The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade. Ed. John Guy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. xiv + 313 pp.
Henry VIII in History, Historiography and Literature. Ed. Uwe Baumann. Bern: Peter Lang, 1992. 327 pp.
Steven Gunn
Merton College, Oxford

Gunn, Stephen. "Review of The Reign of Elizabeth I: Court and Culture in the Last Decade and Henry VIII in History, Historiography and Literature." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 8.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-1/rev_gun1.html>.

  1. Few would deny that recent decades have seen profitable exchange between historians and scholars of literature, especially perhaps in the study of the English renaissance. The collections of essays reviewed here suggest that the result has been the elaboration of an impressive range of strategies for the interpretation of texts and contexts; but that the Holy Grail of interpretation equally satisfying to both academic constituencies often remains just out of reach. Each volume features the work of thirteen scholars drawn from both disciplines, though the historians are in the majority amongst John Guy's contributors and in the minority amongst Uwe Baumann's. Both collections hold together better than such books often do, because each pursues a fairly clear theme. Guy's aims to characterize the 1590s as a distinctive period within Elizabeth's long reign--her "second reign," the introduction tags it--and to examine the interaction of politics, religion, social change and literary production within it. The texts addressed in Baumann's volume range widely in time, from the poems celebrating Henry VIII's accession in 1509 to the film Henry VIII and his Six Wives of 1972 and two historical novels of the 1980s, but they are all reflections upon Henry's character and reign; only a sketch of the relations between Henry's England and Germany, interesting in some of its detail but very questionable in some of its wider judgements, falls outside the pattern.

  2. Some of the chapters in The Reign of Elizabeth I revise our understanding of the politics of the 1590s without much direct implication for literary studies. Natalie Mears and Paul Hammer, not without overlap, review the relationship between Essex and the Cecils, finding more cooperation, less Cecilian hegemony and more fluid political alignments than previous interpreters, both stressing the disruptiveness of Essex's ideological attachment to noble privilege and aggressive war and the queen's failing grip on political rivalries. Hiram Morgan exposes Lord Burghley's shameful part in the destruction of Sir John Perrot, on charges of treason so ludicrous that the victim protested it was as possible for him to perform the design of which he was accused "as it is for me to dance around with Paul's Steeple on my thumb." Simon Adams tackles a larger theme, the changing world of politics in the late sixteenth century, concentrating on two features: the replacement of land and estate office by the customs and monopolies as the main currency of royal patronage, and the developing notion of public service rather than personal service to the monarch as the criterion of reward. In the second area he combines attention to the wider context of a stressful war with scrutiny of the increasing use of classical terminology in political discussion. Like Mears, Hammer and Morgan but to a greater extent, he is writing political history with a helpful eye on political culture.

  3. Other contributors do so still more explicitly. John Guy shows how Archbishop Whitgift's conformity campaign relied for its prosecution not only on political circumstance in the deaths of Leicester, Walsingham, Warwick and Mildmay, but also on the reassertion of Henrician notions of the monarch's imperial supremacy over the church and on the assimilation of continental canonical practice in ex officio actions in the ecclesiastical courts. Linda Levy Peck substantiates the complaints of late Elizabethan noblemen, especially those of the younger generation, that the queen failed to reward their services, but argues that it found its most common expression not in defiant revolt but in hopes for an improvement under King James. She probes contemporary interest in the medieval great offices of state to suggest that it did not reflect an assertive aristocratic constitutionalism; here her analysis perhaps chimes better with the "diverse and pluralistic" early Stuart chivalry expounded by John Adamson in his contribution to Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England, ed. K. Sharpe, P. Lake (1994), than it does with his earlier work with which she takes issue.

  4. Those chapters in Guy's book which concentrate on the elucidation and contextualisation of texts are more directly comparable with the contributions to Baumann's collection. Some instructively examine the gap between a distant author's perception or representation of a situation and the perceptions of those directly involved in it. Jenny Wormald shows how Richard Bancroft's attacks on the pretensions of the Scottish presbyterians reveal more of his own fears of an English puritan bogy than of the Scottish situation, which he badly misconstrued. Anglo-Scottish misunderstandings are also examined by Ulrike Morët and Sonja Väthjunker. They show how the image of Henry VIII conveyed by Scots chroniclers of the 1560s and 1570s was determined by the religious and political loyalties of the authors, though they might have tried to do more to situate their authors precisely in the world of Scottish politics in those years. At a greater distance from Henry but equally hostile was Jonathan Swift, whose view of the king is impressively reconstructed by Dirk Passmann and Heinz Vienken. They use his marginalia on Herbert's Life--"Dog of a King" and worse--to analyse his antipathy to a monarch who weakened clerical finances, upset the nation's political balance and personified cruel tyranny. They then set these views in the context of those expressed by Swift's contemporaries, many of whose works he certainly owned. Perhaps the only trick they miss is the link between Swift's attraction for Harrintonian mixed government, which they note, and his argument about the dislocation of the social and political balance by the dissolution of the monasteries, which may well have come from Oceana.

