On the death of Queen Elizabeth in her seventieth year in 1603 the English crown passed with very little fuss from the Tudor to the Stuart dynasty. James Stuart, king of Scotland since the age of one after the forced abdication and flight of his mother, Mary Stuart, in 1567, now became monarch twice over, as King James VI of Scotland and I of England. His first address to an English parliament, delayed by an outbreak of plague until the year after his accession, argued forcefully that the two realms fortuitously joined together by his dual kingship should henceforth be politically united too, since God had “made us all in one land, compassed with one sea”. There was, he pointed out, no significant physical barrier – no great river or mountain range – dividing Scotland from England. More debatably perhaps, he asserted that God, “by his almighty providence”, had already united the two kingdoms in language, religion and similarity of customs. Through his royal person the British island had become “a little world within itself”, joined together in amity and, surrounded by the natural “pond or ditch” of the sea, self-sufficient and now strong enough to feel secure from foreign enemies.
Though James’s focus here is clearly on his desire to politically and constitutionally bind England and Scotland together – a project which he was not able to bring to fruition ‑ it is difficult not to be reminded of a famous passage from Shakespeare’s Richard II (dated to 1595 or 1596) in which the dying John of Gaunt laments what he sees as England’s decline under the weak rule of his nephew Richard and evokes an idealised past, a time when it was possible to rejoice in the kingdom as
this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England …
Gaunt’s thoughts here are certainly not of “Britain”: in his lifetime the term had little more than a geographical signification. For much of the fourteenth century indeed – Gaunt died in 1399 –the Scots and English had been at war, Scotland being the long-term ally of England’s traditional enemy, France, and, as King James hinted in his speech to parliament, often a threat to England’s back door when it was engaged in military ventures across the Channel.
It is scarcely surprising that Shakespeare’s powerful words and images – the precious stone set in the silver sea –would later be enlisted to boost morale and stir national pride, particularly at times when Britain seemed to face a significant level of external threat. Yet the vision of England as an invulnerable fortress does not stand up to much scrutiny when confronted with the historical record of an island that over a thousand years had been settled by invading Romans and Anglo-Saxons and constantly raided by Danes before the Normans, in the eleventh century, overthrew the old order, dispossessed almost all native landowners, installed Anglo-Norman and Latin as the languages of administration and elite culture and placed Frenchmen in all leading positions in the church. The prosaic reality perhaps is that the sea has seldom been an effective defence against invasion for any island, any more perhaps than a moat was ever enough to protect a medieval castle from determined assault.
It is of course far from uncommon for a country or a people to regard itself as specially “chosen”, endowed with a particular cultural or spiritual mission or blessed with greater fruitfulness or a more industrious or enterprising national genius than its neighbours. Certainly, over an extended period of history starting in the eighteenth century, England, or Britain, was to become a dominant player, for a considerable period the dominant player, in projecting its power far from home and defeating or outmanoeuvring its rivals. But what was its place in the world in the century in which Shakespeare was born?
Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth Field in 1485 brought the turbulence of the Wars of the Roses to an end and ushered in a period of comparative stability. Tudor reigned as Henry VII for a quarter-century and was succeeded by his son Henry VIII in 1509. The Tudor dynasty was to last until 1603, with two long reigns, that of Henry and his daughter Elizabeth, separated by two short ones, those of the boy king Edward VI (1547-1553) and his half-sister Mary (1553-1558).
Henry VIII, who was proclaimed king aged seventeen in 1509, was one of several long-lived European monarchs to come to power in the first decades of the sixteenth century. Francis I, crowned king of France at Reims in 1515, was an admirer of the achievements of the Renaissance and a noted patron of the arts and letters who commissioned the building of the magnificent châteaux of Chambord and Fontainebleau and brought Leonardo da Vinci to France in his old age. He also practised the arts of war, conducting a number of aggressive campaigns in Italy over several decades. He reigned until 1547. His great rival, Charles V, born in Flanders, became king of Spain jointly with his mother in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor three years later. His multiple European possessions extended from the wealthy trading towns of the Low Countries, through Germany and Austria, to Italy and Spain, encircling those of Francis. Charles, the most powerful ruler in Europe, was eventually to abdicate his titles when he retired in 1557 to a Spanish monastery, where he died in the following year. Suleiman I, known as the Magnificent, became sultan of the Ottoman empire in 1520. The Ottoman Turks, dominating the Middle East as well as much of the Mediterranean and active also in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, pushed further into central Europe in the sixteenth century, annihilating the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, occupying Buda in 1541 and threatening Vienna. Suleiman died in 1556. The bulk of European military history of the sixteenth century concerns the rivalries between these potentates and the alliances they made, not infrequently temporary accommodations with “my enemy’s enemy”.
England’s foreign relations in the sixteenth century were determined in the first instance by its longstanding interest in France. Since the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066 English kings had enjoyed possessions and titles on both sides of the Channel and for long periods, starting in the mid-fourteenth century, even claimed the French throne. They and their noble followers would mostly have spoken French rather than English until the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries. Distinct and opposing English and French versions of national consciousness were to a large extent forged in the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). On the English side, military victories such as Crécy and Poitiers in the fourteenth century were long remembered, while that at Agincourt in the early fifteenth was to form the centrepiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V, whose stirring patriotic speeches were called upon to rally the nation in war once again with the release of Laurence Olivier’s film version in 1944.
The image of Henry VIII that survives in popular consciousness in Britain today is of a man ruled by his passions: the six wives, two of them beheaded when they ceased to please him, two others cast aside; the trusted ministers condemned to the block when they opposed or disappointed him; the gluttonous appetite for food and drink which brought on obesity and ill-health, the dangerous, volatile temper. The image is soundly based – Henry consumed vast quantities of meat, wine and ale, ate little fruit or vegetables, and in his last years had to be provided with a giant padded commode and brought upstairs in his palaces by a specially made chair “which goeth up and down”. But these infirmities relate chiefly to his later years. As a young man he was handsome, athletic and accomplished. He was also musically gifted, spoke fluent French, wrote with a polished Latin prose style that impressed even the great humanist scholar Erasmus and was proficient in tennis and archery, jousting and hunting. But more than any other, the favoured sport of kings is war and Henry as a young man was particularly keen to emulate the martial exploits of his royal predecessors Edward III and Henry V, who had campaigned successfully in France.
