bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Thomas Becket and the Materiality of an Absence

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2021

Today is the final day of the Thomas Becket: life, death and legacy conference, an event which is proving stimulating and engaging, even in its online incarnation in our still-distanced world. Funded by the British Academy, its academic organisers are two wonderful medievalists, my colleague at Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Dr Emily Guerry, and Prof. Louise Wilkinson (University of Lincoln). It was originally intended to take place in Canterbury at the Cathedral in 2020, a year with a double importance in the devotional history of that religious community: last year was the eighth centenary of the translation of the remains of St Thomas the Martyr within the cathedral, with his death occurring fifty years earlier, so meaning 2020 was its 850th anniversary. The continuing Covid-19 situation meant the conference (like the related exhibition at the British Museum) had to be delayed, and is now taking place fully online. This has had an impact on my own contribution to the conference. I originally proposed a paper on the English community in Italy and its cherishing of Becket’s name. However, the organisers at the Cathedral on the Heritage Lottery Funded Canterbury Journey project have been keen to retain some sense of that location as the place where the conference is happening so have asked for some ‘virtual tours’ of its riches. The challenge they set me was to talk about signs of the removal of St Thomas’s cult in the books held in the Cathedral’s Library and Archives.

I was, at first, hesitant to take on this task: I do work on erasures but had not before considered in any systematic way how those practices related to the attack on Becket in sixteenth-century England. It required some research on my part but I am now glad that I did it: so, thank you to Sarah and the Canterbury Journey team for nudging this truculent ox in that direction. I am pleased I did for three reasons. First, it gave me reason to consult — within the limits of present government guidance — some fascinating manuscripts and printed books in the Archive’s holdings, some old friends to me, others (like the heavy-weight Plumptre Missal) new acquaintances. Second, and related to that, it is always a delight to work with the highly supportive staff at the Archives, led by Cressida Williams, but the recording of my talk had the added benefit of meeting the Canterbury Journey’s technical expert, Alba Jato: it was a joy to work with someone with such energy and enthusiasm. Finally and the reason for this short post, the research itself brought home to me that there is a richer history about the ‘second death’ of Becket than has so far been written.

Thumbnail image from the virtual tour of Becket erasures in Canterbury Cathedral

That Henry VIII’s proclamation of November 1538 requiring the ‘unsainting’ of Becket included the removal of his name from liturgical books is well known. There are some useful discussions with interesting examples online. My own work revolves around two insights which are not often fully enunciated. First, ‘erasure’ is often the wrong word for how the saint’s name is removed. The process of erasing is a very particular approach to removal, and sits within a wider suite of possibilities. The examples I discuss in the recording include tearing out, blacking out, cutting out, slashing, scratching away, and rewashing — and this is only one subset of a longer list of possible approaches. The results of each are not exactly the same and my challenge to future scholarship is to think about whether the intentions that lie behind each act might also be subtly different.

It might be that the implications of what I have just said would remain in the area of speculation (and so unpublishable, except in a blog like this) if it were not for the second factor. The removal of Becket’s name was not the only one required by the government in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. The first injunctions of Edward VI’s reign twinned his name with the word ‘pope’. This was, in fact, a bringing together of two separate acts of Edward’s father. Henry VIII had required, as I have mentioned, the ‘rasing’ of St Thomas in November 1538; it was a little over three years earlier that he had demanded that the word ‘papa’ and ‘pap[a]e’ should be removed from all liturgical books. Though these became twin acts by the mid-century, the two removals began life at separate points. Thus, for us as scholars, there is an interest in comparing the two related but independent requirements.

Certainly, in some cases, the two words were removed at the same time, or in identical manner so we can not detect any difference between them. We might, in fact, expect that of loyal subjects of Henry’s reign or of those in his son’s reign who followed the royal injunctions. What, then, was striking in the few examples I have time to discuss in the short recording is that in all cases the approach differs between the two terms. There are occasions when Becket is removed but ‘pope’ remains undisturbed; there are others when care has been taken to rub out ‘pape’ from the liturgical calendar, but St Thomas is left untouched. There is also one manuscript when both are scratched out but with markedly different levels of intensity.

I do not, though, want to spoil what small interest might lie in the video Alba and I recorded, and which is now available to the conference delegates and may hopefully soon be put online for all to see (however few ‘all’ might be). Let me finish, then, with this thought: it is said that Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, claimed not to want to have windows on men’s souls. Attending to the detail of an ‘erasure’ will not give us a clear view into the private thoughts of women and men alive in the 1530s and 1540s, but it might bring us a little closer to their inner lives than we imagined we could.

