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Spanning the most turbulent and dramatic years of English history—from the 1520s through 1650—Quarrel with the King tells the remarkable saga of one of the greatest families in English history, the Pembrokes, following their glamorous trajectory across three generations of change, ambition, resistance, and war. With vivid color and fascinating detail, acclaimed historian Adam Nicolson recounts the story of a century-long power struggle between England's richest family and the English Crown—a fascinating study of ...
Spanning the most turbulent and dramatic years of English history—from the 1520s through 1650—Quarrel with the King tells the remarkable saga of one of the greatest families in English history, the Pembrokes, following their glamorous trajectory across three generations of change, ambition, resistance, and war. With vivid color and fascinating detail, acclaimed historian Adam Nicolson recounts the story of a century-long power struggle between England's richest family and the English Crown—a fascinating study of divided loyalties, corruption, rights and privilege, and all the ambiguities involved in the exercise and maintenance of power and status.
The Long Road to Civil War
In this book a great family, one of the richest and most glamorous of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, pursues a long arc of ambition, success, failure, and collapse. It is not an exclusively private story, because the family—the earls of Pembroke, their wives, children, and dependents—was deeply involved, for over a hundred years, in the central concerns of England. They saw themselves, in many ways, as an alternative to royalty. In their great house at Wilton, near Salisbury, they could entertain the king and his court as though welcoming them to a different state. They controlled tens of thousands of England's most beautiful acres, and still more in Wales, and many thousands of tenants and followers. Land, money, politics, art, and patronage were their realms. They could summon armies and, through them, impose their wills. They could gather vote-changing clusters of politicians in both houses of Parliament. As England's greatest patrons, they could sponsor poetry, plays, paintings, houses, gardens, and landscapes, all of which proclaimed their virtues, their fortitude, their antiquity, and their worth. Another England belonged to the Pembrokes, an older and premodern country set against almost everything the modern state hoped to impose upon it.
For a century, from about 1540 onward, this family maintained a long, simmering quarrel with the king, one that flickered across the decades, part opposition, part seduction, part manipulation, and part denial. Only, finally, in the 1640s did it erupt in civil war, a dreadful and destructiveconflict that released into the towns, villages, and highways of England precisely the anarchy and violence the country had dreaded for so long. The basis of the quarrel was power, a struggle between a government that needed and wanted to concentrate ever more authority in itself and its agents, and the ancient nobility of England—or at least those such as the Pembrokes, who saw themselves in that light and who thought of their role as the guardians of an ancient and balanced community of which they were the head and whose integrity the newly assertive, power-grabbing crown was disrupting and breaking.
It is a premodern story but there are many modern echoes in it: Was government a question of agreement and respect? Or authority and compulsion? What status did traditional rights have in a changing world? Did an emergency mean those rights could be ignored or overturned? Or was an emergency precisely the time when rights should be respected? This is not the usual, modern tale of freedoms struggling to assert themselves against an ancient and intolerant authority. The Pembrokes' story is the opposite of that: a long rearguard action by provincial grandees who found their ancient power, and the ancient independence of the communities they governed, under threat. In that way, this story is about the end of an old world, not the making of a new one. Almost every aspect of the Pembrokes' view of themselves was retrospective: old family, old authority, old ways of being, old values. And nearly every aspect of what they hated was new: new men, new money, new forms of authority, the new demands of the modern world.
The Pembrokes had no interest in individual freedom, only in the maintenance of their position as power brokers, with access to all the sources of money and authority they considered their due. But they were astute, and the need to survive and thrive in the modern world, combined with their energy and appetite, inevitably meant a complex engagement with that world. These "grandeez and gloriosoes" of Renaissance England were deeply embroiled in the court world from which they felt such distance. They were rebels, but they were also courtiers. For year after year, they sucked money from the crown they despised. Generation after generation carefully manoeuvred for influence and the ear of the king. Few families, in fact, managed so adroitly to surf the successive waves of royal power and favor. Each wave they caught brought another gush and surge of cash and influence. That, in fact, is their central paradox: nearly everything they had came from the king, but the more they had, the more they could afford to oppose him. The Pembrokes came to look like the ultimate cavaliers, but in the end they would be parliamentarian. At different times, they both threatened the crown and acted as its bruisingly efficient and violent agents. These were rebels not to be found plotting in a dimly lit garret but either dancing in the candlelit halls and delicious arbors of royal pleasure or actually commanding royal armies and sponsoring royal display. They were, in other words, highly ambivalent figures: flag carriers for an ancient England and time servers in some of the most corrupt courts England has ever known. The sense of distance between the Pembrokes and the crown, of the quarrel itself, was never quite absent but only rarely showed its fully naked face. It could be said that this book is a study in the ambiguity necessarily involved in the exercise and maintenance of power and status.
A simple act of curiosity lies behind my writing it. Many years ago, I was walking through the beautiful valley of the Nadder, in Wiltshire, in southern England, a cool and lovely clearwater stream that makes its way between the chalk downs on either side. The trout and grayling were flickering in the shallows, and bunches of meadowsweet were flowering on the banks. Just to the east of Salisbury, the river slides past the garden of Wilton House. I had been walking all day and, still in my heavy boots, I paid for my ticket, entered the house without quite knowing what to expect, and found myself in the greatest sequence of seventeenth-century rooms in England. It was a revelatory moment. I suddenly understood how wonderful a palace in the trees could be, the meaning of provincial, non-urban, exquisitely refined power.Quarrel with the King. Copyright © by Adam Nicolson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted December 9, 2012
Couldn't tell what the author really wanted this to be about. Sorrow over the lost Pastoral or the history of an aristocratic family or the impact of the English Civil War on the various levels of society. Bits of everything and not enough of anything.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2010
I am not an historian or even an amateur expert on this period of English history (roughly 1540-1650), but this well-researched book gave me new insight into the ups and downs of relationships between an independant and essentially conservative rural aristocracy and a monarchy seeking to centralize power. The relationship is cast in terms of powerful rural landholders adhering to an arcadian ideal (Philip Sidney's "Arcadia" was actually written on the Pembroke estate)which was antithetical to the increasing power of king and court (and also at odds with reality).
The book's title is something of a misnomer, since the Herbert family (the lords Pembroke) were probably more often strong supporters of the monarchy and influential members of the court than they were at odds with the reigning monarch. But the book provides detailed insight into the nature of life in rtural England for people at all levels of society, drawing on a huge amount of archival material. The organization is occasionally confusing and the thesis drawn more sharply than the evidence seems to warrant. The prose is quite readable and the analysis of the extraordinary Pembroke family portrait by Anthony van Dyck that serves as another organizing element is splendidly done.
I don't think this book would have a great deal of appeal for the casual reader or for the expert, but for someone with a serious, if amateur interest in the period it added substantially to my knowledge and understanding. It also got me thinking about the parallels between the ideals and politics of this period and the clash between Thomas Jefferson's ideal of a "nation of farmers," largely free of governmental constraints, and the Hamiltonians' preference for a strong federal government providing a supportive environment for business and industry. This controversy was in many ways played out again in the Civil War struggles between a rural South and an industrial/commercial North. While the parallels in American history to the struggle between the land-owning aristocracy and the centralizing monarchy in 16th-17th century England are certainly not precise, there are enough echoes to engender further understanding of both eras.