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Staging Kingship in Scotland and England, 1532-1560

Staging Kingship in Scotland and England, 1532-1560

Eleanor Rycroft

[1] ‘Quhat is ane king?’ asks Divine Correctioun in David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis before supplying the answer ‘Nocht bot ane officiar’ (1613),[1] thereby articulating a commonplace of medieval Scottish literature on kingship that the monarch’s duties were owed as much to his people as to the God he deputised for. Herein lay the fundamental difference between Scottish and English versions of kingship. As early as 1320, Scottish ideals of sovereignty were enshrined through the Declaration of Arbroath which recognised the difficulties of centralised government in a nation-state with powerful magnates, asserting that the Scottish king ruled a people — not a land — through a combination of divine providence and common assent. The Declaration states that if the king fails to fulfil his obligations to his subjects he may be removed by them: ‘Yet if he should give up what he had begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King’.[2]

[2] Whereas the English political system became increasingly autocratic throughout the sixteenth century, Scotland retained its symbiotic and dialogic mode into the seventeenth century and James VI and I’s ascent to the English throne. However, Jenny Wormald suggests that this was rather by accident than design, a consequence of the fact that ‘between 1460 and 1625 some 60 years’ of Scottish rule ‘were years of minority’ (2007: 13). The death of James V, in particular, ‘removed the threat of growing autocracy’ (ibid.) when he was succeeded by his baby daughter, Mary, in 1542. It was against this unstable and changeful monarchical backdrop that in 1552, Sir David Lyndsay, childhood companion to James and Lyon King of Arms at his court, produced an extensively rewritten version of his earlier interlude performed before the King in 1540, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. This article will consider how the differences between the political worlds of Scotland and England are manifested in the theatrical works of each, comparing the models of sovereignty displayed in Lyndsay’s play with two English dramas from the mid-sixteenth century, John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather (1533) and Thomas Preston’s Cambises (1569-70, but possibly performed in 1560 at Cambridge University). It will also consider how the conditions of a 1554 performance of Ane Satyre before the newly-made regent of Scotland, Mary of Guise, Dowager Queen and mother of Mary Stewart, both correspond with and resist the ideas of kingship that Lyndsay forwards in his play. The Satyre’s foregrounding of a silent monarch gains new resonance during this performance, and it may have been that Mary looked to the play as a means of highlighting her own form of governance.

Scottish Models of Kingship

[3] In the fifteenth-century Scottish chronicle The Book of Pluscarden the author writes that ‘the king is only the state’s vicegerent in the name of the Lord his God, and unless he governs it well he is not worthy of the name of king’ (cited Mason 1987: 139). This formulation imagines that the tight bonds between the divine and the earthly are mediated by a king whose concern for the common weal is both a spiritual and political duty for ‘the more one leans to the public good, the nearer one is to God’ (ibid.). Unlike the framework of Divine Right in England, this is not so much a hierarchy as a composite logic of substitution which elides secular and spiritual concerns by figuring ‘God [as] the soul of the state’ (ibid.). In such a formula, the Scottish king is important only insofar as he is God’s representative, and thus only so long as he can be seen — and agreed — to be doing God’s work. This model of sovereignty differs significantly, Wormald asserts, from ‘the quasi-religious propaganda used by the English and the French kings’ (2007: 18).[3]

[4] Roger Mason explains that from the medieval period onwards, Scotland’s was a monarchy beset by internal and external conflicts that resulted in an ideology of ‘patriotic conservatism’ (1987: 146) in an attempt to retain order in the face of civil war and invasion. According to Mason there was no radicalisation of the Scottish polity until the Reformation, which came some thirty years after it did in England (1987: 149). Political differences between the two countries were brought to the fore after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James was roundly criticised for using Scottish methods in the English parliament and at court, as Wormald has incisively examined in her article ‘James VI and I: Two Kings or One?’. She argues that while there was less constitutional sophistication in Scotland than in England, this lack of legal underpinning did not necessarily lead to an ineffective Scottish government. To the contrary, in Scotland, legislative processes often moved more quickly than in England, unencumbered by procedural obstacles.[4]

[5] In fact the mode in which laws were passed and rapprochement reached between political parties in Scotland can seem fairly radical and not ‘patriotically conservative’ at all. The ethos of Scottish government was one of debate and argument rather than precedent and law, meaning that parliamentary processes were active, lively and reciprocal. Wormald states that such instances as the argument between James VI and Anthony Melville are frequently misinterpreted by historians as a sign of political backwardness and impropriety: ‘The point of that debate, in which Andrew Melville seized the King’s sleeve, calling him “God’s silly vassal”, is entirely lost if it is seen to exemplify the lack of respect with which Scotsmen supposedly treated their kings'(1983: 197). Robust criticism of power was a political expectation. The dominance of flyting as a literary form testifies that this was as much the case at court as in parliament. That Lyndsay himself engaged in such a literary roasting of James V is shown by his Answer… to the Kingis Flyting (c. 1535-6) in which he accuses the monarch of sexual incontinence:

Lyke ane boisteous Bull, ye rin and ryde
Royatouslie, lyke ane rude Rubeatour,
Ay fukkand lyke ane furious Fornicatour.    (Charteris 1568: K5v)

Notwithstanding the longstanding relationship between the King and his courtier it is difficult to imagine so blunt a form of counsel at the Henrician Court. Of course, as Sally Mapstone has seminally identified, the speculum principis tradition had particular purchase in Scotland during the fifteenth century,[5]largely because, as Elizabeth Ewan writes, ‘[Scotland’s] background of threats to independence, long minorities and absent kings’ meant that ‘debates about kingship took on particular relevance’ (2006: 32). This was especially true as the king’s jurisdiction expanded from the reign of James III onwards, in a way which challenged the separation of realm from king outlined in the Declaration of Arbroath.

[6] In parliament as at court, the directness evident in Melville’s challenge of James VI demonstrates that the interdependence of the various parts of the Scottish polity was paramount. Change in Scotland was achieved through a dialogue between powers as opposed to diktat. And the relativity of power in Scotland extended beyond the relationship between the king and parliament or king and nobility, with competition between monarchical and burgh authority also spatially inscribed in triumphal entries. In order to manage the challenge to their authority presented by municipal powers, Scottish monarchs might mount a courtly prequel to triumphal ceremonies, as in 1503 when a royal entertainment was staged outside of Edinburgh prior to Margaret Tudor’s entry. Giovanna Guidicini claims that while ‘courtly language was reserved for outside the city gate — the language would suddenly change inside the city walls, where both James and Margaret performed acts of humility and devotion to the relics and crosses brought forward by local religious congregations’ (2011: 46). She goes on to argue that control of the urban border at Edinburgh’s West Port during a number of triumphal entries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries evinces the tension between civic and royal authority as a particular feature of Scottish ceremonies.

[7] Scottish political systems thus contrast starkly with the hierarchical and, since Henry VIII, increasingly absolutist monarchy of England. While some of the addresses made to power in Scotland’s political and literary spheres may seem surprising to specialists of the Tudor court, they should be interpreted in the light of a Scottish political philosophy which did not view argument, dissension and negotiation as troubling. Such features are bound to inflect sixteenth-century Scottish drama when compared to English plays of the same period.

Kingship in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, Cambises and The Play of the Weather

[8] The binding up of God, king and commons in the Scottish system of governance is made especially evident by Lyndsay in Part Two of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. No sooner has the King, Rex Humanitas, established a parliament to reform the various problems afflicting Scotland than his role becomes largely ceremonial as Divine Correctioun begins to organise and direct the political proceedings. Although Rex has initiated the parliamentary process, it is Divine Correctioun who asks the Estates why they have entered the space backwards for instance (2387-2390). Rex then explains that his purpose in calling the parliament is to identify the evils that blight Scottish society. He announces his intention that the beneficiaries of this process will be the Scottish people, claiming that he will root out those that do ‘the Common weil doun thring [throw down]’ (2402). However, his executive power to punish those accused of wrongdoing is immediately undermined by one of the three Estates, Spiritualitie:

Quhat thing is this, sir, that ye have devysit?
Schirs, ye have neid for till be weill advysit.
Be nocht haistie into your executioun,
And be nocht too extreime in your punitioun. (2406-2409)

There is a suggestive shift from ‘sir’ to ‘Schirs’ here. Presumably the other authority being asked to moderate their response is Divine Correctioun, who castigates Spiritualitie, ‘It dois appeir that ye ar culpabill, / That ar nocht to Correctioun applyabill’ (2414-2416). The use of the word at this point blurs the concept of the word ‘correction’ with the character who embodies it. Correctioun speaks for, and is, correction — in itself, a constituent of the king’s fundamental duty to administer justice within the realm. Indeed the entire opening of the parliament reveals the fact that power is distributed between Rex and Divine Correctioun. The authority of Rex over the Estates is imagined as contested by Spiritualitie’s appeal to both characters, while his royal duties are equally as attributed to Divine Correctioun as to himself. Such a reading concurs with Greg Walker’s findings that ‘At no point in the play is an individual sovereign authority unequivocally in command’ (1998:142) and theatricalises the division and interdependence of power in the Scottish polity.

[9] However, while the representation of Rex Humanitas correlates with the divided authority acceptable to Scottish ideals of governance, he further disturbs these ideals when he appears to reduce his role to a mere figurehead and fails to engage with the active parliamentary processes that Mason and Wormald assert are the hallmark of Scottish politics. His spoken contribution to the assembly does not reach beyond a brief stichomythic episode with John the Common-Weill, an allegorical figure representing the people of Scotland. During the exchange of single lines of dialogue from 2442-2450 Rex manages only to elicit superficial bits of information from John, but when he asks him what causes the backwardness of the Estates, the lengthy, reasoned and detailed response John gives is picked up by Divine Correctioun who then weaves the thread of his complaints into the debates that dominate the rest of the drama. The movement between literary forms is significant; the equal to-and-fro of stichomythia may dramatise the ideal political processes of Scotland but it is superseded by John’s effective silencing of the King. Rex’s verbal role in the parliament is over from this point. He sits by silently as the polity discuss social and ecclesiastical injustice and decide upon the laws that will redress inequalities and remodel the Commonwealth. The King only speaks up at the very end of the parliament, some thousand lines later, in order to welcome the Doctour (3347-8) and to ratify the reforms that have been made in his presence, although these already have the status of foregone conclusions: ‘As ye have said, but dout it salbe done’ (3743).

[10] The representation of power in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis thus illustrates the intricate connection between the spiritual and the secular in the Scottish system — Divine Correctioun is after all divine — and the authority attributed to the common people. John the Common-Weill’s complaints are later augmented by the Pauper whose anecdotes of injustice influence the legal reforms that are introduced. But the play’s portrayal of a parliament in which the King is reduced to an emblematic role demonstrates an acute anxiety about sovereignty in sixteenth-century Scotland. This is perhaps not surprising given that the first half of the century had been dominated by infant monarchs, changing regents and magnate factionalism, with James V reigning from the age of seventeen months and Mary Queen of Scots ascending to the throne as a newborn. In order for the debate-driven Scottish system to thrive it was necessary to have a king to engage in argument but, instead, as Gude Counsall laments in Part One of the Satyre, ‘our guiders all want grace, / And die before their day’ (580-1). The greater separation of powers meant that it was possible for Scottish politics to operate without an active monarch, but such a situation was far from ideal, and the Satyre explores this sovereign absence in the character of the youthful and irresponsible Rex Humanitas.

[11] Unlike in the Tudor interlude, Walker writes that ‘The body politic in the play is…not coterminous with the body natural (or allegorical) of the prince’ (2007: 223) and that the personal reform of the sovereign cannot be directly mapped onto the nation. Change in Satyre must therefore be achieved ‘through parliamentary legislation and reform’ (ibid.). Walker suggests that the multiplication of kingly figures in Lyndsay’s parliament de-authorises the monarch’s powers and destabilises sovereignty in the Satyre, writing, ‘As in the classic New Historicist formulation, power is everywhere and nowhere in the state of the play’ (1998: 141). Sarah Carpenter develops this idea in an article which identifies Rex Humanitas and Divine Correctioun as duplicated figures of monarchy by arguing that ‘These twinned kings proceed to operate not directly but through a parliament, in consultation with the Three Estates, advised by Gude Counsall and receptive to the complaints of Common-Weill’ (2010: 106). For John McGavin, however, the doubling up of authority in both Rex Humanitas and Divine Correctioun does not necessarily undermine the representation of kingship but reflects instead the nexus of powers that contribute to the notion of sovereignty in Scotland: ‘Lyndsay dramatises a hierarchy of kingly authority, with God at the top, [and] insists that the force of correction is both divinely derived and native to the earthly king…Lyndsay is defining a reformed royal identity through separating out its component parts and locating them in the spiritual hierarchy from which they take their true unity’ (2007: 256-7).

