Humanism in the Age of Henry VIII 
by Maria Dowling.
Croom Helm, 283 pp., £25, February 1986, 0 7099 0864 4
Show More
Henry, Prince of Wales and England’s Lost Renaissance 
by Roy Strong.
Thames and Hudson, 264 pp., £12.95, May 1986, 0 500 01375 6
Show More
Authority and Conflict: England 1603-1658 
by Derek Hirst.
Arnold, 390 pp., £27.50, March 1986, 0 7131 6155 8
Show More
Rebellion or Revolution? England 1640-1660 
by G.E. Aylmer.
Oxford, 274 pp., £12.50, February 1986, 0 19 219179 9
Show More
Politics and Ideology in England 1603-1640 
by J.P. Sommerville.
Longman, 254 pp., £6.95, April 1986, 9780582494329
Show More
Show More

These five books represent something of a cross-section of current work on Tudor and Stuart English history, and they give a picture of how fundamentally the agenda for discussion in this field has changed over the past twenty-five years. Yet the point they mark in the development of the subject is not a total revolution: it is a sort of historiographical 1654, a mood in which the interesting question is seen to be, not whether the new approaches are valid, but how much of the old may be seen to have survived their onslaught. With one significant exception, these books do not attempt to turn back the tide of recent historical scholarship, but express a mood in which the chief interest lies in discovering which parts of the old shoreline are still above water. It was a necessary task, which these authors have, on the whole, undertaken with distinction.

In Reformation studies, the trend of the past generation has been away from seeing a strong tide of popular feeling in favour of Protestantism, and towards a stress on the view that the Reformation was imposed from above. This has recently gone so far that Professor Scarisbrick was able to write a book on The Reformation and the English People in which he could confess that he had left out the growth of English Protestantism. Dr Dowling’s study of Humanism in the reign of Henry VIII is, among much else, a good chance to check the significance of this omission. I cannot find in her book any definition which enables me to recognise a Humanist when I meet him or her, but since Dr Dowling will undoubtedly tell me I suffer from invincible ignorance on this point, it should not be construed as a criticism. She is studying a group of scholars, and she cannot see them, as they used to be seen thirty years ago, as a Trojan horse smuggled into the Catholic citadel. Some clergymen, such as that interesting figure Henry Standish, so saw them at the time, but not for any good reason Dr Dowling has been able to discover. Her conclusion that ‘it cannot be emphasised too strongly that the new learning was originally non-doctrinal in character, and that the Humanist attitude to religious reform was naive in the extreme’ is one which would now command general assent.

Much the most exciting part of her book is that which discusses the effect of the breach with Rome on the range and type of patronage available to these scholars. Before the divorce, ‘the avenues of preferment were closed to known evangelical scholars.’ The quarrel with Rome, however, forced Henry to act intermittently on the maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ and therefore created a somewhat anxious series of opportunities for anti-Papists. It is more important, as Dr Dowling has already argued elsewhere, that Henry acquired a queen whose evangelical sympathies were far stronger than his occasional grudging acceptance of a community of interest. With Anne came the King’s doctor William Butts, ‘whose unobtrusive services to the evangelical cause played a key part in the course of Henrician reformation’. This Boleyn-Butts axis often appears in this book competing vigorously for limelight with Thomas Cromwell. We should not exaggerate the amount of patronage available to evangelical scholars under Henry: Henry, after all, did not like their views, and only patronised them when their views on something else appeared to be more important to him. In her contrast between Frith and Coxe, Dr Dowling shows how this situation gave more opportunities to scholars of one temperament than to those of another.

The historiographical importance of this material is considerable, not least in the extent to which it shows that, for reformers, all was still to play for after the break with Rome: Professor Scarisbrick is right that Henry imposed a break on an unwilling people, yet it remains true that what he thought he had imposed was not the same as what he got. In this situation, the growth of English Protestantism, or ‘evangelicalism’, as Dr Dowling wisely calls it at this early date, is of crucial importance. Had such people not been available to take advantage of the opportunities Henry’s quarrel with the Pope accidentally created, the story would have been very different. Here, Dr Dowling and Dr Starkey (in The Reign of Henry VIII) tell a common story, and it deserves attention. This successful first book whets the appetite for a second.

Roy Strong, discussing Henry Prince of Wales and England’s lost renaissance, is also concerned with what might have been, and with a legend which has run from Sir John Holles to S.R. Gardiner. He shows Henry as heir to the aspirations of the Sidney circle, a patron of the arts, and a champion of the Protestant cause. Whether the English financial system would have permitted Henry as king to have championed the Protestant cause as effectively as he wished is a point which must remain moot, yet it cannot be without significance that, of James’s three children, it was the only one who was immune to these emotions who inherited the throne. Elizabeth of Bohemia could well have become the focus for some of the aspirations centred on Prince Henry, yet Charles could not. How far Charles, like Harold Wilson, was handicapped by a ‘lost leader’ myth around him is a question to which the answer is not obvious, but one well worth further thought.

