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Quarrel with the King by Adam Nicolson

Posted By Ed Voves On January 11, 2009 @ 11:46 am In Great Britain,History,Non-Fiction Reviews | 1 Comment

Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War
by Adam Nicolson
Harper, 320 pp.
CLR Rating:

England’s Arcadia

There never was a Camelot. The fortress of the historical King Arthur, if there was such a figure in the late 5th century, was no storybook citadel. A crumbling Roman villa, shielded by a wooden palisade, was the best that the Dark Ages could offer.

The image of a golden age, however, is what inspires the human imagination. For a long, shining moment, from the reign of Henry VIII to the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, a dynasty of English aristocrats created a realm where myth seemed translated into reality. The vast estates of the Earls of Pembroke in Wiltshire, ten miles to the south of Stonehenge, became a new Arcadia. Renaissance culture mingled with rustic simplicity. A noble country house, Wilton, presided over some of England’s most fertile farm land and the breathtaking beauty of the rolling Downs. It was, or appeared to be, a heaven on earth.

The story of the Earls of Pembroke traces the rise and eclipse of the “custom of the manor,” the linking fortunes and mutual obligations of nobility and common folk in early modern England. Recounted with moving conviction by Adam Nicolson, this is no exercise in nostalgia but rather an analysis of a communal lifestyle vastly different to the 21st century’s obsession with private space and freedom of choice.

Nicolson is uniquely qualified to chronicle the lives of the lords and yeoman farmers of this Wiltshire Arcadia. He is an accomplished historian, whose works include a brilliant account of the writing of the King James Bible, God’s Secretaries, and a study of Lord Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar. He is an English aristocrat himself, a “pluck and luck” gentleman adventurer who enriched the family birthright with new laurels of achievement. In his case, he sailed a small, 47-foot, wooden boat, The Auk, on an epic 1500-mile voyage up the Atlantic coast of Great Britain from Lands End in Cornwall to the storm-battered Scottish isles of the Hebrides and finally to the distant Faeroes, the Danish islands visited by the legendary St. Brendan and settled by the Vikings. Nicolson’s quest, part travel-memoir, part voyage of self-discovery is recounted in his book, Seamanship.

Nicolson traces the beginning of his fascination with the Earls of Pembroke to another journey, this time on dry land, a hiking trip through Wiltshire. He followed the course of a beautiful stream called the Nadder which led him past the gardens of Wilton House.

Nicolson relates how he decided on a whim to take a guided tour of the baroque 17th century palace. There, on the wall of Wilton’s “Roome of State,” he came face to face with Anthony Van Dyke’s group portrait of the Fourth Earl of Pembroke and his family. This mighty work of art, painted in the mid 1630′s, records the culmination of a great age of human culture hovering on the brink of its demise. Just as Matthew Brady’s photographs of American Civil War soldiers, soon to fall in battle, record the passing of Jeffersonian individualism in the United States, so does Van Dyke’s portrait record the last days of England’s Arcadia. It is a portrait of the doomed.

Judging by the gilded, sumptuous furnishings of the “Roome of State,” one might be forgiven for assuming that the downfall of the Earls of Pembroke resulted from a revolt of downtrodden tenant farmers, reduced to vassalage to fund the extravagant lifestyle of their noble lordships. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Philip Herbert, Fourth Earl of Pembroke, was the scion of a family who had made a career of courting Royal patronage, while quietly nursing a long grudge against the growing power of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. When King Charles I and Parliament clashed in open warfare in 1642, the Earl of Pembroke sided with the rebels. It was an act of the rankest ingratitude, but it had a long pedigree stretching back to the reign of Henry VIII, when the founder of the Pembroke dynasty, a Welsh soldier of fortune, William Herbert, gained Wilton in reward for supporting King Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church.

William Herbert rose to the rank of the First Earl of Pembroke not merely because of an innate ability to position himself on the winning side. He knew when and how to strike the decisive blow in the power struggles of Tudor England. His weapons were ruthless aggression and shameless duplicity, both of which he wielded with deadly accuracy.

Pembroke showed his mettle, switching sides during the Regency Crisis of 1549 which followed the death of Henry VIII. His opportune move sealed the doom of the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset. When the sickly, boy king, Edward VI, died four years later, Pembroke plotted with his ally, John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, to place Lady Jane Grey, the great niece of Henry VIII and a staunch Protestant, on the throne of England. When his political radar gave warning that the Catholic Queen Mary, the daughter that Henry had bastardized, was gaining support, Pembroke betrayed Northumberland and Lady Jane by joining his private army to Queen Mary’s forces.