Glimpses in The Mirror and the Light

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 20 April, 2020

‘Dead men are at work’ (p. 615). The final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy is a book of ghosts. It opens only a second after the previous instalment, Bring up the Bodies, ended, as life leaves the now truncated queen. The world, however, has changed in that twinkling of an eye. Both the main protagonists — Thomas Cromwell and his master, Henry — have aged. Henry has always been plagued by dreams: one of the bravura moments of writing in the earlier parts of this saga saw Cromwell and Cranmer stand over the king, moulding a positive construction for the nightmares that had woken him from his royal sleep. Now Cromwell, though still a man of action, is in his fifties and he broods, recalls, regrets. He finds the darkness sometimes haunted.

Leemput after Holbein Whitehall Mural

A 1667 copy of Holbein’s lost Whitehall Mural, by Remigius van Leemput (Royal Collection).

The Mirror and the Light moves backwards as it moves forwards. It fills out Cromwell’s back-story, giving more details of his childhood and fathering on him a daughter from his Antwerp years. It also cannot forget his former adversaries: Thomas More casts his shadow across these pages. There are new enemies and there are new traitors. Some friends gain new prominence: Mantel has fun giving a more prominent role to Thomas Wyatt (who was Cromwell’s political protégé), and likewise to Hans Holbein. In particular, she provides an ekphrasis of the Whitehall Mural, which is doubly suited to her purpose as it is itself now no more than a reflection in mirrors, known only via copies, the original having been destroyed by fire in 1698. Cromwell is immersed in this cultured milieu and can act his own part within it. Mantel’s invention retains something of the inventiveness seen in previous instalments and now he also becomes an author, with Mantel endowing her creation with drafts of a ‘Book called Henry’. The title teases with a hint that this was to be like Thomas Elyot’s Book named The Governor (first printed in 1531), or rather the mirror image of that work of political advice addressed to the king; what we learn of Cromwell’s opus is that is a set of reflections on how to deal with his monarch. We can only wish we could read it. This is a book about ghosts of books.

Mantel has talked of these ghosts as ‘erased texts’, which in their illegibility invite us to read more deeply. She made this comment in response to a post I wrote with reflections on her use of Machiavelli in the first two volumes. The Prince makes a guest appearance in The Mirror, in a depiction of event which accords with the historical record, the gift to Cromwell of a copy of the book by Lord Morley. Cromwell reflects that his ‘king has nothing to learn from Niccolò’s book. But it may pass an hour for him…’ [p. 646]. Machiavelli is not a defining influence on this older, less confident Cromwell. Indeed, if a contemporary work by an Italian holds resonance for this novel, it is one which is not mentioned by name but which we know the historical Cromwell owned and which may have influenced the creation of this Cromwell’s own book of reflections (as it did Elyot’s Governor). It is Castiglione’s The Courtier.

While the central character of Mantel’s trilogy is the royal servant, through whose eyes we are meant to see the politics of the later 1530s, her most remarkable construction, it seems to me, is the portrayal of the king. It is Henry VIII who is alluded to in the title of the novel, in a phrase used of him in the historical Cromwell’s diplomatic correspondence. What Mantel does so well is to depict the unknowability of a king to even those close to him — and the way in which the monarch, a changeable man by nature, becomes inscrutable to himself as he attempts to continue to be unknowable to his courtiers. Cromwell, for all his skill as an efficient bureaucrat, is no less a courtier than the landed nobility who despise him. Though he never alludes to Castiglione, he has learnt some of his lessons. With his mastery of detail and his subtle manipulation of political intrigue, he has achieved his own style of sprezzatura, but his superiority is becoming ever more effortful, his grasp ever more tenuous.

As should be already clear, The Mirror and the Light is a tour-de-force in combining historical research with human sensitivity. The first part of the trilogy, Wolf Hall, felt at times weighed down by the note-taking that sat behind the writing, but the assimilation of research to narrative was perfected in Bring up the Bodies. The knowledge displayed is yet deeper here; it is so steeped in wide reading of the available primary sources and of historical scholarship that I can imagine the publisher is already preparing to commission a ‘reader’s companion’ or ‘scholar’s edition’, chronicling the influences and their transformations. Indeed, I see another publisher already has one on its way, by Lauren Mackay. I wonder what Mantel thinks of volumes like this. After all, any attempt to endow her fluid narrative with certainty would surely be inimical to her intentions. She wants to breath life into the past for us, but is always conscious that the best anyone can do is to conjure fleeting mirages, which leaves us only being better able to embrace our own ignorance.

In the context of her meticulous preparation, there is one element I find particularly notable. She is willing at times to have her Cromwell speak of ‘the Tudors’ [e.g. p. 240]. This might seem unsurprising, given that it remains the popular term for the period 1485-1603, but, as C. S. L. Davies demonstrated, it was not a contemporary one, at least if one wanted to avoid being accused of traducing the monarchy. Naming the kings by that surname signified their low-born origins, rather than their place in the long pedigree of rightful, anointed rulers. We might object that the Whitehall Mural which Mantel so well evokes could be taken as Holbein projecting a Tudor royal identity but this is a family portrait not a dynastic one. The inscription on the central monument celebrates the virtue of father, man and son, emphasising that the commissioner, Henry, is the eighth of that name to hold the sceptre. The prime importance of legitimacy means that Henry VIII could not claim that the tradition in which he stood began just the generation before him. Beyond him stood so many spectres of so many centuries waiting to whisper in his regal ear.