Italy was the main theatre in the sixteenth century for the working out of the long-lasting military rivalries between the Valois kings of France and the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs. Made up of a number of small independent states and foreign dependencies, with many wealthy towns but politically divided, the peninsula was, from the 1490s, shaken by a series of wars and invasions that continued over more than sixty years. Rejecting his counsellors’ advice to renew his father’s peace treaties with France and Spain, England’s new king entered the Italian conflict by the back door. Eager to please Pope Julius II, who wished to expel King Louis XII from Italy and had toyed with transferring the honorary title “most Christian king” from the French to the English monarch, Henry despatched an invasion force to Aquitaine in western France and then in 1513 led an army into the north, where, in a joint action with the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, he succeeded in capturing the towns of Thérouanne and Tournai. As Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in the treatise De Principatibus, first circulated in manuscript in the same year, nothing was more likely to burnish the reputation of a prince than his engagement in great enterprises which might furnish his subjects with examples of exceptional valour. In terms of their cost, the French invasions of 1512 and 1513 were certainly such a great enterprise, but their long-term benefits to England were more difficult to discern. Of greater value was the rout of a Scots invasion force, mobilised to assist the French, at Flodden in Northumberland in September 1513 in which King James IV and much of his nobility, along with many thousands of soldiers, were killed.
Henry’s diplomatic efforts, orchestrated by his chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, a cardinal after 1515, now shifted towards the pursuit of peace, prestige and financial gain. Under the terms of a new Anglo-French treaty signed in 1514 the French king would marry Henry’s younger sister, Mary, while England would be allowed keep Tournai and be paid a generous annual “pension” in return for not interfering further in France. The deal had advantages for most, if not all, the contracting parties. A delighted King Louis, fifty-two at the time of the marriage (his third), found his new wife, a young woman widely admired for her beauty and lively personality, to be a “nymph from heaven”; she was eighteen. The king, however, died after just three months of marriage. In the same year Mary married Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, a friend and favourite of her brother’s.
Pope Leo X’s ambitious plan to stem Ottoman advances into Europe by bringing all the Christian powers together in a new multinational crusade against the Turks was quickly taken up by the adroit Cardinal Wolsey, who, nudging the pope to one side, brought European ambassadors together in London in 1518. An impressive “treaty of universal peace” was signed and Henry was enabled to present himself as unifier of Christendom and peacemaker extraordinaire.
The new Anglo-French entente was celebrated in extravagant style two years later at a meeting near Calais of the two monarchs, each accompanied by a huge retinue of nobles and gentlemen. The associated festivities, which lasted three weeks, featured tournaments, wrestling, music, fountains spouting wine and such display of fine clothes and draperies that it became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Provisioning the English contingent alone cost the lives of more than 2,000 sheep.
The proposed joint Christian action against the Ottomans, however, did not take place and the universal peace was shortlived. By 1521, Henry had allied himself with Pope Leo and the emperor against France. In the following year king and emperor rode together through London and Charles was promised the hand of Henry’s six-year-old daughter, who was also, through her Spanish mother, his cousin. Three years and two popes later, alliances were upset again when the papacy, nervously watching French military successes in Italy, decided to throw in its lot with what appeared to be the winning side. Francis, however, was defeated and captured at the Battle of Pavia and brought to Spain as a prisoner. Charles meanwhile renounced his engagement to Mary Tudor and in 1526 married another cousin, Isabella of Portugal. Henry was displeased, but still expected the emperor to back his ambitions in France, which extended to being awarded large swathes of territory and crowned king. Charles ignored him.
Henry VIII’s hopes of cutting a major dash in Europe were probably no longer realistic once he had been joined on the stage by two young and vigorous princes, Francis and Charles, whose ambition was equal to his own but whose resources were greater. Another factor, however, was soon to complicate the domestic policies and in large measure circumscribe the foreign policies of English monarchs: the Protestant Reformation. The English Reformation can – at least in its early years – be distinguished from the European, itself existing in several variants: German, Swiss, Dutch, Genevan-French, even an Italian one which was strangled at birth and its adherents forced into exile. Luther’s break with the Roman church was sparked by sharp theological differences between orthodox positions and new thinking: whether salvation could be at least partially earned by “good works” or was entirely dependent on God’s grace; whether truth should be sought in the traditional teachings of the church or could be found only in Scripture; whether church rituals and the habitual devotions of the laity were valuable paths to salvation or merely empty formulae and “superstitions”. On top of that there was a perception that many churchmen were corrupt and worldly and, in Germany, a strong resentment of the constant outflow of money to Rome. Further distinct theological positions were to be marked out by Huldrich Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva. Protestantism, a tag which dates only from 1529, twelve years after Luther’s initial challenge to Rome, was becoming more various, with the main currents ‑ Evangelical or Lutheran, and Reformational or Calvinist – and many more minor strands soon almost as bitterly at odds with each other as each of them was with Rome.
The Reformation in England – certainly more of a process than an event – would in due course take on some significant theological colourings, particularly as more radical elements, those most in touch with European reformers, sought to advance beyond the positions of what they saw as a lukewarm, conservative establishment. Initially, however, it was less a doctrinal rupture than a challenge to the church’s authority over the rather mundane matter of who the king might marry. Henry had long been a loyal supporter of the pope and an enthusiastic champion of papal power and privileges. So we may surmise that his break with Rome was not entered into unadvisedly or lightly; nor was it, in spite of what later Catholic apologists might claim, engineered simply to satisfy his carnal lusts and appetites –princes and kings have never encountered many obstacles in pursuing liaisons of that sort. Certainly England’s king had not. In 1519 he fathered an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, by Elizabeth Blount, his mistress for several years. He also conducted a liaison with Mary Boleyn and later, more seriously, with her sister Anne. His course of action from the mid-1520s and his dispute with papal authority was determined not by lust but by the fear that he would not have a male heir and that his dynasty might not therefore survive.
