Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England.
Of the late Queen Elizabeth, Sir John Harington wrote, "we loved her, for she said she loved us, and much wisdom she shewed in this manner." Elizabeth's popularity, then and now, is her greatest legacy. But Harington's solemn bur mischievous remembrance--"for she said she loved us" introduces hints of coercion and doubt--suggests that the circulation of love between Elizabeth and her subjects was not simply an effect of her gregarious and warm personality, but rather a strategy to stabilize her authority. Kevin Sharpe's Selling the Tudor Monarchy is part one of a three-volume series that explains why the kings and queens of early modern England, from Henry VII to James II, needed to win popular favor, and explores the methods of persuasion they undertook. Sharpe argues that only a sweeping historical and interdisciplinary approach, one that casts aside institutional predilections for micro-histories or specialized sub-fields (for example, religious or economic history) and for disciplinary boundaries (for example, art history or literary studies), can account for the "fundamental changes that led England from a medieval to a modern age" (474). These changes are the pressure of the Reformation, both in the diversity of confessional identities it produced in England and in the international conflicts it engendered, and the widespread use of print. Both shaped how the Tudors used and expressed monarchical authority. By consolidating ideas of English identity and fostering arguments that induced their subjects into critical positions, the "selling of the Tudor monarchy" initiated permanent changes in the relationships between rulers and subjects. It is the rise of a public sphere of political debate that pushed the English through the threshold of "the modern age," one in which "the exercise of authority depends upon communication with, appeal to, the people" (6).
From Henry VII's tenuous legitimacy after a century of civil war to Elizabeth's fledgling Protestant nation under assault from a mighty Catholic empire, the Tudors needed to draw strength and stability from within their populace. They sought "the compliance of subjects," Sharpe writes, "through careful acts of representation--in words, images and spectacular performances that did not simply reflect or enact power but helped to construct it" (6-7). It was not enough for the Tudors to exercise a merely feudal conception of the monarchy, one that relied on the ancient nobility to insure loyalty and stability throughout the land. These traditional relationships were already or would soon be fractured, if not by civil war and religious controversy, then by the rise of a market economy that shifted power to urban centers. Thus, when he says the Tudors "constructed" their power, Sharpe means that they were in a continual process of redefinition and adaptation to changing circumstances. For instance, Henry VIII piloted his regime through the break from Rome through a unique personalization of the monarchy, one anchored at once to his corporeal body and his claims of "personal conscience"; Edward VI, desiring to lead "a godly commonwealth," "branded the Tudor monarchy as distinctly Protestante," a branding that was sabotaged by Queen Mary when she gave him a Catholic funeral (177, 479). The larger trend Sharpe identifies is a monarchy that asserts itself, especially in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, with an aura of sacred majesty, one attended with ever more strenuous claims to divine-right kingship. Sharpe promises, however, not to give an old-fashioned, "top-down view of representation as propaganda devised to manipulate," bur rather one that "reinforces the argument that subjects participated in the construction of images of power and responded variously to those images" (xxiv). Sharpe's main point is that public performances of authority, while usually efficacious, all contained the risk of appropriation or contestation by spectators. Publicity, in sum, implicitly invited political debate.
That the Tudors needed to secure compliance is hardly news; of interest here is Sharpe's use of a Habermasian model of the public sphere, which promotes a finer-grained analysis of what happened when the Tudors "went public" with political arguments. Habermas argued that the public sphere forms when authority articulates itself, because it makes the tacit explicit and invites counter-arguments (both, in effect, making authority vulnerable to rationality). Sharpe claims "the Henrician Reformation as the period of the birth of the public sphere in England" bur argues, contra Habermas, that it grows not out of market-anchored civil society but rather "the representational state ... which fostered debate and critical discussion of politics and power" (30-31). He further claims that Habermas "underestimated the importance of oral culture," and, "by concentrating on the bourgeois public sphere ... diverted attention from a broader popular arena of public debate and participation that in some ways declined in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries" (31). While these claims feel compelling in the opening "Concepts and Methods" section, subsequent chapters fail, at least for this reader, to marshal adequate evidence to support them. Sharpe faces the problem that oral and popular cultures leave fewer textual traces. Most of Sharpe's evidence is either top-down communicative acts or descriptions of the monarchy's relations to the people that were penned by those writing in, or for, royal favor--essentially the early modern version of the press release. Sharpe cites many tracts, speeches, pageants, and panegyrics by, about, and for monarchs that assert love between prince and people, which he reads as evidence of monarchical success. On the one hand, more skepticism might be in order in adducing the ascension panegyric as reportage, and, on the other hand, the turn to emotion itself as a public medium of communication is actually a more startling phenomenon than he gives it credit for being. Why does "love" become the trope of choice to evaluate a monarch? What kinds of demands does the cultivation of love, as Elizabeth pursued, place on her and her successors?
One wonders how necessary the model of the public sphere is to Sharpe's argument. Arguing for the emergence of "public opinion" would accurately describe the popular attention to politics that he uncovers. The sine qua non of the public sphere is that private people not only consume or tweak the arguments of a regime, bur also make their own arguments in public with relative freedom from punishment. A public sphere--which is meaningful insofar as it can hold the political domain accountable through the specter of public opinion--needs punctual access to news and means of discussing this news. Sharpe highlights familiar moments of public debate and unrest: the print campaign that supported the break from Rome, the Pilgrimage of Grace, resistance theory smuggled in from abroad during Mary's reign, controversy over Elizabeth's marriage negotiations, and the Marprelate tracts. Playwrights and poets also developed sophisticated means of fragmentation and topicality that allowed them to deliver courtly news to audiences trained to decode political content. Bur the instances of explicit public argument that Sharpe cites come almost exclusively from the monarchs and their agents, or from people writing in secret or from abroad (such as John Ponet) or soon to be punished for their impertinence (John Stubbs). Witnessing such arguments, however, should not be confused with active intervention in them: private persons, like Stubbs, proceeded at their own risk. Is it a public sphere if the actions of the people, always figured collectively, are either "love" or riot? The point here is not to demand fidelity to Habermas, but rather to insist upon a careful exposition of terminology.
Selling the Tudor Monarchy would benefit from more attention to the terms in which early moderns themselves understood the role of publicity in their political culture. As Peter Lake and Steve Pincus have shown, the Tudors and their high-ranking officials were not thrilled with the consequences of this phenomenon; one term early moderns used to denote public political pitches was "popularity." As Paul Hammer's work on the Earl of Essex demonstrates, by the 1590s, the people's love was seen as a winnable political commodity. The study of the people's love--how it was articulated, how it impacted the development of a politically engaged citizenry, and how it changed the conditions of monarchical authority--could proceed profitably by analyzing not only legitimate rulers, but those who, like Essex, quite consciously mimicked and expanded upon Elizabeth's strategies. Appropriation need not be simply of monarchical slogans, portraits, or speeches--it should also include strategies of performance. Essex, however, is given only two brief mentions in the book, even though early moderns associated him with the demagogic strategies of "popularity," which makes him a mirror image of the Tudor strategies Sharpe elucidates through these pages.
The overarching argument of Selling the Tudor Monarchy, nonetheless, is convincing and important: the Tudors, their supporters, and their antagonists all acknowledged the eyes and ears of a public. Controversial arguments were made to persuade "the people," or the collectively imagined commonwealth, not one's opponents. Hence, the Tudors became the first dynasty to master the arts of what we now call public relations. In doing so, they fostered the kinds of analytic and deliberative abilities that ultimately undermined the Stuart monarchy.
Jeffrey S. Doty
West Texas A&M University
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|Author:||Doty, Jeffrey S.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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