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.

Within this general explanatory model, several emphases and refinements are possible. Linda Levy Peck focuses on the function of the monarch and of his court in dispensing the goodies of patronage in a situation of rising demand, demographically and economically induced, and static or falling supply. As the English case of Buckingham suggests, in such circumstances it might make sense to equip the cistern with one large pipe rather than many, allowing politically destabilising competition for place and profit to operate at one remove. According to Conrad Russell, writing some time ago, the mistake of the Stuarts may have been not the elevation of Buckingham but the failure to find a substitute after his death, for as was said at the time, ‘there is now none to impute our faults unto,’ which suggests another more negative function for the favourite, that of whipping-boy. But the way in which Buckingham left the scene, by an assassin’s dagger, was, on those terms, a wasted opportunity, and Charles I was slow to follow Bacon’s advice that favourites must be allowed to fall from power to prevent political damage to the king himself – too slow to save his own head.

Yet another role for the favourite, or privado, was that of reformer, for the creaking wheels of early modern administration, and especially the financial wheels, cried out for reform, not least in wartime, and in the 17th century a state of war was endemic. These individuals, who were castigated by their contemporaries for corruption, represented themselves as reformers and sometimes actually did bring about savings and other improvements, even while, like Richelieu, they lined their own pockets in a manner which, as Orest Ranum explains, was thought, in the jargon of the age, to be no more than ‘appropriate’.

So far so good. But from here on the would-be historical regulator encounters difficulties, mainly of the apples and pears variety. At root there is a problem of vocabulary, and this underlies a variety of statuses and relationships which may defy regulation. In Spanish, they spoke of the privado or valido. Yet Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, who, if anyone, makes the ideal type, disowned those terms, preferring the designation of ‘minister’. In English, ‘favourite’ was distanced, but only by a margin, from the French mignon. Sir Robert Naunton famously insisted that Elizabeth I’s ministers were ‘only favourites, not minions’. Was her first minister for much of the reign, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, such a favourite? In this volume, Paul Hammer distinguishes his position from that of a courtier-favourite such as, above all, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, but for Brockliss, Burghley fits the category of ‘minister-favourite’, which, so far as he is concerned, is what this book is all about, ‘a particularly interesting species of the genus’.

Burghley’s son Robert Cecil seems to fit the bill rather better. Yet even he, inhabiting, as his biographer Pauline Croft notes, ‘the grey world of administration’, was a different species from Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, or even George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; and the title of her essay puts the question ‘can a bureaucrat be a favourite?’ And what made a favourite? Cecil began at the top, schooled by his father in a long and carefully recorded apprenticeship. But Sir Christopher Hatton got off the ground, literally, by his ability to dance the volta. And we all know what it was that dare not speak its name which made the meteoric careers of Somerset and Buckingham, or we think we do. According to Linda Peck, ‘intimacy was the key to the power of the favourite.’ But Brockliss tells us that most minister-favourites were not intimates of the monarchs they served, these relationships partaking ‘more of business than affection’. There was little to encourage personal intimacy in the bulbous nose of Olivares or Robert Cecil’s crooked spine. As a prince of the Church, Richelieu had a head start, and a protected status, and did not need intimacy.

But friendship, not necessarily involving intimacy, was essential. In perhaps the most interesting contribution, David Wootton uses Bacon’s essays to suggest both that friendship is a key to our understanding, the favourite being ‘a special sort of friend’, and one that we are slow to turn in the lock, given ‘the insignificance of friendship in our own culture’. But there are, and still more were, different kinds of friendship, which historians no less than contemporaries need to understand if they are not to come to grief. Friendship between patron and client was not the same thing as friendship between equals. The Earl of Essex was the friend of Bacon in one sense, and of the Queen in another. He fell because he ‘fatally misjudged the Elizabethan politics of friendship’.

The mere fact that women favourites are excluded from the terms of reference of this volume suggests that the focus is on the favourite as prototypical prime minister rather than as sexual or emotional prop. But it is not at all clear that this was a phenomenon exclusive to the period under scrutiny. In what respects did the great cardinals of the immediately preceding age, Amboise, Ximenes and, above all, Wolsey, differ from their more secular successors as prime ministers – or from Richelieu and Mazarin? And looking beyond the limits of this collection, what about Count Metternich (not to speak of Peter Mandelson, who is invoked, perhaps not altogether seriously, in the publisher’s press release)? ‘The World of the Favourite’ appears to be a piece of string which can be stretched so far that it turns into fairly useless elastic.

