Real Power

Conrad Russell

  • Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660 by David Underdown
    Oxford, 324 pp, £17.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 19 822795 7
  • The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics by David Starkey
    George Philip, 174 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 540 01093 6

These books are both attempts, by oblique routes, to explain major events in English history: in one case the Civil War, and in the other the Reformation. That, however, is where the resemblance between them ends: for the rest, it would be hard to find a more extreme contrast in historical methods. Professor Underdown, as he makes clear in his preface, sees no virtue in attempts at explanation of the Civil War which concentrate on political events at the centre. For him, it is necessary to understand society in depth. For Dr Starkey, on the other hand, it is self-evident that, to understand political events, it is necessary to understand political circles. If Dr Starkey wishes to understand an event in a period of which he has previously known nothing, he will ask who was Groom of the Stool: Professor Underdown, faced with the same task, will ask who was constable of Batcombe. Both of them will then do a first-class piece of research answering their chosen question. Yet the really big decision, the choice of the field for investigation, is one which appears to both of them to be so obvious as to stand in no need of justification.

Professor Underdown’s book, like so much else of value, arises from a conversation in the common room of the Institute of Historical Research. Professor Underdown maintained both that the Civil War was a cultural conflict and that the allegiance of different places in this cultural conflict was explicable in regional terms. Dr Morrill asked him for evidence, and this is Professor Underdown’s reply. It shows the meticulous integrity in research that anyone familiar with his work would have expected: over and over again, he has been the first to point out the flaws, limitations and inconsistencies in his own evidence.

The idea of the Civil War as a cultural conflict is not new: it goes back to William Chillingworth, preaching before the King in 1643, and saying all the scribes and pharisees were on one side, and all the publicans and sinners on the other. What is new here is the meticulous investigation, town by town and village by village, of the growth of tension between these two groups. The investigation is mainly concentrated on the three western counties of Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset, but supporting examples are drawn from the whole country. It is possible to imagine the tension in 1619 when the town oligarchy of Stratford on Avon tried to cut down a maypole, and were told they had ‘set all the town together by the ears, which is the true office of a Puritan’. John White, the patriarch of Dorchester, and his allies, got a touring company of players banned, only to be attacked as a ‘counterfeit company and pack of Puritans’. It is one of the skills of this book that it encourages sympathy with both sides in the disputes over the ‘reformation of manners’. Many readers will sympathise with the constable of Wellington, beaten up by disorderly revellers at Halloween. Many, too, will sympathise with the group of young people on their way home from Catechism at Westbury on Severn in 1610, who fell to ‘dancing and quaffing’, and deriding the doctrine of their minister. This incident gave rise to some fifty prosecutions, for drunkenness, fornication, bearing bastards and so forth. Two of the girls prosecuted for bearing bastards were married before the children were born, and two women prosecuted for ‘harbouring’ pregnant women had been housing their own daughters. Drunkenness and riot, on the one hand, and the weight of ecclesiastical discipline, on the other, could arouse formidable resentments. It should, by now, be no matter for surprise that under James, the mechanism of supposedly ‘Puritan’ discipline was frequently carried out through the official machinery of the Church courts, nor that under Charles, this was increasingly rarely the case. That we have in these issues one of the sources of the resentments which led people to fight, and one of the manifestations of a conflict between two rival cultures, should cause us no difficulty.

Granted this, it is necessary to insert two caveats, neither of which is stressed in this book. One, recently emphasised by Margaret Spufford, is that the ‘reformation of manners’ was vigorously supported, for reasons of social order, by people who had no pretensions whatsoever to the ‘worshipful title of Puritan’. Indeed, in the 14th century, similar demographic pressures had led to a similar attempt to clamp down on morals, without any need to create a ‘Puritanism’. By this argument, it would be necessary to ask, when we find attempts to reform manners, whether those responsible could reasonably be called ‘Puritans’. The other caveat, and it is an important one, is that the maypole and all it symbolised provided a much better reason for supporting the King in 1642 than it did for supporting the Laudians in the 1630s. On some points, such as Church ales and the sabbath, the Laudians were capable of lining up with the supporters of popular merriment. They were by no means consistent in this, and on many occasions, the intensity of their concern with sacrilege led them in the other direction. In Sussex, the aspiring young cricketer who hit a ball through a church window found that Richard Montagu decided to prosecute him for sacrilege. In Norwich, both Montagu and Wren found themselves preoccupied with stopping ‘football and other profane activities’ in churchyards. It was not until the outburst of godly reformation ushered in by the Commons’ order of September 1641 that the link between royalism and merriment was secure.

