Patrick Collinson

Patrick Collinson succeeded Sir Geoffrey Elton, Thomas Cromwell redivivus, as Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is From Cranmer to Sanford.

It is said that when representatives of the Society of Friends came to Buckingham Palace in 1945 to present a loyal address at the end of World War Two, the king asked who these people were. ‘Some call them Quakers, Your Majesty.’ ‘Oh,’ the king said. ‘I didn’t know that there were any of them left.’ According to the protocols of sociologists of...

Not Biographable: The Faithful Thomas Cromwell

Patrick Collinson, 29 November 2007

After the elimination of Beria from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia it was necessary to insert a section devoted to the Bering Straits. In the dozen or so years since the death of Geoffrey Elton, the Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s prime minister and plenipotentiary, has been similarly airbrushed out of history. Elton, as anyone who did the Tudors for A Levels or read...

Grisly Creed: John Wyclif

Patrick Collinson, 22 February 2007

In about 1950, A.L. Rowse persuaded K.B. McFarlane to contribute to his biographical series ‘Teach Yourself History’ a short book on John Wyclif, an Oxford intellectual dead for six hundred years and the only arch-heretic bred in Catholic England before the Tudors and the Reformation. In one way this wasn’t surprising, since Rowse and McFarlane were friends. But in another...

A Very Active Captain: Henricentrism

Patrick Collinson, 22 June 2006

Henry VIII is the most immediately recognisable of all English monarchs, present company excepted. He has been declared a national icon, and we are told that he vies with Adolf Hitler for the exclusive attention of any secondary school pupil unwise enough to pursue the study of history beyond the age of 14.

On my way to lecture on him in Cambridge once, I left my bike for repair at Ben...

La Bolaing: Anne Boleyn

Patrick Collinson, 18 November 2004

If the past is another country where they do things differently, we may well ask whether we are abroad if we visit the England of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. In September 1528, Henry wrote to Anne: ‘No more to you at this present, mine own darling, for lack of time, but that I would you were in mine arms or I in yours, for I think it long since I kissed you.’ This doesn’t...

What should we mean by ‘Reformation’? Was it a ‘paradigm shift’ of the kind proposed by Thomas Kuhn, a new set of answers to old questions, a Darwinian moment? Perhaps. For Felipe Fernández-Armesto, whose Reformation was published in 1996, it was not so much an event in the 16th century, or even an extended process, as a constant manifestation of the spirit of...

The Cow Bells of Kitale: The Selwyn Affair

Patrick Collinson, 5 June 2003

In a court in western Kenya, on 13 July 1934, Major Geoffrey Selwyn and his wife, Helen, were jointly charged with the murder of a ‘native’. Geoffrey Selwyn, my father-in-law, died before the trial began. Proceedings continued in his absence, and my children’s grandmother was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison. The trial attracted much attention at the time, and...

The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat is a study of Jacobean London, its high life and low life, its media crazes, its commercialism, its vanities, its fluid religiosities: in the alliterative p-words which for some reason fascinated the Jacobethan age, it is peopled with Papists, Puritans, players, printers, pamphlets, pimps, punks and pigs; profit, pride, pleasure and power.

Eamon Duffy’s celebrated The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 (1992), which opened our eyes to the vitality of late medieval English Catholicism, was a book born when its author learned to drive. The motor car diverted him from other historical pursuits and took him to those East Anglian churches which, after a century of drastic iconoclasm, and a...

What news? The Pilgrimage of Grace

Patrick Collinson, 1 November 2001

The crisis, the most severe to hit the regime since it had come into office, began in Lincolnshire. Columns of smoke rose above the English countryside. At one point the nation’s leader was tempted to take personal charge of the management of the crisis. But when the Lincolnshire problem proved to be shortlived, he unwisely wound the preventative operation down, persuading himself that...

Walsingham’s Plumber: John Bossy

Patrick Collinson, 5 July 2001

‘Incidentally, they know you know they know you know the code.’ Peter Ustinov’s Cold War satire Romanoff and Juliet (1956) could have been about Salisbury Court, the London home in the early 1580s of the French Ambassador to the Court of Elizabeth I, Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissière, an establishment described by John Bossy as ‘zany, convivial and...

And Cabbages Too: The Tudors

Patrick Collinson, 22 March 2001

What, for the British Isles, is the shape, scope and character of that rich slice of history which was the 16th century? The titles of the textbooks which have defined the period for the late 20th-century successors of Macaulay’s ‘every schoolboy’ tell their own story: Tudor England (S.T. Bindoff, 1950), England Under the Tudors (G.R. Elton, 1955), Tudor England again (John...

