians of eminent reputation to within an inch of their lives. A young scholar escaping lightly with a few strokes might, therefore, be expected to express relief. But a feeling of relief in the author should not override a duty to the reader – and it is the reader of Dr Worden’s review of Sir Robert Cotton who is most abused.
Dr Worden takes most exception to my claims for Cotton’s importance in the history of ideas. He argues – correctly – that it is impossible to prove the direct influence of classical and Italian histories upon his thought. But he neglects to inform the reader that Cotton turned from detailed antiquarian investigations to lighter ‘politic histories’ containing aphorisms and political lessons. To Dr Worden Cotton’s maxims are not ‘impressive’. This is a curious term. A student of the history of ideas should surely seek to understand and analyse ideas, not, as Dr Worden seems to desire, award marks for novelty or progressiveness. Cotton may not have been an original or always incisive thinker, but his attitudes are no less (perhaps they are more) important for that.
Dr Worden misses, too, in my account ‘the pulse of political activity and conflict’. But a study of Cotton reveals a world of less division and conflict than historians have supposed – or than Dr Worden would like. Dr Worden suggests, justifiably, that in parts I might have adopted a different approach. But he also reveals an (unhistorical) wish that Cotton had been otherwise than he was.
Department of History, Southampton University
Vol. 2 No. 6 · 3 April 1980
SIR: I suppose that, lest silence be taken for assent, I must reply to Mr Sharpe’s sorry letter (Letters, 20 March). In my review I emphasised the virtues of his able and valuable book. I also argued, civilly, that there are points of substance where his thesis is weak. On none of those points does Mr Sharpe offer an answer. Indeed, he now seems to have shifted his ground so far that it is hard to see why he thinks that the reader, for whose welfare he professes so edifying a concern, has been ‘abused’ by my review rather than by his book. His sole reply is to attribute to me, and to attribute my objections to, views to which I would no more subscribe than he would.
As for ‘conflict’, I can only think that Mr Sharpe, whenever he sees the word, associates it with a particular view of early 17th-century politics with which I was not, in fact, concerned. There is ample evidence of conflict – or, if he prefers, of intense factional rivalry – in Mr Sharpe’s book. My point, which was politely made, was that at times he might have done more to bring it to life. But I can see how so straightforward an observation could be misunderstood by an author resolved to interpret respectful criticism as personal vindictiveness.
St Edmund Hall, Oxford