Tolerant Repression

Blair Worden

  • Thomas Starkey and the Commonweal by Tom Mayer
    Cambridge, 326 pp, £32.50, April 1989, ISBN 0 521 36104 4
  • Politics and Literature in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII by Alistair Fox
    Blackwell, 317 pp, £35.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 631 13566 9
  • The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Portraits at the Court of Henry VIII by Retha Warnicke
    Cambridge, 326 pp, £14.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 37000 0
  • English Travellers Abroad 1604-1667 by John Stoye
    Yale, 448 pp, £12.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 300 04180 2

One characteristic of the historical writing of the Eighties was an expanding readiness to relate the politics of the past to its literature: to the literature of ideas and imagination. The social and economic explanations of political behaviour which had been dominant in the previous decades had left too much unexplained. A growing number of historians turned to literature, as to art and religion, to understand the structures of thought and emotion which distinguish one age from another, and without a grasp of which the political language of the past can be unintelligible. More interest is now taken in the culture of a period than in its economics, while the study of high politics seems jejune when it lacks a cultural dimension.

Although the depth and durability of that trend cannot yet be judged, it is likely to gather strength from the important books in which Thomas Mayer and Alistair Fox examine the literature and politics of early Tudor England, especially of the reign of Henry VIII. Mayer’s concern is the literature of political theory. His study examines the ideas of Thomas Starkey, the friend of Cardinal Pole and adviser of Thomas Cromwell, and centres on the programme of reform announced in Starkey’s Dialogue between Pole and Lupset, a work whose significance has been more often acknowledged than explored. Fox’s concern is the imaginative literature of the age of John Skelton and Thomas More, and then of Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey: literature which he believes to have been gravely undervalued, and which he commends not only for its intrinsic pleasures but as a rich historical source.

What the most sophisticated contemporary writers thought about the reign of Henry VIII can be simply stated. It was a tyranny. That conviction rarely figures in later accounts of the reign, or at least in Protestant accounts. Greater notice is taken of the plaudits of the chronicler Edward Hall and of the (qualified) gratitude of the martyrologist John Foxe. Yet there has been an alternative tradition in Henrician historiography, and not only on the Catholic side. Beside Shakespeare’s tribute to Henry stands Sir Walter Ralegh’s protest: ‘if all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince were lost in the world, they might all again be painted to the life out of the story of this king.’ To the 17th-century republicans Edmund Ludlow and Algernon Sidney, Henry would be ‘that monster of mankind’, ‘one of the most violent princes we ever had’. To Bolingbroke in the 18th century, Henry’s would appear the most ‘severe’ of ‘tyrannies’.

His early reign – like that of Nero – had appeared promising enough. His coronation in 1509 seemed not the start of tyranny but a deliverance from it: ‘the end of our slavery, the fount of our liberty’, as More wrote. The fiscal exactions and the system of informers created by Henry’s father, Henry VII, seemed things of the past. So did the father’s proscription of the Yorkists and his assault on the independence of the nobility. Henry VIII was greeted by More, as More’s friends abroad greeted Francis I of France and the Emperor Charles V, as a Humanist prince who would reform Church and commonwealth. Hope soon turned to disillusionment, disillusionment to fear. The King had the cowardice of the bully and a proneness to suspicion which his advisers strove to turn against each other. The reign was bathed in blood: the blood of Edmund de la Pole in 1513, of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521, of More and Fisher in 1535, of Anne Boleyn and her alleged lovers in 1536, of Thomas Cromwell and the Protestants burned without trial in 1540, of the surviving supporters of Catherine of Aragon and of the Marquis of Exeter in 1540-1, of the Earl of Surrey in 1547.

