John Bossy

  • The New Oxford History of England. Vol. II: The Later Tudors by Penry Williams
    Oxford, 628 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 822820 1

Do we need narrative history? Yes, because otherwise we shall live on clichés about it, like the French. Do we need a narrative history of England? Yes, for the same reason, and because otherwise we shall think that the past is an allegory of the present and be suckers for propaganda for good or bad causes, environmental, constitutional, criminological, Euromushy, feminist. Do we need multi-volume histories of England? Yes, probably, because there is a limit of compression below which narrative history cannot do its duty. Do we need them to be produced by one firm of publishers? Doubtful: volumes will be better or worse, and are most unlikely to amount collectively to the seamless web Lord Acton dreamed about for the Cambridge Modern History. So, do we need a New Oxford History of England? The old one, got off the ground with great promptitude by G.N. Clark in the Thirties, held up by the war, and finished with A.J.P. Taylor’s extra volume on 1914-45, does not much ring in the mind, except for its first two volumes (Collingwood and Myres, and Stenton) and Taylor’s. I doubt if the new one will fare any better. John Roberts, the general editor, does not show his hand in detail, and we must keep our fingers crossed about the whole being greater than the parts by giving ‘an account of the development of our country in time’ – ‘our country’ meaning something different for King Alfred and Queen Victoria, but ‘the state structure built round the English monarchy’ being the core of it.

I am not sure that this is any harder a job to do now than it was for Clark and his authors, who, Roberts says, shared with their readers ‘a broad sense of the purpose and direction’ of the volumes in his History. I should think that their purpose, then as now, was to help undergraduates to write essays and pass exams. If the present History becomes superannuated before it is finished it is more likely to be because essays and exams will have been abolished than because professional historians are now in a muddle about what they are supposed to be doing. Might not he and his team get a sense of purpose and direction from the idea that it would be a particularly good thing just now if English school-children, at least, were to get to know more about Queen Elizabeth and less about Adolf Hitler than they have been doing recently?

Here, anyway, is the New Oxford’s contribution about Elizabeth, entrusted to a Welshman from its home university, Penry Williams, where the old one was entrusted to a Scot, J.B. Black, from Aberdeen. One mildly regrettable difference is the title. Black’s volume, The Reign of Elizabeth, was the only one to be devoted to a single reign except that about George III. Williams’s is called The Later Tudors, surely a fallback to the most boring titles of the old series, and starts in 1547. This seems intended to bring the Queen down a peg or two: the up-front events of her reign, at 150 pages or so, take four pages a year, while those of her brother’s and sister’s rate eight or nine. Can that be right? True, ‘religion’ is excluded for a later chapter (though economics, sensibly, is not); but that seems a fairly odd decision too. The last paragraphs of the book, which most people will surely agree with, indicate that the most important general fact about English history in the later 16th century was that the country avoided an internal war of religion: it was under Elizabeth, and much due to her, that this was so. Forty pages on Elizabethan religion, in Chapter 11, therefore seem scanty; ‘Art, Power and the Social Order’ get 65, and I shall not be suggesting that they are too many.

Of the 40, Catholics get ten and a bit, and Williams has followed Christopher Haigh in downsizing the Elizabethan Catholic mission into a bomb that failed to go off. This leaves an awful hole in the story: it was a real bomb, and blew up a lot of things, including the planter. I don’t think it is grinding an axe to claim that the revival of Catholicism during the 1570s was a pretty central event in the story of the reign, and governed a great deal of the political history that followed: I doubt if the Armada would have happened without it. It was also the sort of event whose importance only a narrative history can bring out, in that it was wholly unpredictable. In no other Protestant state, if we exclude Ireland, did anything remotely similar happen. A Jesuit attempt on Sweden, which occurred at the same time, was a different sort of thing, and an undoubted fiasco; a steady flow of priests, Jesuit and other, into the United Provinces a little later had no effect on the political history of that country.

In The Reign of Elizabeth, Black did justice to the mission, to the moral and political problems it created, and to a long historical tradition which had been admirably summed up by the German Arnold Oskar Meyer in his England and the Catholic Church under Queen Elizabeth; I do not see that we can afford to pass over a story which culminated in the introduction of political terrorism to Westminster by the Gun-powder Plot. Black was also much more generous to the dealings at the end of the reign between Sir Robert Cecil, Bishop Bancroft and a number of Catholic priests who attempted to solve their dilemma by a public affirmation of allegiance to the Crown in political matters. Meyer took these to be, if only symbolically, events of a similar kind of significance in the inward history of England as the defeat of the Armada in the outward. If we think that Meyer went over the top about their political significance, there is now a good deal to be said about their place in the history of the English Church. They illuminate the attitudes of Richard Bancroft, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, who showed plenty of sympathy for a group of moderately anti-Papist but episcopalian Catholic priests and none at all for Presbyterian, or even non-Presbyterian, promoters of the ‘pretended holy discipline’. Bancroft was a link between the philo-Catholics of Elizabeth’s court, like his patron Sir Christopher Hatton, and the ‘Catholic’ Anglicanism of William Laud and after; and if Elizabeth herself had not been so enraged by the Papist-Catholics’ kamikaze attack on her Church, her crown and her person, her own place in that sequence would be more apparent than it is. It is perfectly proper for Williams to treat the cracks in English Catholicism as arising from the ‘divisive impact of the mission’; but to take that impact as simply or mainly divisive, and destructive, of an existing body of Catholics is to impoverish the narrative of the reign where opportunities offer of enriching it.