[12] However the duplication and separation of powers in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis are understood, they are in evident contrast to the representation of sovereignty emerging in English theatre during the same period. In John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather for instance, the dramatisation of Jupiter clearly serves as an analogue for Henry VIII and the unprecedented authority that the English monarch would claim on the eve of the Reformation. Unlike a number of Tudor interludes which display a central authority figure and keep the commons off-stage — such as Magnificence, Youth and King JohanThe Play of the Weather portrays an array of Tudor estates in its dramatis personae of a Gentleman, Gentlewoman, Merchant, Ranger, Wind Miller, Water Miller, Laundress and Boy.[6] However, the arguments that they make for their varying preferred weather conditions have no effect on Jupiter’s judgement about what the outcome will be. Despite listening to their suits, Jupiter decides that each person should have some of their ideal weather for at least some of the time, thus ‘shall ye have the weather even as it was’ (1240). This is a power play on the part of Jupiter, and by extension Henry, when seen in the wider context of the Reformation Parliament which had been debating the nature of royal authority since 1529. Whether or not Henry was present at the probable performance during winter 1532/3,[7] the implied commentary on royal power of depicting a ruler who appears to attend to the needs of his subjects, but ultimately dictates their fates, would have resonated strongly in the political context of the 1530s. The process staged in The Play of the Weather reinforces the sovereign’s claims to near-absolute power over the church and state, as well as the distance between the English ruler and his subjects, in direct contrast to the mutuality depicted in Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis.

[13] Such differing political systems are expressed in contemporary representations of sovereignty beyond literature. During a period of stability under James V in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, the Scottish Renaissance began to flourish, with a confident court culture providing suitable conditions for performance of an earlier version of the Satyre at Linlithgow Palace in 1540.[8] James also invested heavily in his palaces during this time, extensively remodelling Linlithgow and continuing the building works started by his father at Stirling Castle to make it a residence on a par with the great Northern European palaces. Henry VIII was also building and renovating his court at this time, developing York Place and Hampton Court, remodelling Whitehall and creating Nonsuch Palace. However politically he was in a much more vulnerable situation than James following the Pilgrimage of Grace and excommunication by the Pope. The break with Rome isolated England from the rest of Europe, and her subsequent autonomy initiated a period of rule that was seen both within and without England as increasingly absolutist and potentially tyrannous. Whilst Henry was seeking alliance with his neighbours in Scotland to shore up his uncertain position, Scotland was in a position of relative power with a dynastically legitimate king able to pick a wife from among the princesses of Europe. James’ choice of a French spouse over an English one sent a strong message to Henry about his intention to be the equal of Europe’s leaders rather than England’s subordinate.

[14] This intention is signalled not only in James’ alignment of himself with the crowned heads of Europe on the heraldic ceiling of St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen designed by Gavin Dunbar, but also in the repetition of this alignment in the Stirling Heads that adorned his rebuilt Castle at Stirling. The Head that may represent Henry VIII in this series of roundels is tellingly accompanied by a fierce-looking lion on the subject’s shoulders, drawing a bestial correspondence with the furrowed brow of the King. The semiotics of Henry’s Head, if it does indeed depict him, therefore point towards a tyrannous construction of the English King. Neither was the notion that Henry was a tyrant an aspect of his post-Reformation identity that James V was afraid to exploit. The platform for ecclesiastical restructuring provided by the Linlithgow interlude of 1540 was seized upon by James as an opportunity to castigate the abuses of the Bishop of Glasgow and his clerics who were warned that they must ‘reform their factions/fashions and manners of living, saying that unless they so did, he would send six of the proudest of them unto his uncle of England’ (cited Walker, 2000: 539). Evidently James was happy to take advantage of the fearsome reputation of Henry VIII for his own ends when necessary. James would, however, be dead by 1542 and the security of Scotland once again in jeopardy as it found itself ruled by an infant monarch for the second time in thirty years.

[15] This divergent understanding of post-Reformation England as being ruled by tyrannical sovereigns, and sixteenth-century Scotland as not being ruled by sovereigns at all, manifests itself in the representation of monarchy in each country’s drama. While the latter anxiety is expressed in the near-silent King Humanitas in Part Two of the Satyre, a concern about despotism dominates the plays produced in England during the mid- sixteenth century, even beyond Henry’s death. The implicit plea that Heywood makes for moderation in The Play of the Weather is succeeded by mid-Tudor tragedies whose themes insistently concern justice, legitimacy, and the sapience of rulers; dramas produced well into Elizabeth’s reign such as Gorboduc (1561), Horestes (1567), and Cambises. From its outset, Cambises foregrounds the importance of that mitigator against tyranny – wise counsel – with the King telling his counsellor, Praxaspes, within the first fifty lines, ‘I will not swerve from those steps whereto you would me train’ and ‘Speak on my Counsel; what it be, you shall have favour mine’ (37, 47).[9] When Cambises goes abroad to fight against Egypt, Praxaspes advises that he should leave a proxy in charge ‘To sit and judge with equity’ (54) and the King appoints Sisamnes, for ‘A judge he is of prudent skill'(57).

[16] However, as soon as he is exalted to a position of power Sisamnes abuses his position, imagining how he might ‘abrogate the law as I shall think it good’ (117). Power is therefore concomitant with its corruption in the play, which is further demonstrated when Cambises also succumbs to a life of vice. According to Shame:

All piety and virtuous life he doth it clean refuse;
Lechery and drunkenness he doth it much frequent;
The tiger’s kind to imitate he hath given full consent.

In line with the potentially bestial depiction of Henry in the Stirling Heads, the feline metaphor foreshadows Cambises’ degradation to the animal state of tyrant during the course of the play. When Cambises returns to Persia he hears counsel, this time in the form of Commons’ Complaint against Sisamnes who has been ‘taking bribes and gifts, the poor he doth oppress, / Taking relief from infants young, widows and fatherless’ (389-90). Rightly, Cambises punishes the judge, however his method of retribution is disproportionate; not only must Sisamnes be executed, he must also be flayed. The King tells the executioner ‘Dispatch with sword this judge’s life; extinguish fear and cares. / So done, draw thou his cursed skin strait over both his ears’ (437-8). Praxaspes tries to assuage Cambises’ cruelty after the execution by saying, ‘Behold, O king, how he doth bleed’ (461), but Cambises follows through with his sentence:

In this wise he shall not be left.
Pull his skin over his ears to make his death more vile.
A wretch he was, a cruel thief, my commons to beguile!

Yet Cambises’ claim to be acting in retribution for the wrongs committed against his subjects is questionable as this is only the first of a series of cruelties in the play. He goes on to slaughter Praxaspes’ son when the counsellor dares advise against his habitual drunkenness: ‘a blissful babe, wherein thou dost delight; / Me to revenge of these thy words I will go wreak this spite’ (509-10). In an apogee of bloodthirstiness, he not only pierces the boy with an arrow, he also cuts out the child’s heart and presents it to the father. Cambises then goes on to murder his own brother, Smirdis, for his popularity, Smirdis tautologically recognising on the point of death that ‘the king is a tyrant tyrannous’ (724). Further, Cambises forces an unwilling lady into marriage with him only to kill his new wife when she weeps at his description of two puppies who collaborate to overpower a lion that he has set upon them; a joining of forces she says should have determined his relationship with Smirdis, although the King — described as of ‘tiger’s kind’ — is analogised with the lion according to the tropes of tyranny in the text.

[17] The spectatorship of the animal fight exemplifies the erotics of Cambises’ despotic court, with the King taking voyeuristic pleasure in the annihilation of his subjects. It is essential, he tells Sisamnes, that he ‘Receive thy death before mine eyes’ (420) and the importance of observing the flaying is emphasised when he repeats shortly afterwards, ‘I will see the office done, and that before mine eyes’ (439). Similarly, after he has penetrated the body of Praxaspes’ son with his arrow, he specifies that the body be maimed further by the removal of the heart and that Praxaspes witnesses the savagery, ‘Behold Praxaspes, thy son’s own heart!’ (563). These moments of gory sadism hold an erotic frisson for Cambises who ensures that his merciless murders are viewed both by himself and others. A crucial component of his tyranny is therefore the control that Cambises exerts over the mutilated bodies of his subjects, a voyeuristic thrill which also infects his agents when at their killing of Smirdis Cruelty tells Murder to ‘Behold, now his blood springs out on the ground!’ and Murder recognises that the dead body will please their sovereign, ‘Now he is dead, let us present him to the king’ (729-30).

[18] The desire accorded to Rex Humanitas is, however, the very opposite of the sadistic and gruesome voyeurism that characterises Cambises’ counsel-free court. Rex Humanitas’ court is one that is amenable to counsel, but one which lacks wisdom, revealed when the youthful and inexperienced King chooses a trio of Vices — Wantonness, Placebo, and Solace — as his advisors in Part One. It is therefore not the eradication of courtly counsel but the King’s patronage of the wrong kind that is the problem in Scotland, and this is specifically seen in relation to the king’s age and lack of maturity. With its history of minority rule it is no surprise that the popular speculum principis literature of Scotland often focussed specifically on the youth of the king, for instance The Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour which Nicola Royan contends Sir Gilbert Hay may have written after the minority of James III (1460-69). She claims that the largely positive, if anxious, construction of young rule in this particular ‘mirror for princes’ is at odds with most fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works on the subject, such as King Hart and The Thre Prestis of Peblis in which ‘the youthful royal protagonists go astray under the influence of their vibrant but irresponsible courts, and only after some difficulty are brought in hand’ (2006: 80). Janet Hadley-Williams argues that such works ‘were of most importance to Lyndsay; he offers princely counsel in semi-dramatic guise in six of his poems, and his panoramic play greatly adds to that pre-occupation and the dramatic devices used to convey it,’ furthermore that Lyndsay’s ‘satire is not “general” but directed to the Scottish king’s responsibility […] to govern self and realm’ (2006: 185, 191).

[19] In this sense Lyndsay’s rendering of speculum principis advice can be aligned with other Scottish literary examples, which Joanna Martin asserts are concerned with ‘the impact of sexual desire on the king’s governance of his realm and therefore establish a connection between the moral order of the self and good political rule’ (2008: 1). Rex’s youth is underscored in the play by the fact that he is sexually as well as politically inexperienced, as indicated when Wantonness says he ‘Kennis na mair of ane cunt / Nor dois the noveis of ane freir!’ (462-3). Solace attempts to lead Rex astray by describing a woman who will make ‘all your flesche up ryse’ (204), advice Rex initially rejects as ‘counsall odious’ (221). Sexual purity is therefore equated with good rule. However, on being introduced by his wayward retinue to Dame Sensualitie, Hameliness and Danger, a physiological change overtakes Rex: ‘My bodie trimblis, feit and hands, / And quhiles [sometimes] is hait as fyre’ (371-2). A stage direction clarifies that women are sirens who call monarchs away from their responsibilities: ‘Hear shall the ladies sing ane sang, the King shall lie down among the ladies’ (1033 s.d.). Rex takes to his bed with Sensualitie for ‘chalmer-glew,’ or chamber-glee, leaving the stability of the kingdom to disintegrate in his absence. The theatrical image has historic relevance given Lyndsay’s criticism of James V’s licentious behaviour in his Answer… to the Kingis Flyting.

[20] When Rex does re-emerge from bedchamber, his entry into sexuality is accompanied by poor political decisions such as the appointment of Dissait as his Secretary, Falset as his Treasurer, and Flatterie as his Confessor (884-7). Order is restored only through the arrival of Divine Correctioun and Veritie in conjunction with Gude Counsall. The latter acknowledges that his presence has been driven ‘out of Scotland lang time’ (578-9). Part One of the Satyre thus produces all of the national problems that require reform in Part Two. The absent or dead Scottish king is expressed through Rex’s somnolence which indicates the monarchy’s weakness and defectiveness, envisaged as an indolent sexuality that removes Rex from his duty towards his subjects, so fundamental to Scottish conceptions of sovereignty under the terms of the Treaty of Arbroath.

