Can historical biography still be written? Joel Hurstfield, who had planned a life of Robert Cecil, the chief minister inherited by James I from Queen Elizabeth, abandoned it in the 1960s in the belief that the genre had had its day. Geoffrey Elton, so much of whose career has been occupied with the achievements of Thomas Cromwell, has never thought biography to be the fitting means of approaching him. Biography now belongs to the margins of historical writing. The economic and sociological determinism of the 20th century has questioned the influence of great men, while its psychological determinism has undermined their dignity. To study the past through the lives of its most conspicuous individuals can seem as superficial or as frivolous an exercise as the interpretation of current affairs in terms of the clashes of political personalities. Even if we respect the study of personality we find it hard to practise it when we turn to the Early Modern period, when the evidence more often protects than exposes the private man.
If the biographer struggles to know enough about his subject’s inner life, he needs to know all too much about his times. The expansion, the specialisation and the disagreements of historical research over the past thirty or forty years confront the biographer at every turn with contested issues that are resolvable, if at all, only by a mastery of technical detail for which his biographical preoccupations are unlikely to have equipped him. In any case, the sceptic might ask, what purpose can biography now serve? In the Classical world, and then in the Christian one, its function was exemplary. Biographers selected or heightened or invented material in order to create ‘patterns’ that would incite their readers to virtue and deter them from vice. That educational purpose warranted the transformation of life into art. Our very different conception of historical truth challenges not only the improvement of biographical fact but the artistic shaping of it.
No one would accuse Peter Gwyn, author of The King’s Cardinal, of confusing life with art. His intentions are too austere to risk that imputation. Although his important and very long book proclaims itself a ‘biography’ of Thomas Wolsey, it fulfils few of the expectations raised by the term. There is little story-telling, and less evocation of mood or circumstance. Instead there are arguments, conducted against most of the statements that have ever been made about Wolsey, and most feelingly against those that have been made recently. Passions run high in the study of early Tudor England, and Gwyn’s book is certain to fuel the flames. Unhappily for the lay reader, the disputes tend to turn on fine points of evidence, many of which have to be pursued in the Public Record Office, although Gwyn appears to prefer printed to manuscript sources. It is a tribute to the infectiousness of Gwyn’s commitment, and to the predominantly successful deployment of a riskily colloquial prose, that he sustains attention through protracted discussions of the kinds of issue more usually addressed in the house journal of the Institute of Historical Research. If he occasionally stretches our patience it is with his sense of fair play, for he thinks it proper to guide us through extended arguments in favour of complex hypotheses before revealing his rejection of them. It is a conscientious reader who will not sometimes peep ahead.
If Gwyn’s material is complex, his thesis is simple. Cardinal Wolsey, he declares, has been misrepresented and maligned for four and a half centuries. Ever since the Reformation, which so soon followed his death, he has been victimised by ‘the Protestant tradition’ and by ‘the closely allied Whig tradition’. The English, being ‘not very fond of cardinals’, and not very fond of builders of royal power, have despised or caricatured Wolsey as ‘a royal favourite and a meddlesome priest’. Fertile as Gwyn’s challenge to that picture is, it has to be said that, like many critics of Protestant and Whig historiography, he does not define it carefully or explain its development and influence across the generations, so that we are left to wonder why the partisan errors of the 16th century should have been repeated in the 20th. Readers of Elton’s work on Parliamentary history will be surprised to find him implicitly condemned as a Whig. Readers of his work on administrative history will be no less surprised to find him implicitly rebuked for swallowing the prejudices of Tudor chroniclers. Nevertheless, a fundamental reassessment of Wolsey has been long overdue, and Gwyn has certainly provided it. On virtually every count he springs to the cardinal’s defence. To Gwyn, Wolsey was a civilised, amicable, industrious and efficient figure, who in politics was ‘genuinely concerned to promote the common weal’ and who in religion ‘always had the best interests of the Church at heart’. Far from manipulating Henry VIII he ‘loved his master more than himself’. He was the junior, the tactician rather than the strategist, in a highly effective partnership between two able men.