‘Tudor’ may be a useful shorthand but it misguides us if it allows us in any way to imagine that it describes a world that came into being fifty years before the action of this novel. If it did that, it would lead us naturally to underestimate how radical the fissure was which we know as the Break with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The second of these is part of the backdrop to the action of The Mirror. Backdrop is merely what it is, not its perpetuum mobile, as it could plausibly have been. Mantel’s choice here helpfully reminds us how gradual the process of the destruction of the old order, and many (apart from those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace) might have been unable to detect when the point of no-return occurred. Its relegation to an occasional reference means that it is not allowed to preoccupy the mind of Mantel’s Cromwell. He might wonder how his family can profit from the closure of certain abbeys but, strikingly, he is not burdened with worry about its long-term consequences, nor does he feel the need to justify to anyone its rationale. What was once called ‘the age of plunder’ passes here for the custom of the country.

‘Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims’ [p. 432]. Mantel is the business of remaking reputations. If by the end of Wolf Hall, Thomas More seemed a little less like a martyr, at the final page of The Mirror, Cromwell seems no closer to being one. Her Cromwell would not have described himself as a victim or wanted to be remembered as one. He would also, I think, not considered himself a hero and I wonder whether, by the end of her writing, Mantel thought him to be that. What she has portrayed is something more interesting, more complex, more human than a hero. Yet, Mantel underplays the enormity of what her protagonist achieved. He had his time in making others victims —  not just humans, but also major buildings and traditions. They were so many that one wonders that his nights were not haunted with more ghosts.

The Relics of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester at St Albans

Posted in British History, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 November, 2018

One of the greatest pleasures among many of my line of work is being invited to give a public lecture. This is always thanks to the audience, who bring their own knowledge and interests to the event, often encouraging (and sometimes forthrightly challenging) you to rethink your own assumptions, and inviting you to present your research with a fresh perspective. It can also be because of the location — and there are few better than mine last Thursday: the crossing of St Albans Cathedral.

The title for my evening lecture was ‘St Albans and the Cult of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester’. I had been asked because news had reached there of my interest in the duke who, of course, is posthumously a local lad, being buried there with a fine chantry situated behind the high altar, just south of Alban’s shrine. My talk was necessarily an overview, considering, as I put it, ‘how Humfrey became Good’ and ‘how Humfrey became an Anglican’. That, though, is not how I began the discussion and it is that first section I want to discuss with you.

Humfrey tomb

Engraving of Humfrey’s chantry in George Sandford, A Genealogical History of the Kings of England (London, 1677)

I opened the lecture with the visit to St Albans in 1765 of David Garrick and his fellow actor, James Quin. They went to the abbey church and saw the duke’s chapel. They were particularly interested in the duke’s tomb which, as was rediscovered in 1703, lies beneath the monument, with a wooden coffin enclosing a lead one. It had been opened on its rediscovery to find that the duke had been embalmed, preserved in a ‘strong pickle’. The two visitors left the church to find lunch at the Christopher Inn on French Row (which in later years, it is said, was a brothel). Over their food and drink, they mused on what they had seen and Garrick was inspired to pen a short poem, entitled Quin’s Soliloquy, in which it was wondered what the use would be of being pickled when dead; much rather (Garrick claimed Quin proposed) to be pickled in Burgundy wine when alive.

For these two actors, the remains of Humfrey were a curiosity and a cause for merriment, but they did not, as far as we know, carry away any part of him — as did many other visitors. There are tales of the removal of bones and of other parts of the body. For instance, in later years, Elizabeth, countess of Moira, herself a proto-archaeologist, recalled a trip to St Albans in 1747, when she would have been sixteen. She recounted that ‘I took from the skull of Humphrey duke of Gloucester, in his vault at St. Alban’s, a lock of hair which was so perfectly strong that I had it woven into Bath rings’. Similarly, an antiquary named John Webster recorded that he owned Humfrey’s beard ‘which the archdeacon gave me leave to take away’.

This last example, incidentally, sheds a side-light on another element of the eighteenth-century interest in Humfrey. Horace Walpole was keen to have in his collection a depiction of the ‘Good Duke’ and believed that he had two. The first that he bought was said to come from the abbey Bury St Edmunds and to represent both the duke and his uncle and enemy, Cardinal Beaufort. In truth, neither identification has much foundation and that of Humfrey shows a bald old man who is also beardless. Either John Webster was duped or (more likely) Walpole had been over-enthusiastic in his identification.

