Reviewed by: Daniel Szechi
Author: Kevin Sharpe
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £45
Very sadly, this book will be the late Kevin Sharpe’s final contribution to our vision of early modern England. It is a sombre finale in another sense, too, for it was the last volume in his great trilogy of works exploring the presentation of the English monarchy from the 16th to the 18th century. Like many works not yet in the publication pipeline at the time of the author’s death, it could easily have been lost to us if Sharpe’s friend and colleague Mark Knights had not seen it through its final stages. We all owe Knights a debt of gratitude, both because of the book’s quality and the fact that it is a fitting monument to one of the foremost British historians of the early modern world.
In typically down-to-earth vein, Sharpe explains that he was moved to explore the presentation of the English monarchy in the early modern era by watching New Labour’s spin doctors at work. The grand question that he has now addressed is a fundamental one: how did the English monarchy engage effectively with its subjects? Put more coarsely: how did successive monarchs persuade them to be loyal and obedient?
There is no doubt that this is a hugely important issue for historians, especially given the massive breakdown in loyalty and obedience that characterises both the mid- and late 17th century. The English were a damnably obstreperous lot and the three kingdoms were a volatile and unstable conglomeration of polities, yet they were all internally at peace most of the time. Although Sharpe does not shy away from the moments when the bond between ruler and ruled dissolved, he is far more interested in the way in which it was created and sustained over the long term, and this book offers some profound insights into the process.
Manufacturing and shoring up allegiance was nothing short of a major cultural industry. Sharpe writes beautifully, and the book is a long, lush walk through the public rituals of monarchy, the depiction of monarchs by artists and hack engravers, wordsmiths and preachers. Sharpe clearly enjoyed exploring the nuances of this world of physical and allegorical spectacle and offers a wealth of examples to illustrate his argument.
And it is a convincing one. Sharpe’s thesis is that whereas Charles II grasped a fundamental truth – that he needed to work at rebuilding the effective ties between monarch and subject by being a public, popular monarch – James II and VII reverted to their father’s more aloof approach, assuming that his people knew and humbly accepted their duty to love and obey him. This failure to understand the limitations of his subjects’ obedience, massively reinforced by his Catholicism, quickly brought on a hugely popular (in England) revolution against him and precipitated the final crisis of the Stuart monarchy. Mary II tried to rebuild the old sacral ties, but William III and II was impatient with the pomp and circumstance of English monarchy. Sharpe sympathetically acknowledges William’s strategic and political problems and his belated attempts to reconnect with his people, but there is no escaping the conclusion that William the soldier was only interested in the men and money that England could provide for the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV.
Anne tried to retrieve the situation when she followed William in 1702, and in many respects succeeded in doing so for her lifetime. Yet although Sharpe argues trenchantly against the image of a stupid and docile woman so long retailed by our historiography, Anne, like Mary and William, was hampered by the implications of the Revolution of 1688. The conditions of monarchy had changed fundamentally: allegiance was due to all three only because of a grand uprising supported by a foreign invasion. The sacral vision of monarchy, painstakingly resurrected by Charles II, was eviscerated – yet not entirely vanquished.
Not all historians will agree with Sharpe’s interpretation. This reviewer (a nasty old-fashioned social-political historian) was left dazzled and admiring of the wonderful scholarship that he displays and the insights that he offers, but still convinced that the more brutal machinery of power (taxmen, soldiers, judges) produced a stronger grip on the people than pictures or sermons. Nonetheless, for all its prodigious length and depth, this book (and the trilogy as a whole) is to be recommended to any student of the period. It will be the starting point for any consideration of the cultural presentation of the early modern English monarchy for the foreseeable future.
Daniel Szechi, the University of Manchester