Book Review: Quarrel With The King (1)

Quarrel With The King:  The Story Of An English Family On The High Road To Civil War, by Adam Nicolson

This is the second time I have read this book and I must admit I liked reading it less the second time than I did the first time.  To be sure, this book is the result of someone who had done a great job in reading various works, especially works of poetry and other writings relating to the myth of Arcadia that flourished at Wilton, the manor of the Herbert earls of Pembroke.  Yet there is something about this book that is missing as well, as the author seems to think it odd that revolutionaries would wish to preserve things or recover things rather than look forward to a new society (see, the American Revolution and the American Civil War), and seems not to really lament the destruction to English society that occurred thanks to the English Civil War.  Indeed, the author spends too much time focusing on architecture and literature and personal drama to see the failure of the Pembrokes as being emblematic of more general patterns of ambivalence among elites and the power of monarchs or other central authorities.

This book is more than 250 pages and is divided into ten chapters that cover the period between the sixteenth and seventeenth century, about a century or so.  The author begins with an introductory chapter that discusses the long road to war from 1540 to 1640 in the crisis of the Tudors and then the Stuarts over the legitimacy of government (1).  After that the author discusses the making of the Pembrokes and how they rose from illegitimacy to the earldom of Pembroke (2).  This leads to a discussion about the world the Pembrokes acquired, its villages and land (3).  After that there is a look at the exercise of noble authority by the first Earl of Pembroke, a man of considerable violence (4).  The author then looks at the wife and brother-in-law of the second Herbert earl and how they sought to turn Pembroke into an Arcadia (5) and then looking at Mary Pembroke’s court of Wilton while her husband hunted and raised horses (6).  This leads to a discussion of their two sons, one who was the Earl of Pembroke and the other a royal favorite who was raised to an earldom of his own (7).  After that the author discusses the threat of modernity that Milton had to deal with in the 17th century (8) before closing with chapters looking at the perfection of Wilton in the 1630’s (9) and the destruction of the English Civil War (10), after which the book ends with an afterward that discusses the fall of downland society and then a bibliography and index.

Indeed, this book would have been better had the author been less ironic and more sincere about the reflection on the various tensions and ambiguities exhibited by the Earls of Pembroke concerning their land and the relationship between themselves and the crown.  It is hardly unusual that powerful elites would be less than sanguine about royals who viewed their position as one of divine right absolutism rather than a position of primer inter pares negotiated among other elites who could provide a check on royals who went too far and who kept themselves in line by striking out against any favorite who got too far above the rest.  Likewise, the stresses of debt and munificence made it impossible for the Milton estates to avoid the sort of rack rents that drove beleaguered peasants to try their hand at life in the New World.  It is not as if the Pembroke earls were more hypocritical than most, it is that they lived in times that provided stresses that were dealt with in predictable if lamentable ways.  And the flood came, and the mistakes of King Charles I brought about a civil war where the Herberts went from would-be royal favorites to reluctant rebels, and ended up destroying the England that they had held most dear.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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