Derek Hirst is facing a tougher task than any of the other authors in this sample. He is writing the latest volume in Edward Arnold’s ‘New History of England’, and is faced with the alarming task of imposing balance and order on a field like Matthew Arnold’s two Hinkseys, in which nothing stays the same. Professor Hirst has for some time cast himself as the advocate of balance in 17th-century historiography; and part of the interest of reading this book is in seeing wherein he believes balance to consist. It emerges that his article in Past and Present, criticising new interpretations, represented one part of his thinking, and that the overall picture concedes more to new views of the period than might have been expected. This book will be particularly valuable for bringing us up to date with discoveries not readily accessible. For example, the finding that the New Model Army after 1647 was not the same body it was before is given the importance it deserves. On the 1620s and 1630s, the book conveys an impression of debate in progress: undergraduates or sixth formers will be able to get the valuable insight that historical knowledge is a body in a state of flux, and will get some idea of what questions are now being debated. On the whole, readers will not be led far astray.

Yet there are times when ‘balance’ grows monotonous, and it remains an impression that this book makes surprisingly few novel contributions to the debate. Any book covering this much ground contains occasional errors, but this one contains enough to drive a reviewer to record some of them. Sir Ralph Winwood has become ‘Sir Henry’, benefit of clergy did not only apply to males, Bedford was never a member of the Providence Company, and we do not have a stable baseline for undergraduate numbers in the mid-16th century. It is not true that no statutes were passed in 1621, and the careers of Abbot and Williams illustrate that the bishops were not ‘a solid block of royal supporters’ in the Lords. At times, the link between evidence and statement is less tight than one might wish. Motives are imputed with some freedom, and the number of adjectives is sometimes excessive. Yet these are minor blemishes: they may limit the capacity of this book to train historians by example, yet someone wanting a quick up-to-date account to prepare himself for an examination would find it hard to do better.

Professor Aylmer is also attempting a general account, in his case of the years 1640-1660. Among historians at present in the field, there is none with a more essentially judicial mind than Professor Aylmer, and it is hard to think of anyone more capable of describing controversies in a way which is accurate and impartial. He provides a careful account of the Scots’ contribution to the politics of 1641, of the relations of the Levellers and the New Model Army, and of the tangled politics of 1653. This is an ideal book, either to give an initial report of the state of the field, or to sum it all up at the end of a long period of reading. The conciseness and the accuracy are formidable, and so is the unfailing intellectual fairness. The field is one in which opponents used to be treated as Amalekites to be smitten hip and thigh, and is now one in which disagreements are conducted with courtesy and care. For this change, Professor Aylmer deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

Some of the findings of this book are worth considerable thought. The author concludes that there was ‘no radical revolution on the brink of success’. The world was not turned upside down, even if some people’s thinking about it was. If this finding is accepted, as it will be in most quarters, it demands a corresponding shift in our notions of what the disturbances were all about. There is room for thought in the finding that ‘most of the truly original ideas were produced by people out of step with the prevailing orthodoxies.’ This is not merely a tautology: truly original thought was often quite independent of the main currents of the period. The English Interregnum was such a fertile time for ideas, not because novel ideas had challenged the system, but because the breakdown of traditional ones was an irresistible invitation to offer something new. The removal of fixed landmarks after 1649 is a bigger intellectual shock than is often imagined. There are a few times when Professor Aylmer allows himself dicta that are obiter, as in the description of predestinarian Calvinism as ‘one of the least attractive dogmas ever formulated in any religion’, yet such passages are remarkably rare. At the very end of the volume, in facing his own question, ‘revolution or rebellion’, he is left lamenting the inadequacy of our terminology. One word implies more than was the case the other much less. Perhaps what we should really be thinking about is whether we should be using a realist universal called ‘revolution’: is there one single thing called ‘revolution’, or are there a number of different types of unheaval on which we have imposed a spurious unity by pinning the label on them.

Dr Sommerville’s is by far the most original of these books. It is dedicated to the proposition that ‘ideological conflict is a blindingly obvious feature of early Stuart history.’ By ‘ideological’, Dr Sommerville means political ideology. It is the purpose of the book to argue that the troubles between the Crown and its Parliaments under James I and Charles I were essentially disagreements about political and constitutional theories: ‘differences of opinion on questions of abstract political theory spilled over into attitudes on the relationship between royal power and the subject’s property.’ Dr Sommerville has not yet extended his case to the Civil War itself, but makes it plain that he thinks it should be so extended. He has no great patience with the notion of the Civil War as a conflict about religion, as might be deduced from his failure to allow the title ‘ideology’ to religious beliefs. He is taking us back, through the route of academic political theory, to a picture of the Civil War and of the generation before it which will warm the cockles of Jack Hexter’s heart.

