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Elyot, Thomas (c. 1490–1546) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

elyot’s governor more’s books

The Book of the Governor by Sir Thomas Elyot, humanist and courtier, was one of the most popular publications of sixteenth-century England. A guidebook written in English on how to become a virtuous, sophisticated, and accomplished member of the ruling class, it was reprinted at least eight times during the Tudor period. More’s* Utopia , by contrast, was not translated into English during the author’s life. The Governor was considered useful by members of the gentry class for several generations beyond Elyot’s time. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy, as did another prestigious member of the eighteenth-century Virginia planter aristocracy, William Byrd II. In other books, Elyot was a political commentator whose views ran counter to Henrician Reformation policies, yet he still managed to die of natural causes.

Thomas Elyot was born in or just prior to 1490. His father, Richard, was a lawyer and instructor at the Inns of Court who owned two manors in Wiltshire. Thomas developed an avid interest in medicine early in life, a pursuit that would later be reflected in his Castle of Health . But by 1511 he had started on a path of public service as clerk of the assize on the western circuit, where his father was judge. Thomas was a friend and pupil of Thomas More, studying Latin, Greek, logic, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and astronomy in More’s home (Lehmberg, 6). He went on to study at Oxford, and in 1522 he married Margaret Abarrow of Hampshire in a union that would prove childless. The deaths of his father and a cousin put him into a considerable inheritance in 1523, including three sizable estates, of which he chose Combe in Oxfordshire as his main residence.

It is unclear how Elyot attracted the attention of Cardinal Wolsey, but by the mid-1520s he served as chief clerk of the king’s Privy Council, a post with considerably more political influence than its title might sound to the modern reader. Elyot was also “pricked” (compulsory royal nomination) as sheriff of Oxford and Berkshire in 1527, and the two counties were joined for that purpose, remaining so until the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth.* Elyot’s swift rise met an even swifter fall, as he was summarily dismissed from the King’s Council in 1530 without compensation and with no clear explanation extant.

His Book of the Governor appeared in print in 1531, the impressiveness of which most likely accounts for his appointment as ambassador to the imperial court, where he was charged with a mission to persuade Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, to cooperate with Henry VIII’s divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Charles was Catherine’s nephew, and Elyot’s diplomatic predicament was made all the more difficult by his sympathy for the queen’s cause. Elyot doubtless shared with Thomas More and other humanists the belief that since truth is singular in nature, the possibility of more than one Christian church is logically untenable and spiritually disastrous, with civil and social devastations to ensue. Elyot thought that Henry’s unhealthy struggles with the papacy were primarily the fault of court flatterers who fanned the flames of the king’s considerable inherent passions. He thus found himself in a hopeless position of urging the English court to maintain cordial relations with Spain, all the while aware that Charles was unlikely to assent to Henry’s heretical actions, some of which asserted that his marriage to Queen Catherine was sinful and unlawful. Some scholars have suggested that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Elyot acted as a secret agent for Charles V, cooperating with the Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, to work for Roman Catholicism and giving clandestine assistance to the victims of the Protestant Reformation in England. If he did so, he did not state his reasons directly in his writings. At any rate, Elyot never made overt affronts against Henry’s religious changes and was careful to distance himself from his old tutor, More, as he sank deeper into trouble.

Meanwhile, Elyot had formed, ironically in retrospect, a friendship with Thomas Cromwell,* who became the king’s secretary, most influential adviser, and chief engineer of the Henrician Reformation. Elyot’s correspondence with Cromwell dates from at least 1528. Elyot attempted to withdraw from politics following his first diplomatic mission to Charles V and devote himself to his literary works. In 1532 he attempted to relinquish his local posts as well, pleading with Cromwell to release him from his duties as sheriff of Cambridgeshire. The office of sheriff carried diminished authority since the late Middle Ages but retained considerable and costly obligations. Cromwell insisted he stay on as sheriff.

Rumors of Elyot’s Catholicism led to an investigation by Cromwell and eight members of the Privy Council from 1534 to 1537. Elyot admitted that his library contained a copy of Richard Pace’s* translation of Bishop Fisher’s sermon against Luther but that he was unable to locate it. Perhaps to quell further suspicions of his sympathy with the cloistered clergy, he participated in a commission to survey monastic property in preparation for their dissolution.

