• Print

Under the Tudor Bed

Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia

by Lacey Baldwin Smith
Princeton University Press, 342 pp., $25.00

Over fifty years ago the great historian Sir Lewis Namier wrote three volumes about eighteenth-century England in which he argued that the high-sounding principles which Whig and Tory politicians mouthed bore little relation to their political actions. Here the spoils of office and the patronage of rival grandees were far more important. His books, written with a style and panache that few historians can rival, were a great success and established the credentials of “the Namier method”: close and detailed analysis of the family and patronage affiliations of members of Parliament, of their connections with economic interests—these were the keys to understanding eighteenth-century politics. Principles were fig leaves. Namier was accused of taking the mind out of history, but he was much more cautious than that, and made no claim to have discovered a universal key. He dealt with a period in which political and ideological issues were in fact of little significance among what he called “the political nation” and what others might call the ruling class. Hence his success.

Trouble came when lesser men tried to drive the bandwagon along less appropriate routes. One historian applied the method to the reign of Queen Anne, a period in which it needed great skill to conceal the fact that there were real issues dividing Hanoverians from Jacobites. Still less successful were efforts to apply the method to the divisions that led to the English civil war: in the seventeenth century men did not normally cut off the heads of archbishops and kings without what they genuinely believed to be ideological justification.

But the Namier method proved attractive during the period of the cold war, when ideologically motivated historians (however unconscious the ideology) wanted to play down the significance of principles, whether religious or political, to proclaim “the end of ideology.” Here psychology became useful. The Reformation was alleged to start from Luther’s bowel troubles; it spread no doubt because many Germans were similarly afflicted. Medieval and sixteenth-century heretics were dismissed as “paranoid.” The underlying assumption was that opposition to any government is somehow irrational. Sir Geoffrey Elton, a much more sophisticated practitioner, discusses sixteenth-century English history as a matter of administration, sees all problems from the rulers’ viewpoint. Religion, whether Catholic or Protestant, plays a minor part in his account of the century of the Reformation. “Revisionist” historians have extended Elton’s analysis to explain the origins of the English Revolution, though they eschew the word “revolution.” They see the English civil war as an accident, the result of a series of coincidences. Again the consequence is to minimize the ideological significance of that great turning point in English history.

As Professor Smith’s subtitle suggests, he believes that he has found a master key to sixteenth-century English politics: paranoia. His book has received mixed reviews, and with reason. He has collected a mass of fascinating information which he uses to support a dubious thesis. Let us discuss the thesis first. You cannot draw up an indictment against a nation. Similarly, I do not think you can formulate a medical diagnosis of a whole people, especially when they have been dead for four centuries. Professor Smith indeed expects that his enterprise risks “the legitimate wrath of both historians and psychiatrists.” In early sixteenth-century England, he suggests, “the two prerequisites for the growth of political paranoia had been established—the concentration of political and economic power at court, and the dependence of all worldly success upon the favor of the monarch and his immediate entourage.” There was “a paranoid cultural mould which conditioned society [my italics] to imagine and therefore to find the enemy behind every friendly face.” Here there appears to be some confusion. Sometimes Professor Smith is talking about the whole English people; but when he deals with treason he is concerned with “the political nation,” which he estimates at three to four thousand men. “Paranoia was indigenous to the starkly competitive environment surrounding the court.”

Professor Smith’s analysis of “treason” in Tudor England is perfunctory. He takes three cases—Gregory Botolf under Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Seymour under Edward VI, and William Parry under Elizabeth. He argues that the activities of all three were “irresponsible,” “preposterous,” “absurd,” “juvenile,” “self-destructive,” and that they can be taken as typical of Tudor traitors. It is a small sample on which to base far-reaching sociological generalizations. Botolph and Parry may have been framed; Parry may have been a double agent. Seymour played for the highest political stakes, and lost.

In three concluding chapters Professor Smith has a more valuable and persuasive analysis of the career of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, executed for treason in 1601. Elaborating on the work of Hugh Trevor-Roper and Lawrence Stone, Professor Smith treats Essex as typical of “all the melancholy malcontents, bankrupt aristocrats and outcasts of court politics.” Essex may well have suffered from paranoia, though syphilis, which “in the 16th-century ravaged both mind and body” is an alternative explanation. But Essex’s personality defects, widely noted by his contemporaries, were hardly typical of the society. His was an exceptional inheritance: he was “long on family name and blood but so impoverished that he scarcely had the means to pay for an education appropriate to his rank and lineage.” He was also one of the two or three men who captured Elizabeth’s heart—until he apparently came to “trust more in the common people than in persons of sort or quality.”

