Pride and Graft

Christian Hesketh

  • Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I by Linda Levy Peck
    Allen and Unwin, 277 pp, £18.50, December 1982, ISBN 0 04 942177 8

Although Dr Peck’s absorbing book centres on the career of an individual, Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, it is not intended as a straightforward biography. As its title indicates, the author’s aim is to study, in relation to one outstanding individual, what Dr Peck sees as the crucial fields of patronage and administrative reform. Northampton was born in 1540 as Henry Howard, but in tracing his descent Dr Peck confuses the second Duke, who destroyed the Scottish army at Flodden, with the third, who succeeded in marrying off two of his nieces, one after the other, to Henry VIII. Henry Howard’s own father was the resplendent Earl of Surrey, who was a poet as well as one of the ornaments of the Tudor Court. Into this privileged world Henry was born but by the time he was seven the Howards were no longer a family whom anyone in England had cause to envy. Surrey had lost his head. So had the two queens whose cause his father had promoted so assiduously.

In the first chapter of her book, the author rightly stresses how deeply Northampton’s personality was flawed by the events of his childhood. The disgrace which had engulfed his family played a large part in his choice of a career. As the avenue of political advancement was closed to him and no welcome awaited him at Queen Elizabeth’s court, he turned to the university which had already awarded him a degree, and was duly appointed Reader of Rhetoric at Cambridge. He also lectured on Civil Law, and Dr Peck must surely be right when she states that Northampton was the only Elizabethan nobleman to teach at a university. The picture she presents of the young Howard is that of a man torn between ambition and resentment, who never ceased to remember both the past eminence of his family and the position to which his own talents entitled him. He was an accomplished linguist, was well-versed in law, and was also a practised public speaker. But in spite of these skills, office was not forthcoming. For thirty years Howard led the kind of penurious, frustrated life which a man of his pride most despised.

After 1572, when his brother the fourth Duke of Norfolk was executed for treason there was no longer a Howard presence at Court and Henry’s activities became even more restricted. Nevertheless, what Dr Peck shows is that during those bleak years when the sun of Royal favour no longer shone on the Norfolks, the cleverest member of the family was not wasting any time. He supported Mary Queen of Scots and through her the claims of her son, James VI, to the English succession. This prompts one to ask what part, if any, religion played in Northampton’s political manoeuvres. Though he belonged to a Catholic group and was suspected of recusancy, he avoided serious trouble. Dr Peck’s view is that while he favoured a relaxation of the anti-Catholic laws, he never allowed religious sentiment to deflect him from what he regarded as a more important public duty: namely, the maintenance of Royal authority. Such a compromise view was favoured by many of his Catholic contemporaries, but Northampton’s elasticity of conscience went further. When Fr Garnett was on trial for his life, and put forward as his defence the fact that all he knew of the Gunpowder Plot had been imparted to him under the seal of the confessional and was therefore not his to disclose, Northampton’s contempt for such a plea differed very little from Cecil’s. Whatever one’s view of this matter, it is clear that Northampton’s Catholicism did him no disservice politically. James I’s accession brought in a king who/always favoured his mother’s supporters and who owed a debt to one who had backed his cause from the start.

In 1603, at the age of 63, Northampton became for the first time an important public figure and he remained so till his death 11 years later. During this comparatively short space of time, Northampton succeeded, not only in amassing a great fortune (even Dr Peck fails to pinpoint quite how this was achieved) and in creating an intricate web of patronage, but in shaping the course of some Jacobean policies. In showing how this was done, the author explains lucidly and in considerable detail the operation of what to modern eyes may seem an essentially unacceptable system. Since the 19th century ushered in a new concept of public morality, many historians have found little to praise in the bribery and corruption of the Jacobean Court. And amongst the system’s beneficiaries few cut a less endearing figure than Northampton, who was accused not only of ensuring the failure of the Addled Parliament in 1614 but of conniving at the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. It is only perhaps in the last few years that Jacobean patronage has come to be seen not just as jobs (and money) for the boys but as the infancy of modern government. Roger Lockyer made a notable contribution to our understanding of this in his recent biography of Buckingham[*] and Dr Peck repeats the message. She shows a society in which Royal bounty no longer kept pace with an expanding political élite. To satisfy what were becoming almost insatiable demands, the Crown had at its disposal about two thousand five hundred offices, for which a horde of suitors contended. Between the suitors and the Crown stood the dispensers of patronage, whose role it was, in Dr Peck’s words, ‘to recruit able officials, to reward the politically important and to restrain abuses within acceptable limits’. To these objectives, Northampton devoted both time and energy, and in the use he made of both can be seen the qualities which made him so formidable a politician. He was diligent, not least as a Parliamentary committee member and a spokesman for the Crown. He made full use of any client from whose abilities the state as well as himself might benefit. Of these, Lionel Cranfield and Sir Robert Cotton were among the most notable. They served him well. The management of the Great Farm, and the cloth dispute between England and the Spanish Netherlands, are illustrations of the use to which a patron as powerful as Northampton could put the knowledge and expertise of his clients. Where Northampton may have succeeded less well than Dr Peck perhaps admits was in controlling a system of patronage as cumbrous as it was out of hand. By the early 17th century it could be argued that too many people and too many conflicting interests were involved for any patron, however able, to know the extent to which his power was abused. Again, in the patronage field it is not altogether clear why neither Salisbury nor Northampton made more effective use of, their Parliamentary clients when the Great Contract was threatened. Of all the actors who play a part in Dr Peck’s book, only one remains a shadow: the King’s favourite, Robert Carr. Since this is how he always appears it comes as no surprise.

[*] Buckingham: The Life and Political Career of George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham, 1592-1628 by Roger Lockyer. Longman, 506 pp., £15.95, 1981, 0 582 50296 9.