Henry IV, Part I Pilgrims of Grace: Henry IV Historicized - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Pilgrims of Grace: Henry IV Historicized

Tom McAlindon, University of Hull

Past And Present

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 warmly entertained and honoured with a chain of gold; but within months Henry found a pretext for arresting Aske and the other rebel leaders and executing them on a charge of treason. Among those executed was Sir Thomas Percy, the most warlike member of a family which troubled Henry VIII and Elizabeth I almost as much as it did Henry IV (it was Thomas Percy, seventh Earl of Northumberland, who was to lead the Northern Rebellion of 1569). After the Pilgrimage, there were four more rebellions of substance in the sixteenth century, and the one 'clear theme of national significance' running through them was opposition to the Reformation.9 Thus the banner and badges of the Five Wounds were used again in the Western Rebellion of 1549 and the Northern Rebellion of 1569, with the addition in the latter of the crusaders' red cross.10 Because of this recurrent theme and symbolism, the Pilgrimage of Grace understandably acquired archetypal status both in the popular imagination and in the historical thinking of government propagandists.

It might seem implausible to claim that in 1596-8 Shakespeare could rely on his audience recognizing inexplicit allusions to the rebellion of 1569;11 and much less likely that he could expect anyone to recall the Pilgrimage of Grace. But the facts suggest otherwise. The continuing relevance and essential identity of the major Tudor rebellions was hammered into the consciousness of the Elizabethan citizen; it was intrinsic to the state's self-justifying and self-protective version of history. That most popular of Elizabethan histories, John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, included an indignant account of the Pilgrimage of Grace that strongly influenced later...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 nation at large. The word actually occurs more often in Richard III than in 1 and 2 Henry IV; but as a theme the notion of grace is much more deeply embedded in the two-part play. This is due in the first place to the fact that Shakespeare is here concerned not only with loss and decline but also with the struggle for personal and national renewal (redemption, reformation); and in the second to the way in which he has complicated the meaning of grace by tying it to the notion of rebuke or censure, thus drawing upon a central feature of Calvinist spirituality. Indeed with its complex vision of grace in all its senses and associations—socio-aesthetic, spiritual, and political—Henry IV becomes something like a dramatic encapsulation of the Tudor century.

Intemately connected, the concepts of grace (with its antonyms 'disgrace', 'shame', and 'impudence') and rebuke (with its synonyms 'check', 'rate', 'chide', and 'upbraid') dominate dialogue and action in both parts of the play. Since disgraceful conduct invites rebuke, the connection is instantly intelligible; but the prominence and full significance of the twin motif can only be understood in relation to Augustinian and Calvinist theology.

Dealing in the Institutes (II.v) with objections to his teachings on grace, free will, and predestination, Calvin refers to the claim that if men are predestined to be saved or damned, then 'exhortations are vainely taken in hande … the use of admonitions is superfluous … it is a fond thing to rebuke'. Augustine, he replies, wrote his book De Correptione et Gratia (On Rebuke and Grace) in answer to this objection; and he proceeds to summarize an argument on 'the medicine of rebuke' to which Augustine often returns in his anti-Pelagian writings. When addressed to the reprobate, rebuke beats and strikes their conscience in this life, and renders them more inexcusable on the judgement day. When addressed to the elect, 'if at any time they be gone out of the way sith they fell by the necessarie weaknesse of the fleshe', it avails much 'to enflame the desire of goodnesse, to shake off sluggishness, to take away the pleasure and venimous swetnesse of wickednesse'. It 'stirreth them to desire … renuing', prepares them 'to receiue … grace', and 'maketh them a new creature'. Thus the prophets, Christ, and the apostles never ceased to 'admonishe, to exhorte and to rebuke'.24 Preliminary reflection alone would suggest that all of this resonates through Henry IV, a play whose seemingly reprobate and much censured hero was fixed in history as one of the elect. But in order to appreciate just how deeply embedded is this play in the culture of its time, one must note that Calvin's discussion of rebuke and grace is really a preamble to his exposition of church discipline (II.xii), 'whereof the chiefe use is in the censure and excommunication'. This provided the theological foundation for what was arguably the best-known feature of Tudor Puritanism: its censoriousness. Fired with a 'whitehot morality', the Puritan saw himself as 'a prophet in his generation, one who freely rebuked both high and low alike'.25

