A sceptred isle in full spectrum

The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain - The Later Tudors - Tudor Frontiers and Noble Power

November 28, 1997

One can only speculate what might have been the reactions had the coffin of Diana, princess of Wales, been surmounted by a dormant robed effigy of the deceased. Such was Elizabeth I's coffin (as a plate in The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain shows). In death, as in life, she remained as much an image as a being - or rather, like Diana, being an image was an essential part of her being. The media of representation have changed, but images of status and power are still necessarily projected on a highly public stage.

It is one of the advantages of an illustrated history to be able to confront the reader with such visual images, and John Morrill's volume meets the challenge by using its lavish illustration not just to decorate the text, but rather to enrich its account of these two centuries. It is a highly illustrable age, and various contributors to this multi-author work are acutely aware of publicity and imagery, as indeed the last generation's research requires them to be: John Guy and Kevin Sharpe remind us that the court was a spectrum of spaces from the privy chamber (and indeed stool-room), with its rigid regulation of access, out to the highly public spectacles of royal pageantry and ceremony. Thomas More characterised politics as "king's games: as it were stage plays, and for the more part played upon scaffolds".

We now also have a sharper sense of the theatre in which noble life was largely lived and the lifelong performance by which the noble image was projected, and for which houses were specifically built in this period, here elegantly described by John Adamson. Conrad Russell argues that religion was far more of a public than a private matter; even when the new ways eliminated the rich fund of images and stories (albeit only slowly) in favour of the word, the longed-for uniformity still placed a premium on public observance and delayed the acceptance of tolerance, diversity and thus privacy.

We have just witnessed a solemn, collective, public act of observance of our own, but it is significant that a radio journalist inadvertently referred to the events of and after August 31 as a "story". Although he hastily corrected himself, the journalist's shorthand for an item of news is not inappropriate for the reporting of the death, and indeed the life, of someone known to most of us only through the media. The historian, too, mediates otherwise inaccessible material to a wider audience, and similarly does so by telling stories, whether conceived as chronological narratives or sequences of analysis. The plural is important: one of the historian's abiding problems is that there are so many different stories to tell, and of so many different types. In addition to the different levels of political narrative and the whole range of different phenomena to be observed in past societies, there is the story of how the sources themselves are mined and the historiographical narrative of how the work relates to other writing.

This challenge is particularly acute for those attempting a comprehensive account of a period of history in one volume, and the two general books here, both part of successful series from Oxford University Press, solve the problem in different ways. Both Penry Williams, in his later-16th-century volume of The New Oxford History of England, and Morrill and his contributors, divide their chapters between narrative and thematic analysis: in the latter category Williams focuses on government, society, the arts, religion, and family and neighbours; the Illustrated History on landscape, family and community, education, law, theatre, and the mentalities of the aristocracy and commoners.

Morrill, however, in accordance with his declared theme of the "dynamics of change", also divides the narrative into six different strands: Tudor government, the British perspective, political culture, religion, politics, and the wider world. This brings undoubted riches, partly because it involves 11 different contributors in building the story (and Morrill's own two chapters are among the finest); the cumulative picture has both depth and breadth, and misses out little. But it does fragment the story, since contributors must either avoid or repeat each other.

Williams's more traditional solution of a unitary chronological narrative over six chapters succeeds better in conveying the range of different problems facing government and society at any one time. The political story is told by weaving as many elements and perspectives together as possible, which is particularly successful for the reign of Elizabeth, the core of the book, and thus provides a more satisfying single read. (One indeed wonders whether the Illustrated Histories fall between markets: fine as this volume is, its lack of single narrative and the tendency of some contributors to drive particular lines of argument, are not really appropriate to the general reader. Perhaps they are best appreciated by professional historians.)

What the Illustrated History does exhibit is the riches of the scholarship of these two centuries, one index of which is lively debate (although it is curious that the volume only acknowledges these in its bibliography, whereas Williams manages to integrate them into the text). Comparison between the books exhibits some of these. Russell's account of the Reformation emphasises the instability that resulted for over a century from monarchs' attempts to combine their own headship of the church with as near Catholic religion as they could get: Catholics had to commit treason over the former, many Protestants were heretical or at least disobedient in the light of the latter, and high Anglicans were alienated by any apparent success in Protestantisation. Many found co-existence with the monarch difficult, and with each other impossible.

Williams, on the other hand, takes the more traditional line that the Elizabethan settlement largely worked by offering a central position around which enough people could unite, even if they also continued to try to pull things in their own direction. He regards the new church as indelibly entrenched by 1603, and the Stuarts as creating their own problems in their more rigorous insistence on uniformity, whereas Russell sees the Stuarts as heirs to the unresolved Tudor disequilibrium.