It was also a cultural construct as much as a simple fact. So much is apparent from the portraits of the favourites, here investigated by Jonathan Brown, icons of self-projection which may be indicative of insecurity and precariousness of defined status as much as of power. For the nominalist, it will be significant that the very word ‘favourite’ originated in this period. Blair Worden’s brilliant and wide-ranging account of the ubiquitous favourite on the 17th and 18th-century English stage suggests that this was a theatrical type, a fabrication, like the stage-Puritan, and one which explored contemporary politics with the aid of a variety of models and topoi, including the ‘Machiavel’, the De casibus theme of Fortuna and her dupes, the sexual frisson with which the word ‘minion’ was charged, the humanistic theme of evil counsel, and such historical and literary models as Piers Gaveston from the Middle Ages and Sejanus and Philotas from classical sources. Here were some of the cultural roots of Macaulay’s famous remark that ‘favourites have always been odious in this country.’ However, Worden admits that ‘the drama could invent only so much.’ It exploited and heightened favouritism but could not manufacture it. But he does not tell us whether the extreme negativity of the type on the English stage was a simple reflection of political life under the Stuarts and Hanoverians or an artistic refraction. Nor is it reasonable to expect his essay to have investigated the various authorial and patronal motivations which may have accounted for the negativity.

The scope of Antonio Feros’s essay, ‘Images of Evil, Images of Kings’, is wider, enabling him to contrast Spanish, French and English discourses of favouritism. In Spain, especially, treatment of the subject was more complex, and often highly favourable, as in the Discurso del Perfecto Privado by Fray Pedro de Maldonado, which made the favourite ‘the most noble and finest part of the monarchy’. Whereas Worden, and for that matter this reviewer, have poured a source-critical solvent over the concept of the favourite, Feros restores some of our confidence in its substantial reality and relevance. Early modern Europeans would not have understood the intricate divisions and subdivisions into which modern historians classify favourites. Privado, valido, private favourite, public favourite, prime minister: all these terms and concepts referred to the same court character, a person who enjoyed the monarch’s favour and confidence and as a result played a key role in government. Moreover, early modern political writers anticipated the authors of these essays in trying to establish general rules governing the rise and public roles of royal favourites in a political world experiencing profound changes. For the business of the historian so far as they were concerned was to instruct in the art of politics through exemplary cases which replicated themselves and were intended to establish constant rules of conduct, success and failure.

In contrast to the comparative generalities of the Elliott-Brockliss collection, we have the specificity of Paul Hammer’s intensively researched account of the Icarus-like rise of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, with the fall reserved, presumably, for a second volume: 468 footnoted pages on 12 years in the life of one remarkable individual, but, again, not a biography, more of a case study in early modern politics.

How well does Essex fit the role, or roles, of the favourite? Hammer offers no easy release from semantic confusion. Restricting the sense of favourite, he presents an Essex who was more, or other, than ‘merely a favourite’: Essex the leading soldier of his age, with a penchant for combined operations, such as the audacious seizure of Cádiz, the statesman who aspired to a kind of Churchillian role as effectively Minister of War, a cultivated and well-read Cambridge graduate who took very seriously the aristocratic version of the Renaissance ideal of public virtue, whose personal ambitions were inseparable from the cause of international and anti-Spanish Protestantism; an Essex who was as near to being drowned in paperwork as any modern Cabinet minister, writing to Bacon late one evening: ‘I am oppressed with [a] multitude of letters that are come, of which I must give the queen some accompte to morowe morning.’

This is the first time that the bulk of Essex’s career has been reconstructed from something like the totality of the surviving manuscript documentation, and for Elizabethan historians Hammer’s achievement is a major event. The result is inevitably a degree of rehabilitation, forcing us, at last, to take Essex seriously as more than what one Tudor historian has called ‘one of history’s best documented butterflies’, anothera ‘playboy’, A.L. Rowse’s ‘rotten apple’ of Elizabeth’s declining years.

Yet Essex was also a favourite, in the sense that without the queen’s favour this initially impoverished nobleman, very nearly England’s poorest earl, would have had little to boast about beyond a coat of arms which fairly bristled with escutcheons. It was above all necessary that he should succeed at Court, the natural environment of favourites, which, initially, he did, unlike his dear friend and idol Sir Philip Sidney, with whom he fought at Zutphen and whose widow, after Zutphen, he married. In those early days, it was said that nobody was near the Queen but my lord of Essex. ‘At night my lord is at cardes or one game or an other with her, [so] that he commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.’ One game or another! From time to time, Essex had to return to the Court to repair his prospects and it was the need to get away from it, not into Forest of Arden-like retirement but into a life of active, military virtue, even the sense of disgust for the place and for the crotchety crone who presided over it, which destroyed him.