Humfrey Walpole NPG

Print of the panel that Horace Walpole owned and identified as being Humfrey (National Portrait Gallery).

We do not know if Walpole himself was one of those who paid their homage to Humfrey at his monument, but the result of others’ reverence was the depletion of the physical remains, to the extent that only a few bones and his skull now are in situ. The skull was studied in 1830, with a cast being made, so that a phrenological investigation could be undertaken. By the time the report was published a couple of years later, the cast had disappeared.

There are two features that strike me in these tales. The first is that of the secular relic. That visitors could take away hair and bones, with the church’s connivance, might suggest that some payment was made and that this was a much-needed source of funds for an over-large building for the parish it then served (the former abbey was only to be raised to the status of a cathedral in 1877 and, at the point, much restoration was necessary). We might want to see it as the precursor to tourist tat, but that would surely to be misunderstand at least part of its attraction. The examples I have mentioned all suggest an antiquarian or ‘scientific’ interest related to the removals. There was surely also something else involved in these, as with Walpole’s fascination with Humfrey: a sense of association with a ‘great man’ that was best expressed by ownership of some tactile element of him.

We might well find that alien and our distance from this tradition is perhaps part of the explanation for the second element: the ephemeral nature of these relics. The cast was not available very soon after its production; neither piece of hair — to my knowledge — remains. If you happen to own some bodily part of the duke or know where one might be found, I would dearly like to hear from you. As our information stands at present, there is no such thing available to view in a present-day collection. That says much about how the style of interaction reflected in these tales has died. With it, of course, Humfrey has undergone something akin to a second death: the removal of his bones was a dispersal but it is later generations who bear the responsibility of their discarding and disappearance. We cannot but find odd a Protestant habit of seeking relics of such an unsaintly figure as the ‘Good Duke’ but we have also to recognise that our perplexity leaves us struggling to reconstruct not just one aristocrat’s body but a former culture’s apparatus of association in which even a piece of hair could have talismanic qualities. It leaves me wondering whether the eighteenth century would have been more comfortable with ‘actor network theory’ than some third millennium observers seem to be.

I opened with the visit to St Albans in 1765 of David Garrick and his fellow actor, James Quin. They visited the abbey church and saw the duke’s chapel. They were particularly interested in the duke’s tomb which, as was rediscovered in 1703, lies beneath the monument, with a wooden coffin enclosing a lead one. It had been opened in 1703 to find that the duke had been embalmed, preserved in a ‘strong pickle’. The two visitors left the church to find lunch at the Christopher Inn on French Row (which in later years, it is said, was a brothel). Over their food and drink, they mused on what they had seen and Garrick was inspired to pen a short poem, entitled Quin’s Soliloquy, in which it was wondered what the use would be of being pickled when dead; much rather (Garrick claimed Quin proposed) to be pickled in Burgundy wine when alive.

For these two actors, the remains of Humfrey were a curiosity and a cause for merriment, but they did not, as far as we know, carry away any part of him — as did many other visitors. There are tales of the removal of bones and of other parts of the body. For instance, in later years, Elizabeth, countess of Moira, herself a proto-archaeologist, recalled a trip to St Albans in 1747, when she would have been sixteen. She recounted that ‘I took from the skull of Humphrey duke of Gloucester, in his vault at St. Alban’s, a lock of hair which was so perfectly strong that I had it woven into Bath rings’. Similarly, an antiquary named John Webster recorded that he owned Humfrey’s beard ‘his which the archdeacon gave me leave to take away’.

This last example, incidentally, sheds a side-light on another element of the eighteenth-century interest in Humfrey. Horace Walpole was keen to have in his collection a depiction of the ‘Good Duke’ and believed that he had two. The first that he bought was said to come from the abbey Bury St Edmunds and to represent both the duke and his uncle and enemy, Cardinal Beaufort. In truth, neither identification has much foundation and that of Humfrey shows a bald old man who is also beardless. Either John Webster was duped or (more likely) Walpole had been over-enthusiastic in his identification.

We do not know of Walpole himself was one of those who paid their homage to Humfrey at his monument, but the result of others’ reverence was the depletion of the physical remains, to the extent that only a few bones and his skull now are in situ. The skull was studied in 1830, with a cast being made, so that a phrenological investigation could be undertaken. By the time the report was published a couple of years later, the cast had disappeared.

There are two features that strike me in these tales. The first is that of the secular relic. That visitors could take away hair and bones, with the church’s connivance, might suggest that some payment was made and that this was a much-needed source of funds for an over-large building for the parish it then served (the former abbey was only to be raised to the status of a cathedral in 1877 and, at the point, much restoration was necessary). We might want to see it as the precursor to tourist tat, but that would surely to be misunderstand at least part of its attraction. The examples I have mentioned all suggest an antiquarian or ‘scientific’ interest related to the removals. There was surely also something of Walpole’s fascination with Humfrey — a sense of association with a ‘great man’ that was best expressed by ownership of some tactile element of him.