Anxious to be rid of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had borne him a healthy daughter, Mary, as well as five other children who had been stillborn or died as infants, the king wanted the pope to grant him an annulment on the grounds that since Catherine had previously been married to his brother, his union with her had been invalid. The four-month marriage to Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur, had ended with his sudden death in 1502, leaving Catherine a widow at sixteen. The biblical text which appeared to support the king’s claim that his marriage had been illegitimate – and that he was now paying for his transgression ‑ was from Leviticus: “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity … they shall be childless.” A helpful Cambridge Hebrew scholar interpreted these words for Henry to mean “they shall not have sons”. In fact Catherine had borne her husband three sons, but they had not survived. No matter. Henry’s conscience, he told his advisers, was troubling him and he felt he could not remain in the marriage.
In normal circumstances the desired annulment might not have been a problem. The church was often accommodating to the rich and powerful in such matters. But the reigning pope, Clement VII, was at this time wholly in the power of the emperor, who was not disposed to facilitate the dissolution, very much against her will, of the marriage of Catherine, his aunt. Always interested in matters of theology and church government, Henry, with the assistance of some nimble clerical intelligences, now set about finding justifications for the positions his conscience had told him he must adhere to. Soon he had discovered that the temporal power of the pope was simply a medieval usurpation and that the bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction outside his own diocese, a revelation he threatened to share with other rulers who were “not as learned as he is”. There was nothing further to be got from Rome. The lady he had in mind to be his next wife – Anne Boleyn – had already been moved into Catherine’s chambers. In late 1532, Henry and Anne contracted a secret marriage, followed by a further ceremony early in the following year. In May, the new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared the marriage to be valid and Anne was crowned queen consort at Westminster Abbey in June.
King Henry is of course remembered for the execution by beheading of two of his six wives, Anne Boleyn (1536) and Catherine Howard (1542). The names of Thomas More, and perhaps even John Fisher, both executed in 1535 for refusing to accept the king’s supremacy over the English church, may also be familiar. But only the most devout of English Catholics would be able to name any of the eighteen “Carthusian martyrs” who were hanged, drawn and quartered or starved to death in prison between 1535 and 1540. Not all victims of Henry’s religious changes were so harshly treated. The dissolution of the monasteries in the second half of the 1530s brought money flooding into crown revenues and created a sizeable class of profiteers with a vested interest in making permanent the privatisation of the church’s considerable wealth – and by extension the whole edifice of “reformed religion”. But most of the monks and nuns who were expelled from the foundations that were being wound up were compensated with gratuities or pensions, thus avoiding the creation of a large body of the disaffected. The greatest damage was cultural. Handsome church buildings were auctioned off and sometimes demolished, the broken masonry used as a quarry. Paintings and sculptural features were stolen or destroyed. Monastery libraries, some sheltering irreplaceable Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, were emptied and books gutted for their fine bindings with the leaves being adapted to other purposes, “some to serve their jakes, some to scour candlesticks, and some to rub their boots”.
Though his innovations in terms of religious organisation and enforced changes in devotional practice were considerable, Henry was to remain doctrinally rather conservative, with his English church occupying a place approximately half-way between Rome and Luther’s Wittenberg, affirming, for example, in the Act of Six Articles in 1539, many of the central tenets of the Catholic understanding of the Mass and the Eucharist. He was also an equal opportunity religious persecutor: more than sixty Protestants were burned, or hanged, drawn and quartered, during his reign according to the lists of the martyrologist John Foxe. His best-known Protestant victim, however, was his former enforcer Thomas Cromwell, executed for his alleged protection of members of radical sects, though his promotion of Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves, who did not please the king sexually and had to be “put away”, was certainly also a factor.
Doctrinal Protestantism had been kept under a tight rein by Henry but it broke into a gallop during the short reign of his successor, the much-sought-after male heir that his third wife, Jane Seymour, had eventually provided. Edward VI assumed the throne at the age of nine and died aged fifteen in 1553. The boy king, whose education had been strongly evangelical, was guided in particular by his uncle, Edward Seymour, and Archbishop Cranmer, who was moving away from Lutheranism and closer to radical strands of European reform, some of whose representatives he welcomed to England as exiles, the Germans Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius taking up academic positions at Cambridge. Cranmer urged the young king to sweep away all “papistical superstitions and abuses” whose “goodly show and appearance” had fooled the ignorant into confusing them with genuine holiness. This would mean the banning of pilgrimages, processions, parish prayer guilds, the saying of the Rosary and the burning of lights in parish churches, the abolition of most saints’ days and the removal, usually by destruction, of images of the saints or the Virgin in wood, stone, painted on walls or on stained glass. The greater part of the rich heritage of traditional Catholicism would be wiped out in just a few years. While the Reformation certainly had significant support in London and the towns of the southeast and East Anglia, the religious changes were far from popular in most parts of rural England. A revolt in Devon and Cornwall in 1549, in which opposition to religious innovation combined with resentment of new taxes and anger at London’s contempt for the Cornish language, was put down with great savagery.
The religious orientation of England was to change twice again during the 1550s. With the young Edward’s death in 1553, the throne passed to his half-sister Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and with her death in 1558 to his other half-sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn. Queen Mary restored the religion of her mother and vigorously prosecuted Protestant resistance. She is credited with responsibility for the burning at the stake of the rather precise figure of 284 heretics, many of them people of quite humble social origin. To this tally might at a stretch be added Cambridge’s German theological refugees Bucer and Fagius, who were dug out of their graves in 1557 to be retroactively immolated for heresy. Mary’s record of persecution ensured that she was over many centuries to be the pre-eminent villain – “Bloody Mary” – of English Protestant historiography. Nor did her marriage to Philip, the very Catholic king of Spain, help. In recent years, however, there have been several revisionist accounts of her reign which underline her intellectual commitment to a reformed Catholicism and indeed the relative political success of her repressive measures. Though she has routinely been written off by hostile commentators as a failure, her chief failure in this view would have been simply that she died before England’s “reconversion” was complete.
If the religious history of England during the reigns of Henry and his children Edward and Mary was shaped by the personal convictions of the monarchs and can be understood as operating largely in a national context, during the forty-four-year rule of Elizabeth I religion was to become a significant factor in international relations in a situation where the survival of Protestantism seemed to under threat across Europe and where, in England, reformed religion, queen and nation became more and more identified as one.
There had been sporadic religious violence in France from the 1530s, including atrocities like the massacre of 3,000 Waldensians – proto-Protestants of Piedmontese origin – at Mérindol in Provence in 1545. The start of what became known as “the wars of religion”, however, is normally dated to 1562 and they are judged to have ended in 1598, although trouble was to flare up occasionally again in the following century. There were eight distinct wars, each separated from the other by shortlived truces while the belligerents marshalled their strength for fresh attacks. The loss of life associated with this violence and the concomitant scourges of famine and disease has been estimated as being as high as three million persons.
