“For I am a Brid of Paradise”
By Deborah Youngs
They captivate our imagination, and they inhabit our multi-media screens with their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings, these flashy, larger-than-life Tudors. We’ve seen a panoply of kings and queens, princes and dukes and earls and noble ladies, and we’ve watched as a dynasty is born and thrives. And amidst all this pageantry, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that any historical age is full of people – people who never win a crown, or wear one, or forfeit one.
These people never make it to court, never trade witticisms with My Lord or Your Grace, never accompany heads of state on progresses, never even get levied for troops or money. They in their uncounted thousands simply live their lives as best they can, trying to look out for their own fortunes and the fortunes of their children, fearing the ills of this life and the punishments of the next, marveling from afar at the great goings on in London.
And yet, as surely as any age stamps its inhabitants, these people were Tudors too, living in a time of royal-born upheaval, caught up in momentous events that would reshape their world whether they wanted it or not. The perturbations of the time redounded to every shire and every village, eventually, just as the constant threat of plague or renewed civil war created a shared anxiety. New or better technologies – in farming, in clothing, especially in printing – worked even more fundamental changes, and these changes were experienced by famous and obscure alike, uniting everyone in what one historian famously called “the iron bands of time.”
The parade of our Tudor year began with the most famous and notorious of them all, Henry VIII, who spent his father’s treasury, warred with France, broke with the Catholic Church, discarded, beheaded, and divorced six wives, and grew to become a bloated caricature of everything kingship is in the popular mind, then or now. Henry could be short of temper; he was often short of money; and the worry he felt about his personal legacy fought constantly with his desire to enjoy his life. These are common things, felt by everybody, and yet when we say them about a crowned figure, they somehow seem more remarkable, as though they could suddenly teach insightful lessons.
Humphrey Newton was born in Cheshire a generation before Henry VIII, in 1466, when England was ruled by the House of York and war was on the horizon. He was a boy of ten when the first book was printed in England, and he was twenty-four in 1490, during the reign of Henry VII, when he married a local Cheshire heiress named Ellen Fitton. The young couple were part of a long-standing social tradition of English landed gentry, and they seem to have known what they were about: the hard-headed business of the gentry was to survive the upheavals of the nobility and the ruling houses, to studiously add to wealth and property (while somehow contriving to keep both out of the hands of the aforementioned nobility and royalty), and to leave it all free and clear to a healthy male heir. The two estates to which Humphrey had rites of inheritance – one at Newton and one at Pownall – had been tended to by men like his father and father-in-law for long generations whose workings are largely invisible to us, six centuries later.
The unsung heroes of any historical discipline are the researchers who dig everywhere in the hopes of uncovering some bit of what those generations were like – what they ate, what they feared or valued, how they spent their time, what they thought. Deborah Youngs, in her book Humphrey Newton (1466-1536): An Early Tudor Gentleman, is one such heuristical hero, and her clear-eyed, judicious account is as different a thing from the chronicles of crowns and armies and armadas as can be readily imagined. When history turns its attention to the kings who ruled England during Humphrey Newton’s life, a wealth of primary documents and firsthand observations rises up and needs to be paired and parsed. On the rare occasions when it turns its attention to such men as Humphrey himself, the opposite is true: Humphrey disappears almost entirely, often for long stretches, and a great deal of his life is recoverable only through statistics and surmise.
|Youngs maintains an admirable sangfroid about her subject at all times. She knows there’s no glamour to be found in fragmentary record-books and faded church inscriptions in Wilmslow parish (where Humphrey’s tomb is today glanced at by a fraction of those who dutifully trek through Windsor Palace). She likewise knows very well (probably better than anybody else) the full extent of Humphrey’s renown, which she states in one impassive line: “This book is not about a person of whom many will hitherto have heard.” It’s hard not to like an author who can thus sum up what even the most casual reader will recognize as a herculean amount of work. Humphrey was not a great man, not even in Cheshire, but he was a proudly substantial one, and although he never sat on the Council or welcomed a royal visit to his halls (and, as Youngs points out, “no Newton family member had gone near a battlefield for over 100 years”), he and his kind formed the backbone of the nation, though none but the most vain among them would have imagined it.|
It was a nation in the grip of great changes. Not only were the Wars of the Roses coming to a climax, but social shockwaves were rippling through every level of life. The previous generations had seen a large part of their world’s population die off during the Black Death, and the resultant strengthening of an entrepreneurial working class has been well studied (in Cheshire as elsewhere, for instance, it prompted a move from labor-intensive harvesting to the raising of livestock). In the aftermath of that grim accounting, the bright currents of continental culture were flooding the cities and shires of England, and the local grandees of Cheshire had to deal with those changes just like everybody else.
