And Cabbages Too

Patrick Collinson

  • New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors 1485-1603 by Susan Brigden
    Allen Lane, 434 pp, £20.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9067 8

What, for the British Isles, is the shape, scope and character of that rich slice of history which was the 16th century? The titles of the textbooks which have defined the period for the late 20th-century successors of Macaulay’s ‘every schoolboy’ tell their own story: Tudor England (S.T. Bindoff, 1950), England Under the Tudors (G.R. Elton, 1955), Tudor England again (John Guy, 1988), branding the age – see J.A. Williamson’s The Tudor Age (1953) – with the logo of the double rose of the dynasty which, conveniently, coincided with a generous 16th century of 118 years, 1485 to 1603. It is a good question how we would have cut the cake and what we would have called it if the Tudors had reigned, say, from 1450 to 1700. For Bindoff, it was under the ‘able guidance’ of the Tudors that England ‘rose magnificently to great occasions and experienced something of a Golden Age’. ‘No wiser or mightier monarchs,’ he wrote, ‘ever adorned the English throne.’ In the same year, A.L. Rowse dated the preface to The England of Elizabeth (and for Bindoff, Elizabeth was the ‘superb and matchless flower’) ‘Empire Day 1950’.

It was left to W.G. Hoskins to commit the equivalent of the Great Parliament Fart of 1605 when he called his economic history of the first half of the 16th century The Age of Plunder (1976), declaring, on the first page, with the assistance of Thomas More in Utopia, that ‘the whole of English history, certainly since 1066, has been a history of plunder by the governing class and its officials and other hangers-on.’ (More had written, and Hoskins quoted the line three times: ‘So God help me, I can perceive nothing but a conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of a Commonwealth.’)

Bindoff would not have been in total disagreement. Although in temperament conservative, insisting that his lecturers at Queen Mary College wear suits, his outlook was the Butskellism which was the immediate legacy of the Second World War, when ‘Billy Brown of London Town’ told us all how to behave on the Underground, a means of transportation which Clement Attlee used, unaccompanied, when he visited Bindoff’s college on the Mile End Road. In spite of all its fulsomely royalist top-dressing, Tudor England was less a history of a monarchy than of a people, even of the people. In another publication, Bindoff used the (for modern historians) rare device of a prosopopeia to enable the Norfolk peasants slaughtered in their thousands in the rout of Kett’s Rebellion (1549) to speak for themselves:

What sort of people do they think we were? Do they think of us as a disorderly rabble consumed by greed, hatred and lust to destroy? For shame. We who lie here were honest, sober, sturdy folk, having God and the commonwealth before our eyes. No hirelings we, but men with a stake in the country, having our farms and our flocks as our fathers had done before us.

In contrast to Bindoff’s vision of a Tudor stakeholder society, Sir Geoffrey Elton taught successive cohorts of students that what mattered most in ‘that crowded century’ was ‘the condition, reconstruction, and gradual moulding of a state’. Other aspects, including the economic and social, got shorter shrift. ‘This could not be helped.’ Throughout his relentlessly productive career, Elton would always insist on the sovereignty of political history, even of that very old-fashioned thing, constitutional history, agreeing with those late 19th-century historians, engaged in educating the future denizens of Whitehall, that history was simply ‘past politics’. However, his subject was not so much politics in a generous sense as the central institutions of government and administration, the ministries which the 16th century knew as ‘courts’ of this and that. His hero, the centre of gravity in everything that he wrote about the 16th century, was the great reconstructor, Thomas Cromwell, author in the 1530s of nothing less than ‘a revolution in government’; whereas Bindoff’s book had turned on the 1540s, which he wrote were years as pregnant with change in the history of the Englishman’s getting and spending as the preceding decade in the history of his governance and creed.

Elton conceded that his England Under the Tudors might have had more to say about the poor, ‘but we must observe a proper proportion.’ In Tudor England, the gains enormously outweighed the losses, although, he admitted with a little dash of generosity, that was small consolation to the losers. Elton was ideologically as well as academically conservative, although he would have strenuously denied that that had any bearing on his history, which was simply true to the recorded facts. He believed that he was setting himself against a veritable trahison des clercs, which had undermined the self-confidence of generations of students, teaching them to be ashamed of a social order and a capitalism described in negative terms, a damaging Marxist present-centredness distorting the past. For Elton, the most troublesome of those turbulent priests was the Christian Socialist R.H. Tawney, author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), who had certainly rubbed off on Bindoff in the common enterprise of teaching economic history in the University of London. For Elton, Tawney was a very good man but a very bad historian: ‘There is not a single work which Tawney wrote which can be trusted.’ Nothing quite like this had been said since Ramus in the 16th century declared that ‘whatever Aristotle has said is false.’

