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.

Whatever we think of the political morality of Henry’s reign, the surprise is not so much that courtiers and intellectuals thought it was a tyranny but that they said so – or implied so – on paper. The current view that the writers of Early Modern England lived under repressive conditions – Stalinist conditions – of censorship is too simple and too gloomy. It is true that the Crown’s critics did not normally venture into print. Of More’s criticisms of tyranny, the only ones to be published in his lifetime (and even then in Latin) were those in Utopia, which are circumspectly and tantalisingly brief. Yet the fear of censorship or retaliation can only explain so much. The ‘stigma of print’ – the fear of vulgarity – was a stronger impediment to publication than the fear of princes. Most writing was read in manuscript, and (so far as we can tell) Henrician authors circulated literary manuscripts without terror. A regime otherwise ready to seize on the faintest indiscretions of expendable politicians gave latitude to their poetry and political theory. It does not seem to have occurred to the Crown, when it prosecuted More or Wyatt or Surrey, to hunt for treason in their works of imaginative literature. Starkey, far from seeking to conceal the content of his Dialogue or anticipating royal wrath, planned to present it to Henry and to invite him to implement its proposals.

There were, it is true, decencies to be observed. Starkey’s hostility to hereditary rule is politely qualified by his acknowledgment that the system may occasionally ‘chance’ to supply a virtuous ruler, and by his repeated assurances that ‘we have so noble a prince,’ ‘ever desirous of the common weal’, ‘whose prudence and wisdom is lively law and true piety’. Yet would even a reader as vain as Henry have missed the patency of Starkey’s insincerity? For the symptoms of contemporary tyranny which Starkey particularises, the granting of dispensations from statutes and the suppression of the restraining office of Constable of the Realm, are unmistakably blamed on Henry’s regime. And if, as Starkey declares, ‘the goodness of a prince’ would ‘quickly’ bring redress, how is it that after two decades of Henry’s reign the state of England still ‘cries and calls’ for reformation and has reduced the friends of the common weal to ‘so great desperation’?

Starkey may have believed, as Englishmen of the Early Modern period so often did, that the problem lay not in the monarch but in the advisers who manipulated him. He may have seen Henrician tyranny as the product less of the man than of the times, less of the King’s character than of a system for whose existence he was not responsible – or no more responsible than his critics. The words given in Starkey’s Dialogue to Cardinal Pole capture the tension evident too in More and Wyatt, and evident time and again in critics of the Crown over the following two centuries: the tension between a despairing recognition of the disadvantages of monarchy and a longing to love and serve the monarch. Did Henry grasp the intrinsic loyalty of the writers? Did the ‘new monarchy’ of early Tudor England, like the new monarchy of Augustan Rome, see literary protest within the court as a harmless outlet for the resentment of a newly-tamed ruling class?

To answer those questions we would need the answer to another. If the conventions governing permissible expression are unclear to us, were they any clearer to contemporaries? Sometimes we can watch writers approaching what they sense to be the borderline. More breaks off his unfinished Richard III soon after mentioning his thoughts of writing on a subject closer to home, the reign of Henry VIII’s father. He concludes by recording a wary conversation in which Cardinal Morton declines to speak freely to the Duke of Buckingham about King Richard because ‘I love not much to talk of princes, as a thing not all out of peril.’ An innocent word, warns Morton, may be taken, not ‘as the party meant it, but as it pleaseth the prince to construe it’. A like shadow falls upon the interlocutors of Starkey’s Dialogue when the argument seems at its riskiest: Pole feels able to speak ‘freely’ only ‘betwixt you and me’, and recognises that ‘to speak anything’ against the Crown’s prerogative ‘is almost treason’. Why did More and Starkey draw attention to their difficulty? Or with what motive did Wyatt pretend, on the fringes of his poem ‘Of the courtier’s life addressed to John Poyntz’, that its denunciation of tyranny is principally aimed not at Henrician England but at the Continental courts where Wyatt has been ambassador? Wyatt departed from his Italian model for the poem in omitting its tribute to the tyrant-slayer Marcus Brutus and substituting for him the safer figure of Marcus Cato. Was this self-protection, or a gesture of deference to Henry – or a wink to the knowing reader which makes the allusion to tyrannicide conspicuous by its absence?

