Charles V
Charles V; drawing by David Levine

“Far too much of modern British history,” Sir Lewis Namier wrote, “is ensconced in biographies which dribble away their material without coming to grips with basic problems.” He need not have limited his remark to British history. Biography has been under something of a cloud with purist historians since the decline of “great man” theories. We are all sociologists now, and inclined to see rulers as products of the movements of their age rather than as directors of them—corks, not waves.

But there seems to be an insatiable public demand for biographies, and this is very comprehensible. As professional historians succumb to the lure of statistics, curves, and the computer, their works become less and less accessible to the ordinary reader who wants to know how men and women lived in the past. But the historical record, at least until very recent times, has left very scanty evidence of the lives of any but top people; it tells us little about how ordinary people lived. The title of Pierre Goubert’s book Louis XIV and the Twenty Million Frenchmen makes the point.

The decline of the biographical approach also relates to the rise of representative government. Lives of Lloyd George and Churchill, Wilson and Roosevelt, deal not only with individual prime ministers and presidents directing events but also with the political processes by which they attained their eminence. They are necessarily studies of party government, of public opinion, as well as of mere events.

Yet representative government has had a relatively short life span, and is the product of a relatively sophisticated society. For a great deal of recorded human history rulers did not win their way to power: they were born to it—apart from the occasional successful revolutionary leader—a Cromwell, a Washington, a Napoleon, the exceptions which prove the rule. The hereditary principle now seems a very inefficient way of selecting rulers. The fact that one man is a good king is no guarantee that his eldest son will not be a moron. But the great advantage of the hereditary principle is its arbitrariness. There is no damned merit about it. B succeeds A, not because he is cleverer than all the other letters of the alphabet, but because he is A’s eldest son. Cleverness, ability to rule, are matters about which we all may differ; descent is far less open to challenge. For similar reasons old-fashioned institutions like the British army and civil service are addicted to the principle of seniority. Other things being equal, it is less upsetting to promote old Snooks, who has been there for longer than anyone else, rather than young Bloggs, about whose apparently greater cleverness some of us have our doubts.

There was of course always the possibility in the old monarchies of breaking strict hereditary succession. When a Richard II, a Richard III, or a James II proved intolerable, he could be removed, but normally he was replaced by someone very close to him in blood, or by someone who successfully pretended to be very close. The hereditary principle was so clumsy and crude that it had to be set aside sometimes; but always the pretense was kept up that it hadn’t really been broken.

All this is not to suggest that the hereditary monarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were any more in control of events than a contemporary prime minister or president. Often the reverse was the case. The power of Charles V or Philip II of Spain, as of Elizabeth I of England, depended on their ability to rule in accordance with the wishes of the powerful landed classes in their dominions. In normal times this meant doing as little as possible that was novel. In times of war and crisis it meant that some consensus of ruling-class opinion must be followed. The sanctions applied against those who failed to hold a consensus were either revolt—the unsuccessful rising of the northern earls against Elizabeth in 1569, the successful revolt of the Netherlands against Philip II—or withdrawal of positive support by the landed class, which might facilitate popular revolt.

It was axiomatic among sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rulers that the common people were permanently discontented, held down only by the preaching of the clergy and the swords of the nobility. If clergy or nobility lost positive enthusiasm for government policy a popular revolt might break out, like that of the Spanish comuneros in 1520 or of the Norfolk peasantry in 1549. But normally, as in these cases, once the point had been made and the government had learned its lesson, the commons would be bloodily repressed and preached against.

The biographies under review all deal with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rulers. Professor Fernández Alvarez’s Charles V and Professor Pierson’s Philip II are competent, straightforward, old-fashioned political biographies. Neither, one feels, was written because the author had something he desperately wanted to say: they were written because biographies of these two monarchs were required for the series the publishers had thought up, “Men in Office.”


Charles V, by a series of dynastic accidents (the deaths of an uncle and three cousins, and the madness of his mother), found himself heir to the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, ruler of most of present-day Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, and Italy. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor just when the Lutheran Reformation gave German princes the chance to complete the political disintegration of Germany; he became king of Spain just as Columbus’s discovery of America began to pay dividends in the shape of gold and silver pouring into Spain.

