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?

While the treatise is a fascinating work of Tudor politics (as is Gardiner’s life and role in the politically-shifting Tudor reign), it is more interesting to me for its proof that Machiavelli’s works were read in England well before they were translated into English. Or at least before any known translation. The first documented translation of The Discourses was by Edward Dacres, in 1636, followed by his translation of The Prince in 1640. By then, Charles I was on the throne and England braced for civil war. Another Cromwell would read The Prince.

But clearly, Machiavelli was widely known in Elizabeth’s England. His Art or War had been translated into English as early as 1560 (translated by Peter Whitehorne) and the Florentine Histories was translated by Thomas Bedingfield in 1595. How widely read they were is unknown, but neither book has ever had the same popular interest as his two “major” pieces: The Prince and The Discourses.

However, mostly Machiavelli was known through his critics, in particular that of Innocent Gentillet, who published his damning Discours contre Machievel in 1576 (in French). Gentillet was the prime force that made the popular the association of Machiavelli with Satan among Elizabethan dramatists and poets (q.v. Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama, by Edward Meyer, 1897). Gentillet was translated into English by Simon Patericke in 1577.

Meyer combed Elizabethan literature and uncovered “no less than 395 references to Machiavelli” but he notes that the maxims attributed to him were “in four cases out of five not to be found in his writings at all, but were all perverted from the same in a manner infinitely unjust.” Hence his attribution of Gentillet’s influence.

As Meyer also points out, there were French translations of The Prince in 1553 and 1586 which reached England, as well as several Latin translations dating from 1560 to 1599. Outside of court circles and some merchants, Italian would not have been a common tongue for the English. Latin, of course, was still used in church services and taught in schools and universities – many scholarly, medical, philosophical and theological works were still written in Latin – but during Elizabeth’s reign, prayer books and church services were done in English.

Meyer suggests there may have been an earlier English translation  of  The Prince “for this most widely read of all Machiavelli’s works would hardly have remained unenglished, when less important works… had been published.” However, this version has never been found. Any reasonably well-educated person in Elizabeth’s time could have read either a Latin or french version, however.

A 1588 criticism of Machiavelli by English scholar and physician, John Case, suggests he was familiar with these works. However, Case commented on his satisfaction they had not yet been translated into the vernacular so English people had not yet been influenced by them. This suggests that no popular version was available, but there may still have been hand-copied translations in circulation.

It is well-established that Machiavelli was known – through his critics, if not necessarily through his own words – by the great Elizabethan dramatists. There are three references to Machiavelli in Shakespeare alone (q.v. this article):

Three of them are in plays of Shakespeare; what is interesting is that two of the three are from the lips of Shakespeare’s greatest Machiavel, Richard III (when he was still Duke of Gloucester):
Alencon! that notorious Machiavel!
It dies, an if it had a thousand lives. (Henry VI, Part I)

I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school. (Henry VI, Part III)

The third reference is by the Host in The Merry Wives of Windsor:
“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”

Shakespeare’s image of the Machiavel as (to use his adjectives) “subtle,” “notorious,” and “murderous” was standard-issue Elizabethan. Machiavelli himself was believed to be “a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago” (Isaiah Berlin, The Question of Machiavelli).

But not all despised or ridiculed him. Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan philosopher and statesman, clearly respected and admired Machiavelli. In De augmentis scientiarum (Book 7, ch. 2, and Book 8, ch. 2), he defended Machiavelli as one who spoke truthfully, rather than with evil intent:

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and other writers of that class, who openly and unfeignedly declare and describe what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil.

But while Machiavelli may have been read by others, my question is: did Queen Elizabeth herself read him? I suspect so. She was fluent in French, Italian and Latin, so could have read a copy, had one been found in her father’s library (assuming Mary did not have such heretical books burned).

But is there proof of a copy? Perhaps. Princeton University has a 1532 bound edition of The Prince and The Discourses stamped with a Tudor Rose that has an inscription (apparently written after the fact) that it belonged to Elizabeth. However, tempting as it is to believe, that has not been proven, yet it fits. (q.v. Machiavelli In the British Isles)

Elizabeth did not license The Prince or The Discourses for publication during her reign, although she did allow The Florentine Histories and The Art of War to be printed in England. So she was at least aware of Machiavelli.