In doing this, Dr Sommerville is delivering a challenge to most of the English work published in this field in the past ten years. Such a challenge is a newsworthy event, and the beginning of a major new round of debate. The gauntlet has been thrown down with distinction: the scholarship is careful, the quotation accurate, the argument taut, the style courteous and succinct, and the whole bears the unmistakable stamp of quality. There are almost no passages in this work which will not survive a scrutiny of their source: even the most infuriating passages to a critical reader force him to say, not ‘rubbish’, but ‘yes, but ...’

The book is divided into two sections, one called ‘principles’, the other ‘application’. The first outlines what he sees as the main ideas current in the period, while the second is designed to argue the proposition that they were the source of the major political conficts of the years 1610-1640. The second section, though the less exciting, is perhaps the solider. There is, for example, an excellent discussion of the case of Cowell, which brings out the fact that James, in condemning his book, succeeded in avoiding any explicit condemnation of Cowell’s ideas, and rather defused the conflict than took sides in it. Dr Sommerville has established that James did not condemn Cowell’s ideas, but he would no doubt concede that he has not established that James upheld them either. There is a good discussion of the cases of Sibthorp and Manwaring, in which he correctly identifies the conflict between them, on the one hand, and Pym, on the other, as an ideological conflict. He claims Sibthorp and Manwaring as spokesmen for a considerable body of opinion. He is right in the cases he cites for this proposition, but I know of no other cases than the ones he cites. He has an illuminating discussion of the differences between rival theories of the royal supremacy. One version was essentially Cromwellian, resting the supremacy on statute and common law, and thereby making it, in the last resort, a supremacy of king-in-parliament. The other, a prerogative version of the royal supremacy, involved power descending from the king to his bishops, and made it both a clerical and a prerogative matter. It was in pursuit of this second theory that the Scottish Prayer Book was imposed without even notifying the Privy Council when it was going to be used for the first time. Here, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, he is correct in identifying an ideological conflict, and in seeing it as one of the forces leading to Civil War. Much else in this section is more controversial, and raises issues which will be argued out at length.

In the end, this book must stand or fall by its first section, which is on the major political ideas of the period. In this section, Dr Sommerville identifies two major bodies of ideas, absolutist and contractualist. His two key questions, which he treats as more closely related than perhaps they should be, are: ‘did royal power come directly from God or from the people, and was it circumscribed by ancient custom?’ Behind these phrases, it is easy to recognise Walter Ullmann’s ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ theories of power. Either people believed power descended from God through the king, in which case they were ‘absolutists’, or they believed it ascended from the people to the king, in which case they were ‘contractualists’. In Dr Sommerville’s hands, as in Professor Ullmann’s, the method produces work which is exciting, illuminating, and even beautiful, yet sometimes it seems to exist too much in a Platonic world of forms to be much use in understanding ordinary politics.

The key question about ascending and descending theories of power is whether they are mutually exclusive. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, as with Pope Boniface VIII or the Scottish Covenanters, the answer is clearly yes, but there is a very large middle which is not easy to distribute. To take Richard Hooker’s classic example, it is hard to apply these distinctions to the office of a husband. The office was one every Stuart gentleman believed was endowed with divine right, yet it appeared to be an elective office: it was certainly not a hereditary one. Dr Sommerville’s attempt to argue round this problem, in his discussion of designation theory, is not altogether successful. Applied literally, it would have the unexpected effect of turning Nathaniel Fiennes into an ‘absolutist’ – a conclusion which, even if logically defensible, would be too paradoxical to add much to our understanding.

Dr Sommerville is also occasionally misled by the variety of meanings attached to the word ‘absolute’ in the early 17th century. At one point, for example, he has quoted Sir Edward Coke, in Cawdrey’s Case, describing England as an ‘absolute monarchy’, without indicating that, in the context, all Coke meant by the phrase was that England was independent of the Pope. In 17th-century terminology, the power of pardon was an ‘absolute power’, not bound by any rules. In this sense, it still is an ‘absolute power’, yet it would be paradoxical to argue that Douglas Hurd is therefore an ‘absolute ruler’. Dr Sommerville has not grappled with the late Professor J.W. Daley’s admirable article on the meanings of the word in the 17th century. In some cases, notably his analysis of Chief Baron Fleming’s judgment in Bate’s Case, he has been misled into making ‘absolutists’ of people who were no such thing by any modern definition of the word. The ‘absolute power’ with which Fleming credited James I applied only to certain spheres sharply limited by law, and, in the case at issue, was being applied to an event outside the borders of the realm. It would perhaps increase understanding if the word ‘absolutist’ were to drop out of historiographical vocabulary.

