Types of Ambiguity

Conrad Russell

  • War, Taxation and Rebellion in Early Tudor England: Henry VIII, Wolsey and the Amicable Grant of 1525 by G.W. Bernard
    Harvester, 164 pp, £25.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 7108 1126 8
  • Reassessing the Henrician Age: Humanism, Politics and Reform 1500-1550 by Alistair Fox and John Guy
    Blackwell, 242 pp, £22.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 631 14614 8
  • The Union of England and Scotland 1603-1608 by Bruce Galloway
    John Donald, 208 pp, £20.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 85976 143 6
  • Stuart England edited by Blair Worden
    Phaidon, 272 pp, £25.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 7148 2391 0

The Church shall not so expound one place of Scripture that it shall be repugnant to another. Of all the Thirty-Nine Articles, this is perhaps the most difficult, yet it lays down a scholarly principle which is binding in other contexts than the doctrinal. By the same logical, even if not theological rule, historians may not expound one period in such a way as to make it repugnant to another. Like the principle of the Thirty-Nine Articles, this is one which is extremely difficult to apply, since it involves co-operation and give-and-take between people of widely different temperaments and experience, working on different bodies of sources. We are, for example, still waiting for a historiography of Early Modern England which expounds Tudor history in such a way as to make it readily compatible with Stuart history. Twenty years ago, when Elton and Hill reigned supreme in their respective centuries, it was quite apparent to all (including, one suspects, both historians themselves) that their outlooks and interpretative methods were so widely different that they could not both be right. Nevertheless, a generation of schoolchildren have been brought up on an Eltonian 16th century and a Hillite 17th century, a sort of Tillyardian monster with which our examiners are still wrestling. In more recent times, revisionism in the 17th century has created the opportunity to build a new coherence, but it cannot be said that this opportunity has yet been fully taken. These four books perhaps suggest that the time is coming when a synthesis will at last be possible, and that when it is reached, the constitutional and religious ambiguity of the English Reformation may be the theme around which it will revolve.

Dr Bernard’s book is devoted to the failure of the Amicable Grant of 1525. This unfortunately-named levy was designed to allow Henry VIII to take advantage of the defeat and capture of the King of France to prosecute his French claims. The title was not just a piece of newspeak: it expressed a crucial ambiguity in Late Medieval constitutional thinking. The King must not tax without consent, but in a case of necessity, such consent was not to be unreasonably withheld. This combination of beliefs enabled Henry and his advisers to argue, by an ingenious piece of special pleading, that they could meet constitutional proprieties by a staged ceremony of asking taxpayers to express their consent. In 1525, as in 1297 and 1627, this notion proved to be unconvincing, and the result in 1525 was a complete failure.

The book enables us to test the parallel, which I once incautiously advanced, between the tax refusals of 1525 and 1640. Its findings suggest that though such a parallel can be drawn, it is only of limited applicability, and is as illuminating for what it leaves out as for what it covers. The clearest parallel is in what Dr Bernard describes as the ‘law of diminishing returns’ of taxation: the Amicable Grant, like the levies of 1640, followed several years of exceptionally severe taxation, and caught the backlash created by the exhausted tolerance of the taxpayers. Pleas of poverty and shortage of coin, which are endemic on both occasions, give rise to the same interpretative ambiguities, which are admirably discussed.

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