Protestantism, predominantly of a Calvinist stripe, commanded the allegiance of ten to twenty per cent of the French people at its height in the 1560s. It was strongly represented among sections of the nobility, the merchant class and urban artisans, and among clergy and the professions. To the degree that adherence to one or other of the religions was also associated with particular magnates and their extensive clientele networks, the conflict can be seen as not just a religious one but also a struggle for power between what in England would have been called “barons”. The Guise family, strongly identified with an uncompromising Catholicism, at first enjoyed considerable influence at court on the accession of the fifteen-year-old king Francis II, whose wife, Mary Stuart, was the daughter of Marie de Guise, who had married James V of Scotland. But after Francis’s early death his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, acting as regent when her second surviving son, the nine-year-old Charles IX, assumed the throne, adopted a policy of conciliation of the Protestants. That policy, which did not produce the desired peace, seems to have been abandoned, however, by 1572, when a massacre of Protestants in Paris and other centres took place on St Bartholomew’s Day. The action was fully endorsed by King Charles. Its original intention may have been to “cut off the head” of what was feared to be an imminent Protestant coup by assassinating its leaders. But the violence quickly escaped any control the state might have thought to apply to it, with Catholic fanatics, some of them persuaded that they were living in the Last Days, unleashing wholesale murder on their Protestant neighbours. The victims numbered 3,000 in Paris and another 3,000 to 4,000 elsewhere in the country. On hearing news of the killings, Pope Gregory XIII celebrated a Te Deum and had a medal struck showing an angel brandishing a cross and a sword and smiting the heretics.
France’s religious strife attracted the attention of neighbouring powers, Spain allying itself with the Guise faction, England supporting the Protestants with financial subsidy. A further significant factor was the proximity of the Low Countries, where a long struggle was being prosecuted between the Spanish and the Protestant Dutch, who declared independence in 1579. In 1590 Philip II’s very able general Alexander Farnese moved into France to relieve the siege of the Catholic-held city of Paris by Protestant forces, his absence from the Netherlands allowing the Dutch to consolidate their gains.
The onset of the interminable French wars of religion effectively meant that in the final decades of the sixteenth century the country no longer posed a significant threat to its traditional enemy, England; that place was taken by King Philip’s Spain, in alliance with Rome, increasingly impatient of the stubborn survival of English “heresy”. The rebellion of 1569 known as the Rising of the North, which sought to replace Elizabeth with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, was put down by forces loyal to the queen without much difficulty. In its aftermath hundreds were executed in Yorkshire, “wholly of the meanest sort of people” according to one contemporary account. In the following year Pope Pius V issued a papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis, absolving the queen’s Catholic subjects from their duty to obey her. Elizabeth has traditionally been quoted as saying that she had no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”: that is, that if her subjects kept the peace and made an outward show of religious conformity she would not inquire too deeply into their private beliefs. This policy of semi-tolerance gave rise to the apparently widespread phenomenon of “Church Papists”, those who attended Church of England services on Sunday – as the law demanded they should – but whose hearts, or souls, were elsewhere. Many English Catholics might have wished for a quiet life and the turning of a blind eye to their discreet private practice of their religion, but this was not what was intended for them by some of their spiritual leaders, like William Allen, the founder of the English seminary in Douai in Flanders. In the short term Cardinal Allen sought to provide a flow of missionary priests to cater to the spiritual needs of his English flock; in the longer term he wished to extirpate Protestantism and restore the old religion. In this venture he became the ally, or the instrument, of Philip of Spain, whose influence saw him created a cardinal and marked out to play a key role – perhaps as archbishop of Canterbury – after a successful Spanish invasion of England. The armada expedition of 1588 was not, however, successful and Protestant England survived, though still, it seemed, sporadically threatened by the conspiracies against Elizabeth’s life of the Jesuits –plots that her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who ran a large network of double agents and agents provocateurs in Europe, was usually well-informed of and sometimes stage-managed.
The French wars of religion came to an end in 1598 when Henry of Navarre, who in 1589 had become King Henry IV of France, converted to Catholicism in order to secure the allegiance of the majority of his subjects, at the same time according freedom of conscience and civil rights to the Protestant minority. It may perhaps surprise us from a twenty-first-century perspective that this solution was not arrived at earlier, but it is well to remember that the contenders in the long religious struggle in France were always more interested in victory than compromise. Religious toleration was also almost universally seen as bad state policy, an effective admission of weakness which would very probably be taken advantage of. As Elizabeth’s courtier Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, asserted,
a plurality of religions … is against the policy of all states, because where there is not unity in the Church, there can be no unity nor order in the state.
Religious controversy in the decades after Luther’s break with Rome was conducted with great energy and passion. A long theological wrangle between John Jewel, bishop of Salisbury, and various Catholic writers, notably Thomas Harding, involved the publication of more than sixty books and pamphlets during the 1560s. In spite of the considerable practical obstacles – the Catholic works were printed abroad and smuggled into England ‑ Harding was not a man to give up easily. Jewel had originally declared that no Catholic writer could convincingly demonstrate any continuity between Rome’s religious practices and the precepts of the Bible or the early Christian Fathers. Harding’s Answere to Maister Juelles Chalenge was a substantial work of 386 pages. Jewel’s Reply brought on a further Rejoindre from Harding, who in his final contribution in 1568, A Detection of Sundrie Foule Errors, Lies, Sclaunders, corruptions, and other false Dealinges, felt he should apologise to readers for his brevity, which had forced him to leave out many important arguments. His book ran to 900 pages. If the Jewel-Harding controversy was ill-tempered, other controversialists often resorted to a language laced with savagery. A 1574 English version of a book written in Latin twenty years earlier by John Bale, later bishop of Ossory, offered the view that “[i]f an hundred of the rankest hellhounds that ever reigned on the earth might be mustered out of hell, four score and nineteen of them should be Popes”. Indeed the portrayal of popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks and friars as demons with cloven feet was a routine feature of Protestant propaganda at the lower end of the market. The stock aliens of Early Modern Christian culture were of course Jews and “Mahometans”; still, it is hard to find a figure more “other” than a devil from hell.
