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The Sixteenth Century: 1485-1603 (Short Oxford History of the British Isles)
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on 15 May 2002
Forty years ago, the contents of a 250-page survey of the sixteenth century would have been dominated by an Anglo-centric model, by 'The Reformation', and by a survey of the apparatus of government. The chapters too might have been somewhat predictable 'Henry VIII, the Council and Chamber', a 'Mid Tudor Crisis' conflating Edward VI and Mary I, Elizabethan faction and the rise of parliament. After such a heavily political diet, the reader might have been rewarded with the sweet dessert of a survey of court visual and literary culture.
The value of Collinson's 'The Sixteenth Century' (Oxford, 2002) is that it asks the big questions about the period, but draws on recent historiographical developments not only to place these issues in context, but to pose the queries in a more sophisticated way. Following the initial chapter (by J.A. Sharpe) on the socio-economic context, the second essay by Steven Ellis turns to geographical scene-setting. Yet this is not 'state formation', nor even 'the expansion of monarchical authority', but 'The limits of Power', dealing effectively with the problems posed by unclear and often arbitrary frontiers. Thus both Sharpe and Ellis demonstrate that there was a world beyond South-East England; a very different Northern culture, but also remembering the Atlantic archipelago contained three other realms, each of which were internally heterogeneous. London was not Durham, but neither was Edinburgh the Highlands, nor Dublin Munster. Similarly, that monolithic, megalithic and most likely mythical construct - 'The Reformation' - has metamorphosed into 'The change in religion'. Diarmaid MacCulloch deals evocatively and even-handedly with the shifts and counter-shifts in religious policy in all parts of the British Isles, giving a sense of the dynamic relationships between different strata. Whilst demonstrating that certain areas had potential proclivities towards evangelism, he reminds us that at a parish level theological debate could be less fundamental than the social role of the church, and that religious changes assisted a newly dominant southern English culture. Furthermore, he argues the need to continue the story to the mid seventeenth century in order to complete it, whilst managing to avoid a Whiggish teleology. The question of whether the Civil Wars were a working out of the uncertain Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, itself a product of an ambiguous Edwardian legacy which drew disproportionately on elements of Henrician supremacy is thus implicitly, but non-deterministically, raised.
From religion to politics was not a large step in the sixteenth century - more reorientation than removal - and John Guy's chapter on 'Monarchy and Counsel: models of the state' is thus a natural successor to MacCulloch's. In many ways Guy has written the most political chapter of the book, but utilises recent work to discuss political cultures and languages rather than bureaucratic institutions. This is the genre not of Elton versus Starkey (indeed the 'Tudor Revolution' gets only one index reference, and it is not to this essay), but the style of Pocock, Peltonen and Burns. As this seems to be the direction in which Tudor history is headed (think John Guy on Henry VIII, Stephen Alford on Edward VI and Patrick Collinson on Elizabeth I), it serves as a much-needed balance to historians of political thought who tend to confine themselves either to the seventeenth century or to Scotland. If politics has been put back into political thought, then it seems that ideology is now being resurrected as more than epiphenomenal, no longer buried under institutional edifices. Guy (whose chapter concludes with a useful list of sources) persuasively demonstrates that the caesaropapalism of the 1530s' break with Rome developed in several different ways: the language of imperium (Elizabeth), of godly kingship (Ponet, Goodman) and king-in parliament (St German). Sacral monarchy and statutory supremacy coexisted in an unacknowledged duality, developing into an uneasy dichotomy as the century progressed.
Expressions of power came not just in texts, but also in iconography and culture: Greg Walker's chapter on 'The Renaissance in Britain' (not the final essay!) surveys theatre, music and poetry in sixteenth century Britain, again concerned to show the diversity of Anglo-European and Celtic or Gaelic cultures. Such eclecticism, ironically frowned on by contemporaries desirous of writing the purest Ciceronian rhetoric, was actually a positive sign of a dynamic and very much alive Renaissance. Buildings, paintings and woodcuts were effective agents of authority in an oral/aural culture, and a clear survey of key trends can be found here. England may not have been quite up to quattrocento Italian standards, but it did foster its own homegrown transalpine classicism.
The Renaissance puts Britain into its European context, Simon Adams completes the picture by describing the maritime development of England, good enough - with some luck and that famous godly Protestant wind - to defeat the Armada, but by no means as precocious as its Dutch ally's. In a book which began with the internal diversity of the British Isles, a final essay emphasising their role in the world, precariously placed on the periphery of Europe is neat, although London - as Collinson's conclusion says - was more interested in (and knowledgeable about) events in the Empire than those in Scotland.
Overall, whilst each chapter deals with a clearly defined issue, Collinson successfully weaves them together in his conclusion: what was 'Britain', when was the sixteenth century, what defined the Tudor age? By thinking about the broader context and connections of state formation, religious upheaval and the intellectual rather than practical functions of government, there is a coherence between each essay which prevents the whole becoming merely a collection of disparate chapters with a concluding overview. For those seeking an introductory narrative or thematic overview, 'The Sixteenth Century' is not the book to read, but then it is not aiming to fulfil those demands. As a response to Pocock's plea for British history as a new subject, this book goes a long way: complementing older narrative works - a valuable investment for anyone interested in what made the sixteenth century unique.
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on 23 September 2015
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