Elyot returned to international politics in 1535, once again as ambassador to the court of Charles V, at that time located in Naples. Here he learned the news of More’s execution, which had taken place on 6 June 1535. Elyot’s friendship with More increased royal suspicions regarding his religion, despite his protestations of having accepted Henry’s arrangements as the best hope of reforming church corruption. Perhaps in part to put aside the memory of More’s martyrdom among humanists, Henry warmly encouraged Elyot to take up the useful project of compiling a Latin–English dictionary in 1536. Elyot’s public renunciation of the old religion appears to have been complete by 1540, as he attended the reception of Henry’s new Protestant bride, Anne of Cleves, at Blackheath. He even dedicated his new book, The Defense of Good Women , to Anne. Elyot weathered Cromwell’s fall and execution successfully, though he had purchased property from Cromwell shortly before his imprisonment. He served as member of Parliament from Cambridgeshire in 1539 and 1542. He died in 1546, writing and publishing, with the concurrence of Roger Ascham, almost to the end. A monument was erected to his memory, which has since been destroyed. The location of his burial site in Cambridgeshire has been lost.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

The Book of the Governor appears to have approached the level of required reading for the sixteenth-century English gentleman. Two centuries later in Britain’s American colonies, continuing interest in the book can be seen in the lives of such aristocrats as William Byrd II of Virginia, who busied himself making a conscious attempt to put Elyot’s advice into practice (Lockridge, 22–25, 49– 50, 142). The educational theory in The Governor also became the ideal for members of the gentry class. Just as government-sponsored education is supposed to produce good citizens today, a classically educated elite in Elyot’s day and for long thereafter was meant to produce enlightened “governors” whose wisdom and largesse protected the best interests of the people, enabling them to enjoy traditional rights while enjoining them to volunteer to perform traditional obligations in a harmoniously functioning organism aptly named a commonwealth. Elyot believed that class distinctions should be upheld but that the elite should be trained in such a way as to preclude social exploitation, persistently maintaining a gentle and familiar “visage” to their inferiors to make them more approachable.

The main point of controversy among some recent scholars of Elyot’s literary works is whether or not he intended his books to send disapproving messages about Henry VIII. Scholarship is undivided on the abundance of evidence of   Elyot’s religious conservatism (e.g., Governor , II, 210–11) and of his reluctance to concede to the king and Cromwell’s solution for church reform. But Elyot’s criticism of typical political behavior as contrasted to his arguments in favor of the ideal in The Governor can easily be seen as his underscorings of the shoddy and unethical environment of high politics in England. Henry’s apparent approval and enjoyment of The Governor when it first came into print in 1531 seem inconsistent unless explained away by positing that the king certainly thought of himself as principled, a conclusion based more on contemplating his inner self than by analyzing his actions (Caspari, 89).

Elyot’s withdrawal from politics in 1532, followed by his writing Pasquil the Plain and Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man in 1532–33, has led to interpretations of these books as vindications of Thomas More (Major, 102–3). Elyot shared the belief of Erasmus and most humanists that the need for friendship sets us apart from animals and accentuates our special quality as divine creations. Furthermore, Elyot repeated the Greek notion in Image of Governance (1541) that Eros is present in friendship bonds. It would be hard to doubt that Elyot suffered for More’s predicament, perhaps all the more so because he lacked the stubborn substance of saints. The thesis that Elyot used his books against Henry can be expanded by reading Catherine of Aragon as the “good woman” in his Defense of Good Women (Lehmberg, 212). Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism presents two similarly worded quotations—one from Elyot and another from More’s son-in-law, Roper—as conclusive evidence that Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man was “veiled commentary on More’s resignation from the chancellorship” (Major, 103), without considering Roper’s likely familiarity with Knowledge , perhaps finding its lament that good counselors are more valuable than cities an apt metaphor to apply to his martyred father-in-law.

Other scholars have found conceptual leaps based on juxtaposing texts implausible (Hogrefe, 310–11). The likelihood that Elyot’s works were clandestine criticism of the establishment is further diminished by a lack of corroborating contemporary perceptions of his books as seditious works. If Elyot indeed intended to exonerate More and Catherine, among others, the point was missed by his readers, including the king, during the Reformation crisis.

On more solid evidential ground are modern investigations showing Shakespeare’s* use of Elyot’s political theory in his plays (Phillips). Shakespeare lifted phrases verbatim from The Governor in writing Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus (Starnes), indicating that perhaps Elyot’s perceptions passed into conventional wisdom.

Etiquette books have a way of enduring beyond the normal life expectancy of how-to books of advice, though few people succeed in internalizing their precepts and rules. The durability of The Book of the Governor , a book of political etiquette, is likewise remarkable, all the more so considering how few leaders turned out as bearing the qualities Elyot so plainly described.

Thomas Elyot likely did more to spread the popularity of humanism than any writer in England. Nonetheless, because of his lack of literary brilliance and relatively uneventful life, his memory has dissolved into obscurity outside the world of specialized scholarship.

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