Few of today’s historians of the 16th century are so engaged, or write with such ideological passion. What we now see is what Elton ostensibly most desired, a history marked by value-free and highly technical excellence, but would also have mistrusted: a history of pretty well everything, from laughter to menstruation, defamation and death, and sometimes everything but past politics; and, what he hated most, a history laced with the Angostura bitters of Post-Modernism, in which if texts can serve as documents, documents are equally texts, to be interrogated rather than trusted.

An inevitable casualty of our vastly augmented knowledge has been the capacity of a Bindoff to hold it all together, to give equal weight to what both the 1530s and the 1540s were about. Economic and social history on the one hand, political history on the other, have been dealt with as if they were distinct and separate subjects, addressed in different textbooks and monographs, and in some universities, in separate departments and faculties and examination papers. In my inaugural lecture in Cambridge in 1989 I protested against these unnatural fences of demarcation, insisting that all social history is necessarily political, and that politics is equally a social process.

Eight years later, John Guy assured me, in print, that I had been pushing at an open door. If we continue to study the politics of Tudor England, as we do, we now redefine it as ‘Tudor Political Culture’. And if our subject is the livelihoods and social and mental worlds of the common people, the traditional preserve of economic historians, we know that peasants, too, had a politics; and we are critical (although Susan Brigden apparently is not) of Sir Thomas Smith’s famous mid-Tudor put-down of ‘the fourth sort of men which do not rule’: ‘These have no voice nor authority in our commonwealth, and no account is made of them but only to be ruled, not to rule other’ – a remark which Smith immediately qualified – ‘and yet they be not altogether neglected.’

It is easy to come out with fine words in an inaugural lecture, harder to put these exacting protocols into practice. When the author of New Worlds, Lost Worlds faced the choices which had confronted Bindoff and Elton in the past, she had much more material to choose from, making it all the harder to decide what to include and what to exclude. Her appended ‘Bibliographical Essay’ lists hundreds of titles, over sixty on Irish history alone, which is about the same number of books as the total listed by Bindoff in his own ‘Note on Further Reading’. At 150,000 words, Susan Brigden’s book is half as long again as Bindoff’s, but much shorter than Elton’s, which in later editions was getting on for a quarter of a million words.

These reflections are in order, since Brigden replaces Bindoff in the new Penguin History of Britain, which has superseded the series in which Bindoff appeared, the Pelican History of England. And she was Elton’s pupil. So she confesses to a sense of ‘awe and excitement’ when invited to follow in Bindoff’s footsteps, and she wishes that Elton had still been around to have read her book ‘and put me right’. She has no need to worry about odious comparisons. She has written a book which is not only in masterly control of its subject, but which is a thing of beauty and feeling. The stamp which Susan Brigden has put on the period is distinctively her own. New Worlds, Lost Worlds expresses on every page a sense of fascinated wonder with that ‘other country’ where so many things were done differently, at the cusp of a modernity taking its long farewell of the Middle Ages. ‘The Rule of the Tudors’ is secondary, a subtitle, although much more than a subtext, since, as she explains at the outset: ‘This book is more about kings, and queens, than cabbages.’ But the cabbages, and those who consumed them, are not neglected, still less the beliefs, hopes and fears of 16th-century English men and women. We shall not have to hesitate any longer when asked, as we sometimes are, to recommend just one book on the history of our own country in the 16th century.

But what, in the 16th century, was ‘our country’, what was the ‘Britain’ which is Brigden’s subject? The series in which her book appears professes to furnish a History of Britain from AD 100 to 1990, but ‘Britain’ was not the same thing, or place, in all those centuries, and for much of the time there was no such historical entity: only a name and a geographical notion. Towards the end of the 16th century, William Camden published his Britannia, the intention of which was to inform learned Continental readers that the modern English nation state, which was increasingly dominant in the British Isles, was the proud and legitimate successor of a famous Roman province. By the time his second edition appeared in 1607, the English and Scottish Crowns were united on the same royal head and the island of Britain, ‘Great Britain’ (apparently so called by geographers only to distinguish it from Brittany), was no longer bisected, like the Korean peninsula, by a potentially hostile east-west frontier. So Camden’s engraved title page displayed an undivided island, with only the eastern portion of a literally marginalised Ireland. Yet his book was entitled: Britannia, siue, florentissimorum regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, ex intima antiquitate chorographica descriptio. And other 16th-century maps included Ireland in ‘The British Isles’, with one map entitled ‘Eryn. Hiberniae, Britannicae Insulae, Nova Descriptio’.

