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Response to Review no. 396

Tudor historians are justly wary of their medievalist colleagues. Just when we think we have identified a new trend, a medievalist emerges from behind the arras to put us right. Dr Fleming is surely correct to point out that prayers for the royal family were said in chantries and fraternities during the later middle ages. These were addressed too fleetingly in my book; although I would maintain that the printing press, and the control of the provincial pulpit established by the Tudors, did turn such prayers into a new tool of statecraft. Dr Fleming questions my argument that a recognisably national patriotic culture emerged under the Tudors, citing Agincourt and Calais as fifteenth-century precedents for national rejoicing. To be fair, these examples are discussed in my book: the humanist scholar Richard Morison urged Henry VIII to turn ‘Agincourt day’ into an anti-papal triumph, but the King took no notice.(p. 31) I also mention the jingoistic prayers and sermons commissioned by Henry V – in 1421, prayer was likened to the oars that propelled the ship of state (p. 216) – and I devote a whole section to the propaganda implications of the cult of Henry VI.

We are agreed that patriotic culture did not suddenly emerge in the sixteenth century. But patriotism under the Tudors was different from what had gone before, even if it did owe a debt to history. The loss of France, and the break from Rome, combined to forge a new and more insular English identity. In order to minimise dissent, the Reformation had to be explained, and a new theory of kingship laid out and defended. Political historians of the fifteenth century have written effectively about the manuscript propaganda of Lancaster and York, but the Tudors could call on new resources and technology. By the time of the Spanish Armada, providence was also stalking the national stage: to be English was to belong to a new Israel. National identity was exhorted in official sermons and prayers, but had its echo in other media: maps, portraits and plays – think of England as a character in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’ or ‘Henry V’. The relationship between individual and nation was still described in terms of the feudal allegiance of a subject to a sovereign, but under the surface something had changed. Early Tudor humanists wrote about the ‘commonwealth’; Sir Francis Walsingham, the focus of my current research, spoke of monarch and ‘state’ as distinct entities.

How can one measure the impact of Tudor royal propaganda below the level of the élite? There is so little direct evidence. I had to be satisfied with describing the methods by which the royal image was transmitted to provincial England (neglected by most art historians), coupled with such forays into popular culture as legitimately could be made. Hence I wrote about the Tudor roses and royal arms that were worked into the fabric of rural churches, and how churchwardens accepted and internalised the elevated vocabulary of kingship promoted by the Tudors. Dr Fleming observes that these symbols and responses may reflect ‘pragmatic survival strategies’ rather than truly popular enthusiasm for the monarchy, and his point is well made. But does this distinction really matter that much? Writing about the Dartmoor parish of Morebath, Eamon Duffy has drawn attention to the role of its parish priest in guiding his flock through the turbulence of the Reformation.(1) Christopher Trychay shared with his congregation a love for the traditional liturgy; to see it despoiled and derided must have been shattering. Yet Trychay wrote ‘God save our king’ in the very accounts that recorded the destruction of Edward VI’s reign. If clergy and churchwardens accepted the new church order, popular resistance became far less likely. As the Book of Common Prayer itself became the ‘traditional’ liturgy, the antiphonal rhythms of its prayers for the monarchy became a permanent fixture of parish culture.

I am particularly grateful for Dr Fleming’s kind words about my account of Beunans Meriasek, the Cornish play that pits the Breton ascetic Meriasek against the tyrannical King Teudar. Dr Oliver Padel has recently alerted me to the discovery of another early sixteenth-century saint’s play in Cornish, the Life of St Ke. Intriguingly, this play also features Teudar as a persecuting pagan, reinforcing my point that he was an ancient figure within local legend rather than a parody of Henry VII. The Life of St Ke is proof of the vitality of the Cornish language at Glasney College on the south coast well into the Tudor period. Eastern Cornwall, however, had a different linguistic identity. Dr Padel’s research on place- and field-names indicates that as long ago as the 1327 lay subsidy, no Cornish was spoken east of Bodmin; and in central Cornwall it survived in pockets, with much English spoken around it. My book has attracted criticism from the Institute of Cornish Studies, a militant advocate for the essential separateness of Cornish history and identity, and so I take heart from Dr Padel’s painstaking scholarship. My impatience with any depiction of the Tudor Cornish as one race or nation remains undiluted.

I would like to thank Dr Fleming for reading my first book with care, and judging it with balance. The design of the dust jacket was entirely within the domain of Oxford University Press. Modern titles in the Historical Monographs series now have James Murray’s 1880 report on his English Dictionary on their jackets, whereas mine has Robert Flemmyng’s elegant fifteenth-century script. Readers familiar with the series will remember the striking blue jackets of the past, and will have their own opinions about the new version. I rather like it.


1. [Editorial note] For a review of this book on these pages, please click here.