Combing literary sources for political allusions can be a necessary exercise. Yet it becomes a distorting and diminishing one if it prompts us to approach an author’s political intentions separately from his literary ones. We can sympathise with critics who resist the claim that Wyatt’s poem ‘Whoso list to hunt’ is an allegory about Anne Boleyn, for the case is sometimes made – as it surely need not be – in terms that seem to lessen the wonder of the verse. Such hazards are not confined to the reading of poetry. The boldest section of Mayer’s Thomas Starkey and the Common-weal examines the manuscript notes which, late in life, Starkey compiled on the tyrannies of the Old Testament. There, Mayer argues, Starkey veiled criticisms of Henry VIII under the ‘camouflage’ or ‘protective coloration’ of Biblical study. Mayer’s case clearly has something important in it, and invites us to look freshly not only at Starkey’s jottings but at the Biblical translations by Wyatt and Surrey where some critics – Alistair Fox among them – detect allusions to contemporary politics. Yet the argument is troubling, not merely because we wonder why Starkey should have been so much more cautious in private notes than in the Dialogue, but more substantially because it reduces the scope of Starkey’s imagination. Once we think of him as writing in code, his study of Biblical history seems merely exploitative, so that we lose sight of his curiosity about a distant time and place and of the interaction of past and present in the enlargement of his mind.

It is the Dialogue that offers the clearest evidence of Starkey’s stature, however, and the thoroughness with which Mayer has explored the work – its composition, its sources, its ideas – is an invaluable service to students both of Tudor politics and of the development of English political thought. He may be almost too close to his subject, for the details of his thesis can be clearer than its outlines, and the reader has to uncover for himself some of the significance of Meyer’s findings.

Thomas Starkey came from a family of minor gentry in Cheshire. About the time that More wrote Utopia, Starkey went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, whose recent foundation had begun the golden age of Humanism in the University. It was at Magdalen that Starkey came to know the central figure of his life (as of the Dialogue): Reginal Pole, grandson of the Duke of Clarence and kinsman and protégé of Henry VIII. Most of the 1520s Starkey apparently spent with Pole in Italy, imbibing the ideas, particularly the political ideas, of the Humanists of Venice, Padua and Florence. In later life he would explain the reason for his travels in terms that look forward to Milton, another youthful visitor to Italy. Like Milton, Starkey was convinced that his native land could be restored to political health only if it reached beyond its insular traditions to the wisdom – ancient and modern – of the Mediterranean. In his early studies in England, Starkey (as he would recall) had ‘somewhat perceived the dignity of of man’s nature’, and become ‘inflamed’ by ‘a great desire’ to test his reading against ‘the manners of other people in strange nations’. In Italy, ‘the place most famed both with great learning and good and just policy’, he had been moved to ‘weigh the customs and manners of mine own countrymen’. He had found them gravely wanting.

Starkey’s foreign education was not a merely academic exercise. It was a preparation for action. He looked to a day when Pole, with Starkey at his side, would claim his rightful place in the leadership of England, and inaugurate an urgent programme of reform. That prospect was distant while Wolsey remained supreme, but by 1528, probably the year when Pole and Starkey returned to England, Wolsey’s fortunes were declining. The great nobles whom he had displaced in Henry’s favour were conspiring to destroy him. In 1529 the summoning of Parliament opened the gates to reform, and in the vacuum of power at court Pole’s chances looked as good as anyone’s. They looked better still after his triumph of 1530-31, when, in a mission with Thomas Lupset, his interlocutor in the Dialogue, he persuaded the theologians of Paris to support Henry’s divorce. Such was the expectant context of 1529-32 in which the Dialogue was written: an ‘occasion’ or opportunity, as Starkey put it, which it would be fatal to ‘let slip’. By ‘occasion’ he surely meant what Italian Humanists called an occasione: one of those decisive historical moments when a nation’s future liberty or slavery hangs upon the boldness and prudence of its leaders.