With these caveats, the case for cultural conflict should stand. Professor Underdown would go further, and would see the cultural conflict as representing a conflict between two different types of farming region, the chalk and cheese. It is here that his integrity as a scholar is most conspicuous, for he has been the first to admit that his evidence, while strong enough to be highly suggestive, is not strong enough to be conclusive. He has drawn attention, for example, to the high number of royalists in Shepton Mallet, although it was a clothing town. He would explain this by saying that Shepton Mallet is on the very edge of its region, but it also remains possible that the godly of Shepton Mallet were particularly provocative. It is clear, on the other hand, that West Country royalists did a significantly high proportion of their recruiting in market towns. Beyond that, it would seem fair to say that Professor Underdown has established a prima facie case, which should be tested elsewhere. In particular, it would be nice to know more of how a similar difference of farming regions affected the pattern of allegiance in Norfolk during the Civil War.

Where this book is particularly open to criticism is on the points Professor Underdown considers too obvious to be in need of proof. For example, we are given no proof that Puritanism (however defined) was distinctively a religion of the middling sort. The point has always needed proof, and since Margaret Spufford has recently denied it, it stands more in need of proof than ever. We are given no proof of the proposition that revels are to be identified with co-operative and harmonious communities, and Puritans with individualism, although Professor Collinson’s essay on ‘magistracy and ministry’ (not to mention the fate of the constable of Wellington) must call this notion in question. We are given very little proof of the supposed ‘transformation of the economic ideology of the propertied’ towards the ‘ethos of the market’. For Professor Underdown, the view that the 17th century is in some special sense economically an ‘age of transition’ is too self-evident to need very much proof. In fact, this has been a controversial view, especially since the appearance of Alan Macfarlane’s book on The Origins of English Individualism, and is perhaps the most controversial thing in the whole book. To many other historians, the 17th century is less an age of transition in economic matters than either the 14th or the 18th century. It would have been interesting to hear Professor Underdown argue the case for believing otherwise.

Dr Starkey’s book is in an altogether different style. Though it rests on equally thorough research, it wears its learning lightly. It is not footnoted, and if we want to know where the information comes from, we will have to turn to other places. It is lavishly and skilfully illustrated, and written in a racy, informal, conversational style. The whole book rests on Dr Starkey’s thesis on the Privy Chamber, which, in the light of one of his characteristic phrases, I will now always think of as the ‘Heineken chamber’. The work as a whole is a study of how decisions were made and implemented under Henry VIII. In the process, of course, Dr Starkey sheds a flood of light on many of the key decisions that were made. While his supervisor, Sir Geoffrey Elton, has always looked for the administrative structure, he himself will always look for the organisation of the court. In examining Thomas Cromwell’s relations with Anne Boleyn and with the Privy Chamber, he has made it very hard indeed to see the rise of Thomas Cromwell as marking the beginning of modern bureaucracy. His evidence, as Sir Geoffrey Elton has admitted, makes some substantial holes in Elton’s notion of a ‘Tudor revolution in government’. It is perhaps worth stressing, in the light of criticism of what was, after all, Elton’s first book, that he and Dr Starkey remain in agreement over a very large area. In particular, they are fully agreed about the importance of Cromwell’s promotion of ‘evangelical’ clients in encouraging the growth of reformed theology in England. Cromwell’s attempt to insert Richard Moryson into the Privy Chamber provides one of the many richly comic moments in the book. Poor Moryson, who complained that ‘I blush as long as I am at the court,’ was hardly the ideal personal attendant for Henry. With time, Cromwell became more skilled, and Dr Starkey’s description of the way Cromwell stage-managed the fall of Anne gives a picture of Cromwell quite as ruthless as that given by Reginald Pole.

Dr Starkey, following an important article by Maria Dowling, treats Anne as a major political figure, a sort of honorary counsellor, and a crucial figure in the process by which Henry was weaned away from Rome. He also develops a dramatic case in favour of the view that Henry VIII’s will, in the form in which we have it, is a forgery, representing a major political coup organised by Paget, Hertford and the gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. He has proved means, motive and opportunity, he has shown that the signature stamp, by which the will is authenticated, was affixed after Henry’s death. The case is highly persuasive, but for a matter of this importance, and this degree of technicality, it would be very nice to have some footnotes.

