Steven Gunn, Henry VII’s New Men and the Making of Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). 393pp. £66.
Henry VII’s ‘new men’ are one of the most commonly remarked features of his reign. Characterised most often by two of their number whose names are forever bound together in school textbooks, the unfortunate Empson and Dudley, these men were new both in that they were raised from humble backgrounds, but also in that they are seen as exercising new approaches to power in their efforts to defend Henry VII’s never-fully-secure throne. In this way they help to typify Henry’s so called ‘new monarchy’, which, like contemporary monarchs across western Europe, sought to assert the power of the crown after periods of internal division. They seem to herald a new age of strong, ‘modern’ government, a dividing line between medieval and early modern.
Steven Gunn’s book is the first sustained analysis of these new men. He defines his subject fairly broadly, dealing in greatest detail with around a dozen men (Reynold Bray, Edmund Dudley, Richard Empson, Thomas Lovell, Henry Wyatt, Robert Southwell, Andrew Windsor, John Hussey, Edward Poynings, Thomas Brandon, Henry Marney) and touching somewhat less frequently on a number of slightly lesser figures. The ‘new men’, in this definition, were more varied than the caricature of them as jumped-up, cunning and ruthless money-grubbers suggests. Although many were indeed experienced lawyers and administrators, Edward Poynings, for example, was a notable military commander, and a man who could cut a chivalric dash not only in London but in courts and on battlefields in Europe. Most of the other new men took up arms for Henry at one time or another. The new men could play the courtier too, taking surprisingly prominent role in major court occasions and festivities, as indeed did their wives.
The core of the book handles the new men’s careers in a highly analytical way; there is very little narrative of Henry VII’s own reign. These chapters provide a comprehensive overview of the means by which power was gathered and deployed in Henry VII’s England. Chapters 3-6 deal with their activities in royal government: the royal court and council, parliament, the justice system, the rule of the Tudor peripheries and international relations. In chapters 7-11, Gunn discusses other avenues of power: towns, clients, the church, the law, marriage and family. The new men all asserted themselves in a range of these arenas, disrupting existing power networks, forging new ones, carrying the king’s wishes into every corner of England. Chapters 12-15 change tack slightly, looking at the new men’s wealth – how it was gathered through royal service and from landowning, and how it was spent in the pursuit of status. This adds further detail to the picture built up of the new men’s acquisitiveness, ruthlessness and desire for wealth and, intertwined with it, power. As well as the primary readership of historians of politics and government, social historians will find much of interest here; there is a detailed account of the men’s household provisioning, for example (271-4). Local historians, too, may find valuable material on the influence of the new men in their areas of interest.
Each of these sections is richly detailed, drawing on the remarkable depth of research which is the book’s most impressive feature. The footnotes bear witness to an astonishing amount of archival work. Material is cited from no fewer than 66 archives, scores of classes of documents in the National Archives, and copious printed works. In most cases Gunn’s claims are supported by multiple examples, sometimes dozens. Throughout the book, the handling of argument and evidence is deft and the book is always readable. Even the most dogged researcher cannot, of course, draw on material which no longer survives, and in the case of some topics, the amount that can be extracted from the records is disappointing. One example is the important question of the way in which the new men offered political counsel to the king – here Gunn can say relatively little, for the records simply do not exist.
For similar reasons, there are limits to how far it is possible to gain a strong sense of the men as individuals or of their personal lives or personal relations, and the thematic approach, drawing examples from one or another of the new men to illustrate a general theme, tends to accentuate this. Yet Gunn’s research ranges extremely widely in an attempt to explore every aspect of these men’s lives. There are many revealing sketches or case studies of individual incidents, and Gunn introduces welcome detail of (for example) the friendly letters between these colleagues, the contents of the new men’s wardrobes (a strong emphasis on sober and expensive black gowns, with occasional ventures into bright colours and even tinsel) or a couple of hints at their paramours, such as Rose Whetehill, to whom Poynings left bequests which would otherwise seem inexplicably generous. There are also more substantial case studies, generally arising from fortuitous archival survivals, such as the lengthy and very valuable analysis of Thomas Lovell’s 1,365 retainers, based on a 1508 list and augmented by painstaking research on the men involved in local archives.
Broadly speaking, Gunn’s evidence supports the existing picture of the new men. He copiously demonstrates the sheer capability and versatility of these men. They were able to perform with assurance in a vast range of tasks, and they served a government which was remarkably vigorous, even in matters which might not immediately leap to mind when considering Henry VII’s reign, such as the role of the government in social and economic regulation. It is also clear that their reputation for ruthlessness was by no means ill-deserved: there are some shocking examples of unjust, oppressive and heartless practices carried out in the service either of the king or of the new men’s own profit. Perhaps ironically, the hard-headed approach of the new men was turned against them by their master, with debts being called in remorselessly after their deaths.
The final chapters of the book move on to Henry VIII’s reign, and take a more narrative approach. Here we read about how the new men adjusted to the new regime – some by staying on as advisers to the king and elder statesmen, currying favour with the rising Thomas Wolsey where necessary, some retiring to their estates, and some, of course, being scapegoated for the oppressive actions of the late king. As Henry’s need for an heir led him into far-reaching religious changes in the 1530s, some found themselves in difficult positions, their late medieval piety sitting uneasily with the climate of the 1530s. John Hussey, notably, by then raised to the peerage, was caught up in the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace and died for his pains.
In terms of the broader significance of the new men, the book responds to a debate on the nature of the late medieval and early modern English polity, and the changes which it was undergoing, which is no longer as current and as lively as it was when the book was conceived in the mid 1980s. In some ways that makes it all the more welcome. The central question of how significant the new men and their approaches to government were, how necessary they were to Henry’s security and strength, is not laboured throughout, although hints are dropped in most chapters, before the final chapter turns to the central issue of whether and how the new men mattered. Gunn argues that they had a genuine significance in Henry VII’s drive to augment the power of the crown, through the justice system, the royal finances, control of the localities, and to a somewhat lesser extent through military leadership, diplomacy and so on. More than this, he argues that these developments were built upon during Henry VIII’s reign, with its focus on centralising power and the creation of new administrative structures in the fields of finance and justice. Gunn acknowledges, of course, that the new men were not working alone – more traditional tools of royal power such as the greater nobility, leading churchmen and the legal profession remained essential. Yet for Henry to rule as he did required men of different talents.
Gunn also addresses here the important question of how new the phenomenon of the ‘new men’ really was; kings had, after all, recruited talented servants and counsellors from relatively humble backgrounds before. Yet Gunn argues persuasively that these men were different – they arose from a distinctly lower social background than had previously been the case, and above all they combined a wider range of roles across government: not only counsel, court and military service and rule of the regions, but also intimate knowledge of and attention to bureaucratic detail, which enabled them to harness and channel royal power to the benefit of their master and themselves. In that sense, he argues, they set the pattern which later Tudor ministers – Cromwell, Paget, Cecil and others – would follow. The new men were often ruthless, and indeed brought themselves and their master into disrepute through some of their actions, but they did at least help to restore stability in the wake of civil war.
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