• Email
  • Print

The New History of England

Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558

by G.R. Elton
Harvard University Press, 423 pp., $15.00

Of series of histories of England there appears to be no end. We have the Oxford History of England, the Penguin History of England, the Fontana History of England, Nelson’s and Longman’s Histories—and I am sure many more. But publishers seem to think the market inexhaustible. The appearance of the first two volumes of a new series, Harvard’s The New History of England, gives occasion for considering the genre, and asking what objectives the new series has and how they differ from those of its predecessors.

Any set of textbooks on English history aimed at last-year schoolboys and girls and at first-year university students should have two aims at least. It must give a basic minimum of information; and it should try to interest and excite its readers. It is no good stimulating by scintillating generalizations unsupported by facts; it is even worse to churn out the well-worn narrative of events if the imagination of the youthful reader is not caught.

To judge by the first two volumes, the New History of England leans to the side of sobriety. These books deal with relatively short periods of history, and that perhaps in itself restricts the possibility of epigrams ringing down the centuries. Political narrative predominates. The presentation makes few concessions—no illustrations, no diagrams, no maps. The dedication of the reader to the subject is assumed. The publishers no doubt know what the market will bear.

In academic respects, the two authors are well chosen. Professor Elton has a secure place among the top half-dozen or so English historians. Dr. Speck is a younger man with a growing scholarly reputation. Both of them are “safe” and rather old-fashioned in their approach to history. Professor Elton is on record as disapproving of many modern fashions in historiography—sociological, anthropological, psychological: he is not much of a quantifier. Real history for him is political, constitutional, and administrative history. Its proper subject is the government rather than the people of a country. Dr. Speck makes more concessions to modern trends, but his main interest is also in political history. The two editors of the series are Professor Norman Gash and Professor A.G. Dickens. So far the series seems to lean toward the approach of the former rather than of the latter.

Professor Elton has transformed our understanding of a decade of English history, and this decade—the 1530s—is arguably among the three or four most important in the history of the country. Professor Elton has achieved his effects by unrivaled mastery of the archive material for the period on which he has concentrated. From his first published work he has remained true to the conviction that then inspired him—that Thomas Cromwell is a great and previously maligned figure whose consummate statecraft brought about administrative reforms that changed the nature of the English monarchy and the direction of English history. With the years, and with acceptance, Professor Elton’s statement of his thesis has matured. He thumps the table less; he no longer insists on describing what happened in the 1530s as a revolution, though he has not revised his estimate of its significance. The original claim that the 1530s saw the foundation of a state which lasted until the nineteenth century has also been tacitly dropped: as Professor Elton informed himself better about the seventeenth century he would notice much of Thomas Cromwell’s administrative machinery being abolished. This volume represents a much more balanced incorporation of The Tudor Revolution in Government into what other historians are prepared to accept.

But when all qualifications have been made, Professor Elton’s achievement is very great. Thirty years ago historians saw Thomas Cromwell as a buccaneering and very unpleasant adventurer in politics, the self-seeking and unprincipled henchman of Henry VIII. He now appears as a constructive statesman, much abler and more farsighted than Henry VIII; in a brief but whirlwind career Cromwell reconstructed much of the machinery of state, converted his sovereign, hitherto a conspicuously loyal son of the church, to an alliance with Parliament against the Papacy, and did as much as any one man to ensure the victory of Protestantism in England.

This last is perhaps the most surprising reversal in Thomas Cromwell’s reputation. The man who used to be thought a Machiavellian, and who certainly recanted his heresies in the vain hope of saving his life, was nevertheless a man who at the height of his power ran considerable political risks to make sure that the Bible in English translation was published and circulated in England. No doubt he did not foresee the effects of his action over the next 120 years, as godly laymen of all classes pored over the Scriptures and argued about their meaning until finally some of them found in the Bible a justification of regicide. But if English men and women have been the people of the Book, Thomas Cromwell (together perhaps with Archbishop Cranmer) must take much of the credit for it.

One should add, too, another of Professor Elton’s virtues: his capacity for writing clear, vigorous, trenchant English. He may shock or annoy his readers, but he never bores them. Professor Elton’s conviction of the importance of what he is saying, and his desire to persuade, comes across in everything he writes. It is a rare and enviable gift.

Professor Elton then was the obvious man to write the second volume of the New History of England. He had previously covered the whole sixteenth century in a textbook called England Under the Tudors. Here he concentrates on the half century which he has made peculiarly his own. It gives him the opportunity for a maturer, mellower reconsideration of his principal themes. His terminus in 1558 makes it unnecessary for him this time to depict the reign of Elizabeth as a sort of appendage in which the administrative principles of Thomas Cromwell were worked out.