What then of the traditional charges against Wolsey? Did he not aim to become Pope, an ambition bound to conflict with the King’s diplomatic and ecclesiastical priorities, and did he not milk and bully the English Church to his own financial ends? By no means, says Gwyn. His foreign policy and his management of the Church, subjects which between them occupy a large proportion of Gwyn’s book and which he elucidates with imposing skill and authority, were directed solely to the nation’s interests. But did not Wolsey, by concentrating in his person so many of the abuses that produced the anti-clericalism of the age, make the Church vulnerable to the Reformation? Far from it. Pre-Reformation anti-clericalism, at least on any significant scale, has existed only in the minds of Protestant historians, who have judged Wolsey by anachronistic standards. Yes, he practised nepotism and lived opulently and ostentatiously, but that was how the Church’s leaders were expected to behave. If he had ‘no great knowledge of the Bible’, and if he is ‘most unlikely’ to have ‘ever had a religious vocation’, then those defects too, if defects they were, were unexceptional and therefore unimportant. They did not impair his plans to reform the Church. He aimed to close down some of the decayed monasteries, and to reorganise the dioceses, so as to fortify the Church against the Lutheran threat, which Wolsey took very seriously (and which the reader may suspect to have owed some of its following to anti-clericalism). If Wolsey’s plans for reforms were limited, it was because fundamental change was unnecessary. If they were not fully implemented, it was because he prudently avoided confrontation.
He was equally conciliatory, argues Gwyn, in secular matters. But did he not seek to monopolise the King’s favour and to deprive his rivals of access to Henry? If Wolsey is to be judged by early 16th-century standards, then such conduct, one might think, would be readily excusable, or at least as excusable as his extravagant lifestyle. Gwyn, however, sees nothing to demand excuse. Far from running ‘a one-man band’, Wolsey took his place in a genuinely conciliar regime. Far from exploiting his position as Lord Chancellor to harry his political rivals in Star Chamber, he demonstrated to the rich and powerful, without fear or favour, their equality before the law with the poor and weak. What then of his legendary success in removing or isolating his enemies from the Court? The success is indeed a legend, for Wolsey had no enemies, except for unstable men who would have disliked anyone holding power. The episode of 1521, when Wolsey is alleged to have packed Richard Pace off to Rome, has been misunderstood, for Pace was glad to go on his embassy, and his subsequent breakdown, normally blamed on the cardinal’s ruthlessness, merely shows how unreliable are the charges Pace brought against him. The Duke of Norfolk spent five years in Ireland and on the Scottish border not because Wolsey had schemed to remove him, but because he was the obvious man for the difficult and necessary jobs he carried out there.
In any case Norfolk was no enemy of Wolsey. The two men got on rather well, while Suffolk, another supposed rival to Wolsey, liked him even better. But did not Wolsey break William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he succeeded as Lord Chancellor and with whose authority his own legatine powers were bound to conflict? Not at all. So ‘tactful’, was Wolsey’s handling of Warham that the two men were able ‘to work together in a perfectly civilised way’. When Warham resigned from the Chancellorship in 1515 it was not because Wolsey had forced him out but because he yearned for his leisure and his books. Historians have been mesmerised by what they have taken to be the incessant and embittered power-struggles of Wolsey’s ascendancy. Only after Wolsey’s death did there emerge the atmosphere of suspicion and fear and conspiracy with which the court of Henry VIII has become indiscriminately associated. The purge of 1519, for instance, which has so engrossed Gwyn’s bête noire David Starkey, was ‘a storm in a tea-cup’. The truth, pronounces Gwyn, is that the political world of Wolsey’s ascendancy was ‘not an environment where faction flourished’.
It was nevertheless an environment where the Duke of Buckingham got his head chopped off, like Edmund de la Pole before him. But Buckingham, it seems, had only himself to blame. The jury which tried him was not packed. His trial was fairly conducted. A potential claimant to the throne, Buckingham had failed to grasp the obligation to discretion and to royal service that high lineage carried with it. ‘A proud man with something of a temper’, he dallied with treasonous proposals so carelessly that the Government eventually recognised that it would ‘have’ to act. He resented Wolsey, but Wolsey, far from resenting him, ‘did his best to save him from himself’.
