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Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Thomas Elyot and Henry VIII

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 post, we will be focusing on a single English thinker, writing under Henry VIII, a little-studied scholar named Thomas Elyot. In the tumultuous early 1530s, no thinker reflected more prolifically on the notions of counsel, bringing together the themes building through the classical, medieval and Renaissance periods, with a focus on tyranny, timing and freedom of speech.  
In just three years, Thomas Elyot produced four works on political counsel. In that short time, as well, there was a fundamental shift in his thinking, linked largely to changes in his personal and political context. 
As a young man, Thomas Elyot had joined the circle around Thomas More, and followed him into service to the king. He, however, lost his position in the wake of the fall of the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, and was forced to work his way back into favour. The answer was The Book Named the Governor, published in 1531. The text is both an advice-book and a resume, outlining “the education of them that hereafter may be deemed worthy to be governors of the public weal.” 
Outwardly, it’s a very conservative book, especially compared to those of contemporary writers such as More and Starkey. Whereas they hinted at dismantling social hierarchies (or at least restructuring them), Elyot in The Governor firmly reinforces them. He is realistic, however, about the limitations of a single man being able to govern a whole realm, and so shifts his focus to the “inferior governors” who operate beneath him, exercising authority on his behalf, as well as offering their advice to him. Though meritocratic, it is thoroughly inegalitarian, and Elyot outright rejects the rule of the multitude, “which might well be called a monster with many heads.” 
Elyot’s account of counsel-giving in this text is also very traditional. Drawing on Aristotle, he associates it with the virtue of prudence and the rule of reason. A ruler who is ruled by his reason, expressed through wise, well-educated counsellors, will avoid tyranny and benefit his realm. 
So far, so typical. It all changed for Elyot, however, when he at last earned himself a new royal posting – as ambassador to Spain. The problem was, his job was to bring Charles V around on the question of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Charles’s aunt. This did not go well, probably because Elyot fundamentally disagreed with Henry’s desire to rid himself of his first wife, and he was replaced with the man who would end up authorising that divorce, Thomas Cranmer. Elyot returned out of money and favour, and bitterly disappointed with his king. 
Despite being separated from The Boke of the Governour by only two years, the texts Elyot produced in 1533 evidence a very different tone and perspective on counsel: Pasquil the Plain, Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man, and The Doctrinal of Princes. The first two are dialogues, the final is a translation of a work by the classical writer Isocrates. Although Elyot is reproducing a classical text into English, his translation choices demonstrate the arguments he wishes to make in the text. In particular, he emphasises the importance of that idea of right-timing endorsed by Starkey – kairos – which he links to the virtue of the counsellor: prudence. 
It is in Elyot’s two dialogues of 1533, however, that he fully pulls out these themes, and the conflicts involved in them. The titular character of Pasquil the Plain is an unapologetic frank-speaker, whose liberty of speech has got him removed from the king’s presence (a parallel perhaps of the author’s situation). His interlocutors are Gnatho – an unabashed flatterer – and Harpocrates, who favours silence. 
Their debate centres on the interpretation of the idea of kairos in counsel. Is it, as Gnatho would argue, holding your tongue when you know the advice will not be pleasantly received? Or perhaps it is as Harpocrates suggests, only speaking when it is absolutely necessary, when the harm is imminent? Or, is it, as Pasquil holds, taking advantage of the moment when you know the advice will do the most good? The first two are the strategies of men seeking advancement, the last is that of one who seeks truth. Unfortunately, Pasquil is not welcome in the council of a king who has already been seduced by such flatterers, perhaps recalling that Senecan debate explored by Erasmus and More. Whereas the Elyot of 1531 presented a clear set of answers, the Elyot of 1533 cannot resolve the debate. 
A similar question is explored in Of the Knowledge, in which the principal speaker is Plato himself. Plato, like Pasquil, has been cast out for speaking truth to power (to the tyrant Dionysius, perhaps a stand-in for Henry VIII) and he, too, debates with a flatterer-figure, Aristippus, who questions whether it was the right choice to speak in such a free way. Plato, in contrast, is in a much worse state than Pasquil, having been sold as a slave for angering the tyrant. 
Elyot, however, makes a much bolder argument in Of the Knowledge than he had in Pasquil. Plato, though in an apparent state of unfreedom as a slave, is in fact freer than the king who had him enslaved, through the act of delivering his free speech. It all goes back to the rule of reason, which Elyot had laid out in his Governor. Being ruled by reason is in fact freedom, we can make choices and pursue our greatest good, instead of being enslaved by our passions. This is precisely the advice that Plato had offered the tyrant, who had rejected it, preferring to be at the whims of his basest appetites. Plato, on the other hand, had fulfilled his duty as a philosopher by offering his advice and had not been constrained by the fear of the tyrant’s arbitrary will. Plato is freed by the act of delivering his free speech without fear, despite his physical slavery. 
For Elyot, free speech is not speech without negative consequence, but speech delivered without regard for that consequence, and regard only for truth. 
In the course of these texts, as well, Elyot intervenes on the larger conflict between counsel and command. Command is not restrained by wise counsel – even if it is obligatory – but rather freed by it, because it epitomises the rule of reason over the passions. As Elyot was writing, however, a manuscript text by an Italian writer was already being circulated in England, which took a very different approach…. 
Primary SourcesThomas Elyot, Of the Knowledge Whiche Maketh a Wise Man (London, 1533).
Pasquil the Playne (London, 1533).
The Doctrinall of Princes (London, 1534).
The Book Named The Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (New York: Dent, 1962).

Robert Sullivan and Arthur E. Walzer, eds., Thomas Elyot: Critical Editions of Four Works on Counsel (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018).

Secondary Sources

F.W. Conrad, ‘The Problem of Counsel Reconsidered: The Case of Sir Thomas Elyot’, in Political Thought and the Tudor Commonwealth: Deep Structure, Discourse and Disguise, ed. Paul Fideler and Thomas Mayer (London: Routledge, 2003), 77–110.

Pearl Hogrefe, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Elyot, Englishman (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1967).

Stanford E. Lehmberg, Sir Thomas Elyot, Tudor Humanist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1960).

Arthur E. Walzer, ‘Rhetoric of Counsel in Thomas Elyot’s Pasquil the Playne’, Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 30, no. 1 (2012): 1–21.
‘The Rhetoric of Counsel and Thomas Elyot’s Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man’, Philosophy and Rhetoric 45, no. 1 (2012): 24–45.