[21] While both Cambises and Rex Humanitas are effeminised through their actions then,[10] Rex’s disordered rule is of a different tenor. It is not with alcohol and violence but with sexual desire and ‘young counsall intoxicate’ that he is made ‘effeminate / And gydit by Dame Sensualitie’ (1123, 1121-2). His failure of sovereignty reaches its apotheosis when he displaces his kingly responsibilities onto his lover, referring Chastity’s punishment to Sensualitie with the words, ‘Evin as ye list to let her live or die; / I will refer that thing to your judgement’ (1438-9). Chastity’s contention that Sensualitie ‘now…rules all this land’ is proven by this ultimate act of weakness, characterised by its perversion of precepts of gender and rule as much as its privileging of vice over virtue (1467). His abrogation of responsibility is no less tyrannous in the Scottish text than is Cambises’ violent despotism in the English, for Divine Correctioun defines tyranny as the breaking of ‘justice for feare or affectioun’ (1618). It is difficult to imagine the royal reaction when this scene was performed before both a public audience and the newly-instituted Scottish regent, the French-born Mary of Guise, in Edinburgh on 12th August, 1554, particularly in light of the fact that Sensualitie states that she is newly-come from abroad (284-5).[11] Indeed, Lyndsay’s notion of good rule, while guided by feminine abstractions in the form of Veritie and Chastitie, is distinctly masculine in execution, epitomised by Divine Correctioun and Gude Counsall with his ‘lyart [grey]’ beard (965). It is these characters who will have the most influential voices in the parliament of Part Two. Power is thus seen as most secure when it is bestowed upon elderly males and Rex’s poor kingship is construed by Gude Counsall as a facet of youth, for ‘good Counsel hastily be not heard / With young princes’ (988-9), a maxim which also implicitly questions the authority of the repeated Scottish child-monarchs in the preceding decades.

[22] The anxieties about sovereignty revealed by Rex’s sleepy carnality are the very antithesis of those signalled by the unchecked, panoptic and dynamic power of Cambises.[12] Rex’s somnolence erases him from sites of political activity. When he withdraws to his bedchamber he enacts a political slumber from which he has to be woken by Divine Correctioun: ‘Get up, sir King, ye have sleepit enough / Into the arms of lady Sensual’ (1695-6). That Correctioun is mistaken for a king by Wantonness and called ‘Majesty Royal’ by Chastitie demonstrates how sexual desire detracts from political consciousness and displaces dynastic kingship in the play — as Divine Correctioun’s rehearsal of a list of flawed, luxurious rulers demonstrates (1705-1716). The reformation of King Humanitas is simultaneous with his acceptance of the wisdom of Divine Correctioun. After a brief struggle for power Rex assents to Correctioun’s authority, ‘I am content to your counsel t’incline / Ye beand of good conditioun’ (1777-8).

[23] However, the end of Part One also raises the question of whether Rex’s transformation has been successful, as instead of reassuming his sovereign powers of jurisdiction, he instead transfers them from Sensualitie to Divine Correctioun: ‘And here I give you full commissioun / To punish faults and give remissioun’ (1780-1). The problem of sovereign weakness is thus not necessarily resolved by the absorption of Divine Correctioun into the court at the end of Part One, and weakness in this text is repeatedly equated with tyranny. In this way, the Satyre offers a challenge to the Scottish poetry considered by Martin which concerns ‘ruling the self in order to rule others’ (2008: 6). In this text, personal reform is shown to only unevenly correspond with political change. It may be that the king’s youth and the fact that he has not achieved full bodily and sexual maturity play into the disconnection between the individual and the governing body in the play, serving further to critique the role of the monarch in the Scottish polity given the prevalence of minorities during the late medieval and early modern period.

[24] At the same time, in England, concerns over tyranny also reigned in mid-sixteenth century drama, although in this instance they took the form of a brutal monopoly on power. Even the seeming benevolence of Jupiter’s invitation of suitor-subjects to his court in The Play of the Weather is tempered by the threat inherent to his final judgement that he cannot please all of the people all of the time: ‘What is this negligence, / Us to attempt in such inconvenience?’ (1188-89).[13] As this survey of mid-sixteenth century drama shows therefore, tyranny appears in markedly different theatrical guises depending on the political context in which it manifests, whether as sleepy inattention in the wake of James’ death in Scotland, or the dictatorial madness which dominates dramatic representations in the aftermath of Henry’s repressive reign.

Satyre, Silence, and Mary of Guise

[25] A recent AHRC-funded practice-based research project on the Satyre led by Greg Walker — ‘Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court’ — staged the first full professional performances of the play since 1554 at Linlithgow Palace in June 2013,[14] and produced a number of discoveries concerning the language, context and dramaturgy of the play.[15] Of particular note, according to Walker, is a disconnection between Parts One and Two of the Satyre: ‘[I]t became increasingly clear during rehearsals and performances that it is the arrival of Pauper in the play that marks the definitive shift in its tone and focus’ bringing ‘the allegorical phase of the drama to a shuddering halt’ (2013: 12). This is not only a product of the conspicuously detailed reasons given by the Pauper for his descent into poverty during the ‘Interlude’ which separates the two halves of the Satyre — namely the deaths of his family and the subsequent ravishing of his modest livelihood through death duties exacted by the clergy and land-laird — it is signalled by his very entry into the drama, exquisitely crafted by Lyndsay to occur after Diligence has announced the interval. As Walker notes, the moment marks ‘a conspicuous grinding of the theatrical gears, a disjunction, [leaving] the audience briefly uncertain whether this is art of reality, design or the disruption of design’ (2013: 13). I would add to Walker’s observations that sleep functions as the fulcrum upon which this dramaturgical transformation hinges. While Rex’s sleep in Part One was wholly allegorical, loaded with ideas of sensual and earthly pleasure, kingly negligence and a Scotland in disarray — for instance when Dilgence warns the audience that the King ‘lang tyme hes bene sleipand./ Quhairthrow misreull hes rung thir monie yeiris’ (24-5) — the Pauper’s rest in ‘the feild‘ during the Interlude has no such attached significance (2043, s.d.). His sleep is a natural biological reaction to the wearying pilgrimage he has undertaken to seek justice, and so emblematises the shift from an allegorical to a more realist mode.

[26] The second part of the Satyre can thus be seen to engage with the condition of Scotland in a far more direct and radical way than the first — in a more Scottish way perhaps — not via allegory but through theatricalised versions of actual political activity that explore national parliamentary practices almost to the point of tedium. Lyndsay depicts political processes that would have been debarred the vast majority of the original audience by representing in full the assembly’s protracted and complex debates, as well as the reading of the fifteen Acts decided during the course of the parliament. Lyndsay also dramatises aspects of Scottish political behaviour of which the audience would have been more aware, such as the procession of the Estates (albeit backwards) prior to parliament, and the ‘fencing’ of the assembly — the exclusion of all those outside of the parliament through the roping-off of its members — a job that would have belonged to the writer himself as Lyon King of Arms.

[27] Beyond performing the political ceremonies inscribed in the text, ‘Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court’ also revealed in performance something that contributes significantly to the discussion of kingship, especially with respect to the immediate context of its performance in 1554. As previously discussed, Rex’s near-silence during the Parliament has been problematised and analysed by a number of critics because of its seeming incompatibility with the active parliamentary processes favoured in Scotland. However the actor playing Rex Humanitas in the 2013 productions managed to create a Scottish king in Part Two who, while speechless, was anything but passive. James Mackenzie’s version of Rex was rather engaged, conscientious, and theatrically present, occupied with careful and visible listening, whispered extra-textual conversations with his counsellors, while at the same time displaying obvious reactions to what was being discussed by, for instance, physically standing up in support of or in opposition to points of policy. The audience were left in no doubt that Rex had transformed between Parts One and Two into a monarch who cared for his country.

[28] Of course this was a performance choice on the part of Mackenzie and the director, Gregory Thompson, but it is also a salutary lesson to literary critics of the range of interpretative possibilities created through performance that considerably alter the meaning of what is etched on the page. Pascale Aebischer has demonstrated as much through her study of the silenced body of Lavinia in a variety of productions of Titus Andronicus, writing that ‘the elision of the rape in the play-text and the subsequent textual silence of the rape victim is made up for, in performance, by the actor’ (2004: 26). A purely readerly engagement, however, privileges ‘Titus’ grief in response to the textual gap left by his daughter’s violation’ whereas ‘in the theatre, the mutilated rape victim is insistently kept before the audience’s eyes for six scenes’ (ibid.). In the space left by Rex Humanitas’ silence in the Satyre Mackenzie’s engaged listening may well have echoed the way in which the actor performed the role in 1554, and such a portrayal of royal rule would have attained especial significance in front of Mary of Guise. Historians disagree as to whether Mary’s regency in Scotland amounted to de facto French rule, or whether she was afforded real agency and wielded considerably more power than the account of her as France’s puppet suggests.[16] However, as a Frenchwoman, and a regent, her powers would undeniably have been significantly reduced compared to a legitimate male monarch. Amy Blakeway further argues that her regency for an absentee adult monarch ‘if anything limited Guise’s power’ compared to other Scottish regents acting in the interests of minors (2015:23).[17] This is what makes Mackenzie’s performance of an active though quiet king so pertinent for Scottish politics at the time of her assumption of the regency.

[29] While it remains impossible to definitively disentangle the political relations underlying the 1554 performance, the various permutations each tell their own fascinating story. Mary of Guise had become Scotland’s regent on 12th April, 1554, four months before the performance, so it is possible that the show was mounted in her honour. Seating was certainly built for her according to an entry in the City of Edinburgh Old Accounts:

Item, payit for the making of the Quenis grace hous under the samyn, and the playaris hous, the jebbetis and skaffauld about the samyn, and burds on the playfeild, careing of thame fra the toun to the feild, and thairfra agane, the cutting and inlaik of greit and small tymmer, with the nallis and warkmanschip of cj wrychts twa dayis thairto, pynoris feis, cart hyre, and uther necessaris, as Sir William M’Dougall, maister of wark, tikket beiris xvj li. v s. iiij d.    (Mill 1927: 181)

Vastly more sums of money were spent by Edinburgh Council on the play, with Burgh records from 20th July paying McDougall, ‘the sowm of xlij li. xiij s. iiij d. makand in the hale the sowm of ane hundreth merkis and that to complete the play field now biggand in the Grenesid’ and further account entries from 18th August ‘to content and pay to the werkmen that completit the play feild the sowme of xxxiiij li,’ as well as another payment “to content and pay the xij menstralis that past afoir the convoy and the plaaris on Sonday last bypast xl s” (Marwick, 1871).[18] There are also payments made for the ‘dennar maid to the playars, iiij li. xviij s. ij d’ (Mill 1927: 181) as well as a compelling entry regarding one Walter Bynnyng in October which mention props that can be explicitly linked to characters from the Satyre:

the sowme of v li. for the making of the play graith and paynting of the handseyne and the playaris facis; providand alwys that the said Walter mak the play geir vnderwritten furthcumand to the town quhen thai haif ado thairwith, quhilkis he hes now ressauit, viz., viij play hattis, and kingis crowne, ane myter, ane fulis hude, ane septour, ane pair angell wyngis, twa angell hair, ane chaplet of tryvmphe.    (Mill 1927: 182)

[30] If civic authorities lie behind the performance as the accounts suggest, then the portrayal of a voiceless king may be interpreted as a challenge to Mary, a reminder to the old queen that the old problems of corruption and injustice remain and that Scotland requires the unequivocal authority invested in a monarch, rather than a substitute, in order to institute reform. In this scenario, a silent and passive version of Rex Humanitas might have stung the new regent to the quick. However, given that Mary of Guise was also in attendance at the earliest version of the play performed before James V at Linlithgow in 1540, and knew well its critical content and reforming bent, it seems improbable that she would have allowed it to be played without her approval. If Mary herself commissioned or endorsed the revival of the play, then the performance becomes a sophisticated ploy in a political game, re-invoking her association with her popular husband and allying herself with his kingly ability to accept good counsel through the form of drama, thereby modifying the problems produced by her gender and partial power. She also does something rather more radical than James V, or Henry VIII, by extending and exhibiting her ability to accept good counsel to a far wider audience than just the court through the public performance of the play before ‘ane exceding greit nowmer of pepill’ (Charteris 1568: 3). The political significance of this expanded audience is a factor noted by Ian Brown, who writes that in Scotland:

The potential of drama to address controversial public issues robustly had…been recognised and apparently accepted even in a Scotland engaged in pre-Reformation spiritual, intellectual and political turmoil. Lyndsay’s play’s production history – as an Interlude before the royal court in Linlithgow Palace in 1540 and publicly in a significantly developed and, it would seem, much longer and theatrically more complex form in the playfields of Cupar (1552) and Edinburgh (1554) — and themes — attacking religious and civic corruption — illustrate clearly that drama and theatre could be crucibles for cultural change and so they continued.   (2013: 88)

While it remains unclear who authorised this production, the known presence in the audience of Mary of Guise renders her biographers’ failure to consider the relationship between the 1554 production of the Satyre at the point of the assumption of the regency an oversight.[19] The boldness of the staging of this play at this moment, in addition to her longstanding relationship with both Lyndsay and his masterwork, suggest that Mary might well have been the fundamentally involved with its commission. If not, then the question of why the city of Edinburgh would fund such an enterprise is raised. It could be significant that the play was played ‘besyde Edinburgh’ according to Charteris (1568: 3) suggesting something of the tension between the city and the crown identified by Guidicini with respect to triumphal entries. It might have been that the ambivalence of the political message in this agile satire that concludes ‘Stultorum numerus infinitus,’ or ‘the number of fools is infinite’ (4502-4647), made it available to municipal as well as monarchical interests. There is also the possibility of reversing the reading of Mary of Guise’s acceptance of counsel in line with Greg Walker’s sense that ‘under a regency administration authority was neither unitary not undisputed’ and by representing a widened power base in Part Two, ‘the play offers the prospect of a powerful council.’ (1998: 152). Such a modelling of power dispersed among and between the polity could thus be seen to serve the interests of the Estates rather than the regent at this moment.

