Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England

July 2, 2009

In 1992, Kevin Sharpe published The Personal Rule of Charles I. Like the book under review, it was both lengthy and deeply researched. It was what I suppose one must now call an old-fashioned political history, but although in the end I could not accept his interpretation of these critical years (crudely speaking it was a defence of Charles I), it was a book I greatly admired. Alas, I cannot say the same of this one.

To get a perhaps minor criticism out of the way first, his publishers, Yale University Press, have not done their author proud. For a book so greatly concerned with image, the reproductions, though many, are inadequate, so much so that it is quite impossible to follow Sharpe's presentation of them. It also greatly lacks a bibliography.

The book is billed as the first of a three-volume reinterpretation of the early modern period - what we used to call "Tudors and Stuarts" - from a postmodernist standpoint. What that actually means is difficult to summarise despite, or even because of, an opening chapter on "Concepts and methods". What is clear is that any history that concerns itself with "facts" or "evidence" should now be considered woefully inadequate in part because of "a failure to read below or between the lines". At one moment Sharpe is anxious to assure us that he has retained "the historian's (perhaps unique) concern with exact moments, particular circumstances, and change" but he comes to that task "from multidisciplinary as well as interdisciplinary perspectives".

As I read the opening chapter, I increasingly asked myself why the hell he did not get on with it, or more politely, how all this theorising might translate into practice. Well, in fact, what you get is a fairly detailed survey of every sort of marketing technique, to continue the idea contained in the book's title, whether they be books, speeches, proclamations, plays, playing cards, paintings, not forgetting engravings and woodcuts - all is grist to Sharpe's mill. Even Henry VIII's love letters to Anne Boleyn figure, because in some rather mysterious way they "were at once secret and public", and even more mysteriously were "a representation of the king's two bodies - both his private and public self".

As a survey it is interesting, and I certainly learnt a good deal. But whether there is anything significantly new here I rather doubt. For instance, a lot of time is spent explaining the iconography of the various portraits of Elizabeth, but essentially all this work was done by Sir Roy Strong and Frances Yates some 40 years ago. Indeed, the more I read this book the more it seemed to me that, leaving aside the trendy jargon, this is a very old-fashioned account that will be all too familiar to students of the period. Fair enough, except that Sharpe himself seems blissfully unaware of this point.

Take for example his use of the "negotiation". For him, this has nothing to do with any "exact moments" but is used to describe the relationship between ruler and ruled. This, he is most anxious to emphasise, was reciprocal. Rulers needed to explain their actions to the ruled, but the ruled did not necessarily accept the explanations, or read the images in the correct way, and this in turn had to be taken into account by the ruler. I am not sure that this is quite the amazing insight that Sharpe seems to think it is: it is surely well known that even a Hitler or a Stalin had to take into some account what their subjects thought. Moreover, it is a commonplace of Tudor history that the Crown was obsessed by fears of riots and rebellions, and spent a great deal of energy, including the use of what could be called marketing techniques, in efforts to prevent them occurring.

But it was not all dialogue and persuasion. One of the things that I most objected to in Sharpe's account is the way in which it sanitised these highly turbulent years. You would, for instance, hardly guess on reading this book that hundreds of people were put to death - often in the most horrible ways - by the perhaps tyrannical Henry VIII but also by the Virgin Queen, despite her "love affair" with the nation. Nor do you get much idea that there were in place highly developed administrative and judicial systems, both secular and ecclesiastical.

What Sharpe has written about remains for me the icing on the cake; important certainly but not remotely the whole story. For that one needs to return to the old-fashioned ways that he now so much dislikes, seduced according to his own account by "spin" and the ways of new Labour - both of which have a lot to answer for.

Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England

By Kevin Sharpe Yale University Press. 512pp, £30.00 ISBN 9780300140989. Published 30 April 2009

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