Items on a New Agenda

Conrad Russell

  • Humanism in the Age of Henry VIII by Maria Dowling
    Croom Helm, 283 pp, £25.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 7099 0864 4
  • Henry, Prince of Wales and England’s Lost Renaissance by Roy Strong
    Thames and Hudson, 264 pp, £12.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 500 01375 6
  • Authority and Conflict: England 1603-1658 by Derek Hirst
    Arnold, 390 pp, £27.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 7131 6155 8
  • Rebellion or Revolution? England 1640-1660 by G.E. Aylmer
    Oxford, 274 pp, £12.50, February 1986, ISBN 0 19 219179 9
  • Politics and Ideology in England 1603-1640 by J.P. Sommerville
    Longman, 254 pp, £6.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 582 49432 X

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.

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