Why the Puritan preoccupation with grace-and-censure should have coloured the whole of Henry IV has to be ascribed ultimately to Falstaff's uncensored identity as Sir John Oldcastle or Lord Cobham, the Lollard burned for heresy by his friend Henry V and revered by Puritans as a heroic martyr. Much as Falstaff dominates many a performance of Henry IV, so Oldcastle dominates John Foxe's 'ecclesiasticall historie' of Henry V's reign: for him, that was the time when a synod was called 'to represse the growing and spreading of the Gospell, and especially to withstand the noble and worthy Lorde Cobham', chief favourer of the Lollards.26 Oldcastle, however, was the subject of religious controversy in the sixteenth century and had a dual identity as reckless profligate (the Catholic version) and repentant sinner-turned-saint (the Protestant).27 Shakespeare's comic debunking (and final 'excommunication') of the Protestant hero counterbalances whatever anti-Catholic attitudes might have been read into his presentation of northern rebellion; and the ideas of sin, rebuke, repentance, and grace which are intrinsic to the fat rogue's characterization are gravely relevant to the uncomic characters on both sides of the political divide.

Examination of the ways in which Henry IV is shaped by ideas of grace and rebuke, so that an earlier age seems to disclose the major patterns of Tudor experience, must begin with the associated ideas of pilgrimage, crusade, and reformation. The chroniclers mention that Henry had plans at the end of his reign to go on a crusade to recover Jerusalem from the infidels. Shakespeare seizes on this idea, makes it frame the whole of Henry's reign, and gives it the character of a pilgrimage. Henry's motives in this project combine and confuse the political and the spiritual: he would busy restless minds with foreign quarrels, and he would expiate the murder of Richard II, a shared guilt which he never explicitly acknowledges until the end. Henry's sense of guilt and shame, his feeling that present and impending troubles are retribution for past mistreadings, seems to involve the whole nation, so that his postponed pilgrimage effectively symbolizes a general quest for redemptive grace. As in Holinshed, whose favourite rendering of anno domini is 'in the year of our redemption', and above all as in St Paul, who urges the Ephesians to put off the unregenerate old man, 'redeeming the time: for the days are evil' (Ephesians 5.15-16), history here is time conceived as a quest for liberation from the sins of the past and the present. Falstaff, the sensual, time-wasting 'old boar' who feeds 'in the old frank' with pagan 'Ephesians … of the old church' (2:2.2.111-14), personifies (among other things) the unregenerate order.28 It is that order which Hal must reject if he is to redeem time past and present and crown the future with a glittering 'reformation' (1:1.2.201-5), thus fitting the role, given him by the chroniclers, of a madcap prince who miraculously became 'a new man'.29

The idea that England is almost hopelessly seeking to recover lost grace is posited in the opening scene of Part 1. Westmoreland discloses that Council had to 'brake off' its 'business for the Holy Land' on hearing that 'the noble Mortimer' and his men had fallen into 'the rude hands' of 'the irregular and wild Glendower', and that the corpses of his butchered men suffered 'Such beastly shameless transformation … as may not be / Without much shame retold or spoken of (1.1.38-46). Henry complains that 'riot and dishonour stain the brow' of the heir apparent and that the pride and malevolence of his erstwhile friends compel him to 'neglect / Our holy purpose to Jerusalem' (lines 84-101).

Although the word itself is not introduced until 1.2, this opening scene begins to suggest the wide spectrum of meaning in 'grace'. Initially there is grace in the religious sense, and it refers primarily to the process by which military-political aggression is given supreme justification. In Part I the Percys make much of the fact that the 'noble prelate well beloved', the Archbishop of York, 'commends the plot' to overthrow Henry: 'it cannot choose but be a noble plot', concludes Hotspur (1:3.165, 277; 2.3.19). Gadshill's comment on the parallel action to rob royal officers and pilgrims reflects ironically on the northern prelate's blessing (while hinting perhaps at the historical parallel in a characteristically ambivalent manner): the involvement in the action of the 'nobility and tranquillity'—who 'pray continually to their saint, the commonwealth, or rather … prey on her'—serves to 'do the profession [of highwaymen] some grace' (1.1.69-78). It is only in Part 2, however, that 'The Archbishop's grace of York' (1:3.2.119) becomes actively rebellious. Without him, the people could never have been persuaded to rise with the Percys a second time. 'The gentle Archbishop', reports Morton to Northumberland, binds his followers because he 'Derives from Heaven his quarrel and his cause', 'Turns insurrection to religion', and arms himself with a holy relic, 'the blood / Of fair King Richard, scraped from Pomfret stones' (2:1.1.189-206). That this speech is given in the opening scene to a character called Morton (who...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

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