Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.