Pilgrims of Grace: Henry IV Historicized
Past And Present
R. G. Collingwood once remarked that all historical writing is a selective process governed by a sense of contemporary relevance.1 Most historical critics who have sought to interpret Shakespeare's interpretation of the past in 1 and 2 Henry IV seem to have been in agreement with this view. There has, however, been remarkable divergence among both recent and not-so-recent historicists on how the play (I shall use the singular term for convenience's sake) connects with sixteenth-century practice and ideas; on how, in other words, we should define the context (or larger 'text') which makes most sense of its conceptual orientation. E. M. W. Tillyard tied the play to the Tudor, providentialist philosophy of history focused on the Wars of the Roses and the birth of the Tudor dynasty. But he saw in it nothing more specific to sixteenth-century political experience than a large, approving picture of Elizabethan England, rendered vivid by its social and topographical detail. Like Tillyard, Lily B. Campbell read the play as an uncomplicated endorsement of Tudor political orthodoxy; she was much concerned, however, to establish a central analogy with the Northern Rebellion of 1569-70 (an idea first advanced by Richard Simpson in 1874), as well as a number of politically significant parallels between some of the dramatis personae and contemporary individuals.2
The two most self-consciously historicist among...
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A major historical analogy, as I hope to show, is one linking the rebellions of Henry IV with the Northern Rebellion of 1569-70 and, more importantly, with the earlier northern rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536). The latter was the first and most dangerous of the Tudor rebellions, 'the archetypal protest movement of the century'.5 It acquired its paradoxical name because its leaders wished to emphasize its religious and essentially peaceful nature and their willingness to disband if the King redressed their grievances. Although these grievances were a mixture of the economic, the political, and the religious, recent historians have tended to acknowledge that the major source of discontent was Henry VIII's attack on what was soon to be called 'the old religion'.6 The religious motive was famously declared in the rebels' banners and badges, relics from a recent crusade against the Moors on which were painted the Five Wounds of Christ.7 The rebels were presenting themselves as crusading defenders of a wounded Christian nation.
The Pilgrims were defeated in a notorious piece of treachery.8 Heavily outnumbered by the rebels, Henry's deputy followed his master's advice and temporized with politic promises during his two conferences with their leaders at Doncaster. The rebels disbanded and Henry invited their trusting captain-in-chief, Robert Aske, to London, where he was...
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From a Shakespearian perspective, the name of the 1536 rebellion must have seemed both ironic and prophetic, since the Reformation and the Renaissance combined to create a culture in which everyone was a pilgrim of grace in one or more senses of the word. Grace as the divine gift which redeems sinful mortals, making them pleasing in the eyes of God, was, as Norton sharply implied, a distinguishing and proprietorial concern of Reformation theology. And everything required by Castiglione and his like from the gentleman seeking grace and favour at court—eloquence, wit, versatility, sprezzatura, modesty, and an unfailing sense of fitness or propriety—was comprehended in that one word: 'every thing that he doth or speaketh, let him doe it with a grace'.23 Thus in Elizabethan usage the spiritual and the socio-aesthetic senses of this unusually polysemous word tended to reinforce each other so as to make it an index of supreme value.
Not surprisingly, 'grace' is a conspicuous idea in a number of Shakespeare's plays. It is most obvious in those which concentrate on the nature of kingship and 'the Lord's anointed'. In 3 Henry VI (in the characterization of Edward), in Richard III, and in Richard II, the word 'grace' functions primarily as an ironic index of the ruler's unfitness for his office and of a more general sense of lost excellence—honour, civility, moral integrity—in the nobility and the...
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Prince John foregrounds the play's censorious mode. 'Monsieur Remorse', the play's mock-Puritan, points to its theological matrix with pious remarks on 'the spirit of persuasion', the 'ears of profiting' (1:1.2.106, 143-4), and the need for 'the fire of grace' if one is to be properly 'moved' (2.4.370-1). What one should be moved to by rebuke is confession, contrition (asking pardon), and 'a good amendment of life' (1.2.97). But as Calvin acknowledged in his discussion of rebuke and grace (Institutes, II.V.5), and as Falstaff habitually demonstrates, evasion is a common response. It is characteristic of the endemic dishonesty of Henry's unregenerate world that almost everyone responds to rebuke by denial, obfuscation, and retaliation in kind. The dialogue of the play, both comic and serious, is substantially built on rebuke, evasion, and counterrebuke.
Rebuke and evasion explode in the third scene of Part 1 when Henry berates all the Percys for his 'indignities', and Hotspur in particular for withholding his prisoners. Although he still refuses to surrender them, Hotspur protests in the most tortuous manner that he made no such refusal at all. Henry treats this evasion with contempt, a fierce quarrel erupts, and the scene ends with the Percys planning rebellion. On the battlefield, the initial pattern of rebuke and evasion becomes one of rebuke, evasion, and counter-rebuke. Henry lectures Worcester on his betrayal of...
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The analogies adumbrated by Shakespeare between the reign of Henry IV and the Tudor period indicate that his interpretation of English history is here affected at every level by ideas derived from the major political and cultural experiences of his own time, as well as by notions of historical recurrence long established in western historiography.41 In particular, those analogies intimate that the bitter intestinal divisions of the later period, with their conflicting loyalties and mixed and confused motivations, contributed much to his sense of the tortuous relationship in political affairs between right and wrong, justice and injustice, morality and expediency, freedom and necessity, present and past. Neither the rebellious bishop nor the regicidal King in Henry IV is blameless, but both claim with some sincerity and truth that the strong necessity of the times—the accumulated pressure of events—compelled them to do what they did not want to do. Elizabeth might have said the same about the execution of her Catholic cousin, Queen Mary, and of the eight hundred northerners who supported Mary and 'the old religion'.42
For Shakespeare, it would seem, the nature of politics is such that most leaders will necessarily do things they would rather have withheld from 'chronicles in time to come'. But if they are to make peace with themselves and posterity, they must confess and beg pardon and not wrap themselves...
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