Floreat Eltona

David Starkey

  • Tudor Rule and Revolution: Essays for G.R. Elton from his American Friends edited by DeLloyd Guth and John McKenna
    Cambridge, 418 pp, £27.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 521 24841 8
  • Essays on Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government. Vol III: Papers and Reviews 1973-1981 by G.R. Elton
    Cambridge, 512 pp, £27.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 521 24893 0
  • Which road to the past?: Two Views of History by Robert William Fogel and G.R. Elton
    Yale, 136 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 300 03011 8

1983 was Professor Elton’s ‘grand climacteric’. For though the crucial age in astrology is 63 and he is only 61, there can be no doubt when a few short months saw the publication of a ‘birthday book’ by his American friends, his appointment to the Regius Chair of History at Cambridge, the appearance of the third volume of his own collected essays, and a short book in which Elton and Robert Fogel, doyen of American quantitative historians, debate ‘which road to the past?’ In these circumstances to go beyond a mere review to ask ‘whither Elton’ is a duty – and for some reviewers a pleasure. I approach the task differently: as a very grateful pupil, but mindful of the master’s own dictum that historians ‘neither are nor have authorities’.

The task is made easier by Elton’s inclusion in his own volume of many elements of, as he puts it, a ‘confession of faith’. This falls under two main heads: conclusions and methods. Particularly in those more unbuttoned moments (as in ‘Reform in an Age of Change’) when his stream of history is caught by a tape-recorder, he sticks to the view of the 16th century which he first formulated some thirty years ago: that the 1530s saw a revolution in both government and the constitution, and that this revolution was planned, legislated and executed by one man: Thomas Cromwell. He is similarly fixed in his methods. Now, as always, Elton believes in the self-sufficiency of the record. All the historian is required to do is to approach the evidence with an open mind, study it faithfully, and write up his results clearly: ‘that is how historical knowledge should advance, and that is how as a rule it does.’

All this is a little dry for some. Hence the suggestion that Elton’s English festschrift should be called History and Hard Work as a riposte to Trevor-Roper’s History and Imagination. But of course, as recent events have shown, the joke is not wholly against documentary historians. Meanwhile the apparent certainty of Elton’s conclusions, and the serene simplicity of his methodology (so much less confusing than all those philosophisings), is, for many people, powerfully seductive. Particularly, it would seem, Americans. In Tudor Rule and Revolution the authors protest a passionate discipleship on almost every page. In fact, they go so far as to differentiate their status between inner scholarii – who have been inducted into the mysteries as Elton’s own students – and discipuli, an outer and less privileged band who have only sat at his feet, without the benefit of formal instruction. Long ago, in my own very happy days in Elton’s seminar, we used to divide the group into Eltonians and Eltonettes. These were roughly to be equated with ‘us’ and ‘them’, English and Americans. Eltonians, we thought, grasped the essence of what Elton was trying to do without needing to imitate the style; Eltonettes reproduced the form to the last perfection of pedantry, but caught nothing of the substance. There is too much in this volume that confirms our arrogance.

In some instances, our jibe did not go far enough. There are authors here who wear their learning like lead boots, and have turned Eltonianism from a method into a dogma. It is no longer a question of testing the evidence and coming up (or not) with a revolution: instead the Revolution is taken as axiomatic and the evidence adjusted accordingly. Sometimes the effect is merely ingenuous, as when Hamilton Bryson prefaces his straightforward account of the growth of the equity side of Exchequer jurisdiction with the remark that ‘this development began during the reign of Henry VIII and can be seen as part of the Tudor Revolution in Government.’ (What, then, of the law of buggery, whose history begins with the act of 1534? Should this be understood as part of the Tudor Revolution?) Sometimes it is bathetic, as when S.E. Lehmberg announces that his study of the musical establishments of 16th-century cathedrals ‘reveals a Reformation of choirs quite as profound as the theological Reformation or the Tudor Revolution in Government’. And sometimes it is bizarre, as in the opening essay in the volume by A.J. Slavin. Its ostensible subject is the beginning of the use of printed official forms. At first sight, this seems to be the purest administrative history, record-based in the Elton tradition. But there is another side to the piece. For these little forms are suddenly transformed into the bold standards – blood-stained rather than blotted – of not merely one but two revolutions: it is here that the Tudor Revolution in Government meets the Gutenberg Galaxy.

