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.

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