First Published: September 2012
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B Y W A Y O F I N T R O D U C T I O N
The marquess of Newcastle’s fascinating Letter to Charles II begins with discussion of the “Militia,” and progresses through “The Navye & Shipping of England,” “the Church,” “the Lawe,” “the Civill Lawe,” Trade, “the Countery,” “Seremoney & Order,” “The Errors off State & their Remedies,” “the Courte Tables,” “Your Majesties Devertisementes,” “The Devertisementes for the People,” “Country Recreations,” “Governmente of Scotland,” “Governmente off Irelande,” “Governmente In Generall,” and “Forayne States,” ending with comments on “France & Spayne.” Newcastle’s spelling, grammar, and punctuation are idiosyncratic and typical for the time, especially from a man who disdains pedantry and book-learning.
The letter’s contents have been nicely summarized by A. S. Turberville, in his two-volume work responding to a request from the Duke of Portland for a text covering the owners of Welbeck Abbey (from its dissolution as a religious institution in 1538, on).
The Duke’s plays and fugitive verses were not much more than the amusements of his idle moments; but his literary works ... were conceived in a more serious spirit and with a more serious purpose.... Of all Newcastle’s literary works that which retains the strongest interest for posterity is one that was never intended for publication. Newcastle had written a brief political guide for the future Charles II when he was a boy under his charge [i.e., Letter of Instructions to Prince Charles for his Studies, Conduct, and Behaviour]; he wrote a more substantial treatise for him when he was a king in exile in case “God should be pleased to restore him to his throne”, in which his views on statecraft are much more fully and more maturely developed than in the earlier essay.
The final issue which had precipitated the Civil War in 1640 was the control of the armed forces of the Crown, and it is therefore not surprising that the Duke begins his little book with a discussion of this subject. It was essential that the King should control the military, “for without an Armeye in your owne Handes you are butt a Kinge Uppon the Courtesye of others”. Likewise, he must hold all stores of arms and ammunition, but they should be hidden as far as possible, “for people love not the cudgel”. In the third place, it was essential for him to be master of London, where in time of peace citizens were wont to practise arms in Finsbury Fields, to enable them to make rebellious war upon their own sovereign. In order to be sure of dominating the capital it was recommended that two forts should be built on either side of the river below Greenwich, and that strong garrisons should be installed there. Similar precautions ought to be taken at all ports: it was only natural that Newcastle, with the object lesson of Hull in his mind, should feel strongly upon this point. Incidentally, the shipping of the country would be better defended, and shipping constitutes “the Brason Walls of Englande”. Trade, and especially export trade, ought to be stimulated to the utmost — for “it is the merchante thatt only bringes Honye to the Hive”. In accordance with the economic thought of the time, Newcastle was a mercantilist; it was necessary that the merchant should “carrye oute more Comodeties than he bringes in”. For the furtherance of trade the author advocated the abolition of monopolies, a reduction in the standard rate of interest, and the adoption of an excise system as being the best method of taxation.
Newcastle next discusses ecclesiastical questions, for the cleavage of the Civil War had been determined at least as much by religious as by political controversies. Popery and Protestant Dissent had both proved inimical to the interests of the English monarchy. Though they looked in opposite directions with their heads, they were tied together by their tails, “carienge the same fierbrandes off Covetousness and Ambition, to putt all into a Combustion whersoever they comme, that will not Submit to them”. Indeed, Presbytery was even more dangerous to monarchy than Popery was. The Duke held as firmly as James I had done that Presbyterianism was destructive of monarchy. This was proved, he considered, by the fact that nowhere did they co-exist. Moreover, it was less ignominious for a king to be vassal to a foreign prince, such as the Pope, than to his own subjects. Presbyterianism was lacking in respect for authority, and was even “a little to Sauseye to Gode Almighty”.
The preservation of the Church of England was, therefore, essential to the interests of the King of England, and the government of that Church ought to be one of his chief concerns. The selection of the bishops was a matter of much moment, because they were the most effective guards against the dissemination of wrong opinions among the people. It was not surprising that one of the first aims of the rebellious party had been to drive the bishops out of the House of Lords, and to undermine their authority. In his Letter of Instructions to Prince Charles, Newcastle had shown how apprehensive he was of the effects of a too widely disseminated knowledge of the Bible, and of too frequent discussion of it. He still felt the same. “The Bible in Englishe under everye wevers and chambermayde’s arme hath done us much hurte.” As we have seen, one of his first precautions, when he became commander of the King’s forces north of Trent in the Civil War, had been to institute a censorship of sermons. He was now more convinced than ever, as the result of his experience, of the dangers resulting from much preaching. There should be one sermon delivered in each parish every Sunday and Holy Day, but one only. Moreover, the clergy ought not to compose their own discourses, but should use a selection which had the approval of the bishops and had been printed and circulated to the parishes. Their subject matter should be confined to the preaching of Christ as our salvation, the need of living a godly life, and the instruction of the people in “their obedience to their superiors and governours, with all the respecte that maye bee”.