Not all the pieces are like this. Some are merely insubstantial. W.T. MacCaffery’s essay on the Elizabethan Parliament is so bland that it defies summary. And J.H. Hexter’s ‘Quoting the Commons, 1604–42’ might well have been subtitled ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ (it spends half a page defining quotation-marks). But at least Hexter chews vigorously on his rubber bone: Charles Carter, in contrast, takes a serious subject – the Spanish Ambassador Sarmiento’s successful protection of troublesome recusants under James I – and handles it frivolously. Finally, Mortimer Levine contrives to sink a self-evident truth – that women usually took the back seat in Tudor government – by refusing to admit that there were exceptions, such as Anne Boleyn.

Anything but lightweight are the five essays in legal history which in a sense form the volume’s most distinctive element. Two are particularly heavy-going; two contradict each other; while DeLloyd Guth’s account of the transition from debt to contract may well be profound but is so obscurely written that it’s hard to be sure.

Between the more extreme elements, however, are a group of essays that display solid merit and, in one or two cases, real distinction. Rudolf Heinze’s study of proclamations shows that nothing much changed under James I, while Frederick Youngs and David Cressy suggest that, on the contrary, fundamental developments were taking place in 17th-century local government which obstinately refuse to fit either the methods or the chronology of the Tudor Revolution. Similarly Dale Hoak’s preliminary study of the personnel and military role of the Privy Chamber under Edward VI postpones yet again the ending of household government. And in the best essay in the volume – full of substance yet light in manner – John McKenna attacks Elton in the nicest possible way from the other end, by showing how the principal features of the ‘revolutionised’ 16th-century state – nationalism, the imperial crown and reform – were all present in 15th-century England and arguably in a more developed form: when did Thomas Cromwell issue an ‘official programme’ as full as the Gesta of Henry V, or when did he make a promise of reform as precise as Edward IV’s in 1467?

All of which suggests that Elton is too strong a medicine for the weaker brethren. Something of the same message emerges from his own Studies, where he is best when least characteristic. There are two outstanding examples. The first, on the Pilgrimage of Grace, shows Elton as the master political historian, a guise that he assumes too rarely. It argues slashingly against Scarisbrick’s view of the Pilgrimage as an authentic movement of popular protest and sees it instead as planned and led from above, while its timing depended on the varying fortunes of the faction battle at Court. In his demolition of the ‘Commonwealth-men’ of Edward VI’s reign, on the other hand, we see Elton arguing against the existence of planned reform: the so-called planners, their schemes and their connections with the government are picked off one by one. Everything rings true – and could be turned against his own claims for the 1530s.

When Elton directs his full artillery onto subjects he has made his own the verdict must be more ambiguous. This is particularly the case in the four articles on ‘The Materials of Parliamentary History’. They are certainly the dullest hundred pages he has ever written (even he apologises for the tedium) and they also raise sharp questions of method. The central article deals with the Rolls of Parliament and shows that between 1484 and 1547 the Rolls, the fundamental record of the Medieval Parliament, changed character from a fairly comprehensive narrative of Parliamentary business to a merely derivative list of legislation passed. So much is clearly important. But look at what Elton makes of it. The changes in the form of the Roll in 1484 meant that ‘the middle ages were over’; or, to move from the apocalyptic to the specific, that ‘the triumph of parliamentary over royal legislation’ had occurred. ‘Thus the record says,’ the essay ends.

The record, of course, not being gifted with tongues, says nothing of the kind. It is only Elton, disconcertingly donning the mantle of Zarathustra, who speaks. And in this case he is simply not to be believed. For if his evidence is put in the context of late 15th-century political and administrative history (something which Elton never does) a very different picture emerges. This was the age of the ‘refoundation of the crown’ and the fate of Parliament was merely a function of this. Since richer kings rarely needed taxation, Parliaments were summoned infrequently and, when they met, transacted a narrower range of business. The trial of treason was hived off to the courts, while politics went to the Council. So Parliament became ‘essentially legislative’, not by some sort of administrative triumphalism, but by default: legislation was what was left when other matters of more pressing everyday concern to royal government had been transferred to more convenient bodies. Here again, as in Slavin’s piece, self-consciously record-based history substitutes a mere ricochet between the particular and the general for sustained argument.

The ‘Materials of Parliamentary History’ represents an extreme. Elsewhere the tone is more relaxed – especially in the three Presidential Addresses to the Royal Historical Society. These are Elton’s attempt to sketch the political structure of Tudor England. In the first two essays, on Parliament and the Council, there is perhaps too much of the usual Eltonian Neo-Platonism about institutions: institutions (those protean and often chaotic things) have definitions (Parliament once again is ‘essentially legislative’), and they have ideal forms (established for the Council by Cromwell’s reworking of the old Tudor Council into the smaller, tighter Privy Council in the 1530s). The third essay, however, offers the best short description of the Tudor Court (indeed of any court I know) in print, and is marvellous on the strange but strangely effective mixture of majesty and matiness with which the dynasty conducted its affairs. There are traces of the old Adam, of course, as when Elton revives his claims for the ‘revolutionised’ Secretaryship of the 1530s. But set against this are shafts of almost prophetic insight as Elton anticipates the results of subsequent research: on faction, administration and the structure of the Elizabethan Court. Is there not an irony in all this? Elton, the supreme institutional historian, is excelling in a subject – the Court – that he excluded from The Tudor Constitution as it was ‘a trifle marginal’, while Elton, the supreme record historian, is triumphing in a genre which he dismissed, when it was in Professor Hurstfield’s hands, as ‘essays exploring the author’s own well-stocked mind, as well as the work of others’.