What a civilised place the court of Henry and Wolsey was – and, the doubtful reader could be forgiven for thinking, what a managerialist paradise. Not so long ago historians tended to equate virtue with opposition. No one would, charge today’s students of Tudor politics with that prejudice. Yet by Gwyn’s admission the court became less civilised in 1528-9, at the end of Wolsey’s career, when the King discovered that he loved Anne Boleyn more than he loved his cardinal. Wolsey’s fall, in Gwyn’s account, was indeed the result of machiavellian duplicity – but of duplicity not by a Howard faction but by the King himself. The praemunire charges prepared against Wolsey were not intended to secure the death penalty. That would have been an unthinkably uncivilised conclusion to so constructive a partnership. Instead they were designed to put pressure on the Church, and to give the King a bargaining counter in a course of events which, had Wolsey not died before the charges could be heard, might have resulted in his return to office.
Henry’s machiavellianism of 1528-9, although necessary to Gwyn’s thesis, is perplexingly at odds with Gwyn’s general account of the tenor and conduct of politics in the Wolsey era. Is not an environment where royal duplicity could flourish likely to have been one where faction could flourish too? In one respect Gwyn’s scepticism about faction is well-founded. Historians can be too ready to explain the promotions and demotions of politicians by reference to their connections or opinions rather than to their capacities. Kings and ministers need able men to work for them. Government can function only if men of opposing interests can learn to work together, and at Henry’s court they did so. Yet Gwyn surely allows too little for the conventions of politeness that governed dealings between politicians who may have been less polite behind each other’s backs. That the surviving letters of Norfolk to Wolsey betray no sign of hostility may be a tribute to the duke’s courtly dexterity, but can it prove anything about his true feelings?
Gwyn has an unconventional fondness for modern parallels. Sometimes they are illuminating. His conviction that Wolsey’s policies were not affected by his pension from France – which was anyway a meagre proportion of his income – is given weight by his comparison of the 16th-century pension with the 20th-century business lunch. Both sweeteners may reinforce motives of policy: neither will be a substitute for them. Gwyn’s answer to the suggestion that Wolsey ought to have got rid of more than eight insufficient heads of monasteries is sharpened by his analogy with the difficulties that would confront a modern minister wanting to sack eight incompetent headmasters. These are the parallels of a historian for whom the past is very much alive and who is keenly alert to the resemblances between past and present – but perhaps insufficiently alert to the differences. The processes of change and development interest Gwyn not at all. Time and again Wolsey’s policies or reforms are represented as a continuation of the work of his predecessors: his relief of the poor in Chancery; the Eltham Ordinances of 1526; the adjustments to clerical taxation; the challenge to episcopal prerogatives; the bargaining with the parliament of 1523; the administrative initiatives in the North and Wales. In all these instances Gwyn may be right. Yet when politicians repeat the policies of their predecessors they do so in altered circumstances and under fresh pressures. To be convinced by Gwyn’s account of the cardinal’s aims we would need a stronger sense than he allows us of the features of Wolsey’s age that distinguished it from those which preceded and succeeded it.
Gwyn scorns the ‘obsession with trends’ that leads historians to obscure ‘the fact that events are often random and unpredictable.’ So they are, but they are not necessarily one damned thing after another. An obsession with trends may be no more distorting than an obsession with the lack of them. Elton’s judgment that Wolsey – unlike Thomas Cromwell – ‘contributed virtually nothing to the future’ is left untested. Gwyn’s dislike of teleology does not merely leave us to guess the long-term significance of his subject. It confines his perception of the period to which he restricts himself – and which needs to be set in a wider perspective if its contours are to be identified.