It’s a stirring time, when men were just beginning to free themselves from many of medieval feudalism’s most shackling mindframes and sense a newer, bigger world, and all men felt it to some degree or other, from the kings in London riding in state to the humblest townsperson. Of those humblest townspeople, at least in the early fifteenth century, we will likely never know many specifics. But if you look one rung up the ladder, to people like Humphrey, you begin to find details – and if you’re lucky, you’ll have somebody like Youngs along to sort everything out, put it all in its proper scholarly context, and do the best job the evidence allows at showing you how such people actually lived. It’s an added bonus that Youngs frequently displays an almost novelistic imagination – it’s little imaginative flourishes of this type that make the reading of history such endless fun. Here’s how she opens her book:
On 8 December 1499, Humphrey Newton walked around the grounds of his estate in Newton, Cheshire, accompanied by Thomas Cross, a local builder. Cross was to construct the new fulling mill at Newton and had already supplied Humphrey with an estimate for the work. As Humphrey’s estate was to provide the raw materials, the two men spent some time pinpointing the trees suitable for the building project. Around a dozen were to be felled, and Humphrey made careful note of their location and their purpose. He appears to have been a man with a keen eye for trees and, in a spare page in his notebook, he sketched the form of a tall tree, which he then made home to a parrot, high up in its branches, and a hovering osprey. It was also the resting place of a bird about which Humphrey seemed a little unsure: he wrote around the drawing ‘crow or egle.’ The hooked beak and talons can only suggest a bird of prey, but perhaps Humphrey had some other query in mind that was beyond his limited artistic skills.
Two things leap out at the reader from that passage: first, Youngs’ abiding fairness – she’s quick both to infer his competence to manage the resources of his land and to bluntly assess his artistic abilities – and second: that notebook, the one with the charming-sounding sketch in it.
Youngs writes, “It is such details that fascinate the historian and which identify a person. Individuals often reveal themselves in the flash of an eye, a laugh, a gesture, or a desire,” but those revealing details almost always go unrecorded in the lives of ordinary people (and despite the fact that he died possessing roughly a thousand acres of land, in the perspective of fifteenth century history, we can consider Humphrey an ordinary person). What makes Humphrey Netwon’s case different, what puts him in a much smaller company, is the fact that he kept a commonplace book, and it survives.
It’s not big, but in its own humble way, it’s glorious. Here Humphrey indulged in that same personal quickening of individuality we’ve already seen reflected in the variety of Henry VII’s court amusements (and his passion for his library), a king and an unknown back-country almost-squire, both caught in the same cultural surge. Humphrey used his commonplace book for everything – vocabulary drills, accounts, lists, poetry (Youngs is right to point out that he’s one of the only English poets of his period whose name we know, although again, she’s putting only modest weight on the ‘poet’ part), prayers, speculations, and practicing various ways to sign his name. It has every bit as much variety as the journal of young Edward VI, except no Dukes die in it.
The commonplace book was a new vogue at the time Humphrey wrote his; booksellers sold them ready-made, complete with some pre-printed material (form letters, famous quotations, lists of kings, etc.) and plenty of blank pages for the buyer to add whatever he thought important, and Youngs gives a quick overview of what kinds of things those might be: “By the early Tudor period, a gentleman could be familiar with collections of sermons, confession manuals, or a vernacular bible, as well as a number of ‘how to’ books that recounted the correct way to live and die well.” Humphrey’s book is also alive with artwork; his sketches are its most fascinating part, although even here, Youngs, though affectionate, is precise in her estimations:
…he drew the more gentle faces of bushy-haired aristocratic youths, of young maidens, of a monk, of birds such as the eagle and the osprey, and the face of a lion. They were not merely idle doodles, but attempts to improve his artistic skills. He appears to have needed the practice. Humphrey’s sketch of a skeleton is the product of someone who is trying to draw with care, but without much flair.
