History owns Many Meanings

These few pages are devoted to the study of history; to the problems of historical interpretation and to historical method and analysis.

History is usually presented to readers as fact leavened by rigorous scientific method into a single valid interpretation. Historians often acknowledge that the same evidence may lead to different conclusions but as often only when the force of another’s argument forces them to resile from the position stated in their original interpretation of events. Truisms are often dismissed with a scholarly shrug.  And clichés are as contemptible to scholars as the Anglo-Saxon conjugative imperative – my mother knew euphemistically as the ‘f”  word  – is contemptible to polite society. However, truth told, the business of history is as much the business of rhetorical debate as it it one of cold facts and disinterested analysis. Michael Gove’s glib suggestion that the history curriculum should be one focused upon British heroes and heroines provides us with a chilling reminder of our blindness to the partiality of our historical narrative. Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln might have been made to deliberately to illustrate this point.

Thus, even at the risk of restating the blindingly obvious, it is worth remembering that History is written by the winners. It is a simple fact that shapes our understanding the past.  It was so when Homer wrote the Iliad; it was so when Virgil wrote the Aeneid; and it was so when Burnett, Macaulay, Froude, Trevelyan, Pollard and Fisher and Elton crafted their great narrative histories. And Churchill’s popular, deterministic,  linear History of the English Speaking Peoples is over-run with hindsight’s predictive triumphalism.

The most casual review of the most watched television historical adaptions demonstrates popular history is rich veined with common prejudices. Steeped in a mixture of myths and legends; dyed by their common prejudices; the common history best known to the common man is indeed a heady brew. As digging over the bones of King Richard III reminds us, Sir Thomas More’s propagandist stabs at history perfectly demonstrate how an incredible but well crafted concoctions are often more credible than solemn rehearsal of sober facts. Indeed, it is said dull facts make a dull read.

Yet, there is little dull about the bare facts of the Tudor age.  But that has not prevented them being subject to the most partisan manipulations. And of all subject matter within that singular period this is truest of the history of religion where truth might be thought to be at a philosophical as well as historical premium. Not that both the political history of the Tudors and the history of the English Reformation have not been most frequently subject to rigorous historical reassessment by generation after generation of scholars.  If debates about interpretation have not reached the general ear it cannot be said to be the fault of quiet scholarship. Historians have shouted over the best and worst of academic times. Noisy public alarums and bloodier public bloody battles that have long characterised the wars of interpretation waged across the generations. Even the august portals of the Institute of Historical Research and most particularly its Tudor Seminar have witnessed some of these deadly skirmishes –  as I can vouch – from direct experience.  And one thing that may be said certainly of  Tudor historians – they never fear to voice an opinion nor to take a side in a debate. And some of the profession’s giants have fought each other – hand to page – hyperbole to metaphor – often to a standstill.

The lists of Tudor historians include Pollard, Neale, and but also Bindoff, Hurstfield, Williams, Scarisbrick, Ives and Jennifer Loach, John Guy. And few would deny David Starkey his place – least of all David himself. And there are lesser known names of historians who deserve mention, like, Outram Evennett, Alasdair Hawkyard. Glenn Richardson and Elizabeth Russell.  In the religious history the tradition has been no less rich – A.G Dickens followed Philip Hughes and David Knowles in Reformation studies; then David Loades;  more recently Diarmaid MacCullogh, Claire Cross, Emanon Duffy and George.W. Bernard are names that immediately and deservedly come to mind.

As a student of Christopher Challis at the University of Leeds in the early 1970s, whose special subject on the Edward VI’s reign fired my imagination, I would naturally also include wish to include W.K Jordan, Dale Hoake, Christopher Skidmore and Stephen Alford for their work on Edwardine England. This list is far from complete – there are too many scholars to acknowledge and too many ungraced by mention yet still too quickly lost to the historical profession.

All of this more recent scholarship (and also the ecumenical fashion of this time) has made the historical narrative superficially less prone to confessional prejudices and over the last two generation much has been written to ameliorate, modify, enlighten, enliven and alter scholarly perceptions even if it has yet failed to rewrite the popular History in its own reasoning image. Although such simplistic ideas as protestant good; catholic bad; or vice versa may today seem fanciful not so long ago the bloody story of early modern Europe made them appear otherwise. Events evidenced these simple truths. History, following the intellectual fashion,  took its cue from that common perception.

Yet these older ideas retain their traction. The reasons for this are themselves complex; much bound up in the political, social and cultural imaginings of England as special; and of its people(s) as especially fortunate or, perhaps, divinely chosen. That idea resonated into later times and other societies. It can be found again in the ideal of the American Dream with its own urgent sense of Manifest Destiny. It might be summed-up in a notion of an elect or of ‘God’s chosen people’ , both ideas, for better or ill, borrowed from the texts of the Old Testament. For those books which were compiled as books of law and a mythic histories of the Jews; written themselves in an historical retrospect; stories more kin to Homer’s Iliad than to modern history; books whose meanings were lost in multiple and many cultural translations and were translated anew in the sixteenth century and then rediscovered they informed much of what we we call the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

The accidents of history defined the substance of how England perceived events in retrospect. Take for example the Book of Common Prayer which traditionalist Anglicans revere. It was written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549;  only to be rewritten by him in 1552; it was the by-product of two religious reformations; by 1558-59 it was also the by-product of a further political upheaval. Two generations on , after the downs of Puritanism and the ups of a Laudian restoration the prayer book became associated with the political Restoration of monarchy in 1660. In that version the feast of king Charles the Martyr was promoted.  All these events and this single text were then (and perhaps still are) re-perceived through the retrospective spy-glass of England a century on from the Glorious Revolution. Nineteenth century historians, flushed with the certainties of Empire, chose to dignify this uncertain historical pedigree with the unhistorical inevitability conveyed by the term – Elizabethan Settlement. A cursory examination of the facts demonstrates that the so called Elizabethan Settlement was never more than a grandiloquent phrase carved from hindsight.

Elizabeth I settled nothing very much: an inconvenient fact which unsettled James I; Charles I; Oliver Cromwell; Charles II; James II; William III & Mary II; Queen Anne; the early Hanoverian kings;  and, the young and old Pretenders. After George III and Waterloo it was plausible to see all this as an inevitable progress of events to a glorious end but in reality, however persuasively presented,  this was myth-making of the same character as the Greeks and Romans devised.

That does not diminish its importance to history or historians. It is also subject deserving of a detailed scholarly commentary in its own right. But it is not the stuff from which scholarly history is constructed.But the fact remains that our perception of the Tudor age remains shaped by the English in their later nineteenth century Imperial pomp. Like the Romans before them and the Americans and Russians since, this history was the product of eliding convenient facts with wishful thinking.

Facts which did not fit the elaborate fiction were excluded from serious consideration. This resulted in a narrative that still retains more than elements of the fairy tales beloved of Anderson and Grimm – a story with its wicked witch, Bloody Mary, and its good fairy, Good Queen Bess. Without any irony, the noble language of James Arthur Froude and others transmuted the fools’ gold of a myth into the leaden prose of historical narrative. It is no accident of history that when today the popular press and its commentariat speak of kings and queens; princes and princesses; jubilees; pageants and the royal family, they still employ language of the fairy tale and endings which justly require them all living happily ever after.



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