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[ACADEMIC] Buttressing the State: The Place of Education in Early Tudor England

In Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, Raphael Hythloday–a educated Portuguese sailor and explorer, and the character used by More to describe the society of his ideal philosophical state–proved in the course of his description of Utopian society concerned with the question of how a state could most effectively secure the loyalty of its subjects, and in so doing, establish a coherent and well-governed nation. Throughout Utopia, Hythloday consistently refers to the Utopians’ systems of mass education–many, varied, and effective–as key to this effort. Hythloday’s commentaries in Utopia represent a theme common to many of the leading statesmen of early 16th century England, who believed not only that there existed a direct correlation between the education of individuals and the nature of their society but that this correlation could be exploited by conscious state policies. The statesmen of Tudor England were greatly concerned by the question of how to justify the existence of the Tudor monarchy, in reference both to its highly contested emergence on the battlefields of the War of the Roses and to its highly centralizing nature. Following Henry VIII’s launching of the Protestant Reformation in England, these statesmen became still more concerned with justifying the Tudor monarchy’s existence, particularly insofar as this existence required the separation of the monarchy and its territorial domains from Christendom. Throughout the remainder of the early 16th century, Tudor statesmen sought to buttress the internal stability of their realm by sponsoring the development of an educated class socialized in the separatist and national ideologies of the Tudor monarchy so as to legitimate the monarchy in the face of political and religious dissidence.

The Tudor monarchy was founded by the victory of the military forces of the Tudor dynasty over the established Plantagenet dynasty in 1485 at Bosworth, following a generation of destructive civil wars fought by the major branches of the English royal dynasty. This period, marked by a partial breakdown of the authority of the English state, created a strong counter reaction from the beginning of the reign of Henry VII in the creation of what was, for the time, a relatively bureaucratic and modern state under the centralized rule of the monarch, seeking to weaken the aristocratic families as autonomous power centers.

Henry employed a two-prolonged attack to inhibit the ability of the nobles to wage war; he extracted large sums of money from them and he obliged them to cut down the numbers of their armed retainers. He had to begin cautiously but the more successful his policies became the greater he turned the screw[. Bonds were] taken by the King to ensure certain conditions of behaviour which might vary from being constantly in attendance to not alienating land without Henry’s permission to even remaining within a geographically proscribed area. Such exactions came as a profound shock to the leading families of the realm, three-quarters of whom were hammered by the King’s financial officers. But these imposts were not the only financial encroachments from which they suffered. Henry’s agents were set to collect all feudal dues owing to the Crown with a ruthless efficiency which had been totally lacking throughout the preceding decade of administrative chaos (Wilson 29-30).

Emblematic of this process was the consolidation of the castles of the Tudor realms in the hands of the monarchy, achieved by the confiscation of castles belonging to the magnate families opposed to the Tudors, the appropriation of castles belonging to extinct family lines, and by the outright purchase of castles from their owners. In feudal England, castles served as the organizational and military nuclei of the country’s great noble families, capable of challenging even the reigning royal dynasty in their local regions. In Tudor England, in contrast, castles tended to be under the control of the ruling dynasty, integrated into national plans of defense which often allowed castles located in regions inessential for the defense of the wider realm to fall into disrepair (Colvin 227-230).

The early Tudor state, as established by Henry VII, was not a modern bureaucratic state in the sense that its power did not directly penetrate to the base of English society, instead operating through local authorities. In the limited realm of the court, however, the early Tudor state did act directly upon the once-autonomous noble families. Trends under previous, non-Tudor, monarchs for the royal court to acquire steadily more power continued unchecked (Gunn 27), while somewhat paradoxically the early Tudors managed to vastly expand their power by gaining the support of Parliament in passing a variety of laws and statutes which virtually established the Tudors as absolute monarchs restrained only by the concept of the rule of law (Dunham 29). The cultural florescence of the English court under the Tudor monarchs further positioned the monarchy at the center of English cultural innovations, enhancing the prestige of England abroad and strengthening the position of the court within England life (Wilson 35-36).