Holy-Rowly-Powliness: The Prayer Book

Patrick Collinson, 4 January 2001

Someone once said that if he looked at his watch at eight minutes past 11 on any Sunday morning, he could be certain that in ten thousand parish churches throughout the length and breadth of England untold thousands would be intoning the eighth verse of the Venite: ‘Today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ We are not told why this perhaps fictitious person was...

Little Bastard: Learning to be Queen

Patrick Collinson, 6 July 2000

In a recent TV programme about King George VI, Peregrine Worsthorne commended his late sovereign for being a dull man, brains being the last thing the British constitution requires of a monarch. It was not always so. Whatever else has been said about the first Elizabeth (one recalls Sheridan’s ‘no scandal about Queen Elizabeth I hope?’) no one has ever complimented her on being dull. In sending her royal brother Edward VI her youthful likeness, soon to be hidden for ever behind the iconic mask of royalty, she apologised for her appearance, ‘the face … I might well blush to offer’, but not for her mind, of which she would never be ashamed. It was a mind which as yet had found few opportunities for action, but ‘as a dog may have its day’, so perhaps her time would come ‘to declare it in deeds’, rather than only in words.‘

Unusual Endowments

Patrick Collinson, 30 March 2000

See another country, learn another language: advice as old as the Greeks. In May 1572, a very young man left England, in the words of his passport, ‘for his attaining to the knowledge of foreign languages’, but attached to a diplomatic mission, something more serious than a mere Grand Tour. He was a participant in the often menacing jollifications which accompanied the finalisation of an Anglo-French treaty and a marriage alliance with the house of Navarre. In early August the French King made him a gentleman of his bedchamber, which carried the title of baron. But by the end of the month he was caught up in the Massacre of St Bartholomew, a cowering refugee in the English Embassy; whence he was rescued by a French nobleman who thought it amusing to take him with other voyeurs to inspect the mangled corpse of Admiral Coligny, lying where it had fallen on the cobbles.‘

From the Fifties to the Seventies, historians of early modern Europe were tempted to search for general regularities with which to order the past, if not quite to explain it. Examples are the notion of a ‘general crisis’ in the 17th century, and the ‘rise’ of the gentry and an alleged ‘crisis’ of the nobility, especially in England. Seismic shirts in European civilisation, functional and dysfunctional, part of the breakdown of the medieval world and the coming of modernity, were discussed in reductionist terms as the consequence of the so-called ‘military revolution’, or of the fiscal burden of parasitical royal courts, or as incidental to the phenomenon of the multiple kingdoms which were another feature of the age. Such ambitious theories, symptomatic of both Marxism and reactive anti-Marxism, have been censured by social scientists for their lack of intellectual rigour and indicted for taxonomical imprecision. What is a crisis? Who were the gentry, or the aristocracy? On the other hand, a different kind of historian wonders why we should not be content simply to give a meaningful account of the kaleidoscopic variety and contingency of historical events and circumstances. General theories, still less what have been called ‘law-like generalisations’, should not be the historian’s stock-in-trade at all. He should be content to tell stories. We have witnessed the return of narrative.‘

A Calamitous Man: Incombustible Luther

Patrick Collinson, 29 July 1999

Imagine a dream in which you are climbing a church tower in the dark. Stumbling, you reach out for something to hang on to and find that you are pulling at a bell rope, that the bell is waking up the entire town, and soon other towns far beyond. Within weeks you, the inadvertent bell-ringer, are both famous and infamous, and famous not for a few minutes but for ever. Three centuries later, Thomas Carlyle will write that but for you there would have been no French Revolution, no America.

Austere and Manly Attributes

Patrick Collinson, 3 April 1997

Unlike 1588, the Armada Year, 1578 has not endured in the national memory. But to those alive at the time, and especially those in charge of affairs – committed, ‘forward’ Protestants – it was a critical moment of making or marring. If 1588 was 1940, 1578 was 1938; the Netherlands, in revolt against its rulers, Czechoslovakia; the Spanish tyrant, Nazi Germany. As for the response of England’s Queen to this crisis, it was a prevaricating kind of appeasement, rather than the bold interventionism which many of her advisers favoured. ‘Her majesty deals so coldly in these causes,’ wrote Sir Francis Walsingham, who did not believe in the likelihood of peace in his time.’