[31] Nevertheless in terms of its staging of sovereignty, the passivity which distinguishes the Scottish king from the English tyrant seems likely to have been reconditioned through performance before a female regent without direct access to a sovereign political voice. Speechlessness, which tends to only read one way on the page, is actually fraught with interpretative range for the performer. If portrayed by the 1554 player of Rex Humanitas in a similar way to James Mackenzie in 2013, Mary of Guise could demonstrate to her subjects that she, too, was listening during the production by adopting the strategy of counsel through drama and accepting the challenging vision of recent Scottish history that Lyndsay proffered. In opposition to Henry’s double in the form of the autocratic and removed Jupiter, Mary of Guise might therefore have aligned herself with the nodding, attentive, whispering Rex Humanitas on-stage, finding a mirror in the reformed and improved monarch in Part Two of the play. By doing so she would have demonstrated to the people and to the municipal authorities of Edinburgh that — no matter what the limitations of her status as a deputy, her nationality, or her gender — she was, at least, no tyrant.

University of Bristol


The findings in this essay are indebted to a number of collaborators, including Tom Betteridge, Gregory Thompson and Greg Walker, as well as the numerous actors, practitioners, producers, and designers working on ‘Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court’ and ‘Staging the Henrician Court.’ I am especially thankful for the input of Bristol colleagues, notably Lesel Dawson, Kate McClune and Sebastiaan Verweij who lent me books, ideas, and time as I developed the article. In addition to stimulating discussions with Ian Brown, I am grateful for the many times I have been able to rehearse and gain feedback on the article’s central ideas at conferences, and would particularly like to thank Jemima Matthews and Laurence Publicover for inviting me to deliver a version for their ‘Space, Memory, and Transformation’ seminar at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in 2016, as well as the kind invitation from Anna Groundwater and Jenny Wormald to speak at the Scottish Medievalists conference in 2014. The article is dedicated to Jenny, whose work has taught me so much.

[1] David Lyndsay, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. All subsequent references will be taken from Medieval Drama: An Anthology.[back to text]

[2]A public domain copy of ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’ can be accessed via The National Archives of Scotland website, http://www.nas.gov.uk/downloads/declarationarbroath.pdf [date accessed 12th September, 2017][back to text]

[3]For more on the role of constitutionalism as opposed to absolutism in Scotland, see James Henderson Burns. 1996. The True Law of Kingship: Concepts of Monarchy in Early Modern Scotland (Oxford: Clarendon Press), e.g. 7-10.[back to text]

[4]In Court, Kirk and Community, she cites the example the king’s ability to call a ‘convention’ rather than a full parliament, writing, ‘Conventions could meet quickly, not being subject to the 40 day-rule…For political crises, particularly during minorities, they were invaluable,’ 22.[back to text]

[5]See Sally Mapstone. 1986. ‘The Advice to Princes Tradition in Scottish Literature, 1450-1500’, unpublished DPhil Thesis (Oxford).[back to text]

[6]For a film of the play, along with educational and research resources produced during the AHRC-funded project, ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ (2008-2010), see www.stagingthehenriciancourt.brookes.ac.uk[back to text]

[7]The Revels Office accounts for 1528-34 are missing and, even then, information about Tudor interludes is frustratingly difficult to locate in the historic record. [back to text]

[8]Though the text of this play does not survive, the ‘nootes of the interluyde’ included by Sir William Eure in a letter to Thomas Cromwell dated 26th January, 1540, do, and the content bears striking similarities to the Satyre. See Walker, 2000: 539. [back to text]

[9]Thomas Preston, ‘Cambises’. All subsequent references will be taken from The Oxford Anthology of Tudor Drama.[back to text]

[10]See Rebecca W. Bushnell. 1990. Tragedies of Tyrants: Political thought and theatre in the English Renaissance (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press) 63-9.[back to text]

[11] Henry Charteris definitively connects the play and place of production with Mary’s attendance, albeit some time after the event, writing of ‘the play, playit besyde Edinburgh, in presence of the Quene Regent, and ane greit part of the Nobilitie, with ane exceding greit nowmer of pepill’ (1568: 3).[back to text]

[12] The differing political systems through which monarchy is conceptualised in both English and Scottish drama are brought to the fore in many ways by Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish’ play, Macbeth. On the surface, Malcolm seems to have much in common with Rex Humanitas, especially in Part One. Also a youth and a virgin, he plays at being a poor ruler in order to test Macduff’s loyalty and integrity, only to ultimately reveal his true sovereignty. However, Malcolm’s pretended vices are not the weakness, absence and indolence which emerge as a concern in the drama of Scotland; his lechery, intemperance and cruelty are rather the sins of the English tyrant according to mid-Tudor drama. What Macbeth perhaps exposes, then, is not the English perspective on the problems of Scottish monarchy, but rather the Tudor fear of absolutism and tyranny, refracted through a Scottish lens.[back to text]

[13] Jupiter’s volatile and changeable nature was brought to the fore at this moment of his performance by Colin Hurley during the ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ 2009 production. See http://stagingthehenriciancourt.brookes.ac.uk/performance/scene10.html [back to text]

[14] Please visit the project website at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/ which contains blog posts, critical essays, a rehearsal blog, filmed interviews with actors, scholars and director, educational materials for schools, as well as a full film of the production. [back to text]

[15] See Peter Happé, ‘Sir David Lyndsay, A Satire of the Three Estates: Space, Language – Concepts’. Blog post available at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/june-2013-productions/peter-happe-on-the-three-estates/index.html; Eleanor Rycroft. 2016. ‘Place and Space on the Late Medieval and Early Modern Stage: The Case of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, Shakespeare Bulletin 35.2: 247-266; Greg Walker. 2016. ‘Blurred Lines?: Religion, Reform, and Reformation in Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Staging Scripture, Biblical Drama, 1350-1600, Peter Happé and Wim Husken (Leiden: E.J. Brill) 42-67; 2014. ‘Folly in Lyndsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis revisited’. Theta XI: Théātre Tudor: 113-130; 2013. ‘More Thoughts about John the Common Weal and Pauper’, Open Access essay available at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/More-Thoughts-about-John-the-Commonweal-and-Pauper.pdf; 2016. ‘Personification in Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Personification: Embodying Meaning and Emotion, Bart Ramakers and Walter Melion, eds. (Leiden: E.J. Brill) 234-255; 2014. ‘The Popular Voice in Sir David Lyndsay’s Satire of the Thrie Estaitis,’ Studies in Scottish Literature 40.1: 39-54; 2013 ‘The Lost Interlude of 1540’, Open Access essay available at http://stagingthescottishcourt.brunel.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/letter-and-nootes.pdf [back to text]

[16] For the former argument see Elizabeth Bonner. 1999. The Politique of Henri II: de facto French rule in Scotland, 1550-1554 (Sydney: Sydney Society for Scottish History), and for the latter, see Pamela Ritchie. 2002. Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548-1560: A Political Study (East Linton: Tuckwell). Bonner argues that when Scotland became a protectorate of Henri II in 1548, the French King installed Mary as regent as a cornerstone of his imperial ambitions in England. Henri’s control of the situation is revealed most clearly in a portfolio of legal documents sent to him in 1554 by the soon-to-be-deposed Governor, James Hamilton, which state that the Queen Dowager ‘sall obtene ane commission of liewtenandrie generale throucht all parts of this realme and dominiones thereof or subject therto. Maid by oure souerane [Mary Queen of Scots] with all consents, clausses and solempnities necesshe to the said noble prince [the Governor], to be usit under the charge and obedience of our said souerainis Regents of this realm quhatsoeuir for sik tyme and space as sall ples the maist cristine King of France’ (cited 1999: 99). Bonner also highlights the partnership between Mary and Henri Ceutin, Seigneur d’Oysel, Lieutenant-General of Scotland as appointed by Henri II in 1550, a figure often dismissed by historians as an ambassador but whom Bonner claims assiduously represented French interests in Scotland throughout the 1550s. By contrast, for Ritchie, Mary’s reign is characterised by decisive action despite the restrictions placed on her, and was tantamount to a ‘personal monarchy… that aimed to reassert royal power and advance the interests of the crown at the expense of local jurisdictions’, policies that ‘were very ambitious and extremely difficult to enforce – even for a Stewart king’ (2002: 6). [back to text]

[17] For instances where her sovereignty was undermined, see 2015: 24, 232 [back to text]

[18] Accessed online via British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=58529, [date accessed 12th September, 2017]. It should be noted that the records do not explicitly mention that the expenses were incurred for the Satyre but the dates and place of performance map directly onto the accounts found in both Charteris and the Bannatyne Manuscript. [back to text]

[19] Historians Amy Blakeway and Carol Edington both mention the event in passing: Blakeway, 2015: 134; Carol Edington, Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland: Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount (Amherst, MA, 1994) 66. [back to text]


Aebischer, Pascale. 2004. Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Blakeway, Amy. 2015. Regency in Sixteenth Century Scotland (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer)

Brown, Ian. 2013. Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013)

Carpenter, Sarah. 2010. ‘Dramatising Ideology: Monarch, state and people in Respublica and Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, Theta IX: Théàtre Tudor: 95-112

Charteris, Henry. 1568. The warkis of the famous and vorthie knicht Schir Dauid Lyndesay (Edinburgh)

Ewan, Elizabeth. 2006. ‘Late Medieval Scotland’, in A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry, Priscilla Bawcutt and Janet Hadley-Williams, eds. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)

Guidicini, Giovanna. 2011. ‘Municipal Perspective, Royal Expectations, and the Use of Public Space: The Case of the West Port, Edinburgh, 1503-1633’. Architectural Heritage XXII: 37-52

Hadley-Williams, Janet. 2006. ‘David Lyndsay’, in A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry, Priscilla Bawcutt and Janet Hadley-Williams, eds. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)

Heywood, John. 2000. ‘The Play of the Weather,’ in Medieval Drama: An Anthology, Greg Walker, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell)

Lyndsay, David. 2000. Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, in Medieval Drama: An Anthology, Greg Walker, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell)

Martin, Joanna. 2008. Kingship and Love in Scottish Poetry, 1424-1540 (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate)

Marwick, J.D. ed. 1871. ‘Extracts from the Records: 1554’, in Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1528-1557, (Edinburgh) 186-207. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/edinburgh-burgh-records/1528-57/pp186-207 [accessed 5 September 2017].

Mason, Roger. 1987. ‘Kingship, Tyranny and the Right to Resist in Fifteenth Century Scotland’. The Scottish Historical Review 66.182: 125-151

McGavin, John J. 2007. ‘Working Towards a Reformed Identity in Lyndsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Interludes and Early Modern Society: Studies in gender, power and theatricality, Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken, eds. (Amsterdam: Rodopi) 239-261

Mill, Anna Jean. 1927. Mediaeval Plays in Scotland (Edinburgh: Blackwood)

Preston, Thomas. 2014. Cambises, in The Oxford Anthology of Tudor Drama, Greg Walker, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Royan, Nicola. 2006. ‘’Of Wisdome and of Guid Governance’: Sir Gilbert Hay and The Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour’, in A Companion to Medieval Scottish Poetry, Priscilla Bawcutt and Janet Hadley-Williams, eds. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer)
Walker, Greg. 1998. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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Walker, Greg. 2007. ‘Flyting in the Face of Convention: Protest and innovation in Lyndsay’s Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’, in Interludes and Early Modern Society: Studies in gender, power and theatricality, Peter Happé and Wim Hüsken, eds. (Amsterdam: Rodopi) 211-38

Wormald, Jenny.1981, repr. 2007. Kirk, and Community: Scotland 1470-1625, The New History of Scotland (Edinburgh University Press)

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Thomas More’s Utopia and the Early Modern Travel Narrative

Thomas More’s Utopia and the Early Modern Travel Narrative

Jason Gleckman

[1] For all the many different ways in which Thomas More’s Utopia has been interpreted over the centuries, critics have generally agreed that the text constitutes a stellar example of Northern Renaissance humanism. Not only is Utopia accompanied by prefatory letters written by notable European humanists, it contains characters who espouse humanist values, references numerous classical authors (Lucian, Plato, Plutarch, Seneca, Cicero), and is presented in a form well known in classical times, the dialogue. Utopia is also concerned with such humanist themes as forming better people through education, the ‘transformation of social institutions’ (Rebhorn 1976: 140), and the replacement of a medieval cult of nobility by the humanist value of civic virtue, a ‘willingness to labor for the common good’ (Skinner 1987: 143).