Cardinal Pole, a proud aristocrat, conscious of his Plantagenet blood, may seem to us an unlikely radical. In the 1530s, when the ‘occasion’ had evaporated, he and Starkey went their separate ways, Starkey backing the Cromwellian revolution, Pole defying it. While Starkey wrote further blueprints of reform, Pole withdrew to the Continent and conspired with the Pope and the Emperor against his king. In 1536-7, the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the rebels looked to Pole to lead an invasion force to join them. The hope was dashed by Pole’s characteristic indecisiveness, and now seems improbable. Yet were the odds against him greater than those which, a century and a half later, confronted the invading force of William of Orange? Might it not have been Pole, instead of William, whom posterity recognised as the liberator of England and the preserver of its established religion?

In the event, Pole would not return to England until the evening of his life, when he headed the Marian reaction and endorsed the Protestant burnings. Yet the party lines which formed in the 1530s, and more rigidly in the 1550s, should not obscure the earlier common ground. Pole and More, who so profoundly opposed Henry’s nationalisation of the Church, had been as anxious as anyone to reform it. The Henrician coup did not terminate Pole’s evangelical convictions: it channelled them into the Counter-Reformation.

Starkey’s Dialogue is our fullest source for Pole’s views during the ‘occasion’ of 1529-32. Is it a reliable one? The ‘dialogue’ may be imaginary – although Dermot Fenlon, in his Heresy and Obedience in Renaissance Italy, noticed a remark given by Starkey to Pole which Pole repeated ‘almost word for word’ at the Council of Trent. Starkey may have had an interest in crediting Pole with opinions which were more clearly or more strongly Starkey’s own. Yet he would have gained nothing and risked much by serious distortion. Even if Starkey’s representation is only half-reliable, it offers a vivid sense of the intellectual questioning and excitement of Pole’s household. It also provides striking evidence of Pole’s radicalism, conspicuously greater than that of Lupset, whose instinct for compromise Pole repeatedly challenges.

The Dialogue offers a devastating indictment of England’s backwardness. The nation is gripped by economic parasitism, gravely under-exploiting its natural resources, shamefully inadequate in its provision of justice and of poor relief. Depopulation, enclosure, rack-renting, the ‘multitude’ of unprofitably employed ‘serving men’, the excess of conspicuous consumption, the ubiquity of idleness and gluttony and drunkenness, the absence of proper education, the corruption of the legal system – all reflect the decay of social and personal discipline. If it is to be revived, then respect for justice must be revived. The legal system must be decentralised. Its proceedings must be in English, not in barbarous Norman French, the language that had been imposed by the ‘tyrant’ William the Conqueror. It is absurd to hang people for petty theft, especially since theft can be caused by ‘great necessity’. But most important of all, the Church must be overhauled: the abuses of the monasteries curbed, the non-residence and the enforced celibacy of the clergy ended, the Gospel made available in English, idle priests instructed as preachers and pastors.

The constitutional programme of the Dialogue is no less far-reaching. The King would renounce his prerogatives and become a doge of Venice. Government by royal will or favourites would yield to government by councils. Each parliament, before its dissolution, would appoint a ‘little parliament’ to act until the next full parliament met and to exercise the powers of making war and peace and of appointing office-holders. For other matters the king would be permitted his own council, but parliament, not the king, would appoint its members. The office of Constable, suppressed in 1521, would be revived, ‘to counterpoise the authority of the prince and [to] temper the same, giving him authority to call a parliament in such case as the prince would run into any tyranny.’ In inviting Henry to implement his proposals, Starkey is urging the argument which in the 17th century would be pressed first by the republican James Harrington on Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate, then by Harrington’s friend Henry Nevile on Charles II during the Exclusion Crisis: the ruler should recognise the parlous condition of his realm and the precariousness of his authority, acknowledge the inevitable instability of the political system over which he presides, and sacrifice the ephemeral pleasures of power to become the father of his country’s happiness.

