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.

On the other hand, Dr Bernard will not have it that the refusals represent significant opposition to the French war policy itself. He is, on the whole, convincing in his analysis of the relations between Henry, Wolsey, Norfolk and Suffolk. He is on slightly less sure ground with Archbishop Warham. Warham’s comments were designed to stress how difficult the levy was proving, and though they may mean no more than they say, such comments are often – in the much better documented atmosphere of 1640 – face-saving ways of conveying conciliar resistance to what is being done. It must none the less be admitted that the evidence of real opposition to the French war is strictly limited, and it is perhaps the main point Dr Bernard has established that a ‘taxpayers’ strike’ may be based on no more fundamental alienation from the regime than the feeling that too much had been paid for too long.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 1525 and 1640 is the same one remarked by the veteran Spanish officer who was comparing the revolt of the Catalans with the revolt of the Netherlands: ‘the one thing lacking is the preachers, to make them lose their faith along with their obedience.’ In the years before consumer choice in religion, those who refused the Amicable Grant had no real opportunity to claim divine sanction for their refusal. Still less could they claim that the French war was undertaken in defence of an ungodly and anti-Christian policy. The comparison suggests that religious discontent, added to an otherwise unchanged constitutional amalgam, could be a very powerful catalyst indeed. There is no parallel here to the cobbler of Hertford in 1640, who, hearing a man call the Scots traitors, said: ‘You will have to answer for those words at the day of judgment.’

The Reformation itself is tackled by Alistair Fox and John Guy. Alistair Fox, in the opening essays of the book, discusses Humanism, previously the main dues ex machina of the teleological interpretation of the Reformation. In his dissection of the notion that there is ‘one coherent thing called humanism’, Dr Fox makes a powerful contribution to the retreat from teleology which has been characteristic of the late 20th century. The case of St German, for example, he describes as ‘an object lesson against leaping to the assumption that any political writing with a reformist bent proves its author to be a humanist, Erasmian or otherwise.’ He disputes the ‘almost universal assumption that humanism was a coherent and unified movement,’ and argues that even so famous a Humanist trinity as Colet, More and Erasmus did not stand for a common cause. Yet it is hard to resist the feeling that Dr Fox has not altogether had the courage of his convictions. Having mounted a merciless attack on the supposed internal consistency of a Humanist ‘movement’, and excluded from the term altogether many people to whom it is regularly applied, he nevertheless refuses to abandon the use of the term from which he seems to have stripped any coherent meaning. When he is reduced to inventing the unfortunately ambiguous term ‘sub-humanist’, he would appear to be having his cake and eating it. Until we can be shown some criteria by which we may decide whether a hitherto unknown figure should be classified as a ‘Humanist’ or not, we should perhaps refrain from using the word at all. Such criteria Dr Fox has lamentably failed to supply.

Dr Guy’s half of the book is concerned with the Henrician age from the Reformation onwards. He is therefore dealing with a body politic divided by some very fundamental issues, as a good discussion of the debate between More and St German will serve to remind us. In a divided body politic, especial significance attached to the composition of the King’s Council, and Dr Guy has shown us, in some of the Pilgrims of Grace and others, a revival of longstanding Medieval ideas of a ‘representative’ Council. Such ideas did not go underground at the beginning of the Tudor period only to be rediscovered by 17th-century antiquarians. Dr Guy has shown us ideas similar to those of the Nineteen Propositions in sources any 17th-century MP could regard as recent, as well as familiar. It is particularly interesting to find in Thomas Starkey an idea be loved of John Pym – that of a standing committee in which the authority of a Parliament could reside during the time between sessions.

Perhaps Dr Guy’s most vital contribution to the compatibility of the 16th and 17th centuries is his stress on the constitutional ambiguity of the Henrician Royal Supremacy. To Edward Foxe, one of the key architects of the ideas that went into the Act in Restraint of Appeals, the supremacy was essentially caesaropapist: as Dr Guy says, ‘if national sovereignty and statutory omnicompetence in the modern sense were at stake in 1533 and 1534, Edward Foxe – prefers not to say so.’ From his collection of precedents, ‘it would appear that Parliament was no more sovereign than it had been when the English Church owed allegiance to the Papacy.’ The supremacy, in this view, was inherent in the King alone, and all the Parliament did was, somewhat belatedly, to recognise the fact. To Christopher St German, on the other hand, laws (including ecclesiastical ones) were made ‘by all the people, for the Parliament so gathered togyther representeth the estate of al the people within this realme, that is to say of the whole catholyque church thereof’. To St German, therefore, there was nothing incongruous about suggesting that a Parliament might expound Scripture.