[2] This essay focuses on another way in which Utopia demonstrates its humanist priorities, namely through an exploration of a topic dear to humanists: the nature of persuasive rhetoric. More approaches this exploration by considering a genre that, like ‘utopia’ itself, was radically new in the early sixteenth century — namely the ‘early modern’ travel narrative — and which was consequently developing new modes of rhetoric appropriate to its unprecedented aims. For unlike medieval travel narratives, which had been written to entertain a popular readership through the arousal of wonder, this early modern variant was written for a more selective audience and for different purposes. The audience was educated Europeans, especially the sovereigns who were financing exploratory voyages to the New World; the aims were to provide detailed and accurate reports regarding the resources — human, natural, and metallurgical — that could be profitably exploited there. In Utopia, however, More takes issue with the rhetorical devices characterizing this emergent, influential, and popular genre. Specifically, through the use of parody (a technique well-honed by humanists in such texts as The Letters of Obscure Men [1515] and The Praise of Folly [1511]), More critiques the travel narratives of his day by creating an exaggerated representation of one; the effect is to show both the superficial basis of truth claims in sixteenth-century travel narrative and, more subtly, their dangerous implications for both humanist rhetoric and humanist values at the time.

[3] It is easy to underestimate the importance of the early modern travel narrative to Utopia. As Nina Chordas argues in her study of early modern utopias, ‘More could have produced the same text without the benefit of New World narratives, drawing only on what was already available to him through European sources’ (Chordas 2001: 50). Moreover, in 1515–1516, when Utopia was written, the corpus of first-person travel narratives, particularly those relating to the New World, was quite small, and while news of the latest discoveries was avidly sought, it was not necessarily acquired by reading such first-hand accounts directly.[1] Furthermore, neither the Utopian landscape nor the behaviour of its citizens seems to resemble greatly the modes of New World living described in the earliest accounts.

[4] Yet, as Chordas also argues, and as H.W. Donner had outlined as early as 1945, there are sufficient similarities between Thomas More’s Utopia and the exploration narratives attributed to Amerigo Vespucci (which began circulating in Europe in 1504) to merit further consideration. These similar cultural practices include: warriors taking their wives with them into battle; ancestor worship; extraordinary bravery displayed by warriors when captured or killed; Epicureanism; euthanasia; common habitations; periodic, mass movement every seven or eight years to new dwellings; contempt for gold and jewels; no buying or selling; no private property; and no kings or lords (Donner 1945: 27). To this list Chordas adds both specific details — such as the robes of bird feathers worn by Utopian priests (Chordas 2001: 51) — as well as more general inspirations, such as the way in which the nakedness of New World peoples suggests an interchangeability or even conformity that also characterizes Utopian citizens (Chordas 2001: 53). Moreover, there are several specific references to Vespucci within Utopia: More’s work begins by noting that accounts of Vespucci’s voyages are ‘common reading everywhere’ and then provides an obscure detail from Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ (Raphael Hythloday is one of the twenty-four men left behind in Vespucci’s New World fort) to reiterate the intertextuality of the two works (More 1995: 45; Vespucci 1907: 150).[2] In such ways More, right from the start of Utopia, directs his audience not only to the New World itself but also to the textual means that bring that New World to Europe and shape it for European consumption.[3] Given the humanist movement’s overwhelming attentiveness to issues of rhetoric at the time Utopia was written, it is not surprising that an interest in the style, and not merely the subject matter, of travel narrative would mark this early humanist excursion into the New World.

[5] When considering More’s Utopia from a rhetorical point of view, historiographer Joseph Levine reminds us that the work was composed at a time when fiction and history, the invented and the discovered, were first being distinguished (Levine 1997: 69). Levine, moreover, argues that Utopia itself, by drawing such aggressive attention to its own fictionality, represents a significant intervention in this cultural narrative. Early modern travel writings also participate in this development of separating ‘truth’ from ‘fiction,’ since the carefree intermingling of truth assertions and outrageous impossibilities that characterize medieval travel tales is no longer an acceptable rhetorical strategy in the early age of discovery. On the contrary, the works of early modern explorers must solicit a very high degree of belief since a great deal of manpower and funds are expended on the basis of the information they provide. To establish these necessary truth conditions within their narratives (particularly since these descriptions of a New World are both incredible and witnessed by only a very few people), early explorers must draw upon all the truth conventions available to them as well as to invent others. The result is the creation of a new genre, one that might bear superficial resemblance to the travel narratives that preceded it but is produced for very different reasons and for a different readership, qualities that may have made this genre an interesting subject for the imagination of Thomas More.

[6] Looking at the opening of the ‘Four Voyages’ of 1504, attributed to Amerigo Vespucci, a man who was generally known to have been to the New World, shows the speed with which the medieval travel narrative was replaced by its early modern variant. The work begins:

In the year of Our Lord 1497, on the 20th day of May, we set sail from the harbor of Cadiz in four ships. On our first run, with the wind blowing between the south and the southwest, we made the islands formerly called the Fortunate Islands, but now the Grand Canary, situated at the edge of the inhabited west and within the third climate. At this place, the North Pole rises 27 2/3 degrees above the horizon, the islands themselves being 280 leagues from the city of Lisbon, in which this present pamphlet was written. (Vespucci 1907: 89)

On the one hand, all the basic devices on display here — numerous plausible details, precise measurements of distance and time, a clear ‘transmission’ history showing the route of the text as it passes from lived experience to the production of a written report, a plain and forthright authorial voice insisting vehemently on its truthfulness — can be found in medieval travel texts such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Yet Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ is not a medieval travel narrative. Instead (and like many of the travel narratives that were to follow it over the course of the sixteenth century) it is a document written to persuade powerful people in positions of authority to invest their resources into New World expeditions, and to do so quickly.[4] In terms of its rhetoric, Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ is equally revolutionary, setting the tone for later sixteenth-century travel narratives that similarly focus on empirically observed and carefully measured data — particularly the subgenre termed the ‘relación’ which involved providing useful information about the New World for the Spanish monarchies, using an impersonal language of fact and detail.[5]

[7] The generic transformation that occurs in moving from the medieval to the early modern travel narrative produces an interesting new narrative type as well, a figure who paradoxically combines extreme arrogance with extreme modesty. This narrator, as exemplified by early modern travel writers such as Columbus, Vespucci, Cortez, Oviedo, and Las Casas, is both a learned explorer and a capable potential administrator of the lands he has discovered and hopes to profit from. Yet to enhance the veracity of his words (and in line with medieval conventions of travel narrative) this narrator is also a supremely simple, plain and truthful man; he has witnessed what he writes about ‘with my own eyes,’ and the senses can no more lie than the travel narrator himself.[6] In such a manner, these early explorers base their authorial value not only on the privileged nature of the information they possess, but also on a rhetoric that promises this information will be transmitted accurately. From the point of view of these early explorers, those who have not actually been to the New World cannot reproduce their achievements; these fake travelers have no secrets to provide, and they are also accused of being professional rhetoricians, their flowery style paradoxically testifying to the falseness of their claims.

[8] Such a philosophy of travel narrative rhetoric, as deliberately and supremely ignorant, can be seen repeatedly in the sixteenth century. Bernal Díaz, writing in 1568, almost fifty years after the events he is recounting, insists he will speak ‘quite plainly … without twisting the facts in any way’ (Diaz 1963: 14). In Germany, Joh. Dryander prefaces Hans Stade(n)’s 1557 account of Brazilian captivity as follows:

I now noways doubt that this Hans Stade writes … not from the statements of other men, but thoroughly and correctly from his own experience without falsehood …
And so he tells his tale in a simple manner, and not with flowery style, or fine words and arguments, this gives me great belief that it is authentic and veritable; nor could he derive any benefit even if he preferred lying to telling the truth. (Stade 1874: 6)

In 1580, Montaigne summarizes this point of view in his famous essay on cannibals:

clever people … cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest (fidelle), or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory (Montaigne 1943: 152).

[9] Such approaches are visible even in the style of well-trained humanist rhetoricians. Bartolomé de las Casas and his nemesis Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo both claim, in their respective histories of the Indies, that the significance of their writing depends less on their humanist credentials than on the veracity of their words; moreover, such veracity is most appropriately rendered in a simple prose style. Las Casas claims that his text’s ‘poverty of vocabulary, humanity of the style, and lack of eloquence’ are among its most valuable assets (qtd. in Pagden 1993: 78). Oviedo similarly asserts that will not use ‘rhetoric to enhance the truth’ and that he ‘speaks in plain and simple language of the wealth of the Indies’; he goes on to note that even ‘the most flowery of historians, even the incomparable Tullius Cicero could not find words to express the everyday reality I have touched and seen with my own eyes’ (Carrillo 2000: 41). When it comes to travel narrative, in other words, the simple prose of the honest man is preferable to the eloquence of the humanist.

[10] Yet despite the pervasiveness of this ‘simple’ model of exploratory narration, other possibilities do exist in the sixteenth century, Thomas Harriot, for example, does not endorse Montaigne’s prescription for severing travel narrative from learned humanist rhetoric. Mary C. Fuller discusses Harriot’s complaints in 1588 that some reports from Virginia are based on empirical evidence but are nonetheless unreliable: ‘[t]he cause of their ignorance was, in that they were…neuer out of the Iland where wee were seated, or not farre, or at the leastwise in few places els’ (Fuller 1995: 52). Humphrey Gilbert, writing in 1566, is even more confrontational:

the diversity between brute beasts and men, or between the wise and the simple, is that the one judgeth by sense only, and gathereth no surety of any thing that he hath not seen, felt, heard, tasted, or smelled: And the other not so only, but also findeth the certaintie of things by reason, before they happen to be tried (Fuller 1995: 21).

As Fuller explains, Gilbert encourages more latitude for imagination within travel narrative not only to solicit funds for an unproven project lacking empirical verification (his hope to discover a northwest passage), but also to re-make the genre itself along lines more compatible with Renaissance humanism, a humanism that similarly seeks, in Fuller’s words, ‘to imagine the shape of a world not yet known’ (Fuller 1995: 21). For Harriot and Gilbert, in other words, narratives of discovery, exploration, and eventual colonization are not to be approached merely as modes of literal transcriptions of exotic locations. As Gilbert puts it, perhaps overdramatically, such a rhetoric is appropriate only to ‘brute beasts’ who focus merely on acquiring sense impressions and local knowledge; ‘men’ in contrast have more far-ranging and visionary approaches to mastering the ever-expanding world. And certainly the narratives of exploration and discovery such men produce will be superior to the cruder travel narratives of their opponents.

[11] Looking back from the end of the sixteenth century to its beginning, we can detect, in Thomas More’s Utopia, a similar tension between humanist and travel narrative modes of rhetoric. The latter approach, one More detected in the writings attributed to Vespucci and Columbus, stresses such things as the equation of truth with the empirical evidence of the senses, the consequent rejection of a Ciceronian rhetorical style, and the presentation of the ideal author as a supremely simple figure. Yet this is not an approach endorsed by Utopia, and the text goes to considerable effort to make clear what is at stake in the gap between these two approaches, both in stylistic and ideological terms.