The stabilization of the English situation achieved under Henry VII, though, rested upon the ability of the Tudor kings to ensure the successful reproduction of the Tudor dynasty through male heirs. For Henry VII, the death of Arthur Tudor in 1502, Prince of Wales, left Henry VII only a single male heir in the person of his son, the future Henry VIII. Following his accession in 1509, Henry VIII also became increasingly concerned with the future of the Tudor dynasty, with his concerns in the 1520s: “[Henry], himself, occupied the throne because his elder brother had died. With only a girl child to succeed him what could prevent England falling back into that chaos which had prevailed throughout much of the previous century? [. . .] Having a son and heir was something vital to Henry’s manhood and the responsibility he owed his people” (Wilson 183). This, the most fundamental problem facing the pre-Reformation Tudor monarchy, could be resolved only by ensuring the survival of those male heirs then alive and trying to father more.

However, an essential secondary strategy for the Tudor monarchy in its effort to survive was to continue its efforts to control the development of English culture. As Even-Zohar notes in his survey of culture planning, the manipulation of cultures by the states governing them has long been “a major preoccupation of groups and individuals as regards social organization has been introducing order into what may have emerged as a disorderly set of options. That is, they have actually transformed non-structured inventories into structured repertoires” (2). The centralizing actions of the Tudor monarchy needed to be justified to its subjects. The Tudor monarchy could claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as part of a general program of political centralization; this claim, though, would be untenable if its legitimacy of its kings and their political system remained open to doubt. For the statesmen of the 15th and 16th centuries, education was intimately bound up with the integrity of the political community. Indeed, the very term “commonweal” appears to have first been used in 1447 by Parliament, to complain about the lack of schoolteachers in London, which it saw as threatening general welfare (Starkey 19), drawing upon broader European traditions (that of le bien publique, alternatively la chose publique or le bien commun, as well as the Latin res publica) refering to the conduct and wise governance of a human community. The recognition of this fact manifested itself in the writings and the actions of the Tudor monarchy’s statesmen.

Thomas More was born into an England strongly concerned with the nature of proper governance, following England’s politically chaotic 15th century. More shared with his contemporaries an appreciation for the way in which national government was reasserted under Henry VII as well as dislike for the arbitrariness of the first Tudor monarch’s rule (Wilson 62). More, educated at Oxford and at the Inns of Chancery, was exceptionally interested in the New Learning. More was an enthusiastic supporter of the new Tudor monarch, because of his apparent interest in the New Learning and the principles of justice:

His immediate political hope [. . .] was that the new king was about to lift taxes and reform the conduct of police; Henry was expected to renew the arts of ruling. [. . .] The young Henry had already been instructed in noble arts, and in ‘Philosophia’. [. . .] Not much older than the century itself, Henry might be considered to be the king for a new age of restored piety and scholarship. There seemed every reason to believe he would patronize the new learning and, more importantly, maintain the peace and stability in which such learning could flourish (Ackroyd 127).

Following Henry VIII’s coronation, More became increasingly involved in the affairs of the Tudor monarchy, drawing upon his own achievements and his connections with individuals in the Tudor court to gain status. One consequence of a series of visits made to Flanders by More on behalf of Henry VIII was the composition of Utopia.

Hythloday, in the course of his introductory dialogue with More in Book I, addresses education for the first time in recounting a conversation with an Englishman–at the time of the reign of Henry VII–who defends the legally sanctioned mass execution of thieves while complaining with surprise about the abundance of individuals willing to risk death. The Portuguese visitor responds by exclaiming surprise at that the Englishman does not understand that harsh judicial penalties do nothing to tackle the underlying reasons for theft.

There is no need to wonder: this way of punishing thieves goes beyond the call of justice, and is not in any case for the public good. The penalty is too harsh in itself, yet it isn’t an effective deterrent. [. . .] In this matter not only you in England but a good part of the world seem to imitate bad schoolmasters, who would rather whip their pupils than teach them. Severe and terrible punishments are enacted for theft, when it would be much better to enable every man to earn his own living, instead of being driven to the awful necessity of stealing and then dying for it (15-16).