Similarly, Christopher Haigh gives Elizabeth and her government a roasting that would have been entirely undeserved by Williams's queen: Haigh's sense of discontent and lack of cooperation contradicts diametrically Williams's peroration: "A united kingdom, a strong monarchy, and a relatively cohesive society were the main ingredients for stability in an age of religious turmoil." The essential theme of Williams's book is in fact the resilience of the Tudor polity in the face of the multiple pressures that it faced, from enemies abroad (particularly the Spanish), British instability (particularly Irish), religious tensions, the constantly uncertain succession, and rebellions from below fuelled by the growing gap between rich and poor, famine and disease. His emphasis is on the ordered survival through these threats, not the tensions produced by them.

Scholars (even within the covers of the Illustrated History) seem undecided as to whether the polity was centralised or delegatory. It was both, for political and social functions had for centuries been increasingly performed in the name of the sovereign, while those functions were simultaneously delegated back to the subjects to perform, Poor Law being a good example in this era. Politics involved a complex interaction of parties which were themselves overlapping and not discrete: the monarch, court, council, machinery of central government and law, parliament, the nobility, the gentry, bishops, clergy, towns, and various shades of popular opinion. It was thus a diverse, participatory and institutionalised polity down to the local level, and it was this participation that provided many of the safety valves for the release of tension: the implementation of policy at local level could be sensitive to local needs and mitigate the worst effects of government demands, as in the spheres of law, religion and taxation. The monarch was bound by the system and had to operate within it just as much as any other party; Elizabeth played it for all she was worth.

Such a plural polity demands that its history be written with an eye to many different elements, as with English political history since and indeed before. Another perspective that has attained prominence recently, the British problem, is reflected in both these general works. The Illustrated History does this particularly well, partly because this issue has been more fully explored for the 17th century, so that Morrill's account of politics in that century is successful in incorporating the whole of Britain. But it is also because Steven G. Ellis, who is opening up the issue for the 16th century, contributes an early chapter which firmly establishes the broad perspective.

Ellis's own Tudor Frontiers and Noble Power tackles the inadequacy of two different historiographies: the tendency of Irish historians to see Irish history in modern perspective, as the origins and growth of separatism and nationalism in the face of colonial occupation, rather than seeing 16th-century Ireland in its own perspective as part of the Tudor dominions; and the failure of English historians to look beyond lowland England in their analysis of the 16th-century polity. He redresses these through a comparison of the Pale (the part of Ireland under English lordship) with the northern border of England, which were run in the early 16th century by the earl of Kildare and Lord Dacre respectively.

He argues that these border regions had much in common at the time, and therefore that the development of a separate Irish identity on the part of the Anglo-Irish was a later development, consequent upon the government's increasingly alienating aggression. Equally, no account of the British polity is complete without recognising the distinct nature of the borderlands that comprised half its extent, and the different mechanisms needed to run them. It is because both Tudor and Stuart monarchs and modern historians have failed to see this that the former ran into trouble in trying to run them (alienating the Irish for good, and trying to impose inappropriate uniformity on the Scots), and the latter tend to regard modes of local governance outside the lowland England norm as either backward or illegitimate. The argument is gritty and compelling, particularly in demonstrating that early Tudor lack of comprehension of the need to delegate to magnates and to provide them with adequate resources, made border government worse than it had been.

If Ellis sometimes tries too hard to distance himself from other historians, he is right to insist on an account of the formation of the British state that goes beyond lowland England and sees the piecemeal annexation of outlying areas such as Wales and the north into English modes of governance as essential to the process.

As Scotland and Wales achieve some measure of distance from Westminster, the question of the extent of acceptable diversity within the state has become newly relevant. The mistake that brought Charles I down, that unity must mean uniformity, seems an odd one to make nowadays, given that the Scots have always retained their own law and their own church. However, it is a question of degree, and this is not the place to argue whether a parliament is a step too far.

What 16th and 17th-century British history does suggest is an unavoidably Whiggish perspective (albeit shorn of implications of progress and allowing for changes in different directions, including reversals, rather than a single dynamic of progress): the British habits of simultaneous participation in and deference to institutionalised government are old and have been hard to break. The resilient polity described by Williams paradoxically met a challenge to its nature from a Catholic, with a Toleration Act. It may take more than a couple of parliaments and the death of a princess to break it up.

Benjamin Thompson is fellow and tutor in medieval history, Somerville College, Oxford.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain

Editor - John Morrill
ISBN - 0 19 820325 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 487

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