Even these vast resources were insufficient for Charles. At his abdication he divided his empire between his brother Ferdinand, who became Holy Roman Emperor, and his son Philip, who became king of Spain, ruler of the Netherlands and of Spanish America: Charles’s advice to his son put the rooting out of heresy first on the list of priorities. For heretics were rebels, who would overturn the state and the social order. They should be burned: most of them were Jews anyway. “Too much mercy is a vice rather than a virtue.” Charles’s views made a profound impression on Philip, who accepted the obligations they imposed on him. They were reinforced by the tutors Charles selected for him. One of them believed that all heresies derived from Jews; another was an opponent of those Spaniards who spoke up against the exploitation and extermination of American Indians.

The principal victims of the European policies of Charles V and Philip II were indeed the native inhabitants of Central and South America, although neither of the two books under review gives a vivid sense of this aspect of their rule. The conquistadores were aggressive, thrusting types, most of whom were interested in the New World mainly for what they could get out of it. No Spanish grandee, as Pierson points out, held office in the Indies under Philip II. The Indians were brutally, ruthlessly exploited: the population of Mexico was decimated. In 1542 Charles passed some relatively liberal laws to protect the indigenous population. But these laws were overruled in the 1550s when revenue was badly needed. At the same time and for the same reason new contracts were made for the African slave trade, the righteousness of which neither Charles nor his pious son seems ever to have questioned.

The sale of offices on a significant scale dates from the same decade. If in the sixteenth century offices had not been sold they would almost certainly have been distributed by aristocratic patronage, to otherwise unemployable younger sons and dependents. So the venality of offices did not necessarily make government less efficient. It reduced the burden of taxation and offered a way into government service for the newly rich. But in the long run it had a distorting effect on the economy. Capital was diverted from productive investment, and those go-ahead sections of the population who had not departed for the New World were anesthetized in the administration.

The sixteenth century saw a conflict in most countries between the centralizing tendencies which pushed governments toward absolutism, and the resistance of representative assemblies—representing, it must be emphasized, principally the landed class and urban oligarchies. Charles V had continual trouble with the Cortes of Castile, but finally brought them to heel. He was aided by the revolt of the comuneros in 1520, when serious rebellions by towns in Castile and Valencia attracted peasant support and took on anti-aristocratic overtones. The few great landowners who had initially shown sympathy for the rebels were frightened off; they learned their lesson. Charles finally recovered control with the help of German mercenaries, but he never forgave or forgot the rebels and their sympathizers. He later recalled that “Lutheran heresies in Germany and comunidades in Castile began to fester” simultaneously.

The Spanish government fiercely resisted the combination of heresy and a demand for representative government when it reappeared in the Netherlands under Philip. Only after eighty years of war did the bourgeois United Provinces establish their independence—the first major power of a new type, a republic ruled by merchants, its policy orientated toward world trade. But as long as Philip lived Spain refused to recognize the independence of the Dutch rebels and heretics. They received reluctant support from Elizabeth of England (who shared Philip’s dislike of rebels even when they professed the same religion as she did), and more enthusiastic support from English merchants, Protestants, and freebooters. Philip sent the Armada of 1588 to conquer England and so bring the Netherlands back to submission. But God blew with his winds, and Philip’s ships were scattered. The Spanish empire never recovered its old power in Europe, though it was an unconscionable time in dying, and retained most of South and Central America until the nineteenth century. The Mediterranean was ceasing to be the center of world history just at the time when it came under Spanish domination.


Meanwhile the internal policy of the Spanish government was inimical to industrial development—e.g., in restricting exports. “The prevailing feudal spirit,” Pierson writes, “tended to stifle capitalist tendencies, which were beginning to infect many Englishmen, Netherlanders and Italians. Thus the system built by Philip II, however impressive, consumed wealth without promoting the production of new wealth.” When Spain annexed Portugal in 1580 the main opposition came, understandably, from commoners, from forcibly converted Jews, and from the lower clergy—“a rabble of artisans, shopkeepers, Jews and friars.”

