Playboy’s Paperwork

Patrick Collinson

  • The World of the Favourite edited by J.H. Elliott and L.W.B. Brockliss
    Yale, 320 pp, £35.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 300 07644 4
  • The Polarisation of Elizabethan Politics: The Political Career of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1585-97 by Paul Hammer
    Cambridge, 468 pp, £45.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 521 43485 8

From the Fifties to the Seventies, historians of early modern Europe were tempted to search for general regularities with which to order the past, if not quite to explain it. Examples are the notion of a ‘general crisis’ in the 17th century, and the ‘rise’ of the gentry and an alleged ‘crisis’ of the nobility, especially in England. Seismic shirts in European civilisation, functional and dysfunctional, part of the breakdown of the medieval world and the coming of modernity, were discussed in reductionist terms as the consequence of the so-called ‘military revolution’, or of the fiscal burden of parasitical royal courts, or as incidental to the phenomenon of the multiple kingdoms which were another feature of the age. Such ambitious theories, symptomatic of both Marxism and reactive anti-Marxism, have been censured by social scientists for their lack of intellectual rigour and indicted for taxonomical imprecision. What is a crisis? Who were the gentry, or the aristocracy? On the other hand, a different kind of historian wonders why we should not be content simply to give a meaningful account of the kaleidoscopic variety and contingency of historical events and circumstances. General theories, still less what have been called ‘law-like generalisations’, should not be the historian’s stock-in-trade at all. He should be content to tell stories. We have witnessed the return of narrative.

The World of the Favourite is a collection of essays which looks back to that earlier episode in historiography, since it derives from a colloquium held in 1996 to explore the implications of a seminal article published as long ago as 1974 by the French historian Jean Bérenger. Bérenger had argued that it was not a mere coincidence that all-powerful prime ministerial favourites – Richelieu, Olivares, Buckingham – emerged more or less simultaneously in the three West European countries which were models for the rise of the modern nation state. They were a ‘European phenomenon’. Evidently Bérenger had been at least part of the inspiration for a book by one of the editors of this volume, John Elliott: his Richelieu and Olivares (1984).

For all that this volume is produced with the lavishness we have come to expect from Yale University Press, with no less than 74 illustrations, most of them portraits of 37 ‘favourites’ and of the monarchs they served, this is no coffee-table book nor even a collection of potted biographies, but grist to the mill of the committed historian. It is assumed that the reader will not need to be told what the careers of Richelieu and Mazarin, or of Buckingham and Strafford, consisted of, although some orienteering concessions to ignorance are made in the cases of Matthäus Enzlin of Württemberg and Peder Griffenfeld, the all-powerful first minister of Denmark from 1670 to 1675. The structure is thematic: the emergence of the minister-favourite, favourites in office, representations of the favourite in literature, on the stage and in portraiture, the decline of the favourite; the purpose is comparative analysis. Since Elliott’s co-editor, L.W.B. Brockliss, is at pains in his ‘Concluding Remarks’ to explain that the findings of the volume are provisional, ‘an agenda for future research’, such a serious purpose deserves serious critical scrutiny. For will the time devoted to such research be well spent?

Some generalisations are permissible, indeed are not to be denied. There is no doubt that in the 16th and 17th centuries the effective dominance of a single non-royal person was common, even commoner than either genuinely personal monarchy, the king his own minister, or conciliar, collegial government. The question why this should have been so also yields answers which may apply to many, even most cases.

The most obvious explanation might seem to be pathological: the personal inadequacy of monarchs who were unfit for the burdens imposed on them by the lottery of inheritance and who could not manage without their mayors of the palace or grand viziers, especially in their minorities or inexperienced beginnings. But this did not satisfy Bérenger, who preferred a less personal, more structured analysis in terms of the growing complexity of the Early Modern state, which favoured the interposition of a third party between sovereign and subjects, even those subjects who individually and collectively, in the case of the nobility, shared in government, whether by royal appointment or congenital right. According to I.A.A. Thompson, the favourite, or valido as he was known in Spain, on which Thompson is an authority, emerged ‘at a particular moment in the development of the central administration’. He represented ‘a window of transition between a private and public bureaucracy’. If this is true, then it was indeed a significant, if not necessary, stage in the emergence of the relative impersonality of the modern state.

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