That was the unpardonable sin. As Professor Smith perspicaciously observes, “when a society was unable to cure the source of social and economic disease by transforming and reforming itself, then, in order to survive it had to destroy the magnet that gathered discontent together in politically dangerous quantities.” And the treason of so nobly born a character had to be blamed on the inherent defects of his secretary Henry Cuffe, “a base fellow by birth,…of a turbulent and mutinous spirit against all superiors.”

Professor Smith depicts a society which was paranoiac through and through—in its educational system, in the nature of its court and politics, in its witch persecution. He has a splendid chapter on education, which trained schoolboys and under-graduates to argue cases. “Argument and confrontation…became the central feature…. Neither Tudor education nor Tudor politics had room for or respect for a consensus structure of politics or frame of mind.” This is not original: it has long been stressed by commentators on Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” But it is elaborated with much illustrative detail, Professor Smith’s forte; and it is a timely corrective to the view recently put forward by a young historian who suggested that “adversary politics” was a creation of the 1640s: previously all was consensus. He cannot have read much Milton. Professor Smith’s analysis helps us to understand how Tudor educational methods produced lawyers in quantity and of quality. But do his generalizations follow? Did their “grammar school experience” train boys in “a paranoid style of thinking?” Did the educational system suit “nicely a political and social world that organized society into defenders of right and truth on one side, and traitors, malcontents and conspirators on the other”? That is not the impression I got from Milton’s academic exercises: Surely the system could equally well lead to an awareness of different possibilities, of pluralism.

Professor Smith has an impressive anthology of quotations demonstrating that Tudor orthodoxy assumed the divine authority of the state and of the king, the religious and “natural” duty of obedience, the inevitability of hierarchy. I learned a lot from it. But he might have emphasized more strongly that there was censorship in Tudor England. Differing viewpoints can be found if one looks for them, though not in books printed in the sixteenth century. Disgruntled peasants cried that it would never be a good world till all the gentry (or priests, or learned men) were destroyed; others thought they would be better off under Spanish rule. A glance around the modern world should persuade us not to assume that everybody agrees with the orthodoxies of a censored press. “The Elizabethan reader,” wrote G.B. Harrison, “was accustomed to look for a hidden meaning in most of the books which he read.” Professor Smith quotes the passage, but ignores its significance.

He has an equally valuable, and more original, collection of quotations from Tudor conduct books, stressing the extreme importance of wariness, of not trusting your friends who may tomorrow be your enemies, of putting nothing compromising on paper. This does indeed tell us a great deal about Tudor society. But what exactly does it tell us? That the society was paranoid? Then Stalin’s Russia was paranoid. But in the latter case the paranoia (if any) was at the top, not—so far as we know—in the society as a whole. Tudor England was a hugely competitive society, in which members of top families had potential access to the vast plunder which the court could distribute; but the magnitude of the potential gains carried equivalent risks. Treachery and back stabbing were endemic, under Thomas Cromwell as under Stalin, in any police state, though Tudor policing was mercifully inefficient by modern standards. If this was paranoia, did it extend beyond the narrow ruling class to the population as a whole?

“The wages of power” (my italics), Professor Smith rightly observes, “were the presence of an enemy observing your every move, being supplied by informers of your every remark, willing to tear every word out of context, and conspiring to achieve your destruction.” He plausibly cites the McCarthy era as a parallel, though here again the paranoia was mainly at the top. And Professor Smith supplies his own refutation when he points out how highly traditional were all maxims about mistrusting your friends; they derive from Isocrates, Cato, Cicero, Ecclesiasticus, from “French, Italian and classical sources,” and from an English treatise of 1177. Did all these earlier societies suffer from paranoia too? How is Tudor England different? Original sin, the wickedness of the majority of mankind, is an age-old dogma of Christianity, common to Catholics and Protestants.

