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Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Early Tudor England
The period between the Wars of the Roses and the England Civil War has been referred to by scholars as the ‘monarchy of counsel’: an era where advice and advisers were at the centre of political discourse. As concepts of ‘counsel’ (political advice-giving) and ‘command’ (sovereign authority) developed and came into conflict, writers also touched on issues of free speech, political prudence and reason of state. This blog series explores these topics and the essential changes to ideas of politics that came about, drawing on material from Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Dr Joanne Paul.
In this instalment, we explore some of the best-known and influential writers of the reign of Henry VIII, painting a picture of the ‘humanist’ counsellor, with its emphasis on opportunity, rhetoric and morality.
Counsel had long been essential to English notions of kingship. Advice or “raed” was baked into the very names of England’s early medieval kings: Alfred the Great’s name, for instance, “Aelf-raed”, means “elf’s counsel” and the famously ineffective Aethelred the Unready’s name and epithet form a pun: “well advised the poorly advised”. This reached somewhat of a head at the turn of the fifteenth century, when Richard II was overthrown for, among other things, choosing his advisers poorly, resulting in the proliferation of political texts which reemphasised the importance of advice to monarchs. “Counsel may well be likened to a bridle,” one produced not long after suggested, “Which that an horse keepeth up from falling” (Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes).
This medieval tradition combined with the classical tradition (examined in the last post) in Renaissance England. The citizen-orator, whom writers such as Cicero saw as protecting the republic from tyranny, transformed into the royal counsellor, who remained a manifestation of republican ideals, even in a monarchical context. This exacerbated tensions between counsel and command, especially given the rhetorical powers given to the counsellor by humanist writers, and the role played by living counsellors, such as Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, in guiding the policy of Henry VIII.
Despite never really believing in the efficacy of counsel, and being not at all English, we must start with Erasmus. Erasmus revived many of the classical ideas and ideals of the philosopher-orator, though he frequently attributed them not to the prince’s adviser, but his tutor. “Where there is no power to select the prince,” as in a republic, Erasmus writes “the man who is to educate the future prince must be selected with all comparable care.”
Erasmus imbues his influential humanist tutor with enormous power and responsibility. The ruler who does not listen to such a figure is a tyrant, ruled not by reason (expressed in the tutor’s advice) but his own passions and will. As such, such a figure ought to be given the strongest weapon possible: rhetoric. The prince must be “led”, whether by honeyed words, humour or – even – deception.
The difference between the counsellor and the tutor was brought out in two letters by the classical writer Seneca, which Erasmus translated and drew upon. In the first (letter 95), Seneca argued that, although the precepts of advice-giving cannot “rout our false opinions”, they are still useful. In the other (letter 96), he suggested that “to root out a deep-seated belief in wrong ideas” something stronger, more philosophical and institutional is first required: the tutor. Erasmus was deeply pessimistic about the ability for those who inhabit the courts of Europe to give good, moral, rational advice, as they were far too self-interested. Drawing directly on Plutarch, he argued that they were more likely to be flatterers than good counsellors.
Erasmus’s friend and intellectual collaborator, Thomas More, agreed with much of what Erasmus had to say, but disagreed on his position on which of the two Senecan letters had the right of it. In Book I of his Utopia, first published in 1516, More generates a debate between an Erasmian/Platonic character, named Hythloday, and a Ciceronian (though not necessarily Morean) character, named for the author: More (or Morus, to save confusion). Hythloday, despite his education and experience, is reluctant to enter the service (or, as he calls it, servitude) of a prince, for fear of losing his liberty and becoming morally corrupted. Morus, on the other hand, argues that Hythloday owes a duty to the commonwealth, which could be fulfilled as an adviser to a prince. His image of the counsellor, drawn from Plutarch as well as Cicero, leads his prince by his persuasive speech to reason and virtue for the benefit of all.
Hythloday objects, in line with Seneca’s 96th letter, that his advice would be useless where the seeds of virtue had not been planted, and he could not uproot the vice which had taken root. Morus, on the other hand, echoes Seneca’s 95th letter, and suggests that Hythloday do his best anyway. In fact, the entire description of the idealistic island of Utopia can be read as a meditation on these very themes. Is it worth trying to aim for ‘as good as possible’ acknowledging that the best (a republic: Utopia) is unachievable? More leaves the answer to this question open-ended in Utopia, though his life – as a councillor to Henry VIII – suggests he thought it was worth a try, at least up until a point.
More’s younger contemporary, the scholar Thomas Starkey, continued this debate from Utopia in his Dialogue of Pole and Lupset, written in the early 1530s, at the height of debates over Henry’s Break with Rome. The character of Lupset appeals to Pole in much the same way that Morus had to Hythloday, trying to convince him to give his advice to the prince. Starkey, however, resolves this debate, and quickly; it is right to give your advice, if the time and place is meet for it. So, what are these right circumstances? Pole repeats many of the arguments Hythloday had made about moral corruption and advice “falling on deaf ears”. Again, Starkey resolves this question. Those who “too narrowly” fixate on time and place “spend their life” looking for “Plato’s common weal” and waste the opportunities they do have to make a difference.
And ‘opportunity’ is the key word. Drawing on the classical idea of kairos or the ‘right moment’, Starkey argues that would-be counsellors ought to “let not occasion slip” to give their advice, no matter how dangerous. This leads into a discussion of how to embed counsel more effectively into the English political system; an ideal governmental structure whereby the king is institutionally ruled by his councillors. This theorising, however, takes Pole and Lupset off track, and Pole decides to “tarry his time” until Henry VIII calls him to give his counsel, seemingly missing the point about all that talk of opportunity, too focused on the achievement of the (rather republican) ideal.
Starkey was still making changes to his text in 1535, when Utopia’s author was executed for treason by king who was looking increasingly like a self-interested, “unraedy" monarch. These questions of how and when to give counsel were no longer theoretical, but deeply practical, and urgent.
Part 3 of this series will look at one of the most prolific Tudor writers on the discourse of counsel: Thomas Elyot. For more, see Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Dr Joanne Paul.
Primary SourcesErasmus, In Praise of Folly
The Education of a Christian Prince, trans. Lisa Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Thomas Hoccleve, Thomas Hoccleve: The Regiment of Princes, ed. C. Blyth (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999).
Thomas More, Utopia
Thomas Starkey, A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, ed. Thomas F. Mayer (London: Royal Historical Society, 1989).
Judith Ferster, Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).
J. H. Hexter, More’s Utopia: The Biography of an Idea (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).
Thomas F. Mayer, Thomas Starkey and the Commonwealth: Humanist Politics and Religion in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Joanne Paul, Thomas More (Cambridge: Polity, 2016).
‘The Use of Kairos in Renaissance Political Philosophy’, Renaissance Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2014): 43–78.
Nicholas Perkins, Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes: Counsel and Constraint (Boydell & Brewer, 2001).