In Humphrey’s, we find all manner of things jumbled together, as Youngs adroitly points out:
His commonplace book juxtaposes the length of marl pits, trees, chapel walls, bricks, and a bed next to the length of Christ’s wound, Christ’s foot, and the limits of the heavens. The combination of practicality and a type of ‘number mysticism’ is further seen in Humphrey’s sums and balances: dower payments and servants’ wages were trotted up alongside pardons and the number of Christ’s wounds.
The Humphrey Newton who emerges from this commonplace book – and from Youngs portrait – could be a rough customer, as his researcher is the first to point out: “He ruffled feathers, wrangled more of the Fitton inheritance than his wife was entitled to, and took advantage of widows.” He enlisted his sons in his various grievances with neighboring members of the minor landed gentry (including sometimes sending the boys to inflict property damage, presumably when he was frustrated with the law’s delays), and he had a desire to leave an impression on this world that was no less intense than that of the Tudors who came to rule his world, for all that it was painted on a smaller canvas. And like the first of those Tudors, he didn’t flinch from his past:
He indulged in the mania of establishing a family crest, the same mania that would consume so much of Henry VII’s time, as we’ve seen (and which would compel Shakespeare’s energy in the next generation). Humphrey’s would include representations of the popinjay, a bird with long family associations, and even here, there is the note of newfound sprightly pride that was a signature of the Tudor age, as Humphrey writes about that little popinjay in his commonplace book poetry:
Min coloures byn both brizt & shene
And me desires both kynge & qwene
Lords & ladies of gret emprisese
For I am a brid of paradise.
Those lines were written in privacy (as Youngs puts it, Humphrey must have found some quiet corners of Newton and Pownall Hall), perhaps shared with family but certainly with nobody else, and yet there as bright as day is the gamecock braggadocio that is unmistakably Tudor. Their author might have been more concerned with naming of local heath than the christening of a nation’s navy, and his legal battles might have been with the vile Pigots of Butley instead of the Catholic Church, but the spirit of the age breathes in them all the same, as recognizable as a new comet in the sky.
By the time Youngs has brought her detailed scholarly tour de force to a conclusion, her main goal is admirably achieved: Humphrey Newton is a real person, going about his real life in Cheshire, and the knowledge of its details brings alive our appreciation of Tudor era England like no ten new biographies of Bloody Mary could ever hope to do. Humphrey lived until almost seventy years of age (“a fair old age in early Tudor England,” Youngs writes, “when, assuming one had survived childhood, the average life expectancy was around fifty”), and he left behind a thriving clan steadily moving up in the world. And in Youngs’ final glimpse of him (the statue of him carved on his tomb) we see another characteristic aspect of the new age being born – the beginnings of civic peace, an era Elizabeth I would extol as being one of relative tranquility, in which men like Humphrey could go about their business without forever taking up arms:
Despite dying at sixty-nine, Humphrey is presented in the prime of life (his mid-thirties), the age that souls were believed to attain at resurrection. He is smooth-skinned and clean-shaven, with the common long bobbed haircut of the early sixteenth century. …What is striking, however, is the choice of clothing. He is dressed as a civilian and wears a full-sleeved fur-trimmed red robe that reaches to his feet; traces of red and black paint can still be seen.
Humphrey died in 1536, 19 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, three years after Henry VIII forsook all ecclesiastical tradition to marry Anne Boleyn, and only one year after Thomas More and John Fisher were executed for not bowing to the king’s will in that marriage. These were the affairs of the mighty, but they show a spirit, defiance of fate and a longing to secure the future that far humbler men like Humphrey Newton understood perfectly.
In this as in so many things, he was as much a Tudor as any king or queen of his day; it’s what binds his story to theirs, and it’s what makes their story so endlessly fascinating to us. We face a different age and many different futures, but we too reveal ourselves in the flash of an eye, a laugh, a gesture, a desire. In this way we are all Tudors, maybe just a little.
Steve Donoghue owns and operates a sorghum mill outside of Gentry, Missouri; in the pre-dawn hours he reads from his library of over 40,000 books, and after the sun sets he posts on his literary blog Stevereads.