For us, a bone is most likely to be considered just a bone, a witness to our shared humanity. In a culture where phrenology took the shape of the head to be revelatory of the inner workings of a character, there was a different sense of signification and significance. A parallel could be with the interest in autographs, where a person’s writing was not just a specimen but a potential window on their mind as the movement of the pen could be claimed to reveal that person’s thoughts and inclinations. One piece of evidence taken from their true self, in other words, could express their essence: they are immanent in their slightest remain.

We might well find that mindset alien and our distance from this tradition is perhaps part of the explanation for the second element: the ephemeral nature of these relics. The cast was not available very soon after its production; neither piece of hair — to my knowledge — remains. In fact, we would be hard pressed to find any bone or bodily part of the duke’s in a present-day collection, and that says much about how the style of interaction reflected in these tales has died. With it, of course, Humfrey has undergone something akin to a second death: the removal of his bones was a dispersal but it is later generations who bear the responsibility of their discarding and disappearance. We cannot but find odd a Protestant habit of seeking relics of such an unsaintly figure as the ‘Good Duke’ but we have also to recognise that our perplexity leaves us struggling to reconstruct not just one aristocrat’s body but a former culture’s apparatus of association in which even a piece of hair could have talismanic qualities. It leaves me wondering whether the eighteenth century would have been more comfortable with ‘actor network theory’ than some third millennium observers seem to be.

 

 

 

 

Cromwell on the Box

Posted in British History, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 25 January, 2015

