Out of the East

Blair Worden

  • The King’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey by Peter Gwyn
    Barrie and Jenkins, 666 pp, £20.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 7126 2190 3
  • Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution edited by John Morrill
    Longman, 300 pp, £17.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 582 06064 8
  • The Writings of William Walwyn edited by Jack McMichael and Barbara Taft
    Georgia, 584 pp, $45.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 8203 1017 4

Can historical biography still be written? Joel Hurstfield, who had planned a life of Robert Cecil, the chief minister inherited by James I from Queen Elizabeth, abandoned it in the 1960s in the belief that the genre had had its day. Geoffrey Elton, so much of whose career has been occupied with the achievements of Thomas Cromwell, has never thought biography to be the fitting means of approaching him. Biography now belongs to the margins of historical writing. The economic and sociological determinism of the 20th century has questioned the influence of great men, while its psychological determinism has undermined their dignity. To study the past through the lives of its most conspicuous individuals can seem as superficial or as frivolous an exercise as the interpretation of current affairs in terms of the clashes of political personalities. Even if we respect the study of personality we find it hard to practise it when we turn to the Early Modern period, when the evidence more often protects than exposes the private man.

If the biographer struggles to know enough about his subject’s inner life, he needs to know all too much about his times. The expansion, the specialisation and the disagreements of historical research over the past thirty or forty years confront the biographer at every turn with contested issues that are resolvable, if at all, only by a mastery of technical detail for which his biographical preoccupations are unlikely to have equipped him. In any case, the sceptic might ask, what purpose can biography now serve? In the Classical world, and then in the Christian one, its function was exemplary. Biographers selected or heightened or invented material in order to create ‘patterns’ that would incite their readers to virtue and deter them from vice. That educational purpose warranted the transformation of life into art. Our very different conception of historical truth challenges not only the improvement of biographical fact but the artistic shaping of it.

No one would accuse Peter Gwyn, author of The King’s Cardinal, of confusing life with art. His intentions are too austere to risk that imputation. Although his important and very long book proclaims itself a ‘biography’ of Thomas Wolsey, it fulfils few of the expectations raised by the term. There is little story-telling, and less evocation of mood or circumstance. Instead there are arguments, conducted against most of the statements that have ever been made about Wolsey, and most feelingly against those that have been made recently. Passions run high in the study of early Tudor England, and Gwyn’s book is certain to fuel the flames. Unhappily for the lay reader, the disputes tend to turn on fine points of evidence, many of which have to be pursued in the Public Record Office, although Gwyn appears to prefer printed to manuscript sources. It is a tribute to the infectiousness of Gwyn’s commitment, and to the predominantly successful deployment of a riskily colloquial prose, that he sustains attention through protracted discussions of the kinds of issue more usually addressed in the house journal of the Institute of Historical Research. If he occasionally stretches our patience it is with his sense of fair play, for he thinks it proper to guide us through extended arguments in favour of complex hypotheses before revealing his rejection of them. It is a conscientious reader who will not sometimes peep ahead.

If Gwyn’s material is complex, his thesis is simple. Cardinal Wolsey, he declares, has been misrepresented and maligned for four and a half centuries. Ever since the Reformation, which so soon followed his death, he has been victimised by ‘the Protestant tradition’ and by ‘the closely allied Whig tradition’. The English, being ‘not very fond of cardinals’, and not very fond of builders of royal power, have despised or caricatured Wolsey as ‘a royal favourite and a meddlesome priest’. Fertile as Gwyn’s challenge to that picture is, it has to be said that, like many critics of Protestant and Whig historiography, he does not define it carefully or explain its development and influence across the generations, so that we are left to wonder why the partisan errors of the 16th century should have been repeated in the 20th. Readers of Elton’s work on Parliamentary history will be surprised to find him implicitly condemned as a Whig. Readers of his work on administrative history will be no less surprised to find him implicitly rebuked for swallowing the prejudices of Tudor chroniclers. Nevertheless, a fundamental reassessment of Wolsey has been long overdue, and Gwyn has certainly provided it. On virtually every count he springs to the cardinal’s defence. To Gwyn, Wolsey was a civilised, amicable, industrious and efficient figure, who in politics was ‘genuinely concerned to promote the common weal’ and who in religion ‘always had the best interests of the Church at heart’. Far from manipulating Henry VIII he ‘loved his master more than himself’. He was the junior, the tactician rather than the strategist, in a highly effective partnership between two able men.

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