Rewriting the history books
In 1953, famous historian Sir Geoffrey Elton* published the first of his many books, his signature text, The Tudor Revolution in Government, which espoused the view that Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell modernised the structure of English government during the 1530s. Out went the old, medieval idea of government as a function of the King’s household and in came a new, bureaucratic structure which was definitely modern.
For many years after, Elton’s thesis of a revolution in government held the field, though subject to many challenges. But where did Elton’s theory of an administrative ‘revolution’ come from in the first place?
Dr Ian Harris of our School of Historical Studies has been doing his own research on Elton, ploughing through that academic’s unprinted correspondence, as well as his published works.
Elton’s book developed from his earlier PhD thesis entitled ‘Thomas Cromwell: Aspects of his administrative work’, completed in 1948, but this was an analytical treatment of Cromwell’s work in administration. It did not make any claims for a Cromwellian revolution. Its main burden was an idea of modernity in administration already familiar to medieval historians.
The biggest difference between the thesis and the book, Dr Harris notes, proceeded from the need to find a publisher for Elton’s post-doctoral typescript. The Athlone Press rejected Elton’s book proposal because it was “neither a rounded biography of Cromwell nor a general study of Tudor administration and institutions.” Elton’s former PhD supervisor, Sir John Neale, indicated a need to organise his work around “an artistic entity”.
Elton now emphasised the idea of revolution, and so aligned himself with several earlier historians who had proposed the idea of a revolution, whether in government or more broadly in the national life. In addition, study of the book, which was eventually published by another house, indicates that, the title notwithstanding, Elton’s book more often talks about ‘reform’ than ‘revolution’. Nor is the term ‘revolution’ defined in the book.
Dr Harris’ paper ‘Some origins of a Tudor revolution’ has been published in print and online by the English Historical Review, and appears in vol.126, no.523 (December 2011), pp.1355-85 (doi: 10.1093/ehr/cer321)
*Uncle of comedian and writer Ben Elton