What would Geoffrey Elton’s reaction have been to Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies? He most likely would have treated them with the disdain of professorial silence – even in his most rabid character-assassination of Thomas More, he was able to avoid mentioning A Man for All Seasons, though the success of Robert Bolt’s play surely rankled with him. But if, as we are dealing with fiction anyway, we are allowed to imagine for a moment a meeting between the don and the novelist, I do wonder what they would have had to say to each other. Mantel takes up the challenge of making Cromwell a sympathetic figure but what she provides is hardly The Tudor Revolution in Government: the novel (the cruel could say there is already enough fantasy in Elton’s thesis). Her Cromwell is rarely seen working as a bureaucrat – a master of detail, certainly, someone who can sense how to use the inner workings of the machine for grander political ends – but the genius with which she endows her character is a heightened ability to read humanity. And the human was hardly central to Elton’s histories; for him, the march of civilization was surely greater than any detail of an individual. He felt no need for a biography of his hero, let alone story-telling about him. Before, though, he emits a gruff snort and walks away from Ms Mantel, perhaps she would have a chance to explain her deeper agenda: Wolf Hall (in particular) is not only about an imaginative creation of Henrician politics; submerged beneath that, there is struggle in which Mantel pits Cromwell against More and in which what is at stake is modernity and Englishness. Perhaps, if she had chance to explain that, a smile would have curled Elton’s whiskers.
Mantel’s concept of modernity is revealed by a minor factual slip. In the days after his wife’s demise (in the narrative of Wolf Hall, it is elided with the later deaths of his daughters), so, in 1527, Cromwell ‘has got Niccolò Machiavelli’s book, Principalities; it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands’ [p. 105] – which is impressive, considering that Il Principe was, in the year of Machiavelli’s own death, not yet printed, let alone in a Latin translation. The first printed edition was that of Filippo Giunti in Florence in 1532; Silvestro Teglio’s Latin version did not appear until a couple of decades after Cromwell’s death. The text certainly did circulate in manuscript in Machiavelli’s own lifetime, so we might say that Mantel’s error is a matter of detail, of no consequence to her larger tale. It seems to me, though, that her determination that her hero should know Machiavelli’s most notorious work – not just at this point but also later in the first novel [pp. 488, 501] – is revealing of her construction of her hero. We might infer that her sense of Machiavelli is like that of Burckhardt: a man without hypocrisy who describes things as they really were, stripped of all comfortable pretence. And her Cromwell is a man in his image; a worldly man, who returns to old England a foreigner, enriched by his experience and by his brush with the modernity that is the Renaissance. There is something yet more Burckhardtian about Mantel’s Cromwell, at least in Wolf Hall: he is not just acquainted with new thinking – be it Machiavelli or Luca Pacioli [pp. 363-4] – but he is himself so endlessly inventive, it reminds me of the visual gag in the film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the main characters are repeatedly seen accidentally inventing Leonardesque machines. Cromwell has something of the l’uomo universale, the man not many-sided but all-sided who, for Burckhardt, epitomises the Renaissance.
So, this Machiavellian, Leonardian Cromwell returns to the land of his birth; he has seen the future and he lurks in the shadows until he can impose it on his unwilling, ungrateful countrymen. A future defined by the Renaissance and, of course, the Reformation. Cromwell is not just ready to question tradition, he is determined to stamp on its face. There he stands pitted against Thomas More, depicted by Mantel as a man so ensnared in his conservatism that he cannot tolerate modernity. By some paradoxical twist, that cosmopolitan scholar becomes a parochial stick-in-the-mud, suspicious of Cromwell’s well-travelled career: ‘you are an Italian through and through, and you have all their vices, all their passions’ [p. 567]. Except, of course, for Mantel, Cromwell is also the future of Englishness – a new England (for ‘England is always remaking itself’ [p. 649]), modernised by being receptive to foreign ideas. That sounds encouragingly liberal: the low-born Cromwell takes on privilege and established power and shakes it to the foundations. In the process, let us remember, he helps destroys the fabric of a church that he sees as corrupt. If we were to look for a modern parallel for Mantel’s Cromwell and think of an outsider who used every wile to challenge tradition and to break the accepted way of doing things, then the closest may be Margaret Thatcher.
Mantel, of course, would hate that, her bête noire morphing into her hero in the black cloak. Perhaps she would not recognise such parallels and, even if we can find them, perhaps they do not matter – after all, these are only novels. Except that they are not: they have somehow become a cultural phenomenon. I am not sure how that has happened: I still am perplexed at the decision to have a painting of Hilary Mantel at the top of the stairs to the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. How has she become such a household name? Has she filled a gap left by the end of J. K. Rowling’s time as favourite author? If so, it still cannot explain the hyperbole by which Mantel has taken on the mantle of being ‘our greatest living novelist’ – even ‘our’ most accomplished historical novelist might be excessive (Robert Harris provides strong competition). However, though, it has come about, the cult of Mantel and, in particular, of her Cromwellian novels, demands further questions: are they so loved simply for their evocation of character and context? Or is their attraction deeper and is there an affinity with its projection of ‘Englishness’?
This is where, finally, we come to the television adaptation of the novels which began this week. I will admit that I am in the lonely position of not yet being a fan. There are some fine actors in the production but I cannot help thinking there is serious miscasting: it is always good to have Jonathan Pryce on screen but he has nothing of the smooth-skinned corpulence needed for Wolsey – like Shakespeare’s Cassius, Pryce is a lean man; I would he was fatter. Yet more of a problem is that Mark Rylance simply looks too old to be Cromwell in his late thirties and early forties – the actor is the age now that Cromwell was when his head parted from his body and, even given the changes in aging, he looks too world-weary. This, though, is a small difficulty alongside the greater problems of transferring novels with so much internal monologue into an ensemble performance in which the eyes are on Cromwell rather than our seeing the world through his eyes. What surprised me most was that writing which can be so visual seemed not to survive the move from page to screen. Many of the scenes and the words are there, but not the aura of the work. The dull palette used – presumably in conscious contrast to The Tudors – created an ambience which, at worst, was lacklustre or, at best, homely. And it is that homeliness that concerns me most.
The homely is unthreatening. So, we are invited to view a ‘Tudor world’ as we know it or, rather, as we would like it to be. For instance, I was struck by how classless the society was – social gradation seemed to have disappeared both in the interactions and the interiors. There was little sense (as there is in the novels) of the heavy distaste for a man of such lowly birth as Cromwell’s; there was limited hauteur in a Norfolk or, indeed, the king. Meanwhile, the buildings which were home to Cromwell – still, at this point a lawyer in Wolsey’s service – seemed to lack none of the late-medieval conveniences afforded to the higher born and bettered housed. This is a world which has been domesticated for us so that it is tame, familiar and quintessentially English. Wolf Hall, in other words, as heritage product – ‘our’ great novel depicting ‘our’ Tudor forefathers. The battle of conceptions of Englishness that drives Mantel’s telling of the tale is wiped away by television’s evocation of a world we think is ours. But if the battle has gone, who won it? The arch-modernisers like Mantel’s Cromwell, full of dangerous and destructive if revivifying new ideas, or something more traditional? Is this Henrician politics showing how we can break the mould or is the BBC offering us a vision of how we should be happy to be moulded by ‘our’ inheritance? Is, by some convoluted route undertaken in the process of move from book to programme, Wolf Hall, the TV adaptation, a sort of revenge for the conservative, that is, for Mantel’s Thomas More? Cromwell’s on the box but is he also back in his box?

William Cecil’s copy of Henry VIII’s Assertio

Posted in British History, Libraries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 17 August, 2014

On the other hand, this could be entitled ‘Notes from Christ Church Library’ and be a contribution to that beguiling but non-existent journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.