Elton at seventy

Patrick Collinson, 11 June 1992

Sir Geoffrey Elton’s latest reflections on the state and status of his subject illustrate the Coleridgean maxim that a man is more likely to be right in what he affirms than in what he denies. Arising from lectures delivered, one imagines, off the cuff to an audience at the University of Michigan, they consist for the most part of soundings-off against a rogues’ gallery of ideological and academical types and tendencies which he believes constitute a threat to the proper study and use of the past. Like High Church Tories in the reign of Queen Anne announcing that the Church is in danger, he wrests the sacred ark of history out of the defiling hands of sundry Marxists, Whig progressivists, structuralists and deconstructionists. Reminding one of those early 20th-century French hard-liners who insisted on calling themselves Catholics sans epithète, Elton pleads for plain, unadorned history as he himself has practised it. As we learned from The Practice of History (1967), history for him is practice – doing, not theorising – which makes for some difficulty, since Return to Essentials is necessarily a book about the theory of the subject. Yet another polemical book ended with these words: ‘Enough of these reflections. It is high time to return to the thing itself.’’

Smelling the Gospel

Patrick Collinson, 7 March 1991

Since the Second World War, the cutting edge of English historical studies has been not ‘world history’ but English local history, a fact by no means adequately reflected in the Report of the National Curriculum History Working Group, nor even in the menus of courses currently on offer in university history departments. Local studies have been central to recent investigations of those complex processes conventionally described as the Protestant Reformation which, in the course of the 16th century and beyond, profoundly modified the civilisation of this country: but in spite of the national scope and aspirations of reforming legislation, not all at once or to the same extent in all regions and localities. If we were to ask when England became a Protestant nation, and also what it might mean so to describe it, we should have to be prepared for different answers for Essex and Sussex, Lancashire and Kent: while not forgetting that these counties, macrocosms in themselves, contained a variety of small worlds, in Lancashire as different as Bolton. ‘the Geneva of the North’, and the coastal Fylde, in 1600 as Popish as Ireland.



5 January 2006

Frank Kermode’s review of Glenn Most’s Doubting Thomas (LRB, 5 January) reminded me, perhaps a little inconsequentially, of some curious circumstances relating to The Book of Mormon, and specifically to its validation. Every edition of this sacred text bears the statements of two sets of witnesses, a group of three followed by one of eight (making the surely significant number of eleven),...

Was Will a papist?

20 January 2005

In judging the document supposedly discovered in the roof space of Shakespeare’s father’s house in Henley Street in 1757 ‘too good to be true’, Colin Burrow joins the ranks of those who reject the notion of Shakespeare’s Catholicism (LRB, 20 January). I do not claim that Shakespeare was a papist. On the contrary, his religion, along with much else about the man rather...
I was standing in Downing Street in 1956 when Bulganin and Khrushchev were in Number 10. Harold Macmillan sprinted past on his way to Number 11. Then the door of Number 10 opened and B. and K. came out with Eden. I heard no boos, but someone at the back of the crowd called out loudly: ‘Tovarich! Tovarich!’ Khrushchev looked pleased and gave a little wave. Then we all went our several ways,...
S. Daniel (Letters, 10 July) writes that no children in Kenya are now ‘too poor’ to go to school, and that my article reflects conditions before President Moi Kibaki came to power. He is partly correct, although the children of whom I wrote were (in 1997) unable to go to school not for lack of money to pay fees but because they could not afford uniforms. And in Kenya, as in many parts of...

Lives of Sidney

30 March 2000

Patrick Collinson writes: The moral would seem to be, stick to your last. Dr Duncan-Jones has had little difficulty in establishing that Sidney is not my last. We have been introduced, of course, but Dr Duncan-Jones, an authority, has had the advantage, in a manner of speaking, of living with this fascinating person for more than thirty years. If I were to make such egregious errors in writing about,...

Scarisbrick’s Bomb

20 December 1984

SIR: According to Peter Gwyn (LRB, 20 December 1984), J.J. Scarisbrick’s The Reformation and the English People is ‘good, perhaps very good’ because it was written ‘for the simple, old-fashioned reason that its author was passionately interested in imparting his views’. So I believe (writing on the same subject as Professor Scarisbrick) was Abbot Gasquet and one wonders...

Protestant Country

George Bernard, 14 June 1990

Henry VIII’s jurisidictional quarrel with the Papacy was not resolved, and its consequences are with us still. In Henry’s eyes the dispute was one of authority, not doctrine, but...

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Puritan Neuroses

Blair Worden, 19 April 1984

If the directions taken by historical research are indicative of a nation’s broader preoccupations, then we may have to prepare ourselves for a religious revival of some magnitude....

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Rescuing the bishops

Blair Worden, 21 April 1983

The publication of Patrick Collinson’s The Religion of Protestants is a stirring event in the rediscovery of Early Modern England. Unmistakably the work of a historian who has reflected on...

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