[12] Book One of Utopia opens by mocking the content of the popular travel narratives of More’s day. In questioning Raphael Hythloday about his journeys, More ‘made no inquiries…about monsters, for nothing is less new or strange than they are’ (More 1995: 49). In one sense, More is critiquing a genre humanists mocked elsewhere: medieval romances, largely coextensive with medieval travel narratives, that shamelessly resituated the less plausible aspects of famous classical adventure set-pieces — ‘Scyllas, ravenous Celaenos, man-eating Laestrygonians’ — into a supposedly real-world framework (More 1995: 49).[7] In such a context, More might be expressing a hope that the new genre of travel narrative will be an improvement on the old, de-emphasizing romance and adventure in favour of political and moral philosophy, focusing on such things as ‘ill-considered usages in these new-found nations’ and ‘other customs from which our own cities, nations, races and kingdoms might take lessons in order to correct their errors’ (More 1995: 48). Yet unfortunately these ‘new’ travel narratives — specifically those of Vespucci — contain plenty of ‘monsters’; both ‘The Four Voyages’ and the ‘Mundus Novus’ include implausible references to cannibals and giants that echo accounts in Homer, Virgil, and Mandeville. More even coins the word ‘populivoros’ to describe these cannibals; translated by the Utopia editors as ‘people-eating,’ ‘on the analogy of “carnivorous”’, the word may also be a pun, ‘populivoros’ meaning ‘popularly devoured’ and referring to a reading public who voraciously absorbs only the most sensationalistic material from the New World (More 1995: 48-49).[8]

[13] To make fun of such readers and texts and the attitudes they encourage, More resorts first to parody. This is a mode of humour early sixteenth-century humanists felt comfortable using in texts contemporaneous with Utopia such as the 1515 epistolary parody collection, The Letters of Obscure Men (which More praised to his friends), and of course, in 1511, The Praise of Folly — Erasmus’s example of both a paradoxical encomium and a parodic sermon, dedicated to Thomas More. It is not difficult to think of Utopia as emerging from, among other things, More’s effort to out-do even his famous friend Erasmus in the genre of parody, and a parody of the techniques of travel narrative may have occurred to him as he perused his Vespucci letters.

[14] In terms of the intersection of parody and travel narrative, an even more specific inspiration for Utopia than The Praise of Folly can be found in Lucian’s ‘A True Story’, written in Greek in the second century. Lucian was very popular among the early humanists, and More and Erasmus published their translations of him in 1506.[9] ‘A True Story’ begins by identifying itself generically as a parody of the ‘fabulous tall stories’ of yore, and the text’s parody commences with what could be taken as a passage from Vespucci:

For a day and a night we sailed before a wind that was favourable but not strong enough to carry us out of sight of land. At dawn of the following day, however, the wind made up, the sea began to run, and the sky grew dark. There wasn’t even time to take in sail … For the next seventy-nine days we were driven along by a furious storm. Suddenly, on the eightieth, the sun broke through and we saw, fairly near, a hilly island covered with forest. (Lucian 1962: 15)

As the text continues, additional elements of conventional travel narratives are imitated and mocked, particularly as they relate to the construction of ‘truth’. Lucian’s travelogue contains such devices as adamant assertions of the teller’s truthfulness, a repeated concern about maintaining his reputation as a trustworthy witness, the continual inclusion of specific numerical details, and the citation of material evidence, inevitably lost, that would confirm the tale’s truth. In Utopia, More copies many of these parodic techniques and moreover utilizes them to the same end: critiquing the alluring truth constructions of travel narrative.

[15] One essential element of truth construction in travel narrative that is highlighted by Utopia is the phenomenon of witnessing. This is a medieval travel narrative trope (‘you may not believe me but I saw it with my own eyes’) and also a fundamental component of medieval and early modern approaches to the law; reliable witnesses were crucial to legal proceedings (Shapiro 2000: 13-21). In the early modern travel narratives of Thomas More’s time, however, it is the increasing conjunction of these two previously distinct modalities that enables the creation of that new figure we have already glimpsed: the travel narrator as witness, an explorer whose very sense impressions carry legal weight. Vespucci’s more famous contemporary, Columbus, shows this process in action, in a letter widely distributed across Europe:

I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me. To the first island which I found, I gave the name San Salvador, in remembrance of the Divine Majesty, Who has marvelously bestowed all this; the Indians call it ‘Guanahani.’ To the second I gave the name Isla de Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabella; to the fifth, Isla Juana, and so to each one I gave a new name (Columbus 1930: i.2).

In this short passage, the confluence of eyewitnessing, truth telling, and factuality that we saw earlier in Vespucci has suddenly become far more powerful. As Columbus makes his proclamations, formally naming each island he has landed upon and claiming it for his sovereigns, he quickly transforms the language of discovery into the language of legal possession, via the dual nature of the term witnessing.[10]

[16] The idea that witnessing in travel narrative can accomplish such grand aims, that it can be, in effect, an act of political power, is a concept Thomas More satirizes in Utopia. He stresses that all the members of his humanist circle have a stupendous power of witnessing and then applies that power to make his narrative seem more truthful. Raphael Hythloday is described by Peter Giles in his prefatory letter as having seen and heard about Utopia first-hand, rather than through others:

it was perfectly plain that he wasn’t just repeating what he had heard from other people but was describing exactly what he had seen close at hand with his own eyes and experienced in his own person, over a long period of time. (More 1995: 25)

The witnesses to Raphael’s testimony are equally sensation-oriented and equally reliable. More verifies Raphael’s account and Peter Giles corroborates More’s, ‘for I was present at his discourse quite as much as More himself’ (More 1995: 25). The French humanist Guillaume Budé takes the joke further in his own prefatory letter, first attesting boldly to Peter Giles’s truthfulness (‘I am bound to give [More] full credit on the word of Peter Giles of Antwerp’) and then dryly commenting that he has not actually ever met Giles but nonetheless places total trust in him since he is ‘the sworn and intimate friend of Erasmus’ (More 1995: 17). Conjuring the name of Erasmus, Europe’s pre-eminent humanist, is the finishing touch in this demonstration of how textual truth is established through a chain of accurate witnesses. More’s skill in eliding the difference between eye-witnessing (that of Hythloday in relation to Utopia) and character witnessing (that practiced by Budé in relation to Erasmus and More) by pretending the two are identical, interchangeable aspects of the same overall, infallible truth system underscores how the concept of ‘witnesses’ can create potent links, even equivalences, between what are actually very different types of evidence.

[17] Utopia’s parody of travel narrative extends also to the qualities in the witnessing voice itself, a persona characterized by extreme and excessive simplicity. In the letter from Thomas More to Peter Giles that prefaces the text’s first edition (More 1995: 31-39), More insists on the truthfulness of his writing (‘Truth in fact is the only thing at which I should aim and do aim in writing this book’ [More 1995: 31) and boasts of his memory as his most valuable asset (‘I wish my judgment and learning were up to my memory, which isn’t too bad’ [More 1995: 33]). He reinforces this sense of simplicity by lavishing, like other rustic travel tellers, the most attention on the least relevant details (the prolonged dispute about the length of the Anyder bridge [More 1995: 35]). He readily admits his lack of rhetorical skill (‘if the matter had to be set forth with eloquence, not just factually, there is no way I could have done that, however hard I worked, for however long a time’ [More 1995: 31, 33]), but presents this limitation as further evidence of his authorial worthiness — the conduit for truths that should lie entirely outside the self if they are to be believed.

[18] Such a conception of rhetoric, one that excludes both imagination and intellect from the truth-construction process, not only points in the direction of early modern travel narrative, but is also considerably anti-humanistic. Going beyond standard displays of Renaissance modesty, the ‘Letter to Giles’ reduces the author’s role to that of amanuensis (existing merely to ‘repeat what you and I together heard Raphael relate’ [More 1995: 31) and even repudiates, repeatedly, the value of labor, and even the power of thought, in crafting written prose.[12] Such qualities as ‘talent and learning’, ‘eloquence’, and ‘thinking through this topic,’ (More 1995: 31) are dispensed with and even presented as counter-productive. To ‘labour over the style’ (More 1995: 31) of a narrative would only detract from its truth, which, it is implied, is the sole reason for producing it. More’s humanist friends are likewise drawn into this disturbing definition of what it means to be a praiseworthy writer. Not only is More himself described as a very simple man, one whose aim is to ‘simply write down what I had heard’ (More 1995: 33), but Hythloday too speaks with a ‘casual simplicity’ that enables his words to approach ‘nearer the truth’ (More 1995: 31). Peter Giles likewise is a man without ‘fucus’ (More 1995: 42) or the red dye that would cover over his straightforward plainness; as Ralph Robinson puts it in his 1551 translation of Utopia: ‘no man vseth lesse simulation or dissimulation, in no man is more prudent simplicitie’ (More 1906: 28). Robinson’s oxymoronic phrasing stresses the alternative options for travel narration highlighted in Utopia: the genre can be seen as a simple one that emphasizes truthfulness above all else — but it can also be viewed, in a more humanist fashion, as a rhetorical construct to be approached, as all speech and writing should be, with ‘prudent’ care and skepticism.[13]

[19] Numerous critics have written about the power of early modern travel narratives to evoke the sense of primal truthfulness that Utopia interrogates. Mary C. Fuller explains how in early modern travel narratives, ‘the reliable report emerges at the end of an unbroken line from writing, to the memory of experience, to the experience of a particular thing, to the thing itself’ (Fuller 1993: 225).[14] Michel de Certeau has written similarly about how these texts aim to recreate, through recourse to both the senses and the body, the ‘real that was lost by language,’ the things the traveler’s body has been through and seen and not merely the other travel narratives he has read (de Certeau 1986: 74). As we have seen, Utopia parodies this simplistic logic on several levels — mocking both the ease with which ‘truth’ is perceived as the mere transcription of memories and also the ideal, simple personalities of the people best suited to convey such truths.

[20] Utopia’s parodic efforts go further still, extending to the use of autobiographical and biographical generic techniques; these are brought in to show how the plausibility of a traveler’s ‘real-world’ identity can lend credence to the less plausible events he encounters in a ‘new’ world. Vespucci, More’s immediate model, reminds his readers of his pedigree as an educated man and the confidant of sovereigns before launching into his adventures.[15] In the opening of Utopia, Thomas More follows Vespucci’s lead by painting a detailed, extremely accurate portrait of himself and the trade mission he was involved in at the time Utopia was composed. The account marks More as doubly truthful in the typical travel narrative mode: he is both a real person (associated with the truths of ‘fact’) and a trustworthy person (associated with the truths that emerge from his ‘honest’ and ‘honourable’ personality, as testified in the parerga). The signatures that open and close Utopia (‘the noted Thomas More, citizen and undersheriff of the famous city of Britain, London’ and ‘the most distinguished and learned man, Master Thomas More, citizen and undersheriff of London.’ [More 1995: 41, 249]) emphasize further how drawing on one’s reputation can lend weight to the truth claims of a text even when that text is a lie.

[21] More may have in fact seen this technique at work in Vespucci’s own Quatuor Navigationes. Since he read Vespucci’s narrative as it was printed in the Cosmographiae Introductio of Martin Waldseemüller, he might also have noticed that the work’s fulsome dedication to Renaud [René] II, the French duke of Lorraine, was peculiar given the nationality of either Vespucci or his patrons. The dedication’s reference to Vespucci and duke René being ‘fellow-students’ in their youth (Vespucci 1907: 85) is clearly not possible. In fact, the name of the original dedicatee, Piero Soderini (the dedication to whom may have been forged as well), was simply changed to suit Waldseemüller’s own patron when Vespucci texts (probably forgeries) were being translated from Italian to French and then Latin (Fischer and Wieser 1907: 11-13). Whatever duke René may have thought of this re-writing of an author’s identity to turn him into the dedicatee’s boyhood friend, the association of this joke with the insistent claims of the truthfulness of the Vespucci accounts contained in the Waldseemüller volume must have inspired Thomas More to create a utopian genre that is similarly based on the insistence that possible fabrications are absolutely true.

[22] The ability of ‘facts’ such as an author’s identity to cast their light of truthfulness upon other textual elements — such as an author’s capacity for honest witnessing and the value of his words, is a quality Utopia demonstrates on many levels, including that of print. This new technology, whose growth parallels the growth of travel narrative, promises, like travel narrative, an imminent epoch of refinement in human knowledge, largely predicated on the correction of past errors. In 1508, Erasmus lauds the ability of a good printer to ‘trace out what lies hid, to dig up what is buried, to call back the dead, to repair what is mutilated, to correct what is corrupted in so many ways’ (qtd. in McKitterick 2003: 109). By 1526, however, Erasmus’s optimism is dampened; in oft-noted comments added to his 1508 adage, ‘Festina Lente,’ he attacks printers: ‘… how little is the damage done by a careless or ignorant scribe, if you compare him with a printer!’ (qtd. in McKitterick 2003: 110). Thomas More is apparently aware, earlier on, of how well-intentioned technology can go awry. As with the example of a misused compass in Book One of Utopia (and recall, in this context, the swift use More’s early Protestant enemies made of the printing press), human foolishness will hardly be diminished by human invention; with the advent of the printing press, More wryly notes, Raphael Hythloday’s discourse, ‘hitherto known to but few’ will somehow appear the more truthful as further editions of Utopia are published, distributed, and read (More 1995: 249). Even the concept of ‘errata,’ that developing printer’s tool which suggests the ultimate perfectibility of a printed text, is the subject of a joke in Utopia, the one about providing that absolutely ‘correct’ figure for the length of the Utopian bridge at Amaurot.