What were the sources of Starkey’s – and Pole’s – political ideas? Like More, like Skelton, the Dialogue recommends government by ‘wise men’ – that is, an aristocracy. Mayer sees Starkey as spokesman for the high nobility whose powers the early Tudors had eroded, and whose control of government he looked to Pole to restore: an interpretation which broadly complements the illuminating recent sketches of Henrician politics by the historian David Starkey. Thomas Starkey’s proposals are rooted in the Lancastrian conciliarism of the Middle Ages, when the peerage had kept the crown in check. The nostalgic or reactionary component of the Dialogue is repeatedly evident. We see it in Starkey’s commendation of the Medieval exploits of the English in France and Scotland, where the warlike nobility had shown themselves ‘nobles indeed’. We see it in the yearning for an ordered, hierarchical world where each class knows its place, where men do not house or dress themselves ‘above their degree’, where they serve the commonwealth in their localities instead of flocking to the court.

Yet the Dialogue is not a straightforward apologia for the great landowners. ‘Princes and lords’, says Starkey, are largely to blame for England’s social ills, for although they ‘pretend’ to serve the common weal they ‘seldom look to the good order and wealth of their subjects, only they look to the receiving of their rents and revenues.’ Through their selfishness the social harmony of England has broken down. Starkey, who accepts the Humanist premise that nobility must be earned by public virtue, demands rigorous legislation to curb the nobles’ ‘superfluous riches’ and opulent lifestyle. His conciliarism is less ‘heavily aristocratic’ than Mayer suggests, for although he holds the conventional assumption that political power should be largely confined to the nobility and the gentry, the high nobility would be in a minority – not, as Mayer seems to suppose, a majority – on Starkey’s councils. Mayer’s preoccupation with Starkey’s ‘aristocratic leanings’ also leads him to misinterpret Starkey’s preference for a ‘mixed state’, a term by which Starkey means not a mixture of aristocracy and democracy but a constitution which restrains the prince’s authority.

Nonetheless Mayer has established aristocratic medievalism as one of the two principal influences on Starkey’s political thought. The other he identifies, no less strongly, as Renaissance Italy. Mayer might have written less about the Italian writers and more about the republics of Classical antiquity which their writings illuminated and from which they drew their inspiration, for much of the inspiration of the Dialogue seems drawn from them too. Above all, there is ‘the old and wise Rome’. England should ‘look to the Romans, whose common weal may be an example to all others’, ‘the ancient Romans whose laws meseemeth to be drawn out of nature’. She should introduce equivalents to the Roman censors and aediles. She should adopt the civil law, ‘the most ancient and noble monument of the Romans’ prudence and policy’.

From his studies of Rome and Greece Starkey came not only to admire their laws and constitutions but to grasp a concept of liberty significantly different from that of his countrymen, for whom freedom meant (basically) freedom from constraint. To ‘live in liberty,’ argues Starkey, we must ‘live the civil life’, and the civil life – a recurrent phrase of the Dialogue – is attainable only if the state imposes social discipline. Thus the nobility ‘must be constrained’ to train themselves in arms. Starkey likewise applauds the Roman legislation against ‘prodigality’ and the determination of the Athenians to ‘suffer no man to abide in their city except he professed some honest craft’.

Starkey’s commitment to the ‘civil life’, through which alone ‘the dignity of the nature of man’ can be fulfilled, places him at the origin of that tradition of Classical republicanism which would permeate the intellectual history of England over the next two centuries and from there spread, in the Enlightenment, to France, Scotland and America. The tradition is conspicuous in the 17th century – the age of Harrington and Nevile and Milton and Algernon Sidney – but less so in the 16th. John Pocock, the masterly expositor of the tradition, barely mentions Starkey. The Dialogue was not published until the 19th century. Was it known after its author’s death? Gordon Zeeveld argued, in Foundations of Tudor Policy, that the Marian theorist John Ponet drew on it, but thereafter the trail goes cold. Of course, Classical republicanism is a simplifying phrase. Classicism, in Starkey as in his 17th-century successsors, mingled and conflicted with insular assumptions, republicanism with respect for the ancient native constitution. But a more fitting term has yet to be found, and Starkey has a good claim to be considered England’s first Classical republican.