One possible criticism would be that the word “reform” in Professor Elton’s title (replacing the original “revolution” of The Tudor Revolution in Government) is never precisely defined. Yet reform must mean reform of something for some purpose: it implies a program. In Professor Elton’s usage the word includes constitutional and administrative reform as well as religious reform: sometimes it comes perilously near to meaning anything which Thomas Cromwell did in the interests of centralization: and this is assumed without argument to be desirable. I expect it was, but the point needs arguing.

There seems to me to be a contradiction between Professor Elton’s praise of Thomas Cromwell as a great Parliamentarian, the creator of constitutional monarchy, and the point quietly made in a footnote on page 281: “The growing tension between unitary centralization (Cromwell’s ambition) and the power of local people and groupings was to be temporarily tided over by the use of aristocratic lords lieutenant: but this compromise did not prevent the civil war, and I suspect that Cromwell would have thought it inadequate.” The reference is to Professor Youings’s suggestion that “Cromwell’s fall saved the realm from being covered with a network of bureaucratic institutions.” Bureaucratic centralism might have prevented the civil war of the seventeenth century, but only by “controlling local government,” i.e., by controlling from the center those gentlemen and merchants who ran local government and whom the House of Commons represented. If we look at Continental analogies, this would have necessitated not only a bureaucracy but also a standing army to coerce those who paid the taxes. I do not think Professor Elton has solved the apparent contradiction between his praise of Cromwell as a centralizer and his praise of him as a minister anxious to rule through Parliament. The contradiction was resolved, as he indicates, in the civil war; after which the executive organs of Cromwell’s state were dismantled, and gentry rule of the localities was set free from effective interference from Whitehall.

Professor Elton sees the characters in his period as divided into two categories—Thomas Cromwell and the goodies who supported or agreed with him on the one hand, and the baddies who thwarted or disagreed with him, or who failed to continue his policy after his death, on the other. On this major division he has never wavered, and it leads him to some agreeable historical revisions. Henry VIII, for instance, is demoted from the pedestal on to which Pollard and others raised him, and is depicted as an arbitrary, treacherous man, not very clever and not very industrious. Sir Thomas More is rescued from the hagiographers (whether Catholic or utopian); his persecution of heretics is restored to the prominence which it enjoyed in the eyes of his contemporaries, including himself. Cardinal Wolsey occupies an ambivalent position. In some of his earlier writings Professor Elton contrasted Wolsey’s achievements with those of Cromwell (“the last medieval chancellor was followed by the first modern secretary of state”); but now that Elton’s views of Cromwell have by and large been accepted he can be more generous to the Cardinal under whom Thomas Cromwell served his apprenticeship. Professor Elton is impatient with those who sentimentalize over Bloody Mary. “Humanism had passed her by as much as had protestantism,” he accurately if unkindly sums up. Finally, the common people have never been favorites of Professor Elton’s. Some of them accepted that it was their destiny to be ruled; others sometimes allowed themselves to be influenced by “trouble-makers.” The latter are among the villains of Professor Elton’s black and white scenario.

Some of the defects of Professor Elton’s qualities come out in consequence of the more limited period with which he deals in this volume. Believing that political and administrative history is the only serious subject, he makes no concessions to readers who have wider interests. Magic, astrology, and medicine do not appear in his index, though most Englishmen almost certainly took the first two as seriously as they took Christianity, and this is one of the crucial periods in the history of English medicine. Lineacre and Sir Thomas Wyatt receive one brief mention each. The Earl of Surrey, discussed several times as general and conspirator, gets one line as a poet. There is a good deal on Tyndale, but nothing on the place of his (or Simon Fish’s or Latimer’s) writing in the evolution of English prose. The new craft of printing is mentioned, but there is no attempt to assess its importance in the formation of public opinion. Large claims have been made about that importance with which Professor Elton may not agree: but a discussion of them would have been helpful to students.

Nor does his bibliography assist them much: literature, music, and art are not among the twelve subjects covered. The old tradition of the Oxford History of England, in which chapters about literature or art were stuck on at the end of an otherwise political narrative, had much to discommend it; but even this was better than virtual total omission. Professor Elton’s book is after all subtitled “England, 1509-1558”; literature and art, medicine and music, were part of the lives of Englishmen.

How people lived is indeed another conspicuous omission. Wales and Ireland appear as administrative problems for the English government; and so does England. There is little attempt to use, or to reject, the work of demographers and economic historians. Social and economic questions like enclosure and inflation are discussed only to the extent that they pose political or administrative problems for governments; though this is to some degree corrected by bibliographies (somewhat idiosyncratic) on “Social Structure and Population,” “Social Policy,” and “Economic Affairs.” The reader gets no picture of what life was like for the majority of Englishmen who were not part of the central or local administration. Professor Elton makes minimal use, for instance, of the admirable work on popular religion in England published by his editor, Professor Dickens. It is not that Professor Elton does not know about such matters; he simply regards them as unimportant. An introduction which he recently contributed to a splendid collection of modest and scholarly essays, by a group of young historians approaching the history of English law from a sociological angle, was so condescending and patronizing that it made one embarrassed for him. But, having said all that, the real virtues of this book remain.