Hythloday goes on to demonstrate that the economic policies of the Tudor monarchy, including the enclosure of farmland for sheep grazing and the promotion of a vigourous consumer economy marked by conspicuous consumption and idleness, are directly responsible for the common nature of theft. When challenged, he proposes an alternative system of punishment drawing from the experience of the Polylerites, who enslave convicted thieves. The necessity of education, here, is applied in connection to a political elite that fails to understand both the origins of its problems and the consequences of its incomprehension of these problems. It is essential, in Hythloday’s arguments, for a country’s rulers to penetrate to a true understanding of nature, to escape obfuscating rhetoric and establish a regime both just and stable.

Hythloday’s commentary in Book I on the English situation reflects a preoccupation in Utopia with England, exemplified by the description of Utopia’s very geography and political structure:

[T]he dimensions of [Utopia] are the same as those of England and the number of its city-states equals the number of English counties together with London. It is also approximately the same distance from the equator as England. Its principal city, Amaurotum, is itself like some reversed image of London[.] It is London redrawn by visionary imagination, a pristine city in which [. . .] there is no greed or pride or disorder (Ackroyd 82).

Utopia is an island society, created by the actions of its founder Utopus who commanded the digging of a broad channel between the future island and the mainland. Communications with the island society are limited by the rugged coastline, with egress to Utopia–by traders or by invaders–being much more difficult than exiting Utopia, allowing the country to play a disproportionately significant role in the affairs of its adjoining continent.

The Utopians’ society has “substituted intellectual acquisitiveness for material acquisitiveness as a major goal of [. . .] life. While the material conditions of life are strictly regulated to a prescribed uniformity [. . .], leisure, in its abundance, is organized as to encourage the pursuits of the mind” (Davis 39). Few people in Utopian society are excused from physical labour to be permanent students, with people who since they were children “have given evidence of excellent character, unusual intelligence, and devotion to learning” (More 63). This, however, does not mean that the Utopians scorned learning, for “every child gets an introduction to good literature, and throughout their lives many people [. . .] devote [free time] to reading” (More 63-64). Learning was viewed as a process all Utopians should undergo regardless of their social status, symbolized by the fact that the Utopians learned using their native and vernacular language, unlike their counterparts in contemporary Europe. The Utopians, indeed, are perfect students: “The people are easy-going, cheerful, and like their leisure. They can stand heavy laboutr when it is useful, but otherwise they are not very fond of it. In intellectual pursuits they are tireless. [. . . I]t was wonderful to behold how eagerly they sought to learn Greek through our instruction” (More 75).

The Utopians’ love of learning manifests in a variety of fields, including an advanced experimental science and technology, a particularly sophisticated moral philosophy which echoes the precepts of the humanists in many respects, and a legal system which is transparent, simple, and entirely adequate thanks to the Utopian population’s high level of education (More 82). In More’s vision, the Utopians–fictional though they and their society may be, as questionable as a complete acceptance of the Utopians as role models might be–owe their high level of moral development and the prosperity of their realm to their thorough education. (Bradshaw 20). Before and after Utopia’s composition, More was involved in various educational projects. His education of his children–including that of his daughters–was regarded by Erasmus as uniquely successful, with a strong emphasis on full fluency in both Latin and English, philosophy, logic, the natural sciences, and music. Further, More was involved in John Colet’s project to establish St. Paul’s school, a school that featured humanist theories quite prominently, much modified by the presence of religious piety:

The educational system Colet prescribed for his grammar school at St. Paul’s was certainly not secular in its bias. Quite apart from good literature in Latin and Greek, Colet declares that the boys are to study ‘specially Cristeyn auctours that wrote theyre wysdome with clene and chast laten other in verse or in prose, for my entent is by thys scole specially to incresse knowledge and worshipping of god and oure lorde Crist Jesu and good Cristen lyff and manners in the Children’ (Fox 25-6).

More’s actions reflected his belief, as expressed in Utopia, about an advanced and functioning society’s need for broad-based education.