  5. Where these contributors look for gaps between authors and subjects, others look for affinities between authors and audiences. Richard McCoy finds Essexian resonances not only in Francis Davidson's Masque of Proteus of 1594-5 but also in the verse miscellany he published a year after the earl's fall, A Poetical Rhapsody. Rainer Holtei and Fritz Levy both take a cool approach to the vexed question of political reference in drama. Holtei argues that Skelton's Magnyfycence is a sufficiently generalized speculum principis that it might have been written for a number of political occasions or none at all. Levy examines the interplay between theatre and court at a number of levels, focussing on Jonson's Sejanus as a commentary on the late-Elizabethan court and on the dramatic self-presentation of the dying Essex; he deals subtly with the ways contemporaries sought for political allusions in drama but also with the difficulty for us of identifying what may have been fleeting recognitions sparked by a phrase, a gesture, an intonation or a prop.

  6. Many of Baumann's authors are more concerned with internal analysis of texts. Beate Lüsse examines the rhetorical structure and aims of the verses penned by Skelton, Hawes and More on Henry's accession, though she does not open the question of the ambivalence of the classical parallels chosen by More and Skelton, as David Rundle has done in Renaissance Studies 9 (1995). Uwe Baumann shows how William Thomas's The Pilgrim and Ulpian Fulwell's The Flower of Fame construct humanist-inspired portraits of Henry as a model ruler. Hans Peter Heinrich and Wolfgang Müller discuss Shakespeare's Henry VIII, one reading its apparent incoherence as a comment on worldly mutability and the other inspecting its picture of the king and the rhetoric employed by various characters in constructing it. Jürgen Beer deals with the image of Henry in the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, again showing how conventional virtues are attributed to the king, but running out of steam after 1529 when Hall is less detailed but still merits attention. He fails to comment, for instance, on the deliberate falsehood of the account of Henry marching in person against the Pilgrims of Grace, or on the set-piece parliamentary speech of 1545. He is also perhaps less sensitive than he might be to Hall's choice of words: he discusses Hall's praise of Henry for "the augmentacion of his Croune" only in the most general terms of the king's power, without considering the many resonances that both the crown and its augmentation would have had for contemporaries faced with the rhetoric and image of the imperial crown and a vast new financial institution called the Court of Augmentations. More skillful in this respect is Theo Stimmler, whose examination of the vocabulary and rhetoric of Henry's love-songs and love-letters provides fascinating evidence of the conventional and the highly individual in Henry's amatory expression.

  7. So far we have mostly dealt with the links between literature and political history, but as Jim Sharpe reminds us in a cogent review of the economic and social strains of the 1590s, it is our understanding of such aspects of Tudor England that has increased fastest in recent years. Sharpe's own contribution usefully reminds us of the air of pessimism amidst dearth, war, crime and sedition that characterised the late-Elizabethan elite, but three other pieces examine the literature of social change in more detail. Alistair Fox attributes the decay in literary patronage in Elizabeth's last decade to the changing composition of the political elite, as hard-faced administrators like Lord Keeper Egerton took the place of open-handed noblemen. Characteristically, Essex was seen as the last of the latter, receiving sixty-six dedications of printed books in the 1590s, ten more than the queen. Marie Axton situates Thomas Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament in the context of fears of Scottish-style reform of calendar customs not only amongst players and playwrights but also amongst the English episcopate. And in probably the most stimulating chapter in either book, Patrick Collinson examines the interactions between the Martin Marprelate tracts and their conformist counterblasts, the popular theatre of Dick Tarleton and Will Kemp, the local culture of mocking rhymes and festive disorder, and the emergence of the stereotype stage puritan in the decade following Martin's appearance. Here at last, perhaps, is a set of texts placed in a context to keep both historians and their literary colleagues happy.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 24, 1996)