So while Hammer deals nearly exhaustively with such topics as Essex as spymaster and intelligencer, Essex as literary, religious and academic patron, Essex at the head of a following in the army and in the country, all copiously documented, the core of his study is high Elizabethan politics, the interpersonal politics of courtly favouritism and of friends and enemies, Essex and Sir Walter Ralegh, Essex and Robert Cecil, the politics, it has been thought, of faction.

All accounts of Elizabethan faction invoke what Sir Robert Naunton wrote in 1633, even while they complain that Naunton was addressing the concerns of his own time, the age of Buckingham’s rise and fall, and so is not a reliable guide to Elizabethan politics. Naunton wrote that ‘the principal note’ of Elizabeth’s reign was that she ruled by factions and parties, ‘which she herself both made, upheld, and weakened, as her own great judgment advised’. Hammer compares this report with another contemporary comparison of Essex and Buckingham, which he prefers. ‘That Queen almost her whole reign did with singular and equal demonstrations of grace look upon several persons of most distinct wishes one towards another.’ In other words, insofar as Elizabeth was in control of the power politics of her own court, which is in itself a contentious matter, and it was hardly in her interest to foment factions, she preferred an unstable plurality of favourites, which was to divide and rule, deliberately avoiding reliance on a single privado like Buckingham.

The structural outlines of the Elizabethan political scene are familiar, and have not been rearranged by recent historians: Elizabeth and her perennial bureaucrat anchorman, Lord Burghley, and her secretaries, above all Sir Francis Walsingham, both offset by the more decorative courtier favourites, especially Elizabeth’s friend in a very special sense, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and, in her declining years, Leicester’s stepson Essex, who was either his natural successor or his caricature. What has changed has been the assessment of the favourites, as first Leicester and now Essex are acknowledged to have been figures of substance; and the relations which are thought to have existed between the leading members of the regime.

Thanks to the work of Simon Adams, to whom we look for the definitive biography of Leicester, we now know that Naunton misled us in suggesting that the principal note of the reign was faction, whether deliberately contrived or not. Burghley and Leicester did not always get on, but they were not locked into a structural political enmity. The Privy Council and its policies were not, contrary to what the late Conyers Read supposed, split between a Cecil and a Leicester-Walsingham axis. The principal note of at least the central years of Elizabeth’s long reign was not factionalism but the unusual degree of collegial solidarity enjoyed by a stable grouping of politicians and ministers whose esprit de corps was at least partly induced by their need to work against the Queen and her preferred policy options, even while they worked for her. This was the ‘monarchical republic’ of Elizabeth I.

But then followed what I have called the nasty Nineties, and John Guy the ‘second Elizabethan reign’: the final decade characterised by war and all its attendant pressures and privations, not least fiscal, an ailing economy, an ageing queen, dreadful weather and a general atmosphere of public unpleasantness. At the end of his long and involved story we reach in the last two chapters the critical moment of Hammer’s title: the polarisation of Elizabethan politics.

The contributors to The World of the Favourite might want to account for that polarisation, and for Essex’s magnificent failure, by invoking some general rule or principle; as Essex’s friend Bacon did in summing up the reign of Henry VII: ‘his fortune wrought upon his nature and his nature upon his fortune.’ Fortune was equivalent to circumstances, the hand which Essex was dealt: the late Elizabethan war and its conduct, the Queen’s increasing loss of control over events and over her generals, and a succession crisis which concerned what was to happen not only after Elizabeth but after her privado for forty years, Burghley, not to speak of the passing of all the other big fish who had shaped events in the 1570s and 1580s.

The ageing and deteriorating Burghley had begun to display monopolistic tendencies, and actually to promote that regnum Cecilianum which in earlier years had been no more than a canard. That meant the promotion of his son Robert, and it was the fortune of Robert Cecil and Essex to stand in each other’s way, coexistence increasingly impossible in this ‘enmeshing logic of escalation’. But Essex’s virtue, his limitless ambition, not only for himself but for a virtuous, warlike vision of his country’s destiny, was more than contributory. It was ‘the final, incendiary element’ in cementing, by 1597, a situation of unprecedented and deeply rooted factionalism.

Hammer’s blow-by-blow narrative transcends shallow arguments about responsibility, even blame, for the political tragedy now waiting to happen. Again and again, attempts were made, especially by the Cecils, to restore a modus vivendi of working relationships. But patronage networks were one of the things which polarised, probably beyond the control of the patrons. And if the ascendancy of the Cecils could not be perpetuated without a challenge to Essex which he could not ignore, Essex, driven by temperament into war and of necessity into politics, fatally failed to make the distinction, and the transition, between the exclusive status of favourite and a useful role in the inclusiveness of government.