More’s desire to extend education broadly, however, inevitably came into conflict with the realities of the mass audience for education which he desired. Literacy was the necessary prerequisite for education. Before the invention of the printing press, literacy was a relatively rare skill. After its invention, however, the demand for books grew immensely, to such a degree that book publishing was one of the earliest growth industries of early modern capitalism, particularly in the first half of the 16th century. This relatively broad penetration of literacy throughout the realms of the Tudor monarchy, as throughout Europe, did theoretically allow for a broad dispersion of convention. However, as Anderson observes, the broad diffusion of books–and of the education associated with their consumers–destabilized traditional cultural systems:

[Book-printers’] initial market was literate Europe, a wide but thin stratum of Latin-readers. Saturation of this market took about 150 years. The determinative fact about Latin–aside from its sacrality–was that it was a language of bilinguals. Relatively few were born to speak it[.] In the sixteenth century, the proportion of bilinguals within the total population of Europe was quite small[.] The logic of capitalism thus meant that once the elite Latin market was saturated, the potentially huge markets represented by the monoglot masses would beckon (42).

Once consumer markets for books written in the vernacular developed, it became very difficult for the Church to police religious opinions, inasmuch as its superior continent-wide organizational structures could be effectively outmaneuvered by a highly dispersed printing industry which worked to discourage the universal imposition of ideological or political hegemonies (Anderson 45-47). Colet’s project at St. Paul’s school reflected this shift away from an ideological uniformity narrowly contained within a homogeneous elite, inasmuch as it was a school open to the general public of London and placed under their control (Simon 52-54). The fragmentation of a universalistic religious and cultural space that the development and diffusion of print technology ensured created the preconditions for a variety of states–including the Tudor monarchy–to consider separation from the wider body of Christendom (Even-Zohar 3.3.3).

The Protestant Reformation was famously precipitated by Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir. Already, England in the 1520s found itself exposed to the sundry religious and ideological currents of continental Europe. Thomas Cromwell, for instance, demonstrated a strong interest in political texts such as Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Florentine Histories (Parks 530-1), while the connections of English humanists with their continental counterparts could be used both to call for the radical reform of the Church and for the abandonment of the Church as an institution too corrupt to be salvaged. Already, under the Tudors secular authority in Britain had become centralized in the monarchy and Parliament; outraged by the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce, the same doctrines used to justify this secular centralization could be used to justify the removal of England from the authority of the Pope. It was observed that

[t]he demand for the divorce [of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon] produced the assertion that England was an empire, a united and unitary realm free from all foreign control and organized as both state and Church under one person, both king and supreme head. This ‘break with Rome’ needed to be widely publicized and enforced against possible and actual opposition, work which required a ceaseless output of information and propaganda (Elton 15).

The creation of an English state fully self-contained and independent, Education was a critical element of the Tudor monarchy’s self-justificatory campaign a critical role in bolstering the formation and justification of this new Tudor state. Though Thomas More was a humanist, his opposition to the monarchy’s rejection of papal authority and wider affiliation with Christendom prevented him from collaboration in this project (Ackroyd 262-267). As More became increasingly marginalized by his refusal, Thomas Cromwell came to supplant More’s role at court.

Cromwell was a supremely pragmatic man, lacking an emotional or intellectual attachment to the New Learning as such. Rather, Cromwell sought to use elements of the na philosophy . His thought processes had not “become cluttered by any of the established academic disciplines. He was not inhibited by the theories of the humanists, the dogmas of the churchmen, the methodologies of the scholastics or the inbred prejudices of the nobility” (Wilson 169); rather, he rejected the philosophical systems of humanists like More and simply sought to use his talents to his best advantage, perhaps inspired by his successful career as a businessman. His obvious talents eventually brought him to the attention of Henry VIII, who appointed him an advisor in 1530 and quickly began to depend on Cromwell’s advice. Although Cromwell, as a self-made man, lacked the formal academic and legal education enjoyed by More, he highly valued education in his personal life and in his public life:

David Clapham, who at one time tutored young Gregory Cromwell [Thomas Cromwell’s son], has recorded his knowledge that the lord privy seal especially wanted to ensure a good education for all. The children of the upper classes were to be brought up properly ‘in good literature’; other children ‘after their abilities, wits, and aptness, in science and crafts.’ To this safely Erasmian sentiment [. . .] Cromwell characteristically added an insistence that all education should include an earnest instruction to ‘obedience to God, to the King’s highness, and to such rulers and laws as his majesty shall ordain’ (Elton 29)