The 16th century saw profound changes in religion. It saw the taming and the disintegration of the ancient martial nobility and a significant shift in the relationship between centre and locality. Those changes were gradual, and it is always possible to demonstrate their incompleteness and to emphasise the strength of continuity within change. Gwyn can point out, for example, that the Tudors consistently relied on the nobility to look after the regions and could never have contemplated a frontal assault on their power or status. He has no difficulty in showing Wolsey ‘getting on well with individual noblemen’. Wolsey would not have had much of a career otherwise. Yet beneath the civilities a transformation was occurring – as Buckingham discovered. To have contented Henry and Wolsey – and to have contented Gwyn – Buckingham would have needed to become a new kind of noble, a carpet noble who would value attendance and obedience at court and council above the enjoyment of his estates and independence, and who would be careful never to give his feelings away. As Gwyn acknowledges, Buckingham was charged at his trial with nothing more than thinking ‘treasonous thoughts’.
If Gwyn’s portrait of Wolsey seems roseate, that can hardly be because Gwyn sees himself in him. The book betrays a curious tension between author and subject: between Gwyn’s embattled tone and the decorous equanimity he finds at Henry’s court, and between a biographer who dedicates his book to Nikolai Tolstoy, and who allows its dust-jacket to reveal that its author once resigned from a post as archivist ‘in protest’ on a point of principle, and the supreme politician and careerist of the early 16th century, who would surely never have resigned over anything. Yet Gwyn’s uncompromising integrity is a powerful literary weapon. The King’s Cardinal, provoking as it often is, is a work of magisterial ambition and achievement. Those who work on Wolsey in the future may disagree with Gwyn, but they will have to begin with him. He has taken a great subject and transformed it.
Elton’s verdict on Wolsey was tempered by a concession. ‘He made a great and deserved name, and his age would have been very different without him. And surely, this is something; surely this is enough.’ The statement is quoted by John Morrill in his introduction to the volume of essays he has edited, Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, a book, as he says, about ‘another man who rose from humble East Anglian roots to dominate his world’. Whether a substantial professional biography of Oliver Cromwell can still be written we cannot say, for it is a long time since anyone tried. The most influential recent study of him, by Christopher Hill, is more a series of essays than a biography. Morrill’s volume is not a biography either, but it is as accomplished a substitute for one as a collaborative venture could expect to provide.
In invoking Elton’s pronouncement on Wolsey, Morrill indicates that Oliver Cromwell, too, matters more for what he was than for what he achieved. The limits of Cromwell’s achievement prove to be the principal theme of the book, for the majority of the essays are studies in failure. The most stimulating and original, and a landmark in our knowledge of Cromwell, is the editor’s own essay on Oliver’s early career, on those four decades of provincial obscurity which preceded the Puritan Revolution and for which historians have hitherto been dependent on the soporific and – Morrill gently makes obvious – astonishingly casual account in W.C. Abbott’s Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. By tracking down Cromwell’s tax returns, and by examining afresh the record of his involvement in the ecclesiastical and constitutional wrangles of his native borough of Huntingdon, Morrill is able to show us a Cromwell declining from gentry into yeoman status and driven out of local politics by richer and more powerful neighbours. There are other striking finds. Thomas Beard, the minister and schoolmaster customarily credited with instilling Puritanism into young Oliver, is revealed as ‘a complacent Jacobean Calvinist conformist’ who was probably one of the Cromwells’ enemies in Huntingdon politics. The hitherto elusive ‘Dr Welles’, whose preaching Cromwell was so anxious to keep financed in 1636, is identified as a correspondent of Samuel Hartlib and John Dury, the champions of international Protestantism. In Morrill’s account, Cromwell’s religious conversion around 1630 looks to have been intimately connected with his economic and political travails, and offers a vivid illustration of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s thesis about the attraction of Puritanism to declining gentry.