[23] Thomas More’s exploration of the effects of print on the nature of truth in writing is also reflected in such visual elements of Utopia as the presentation of the Utopian alphabet and a sample of poetry written in it. Also noteworthy is the woodcut provided of the island of Utopia, an image that is new to cartography: part map, part illustration. Particularly in its original, 1516 version, this image echoes the woodcut accompanying early editions of Christopher Columbus’s ‘Letter to Santangel’; in both cases, as in travel narrative generally, the simplicity of the topography creates a new form of verisimilitude: basic, direct, and like the travel narrator’s prose, less at risk from contamination by the imaginations of fiction.

[24] It might be possible to see in Utopia even further indications of the power of travel narrative methodology; its conventions and premises not only facilitate audience responses of belief and trust, they also promote a powerful ideology of colonization — and indeed travel writings served as an important adjunct to early modern colonization projects. Utopia reveals how not only the content but also the rhetoric of those narratives can encourage the same naiveté in intercultural contexts as can be seen in approaches to the nature of truth.

[25] The career of Christopher Columbus provides an example. As we have seen, when he sets foot on a new territory, he names it, thereby establishing it in a new relationship with the Europe he represents. This relationship is of course one of possession and ownership, a master-slave dichotomy presumably perceived by Columbus as reflecting a divine natural order. ‘Come and see the people from heaven’ is how Columbus (1930: 10) imagines the Americans to be greeting him. He believes indigenous languages to be as unadorned as the bodies of those who speak them and as easily mastered. In such ways, the excited rhetoric of Columbus the adventurous travel narrator who encounters an amazing people who worship him like a god is quickly and unthinkingly transformed into the rhetoric of Columbus, the cruel and inept colonial administrator. The latter imagines establishing a profitable colony will be as easy as conveying his impressions of its ways of life.

[26] Utopia however mocks such a Columbian approach to intercultural contact, stressing the foolishness (and also the danger) of believing one can quickly grasp the cultural practices of other peoples. When the Anemolian ambassadors visit Utopia, they, like Columbus, imagine themselves ‘as the very gods’ aiming to ‘dazzle the eyes of the poor Utopians with the splendor of their garb’ (More 1995: 151). However, these visitors misread both the local customs (which don’t value gold) and more significantly the local value system which actively discourages both social hierarchy and pride. It is significant that the first thing we learn about Utopia is how well defended it is from outside invasion; more to the point, Utopia implies that such invasion seems to be expected primarily from Europeans.[16] It is they who were trying to seduce New World peoples both with their material goods, their shiny beads and trinkets and, more cunningly, with their rhetoric, which included extensive sermonizing. New World Utopians, however, recognize and prevent such dangers as readily as they can deter physical threats. They are immune to the lure of material possessions, and they take a dim view of those who refuse in engage in dialogue or have similarly non-humanistic approaches to rhetoric. Thus Utopia’s overzealous missionary, preaching that non-Christians are ‘impious and sacrilegious’ and suffer ‘the hell-fires they richly deserved’ (More 1995: 221), is deported; similarly, those who believe a treaty ‘can be made so strong and explicit that a government will not be able to worm out of it’ (More 1995: 199) are presented as unsuitable inhabitants of this humanist-oriented environment; as More puts it, ‘in that new world … nobody trusts treaties’[17]

[27] In the end, the very style and structure of Utopia offer a mode of travel narration to counter the sorts of travel narratives produced by Vespucci and Columbus as well as the effects those narratives produce. Humanists after all had been encouraging Europeans for over a century to develop greater respect for the cultures of antiquity; there is no reason to assume such responses would be out of place in relation to the New World. Moreover, since such true cultural contact always begins with language, Hythloday’s narrative is presented in a language mode that could be termed proto-ethnographic or proto-anthropological and which decisively rejects the standard medieval travel tropes of the grotesque, the monstrous, and the marvelous.[18] Unfortunately, the New World was not carefully explored with the anthropological mentality that Raphael displays; instead, its subsequent history is, to an extent, the legacy of a powerful competing mode of travel narrative — one which even now asserts itself in the form of claiming to profess truths that are so transparent they need not be examined.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong


[1] Rudolf Hirsch (1976) presents a full list, year by year, of travel narratives published in the early age of discovery. By 1515, when Utopia is written, there are available numerous editions of Vespucci texts (mainly in Latin and German but also in French and Italian) as well as Columbus’s first letter announcing the discovery of the New World. The first of Peter Martyr’s Decades and the popular travel narrative collection, Paesi Novamente Ritrovati, were also available by 1515. See especially Appendix II. [back to text]

[2] We know that, in the process of writing Utopia, Thomas More read this particular text attributed to Vespucci since the much shorter Mundus Novus, also so attributed, does not contain this detail.[back to text]

[3] Two additional useful essays on the relationship of Utopia to the New World discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci are those by Christoph Strosetzki and Peter C. Herman.[back to text]

[4] The 1493 Papal Bull Inter Caetera had already justified Spain’s New World claims on the explicit basis of Christopher Columbus’s actions there (Alexander VI 1984: 1.272); the title of Vespucci’s ‘Four Voyages’ suggests a desire on the part of Vespucci (or more likely his Portuguese patrons), to compete with these more established four voyages of Columbus (Gerbi 1975: 45).[back to text]

[5] For a discussion of the genre of the ‘Relación,’ see Mignolo 1982. In addition to being a text that reflects the new imperatives of European expansionism, the ‘Four Voyages’ also differs from medieval travel texts through its proto-scientific presentation, a facet particularly noticeable in the Waldseemüller Cosmographiae Introductio where Vespucci’s accounts are preceded by the ‘Cosmography’ itself — a brief but efficient summary of early sixteenth-century cosmological knowledge, replete with maps and diagrams relating to such topics pertinent to discovery as parallels, climates, and winds. The tenor of this document (the one that first placed the New World on a map) establishes a similar context — one of facts, definitions and precision — for the Vespucci narratives that follow. [back to text]

[6] See Pagden 1993, especially chapter two, 51-88, on the importance of the visual or ‘autoptic imagination’ in this era.[back to text]

[7] For a sample of scornful humanist commentary on the absurdities of medieval romance, see Goodman 1998: 15-16.[back to text]

[8] More’s Latin, ‘nusquam fere non invenias’/‘no place where you will not find’ monsters refers to Nusquama, the original title of Utopia, thereby stressing that in this new mode of travel reporting, there is no place for such things. [back to text]

[9] For Lucian’s popularity and influence in the Renaissance, see Marsh 1998. [back to text]

[10] Columbus’s diary entries recounting these landings emphasize the importance he placed upon ‘witnessing’ as a mode of possessing: ‘The Admiral called to the two captains and to the others…and he said that they should be witnesses that, in the presence of all, he would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords …’ (Columbus 1989: 63-65).[back to text]

[11] In her study of the institutionalization of Northern Renaissance humanism, Lisa Jardine (1993) shows how Erasmus and his humanist circle used the techniques that More uses in Utopia’s parerga — mutual praise and diligent cross-referencing — to build up their own reputations and humanism generally. More can use this practice himself even as he satirizes it.[back to text]

[12] As the Cambridge editors note, when ‘More’ writes to Giles that ‘I faced no problem in finding my materials, and had no reason to ponder the arrangement of them. All I had to do was repeat what you and I together heard Raphael relate’ he is actually referring to the ‘three steps of literary composition [inventio, dispositio, elocutio] as… treated in the classical textbooks of rhetoric and their medieval and Renaissance successors’ (More 1995: 31). Yet More refers to these practices only to stress their irrelevance to the composition of Utopia.[back to text]

[13] Adrian Johns has written of the power of print to imply such qualities as ‘fixity’ even in the perceptions of some modern historians who should be more alert to the way meanings are culturally constructed; as Johns argues, all ‘texts, printed or not, cannot compel readers to react in specific ways, but … must be interpreted in cultural spaces the character of which helps to decide what counts as a proper reading’ (Johns 1998: 20). It is the aim of Utopia to clarify the implications of two such alternative ‘cultural spaces’ (humanistic or travel narrative oriented) in which readings of early modern travel narratives can occur. [back to text]

[14] Fuller’s essay on Sir Walter Raleigh (1993) describes how he was executed in 1618 precisely on the grounds of being a weak link in the chain of narrative truth extending from the New World to Europe. [back to text]

[15] Christopher Columbus, notoriously, goes even further, insisting, especially in his later writings, that he was directed by God to discover the New World. [back to text]

[16] Bartolomé de Las Casas had already published, in 1516, his Memorial de Remedios Para Las Indias (1995), outlining exploitation in the Americas and suggesting solutions. [back to text]

[17] Hanan Yoran has pointed out the sophistication of Utopian approaches to rhetoric; Utopians for instance are highly capable of comprehending the ‘sign systems’ of their enemies and of using those languages against them, through such measures as offering rewards for the assassination of enemy leaders (Yoran 2005: 21). [back to text]

[18] For a discussion of these various tropes in medieval and early modern travel narratives and the way they contribute to creating an overall discourse of ‘wonder,’ see Greenblatt (1991) and Sell (2006). [back to text]


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John Lilburne and the new politics

John Lilburne and the new politics

J.C. Davis

Michael Braddick, The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2018), ISBN: 978-0-19-880323-2, 391pp., £25.00.

[1] Dying in obscurity, it was nevertheless almost inevitable that the funeral arrangements for John Lilburne (1615? – 1657), one of the great courtroom battlers of the seventeenth century, should be contested in form. The stark simplicities of a Quaker funeral were too much (or too little!) for some of his more ardent followers. But from the start his celebrity has been touched by controversy. Hero or obsessive, trouble maker or man of principle, self-promoting attention seeker or martyr to injustice, brave or foolhardy, his reputation has oscillated between these polarities over the intervening centuries. From the eighteenth century onwards, progressives and radicals saw him as something of a hero in the forward momentum of the struggle for religious toleration, civil rights, resistance to arbitrary government, promotion of the sovereignty of the people, government by their consent and the rule of law. As Michael Braddick puts it, Lilburne ‘had a long run as a champion for secular political principles’ (291).[1] But of recent years his star has waned. So too has that of the Levellers of whom he was once seen as a principal leader. Once hailed as an innovative movement advocating democracy their democratic credentials and positive influence on the English Revolution have been called in question. So too Lilburne’s grasp of the political realities his day has come to seem fragile by comparison with his robust capacity to make his own occasions the focus of attention.

[2] Yet here we have a comprehensive political life, rather than biography (xv), of him by one of this generation’s most distinguished and productive historians of the English Revolution. As might be expected it is meticulously researched and unlikely to be exceeded in its recovery of many aspects of Lilburne’s life: his networks amongst the godly, the citizenry of London and the worlds of print and radical agitation from the later 1630s down to the mid-1650s. It is particularly strong in tracing his (and his family’s) struggles with Sir Henry Vane sr. and Sir Arthur Hesilrige over the spoils of war in north-east England, his protracted pursuit of compensation and reparations for past injustices to him, and his activities as consultant and lobbyist in the disputes over Fenland drainage in the 1650s. In fact, as Braddick sees it, the balance of this political life lies not so much in engagement as a Leveller as with a new world of politics bound up with print, lobbying and partisan mobilisation.

[3] Born, probably in Sunderland in 1615, into a gentry family with connections through his mother to the royal court at Greenwich Palace, Lilburne retained strong links with the north-east throughout his life. Apprenticed to a London clothier in 1630, he was soon active in the puritan underground opposed to the religious policies of Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. He distributed anti-episcopalian literature smuggled in from the Netherlands and in 1637 witnessed the savage punishments meted out in the streets of London to William Prynne, John Bastwick and Henry Burton for publishing their critiques of the regime. The following year, Lilburne was himself arrested and sentenced to be flogged through the streets of the capital, then pilloried and imprisoned indefinitely. Such exemplary punishment backfired with Lilburne turning it into a personal martyrdom, preaching throughout his ordeal and lambasting his persecutors while insisting that his case was that of all decent Englishmen. It was a self-image he was repeatedly to project throughout his career. But, at this stage, his thought remained a mixture of anti-authoritarianism, fuelled by religious sentiment, and the conservatism of the common law mind, appealing to precedent and inherited rights.[2]

[4] In November 1640 one of Oliver Cromwell’s first acts in the Long Parliament was to raise the case of John Lilburne and obtain his release. The latter was soon campaigning against the Earl of Strafford as a symbol of the personal rule, against the bishops and against Roman Catholic members of the House of Lords. On the outbreak of civil war, in midsummer 1642, he joined the parliamentary army and gave distinguished service at the first major battle, Edgehill, only to be taken prisoner by the royalists at Brentford. Facing a trial for treason at the royalist headquarters in Oxford, in May 1643 he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. He promptly joined Cromwell in the army of the Eastern Association under the command of the Earl of Manchester, seeing service at Lincoln, Marston Moor and, against Manchester’s orders (although the Earl later claimed credit for it), securing the surrender of Tickhill Castle. But increasingly, Lilburne, like others, had to confront conflict within the parliamentary coalition between, in particular, those who advocated a presbyterian church settlement and those seeking greater liberty for the consciences of individuals and gathered churches, and between those who were resigned to the necessity – as they saw it – of negotiated settlement and those who sought outright victory in the war. Manchester backed the former options, Cromwell (and Lilburne) the latter. By later 1644 the quarrel had escalated and resulted in the Self Denying Ordinance (whereby members of either House of Parliament were required to leave the army) and the formation of the New Model Army. At this point. Lilburne abandoned military service principally because of his aversion to the oath of the Solemn League and Covenant which all soldiers in the parliamentary armies were now required to swear. But he took with him his fear of a Presbyterian/Scots imposed settlement and a suspicion that the seeds of a parliamentary defection from the goals for which he and others had seen themselves fighting had already been sown.