If Mayer’s book calls for a fresh assessment of Starkey, Alistair Fox has a more ambitious programme of habilitation. It is no less successful. Fox does, however, inflict some argumentative problems on himself. He claims, promisingly, that a wealth of early Tudor literature has fallen victim to canons of taste that have prevailed since the later 16th century, when George Puttenham mocked Skelton’s gifts and derided Wyatt and Surrey as ‘novices crept out of the schools of Dante, Ariosto and Petrarch’. But Fox’s grounds for redressing the balance look doubtful. He tells us that Marxist and feminist critics ‘have effortlessly demonstrated that the “canon” of works approved and taught in the academies has been determined by cultural taste as much as objective judgment’. ‘Effortlessly’ is certainly the word, but what can the demonstration mean unless we know what distinguishes ‘objective judgment’ from ‘cultural taste’? In the event, Fox shows little faith in objective judgment, and appears sympathetic to the view that ‘all meaning, and hence all values, are relative and historically-determined.’ So why is a high valuation of early Tudor literature worth more than a low one?

Fox justly contends that ‘the accomplishment’ of his writers ‘does not depend, for the most part, on verbal or formal beauty’, the qualities for which the Elizabethans would strive. But on what then does it depend? He finds the answer in the literary consequences of political pressures: in the responses of writers to the emergence of the new monarchy, and to restraints on freedom of expression which obliged them to test the possibilities of writing indirectly, ironically, ambiguously. Yet even if the historical circumstances of early Tudor England could be shown to have been favourable to the creation of fine literature, we would still need standards of judgment – objective or not – to see whether the opportunity was taken.

The shortcomings of Fox’s general statements must not obscure the merits of his particular ones. His book operates, enjoyably if not always smoothly, at two levels: first, as the lucid introductory survey of its subject that has long been wanted, and secondly, as a work of lively and contentious interpretation. Fox speaks of his writers, the famous and the obscure alike, with an evangelical enthusiasm which, while it may not persuade many readers to place the eclogues of Alexander Barclay or the dream poems of Stephen Hawes at the head of their reading-lists, should generate fresh appreciation of more familiar authors, especially Skelton and More, the two to whom he gives most space.

Fox’s method is biographical. A clear shape is given both to the personal and to the literary development of each of his writers. There are deft explorations of the influence on poetry of the operation of patronage, an approach especially rewarding in the case of Skelton, whom Fox judges to have written his fiercest and finest satire in order to force Wolsey to buy his silence, and to have become – like Barclay before him – a lesser writer once his position was secure. Knowing his authors so well, Fox writes confidently of the workings of their minds. Can he really be sure that More in writing Richard III, and Erasmus (present in the book as an honorary Englishman) in composing The Praise of Folly, came to despair of writing the kinds of books they had intended?

Our biographical knowledge of early Tudor Englishmen can be thin, and Fox hangs some large arguments on small documentary points: on the significance of the recently discovered evidence that Starkey attended the Queen’s coronation in 1503, or of the terms of the lease that Skelton renewed in 1518 on a tenement within the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, or of the signs of Lutheran influence which lead Fox to a fresh dating of Wyatt’s translations from the Psalms. Fox sees a turning-point in Wyatt’s verse in 1536, the year of his arrest, and of the executions of his associates, for alleged intercourse with Anne Boleyn. Thereafter, Fox maintains, Wyatt hid the tensions of his personality from his readers and projected instead an image of Stoic constancy. Yet I cannot discern Fox’s reason for regarding Wyatt’s most celebrated Stoic poem, the translation from Seneca’s Thyestes (‘Stand whoso list upon the slipper top/Of court’s estates’), as referring to the executions of 1536. Still, his decisiveness makes for some compelling reading.