Williams scores a bull’s-eye, I ought to say, by getting into his story the conversion from Popery of John Donne. I should sympathise with anyone who thought this as important an action in the ‘development of our country in time’ as the protestation of loyalty of 13 less remarkable priests; it appears to have been inspired partly by motives the same as theirs, though it was a good deal more radical in its execution. Donne was a genius, and the kind of poetry he invented was another bolt from the blue; the particular sort of genius he was had something to do with his upbringing in immediate contact with the doings of the Catholic mission at their most intense. He was taken to martyrdoms. The Jesuit superior in England, Jasper Heywood, was his uncle, and when Donne was 12 he went to visit him in the Tower, somehow managing to smuggle in with him Heywood’s newly-arrived successor, William Weston. He must surely have heard masses said by, and made his confessions to, Weston or Henry Garnet or Robert Southwell. In 1593, when he was 21 and at Lincoln’s Inn, his younger brother Henry was arrested for harbouring a priest; he died in prison, and would otherwise no doubt have been executed like the priest. After that, Donne began to climb his zigzag path up the mountain of Truth, and signed up for the Protestant cause by volunteering for seaborne expeditions against Spain. Perhaps this was just funk or careerism; or perhaps he remembered his uncle Heywood’s hostility to playing politics with the mission, and to his colleague Robert Parsons, who played them. Fifteen years later he had his revenge on Parsons in Ignatius His Conclave, where he took advantage of Galileo’s discoveries to suggest that the Pope might send Parsons to run a missionary church on the Moon. His case indicates that the fall-out from the ex-(or im-) plosion of the Elizabethan mission might carry a long way.

In the chapter on ‘Art, Power and the Social Order’ Donne appears twice, exemplifying a gentlemanly dislike of publishing poetry and the problems of patronage. This is in accordance with the quotation from Stephen Greenblatt which Williams starts with, that works of art and literature are ‘social actions ... embedded in systems of public signification’; which may seem limiting. In fact, the chapter is very worthwhile, and certainly a lot more fun than Black’s wooden piece on ‘Literature, Art and Thought’. Williams starts with the ‘social context’, here meaning literacy, the language, printing, schooling and universities, private libraries, the environment of London and the court. Since most of the work he is using is devoted either to the public for ballads and chapbooks or to the universities, it is nice to find the grammar schools figuring as something like the heroes of the story: 136 new ones founded, the humanist and rhetorical curriculum elaborated so that Shakespeare, pace Jonson and one’s own ignorant assumptions, was turned out from Stratford ‘thoroughly grounded in Latin literature’ and at little, perhaps no, disadvantage against the university wits. If the schools did not teach English rhetoric, they bred it. ‘Patronage’ takes us from buildings via music and (unimpressive) painting to the playhouses, about whose audiences Williams is a populist.

‘Censorship’ gets a modest space: it was not, he says, the result of ‘an implicit social contact between authors and authorities’ to confine themselves to allegory or, I should add, of a ‘culture of surveillance’. But it certainly existed, and increased, naturally enough, with the political danger to the country; it had its customary effect in adding spice and sales to forbidden items like Leicester’s Commonwealth and the Marprelate tracts. From this base Williams expounds the relation between serious literary and dramatic works and ‘political and social power’. The exposition scores by attending to long-term modes of thought and feeling (chivalric, variously classical, Petrarchan, Christian); by noting ambiguities in the conventional picture of the praises of Elizabeth, which are much like those in the Conservative picture of Margaret Thatcher; and by doubting the allegiance of Elizabethans to the Great Chain of Being and indicating the empathy with which Sidney and Shakespeare (if not Spenser, obsessed as he was with the Irish) broached the topic of rebellion. Inside the framework provided by Greenblatt and others Williams has done a proper historical job, and the effect is to give a powerful sense of accumulated real life, real thought and real talent. He does not, above all, undermine the suspicion that works of art and literature which may be regarded as ‘social actions’ are probably inferior works of art and literature.