MACAULAY, Thomas Babington: The History of England from 1485 to 1685 (ed. Peter Rowland) (The Folio Society: London, 1985)
Before we look at Macaulay, let me give you one of mine from the classroom. It’s always an attention-grabber – you can see students falling into a few different categories:
a) people who clearly haven’t considered the issue before but are now thinking rapidly;
b) those who panic at the agency I’m potentially giving them; and
c) the ones who get a twinkle in their eye and would like to test my theory but daren’t.
I hardly ever get a d) can’t be bothered or not listening …
So here’s mine, which usually runs along the lines of:
‘Power is often a ‘permission-system’. Take a look at today’s lesson. I’m only able to teach you when you give me permission to do so. On days when individually you don’t want to learn, you won’t learn. If you co-operate with each other to prevent me from teaching you, there is absolutely nothing I can do. Sure, there might be consequences, but here and now, if you withdraw your permission to have me teach you either individually or collectively, you will succeed in your objective. And the consequences of that might be for you, but they might also be for me, for your families, for the school, even. A breakdown of a permission system can have devastating effects. Now take this outside the classroom and think about the power structures and dominances that you give permission for in your everyday life.’
And so to Macaulay, who puts it much, much better than I do:
‘The authority of Elizabeth rested solely on the support of her people. Those who say that her power was absolute do not sufficiently consider in what her power consisted. Her power consisted in the willing obedience of her subjects, in their attachment to hr person and to her office, in their respect for the old line from which she sprang, in their sense of the general security which they enjoyed under her government. These were the means, and the only means which she had at her command for carrying her degrees into execution, for resisting foreign enemies, and for crushing domestic treason. There was not a ward in the city, there was not a hundred in any shire in England, which could not have overpowered the handful of armed men who composed her household. If a hostile sovereign threatened invasion, if an ambitious noble raised the standard of revolt, she could have recourse only to the train-bands of her capital and the array of her counties, to the citizens and yeomen of England, commanded by the merchants and esquires of England.’
My emphasis. And a great example of the ‘permission system’ I talk about in class, I think …
This is another of my summer holiday purchases from Leominster, Herefordshire, and another beautiful Folio Society volume for my shelves …
Macaulay’s style is refreshingly ‘muscular’. He avoids aphorism, but does enjoy a good ‘rule of three’ to get his points across forcefully, and I’d say his favourite punctuation mark was the semi-colon (despite the irony that none are used in the passage above). One of the enjoyable things about his writing is that every so often he gets the bit between his teeth and just gallops off on a rant about something or other. Bishop Cranmer is a frequent target. Then you can almost visualise him realising what’s happened and physically getting a grip on himself before pressing reset and moving to a fresh topic. I really recommend this volume, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m only really interested in Richard II through to James I, historically, I’m sure the full History of England would be an absolute riot.
One thought on “Quote of the Week: 28 August”
Lovely edition! And I truly believe Elizabeth was an incredibly shrewd woman. Few historical figures fascinate me as much as she does.