BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
TREASON IN TUDOR ENGLAND: Politics and Paranoia, by Lacey Baldwin Smith
, February 17, 2007
A turbulent timeTREASON IN TUDOR ENGLAND:
Politics and Paranoia
by Lacey Baldwin Smith
(London: Pimlico, new edition)
Paperback: 352 pages, Rec. price: $30.00Shakepeare's Macbeth — a text still read by most students — reflects an unsettling world view in which people are plotting against others to usurp power. Individuals cannot rest easy as someone is "out to get them".
Such a paranoid outlook on the world, found in the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries, reflected the mindset of people in the Tudor period, argues Lacey Baldwin Smith.
Central to the way in which people in Tudor England viewed the world was the belief that things are not as they appear and that the presence of evil is always nearby, ready to manipulate and destroy.
For this religious-minded society, Satan's agents, whom he had subverted to his ends, were everywhere, doing his destructive work. Hence, people were suspicious, even towards those closest to them.
Such an attitude was inculcated through the education system, which favoured texts such as the Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) — one of the deuterocanonical books of the Bible (in Protestant Bibles part of the Apocrypha) — that reflected a similar world view.
This outlook was only reinforced by the number of attempted plots and uprisings that took place during this period.
It was widely believed that any act against the sovereign, even mild sedition, was one of the worst sins imaginable. People could face charges of treason, not only for plotting to assassinate the monarch, but also for religious non-conformity.
As the monarch could supposedly do no wrong, mistakes were blamed upon the monarch's counsellors, who, it was argued, were evil men who had deliberately given bad advice.
Such an outlook not only consolidated the paranoid Tudor mindset, but made life at court precarious, since bad advice could not only cost a courtier or minister his political career, but could result in execution on a charge of treason.
Baldwin Smith devotes the last section of his work to an examination of the rise and fall of Elizabeth I's one-time favourite, the Earl of Essex — who was beheaded for treason — as an illustration of his thesis.
The successive changes of religious allegiance by the Tudor monarchs — Henry VIII breaking with Rome, Edward VI consolidating Protestantism, Mary's attempt to restore Catholicism and Elizabeth I's reversion to Protestantism — greatly exacerbated the political volatility of the 16th-century and fuelled this paranoia.
Individuals who held religious views which differed from those of the monarch of the day were viewed as fifth columnists literally "hell bent" on subversion and destruction.Treason in Tudor England
is a fascinating portrait of the mindset of the English people in one of the most formative periods of its history and consciousness — and one which has had consequences for its daughter societies, including Australia.
This study also raises the question of the extent to which our own society today is beset by paranoia and imagined "bogeymen".