The next essay, a distinguished contribution by John Adamson, describes Cromwell’s failures as a member of the Long Parliament. We are shown his tactical naivety in the early years of the assembly, his subsequent inability to win a majority for his programme, and the frustration of continuous defeat that eventually drove him to expel the Parliament by force. Meanwhile he won battles, but while no one would call him a military failure it is useful to be reminded, in Austin Woolrych’s lucid essay on Cromwell the soldier, how gradual was his rise to prominence. He never had command of an army in battle during the first civil war. In later essays Derek Hirst and Anthony Fletcher, examining the failure of Cromwell’s hopes for godly reformation during the Protectorate, observe the gap between the vigorous language that expressed his aspirations and the frailty of the institutional machinery upon which he relied to implement them. The book might have offered a more cheerful picture had it contained an essay on foreign policy, but even there a damning case could be made. For even if Cromwell was right, as articulate and well-informed contemporaries said he was not, to make peace with the Dutch and war with Spain, the gains of that decision were few and were achieved at a financial cost that gravely impaired his search for settlement at home. It is true that he acquired Jamaica, but only in shambolic circumstances, after the abject rout of the ramshackle expedition he had sent to Hispaniola. Dunkirk, acquired in the last months of his life, proved more costly than useful and was sold to France in 1662, during the decade when so much of Cromwell’s legacy was wiped out.
Was William Walwyn, the social reformer of the Civil War period, a failure? His vision of a society in which the power of love and reason and charity would oust ‘the tyranny of princes and persecution of priests’ was washed away by the rage and fanaticism of the Puritan Revolution. Yet his writings survive him, and thanks to his editors, who in bringing them together for the first time have patiently and discriminately unravelled the problems of authorship and attribution that have impeded a fitting appreciation of them, they can at last be studied properly. There is no more attractive a figure of the civil wars than this London merchant who, even when he got mixed up with the Levellers in the later 1640s, resisted all the temptations to self-righteousness and to blind partisanship that the Revolution offered. His family, his library and his garden preserved his sense of proportion. So did his scientific interests, which led him, after the defeat of his political ideas, to devote his time to the practice and advocacy of the 17th-century equivalent of alternative medicine.
Well-versed in history and in what he took to be its political lessons, Walwyn was among the first thinkers of the civil wars to develop a theory of popular sovereignty that would subordinate not only the king but parliament to the electorate. His writings give intriguing glimpses of the politics of the London wards and congregations where he mobilised support, and of the debates prompted there by his demand for a religious toleration that would extend to the most daring of the sects, even to men whose minds were ‘so far misinformed as to deny a Deity, or the Scriptures’.
Walwyn’s plea for the toleration of sectaries was not self-interested, for he was no separatist. He wanted to retain a national church and to preserve the parochial structure and ministry (though not the system of compulsory tithes which financed it). He favoured stiff laws against blasphemy and vice, and like Oliver Cromwell, he was willing to think of Presbyterians, the principal enemies of the sects, as members of ‘the godly party’. To love one’s enemies, even one’s persecutors, was a high Christian duty.
Yet persecution was at the root of the nation’s misery. ‘A persecuting spirit,’ he declared, ‘is the greatest enemy to humane society, the dissolver of love and brotherly affection’. A devotee of Montaigne, persuaded of ‘the uncertainties of knowledge in this life’, Walwyn challenged the theological self-confidence and rigidity of the Calvinists, who, like too many other groups, were ‘not pleased except salvation be proved to be very difficult to obtain’. Cherishing the conviction that Christ had died for all, even for unbelievers, and esteeming it ‘a high part of true religion to promote common justice’, he thought that the mistaken doctrine of predestination had deflected men from the social responsibilities of faith, from their obligation to ‘set the oppressed free’ and to ‘feed the hungry’. In any case, predestination, like any other doctrine, could never be successfully imposed. The path to true belief lay not in creeds or compulsion but in the individual’s unforced and unclouded exercise of his reason. ‘The submission of the mind’ to external demands for conformity, he remarked in one of the frequent passages of his prose that remind us of Milton, ‘is the most ignoble slavery; which being in our own powers to keep free, the subjection thereof argues in us the greater baseness.’
Walwyn’s writings offer as luminous an entry as any into the ferment of ideas and the questioning of tradition that flourished in the civil wars.
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