The irony becomes complete in the paired essays on Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Elton describes how he (like so many of us) has stood in contemplation in that room in the Frick Museum where Holbein’s portraits of the two adversaries ‘for ever stare past each other’. He was sure that in the end he understood Cromwell, ‘that plain, solid, straightforward man’. More, on the other hand, left him troubled with ‘a sense of unplumbable ambiguity’. His confidence in Cromwell leads to the most disappointing essay in the book, his doubts about More to the most brilliant.

The essay on Cromwell, Elton’s life-work and alter ego, is called ‘Thomas Cromwell Redivivus’. This is intended to mean Cromwell brought back to life. But life or liveliness are missing. Instead, it is the other meaning of redivivus that is uppermost: ‘renovated, as applied to old building materials used a second time’. This Cromwell remains a bloodless bureaucrat, whose passions and commitments are to abstractions which neither he nor his century would have begun to comprehend.

By contrast, More, Elton’s anti-hero, stimulates the full powers of his mind and pen. Two keys are used to unlock the man: More’s sense of monastic vocation and his awareness of original sin (particularly in the form of sex, whose archpriest, Aretino, incidentally, hangs opposite More in the Frick). On both counts More failed himself: he remained in the world and he fathered children. And this sense of personal failure is seen as underlying More’s own censorious conservatism. Only imprisonment brought peace, for then renunciation was thrust upon him: ‘he had found his tonsure in the Tower.’

After all this the Elton-Fogel volume comes as anti-climax rather than grand finale. The debaters describe themselves as ‘two woolly lambs lying down side-by-side’. But the effect is less that of pastoral than of a pastiche of the Arts versus Science debate of the Sixties. Fogel is the champion of the ‘white woolly warmth of the quantitative revolution’, in which traditional ‘literary’ history will be displaced by a new ‘scientific’ history based on statistics and computing. Elton dissents, arguing against high-level generalisation and reasserting the primacy of the individual man and the particular event. Elton wins the debate if only because he says fewer silly things, but his victory, like the debate, is a shallow one. The real challenge to history comes not from statistics but from sociology. Elton’s individual men do not interact atomistically to produce his particular events. Instead, in-and-between, are social molecules and compounds and combinations. Elton himself in his earlier work tended to see these intermediate groupings as institutions or quasi-institutions. Manifestly this is not enough. What we have to do is to learn to talk about these groupings clearly, simply and imaginatively, without turning them into the divinities of Braudel’s ‘structure’ or even the demigods of Elias’s ‘formations’. To that task Elton in his recent practice (in particular, his triptych on ‘The Points of Contact’) has made a major contribution, and it is about time that his theory caught up with the fact.

Such, then, is the rather surprising cocktail which chance has turned into the testimonial for Elton’s appointment to the Regius Chair. And it makes plain why he should have got it. Here are the energy, the hard work and the scholarship that lift him head and shoulders above any other candidate. Here too, of course, are suggestions as to why he got the Chair (which is not at all the same thing). Here is the conservatism that made him politically acceptable, though his actual conclusions and concerns, bureaucracy and revolution through government, sit oddly with Thatcherism. But outweighing that were perhaps the temperamental affinities between Professor and Prime Minister: the hard work (again), the profession of rigid adherence to principle (though tempered in practice by a certain modishness, whether monetarism or psycho-history), even the tendency, common in strong characters, to accumulate rather funny friends. Be that as it may, Elton, the eternal outsider, who displays a distressing tendency to lambaste the late Sir John Neale in front of incomprehending public schoolboys or to dissect an article by Pollard half a century after it was written, is a fully paid-up member of the Establishment at last. No doubt, the morning after, he got up at six, hung the laurels in the cupboard along with the Scarlet, rolled up his sleeves and got on with work as usual. But I wish he hadn’t. He has already written more than enough ‘serious history’ for any man. Now, after this climacteric year, we want less of the ‘Materials of Parliamentary History’ and more of the ‘Real Thomas More’.