[5] By 1646 and once parliamentary victory was assured, that struggle intensified as groups contested the shape of the final settlement. Over the next two years its main focus became the confrontation between the presbyterian majority in Parliament and the city of London, on the one hand, and the army with its amalgam of military grievances and conscientious principles, on the other. At the same time, Lilburne was frequently at loggerheads with the House of Lords and in the process developed a portfolio of demands including equality before the law, the right to a trial before a jury of one’s peers, that trials could only be on specified charges, facing known accusers in established courts under known laws, and a denial of the jurisdiction of the House of Lords over commoners. In 1647 and in the face of the presbyterians’ attempts to mobilise support, Lilburne became prominent in a counter-mobilisation of pamphleteering, petitioning, demonstrations and attempted dialogue with the army.

[6] With the military occupation of London and the virtual purge of Parliament in that year, the dissolution of government looked to be either in train or imminent and, in a letter to Cromwell, Lilburne insisted that tyranny in a parliament had to be as resistible as tyranny in a King. In its search for a legitimate basis for settlement, the General Council of the Army permitted debate on a draft new constitution (an Agreement of the People). The indeterminate outcome of the Putney debates was soon overwhelmed by Charles I’s deal with the Scots and the second civil war. The New Model Army’s decisive victory in the succeeding campaigns led to a further sharpening of issues and the sense of urgency around a settlement. Lilburne and his colleagues were once more engaged in discussions with the military about such constitutional provision as would allow for unicameral government without a King or with a token monarch only. The officers moved to produce their own Agreement of the People at which point Lilburne walked out of the talks, objecting both to their proposed constraints on liberty of conscience and the retention of a punitive capacity in the state which might operate outside of the known law. Moves to bring the King to trial for his life before a new and legitimate authority was erected was a tipping point. But, in effect, Lilburne had abandoned what was to prove his greatest opportunity to influence the course of the revolution.

[7] Faced with Pride’s Purge, the trial and execution of the King and the abolition of the House of Lords by a purged and unrepresentative Rump, Lilburne and his friends excoriated the new tyranny and its machiavellian originators, England’s new chains discovered. Their status and influence was such that their challenge could not be ignored by a regime struggling for support and seeking to escape dependence on force of arms. Lilburne was arrested and brought to trial for treason in October 1649. It was the second most important trial of that momentous year and, to the administration’s chagrin, the jury acquitted him to a display of public rejoicing. Not only was the unpopularity of the government exposed but, in another reproof to them, in December Lilburne was elected to the Common Council of London. That election was quashed by the authorities and he turned to pursue reparations and property claims. He was soon in vituperative verbal conflict with Sir Arthur Hesilrige. The Rump took attacks on such a powerful member of parliament as treasonous and, without any hearing of the case, condemned him to a huge fine. By a subsequent Act of Parliament he was condemned to exile with any subsequent return being a capital offence. Such a civil death penalty, arbitrarily imposed, gave testimony to the regime’s fear of his fame and influence.

[8] The Rump, which had exiled Lilburne, was itself ousted by Cromwell in April 1653 and Lilburne, without waiting for permission, seized the opportunity to return from exile. His claim was that either the Rump had been expelled as an illegitimate authority, in which case its actions against him were illegal, or Cromwell had acted without lawful authority and so had no jurisdiction over him. Inevitably he was arrested and a government, struggling for what shreds of authority it could find, brought him to trial at the Old Bailey in July and August 1653. Lilburne once more turned this into a protracted piece of political theatre, showcasing the flimsiness of the government’s claims to legitimacy and its proceedings against him. In a sensational, if ambiguous, verdict, the jury found him ‘not guilty of any crime worthy of death’. Embarrassed and fearful, the government kept him prisoner, first on Jersey, then in Dover, allowing him parole only in the last few weeks before his death in August 1657. His two trials under the Commonwealth had raised the most fundamental constitutional and judicial questions about the republic. Having abandoned tradition and consent what could legitimately authorise its rule? The onset of the Protectorate and England’s first written constitution, the Instrument of Government, in December 1653 was to a considerable extent shaped as an answer to that question.

[9] How had an agitating apprentice, a restless pursuer of slights and perceived injustices, ‘an impulsive, intemperate man blind to the virtues of prudence’ (110; see also 158), an unsystematic thinker (107, 277-8), and – despite his web of associates – something of a loner (272-3) come to achieve such status as to frighten a revolutionary government with overwhelming military backing into blatantly illegal acts? It is here that Braddick’s new study makes its most interesting and innovative contribution. While fully aware of the importance of Lilburne’s capacity for and skill in self-dramatisation, his exploitation of celebrity and sensation, he sets this in the context of a new and emergent politics. In many respects the context itself was new. From November 1640, Parliament was sitting, for the first time, more or less continuously, displacing traditional curial politics. Parliamentary committees assumed more and more functions of government administration and the details of policy making. As representative of the people, these bodies were subject to outside influences expressing, or claiming to express, the popular will. Petitioning, pamphleteering, demonstrating, lobbying, working the corridors and committee rooms of Westminster, Lilburne was to prove an adept, if not always effective, practitioner of these new arts to the point where, in the early 1650s, he may have been able to earn some of his keep as a consultant to others on them (204-26). But equally, an important part of the developing context was the emergence of new partisan and subscriptional communities,[3] displacing the old political communities of locality, corporation, faction and personal fealty. These new communities had to be identified and mobilised and, for these, print, petitioning, protest gatherings and demonstrations, as well as tavern meetings were all important. Braddick has made this theme of partisan mobilisation something of his own (see for example Braddick 2008, especially Ch. 16). But partisan mobilisation also required ideas and symbols around which followers could rally. Lilburne here becomes a key player in the emergence of this new politics. For that reason, this book will remain a seminal contribution not only to the study of John Lilburne but also in understanding the longer term legacy of the English Revolution.

[10] Braddick is less easy, perhaps less assured, in dealing with key and related aspects of Lilburne’s thought. Two issues stand out. They concern whether he was primarily religious or a secular thinker and whether his appeal was most typically to civic law and civil rights or to natural law and natural rights. On the one hand, Braddick sees him as beginning in intense religiosity, with a sense of the immediacy of God’s presence (xi, 6). Reacting to the brutality of his punishment in 1638, he proclaimed, ‘Wellcome be the Cross of Christ’, and thanked God for seeing him through the ordeal (23). Called by the Almighty to fight the battle of all Englishmen, liberty of conscience, or the freedom to serve God not man, was central to him (86-8, 272). Later, faith sustained him in exile. In a letter to his long-suffering wife, he wrote of God’s dealings with him, ‘if it be his pleasure to let this cross I am under to lie upon me, for the tryall of my faith & patience & sonne-like dependence upon him, his Good will & pleasure be done’ (231). At the same time, Braddick suggests that, even in the face of his punishment in 1638, Lilburne was putting secular before religious concerns (26). In his first prison pamphlet, A light for the ignorant (Amsterdam, 1638), according to Braddick he was arguing for ‘a radical separation of religious and secular authority’ (30).[4] Again, from 1645 his verbal battle with Prynne was ‘more secular’ than religious and legal rights took precedence over liberty of conscience (88-9). In the end while ‘Christian rhetoric had suffused Lilburne’s writings … he had not defined his cause in religious terms’ (262). This is somehow to see language as separable from the substance of the message and one wonders if the secular religious distinction is not something of an anachronism or if Lilburne would have recognised it. Is it more appropriate to think of civic law, natural law, the law of nations and divine law as ideally operating in harmony, as complementary? Certainly, Lilburne did not want the state to interfere with conscience since citizens were not the property of the state but held their consciences in trust from God. The limitations on sovereignty allowed to a state, even one enjoying the consent of the governed – no authority to force conscience in religious or military matters (conscription) – were not secular in origin but were determined by a belief in God’s exclusive authority over conscience, that is by the force of a religious conviction. So there were a set of assumptions about will and law which were underpinned by ideas of the limited nature of autonomy and of stewardship (cf. Davis 2000).[5] And Lilburne and the Levellers seem to have held to these convictions, and little else, with remarkable consistency.

[11] In other respects, Braddick is right to see him as a pragmatic campaigner, a polemicist willing, within reason, to use such languages as fitted the occasion – common law, natural law, the law of nations, divine law (cf. Burgess 1993: 45-67). ‘In truth he was an activist drawing on those arguments that would work at particular moments, while collaborating with people who shared his political goals but not necessarily his ideological grounds’ (107). There was, of course, a Biblical formula which licensed him for such pragmatism in relation to civil affairs. It was that God had ordained government but left its particular form to the choice and creativity of men (Davis 2000: 290. For this formula as commonplace see, for example, Parker 1642: 1; Goodwin 1642: 7-8; Williams 1644: 196.) As Andrew Sharp concluded in a format which almost gets us there, ‘He would rather that all were subject to God’s law, but saw that most were not and tried to come to terms with such a world by way of human lawmaking’ (Sharp 2006).

[12] However questionable the dichotomies of secular and religious in this context, this book remains an important and authoritative contribution, not only to our understanding of Freeborn John but also of his place in the English Revolution and of the Revolution itself. Lilburne’s political influence in his own time and beyond rested not on traditional sources but on skill in mobilising support, exploiting print, lobbying, working the streets and corridors of power and committee rooms and, to a degree, on self dramatisation. It is a form of politics which is with us still.

University of East Anglia



[1] Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the book under review. [back to text]

[2] For the classic account of the common law mind see Pocock 2008.[back to text]

[3] Some of them, like the Levellers with their constituency and ward organisation and their manifestos, were teetering on the edge of becoming parties.[back to text]

[4] Such a separation of the spheres of Grace and nature takes us back almost eighty years to Woodhouse 1938. For other influential emphases on the Levellers as primarily secular in their thinking see Haller and Davies 1964: 7, and Wolfe 1967: 3. For a more recent emphasis on the secular in Leveller (and Lilburne’s) thought see Foxley 2013, and my review of it (Davis 2014). [back to text]

[5] Davis 2000. For the argument that the Levellers never distinguished between divine and natural law but saw them as complementary see especially 281-7. [back to text]



Braddick, Michael. 2008. God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (London: Allen Lane)

Burgess, Glenn. 1993. ‘Protestant Polemic: The Leveller Pamphlets’, Parergon 11:2, pp. 45-67

Davis, J. C. 2000. ‘The Levellers and Christianity’, in Peter Gaunt (ed.), The English Civil War: The Essential Readings (Oxford: Blackwell) pp. 279-302

_____. 2014. ‘Review of The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution, by Rachel Foxley’, in The English Historical Review, 129:538, pp. 717-19.

Foxley, Rachel. 2013. The Levellers: Radical Thought in the English Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Goodwin, John. 1642. Anti-Cavalierisme (London: Henry Overton)

Haller, William and Godfrey Davies (eds.). 1964. The Leveller Tracts 1647-53 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith)

Parker, Henry. 1642. Observations Upon Some of His Majesties Late Answers and Expresses London: Willian Sheares)

Pocock, J. G. A. 2008. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Sharp, Andrew. 2006. ‘John Lilburne’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/16654

Williams, Roger. 1644. The Bloody Tenent (London)

Wolfe, Don M. (ed.). 1967. Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution (London: Frank Cass)

Woodhouse, A. S. P.. 1938. ‘Introduction’ to Puritanism and Liberty: Being the Army Debates (1647-9), ed. by A. S. P. Woodhouse (London: Dent and Sons)