Fox believes that the polarisation brought by Henry’s break from Rome had a baneful influence on English literature. Writers who had thrived on ambiguity or irony were now forced to take sides. Hence the gap in English poetry from around 1540 to around 1580. He may be right, although polarisation does not always destroy literature. The polarisation of the Puritan Revolution produced (eventually) the greatest poetry of Milton (the least ambiguous of writers) and of Marvell (the most ambiguous). There is another way of thinking about the literary consequences of the Henrician Reformation. Before the schism, Skelton writes as a spokesman for the common weal:

Wandering as I walk,
I hear the people talk.

Like More, like Starkey, he dwells on the social consequences of corruption at court. Wyatt and Surrey, writing after the schism, worry about what the court does, not to the common weal, but to them. It is ‘my’ heart that the ‘bloody days’ of 1536 break in Wyatt, whose poem to John Poyntz, though it glances at the fate of the common weal, takes its emotional shape from its author’s hammering of the first personal pronoun. From Wyatt onwards the mainstream of the imaginative literature of Protestantism, that most introverted of faiths, would be more personal than social.

Wyatt’s relations with Anne Boleyn are of concern to Retha Warnicke in The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. She encounters them in addressing ‘the fact of whether Anne ever had a secret love affair’. Warnicke is anxious to protect Anne from that imputation, and indeed from any imputation which might represent the Queen as anything other than a passive victim of male prejudice and ignorance. To that end she sets out to discredit readings of Wyatt’s verse that detect references to Anne in it. The poem about the ‘bloody days’, which even Wyatt’s scrupulously cautious modern editor allows to be ‘very probably’ about Anne, is silently passed by. Of another poem, ‘If waker care’, she claims that the brunette who has ‘set our country in a roar’ is unlikely to be Anne, for in that period the word ‘country’ was ‘often used synonymously with county’, so that it is ‘more likely’ that Wyatt was referring to a woman in his native Kent. Warnicke’s deployment of the words ‘often’ and ‘more’ in that assertion typifies her methods of argument. In reality, ‘country’ meant ‘county’ less ‘often’ in literature than it meant ‘realm’, and Wyatt is ‘more likely’ to have used the metaphor as More had done in Richard III: ‘And thus should all the realm fall on a roar.’

Anne Boleyn, says Warnicke, has been the victim of caricature by male historians, who allow three dimensions only to fellow males. They have gladly swallowed the hostile accounts of the Queen in the dispatches of the Spanish ambassador Chapuys. This is nonsense. Chapuys’s obvious bias has long been recognised. The ‘modern scholars’ who have maligned Anne shrink, by the time we reach Warnicke’s footnote, to a single author who published in 1826 – though the footnote does proceed to one of Warnicke’s obscurely-articulated reflections on the major recent biography of Anne by Eric Ives.

Warnicke’s boldest contention is that Anne Boleyn was brought to trial not, as Ives and others have supposed, as a sacrifice to factional feuding, but because her miscarriage early in 1536 was of a deformed foetus, a mishap that convinced Henry that his wife was a witch. This argument, which has not a shred of tangible evidence to support it, is as unnecessary as it is exasperatingly circular.

It is a relief, and a delight, to turn to the (significantly but not fundamentally) revised edition of John Stoye’s classic work, first published in 1952, on English travellers in Western Europe in the 17th century. It seems now, to have been written in a lost age of innocence. A reader would know it to be the work of a scholar, but might not guess it to be the work of an academic. Its undemonstrative virtues – the infectious spirit of inquiry and observation, the absorption in the texture of the past, the drawing-out of reflective generalisation from telling detail, the courtesy and artistry of the prose – were not always in fashion between the first edition and the new one. Yet the controversies which blew through 17th-century studies during that time, and blew themselves out, have left intact the findings of a book that might have been written yesterday.