The bitterness of religious controversy – itself predicated on a strong belief that the stakes could not be higher – may explain some of the savagery associated with the persecution of what was somewhat euphemistically referred to as “error”. The law was administered with a great deal of severity in Early Modern Europe; the voices that advocated responses we would recognise as more humane were not numerous, though they were distinguished: Erasmus, More and Montaigne among them. But we will get an incomplete picture of “religious violence” if we look only at the solemn cruelties of the law – Bloody Mary’s 284 public burnings, Henry VIII’s cold disposal of those who refused to bend to his will, the “Forty Martyrs” venerated by English Catholics. A wider focus would include the much more numerous, though nameless, victims of the routine savagery of soldiers on campaign and the innocent victims of the way war was prosecuted, with lengthy sieges, scorched earth policies in the countryside and widespread rape and murder. The deaths of civilians or non-combatants in, or as a side effect of, religious violence can sometimes seem like a footnote to the historical narrative, while the headline news is what remains in the public memory. It is of course unsurprising that there should be a vivid remembrance of such a spectacular event as the massacre of 3,000 Protestants over a few days in Paris in August 1572. Less well-known are the deaths of perhaps 30,000 Parisians from starvation and disease when the army of Henry IV laid siege to the capital in 1590, just three years before that Protestant champion decided to become a Catholic.
Those who belonged to the “uncivil” (uncivilised) peoples who inhabited England’s fringes could also often be considered less worthy of compassion. The 1549 revolt in the West Country known as the Prayer Book Rebellion united class-based resentment of landlords with religious hostility to Protestantism and, in Cornwall, cultural resistance to the imposition of the English language for worship: there were probably still 30,000 speakers of Cornish at this time in a territory which retained close links to Brittany, and many knew no English. The government forces marshalled to meet the rebels were commanded by Lord John Russell and Lord William Grey and were stiffened with German and Italian mercenaries. After the battle of Clyst St Mary near Exeter, 1,000 Cornish and Devonian rebels were left dead on the field. According to the chronicler John Hayward 900 prisoners then had their throats cut inside ten minutes on Clyst Heath.
In the 1590s James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) had attempted to break the power of the Gaelic clans of the Highlands by planting “civil” Lowland gentlemen on their lands. Though his initial desire had been not to pacify the Gaelic chieftains but to “extirpate” them, he was eventually to settle for their cultural extinction. From 1609 they were required to send their sons south to be educated in English-speaking schools, while Protestant ministers were attached to Highland parishes and traditional bards outlawed.
Arthur Grey, son of the Lord William active in the suppression of the Prayer Book Rebellion, said that during his two years as lord deputy of Ireland in the early 1580s, he had summarily executed 1,500 men – presumably fighting men – in addition to killings of “churls” (peasants), “which were innumerable”. Edmund Spenser’s allegorical figure of Sir Artegal in The Faerie Queene, representing Justice, is taken to represent Grey.
England’s population at the start of the Tudor period was about 2.3 million, one-seventh that of France. Only about 5 per cent of the population lived in towns, making England a much more rural and less developed place than the Low Countries or parts of Italy. By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603 the population had surpassed 4 million. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries brought him, over a decade, an extra income of well over a million pounds, much of which, however, was wasted on unprofitable wars. Elizabeth was a great deal more careful with money, less given to show and a canny investor in commercial ventures, including the piracy and merchant expeditions of sailors like the early slave trader Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. English piracy was a business which, while visiting death and the loss of valuable property on the queen’s enemies seemed to wonderfully combine gain and godliness: “for we could not do God better service than to despoil the Spaniard both of life and goods”. The new friendship with their French Protestant co-religionists also served England well, with a transfer of expertise in map-making and navigation enhancing Elizabethan sea captains’ ability to venture confidently further out into the Atlantic. In the 1490s Pope Alexander VI, through the Treaty of Tordesillas, had presided over Spain and Portugal dividing up the “New World” between them. Now, in the reign of Elizabeth, England was beginning to challenge that hegemony while in London the wealthiest merchants initiated new monopolistic ventures, trading into Muscovy, Persia and central Asia.
Though England was a much wealthier and more powerful place in 1603 than it had been in 1485, the wealth did not percolate down to everyone. In the course of the sixteenth century, the gentry, and even the yeomanry, were to fare better than the older aristocracy: they were a safer bet politically, more likely to be loyal to the monarchy and bound to it increasingly by the windfall of property and wealth accruing from the dispossession of the church. Contemporary writers lamented the perceived decline of the great houses, with their traditions of hospitality. Aristocrats and the sons of aristocrats could be prone to depleting their estates with lavish spending, often funded by debt. Selling a little land, then a little more, putting things into the hands of skilful managers could be a tempting solution. Such a new man was Thomas Cromwell, a man who knew things, a man who could be helpful. As Hilary Mantel put it in Wolf Hall:
His legal practice is thriving, and he is able to lend money at interest, and arrange bigger loans, on the international market, taking a broker’s fee. The market is volatile – the news from Italy is never good two days together – but as some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened, he has an eye for risk. A number of noblemen are indebted to him, not just for arranging loans but for making their estates pay better. It is not a matter of exactions from tenants but, in the first place, giving the landowner an accurate survey of land values, crop yields, water supply, built assets, and then assessing the potential of all these; next, putting in bright people as estate managers, and with them setting up an account system that makes yearly sense, and can be audited.
But of course there were victims, as there always are with progress. The rural poor dislodged by agricultural improvements and efficient practices, and now surplus to requirements, took their chances in London or roamed the roads, where they often provoked the corrosive indignation that the sight of a “sturdy beggar” excites in the nostrils of the hardworking and the godly.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the bustling London of Queen Elizabeth’s reign was the sudden rage for live theatre performance and the springing up everywhere of new playhouses. The first was the Red Lion in Whitechapel, built in 1567, but more significant were the Theatre and its smaller associated house the Curtain, built together in Shoreditch in 1576 and 1577 for the impresario James Burbage. South of the river, the Rose on Bankside was built in 1587 by Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley and five years later it was extended to hold an audience of 2,400. The Swan in Southwark, erected in 1595, could hold 3,000. And in late 1598 members of the company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men dismantled the timbers of the Theatre, closed by a legal dispute, and reassembled them on Bankside. The new, open-air, theatre, which could accommodate up to 3,000 spectators, was the Globe. In 1599 a Swiss visitor saw and enjoyed a new play there, Julius Caesar, written by one of the investors in the theatre, the actor, playwright and businessman William Shakespeare.