The king of Spain dominated the Church in his dominions more than any other European sovereign, including the rulers of Protestant states. So a Protestant reformation had no attractions for Charles or Philip as a means of enhancing their authority. On the contrary: the Inquisition was an essential instrument of royal government, “served by 20,000 faceless informers.” It was used especially against former Moors, “converted” after their defeat at the end of the fifteenth century, against forcibly converted Jews, and against any sign of Protestantism. Inevitably this concentration on orthodoxy in “a society which was fundamentally feudal and agrarian in outlook and structures” led ultimately to intellectual stagnation. Numbers at Spanish universities rose sharply under Philip II, and the Golden Age of Spanish literature was yet to come. But intellectual contact with the outside world was restricted and some areas were closed to free discussion. In the long run this produced conformist nullity.

Sixteenth-century society was so profoundly aristocratic that national and religious barriers could be crossed if you were one of the elite. French Catholic kings were invested with the Order of the Garter—a Protestant ceremony; English magnates received the Order of St. Michael in a Catholic ceremony. Even in the seventeenth century it was possible for a well-born Italian adventurer like Giulio Mazarini to offer himself for employment to the highest bidder in the international market. “To a gentleman any country is his homeland,” he declared. He described himself as French “by gratitude and by temperament.” Well he might. Initially pro-Spanish, he ended by ruling France for nearly twenty years. He liked to say that it was an astrologer who told him when he was twenty-two that he should abandon Spain, since all his future advantages and honors would come from France. Whether true or not, the anecdote tells us something about Mazarin and about the beliefs of sophisticated men in his age.

M. Georges Dethan’s book differs from those on Charles and Philip. It was not written for the series on “Men in Office,” into which it fits rather oddly. It is translated from a book published nine years ago, with omissions and additions. M. Dethan draws upon largely unpublished letters of the years before Mazarin became ruler of France—letters to and from his family, to and from the patrons and friends who helped this ambitious young Roman on his upward career. He served first as a soldier, then as a diplomat, finally and almost accidentally in the church, becoming a cardinal before he was forty thanks to French support: the astrologer had been right. But his later career owed more to the death of Louis XIII, leaving a five-year-old son and a widow as regent whom Mazarin captivated and may have married.

The letters are full of human interest and tell us a great deal about the road to success in seventeenth-century politics. But the book ends before Mazarin had become a man in office. His rule led to the age of Louis XIV, the apogee of absolutism; but in a way Mazarin’s career is an even more remarkable illustration of the arbitrary power of monarchy. An Italian upstart, hated by the French aristocracy and by many ordinary Frenchmen, he was able to retain power during a crisis which split French society (the Fronde) and to bring France to the successful conclusion of a war which had meant thirty years of ruinously high taxation. He was able to do this partly because he was an extremely able and acute man, but mostly because he won and retained the favor of another foreigner, the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. With her backing he could outface the princes of the blood, the Parlement of Paris, and twenty million Frenchmen.

With our last book we return to the age of Philip II. Elizabeth of England, although Philip’s sister-in-law, was a product of the Reformation. Her mother was Anne Boleyn, desire for whom led Henry VIII to the breach with Rome. The Pope refused to declare his previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid. For Catherine was Charles V’s aunt, and his political agent in England; and the Pope was at the mercy of Charles’s armies at the time. So the royal supremacy was established over the English church. Henry’s amours were of course the occasion rather than the cause of the success of the English Reformation: many of the English landed class coveted church lands, many of the middle and lower classes adhered to the Lollard heresy which had survived underground in England for more than a century.

In the relative freedom of the reign of Henry’s young son, Edward VI, Protestantism spread rapidly—too rapidly for most of the landed classes, who like Charles V equated heresy with sedition. In 1553 they rallied to the Princess Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon. But then the pendulum swung too far the other way: Mary married her cousin Philip of Spain and subordinated her foreign policy to Spanish interests. She started the burning of heretics which earned her the title of Bloody Mary, and strengthened rather than weakened Protestantism in England because of the unexpected courage and constancy of the victims, most of whom were very humble people. Even Philip II thought the persecution excessive. When Mary in her turn died prematurely in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded amid general rejoicing. She was as committed by birth and history to Protestantism as Mary had been to Catholicism. Unlike Charles and Philip, she was also committed to cooperate with the Parliament which represented the landed classes. Her reign marks the beginnings of a transition to a visibly modern England.