Thomas More, observed Erasmus in 1519, ‘had always a peculiar loathing for tyranny’. More’s epigrams address the theme again and again. Even in the coronation poem of 1509 he reminded Henry that ‘unlimited power has a tendency to weaken good minds,’ an anxiety to which More would revert in Utopia in 1516. The citizens of Utopia, that inverted image of England, prefer elective to hereditary rule; they devise means to prevent their prince and his advisers from ‘conspiring together to oppress the people in tyranny’; they retain the right to ‘depose’ the prince ‘for suspicion of tyranny’. Around the time he wrote Utopia – and long before Henry presented him with a problem of religious allegiance – More drew on Sallust and Tacitus to compose his study of tyranny in The History of King Richard III. Shakespeare, inspired by More’s history, departed from it in loyally contrasting Richard with his virtuous Tudor successors. More’s praise of the first two Tudors could hardly have been more perfunctory.

To More the best form of government was an aristocracy, not a monarchy. His preference was shared by Thomas Starkey, whose Dialogue between Pole and Lupset, dated too late by Mayer’s predecessors, is placed by his careful scholarship around 1529-32. Time and again the Dialogue echoes Utopia, not only in its form, and not only in the condemnation of social and religious abuses for which, like Utopia, it has been best known, but in its political analysis which is Mayer’s principal concern. Starkey follows More in suggesting that ‘that country cannot be well-governed ... where all is ruled by the will’ of a king who is chosen not ‘by election’ but ‘by natural succession’. Like More, he favours the right to ‘depose’ a ‘tyrant’. For both writers, tyranny is the triumph of private pleasure over public interest, over ‘the common weal’. Its roots are the ethical ones that had been located by Aristotle and by Cicero: tyranny, the rule of will rather than of law, is the triumph of passion over reason. Just as More’s Hythloday thinks that, under monarchy, reason will always lose out to will and appetite, so Starkey laments that ‘our country has been governed these many years’ by princes who ‘have judged all things pertaining to the state of our realm to hang only upon their will and fantasy’, upon the prince’s ‘only arbitrariment’, ‘according to his will and pleasure’, ‘without restraint’: a misconception which ‘is without doubt and ever hath been the greatest destruction to this realm (yea and to all others) that ever hath come thereto’.

More and Starkey protested in prose. Others protested in verse: Skelton in the 1520s, Wyatt in the 1530s, Surrey in the 1540s. ‘There is so little care for the common weal, and so much need,’ objects Skelton, because ‘will doth rule all thing.’ Wyatt, who stood in danger of his life from the charges against him in 1536 and again in 1541, wrote of the ‘tyranny’ of his age, when ‘law’ was ‘wrested’ by ‘will and lust’ to shed ‘innocent blood’. Wyatt’s cry after the death of Anne Boleyn – ‘These bloody days have broken my heart’ – would be echoed in the verse of his friend Surrey, the final victim of the reign, who wrote of the ‘bloody hands’ and ‘bloody compacts’ of his enemies at court and of the ‘cruel power’ and the atmosphere of ‘dread’ that characterised the King’s entourage.

Literary evidence has well-recognised defects, however keenly felt the literature which supplies it. A regime does not become a tyranny simply because writers call it one. Just as the anti-clericalism of the period may indicate not declining standards among clergy-men but rising expectations among laymen, so the anger about tyranny could reflect not a deterioration of governmental practice but the stricter ethical requirements brought by political Humanism. The notion of a ‘Tudor despotism’ has suffered formidable blows from Sir Geoffrey Elton, who believes the rule of law to have prevailed in Henry’s reign – or at least in the period of Thomas Cromwell’s supremacy. He regards the treason legislation of the period as not an extension but a codification of existing law, which gave the King’s subjects a clearer idea where they stood. Even those who suspect that Elton protests too much might concede that a country full of political, religious and social tension, and lacking a police force or professional local government, could not have been ruled both gently and effectively. Stephen Greenblatt, who, in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, writes so memorably on More and Wyatt, impairs his case by too easily calling Henry VIII a Stalin, for the ambitions and resources of 20th-century tyranny were beyond the imagination of Tudor England. Protesting writers were not alienated dissidents. They were courtiers or would-be courtiers who belonged to the system they criticised. They wrote to advise and improve princes, not to overthrow them. A number of the politicians who were unjustly executed had earlier fixed the equally unjust executions of their enemies.

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