Public theatre in England looked back to the traditions of the medieval mystery plays, which retold Bible stories, often with added touches of broad humour, and morality plays, whose conflicting characters personified the virtues and vices. Such work, steeped in Catholic theological assumptions, could no longer be performed after the Reformation but there was an attempt to didacticise in new versions of morality play in which the vices would now appear in the costumes of cardinals, friars or monks and frankly confess their deceptions, venality and general rascality to the audience, highly coloured sixteenth century versions of what we might now recognise as the pantomime villain. One noted author of such pieces was John Bale, who was patronised in his playwriting by Thomas Cromwell. Indeed three of Bale’s plays seem to have been performed by a cast of boys at the market cross in Kilkenny on the day of Queen Mary’s coronation. Patriotic books and plays promoting a Protestant and English nationalist reading of history were also encouraged by Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester.
But entry to the playhouses could be as cheap as a penny and demand was insatiable. Theatre companies might have to buy in as many as twenty new works in a year, as well as reviving old favourites: neither their subject matter nor style could be kept within narrow, approved channels for long: the public was going to get what the public wanted. As the Puritan clergyman Stephen Gosson, a former playwright himself who had turned against the stage, observed:
The argument of Tragedies is wrath, cruelty, incest, injury, murder either violent by sword, or voluntary by poison. The persons Gods, Goddesses, juries, friends, kings, queens, and mighty men. The ground work of comedies is love, cozenage [deceit], flattery, bawdry, sly conveyance of whoredom; the persons, cooks, knaves, bawds, parasites, courtesans, lecherous old men, amorous young men.
This is a very fair summary. No wonder theatre-going was so popular.
Shakespeare’s reputation is so high, and so undisputed, today that we might think this has always been the case. Certainly, he was both successful and highly esteemed in his own time, by his friend and rival Ben Jonson for example. But in succeeding generations he was often found to be wanting. John Dryden, though praising his “abundance”, found him both “untaught” and “unpractised” and with something “ill-bred and clownish” in his wit.
In the eighteenth century Germany’s Frederick the Great, a man of some learning and culture, found Shakespeare to be guilty of perpetrating “ridiculous farces worthy of the savages of Canada”. Frederick’s problem was that Shakespeare’s plays violated the rules, which were Greek in origin and were still observed by the classic French drama – Frederick spoke mostly French. “Here we have picklocks and gravediggers,” he wrote, “who speak just as they ought to. And then we have princes and queens. How could this bizarre mixture of baseness and grandeur, of buffoonery and tragedy, affect or please us?” The answer, one supposes, is simply that it does, not for Frederick perhaps but certainly for his slightly later-born contemporary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote that his feeling on first reading a complete Shakespeare play was like that of “a blind man given the gift of sight by some miraculous healing touch”.
The hybrid or mongrel nature of Shakespearean drama derives partly from its mixed origins, with elements of inherited theatrical practice and other popular forms of entertainment coalescing with a new tendency among the educated to look for models of virtue and eloquence in the classical tradition, as interpreted by Renaissance humanism. It was also a response to the market. Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was established under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth, who as lord chamberlain was responsible for court entertainments. Later it became the King’s Men, when its patron was James I himself. The court was one audience to cater for and the general, mixed-class, attendance at the public theatre another. We may guess that if the nobility hoped for some intellectual sustenance from the plays they were watching the commoners required action, repartee and a generous dose of horseplay. If some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries lived rackety, bohemian lives, earned little for their dramatic work and died young and in debt, he seems rather to have been both industrious and shrewd. Arriving in London from his native Stratford sometime in the late 1580s, he found work first as an actor, before going on to be script-doctor, house dramatist and part-owner of his company and its theatre. Like some others of his fellow shareholders, he became a wealthy man, and all in little more than fifteen years. He and his company – the leading actors being certainly as much of a draw as the author ‑ served up to their audience theatrical fare as they liked it, with Shakespeare of course adding a little more for posterity.
In the last decades of the sixteenth century Spain made three attempts to invade England, in 1588, 1596 and 1597. But the island fortress remained inviolate, untouched by “the hand of war”, though more thanks to the wind than the silver sea. The Protestant Reformation had left the country largely without allies, except perhaps the Dutch, who had enough on their own plates. One might then have expected the embattled island, “this little world”, to look in on itself, rejecting all influences and inheritances from abroad. But in fact English culture in the sixteenth century was far from insular.
In the early part of the century, before the transformation of its naval capacity, England would necessarily have been regarded as a relatively minor, peripheral power, less populous and fertile than France, less rich than Spain with its new colonies and the prosperous cities of the Netherlands, less sophisticated than Italy. Nevertheless, a visiting Italian in 1517 found among Henry VIII’s courtiers “very elegant manners, extreme decorum, and very great politeness”.
The Tudor monarchs themselves were an exceptionally well-educated group: Henry had been tutored by the poet John Skelton, Edward by the classical scholar John Cheke, Mary by the humanist friend of Erasmus Juan Luis Vives. Elizabeth I’s governess, Catherine (Kat) Ashley, taught her four languages as a child – French, Flemish, Italian and Spanish – and she didn’t stop there, adding on the classical languages in her teenage years and in later life gaining at least some acquaintance with Celtic and Gaelic tongues. Education in Latin was the basis of all schooling in sixteenth century England and William Shakespeare, a clever grammar school boy, would have had a thorough grounding in it. Ben Jonson may have famously said that his friend had “small Latin and less Greek”, but that is to be understood as meaning not so much Latin as the learned Jonson himself. Neither of the friends attended university, though several other of the prolific playwrights of the period did. The sixteenth century indeed saw a considerable expansion of university education, with the creation of nine new colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.
For writers, the classical authors – Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, and for the drama Plautus and Seneca – were models for emulation, whether in Latin or in a stylistically adorned vernacular. (Plays in Latin were still regularly performed in the universities.) Modern Italian also became an inspiration for vernacular writing. The author of a treatise on English poetry commended the sonneteers Wyatt and Surrey for having learned from the master: “their styles stately … their terms proper, their metre sweet and well proportioned, in all imitating very naturally and studiously their Master Francis Petrarcha”. Sir John Harington, one of Queen Elizabeth’s numerous godchildren, translated Ariosto’s somewhat racy epic Orlando Furioso and dedicated it to the queen.
