The English Court from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War
Anthony Tuck reviews a book by David Starkey et al.
The English Court from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War
David Starkey et al - Longman, 1987 £15.95
In this collection of seven essays, of which the first is a general overview of the subject by David Starkey, the authors all focus on a single theme: the nature and political importance of the innermost part of the royal court, those domestic offices where the king had his being as a private person and where his domestic servants ministered to his private needs. But these are not essays simply on the domestic routine of monarchy: as the authors are rightly concerned to stress, the Yorkist, Tudor and early Stuart monarchy was essentially personal in character, and therefore those officers who served the king as a private person also wielded political power through their control of access to him. Even great ministers of state such as Wolsey or Cromwell, whose influence in government the authors do not seek to deny, needed to ensure that they established and maintained links with these domestic servants, and the quest for influence and the manipulation of faction within the intimate part of the court help to explain wider political developments.
Although the details of the monarch's domestic arrangements changed, necessarily with the succession of two females and through the slightly uneasy fusion of a Scottish (though French in origin) court style with the English structure inherited by James I from Elizabeth, the essential point about the political importance of the innermost part of the court and the monarch's intimate servants holds good throughout the period covered by these essays, even if the location of that intimacy shifted from the Privy Chamber under Henry VIII to the Bedchamber under James I.
The authors are also concerned to establish that, seen from this point of view, the years between 1461 and 1642 have a degree of unity. David Starkey's introduction in particular stresses that the continuity in the political importance of access to the king, and therefore of the domestic offices, is more significant than any supposed revolutionary change in the nature of government in the 1530s. Such periodisation, however, is not wholly convincing. Dr Morgan, for example, argues for a fundamental change in the nature of the royal household in the mid-fifteenth century with a shift from, as he puts it, 'retinue' or 'war band' to 'court'. It may be, however, that the nature of this change is exaggerated: although it would be wrong to minimise the military character of the household in the fourteenth century, especially under Edward III, Richard II's household was surely something more than a 'war-band'.
The dissolution of warrior kingship and the civilianisation of the aristocracy were perhaps more long drawn out processes than Dr Morgan allows; while controversies over the role of the household in such matters as patronage and finance occurred in Richard II's reign as well as under Henry VI. Indeed, the politics of access and intimacy, as David Starkey and his colleagues describe them, have a long history before the Tudors, and the interesting contrast which Dr Starkey develops between 'distance' and 'intimacy' as different 'managerial styles' are arguably as appropriate in understanding the differences (mutatis mutandis) between Edward I and Edward Il as those between Henry IV and Henry V or Henry VII and Henry VIII.
Such a criticism, however, may strengthen rather than weaken one of the central tenets of these essays: for as long as monarchy was essentially personal in character – through the medieval centuries as well as under the Tudors and early Stuarts – access to the king was of crucial importance, and those who controlled access to the king therefore exercised real political power and were both the goal of ambitious suitors and the object of criticism and hostility from those who were unable to gain access. This is not to say that the monarch was a cipher, manipulated by powerful intimate servants: real power lay with the king, in the medieval centuries as well as in the period covered by this book, and the personality and interests of the sovereign determined the character of the innermost part of the court; but, as these essays make so clear, the road to the centre of power lay through the domestic offices of the court. Such a reading of political history may be less controversial for the reigns of Edward II, Richard II or Henry VI than for the Tudor and early Stuart periods, but not the least merit of these essays is that they invite general reflections on the essential characteristics of personal monarchy.
The value of these essays thus lies as much as anything in the emphasis which the authors place on access and intimacy, and the continuing personal role of the monarch in politics, at least until the outbreak of the civil war. There is, however, as John Murphy points out in his essay on the Privy Chamber under Edward VI and Mary, a risk of over- simplification if attention is concentrated solely on the court at the expense of the wider political context. Neil Cuddy's study of the Bedchamber under James I reminds us that Cecil continued to have significant influence over routine administration and over foreign policy after the accession of James I, despite the development of the Bedchamber as the intimate centre of the court: an experienced minister of strong personality could make his influence felt even though he was not a number of the intimate domestic circle around the king. Wolsey's and Cromwell's ascendancy, for instance, must have depended upon a relationship with the king that was not mediated exclusively through the king's intimate servants, though Cromwell's position was bolstered, as Dr Starkey shows, by his skilful manipulation of faction within the Privy Chamber.
Thus although the king and his household, transmuted as it was into a civilian court by the end of the fifteenth century, were the centre of politics through the medieval centuries and on to the civil war, a view of English political history which concentrates too exclusively on the intimate offices at the centre of the court may be incomplete. The king and his household were indeed at the head of the body politic, but the limbs were also important: the Council, the officers of State, Parliament and the local communities. Dr Starkey and his colleagues have brought the court firmly to the centre of our concerns, but as they remind us (though it is not their concern fully to develop the point) a more complete analysis of late medieval, Tudor and early Stuart politics must rest on an understanding of the interaction between the court and the wider political community.
Anthony Tuck is author of Crown and Nobility 1272-1461 (Fontana, 1985).
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