The picture of Henry which emerges from this book is a far from simple one. We have a man crucially – sometimes, in the literal sense, fatally – influenced by those about him, and yet also capable of assuming control in the face of the most formidable of court conspiracies. Above all, we find a man whose dealings with women always left him ill at ease. The day before he was told of Catherine Howard’s adultery, he had decided, ‘after sundry troubles of mind which had happened to him by marriages’, to give thanks ‘for the good life he led and trusted to lead’ with Catherine. Perhaps, though, the moment when we come closest to Henry’s way of thinking is when we find him anxiously assuring his doctor that the non-consummation of his marriage with Anne of Cleves was not due to his lack of physical capacity.

To anyone who can savour the atmosphere of high politics, this book will make exciting reading. Dr Starkey’s remark that ‘to transfer from Tudor Whitehall to the modern White House requires little more than a change of clothes’ is no more than a half-truth, yet there is some part of the atmosphere of high politics which is continuous. The remark might, perhaps, have been truer of the White House of Richard Nixon than it is of the White House of Ronald Reagan, which Henry and Cromwell would have found a very dull place. In making the remark Dr Starkey has perhaps also underestimated how hard it is to change ideological furniture. A change of coat is within the power of many politicians, but a change of heart, in which the new outlook becomes second nature, is rather more difficult. The outlook of a religious and hierarchical society is less easy to replace by the outlook of a secular and democratic one than doublet and hose are to replace by a jacket and trousers. Even the criteria of success change.

We are then left with the major question: who is looking in the right place? It is amusing to imagine the two historians tackling each other’s fields. Dr Starkey would not be looking at any of Professor Underdown’s sources, nor vice versa. Who is right?

It is, of course, true that neither is right for all time, nor for all places. Some political issues are settled at court, and some in the country, and the real skill consists in being able to identify which are which. Every issue, too, involves some elements of both. The fact that Henry VIII, when he chose to divorce Catherine of Aragon, picked up a queen and a chief minister who both had evangelical sympathies is vitally important, but this was only because people of such sympathies were there to be picked up. In the 17th century, too, religious and cultural differences only got into the court and Parliament because they were there in the country to be picked up. Admittedly, in the court they were much less decisive in determining allegiance than they seem to have been in Somerset: not all Hamilton’s care in unpacking his Titians was enough to make him a Royalist at the beginning of the Civil War. Yet the fact remains that even the most enclosed of courts has to get its intellectual furniture from somewhere.

This point conceded, however, it remains true that in a monarchical and hierarchical society the ultimate power rests with the king, and therefore with those who influence him. If Charles I, in 1641, had chosen to settle with the leaders of the Long Parliament, events in Scotland and Ireland might have upset his settlement, but it is hard to see any means by which the Puritans of Dorchester and Wellington could have done so. It was not overwhelming popular pressure which brought Charles I down, but his own deliberate decision to try to divide his people rather than to unite them. Granted there were tensions in English society in 1641, they were by no means unmanageable, and even the most superficial restoration of unity among the gentry would have served to contain them. Professor Underdown’s chapter on ‘Popular Politics on the Eve of the Civil War’ makes very interesting reading, but it is hard to believe that it has much to do with the origins of the Civil War. In the first place, as Professor Buchanan Sharp has stressed, the issues, especially that of forest clearance, did not divide King and Parliament: the two sides took remarkably similar lines, and popular protesters were protesting equally at both. More can be learnt about the origins of the English Civil War in Edinburgh than in Gillingham, for the Scots, unlike the commoners of Gillingham, could put a properly equipped army into the field.

In a hierarchical society, only arms can prevent power from remaining with those in the upper regions of the hierarchy, and in England (unlike Scotland) few among the common people were at all well-equipped with arms until after the Civil War had begun. In a monarchical society, legal title to power can only come through the king’s grant. This is a difficulty the Parliamentarians never succeeded in overcoming, and is the main reason why, even after the war, their victory profited them so little. No doubt it is offensive to 20th-century susceptibilities that power should have been so firmly fixed in the upper ranks of society, but if that is the way it was, no amount of distaste should prevent historians from accepting the fact, and conducting their investigations accordingly. Why this fact remained true for so long, and why it met so wide a degree of acquiescence, are subjects for investigation, but that it was a fact is surely clear. The judgment of 16th and 17th-century politicians seems to have been more or less unanimous: even the most devoted sons of the House of Commons, if they wanted real power, aspired to it on a higher stage. The notion that real power might reside with sheriffs and constables, though it can be found in Charles I’s horrified reaction to the Triennial Act, appeared to 17th-century ears a ludicrous one, and this fact alone was a big obstacle to its ever becoming true. Real power more often resided in courts than it did in the countryside, and therefore, with all requisite qualifications, Dr Starkey is more likely to be looking in the right place to explain major events than Professor Underdown is.