And yet the tendency towards cultural Italophilia did not go unchallenged. The rather puritanical Roger Ascham, sometime classics tutor to Princess Elizabeth and author of the posthumously published The Scholemaster, thought that young English gentlemen would greatly benefit from reading Baldesar Castiglione’s celebrated manual of behaviour and manners The Book of the Courtier, but principally so that they might avoid actually visiting the place, bringing home with them a variety of evils, “filthiness of living”, “Papistry or worse” in religion, a factious heart, a “discoursing head” and “new mischiefs never known in England before”. Ben Jonson’s friend Thomas Coryat, who journeyed to Venice in 1608, walking much of the way, complained that no matter what destination you specified to the gondolier he always took you to a bordello. Jonson’s Volpone, first performed in 1606, had indeed featured a pair of Venetian confidence tricksters: among their marks are the English tourists the dim Sir Politic Would-Be and his gabbling wife, Lady Would-Be.
Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, Renaissance Italian was Niccolò Machiavelli, less well-known as a political thinker than as a cartoonish personification of amoral scheming and duplicity. The Prince was not translated into English until 1640 and the text was probably known only to a limited number of scholars who read it in Italian or Latin versions. What was much better known was a book by a French Protestant exile called Innocent Gentillet, published in Geneva in 1576 and widely translated, which became known as the Anti-Machiavel. Gentillet associated the Machiavellian doctrine with the French queen mother, Catherine de’ Medici, and her Italian advisers, whom he blamed for plotting the murders of St Bartholomew’s Day.
What we might call “the stage Machiavelli” was a popular device in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, though he was drawn not just from the Florentine but had an admixture of the vice figure of the morality play. He turns up, somewhat anachronistically, in the person of Richard of Gloucester in Henry VI, Part 3, where the duke threatens to “set the murderous Machiavel to school” in his plotting to win the crown. The Machiavellian can be – but does not have to be – Italian: Shakespearean examples include Iago in Othello, but also Richard III, Edmond the bastard, an ancient Briton, in King Lear and the Spanish Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. The evil characters of John Webster’s thrilling revenge tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, arguably go beyond Machiavellian calculation of advantage to something like pure derangement.
It has long been inevitable that Shakespeare should come to be the most often cited exemplar of English literary genius, in the same way that Cervantes is chosen to represent Spain, Dante Italy or Molière France. It remains rather curious, however, that he wrote so little about his own country or his own period. There are the history plays of course, but their action takes place in a relatively distant past, far removed from the England in which Shakespeare lived. There are the Roman (and Greek) plays, and a few set in ancient Britain, King Lear and Cymbeline, or medieval Scotland, Macbeth. Perhaps our best shot at a contemporary English play is The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has references to the early fifteenth century but in most other respects seems to reflect life in Shakespeare’s time. Then there are six plays that are set, or seem to be set, in Italy, all of them classified as comedies (Othello is also partially set in Italy).
But perhaps we need to think a little more about place in Shakespeare. In Act I, Scene 2 of Twelfth Night, Viola, who has just been shipwrecked, asks her fellow survivors “What country, friends, is this?”, receiving the reply “This is Illyria, lady.” So we are in Illyria, but where is that? Illyria was a territory which in Shakespeare’s time did not exist, but the name (Illyricum) had referred in the classical period to a substantial Roman province on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, extending from what is now northern Albania up to the Istrian peninsula. In the sixteenth century many of the coastal towns of what had once been Illyricum were Venetian possessions. And in Twelfth Night certainly many of the main characters have Italian-sounding names – Orsino, Olivia, Viola/Cesario, Malvolio, Antonio, Feste. But why is Olivia’s bibulous uncle called Sir Toby Belch, and his addlepated companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek? Why, for that matter, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, set in Navarre on the borders of France and Spain, is the local constable one Anthony Dull? What is the country yokel William and his goatherd sweetheart Audrey doing in the forest of Arden (that is Ardennes) in As You Like It? Or how, in the Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, did Peter Quince, Nick Bottom, Francis Flute and Tom Snout get to be asked to perform for Duke Theseus and Queen Hyppolyta? What country, friends, is this?
There are a number of possible responses to that question. It would seem that Shakespeare was not always too fussy about small details. Just as Gloucester invokes the spirit of Machiavelli almost a century before his birth, or pre-Christian characters utter Christian prayers, so also people turn up in Illyria or Verona or Messina who might seem to have more business in Westminster or Warwickshire. Anachronism is thus joined by its geographic counterpart, anatopism. This brings us back perhaps to the hybrid nature of Elizabethan drama and the necessity to keep all of the audience entertained. Shakespeare’s company’s regular comic actors – Will Kempe and later Robert Armin – seem to have been great favourites. Their comic irruptions into more serious matter were no doubt looked forward to and it has long been a theatrical tradition for clowns, and even more so buffoons, to perform in the accents of the yokel.
We might add that the Italy of the comedies is not exactly the Italy of the atlas. Shakespearean theatre tended to use minimal scenery and there is not much by way of “local colour” in the text. We may have references to the Rialto in The Merchant of Venice, but really, for most purposes Messina might as well be Verona and either could be Navarre. What is on offer here – in spite of the large cast of Alonsos, Antonios, Bassanios, Benedicks, Benvolios, Claudios, Beatrices, Olivias, Portias and Nerissas – is not the Italian experience but a rather different kind of country. Stephen Gosson almost had it nailed, though his terms were somewhat sour. It is the place where love is the reigning deity – and lust not far behind ‑ where though envy may try to thwart it with deceits, lovers’ stratagems also have power. It is somewhere where fools are likely to be taken advantage of, where the pompous will be humiliated, a place where wit can sometimes weigh more than virtue. It is a world in which women hold their own, and more – Beatrice, Rosalind and Portia are perhaps the real stars of the dramas in which they feature, achieving their ends and overcoming adversity through shrewdness and eloquence, backed up by the female solidarity of their cousins or servants, Hero, Celia and Nerissa. And it is a place where in the end love will conquer all obstacles, including those placed by oneself, for as Benedick in Much Ado soon comes to realise, throwing off his airy misogyny, “the world must be peopled!” It is, quite plainly, the eternal makebelieve world of romantic comedy, the same one inhabited two centuries later by Jane Austen’s ladies and gentlemen – whose conversation, admittedly, was less saucy.