My work in Christ Church has seen me pore over the earlier catalogues of the library or, more precisely, of its ‘archives’ in an attempt to reconstruct the physical history of the manuscript collection. The codices have only been held in the ‘New Library’ since it was opened in the 1760s. Before that, the books of Christ Church were held in a room — I remember it being used in my day (as the old say) as an undergraduate set — off the cloister of St Frideswide’s. Not quite all manuscripts were kept there as some were considered to belong to the Chapter as opposed to the ‘college’ (a misnomer in this dual institution but a usage that appears often enough in the records of the place that likes to call itself the House). It was, in fact, only with the move into new premises that a space was set aside as the near-exclusive preserve of manuscripts. Earlier, what was considered fit for the ‘archives’ combined printed books with some handwritten codices. It was an arrangement that existed from the 1670s, but which underwent a significant transformation in the wake of the death in 1710 of Henry Aldrich, dean of Christ Church and polymathic bon-viveur, whose interests ranged across languages and disciplines. His collection in large part became the property of the House, and the contents of the Archives came to be dominated by his music collection, skilfully described by John Milsom in the excellent on-line catalogue. What, curiously, seems not to have been included in that section of the library at that point were the few manuscripts Aldrich himself owned. It was only with the move and the re-organisation work overseen by Edward Smallwell, later bishop of Oxford, that the books created by Aldrich and some owned by him were given pride of place in the new ordering of the Archives.

I have described the archives of the 1760s as providing a ‘near-exclusive’ preserve for hand-written volumes. There are some exceptions, usually there because of a direct association with the former Dean, including, for instance, ‘Aldrich’s Logick’ a volume which combines two printed editions of that work. Close by that volume in the catalogue compiled by Smallwell is an entry, A.13, for ‘Henricus octavus de Sacramentis. 8o.’. Clearly, this is a copy of the anti-Lutheran tract, the Assertio septem sacramentorum, which announces Henry VIII as its author. After it had been printed in Richard Pynson’s workshop in 1521, several copies were all bound in the same style by John Reynes, with the Tudor Rose and English royal arms on the panels. The copy that is still resident in Christ Church, now with the shelfmark Z.e.6.4, is a fine example of this (I have Christ Church’s ever-helpful Special Collections librarian, Cristina Neagu, for the photographs shown here).ChCh e-6-4-lower board

This much is relatively well known. It has also been surmised that the intention of these bindings was to beautify some copies so that they could act as diplomatic gifts or presents to favoured subjects.We do not know who the first recipient of the Christ Church copy was but what perhaps is not as well known is that we can say something of the volume’s history, for at its title-page it has a signature.ChCh e-6-4-title pageAs is clear, this was owned by William Cecil, who was to be first minister to Henry VIII’s younger daughter. The script is close enough to other ex libris he wrote to be definably his, though it style, and the absence of any reference to his title of Lord Burghley, might suggest this was written fairly early in his career (for a contrast, see his note at fol. 1 of BL, MS. Harl. 2471, for instance). Given that he was born only in the year that the Assertio was published (or perhaps the year before), then Cecil could not have been its first owner. But, clearly, he thought this work was worth owning, however far the Church of England which he did much to support had moved away from the doctrinal position espoused in the text.

It would appear that the volume remained in the Cecil family until the famous sale of the collection in 1687: the work is recorded in the sale catalogue as ‘libri theologici, in quarto’, no. 23. At that point or soon after, it must have reached the hands of Henry Aldrich. It was not his habit to add his ownership note to his books but a listing of his library made after his death does include this work and, as I have said, its placing in Smallwell’s arrangement of the Archives is suggestive of that provenance. When the future bishop of Oxford came to look at this book, he might have considered there to be something pleasing about having a distinguished copy of the Assertio in the foundation created by the text’s acclaimed author.

Never mind the book, read the review

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 4 April, 2012

Sometimes a scholarly review can be as useful as the book reviewed, sometimes more so. Historians of fifteenth-century England know this: we remember Colin Richmond’s ‘After MacFarlane’ but may be less able to recall all the works he discussed in that 1983 article. If a roll-call of seminal reviews of the period was to be compiled, there is a new entry certain to be included, John Watts’ on-line review of Michael Hicks’ latest volume, The Wars of the Roses.

Watts’ comments appear on the Reviews in History website, run by the IHR in London. One of the site’s boasts is that it can provide greater space than usual for a review and Watts makes full use of this. What it allows him to do is to present something more than a discussion of the merits and flaws of the book under review, writing with studied urbanity in response to Hicks; it also permits him, first, to place the latest addition to the literature on the Wars in a broad historiographical context, giving appropriate acknowledgement to MacFarlane, Tony Pollard and Christine Carpenter, and, second,  to set out an agenda for future work. It is this road-map for the community of historians of fifteenth-century England that is the review’s real value. Watts notes Hicks’ own attention to the economic and international context of the period and he goes on to list other elements which deserve further study: the role of the towns, of policy to Ireland, the intervention of print (in the later decades), ‘neoclassicism’, and the related changes in education and literacy.