My suspicion is fueled by wording in two speeches Elizabeth gave, one in 1576 at the close of Parliament, and the other in 1586 “in answer to a petition from both Houses of Parliament.” I also wonder about a reference in a speech from 1601, her “Golden Speech.” (q.v. Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works, Folger Library, ed. Stephen May, Washington Square Press, 2004).

While not quotes, they seem (to me) to echo sentiments in The Prince. For her 1576 speech, Elizabeth wrote,

Can a prince, which of necessity discontent a number to delight an please a few, continue so long time without great offence, much mislike, or common grudge? Or haps it oft that princes’ actions are conceived in so good part and favourably interpreted?

In 1586, she wrote (in words that presage modern paparazzi and bloggers),

…we princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed. The eyes of many behold our actions; a spot is soon spied in our garments, a blemish quickly noted in our doings. It behooveth us to be careful that our proceedings be just and honorable.

And in 1601:

Of My selfe I must say this, I never was any greedy scraping grasper, nor a strict fast holding Prince, nor yet a waster. My heart was never set upon any worldly goods, but only for my Subjects good. What you doe bestow on Me, I will not hoard up, but receive it to bestow on you againe; yea Mine owne Properties I account yours to bee expended for your good, and your eyes shall see the bestowing of it for your wellfare… And if my Princely bountie have beene abused, and my Grants turned to the hurt of my People contrary to my will and meaning, or if any in Authoritie under mee have neglected, or converted what I have committed unto them, I hope God they will not lay their culps to my charge.

She also wrote in a speech in 1563:

Since there can be no duer (1) debt than princes’ word, to keep that unspotted for my part, as one that would be loath that the self thing that keepeth merchant’s credit from craze should be the cause that princes’ speeches should merit blame, and so their honor quail; an answer therefore I will make and this it is: the two proceedings that you presented me, in many words expressed, contained these two things: my sortie in marriage, and of your cares the greatest, my succession, of which two the last I think is best be touched, and of the other a silent thought may serve, for I had thought it had been so desired as none other tree’s blossoms should have been minded (2) or hope of my fruit had been denied you.
(1 duer, i.e. “more due”, more befitting.
2 or, unless. Some transcribers change “or” to “ere”, which gives a subtle difference in meaning, but the manuscript clearly reads “or.”)

In several of Elizabeth’s speeches she talks of a prince or princely duty, in the third person, as if she was reading from a text about such matters. Modern interpreters have compared her actions to several Machiavellian themes: the lion and the fox, and how it is better for a leader to be feared than loved. And in her own speeches she echoed Machiavelli’s sentiments that a ruler needs the support of the people; power did not ride from just catering to special interests.

Of course that’s post hoc attribution, but it’s hard not to wonder whether Machiavelli was part of Elizabeth’s political education, given the historical connections from Pole through Cromwell to Gardiner and the dramatists of the later 16th century. Machiavelli was evidently known in Elizabethan England; I like to believe he was part of Elizabeth’s reading as well.

* Pole himself had been in Padua in 1527, where he was likely first introduced to Machiavelli’s ideas. He returned to England and had his conversation with Cromwell. He left to study in Paris, in 1529, where he was asked by Henry VIII to get support from the University of Paris for his divorce, which he claims to have resisted. He returned to Italy again in 1532, the year The Prince was first published. In 1536, Pole wrote a controversial work (published 1539) titled “De Unitate Ecclesiae” (Defense of the Unity of the Church) in which he argued against the divorce of his king, Henry VIII and launched a scathing attack on Henry’s policies. (q.v. this translation of the Defense)

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Ian Chadwick
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Author: Ian Chadwick

Semi-retired writer, editor, reviewer, media relations & communications consultant. Former municipal politician. Researcher. Ukulele and guitar player. Aficionado of Shakespeare, Horace, Chaucer, Cicero, and tequila. Curmudgeon and cynic. Lay historian. Godzilla and ERB fan. PC gamer. Avid reader. Skeptic. Website and WordPress tinkerer. Companion to one dog and three cats. Loving husband. Passionate about my small town. Perennially curious about everything. Blog:

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