Shakespeare’s apparent weakness for Italy, and the quite positive portrayals of friars that occur in two of the Italian plays, Much Ado and Romeo and Juliet, are among the factors that have led some to pose the question “Was Shakespeare a Catholic?” Certain phrases in his work which might suggest a hankering after the old religion have been fastened upon. Do the words of Sonnet LXIII – “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” – refer not just to the boughs of a tree in winter but also to the ruined monasteries, no longer resounding to the sung devotions of the monks? The simple answer to this question is that we have no sure way of knowing. But perhaps there is a little more that can usefully be said. It is probably a foolish enterprise to seek to discover Shakespeare’s “opinions”, political, philosophical or religious, from his texts. The striking peculiarity of his mind, wrote the critic William Hazlitt, was “its power of communication with all other minds”, a faculty he had himself expressed in Sonnet 111: “my nature is subdu’d / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand”. In other words, the ideas and attitudes that we find expressed in his plays are not those of William Shakespeare but rather of Lear, Hamlet, Shylock or Cleopatra. He had such powers of imaginative sympathy, or empathy, that we should be wary of judging that anything in these works is actually him. Indeed somewhere or other we will find most ideas expressed, and elsewhere their opposites. Having said that, we can perhaps speculate on the basis of what is not to be found anywhere in the plays – a cogent expression of advanced anti-Papist views or a sympathetic portrayal of a Puritan – that Shakespeare is unlikely to have been “a hot Protestant”. Perhaps, as one perceptive critic has suggested, he was circumspect in these matters, reticent, even genially open to the possible validity of a variety of views.
The sharpness of tone of religious controversy and the periodic viciousness of religious persecution should not blind us to the accommodations with authority that many men and women were able and willing to make in Elizabethan England. We have mentioned those who outwardly conformed, the “Church Papists”, while maintaining a mental reservation. There is also a good deal of evidence of a related phenomenon, the clergyman who gave in after a period of resistance, implementing the changes of the Protestant settlement but remaining nostalgic for the forms and practices of the old religion. And in spite of everything it was possible to remain a Catholic in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: members of Shakespeare’s mother’s family, the Ardens, were Catholics; his friend Ben Jonson was converted to Catholicism while in prison; the two leading musical composers of the era, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, were Catholics and still continued to be patronised by the queen; the poet John Donne, whose uncle was a Jesuit and whose brother had died in prison for his faith, after much hesitation became a Protestant cleric but ended up, as dean of St Paul’s, having to provide a home for his stubbornly Catholic – and stubbornly longlived ‑ mother. Even King James had his problems: his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, converted, at least for a period, to Catholicism, though the couple kept separate establishments.
If we cannot with any confidence make Shakespeare a closet Catholic, might we recruit him as “a European”? Well no and yes. No because of the sheer anachronistic craziness of seeming to pose the question “how would Shakespeare have voted?” And yet yes, because while he lived in a period when England was changing, his cultural terms of reference seem to have been still deeply and unquestioningly European (as well as unquestioningly English). Educated through Latin and drilled in the rhetoric and ideas on civic virtue of the classical Roman authors, Shakespeare turned, when writing comedies – he mostly borrowed his plots ‑ to European sources and scenes just as easily and naturally as did Geoffrey Chaucer two hundred years previously. Europe, like the religious inheritance from which Shakespeare drew much of his imagery, was not something one necessarily had to be for or against; it was something that was just there, there for the taking. It was, however, a resource that was not going to be permanently on tap. The fizz and sparkle of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama also relied on its successful marshalling of the twin inputs of classical rhetoric and lively demotic speech, reflected in its appeal to both court and commonalty. In 1642 the Puritans finally succeeded in closing down the theatres – these “sinful, heathenish, lewd, ungodly spectacles”. When they reopened after 1660 in the reign of Charles II it was to provide a home for “Restoration comedy”, a minority ‑ and minor – drama form in which a privileged audience took pleasure in the observation of what it regarded as its own sophistication. The people had gone.
And so too, for the most part, had the enchanted European world, the world of the Antonios and Bianchas, Valentines and Violas, kings of Naples, princes of Aragon, dukes of Milan and Illyria, friars Francis and Laurence. When English literary genius reasserted itself again – and it did, frequently – it tended to operate inside a narrower framework. For Fielding, Austen, Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities apart) the little world of the pleasant English shires or the teeming and dangerous metropolis is world enough. Had the ghost of Shakespeare – a man of whom we have no evidence that he ever physically journeyed to “the Continent” – returned a few decades after his death to that extremity of England where he situated the concluding scenes of his greatest tragedy, had he walked on the beach at Dover and peered out to sea, might he even then have heard the beginnings of the long, withdrawing roar as England began the slow process of turning away from its European cultural heritage?
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.
Note on sources
My long-dormant engagement with Shakespeare was reawakened (to a degree) a few years ago through reading the sparkling explorations of James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010) and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015). In preparing the above essay I have also benefited from reading Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare (1997) and particularly his Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of Shakespeare (2008). I have gleaned historical background from the relevant sections of David Scott’s incisive Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power (2013) and Mark Greengrass’s fascinating, detailed and erudite Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648 (2014). I also found useful John Guy’s short Penguin biography of Henry VIII (2014) and Helen Castor’s of Elizabeth I (2018). Most historians of the English Reformation now seem to largely accept the insights, over several books, of Eamon Duffy – principally that the English Catholic church was in rude good health at the beginning of the sixteenth century and that the destruction of its traditional devotional practices was largely unwelcome to most of the people. On the fascinating, but ultimately elusive, matter of Shakespeare’s personal religious views I have found David Scott Kastan’s careful probing of the question, A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion (2014), persuasive and wise.
Images: a) Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger: trust no one; b) Queen Elizabeth: there’s an armada at the window – while with her right hand the queen seems to be fingering the New World; c) The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois, with the figure of Catherine de’ Medici just about discernible in the left background examining a pile of corpses; d) the comic actor Will Kempe, who was a huge draw for the Chamberlain’s Men.