Some of these proposed areas of study are, of course, close to my heart, though, en passant, I would caution against seeing neoclassicism as an intellectual context for the conflict of the mid-century: at that point, it seems, rather, to have been a prism through which a few tried to apprehend what was happening around them, while, with a change of generation in the 1460s it became increasingly one mode of behaviour that could be adopted in politics and, particularly, diplomacy. It is also my sense that it remained one among several available modes, even into the 1500s when it was certainly becoming the dominant style of international correspondence. Perhaps more significant may have been the immediate impact of print — whether the new technology made England more or less governable in the last quarter of the fifteenth century could provide an interesting debate — though we might wonder how significant that was, considering the possibilities of manuscript circulation of bills and manifestoes that was a feature of both the beginning and the end of the 1450s.

We all might want to gloss Watts’ list of suggestions, revising and adding to them, but what is important is that we engage with the challenge he has presented. Personally, I would want to encourage us to broaden the chronological context slightly: Hicks’ book takes ‘the end of the wars’ up to 1525 and any encroachment onto the supposedly ‘early modern’ period is to be welcomed, but we might want to consider where to start the tale. Carpenter’s text-book begins ‘c. 1437′ — should we not stretch this back further to consider how far the nature of a long minority cast a shadow over later decades? Were the behaviours learnt to accommodate the absence of an adult monarch difficult to unlearn when (in body at least) he had reached something closer to maturity? Did, in other words, the minority generation live too long?

And, finally, let me throw in another factor. Hicks, in the preface to his book, makes a nod to Cliff Davies’ critique of our modern concept of a ‘Tudor dynasty’ — a critique the full force of which is probably still to be recognised. Of course, historians of Lancastrian and Yorkist England know their equivalent — the ‘Wars of the Roses’  — is an historiographical construct with little contemporary purchase. The term ‘roses’ always comes with caveats, but what of the term ‘war’? To modern ears, conditioned by memories of total war and images of ‘shock and awe’, as well as by expectations of policed peace, the concept has perhaps become so distant from the reality of occasional internecine conflict over a fifty year period that it can mislead rather than inform. Should we be returning to the points about the numbers of combatants made some decades ago by Tony Goodman? Should we be comparing in more depth (Hicks does this briefly) the experience of civil conflict with the impact of chevauchée and territorial invasion that defined the bouts of the Hundred Years’ War? I pose these as queries because, following John Watts’ lead, it is surely time not to give answers but to ask questions.

Henry V writes to Martin V in English

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 23 February, 2011

I had one of those moments yesterday when a long-gone moment seems suddenly immediate. I was sitting in the peaceful surroundings of the Archivio Segreto and looking through a collection of Martin’s V letters — the collection itself is eighteenth-century, copying from fifteenth-century records. One letter that caught my eye opens:

Cognovimus ex certis litteris quae tua propria manu scriptis dicuntur in Idiomati Anglicam [sic] per interprete nobis expositis Serenitatem tuam egre tulisse quod Venerabilis frater Thomas Episcopus Cicestrensis iam pridem in quodam publico Consistorio fuerit in sedendo tractatus minus honorabiliter quam Oratori Regio conveniret…

You can quite imagine the scene: Thomas Polton, English royal proctor at the the papal curia, holds in his hand a letter that he had received from his master. He hands it to the Roman pope who returns it as he can not make head nor tail of the text, but Polton assures him that it is in Henry’s hand and translates the English into the lingua franca of Latin on the spot. He explains that the king’s English expresses his righteous anger at a slight done to Polton himself in the seating-plan of a meeting — that sort of detail that those of us beyond the diplomatic world can too easily take as downright petty — a slight (Polton goes on to explain) that the king took as being against his own person. You can also imagine Polton himself conjuring up another scene, distant in place but not in time, as he describes how his master the king, on campaign in France, must have been so angry to take the time to demand quill and parchment, so that he could express immediately his  fury in his own words. We might wonder: did Henry actively choose English as a mark of defiance of international protocol, a slight meant to reflect the slight he claimed he felt? Or was it that he did not have the requisite skills to be able to compose on the spur of the moment in a more learned language? I suppose what lies behind that question is a character judgement on whether Henry V was one of those who is unable to control their emotions or whether he was the consummate politican who could manufacture anger and make it felt far from his own physical presence.

The date of the letter is 13th June 1422 — less than two months later the author of the English note would lie dead. As to the note itself, that, of course, is lost. I have not checked in detail but Martin’s conciliatory response, from which I quoted, does not seem to have gained much notice. I would be happily corrected but I can not find it summarised in the relevant volume of the Calendar of Papal Letters or, on a quick search, can I find mention of it in the relevant writings of the great scholars who have written on Angl0-papal relations in this period, Johannes Haller and Magaret Harvey. But, for me at least, it provides a lively vignette of both that whirlwind-king and the ritualism of the papal curia. The image of Polton standing before Martin V and explaining the letter he held in his hand will stay in my mind for some time.