Cromwell’s desires were quickly translated into public policy. In 1535, Cromwell acquired the high stewardship and chancellorship of Cambridge following the deaths of those positions’ incumbents. At that university, he took an active role in the curriculum of Cambridge, issuing orders “encouraging the study of Greek and improving other disciplines” (Wilson 32) against the resistance of conservative staff. These reforms–involving the limitation of the powers and privileges of curbed abuses, the abolition of study of Catholic canon law, and the modernization of the arts courses to include regular lectures in Greek and Latin and to exclude medieval scholasticism–fulfilled many of the goals of the humanists in eliminating certain institutional issues (Elton 29-32). However, Cromwell’s reforms in higher education were focussed upon a goal of establishing higher education as a firmly Protestant domain; other ways in which this goal was manifested included the closure of church-associated schools, reducing access to education across the country, in order to place education more firmly under the Tudor monarchy’s control (Simon 56-57). Education, for Cromwell, was necessary for the purposes of the state, to create a class of educated people socialized to accept the Tudor monarchy’s reforms.

Even after Cromwell’s downfall and execution, his interventionist education policies were continued. Nicholas Bacon was born to prosperous gentry parents of the agricultural district of Suffolk, in East Anglia, in 1509 or 1510, proceeding to Cambridge University in 1523 with a scholarship to Corpus Christi, then called Benet College. He seems to have been circumstantially involved with the White Horse group of young reformers, who shared radical humanist and Lutheran views and included future Protestant martyrs. Based on surviving records, Bacon appears to have been a dedicated student, making lifelong friendships at Cambridge and remaining in touch with the university community even after he appears to have entered Gray’s Inn–a radical Inn of the Court–to pursue law studies, becoming an “ancient”–that is, an established–lawyer in a remarkably short four years (Tittler 18-23).In the late 1530s, Bacon began working for the Tudor court, co-authoring the so-called “Denton-Bacon-Cary Report” on the Inns of Court. The report could be divided into two parts: firstly, an in-depth survey of the operation of the Inns, their programs, their social conventions, and their governmental principles; secondly, a proposal to establish a fifth Inn alongside the existing four, “designed to provide for the systematic training of statesmen and diplomats, and of lawyers with a strong orientation towards such professions” (Tittler 30). Comprising a hand-picked group, these students would be given immediate practical experience, along with complete government funding for their education. Had it been implemented, this report would have constituted a distinct shift away traditional concepts of professional education, detaching it from religion and placing it under the direct control of the state. Although the Denton-Bacon-Cary Report was never implemented, when Bacon acceded to the Privy Council with the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne, he did issue a similar proposal for establishing an elite academy for wealthy wards of the state:

All male wards whose land brought in an excess of £100 per annum were to be enrolled in the academy at the age of nine, and were to remain until they attained their majorities twelve years later. The curriculum during the first years was to include French and other modern languages in addition to Latin and Greek. Music, physical education, and regular Christian devotion rounded out the offerings for the younger students. As they progressed, the pupils were also introduced to the fundamentals of the common law, horsemanship, and the martial arts, all of which Bacon considered necessary training for such an elite group of gentlemen (Tittler 59-60).

Many of these principles were later adopted by the numerous grammar schools which under Bacon’s supervision, and influenced national policies throughout Elizabeth’s reign (Simon 61-62).

Bacon’s personal attitude towards and experience of education, then, reflected a synthesis of the attitudes of More and Cromwell, combining More’s devotion to humanist ideals of education with Cromwell’s conviction about the necessity to disengage education from its religious roots and make it a function serving the state. The shift in Tudor monarchy thought away from the late-medieval educational model of relatively restricted access and close connections to theology and the wider Christian world that had begun with More reached a new stage under Bacon, becoming at least nominally more open to the general English population, more closely related to the goals of state, and more specifically English and nationalist in its goals. The need of the early Tudor monarchy to survive successfully shifted education’s goals away from an exclusive orientation towards religion and towards a new concentration on the state in its many guises.

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Written by Randy McDonald

April 29, 2004 at 6:00 pm

Posted in Assorted

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