That Henry left a deeply ambiguous legacy in religion has long been common currency. That he also left a deeply ambiguous legacy in the government of the Church was a prescription for trouble: sooner or later, it was likely that rival views of Henry’s religious legacy would merge with rival views of his constitutional legacy, giving rise to a dispute so ramified it was hard to solve. This is indeed what happened: in the debate on the Laudian canons of 1640, it is barely an oversimplification to say that Laud and Finch echoed Foxe, while Bagshaw and St John echoed St German. On the resolution of Henry’s constitutional legacy, the religion of England had come to depend. Dr Guy’s essays are not only a valuable contribution to reassessing the Henrician age: they are also one of the most important contributions made for a long time to the search for long-term causes of the Civil War.

The same may perhaps be said of Dr Galloway’s discussion of the Jacobean project for the union of England and Scotland. Dr Galloway stresses how limited James’s proposals for union remained, even at their most ambitious. What came about in 1603 was, in the terminology of the time, an ‘imperfect union’, involving the co-existence under one king of two Parliaments, two Privy Councils, two systems of law, and two Churches. As an addition to an already ambiguous legacy in religion, this was a highly volatile one, for it now became necessary to argue, not only that any chosen religious arrangements for England were according to the questionable legacy of Henry VIII, but also that they did not create any theological contradiction between King James I and King James VI. At the time, the union gave a large fillip to the Calvinist interpretation of the English settlement, which was the one which made it possible to argue that it was in line with Scotland. Conversely, Charles’s desire to abandon that interpretation forced him to try to bring Scotland into line. In doing so, he fell foul of a lot of Scottish fears which Dr Galloway has shown were already well developed by 1604. For the Scots, from the very beginning, union created fears for their equality, fears that they might be reduced, as Baillie later put it, to ‘ane pendicle of York’. ‘If therefore it shall be a union, let it be in a plain parity, without alteration of our estate.’ In this anxiety, Scottish stress on the need to preserve their own autonomous Kirk acquired an increasing importance. Since this Kirk had yet another theory of authority and of church-state relations, different from either of the Henrician legacies, a further model was put in front of Englishmen, some of whom believed it would allow them to worship in their own way as neither of the English legacies would do. By 1640, it was almost possible to take with each theological position its own attendant theory of church government.

This was not the only fundamental question thrown into debate by the union. Dr Galloway, in a valuable discussion of the issue of naturalisation and Calvin’s Case, has also shown that it threw open the whole question of the nature and ground of allegiance. Most unfortunately, the lawyers decided that the question whether Scots who were born after 1603 should be counted as aliens depended on whether allegiance was owed to the King’s public or to his natural body – or, in other words, whether it was due to the state or to the King personally. There were two states and one king, so allegiance to the state created two citizenships, while allegiance to the King created one. The implications of this debate for such issues as the rule of law were considerable. In order to make Scots not alien in England, the judges decided that allegiance was owed to the King personally, and thereby went a long way to separate allegiance from the law. If this separation of allegiance from the law were to be combined with a Henrician caesaropapist view of the royal supremacy, a terrifyingly arbitrary view of government might be created. How far anyone other than Roger Manwaring ever went towards creating such a view remains debatable, but the potential was visible enough to create its own reaction. The ambiguities of 1534 and the ambiguities of 1603 began to merge. The next serious political division was going to make the need to resolve them too urgent to be ignored.

Blair Worden and his team of contributors have given us a coffee-table book of considerable quality, in which the 17th century is brought back into line for a reconciliation with the 16th. Blair Worden’s question: ‘as Protestants, Englishmen had learned to reject idolatry in the church. Why, then, did they practise it so wantonly in the state?’ is one Christopher St German, as well as John Pym, would have understood. When, in the eyes of John Pym, the authority of the King appeared to have been committed to the maintenance of idolatry in the church, all these ambiguities had come together. As Pym resolved them all one way, Laud resolved them all the other, and too much was at stake for compromise to be either safe or desirable. As Dr Guy argues, the Act in Restraint of Appeals contained a dramatic internal contradiction. Our next question should perhaps be why it was over a century before that contradiction was resolved in Civil War. Answers to that question might suggest that the English reputation for political moderation and compromise is one that was well deserved.