So was Ireland part of Britain? Strictly speaking, it wasn’t, never had been, never would be. To this day revisionist, nationalist Irish historians will not even accept the formulation ‘British Isles’, so that political correctness forces us to write instead about ‘these islands’ or even, God help us, ‘the Atlantic archipelago’, which sounds like the Azores. There are problems here which go to the heart of our uncertainly defined and still fluid national identities and relations, within ‘these islands’. Those on the bridge of that great enterprise The New Dictionary of National Biography are not altogether sure that that is what it should be called. For what nation are we talking about?

Nevertheless, a series parallel to the Penguin History of Britain, the Short Oxford History of the British Isles, one volume per century, is intended to be a history of all these islands (will the Isle of Man, which is no part of ‘Britain’, get a look in?) More problems. Like Parson Thwackum in Fielding, yesterday’s historians tended to say: ‘When I say history, I mean the history of Britain, and when I say Britain, I mean England, and when I say England I mean places not too far from London.’ Bindoff professed to be writing about Tudor England, and in his index Scotland had two entries, ‘English intervention in’, ‘immigration from’; while Wales was hardly mentioned at all.

That will not do. It is above all the history of the 17th century which has taught us that none of the players in the British archipelago was an island, entire of itself. We now talk of the War of the Three Kingdoms, not of the English Civil War. So did a late 17th-century Irish author, who wrote of Cogadh Seo na d’Trí Rióghachtaibh. But until 1603 Scotland was a foreign country, Britain no place, politically speaking. And even after that date, if we are to believe Clarendon, while the English followed events in Central and even Eastern Europe with rapt attention, they had no interest in Scotland, which never once featured in their newsletters and gazettes. The trouble with the ‘British Problem’, which has so preoccupied early modern historians of late, is that it has encouraged us to forget that all parts of the British Isles were also parts of Europe, their history always affected and sometimes determined by foreign conflicts and even foreign intervention. Yet ‘European History’ is something which in our universities has been taken to exclude English or British history, and which has been separately taught and examined.

How does Brigden cope with these problems? Her understanding of ‘Britain’ in her period embraces those parts of these islands which were under the direct suzerainty, at least nominally, of the English Crown. That logically excludes Scotland, an independent kingdom, which she has occasion to refer to rather less often than to France or the Low Countries. But it includes Ireland, a lordship and, after 1541, a kingdom, subject to the king of England and legally (according to English law) ‘annexed’ to England. This was a very peculiar kingdom indeed. There was no Irish crown, no Irish coronation (with those limiting oaths and undertakings), and no English king of Ireland ever visited his Hibernian kingdom, not once in the 260 years of its distinct existence, from 1541 to 1801.

Brigden does Ireland more than justice, allotting it 61 out of 367 pages. An exceptionally confused society, and history, is made as intelligible as it is ever likely to be for readers who are ignorant of its 16th-century political geography, socio-political terrain, and peculiar laws and institutions. It is rather as if a historian of the 20th-century British Empire felt obliged to turn anthropologist and make space for large chunks of Evans-Pritchard on the Southern Sudan. This is not meant as negative criticism. If the rulers of ‘Britain’ in the 16th century had known all that Brigden knows, and shares with us, they might not have committed the atrocious acts which became literary atrocities in Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland. Brigden is less interested in Wales, to which she devotes just two paragraphs, and the Cornish, with the vanishing Cheshire cat of their language, are only remembered when they were revolting, in 1497 and 1549, which one hopes will not provide a lesson for the depressed and neglected Cornish in the early 21st century.