Following Queen Mary’s death in 1558, Pembroke quickly rediscovered his Protestant faith and was one of the first to acclaim Elizabeth I as England’s sovereign. With deft political maneuvering and utter lack of scruple, Pembroke kept his head on his shoulders and gained complete control of Wilton and thousands of acres of adjoining lands. What had begun as a twenty-one year lease of Wilton as a gift from Henry VIII was now a vast power base that threatened Elizabeth’s autonomy.

The crafty First Earl of Pembroke, however, had finally met his match. Within a few months of coming to the throne, Elizabeth marginalized Pembroke, refusing to grant him positions of power on her Privy Council. Pembroke died in 1570, a shadow of his former self.

Wilton, however, evolved into something else, a center of cultural refinement and creative expression as the wife of the Second Earl of Pembroke, Lady Mary Sidney, and her poet brother, Philip Sidney, held court at the “palace in the trees.” Through their efforts and those of the poets and writers they patronized, Wilton became one of the premier literary centers of late Renaissance Europe. The first drafts of Philip Sidney’s ode to pastoral living, Arcadia, were written at and inspired by the bucolic serenity of Wilton. Lady Mary completed Arcadia following Sidney’s death fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands. Lady Mary’s editorial efforts had an extraordinary effect, transforming her brother into the embodiment of the English scholar hero and creating an image of rural England as a new Eden.

These political and cultural factors created the matrix for the real-life Arcadia that arose on the Pembrokes’ Wiltshire estates. Nicolson’s analysis of the actual conditions of life is a model of insight. Using legal and family records from the 1500′s and 1600′s, Nicolson vividly recreates the lost world of early modern England.

As Nicolson delineates it, the “custom of the manor” was a hierarchical way of life but not an autocratic one. For every duty or service owed to the Earls of Pembroke by their tenants, there was a reciprocal right or privilege accorded in return. It made for a generally harmonious community, in which everyone knew their place, a remarkable manifestation of the “idea of balance and mutuality.” Nicolson writes:

This idea of organic health, and of balance as the source of that health, runs unbroken from the farming of the fields to the management of the country. It is an undivided conceptual ecology… It is the ideology of an establishment concerned with keeping itself in the position of wealth and power. There is not a hint of democracy, let alone radicalism, but it is a frame of mind that also sets itself against any form of authoritarianism.

Nicolson concludes his reflections by noting that “the custom of the manor” believed “to an extent the modern world can scarcely grasp, in the rights of the community as a living organism.”

By the time that the Fourth Earl and his family posed for Van Dyke, this way of life was faced with increasing peril. The rise of population throughout the British Isles was placing a remorseless strain on the available farm land. Market forces were eroding the wool trade, the traditional blue chip resource of the English economy. The resultant social strain on England’s people, from the throngs of “sturdy beggars” pressing for relief to the titled aristocrats like the Earls of Pembroke who resented the Stuart monarchs’ “divine right of kingship,” was immense.

In 1639, a tactical error by King Charles I in confronting his Scottish subjects over the form of prayer book to be used, gave his English opponents the chance to demand a long-suppressed call for Parliamentary reform. Things quickly got out of hand. Charles’ summons to the Fourth Earl of Pembroke to raise his troops to confront Parliament went unanswered. Civil War ensued, followed by civic unrest, the eventual execution of Charles I and the creation of a republican form of government for Great Britain under Oliver Cromwell.

As usual, the Earl of Pembroke kept his head. But Wiltshire was repeatedly devastated by the rampaging armies of both sides. Nicolson’s account of the English Civil War depicts the experience of war as the common folk would have known it: massive theft of food and livestock to support the invading forces, wanton destruction, rape, murder and reprisal. It is an ugly story, war without trumpets and banners.

The English Arcadia expired during the 1640′s in this squalid orgy of destruction. Though the Restoration in 1660 placed the Stuart monarchs back on the throne of England, the old, communal way of life was not revived. The “custom of the manor” faded. Lands used for the common grazing of tenants’ flocks were “enclosed” for the private use of the nobility and gentry. The cultural, as well as the political, independence of magnates like the Earls of Pembroke was curbed.

Nicolson is remarkably clear-eyed in recounting the demise of this “undivided conceptual ecology.” It is clear from his research into primary sources that elements of repression and disenchantment were never entirely absent from this early-modern form of social regulation. England’s Arcadia was inherently flawed, and when this “little common wealth” passed, the beneficial aspects of communal living died with it. The “good” of Arcadia was interred with its bones.


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