Another source of recent troubles had been the too extensive dissemination of education. If the number of scholars at the Universities were cut down by half, they would be better fed and just as well taught. “But that which hath dun most hurte is the Abundance of grammar Scholes and Ins of Courtes.” Too many were being prepared for the professions of the Church and of the Law, and in consequence the plough and the cart were being neglected, and too few were able to use a musket. The number of those available for the feeding and for the defence of the nation was proportionally too small. Another ill effect of education had been unduly to encourage discussion and controversy. Disputations ought to be confined to the schools, and books on controversial topics ought to be written only in Latin, so as to prevent ordinary people from being heated by altercation, “for Controversye Is a Civill warr with the Pen which pulls out the sorde soone afterwards”.
The lawyers were much at fault. There were too many of them, and, as it was in their selfish interest to spin out proceedings as long as possible, they were the cause of a great deal of popular discontent — notably in the Court of Chancery. Newcastle speaks most bitterly of its already notorious delays and of its proclivity for bringing all kinds of causes within its ambit. He greatly bemoans the defunct Star Chamber, which had brought such tranquillity to the kingdom.
The author has much to say on the need of ceremony. “Seremonye though Itt is nothing In Itt selfe yet Itt doth everye thing.” The appropriate state and formalities for every degree of nobility, and for all officers of state should be precisely laid down, and no one should be allowed to maintain a dignity above his station. For example, no one below the rank of baroness ought to be permitted to have a carpet under her bed, whereas nowadays every wife of a Turkey merchant had her floor completely covered with rugs. There had of late been too indiscriminate a bestowal of peerages. The result was that the House of Lords had become factious — even more so than the other Chamber. New members of the peerage, puffed up by their new dignity, had imagined themselves capable of the highest office, and, being disappointed of their hopes, had started to create parties, “So the fewer Lordes the Less faction”.
Finally, Newcastle attaches a great deal of importance to entertainment. He enumerates the amusements proper to royalty; but the most important of all is royal progresses through the countryside, because they foster loyalty among the people. Puritan asceticism and the proscription of jollity had bred rebellion. Let the maypole, the hobby-horse, the morris dance, the bagpipes, cakes and ale, and the festivities appropriate to Christmas, Shrovetide, and other holidays make their reappearance,
“and all the olde Holedayes, with their Mirth, and rightes sett up agen; Feastinge daylonge will be in Merrye Englande, for Englande Is so plentifull off all provitions, that iff wee doe not eate them theye will Eate Use, so wee feaste in our Defense”.
The point of view in this political testament is clearly Hobbesian, and it might be suggested that Newcastle derived his political philosophy from Hobbes himself: but the Duke had learnt his doctrines from personal experience, and particularly from the Civil War. His point of view is essentially that of the grandee, believing in the principles of discipline and authority, and in the virtues of a ruling class. All the essentials of his political doctrine are either expressly or by implication to be found in the earlier brief treatise. His faith has been strengthened because he is profoundly convinced that recent experience has only too emphatically proved its truth. How entirely sincere and spontaneous were the opinions expressed in this little book may be appreciated by comparing them with the Duchess’s records of remarks which she had heard her husband make in the course of conversation. In the book he has done little more than systematise his own table talk. The Duke’s teachings may be regarded as ultra-royalist, but, if so, there is no sentiment about them, no hint of the conception of the divine right of kings. In the directness of its method, its economy of words, its absence of embroidery, and its occasional piquancy of phrase, the pamphlet bears some resemblance to those of Halifax. There is none of the wit and originality which make the latter among the most brilliant and most stimulating in our language, but there is the same straightforwardness, the same complete honesty. There is no sham or sophistication; if the author’s vision be severely restricted, it is absolutely clear and unblinking.
(Turberville, A History of Welbeck Abbey and Its Owners, 2 vols., 1938, 1.171-176)
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