Unlike some practitioners of historical ‘Britishness’, Brigden never forgets the European context in which Tudor history was played out. Her chapter on the turbulent history of Elizabethan religion is called ‘Wars of Religion’ and it knows that the radical protest of the Puritans makes only partial sense without reference to violent and bloody developments in France and the Low Countries. It was no simple coincidence that the Admonition to the Parliament and its repercussions happened in the same year as the St Bartholomew Massacre. Which makes it all the more mysterious, and instructive, that England’s religious street wars were wars only of words, almost the only casualty a Sussex villager shot and killed as he cut down a maypole.

Susan Brigden’s idea of what should constitute a textbook admirably avoids the tedium of contested historiography – ‘some historians believe’, ‘other scholars on the other hand’. Her readers will not suspect that corpses litter the battlefield of the 1530s, with ‘revisionists’ triumphantly holding the high ground. They will not learn that while some historians believe ‘faction’ to be the key to the understanding of Tudor politics, others dismiss it. They are not told that two rival armies, led by A.G. Dickens and Christopher Haigh, have fought vicious Balkan wars over the events and processes we know as the English Reformation: from above or from below, early or late, success or failure? Until we reach her ‘Bibliographical Essay’, which is organised on generous, inclusivist lines, not a single historian is named. That is surely how it ought to be. We expect the scaffolding to be removed before a building is opened to the public.

That is not to say that Brigden does not have her own firmly stated views. If Geoffrey Elton had been around to read what his old pupil has written, he might have been gratified to find that Thomas Cromwell is still given star billing (with the lawyer Christopher St German, whom John Guy has identified as equally important in the intellectual gestation of the Henrician polity, not even mentioned); but perturbed by Cromwell’s renewed criminalisation in some of these pages. The fall of Anne Boleyn is presented as a sinister machination in which Cromwell held all the strings. ‘Looking for a treason which could condemn not only the Queen but all her friends, Cromwell had found it.’ The old controversy as to which of the Edwardian dukes, Somerset or Northumberland, was the good guy, which the wicked uncle, is resolved by finding that both were deeply flawed. There are few if any heroes in Brigden’s 16th century.

That said, the political chapters are marked by cool objectivity, with no aspirations to novelty, no surprises. Brigden knows that in Elizabethan England there were sometimes two governments, the Privy Council at odds with, as someone has recently called her, a ‘do nothing queen’. She captures this neatly: ‘the perennial battle between will and counsel’. But she makes relatively little of what I have called ‘the monarchical republic of Elizabeth I’, and of the fashionable ‘gendering’ of Elizabethan politics.

By contrast there is much that is utterly distinctive in Brigden’s treatment of religion and society in early Tudor England. For all its indebtedness to Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and John Bossy’s Christianity in the West, as well as to various historians of population and family, only Brigden, author of a distinguished monograph on London and the Reformation as well as a seminal essay on ‘Religion and Social Obligation in 16th-Century London’, could have written the chapter called ‘Family and Friends’. She explains, in great detail, how although the Church had a divine mission, ‘as an institution it was profoundly human’, as she transports us from the mystery plays of Corpus Christi through the seven sacraments to the nature of kinship and the family, so different in England and in Ireland, and on to the gilds – those expressions of Christian community, joining the living to the dead. A loving cup in a London parish was inscribed, around the rim, ‘God that sitteth in Trinity, send us peace and unity’, a brotherhood which, however, implied otherhood. But in Gaelic Ireland, bonds of kinship, fortified by the universal practice of fostering, were so strong that there was no need for religious gilds, ‘no invented brotherhood’.

In the books which predated the recent expansion of our historical horizons, in the Oxford History of England series, or Elton’s England under the Tudors, literature and the arts were matters tucked away at the back, not integrated with the front-page political story. In fairness to our forefathers, it has to be said that Brigden has less to say about music and architecture than some of them found room for. This is not a book about that elusive thing, the Renaissance, and the lost worlds, new worlds, of the title are imagined religiously rather than culturally. But the literature of the Tudor age, and especially its poets, Surrey, Wyatt, Spenser, Donne, are invoked to provide their own commentary on great and tragic events, like the voices of sympathetic and sorrowing observers in a Monteverdi madrigal, or the ‘songs’ in Sidney’s Arcadia. And Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are brought in to interrogate in dark depth the worlds which their first audiences were losing and gaining. Anthony Babington’s fellow conspirator Chidiock Tichborne appears in no anthology of great English verse, but perhaps he should, on the strength of what he wrote in the Tower, the night before being hung, drawn and quartered:

I sought my death, and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade.
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made.
The glass is full, and now the glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.