Dr. Speck is a less experienced writer than Professor Elton. Nor has he the latter’s stylistic gifts. But he compensates by a less old-fashioned approach to his subject matter. He has chapters on “Social Structure,” “Social Change,” “The Economy of Early Hanoverian Britain,” and “The Making of the English Ruling Class.” He does not discuss art or literature in any detail, but he quotes effectively from writers of the period—from the obscure as well as from the famous.

His book is divided into two parts. 1) “Stability,” a study of English society, and 2) “Strife,” a study of political history. I do not think that this division is entirely successful in solving a perennial problem: it leads to some repetitions. But it does mean that political and administrative history is set against a background of real life. His England is three-dimensional; there is a two-way relationship between rulers and ruled. “Despite the beliefs of those above them, and of some historians, the ‘lower orders’ were quite capable of mounting spontaneous demonstrations about any and every conceivable grievance.” The reasons for this are made clear when Dr. Speck tells us that “something near to half the population was…regularly or occasionally dependent upon charity, either parochial or private, to keep above the subsistence level.”

This awareness of the fact that there is mutual reaction between government and society is one of the book’s great strengths. “In the early days of non-conformity after the restoration of Charles II several peers and innumerable gentry were identifiable as dissenters. By 1715 there were few noble dissenting families left, though they still drew quite substantially on the support of the gentry,” except for the Baptists. But by 1760 this gentry support had fallen off: dissenters were largely tradesmen and artisans. This throws light on the otherwise perplexing failure of Whig governments after 1714 to live up to the principles of religious toleration which they had previously proclaimed.

Few could have predicted when the whigs came into their own in 1714 that within two years they would pass the Riot Act, suspend Habeas Corpus and replace the Triennial Act with the Septennial Act.” Dr. Speck’s analysis makes sense of the way in which a party that comes to power on one set of slogans can forget them in the process of consolidating its authority, until something like a one-party state emerges. The turning point in England was the Septennial Act of 1716, which extended the life of Parliaments from three to seven years.

Men had been reluctant to invest sums in seats which gave only three years’ tenure in theory, and only two on average, in practice. Once they were assured of six or seven years’ tenure the price of elections began to soar. Several hundreds of pounds, even sums over a thousand, became commonplace. These figures were enough to exclude many landed families who could not afford them, and to frighten others, especially tories, even if they could.

For their part the electors, now that issues no longer acted as a barrier against venality, sold out to the highest bidder.”

Elections were often not worth contesting. “As late as 1722 there were 17 county contests”; in the 1740s and 1750s four was the average. “This is the most compelling evidence that the political élites of England fused into a homogeneous ruling class in the central decades of the eighteenth century.” “Soon after the triumph of whiggery the philosophical defence of ‘liberty and property’ narrowed down to the protection of property even at the cost of infringing liberty.”

The crucial point is contained in Dr. Speck’s phrase “now that issues no longer acted as a barrier against venality.” He gives short shrift to the recently fashionable view that there were no live political issues under William III and Anne. But the Hanoverian succession changed all that. It may not have been popular, but there was no alternative. The Stuarts had put themselves out of court by their apparent determination to restore Catholicism by force, which would deprive the gentry of their hardwon control of the church and perhaps of their inherited monastic wealth. Jacobites won some support in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, and among the disgruntled lower classes in England (and there were men who called themselves “Levellers” in the Scottish Lowlands in the 1720s), but Jacobitism was not serious politics for the political nation. So the single-party state evolved, the electorate was painlessly deprived of influence. By 1760 Whig oligarchy, City of London and Tory squires, “had become reunited in the common interests of the ruling class.”

The agricultural revolution which had started in the seventeenth century led to falling food prices; and this “left a surplus between income and expenditure on subsistence which produced a rise in real wages, in urban areas at least.” The consequent increased demand stimulated industrial development elsewhere—in the Potteries, for instance. Monopoly trade with the colonies produced similar results. One wonders what effect this greater urban prosperity had in stimulating an expansion of the population. In all this Dr. Speck uses the work of the school of E.P. Thompson, and arrives at conclusions not very dissimilar to theirs. It seems a pity that in his bibliography he should refer to Mr. Thompson himself, the most distinguished and creative writer on his period, in extremely grudging terms.

Within their limits, however, these are excellent textbooks. If I were advising schoolboys and girls, I would tell them to read Claire Cross’s Church and People, 1450-1660, along with Professor Elton, and J.H. Plumb’s England in the Eighteenth Century alongside Dr. Speck. If I were advising university students, I would insist that they read the work of Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson. Given that, the first two volumes in this series would be very good for them.

  • Email
  • Print