“Protestantism and paranoia were clearly linked,” says Professor Smith. He takes from Keith Thomas the point that the official abolition of Catholic magic—mediating saints, signs of the cross, holy water, consecrated bread, exorcism—seemed to lead to an increase in the power of Satan. But he is wrong to blame Protestantism for persecution of witches. They suffered equally in Catholic countries, and persecution ceased earlier in Protestant countries.

The author carries his case to extreme lengths when he generalizes about “a world where society was ordained by God, and where evil was the work of men in league with the devil”: in such a world heresy could only be “a conspiracy of evil led by avaricious and seditious men.” This was the view from on top, shared by Stalin and McCarthy. Professor Smith dismisses Wallace MacCaffrey’s criticism of Tudor rulers’ “refusal to deal with the fact of religious revolution.” But there was a religious revolution. What has to be explained in the Reformation is the co-existence of genuine and passionately held religious convictions among ordinary people along with ruthless aristocratic plundering of the Church. Rulers felt insecure because they could not control popular sentiments. Absent from Professor Smith’s book are the nearly three hundred artisans and yeomen whose convictions led them to endure death by burning under Mary, and the Catholic priests who suffered the no less horrible death of traitors under Elizabeth. They were not paranoid, though their persecutors may have been. An understanding of the century must take them into account. The unforgivable sin among those who aspired to power was “popularity,” an appeal to those outside the political nation, of which the Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Essex were accused.

The author makes a good point when he stresses that the insecurity and fierce competitiveness of courtiers, their total dependence on maintaining the myth of monarchy, helps to explain that other myth, “evil councillors.” The king can do no wrong. Since wrong was often manifestly done, it must be the work of wicked men advising the king. But does this reflect “the paranoia that had become essential to the proper functioning of divinely inspired authority”? Or was it a fact of life when members of a narrow and competitive ruling class depended for their survival and their share of the plunder on the maintenance of a sacrosanct ruling authority?

Apart from paranoia, Professor Smith is curiously helpless and fumbling when he comes to grapple with the great changes that took place in the century of the Reformation. Consider the following as historical explanations. “The saintly temper, with its moralistic and didactic cruelty, for reasons never adequately explained, was on the ascent [my italics] in the 16th-century.” “The acquisitive spirit burst its chains of moderation and charity.” “The aggressiveness and competitiveness engrained into the Tudor educational process suits well with the capitalistic spirit and makes one wonder which was the chicken and which the egg.” Professor Smith quotes extensively from Catholic sources (the French ambassador to Henry VIII, Bishops Gardiner and Bonner, Cardinal Allen) to illustrate the sense of insecurity of governments of “the beleaguered isle.” Governments were indeed exposed to threats of Catholic invasion from the greatest powers in Europe, and were simultaneously uncertain of the reliability of their own people. But the partial nature of the evidence used is disturbing.

Even less adequately explained is the disappearance of paranoia. It “was beginning to lose its hold on politics” by 1601. “As the 17th-century waxed, the young were exposed less and less” to the warnings of Ecclesiasticus, which Puritans rejected as “not God’s authoritative word.” (So Puritans abolished what Protestantism had created?) Postdating Thomas Mun’s England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade by forty years (it was published in 1664 and written in the 1620s), Professor Smith uses it as an illustration of the new spirit in the world of Locke and Newton.

But the valuable insights remain. Professor Smith sees how “the élite had been placed by birth and training upon a public stage.” From monarch downward all were concerned “to extract every ounce of credit and recognition from both the role to be played and the circumstances under which the performance is taking place.” That is true of court life under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts. Milton and Marvell both commented on the performance of Charles I, “the royal actor,” at his trial and execution.

Professor Smith has asked important questions, and his answers give us much to think about. But his is a good book fallen among hobbyhorses. Single causal theories of history are always dangerous, and psychological theories are dangerously seductive, difficult to verify or falsify. The author can have the last word:

The urge to generalize, to present the muddle of history in some coherent form, is essential to the historian’s craft. Unfortunately, the habit of mind that seeks to impose stereotypes and common characteristics…is all too often the victim of its own clarity and at the same time bedevilled by bias born of the need to be selective. Consciously, or worse unconsciously, historical data can be rigged…and evidence taken out of healthy, normal context.