Machiavelli and the Elizabethans

Stephen GardinerIn 1555, Bishop Stephen Gardiner wrote a treatise to King Phillip II of Spain, in which he borrowed (aka plagiarized) extensively from Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses. Gardiner did not credit Machiavelli or attribute any of his quotes, but rather copied some of Machiavelli’s content verbatim or very closely.

This was less than two decades after Machiavelli’s works had been first printed, and before Pope Paul placed it on the Index librorum prohibitorum, effectively banning it in Catholic countries (but also making it more interesting, as any banned book inevitably becomes, thus guaranteeing its publication and translation).

Some two decades earlier, in 1536, Cardinal Reginald Pole wrote his Apologia ad Carolum Quintum. Pole claimed that The Prince was a satire, albeit an evil one (one that exposed the aracana imperii, or secrets of rule). He denounced Machiavelli as being “in league with the devil” and that Il principe was “written by the finger of Satan”:

In the Apologia ad Carolum Quintum (1539) Reginald Pole claimed to know, on the basis of a conversation with Thomas Cromwell some ten years earlier and subsequent inquiry into Cromwell’s views, that Machiavelli’s Il Principe had been the inspiration behind Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome, declare himself head of the church, and seize the property of the English monasteries.*

That suggests The Prince was well known by Cromwell, and possibly even by Henry himself. Who supplied Cromwell with a copy of the work is unknown, but Pole had been in Italy in 1529. However, 1529 is too early for a printed copy: the first printed edition of The Prince was 1532. Perhaps he obtained a hand-copied edition.

Pole’s Apologia, however, was not published until 1744. It might have been shared among his peers and fellow theologians, but it did not have a wider reach for another two centuries (when it provided leverage for the popular notion of a Machiavellian Henry VIII).*

Nonetheless, this and other contemporary denunciations helped bring Machiavelli’s The Prince to the attention of the English court very soon after its first publication (q.v. The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, ed. John Najemy, 2010). Ideas spread rapidly during the Renaissance.

By the time of Gardiner’s writing, Machiavelli had been denounced many times, by many more critics (especially by church allies and defenders). He was even declared a “literate atheist” in 1557. That same year, the Inquisition demanded the “utter destruction” of all of Machiavelli’s works. Ironically, this helped spread them faster in an era of intellectual curiosity and questioning or authority (it was the Reformation, after all, so anything the church opposed was consumed with relish by advocates of reform).

Gardiner – Bishop of Winchester under Henry VIII, and later Lord Chancellor to Queen Mary – was a staunch Catholic, but obviously both curious and intellectually intrigued, even by a writer which his fellow theologians like Pole denounced. He died shortly after writing this final work, so his motives were never questioned. However, in Gardiner’s defence, he was writing before Machiavelli was placed on the Index, so there was no official proscription yet.

He wrote this piece in English – surprisingly not in Latin which was the lingua franca of governance and church then, and a language in which Gardiner was fluent. The treatise was translated into Italian posthumously, in 1556, for presentation Phillip II (Queen Mary‘s Spanish husband; Mary was herself to die shortly afterwards, in 1558), then in Brussels. Phillip II, however, could not speak either English or Italian, but was fluent in Spanish, Latin and French.

The translator was George Rainsford, a courtier in the late Henry VIII’s circle. The English version of Gardiner’s work hasn’t survived, but there are two copies of the Italian translation intact (q.v. A Machiavellian Treatise by Stephen Gardiner, by Peter Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, 1975). The treatise is titled “A Discourse on the Coming of the English and Normans to Britain,” and when sent to Phillip II, it was paired with a piece Rainsford himself wrote, called “Ritratto d’Inghilterra” or “Portrait of England.”

Gardiner’s part is structured as a dialogue between two men, in which “Stephano” teaches “Alphonso” about the English historical experience in Machiavellian terms. It is essentially a guide for Phillip II in how to rule England using the techniques Machiavelli described in his books as used by people such as Caesare Borgia.

Had it been exposed before his death, there is good reason to believe other members of the English court would have felt it treasonable. Many in the court feared that Phillip would become king of England when Mary died. Had Gardiner lived, he could have faced serious consequences – even execution – under Elizabeth.

Gardiner read Machiavelli. Who else in his circle also read him? How widespread was knowledge of Machiavelli in Tudor England?

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