Dr. Strong’s book is in a different class from the others. It is a scholarly, sophisticated, superbly illustrated study of Elizabethan portraiture and pageantry as contributors to the myth of the Virgin Queen. It contains a detailed and learned analysis of three paintings, and studies of the celebration on Elizabeth’s accession day (November 17) and of the Order of the Garter, both from the point of view of their contribution to this myth. These pieces were written primarily for historians—not only art historians.

The popular junketings on November 17, celebrating the end of the Marian persecution, appear to have originated spontaneously in—of all places—Oxford. But they were encouraged by the authorities, and soon the occasion had become highly ritualized. The Reformation had abolished a number of saints’ days on which popular celebrations were held: the queen’s accession day fortunately fell on one of these, the feast of St. Hugh of Lincoln. Forty years earlier that experienced propagandist Sir Richard Morison had advised Henry VIII to establish a solemn annual feast, accompanied by plays as well as preaching, in memory of the deliverance of the English people “out of the bondage of the most wicked Pharaoh of all Pharaohs, the bishop of Rome.” This is what Elizabeth’s accession day became: “an adaptation of an old Catholic festival to the ethos of Protestantism,” says Dr. Strong. The festivities developed especially after Elizabeth had been excommunicated by the Pope in 1570. It has often been suggested that the cult of the Virgin Queen was consciously modeled on that of the Virgin Mary. Dr. Strong expands this to argue that Elizabeth was also Diana and Venus, chastity and love.

“In their enthusiasm for the celebrations of her Accession Day her subjects were enunciating and giving support to a revolutionary view of history, re-cast to sanctify Tudor and above all Elizabeth’s own rule. Not only is it an overt manifestation of the adoption of Protestant historiography but, within a wider context, it promotes Elizabeth as a Queen within an eschatological framework in which she assumes the dimensions of a ruler of the Last Days.” This picks up the myth of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, extensively used by Elizabeth’s government as propaganda. The English people, especially the common people, have throughout history—and especially recently in Mary’s reign—been in the vanguard of the struggle against Antichrist, now identified as the Pope. His overthrow was one of the preconditions of the coming of the millennium.

Dr. Strong suggests that “the Queen’s Day festivities were in reality a glorification of a certain concept of history”—of the Elizabethan age as “a different era, a new beginning, a renovatio of ancient purity long lost.” “History…really began on 17 November 1558.” This is a remarkable insight, and helps to explain why the Parliamentary opponents of the early Stuart kings glorified Queen Elizabeth, why a regicide like Oliver Cromwell and a defender of regicide like John Milton still looked back to “Queen Elizabeth of glorious memory.” The Elizabethan myth broke out of the static universe of traditional monarchy, within which Charles V, Philip II, and Charles I saw themselves operating. It accepted and glorified change. Even though change took the form of restoring pristine purity, it did so in order to look forward to the coming millennium, to Milton’s “shortly expected King.” It was a small step in the direction of a theory of progress.

Such an outcome would not have pleased the Virgin Queen. Much more to her taste was something shared with other European monarchs, the artificial “cultivation of the imagery and motifs of legends of chivalry.” “The visual image of the age was feudal and mediaeval,” as illustrated by portraits, tombs, interior decoration, Arcadia and The Faerie Queene, though we may think that the content of the latter two belie the medieval form. Dr. Strong studies the “obsession with and deliberate revival of” the Order of the Garter, with all its chivalric ritual, and also the Elizabethan revival of tilting. Serious politicians put themselves into fantastic fancy-dress armor and arrived before Elizabeth “in carriages drawn by horses disguised as elephants.” They “addressed the Queen in well-composed verses or with a ludicrous speech,” and then solemnly charged to break a lance with a rival politician or civil servant. Not quite the modern world here!

“The strength of the Elizabethan image,” Dr. Strong thoughtfully sums up, “lay in its capacity to be read and reread many ways and never to present a single outright statement which left no room for manoeuvre, as did its successors in the new style.” That is very true. Elizabeth’s successors, less skilled in flirting with the future, used the latest scientific and architectural techniques to develop the masque, which Dr. Strong studied so effectively in Splendor at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and the Theater of Power (Houghton Mifflin, 1973). The unreality of all those apotheoses and descending goddesses of peace and plenty form an ironical curtain-raiser to the civil war which was to destroy the old monarchy for good, as England moved into the new world typified by the Dutch republic.

This Issue

December 8, 1977