He has also insufficiently considered the question of how far, if power came from God, the terms and conditions of its exercise did also. God’s sovereignty was so dominant an idea in 17th-century political thought that it is not misleading to think of all human government as local government. It came with its terms of reference attached, and with judges and clergy quite ready to act as its District Auditors. Sir Edward Coke, for example, believed that the royal power came from God, but he believed that the common law did also. So long as Sir Edward could tell the King what the common law was, the fact that his power came from God did not make the King ‘absolute’ in any meaningful sense. When William Gouge said the King was only under God, he added: ‘and his word delivered by his ambassadors.’ This word might have no coercive force, but if delivered to an audience willing to be provoked, it could make the King’s life exceedingly difficult. Dr Sommerville repeatedly reminds us that most Protestants believed in no weapons against the King save ‘prayers and tears’, yet the standard literary picture of the ‘scold’ should perhaps make us wonder whether we can underrate prayers and tears as weapons.

The literary method of 17th-century work on political ideas makes it unduly easy to create sharply opposed tendencies where there were none. Dr Daniel Doriani, in a dissertation on the godly household which should be printed, has explained why this is so. In discussions of the relationship of husband and wife (a political relationship in 17th-century terminology as it is not in ours), authors divided what they had to say into two sections, one addressed to the husband, and the other to the wife. Though these sections do not contradict each other, they convey very different impressions, since they are designed to tell each partner their duties. The wife is told what the husband may do, while the husband is told what he should not do. Similarly, a Parliamentary speech may tell the King what he should not do, while a tract addressed to rebellious Scots will tell them, with equal firmness, that he may do it if he chooses. Between the two, there is no logical contradiction, yet in a double-barrelled creed, it is alarmingly easy to divide people without identifying which barrel they are firing on. Similarly, what the King may do in defence of a true religious cause is very different from what he may do in defence of a false one. Stephen Marshall was quite entitled to his suspicion that ‘in case the tables were turned, and we had a king endeavouring to take down the bishops ... the world would hear another divinity.’ When Pym considered recusants ‘vehemently suspected’, his commitment to the rule of law was far less than when he was discussing the restriction of bishops.

In a world in which political thought was about a God-given order, and the family and the state were held to be far more similar political communities than they are today, a much higher proportion of restrictions on power were qualitative, rather than quantitative. To us, the notion of qualitative restrictions on royal power carries a notion of absurdity rather like the Webbs’ matrimonial constitution, yet for the 17th century it was not so. It was thought a meaningful restriction on the power of the husband and the independence of the wife to say they must love one another, and similarly, to any Aristotelian, it seemed a meaningful restriction on the King’s power to say that he must rule in the common interest, on pain of being classed a tyrant. The whole of this attempt at qualitative restriction of royal power, which was the very heart of 17th-century political thought, is almost unmentioned in this book. Dr Sommerville is doubtless right, in his few passing allusions, to say that appeals to common interest, to unity, and to order and balance, did not advance the matter much. They did not solve the problems to which they were applied. This is doubtless true, yet if these were, as I believe them, the central propositions of 17th-century political thought, it should follow, as I also believe, that the central propositions of political thought were not where the major disagreements resided. Sir Edward Coke did not know he was making a meaningless statement in saying that ‘his Majesty’s prerogative royal stretcheth not to the doing of any wrong.’ Only Hobbes appreciated the essential subjectivity of attempts to submit the ruler to the will of God, and therein lay his greatest claim to originality.

Dr Sommerville, then, is classifying people in a way which appears to be too cut and dried. There are, for example, contractualist passages in Pym’s thought, which he has quoted with unerring accuracy, yet these are thin ice, on which I have never dared to tread. They need to be balanced against phrases like ‘the image of God’s power is expressed in your regal dignity,’ and such balancing is an exercise to which an Ullmannite method is not well suited. He is also classifying people according to what was, for them, the periphery and not the centre of their political thought. It was the late, not the early, 17th century which was the great age for searching out the origins of power. They had learnt, as their fathers had not, that the qualitative method of restricting power according to its ends, which came originally from Aristotle, led nowhere. Until the date when people learnt that lesson, Dr Sommerville’s methods of classification are anachronistic and liable to mislead. They also do nothing to explain choices of allegiance in the Civil War. Sir Francis Seymour, as Dr Sommerville is well aware, was no ‘absolutist’, yet, without any significant changes of opinion, he became one of the paradigm Royalists of 1642.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences