1. In most studies of the introduction of Humanism into England, NOTE 1 there is one figure who inevitably fails to receive the credit that is his due, although, in his own way, he was at least as instrumental as any other single individual for this important achievement. This was Henry VII himself, for it is not commonly appreciated that Humanism was to a goodly extent imposed on England from the top downwards. Henry had three important reasons for doing this. In the first place, while still Earl of Richmond and in exile during the reign of Richard III, he had stayed at the courts of Burgundy and France. There he had the opportunity to observe at first hand the fashionable New Learning, and was no doubt struck by the comparative cultural backwardness of his own country. Gaining the throne, he found himself in a position to do something to rectify that situation.
2. But Henry did not just see Humanism as some kind of fashionable window dressing. He had solid reasons of policy to consider. Some of this, no doubt, had to do with the improvement of Church Latinity. Other than that, the availability of a large number of competent Latinists was requisite for the kind of centralized modern state he sought to construct. This is doubtless true in a number of ways, but here I shall content myself with mentioning one. Latin was the language of international diplomacy, and Henry needed a sufficient number of first-rate Latinists to form a modern and effective diplomatic corps. He could, to be sure, employ Humanists fetched from overseas as Latin Secretaries to handle his diplomatic correspondence, but he had to be able to send competent Latinists abroad as his ambassadors. A contemporary Latin term for an ambassador, orator, reflects the fact that one of an ambassador’s functions was to deliver set-speeches at foreign courts, so that training in rhetoric was an absolute necessity. And his ambassadors had to be Englishmen, since England could hardly be represented abroad by foreign nationals. Here was one compelling reason why Henry was motivated to sponsor the introduction of the New Learning, and there must have been others as well. His vision of a new kind of centralized government required a sizeable cadre of secretaries, lawyers, and other educated functionaries. One of the hallmarks of Tudor government, from first to last, was its energetic sponsorship of education, and this was done out of self-interest because only a modernized educational system, buttressed by fellowship and other schemes for recruiting talent from all social classes, could produce a sufficient number of well-trained men needed to ensure its own good operation. It is no historical accident that John Colet founded St. Paul’s School during Henry’s reign, in 1512.
3. Another persistent Tudor trait (inherited by the early Stuarts) was a keen awareness of the value of literary propaganda, enhanced by the multiplying power of the printing press, to control sovereigns’ personal images and shape the thinking of their subjects. To a degree undreamt-of by any of his predecessors, Henry was sensitive to the value of public opinion (very understandable in view of the fragility of the new Tudor dynasty) and therefore appreciated the political value of the written word, and so was not behindhand in exploiting it. This is too well known to require any expatiation when it came to getting his version of the reign of Richard III and justification of his own assumption of power set down on paper by such writers as Thomas More and Polydore Vergil, for the benefit of his subjects, the outside world, and posterity. Whatever the true facts of the matter may have been, the success of this effort is shown that, with the eventual massive help from William Shakespeare, he was able to make this version indelibly stick in the popular mind. But when one looks a little closer, he begins to see that Henry’s use of literary propaganda was by no means restricted to this single exercise. It is clear that this use (or, if you will, abuse) of Neo-Latin literature, at all times characteristic of the Tudor dynasty (at least if one excepts Mary), NOTE 2 commenced under Henry.
4. In fact, it started at the very beginning of his reign. Henry could not wait for a generation of competent English Latinists to be trained, so his immediate solution was to surround himself with a corps of Humanists recruited from overseas. When I say “at the very beginning of his realm,” I mean this literally. He won the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485 and triumphantly entered London exactly one week later. A Latin ode in Sapphic stanzas was written for his coronation by the blind monk Bernard André of Toulouse, who served as regius poeta for the remainder of Henry’s reign and the first years of that of his son. Probably this ode was recited publicly, or even placarded around the city on the occasion of his entry, a practice subsequently followed by later Tudors (as in the case of the Latin and English poetry produced respectively by John Leland and Nicholas Udall for the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, given a visual dimension by tableaux supplied by Hans Holbein). Further examples of poetry by André equally flattering to Henry can be excavated from his biographical sketch of the king.
5. Unfortunately, it is impossible to speak with precision about the position of Latin Secretary, since no historian appears to have taken an interest in this fascinating position, subsequently occupied by distinguished Latinists such as Roger Ascham and (under Cromwell) John Milton. At least his primary job was to handle the Council’s diplomatic correspondence (one may suspect he also served as the sovereign’s “ghost writer” when speeches had to be delivered in Latin, for example in connection with royal visitations to the Universities). The original occupant of this position was the Italian Humanist Pietro Carmeliano [d. 1527], but in 1511 he was replaced by his fellow countryman Andrea Ammonio, who held it until his death in 1517. The reason for this change of Secretaries is not known, but it may have something to do with the appearance, in about 1511, of Ammonio’s volume of Carmina, and, again, a reading of the items in that collection will quickly convince the reader of their frequently politicized content, insofar as they are so favorable to Henry and his government and flattering to men in high places. Other Italian Humanists were also attracted to Henry’s court, notably Giovanni Gigli, Cornelio Vitelli (the first man to teach Greek at Oxford), and the poet Johannes Opicius, whose poetry has recently been the subject of a fine modern edition. NOTE 3 Then too, of course, one can scarcely fail to mention the welcome Erasmus received on visits to England, in 1498 and 1506 (notable, above all else, for the personal influence he exerted on Colet). In much the same spirit, Henry took equal care that his reign should be monumentalized by the visual arts, again by importing Italians whose work no Englishman could match: Pietro Torrigiano, who designed the magnificent altar and tomb in the Henry VII Chapel of the Abbey, and Benedetto da Rovezzano, who completed the tomb’s construction. The work of these Humanists of Henry’s reign is conspicuously understudied, NOTE 4 but it is beginning to look as if, besides being ornaments to his court, they collectively served as his royal propaganda team.
6. All in all, Henry saw the introduction of Humanism as important for shoring up his reign and establishing a new centralized government staffed with Latin-educated civil servants (and he may well have had religious motives as well) and the important of continental Humanists was one prong of his attack. Giving both his sons the most modern and advanced Humanistic education available was another, since this had the immediate effect of making such an education fashionable. And (although this is a subject that merits further consideration) his mother’s penchant for creating new Oxbridge colleges may not have been unrelated.
6. But, as useful as these efforts may have been, they were unable to address Henry’s most urgent requirement, since they all dealt in poetry. What he most needed was a prose writer who would be able to set forth, as indicated above, his version of the reign of Richard III coupled with a justification of his own assumption of power, and likewise his version of the Perkin Warbeck affair, thereby legitimizing his reign, and it was necessary that this be done in Latin for the benefit of foreign as well as domestic consumption. His first impulse was to convert his regius poeta into a historian, but the various surviving bits of his attempts to write history only serve to show that Bernard André was hopelessly devoid of any talent for that genre. NOTE 5 It was Henry’s great good fortune that in 1502 a Humanistically-educated Churchman, Polidoro Virgilio of Urbino, turned up in England as a representative of Cardinal Adriano Castellisi for the collection of Peter’s Pence. No doubt with the royal blessing, he was given a place in the English Church structure, being created Bishop of Bath and Wells as early as 1504, and soon he fell to writing. It would not seem unlikely that he was brought to Henry’s attention by his friend Richard Pace, the king's private secretary. In the address to his brother, dated 1517, that prefaces the 1521 Basel edition of De Inventoribus Rerum he writes:
Veni post haec, missu Alexandri sexti Romani pontificis in Britanniam, quae nunc Anglia est, ut quaesturam pontificiam apud Anglos gererem. Ubi ne bonum ocium tererem, rogatu Henrici eius appellationis septimi regis praestantissimi res eius populi gestas scripsi, in historiaeque stilum redegi. Quod hercule opus duodecim annos sub literatoria incude laboratum, obstante fato, nondum absolvere licuit.
[“I was afterwards sent by Pope Alexander VI to Britain, now called England, to serve as a papal tax-gatherer among the English. So as not to make bad use of my leisure, at the request of that most excellent king Henry VII I have been writing the achievements of that people and reducing them to the style of a history. And indeed by fate's hindrance I have not yet been permitted to complete this work.”]
Henry probably would have been satisfied, had Polydore merely produced some kind of historical monograph similar to More’s, but what he got was something far more remarkable, a comprehensive history of England. Probably this is because Polydore fell under the spell of Hector Boece’s recently-published Scotorum Historia, a comprehensive Humanistic history of Scotland A preliminary manuscript version of his Anglica Historica (a copy of which is preserved in the Vatican Library) was produced in 1512/13, and the first printed edition, covering events down to 1509, appeared at Basel in 1534. A later edition, printed at the same city in 1555, extended the story to 1537.
7. The overall value of his achievement is difficult to overstate. As Polydore himself boasts, this was the first such soup-to-nuts coverage of English history since that of the Venerable Bede, and laid the foundation for the chronicles of Joseph Hall and Raphael Holinshed. Although Polydore was a foreigner, and his imperfect familiarity with English history and geography led him to make some weird mistakes, there was much he did understand. Above all, perhaps, his tax-collecting experience must have made him aware of the importance of money, and he demonstrates a sensitivity to a key point in English constitutional history: England’s wars needed to be paid for, and the English people progressively wrested concessions from their kings in exchange for their contributions. He was therefore able to grasp the importance of Parliament and sketch the evolution of English constitutional history. Moreover, no matter how you rate Polydore as a historian, you are bound to admit that his Anglica Historica was a literary milestone. The effort to give history literary style, shape, and elegance, and to discover the hidden meanings of the surface flow of historical events, is what distinguishes Humanistic historiography from mere chronicle-writing, and this work has these features in abundance. Furthermore, presenting English history in a neoclassical format had the effect of lodging a tacit claim that the history of the English people had no less worth and dignity than that of the Greeks and Romans.
8. Polydore was a prolific writer, and his history was far from his only work. Modern editions of two others exist. His 1498 Proverbiorum Libellus (reprinted in expanded form in 1521) was an important forerunner of Erasmus’ Adagiorum Chiliades. Indeed, comparison of the two works shows that Erasmus was greatly remiss in not giving adequate credit to Polydore, and in his discussions of individual proverbs often skated dangerously near to plagiarism, although he always managed to add just enough new material to make himself immune to that charge. And his 1499 De Inventoribus Rerum investigated the origins of a wide variety of things. NOTE 6 Within the last few years, a couple of writers have taken a new interest in this work and attempted to show its importance as an intellectual contribution. NOTE 7
9. Polydore’s other writings continue to be largely ignored by modern scholarship. Chief among these, perhaps, are his five philosophical dialogues His dialogue De Prodigiis was written in 1526 - 27, but not printed until 1531. In 1545 it was reprinted, standing last after three others, on patience, the perfect life, and truth and falsehood respectively. Then, in 1553, these four were published again, this time supplemented by a fifth on oath-taking and perjury (all these publications were issued at Basel). The first three are given a blanket introduction by an epistle, dated to 1543, dedicating them to to Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino from 1538 to 1574. The principal speaker in the third, Henry Cole, is introduced as Warden of New College, Oxford, an office he entered in 1542. The fourth is dedicated to Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino from 1521 to 1538, and features as its principal speaker Polydore’s friend Robert Ridley, a Cambridge don who did not even receive his B. A. until 1516. NOTE 8 But (despite what some scholars have written) the date of their dedicatory epistle by no means guarantees the date of writing for the first three dialogues. It is quite possible that they were written considerably earlier, and that the epistle was written for a projected 1543 edition of the three that, for some reason, failed to eventuate.
10. There is in fact solid reason for thinking the first two were written, or at least fictively set, considerably earlier than the third. For in all three the disputants are Italians, so the setting is presumably in Italy, i. e., prior to Polydore’s migration to England in 1502. For in these dialogues the main speaker is Polydore himself — even if he speaks of himself in the third person when citing De Inventoribus Rerum — and his interlocutor is a kinsman, a certain “Pinnius.” Catherine Atkinson (pp. 70f.) noted that in 1481, when Polydore was approximately eleven years old, his family moved to the village of Fermignano south of Urbino, because his father Giorgo had married Battista Pini, and a house included in her dowry was located there. “Giorgo’s marriage into the Pini family amounted to moving up a rung on the social ladder, since it was one of the town’s leading families and had already produced clerics, notaries, and doctors.” (Although Atkinson does not tell us so, presumably the Urbino artist Pier Matteo Pini, who in 1552 produced the forty-seven beautiful anatomical copperplates intended to accompany Bartolomeo Eustachi’s projected book De Dissensionibus ac Controversiis Anatomicis, was a later member of this same family). In his fifth dialogue, De Iureiurando et Periurio, he has his uncle Teseo Pini conversing with his brother Gian Matteo Virgilio, and Atkinson (pp. 90f.) writes “one can assume that the ‘Pinnius’ in the previous dialogues had also been Teseo Pini and not another of the same family.” The reader might care to reject this suggestion on the grounds that in the first two dialogues “Pinnius” seems characterized as naive and somewhat callow, and in these two dialogues he uncritically depends on Polydore as his guide — every time Polydore challenges one of his opinions he quickly retreats from it — whereas at Dialogus de Veritate et Mendacio ¶ 19 he apologizes for the senectutis nostrae vitium [“the fault of my old age”], and in this dialogue his characterization is palpably different. Here, he is a more aggressive disputant, makes more cogent objections, and doggedly sticks to his guns, to the point that several times he clearly manages to disconcert and annoy his companion. The likeliest explanation for this discrepancy would appear to be that the actual, or at least fictive, date of the third dialogue is substantially later. Polydore is known to have paid several return visits to Urbino, in 1514, 1516, and 1534, and evidently the dates of Matteo Pici’s birth and death are unknown, but we are told at the beginning of the first dialogue that he is younger than Polydore (who was born ca. 1470). In Dialogus de Veritate et Mendacio Pici is represented as living at Polydore’s villa outside London, so he seems to have visited England at least once while at a reasonably advanced age (he also appears in De Iureiurando et Periurio, evidently written at about the same time, in which he displays a certain degree of knowledge about the English legal system, so that dialogue seems to represent him as he was during this same visit).
11. A reason for thinking that the early date of dialogue De Patientia (and, therefore, probably also its companion-piece De Vita Perfecta) was actual and not merely fictive is that at I.6 the dialogue on patience contains what looks like a clear reference to Christopher Columbus, as the discoverer of certain previously-unknown “islands,” and this seems like an allusion to a recent event. Were this dialogue written substantially later than the first decade of the sixteenth century, the description of New World exploration would surely have been quite different, since the existence of the North American continent would now be a familiar fact.
12. One important thing to emerge from this consideration of likely dates is that the principle of organization in the 1545 volume is clearly not one of chronological order. Rather, the dialogues are presented in a a roughly ascending order of philosophical difficulty. By comparison with the ones that follow, the first two are so jejune and devoid of genuine philosophical originality that it is impossible to imagine that Polydore meant them as serious contributions to thought. The first one, a consideration of patience, noticeably suffers in comparison with a slightly earlier treatment of the same subject by Baptista Mantuanus (Battista Spagnoli), his 1497 De patientia aurei libri tres, and it is painfully obvious that Polydore’s discussion is highly problematic.
13. In one sense, he is making a closer examination on if the virtue of patience along somewhat Aristotelian lines, by anatomizing patience into its several varieties (divine and human, voluntary and compulsory), and considering each of these in turn. There is nothing exceptionable about this. But Polydore goes amiss because, although patience is undoubtedly a virtue, his attempt to coopt it as a specifically Christian one (taking his cue from homilies by Tertullian and Cyprian) fails to convince. He places his thumb on the scales by repeatedly citing Jesus as a model of patience and by buttressing his argument with an abundance of exhortations and narrative examples almost all drawn from Scripture (the only secular exempla he cites are those of Aemilius Paulus at I 23 and Lucretia at II.7, to which may be added the mythological example of Hercules at I.23), but his argument could easily be demolished simply by citing the single example of Socrates’ conduct during his trial and execution, for in his own way he embodied the virtue of patience, and reaped its rewards, no less than did Jesus. The passive docility with which “Pinnius” accepts Polydore’s contentions, and fails to spot and exploit this conspicuous weakness of his argument, is noteworthy. Then too, when beginning at II.13 Polydore recommends patience, forgiveness and reconciliation in dealing with one’s enemies, by turning the other cheek and so forth, he is setting forth the essence of Christian morality on the subject, buttressed by Jesus’ own words. A sharper and more contentious interlocutor could have pressed him by alleging Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IV.v.5, where it is stated that excessive mildness in situations where one can justly experience anger is a defect of character. Polydore could have made his dialogue more interesting and intellectually challenging by contrasting Christian and Graeco-Roman thinking on the subject of patience, arbitrating between them, and possibly even trying to work out some kind of reconciliation between these two very different modes of thought, as the Scotsman Florence Wilson sought to do in his much longer and more ambitious 1543 De Animi Tranquillitate Dialogus.
13. Denys Hay, who has written perhaps the most extensive appreciation of Polydore’s dialogues, NOTE 9 complained of the “superficial quality of the Dialogi as a whole.” This is undoubtedly true of the first two, but progressively less so of the rest. In imposing this mode of organization on his 1545 book, it seems difficult to imagine that Polydore was unaware of what he was doing. What, then, was his purpose in writing these two? Most likely, they are best regarded as teaching documents: the point of the exercise was to introduce his readers to Humanistic philosophical discourse, by writing little models designed to demonstrate how old ideas could be repackaged in the attractively modern format of the Ciceronian dialogue (Cicero, significantly, is quoted far more than any other classical writer, with Horace, that most philosophical of poets, being a distant second). A discussion of patience, which could have been — and, in an academic context, would have had to be — presented in dryasdust scholastic form, is made infinitely more appealing by being cast as a dialogue. An Italian audience would have scarcely required this lesson, and so it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these dialogues were written for the benefit of his English hosts, to many of whom the idea may well have seemed revolutionary. It seems best, therefore, to suppose that these dialogues were written in England (albeit with a fictive Italian setting, presumably because at that time Italians were better versed in Humanistic philosophizing and hence served as models of what Englishmen could become), at a time when such rudimentary instruction was still appropriate, and represent Polydore’s way of supporting Henry’s Humanizing program. In the dialogue De Prodigiis (II.17) he puts in the mouth of Robert Ridley this statement:
...ea de causa ad te diverti, ut postquam aliquantum quieram animum relaxarem, quod facio ita ambulando disputandoque, et quidem melius quam venando aucupandove, id quod vel facere potest qui infra omnes infimos homines esse censetur. Quare miror nostram nobilitatem in venatione tantum esse, in eaque se a pueris exercere, prae qua permulti reliquas bonas artes parum student.
[“For which reason I have visited you, so that, after I have rested a bit I might relax my mind, which I do by strolling and disputing in this manner, and this indeed is better than hunting or birding, even by those regarded as lower than the lowest are able to do. This is why I am surprised that our nobility is so devoted only to the hunt, and exercise themselves in that from boyhood onwards. In comparison with that, a great number do little by way of devoting themselves to the other goodly arts.”]
When he wrote this in the late 1520’s, he might very well have been thinking back to the situation in England as he himself had originally found it. At that time, his initial need was to introduce his English audience to the pleasures of philosophical thought and the form of polite literature fittest for its expression. Thus any English gentleman could aspire to imitate Polydore’s Duke Guidobaldo, as at home in his library as in the world of public affairs.
14. Polydore’s effort soon bore fruit. In 1541 John Leland, best remembered as an antiquary and poet, completed his Antiphilarchia, a counterblast to the Hierarchiae Ecclesiasticae Assertio by the Dutch theologian Albert Pighius (originally printed at Cologne in 1538), in which his principal speaker contends at great length that the Bishop of Rome does not deserve to be regarded as the head of the universal Church. This dialogue 0 is written in a style very like Polydore’s and adopts the same tactic of buttressing its points with a steady barrage of quotations from Scripture and the Church Father, and, again, it is an example of the substitution of a Humanistic mode of argumentation for a traditional Scholastic one. In reading the Antiphilarchia, one cannot help concluding that Polydore’s influence was at work when a native English Humanist of Leland’s stature adopted the Ciceronian dialogue, written in “clean Latin,”as a new, fashionable and atttractive form of discourse (it does not matter that none of Polydore’s dialogues except for De Prodigiis were printed until after the completion of the Antiphilarchia, since they could easily have circulated in manuscript for a considerable time before their publication).
NOTE 1 Perhaps most notably the studies of the contemporary Oxford scholar David Rundle, such as his “Humanist Eloquence among the Barbarians in Fifteenth-Century England,” in C. Burnett and N. Mann (edd.) Britannia Latina (Warburg Institute Colloquia VIII, London-Turin, 2005) pp. 68 - 85 and other contributions detailed here. I by no means wish to single out Dr. Rundle for adverse criticism. He simply has written so much on the subject that one thinks of him first and foremost.
NOTE 2 Mary was the only Tudor ruler who failed to understand the value of literary propaganda. When the Dutch Humanist Hadrianus Junius of Hoorn turnedå up in London and offered to place himself at her service, presenting her with his poem Philippeis as a sample of his wares, he was turned down flat. Possibly it is not unreasonable to suggest that one of the reasons why Mary reputation is so black down to this very day is that she took insufficient interest in using literature and the graphic arts to stage-manage her public image.
NOTE 3 David R. Carlson, “The Italian Johannes Opicius on Henry VII of England's 1492 invasion of France: historical witness and antique convention,” Renaissance Studies 20:4 (2006) pp. 520 - 46.
NOTE 4 In the early days of English Humanism, London printers did not deal with Humanistic books: they required a special and highly expensive type font and it was some time before any printer thought the capital investment would be worthwhile. Therefore these writers were obliged to publish their works overseas at places such as Basel and Paris. This, therefore, should not mislead the modern reader into imagining they were not writing for English consumption.
The purview of the Short Title Catalogue (and therefore the Early English Books / Early English Books Online series that depend on it) is limited to books printed in the British Isles, which means that the works of English Humanists published under Henry VII and the early years of Henry VIII remain obscure and can be confoundedly difficult to obtain. This is a major reason why these writers remain so neglected by modern scholarship.
NOTE 5 His biography of Henry is available in The Philological Museum here. Further examples have been published by James Gairdner (ed.), Historia Regis Henrici Septimi a Bernardo Andrea Tholosate Conscripta, necnon Alia Quaedam ad Eundem Regem Spectantia (vol. 10 of Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores, London, 1858), which can be read here. More such stuff by him existing in manuscript form remains to be edited. For a more modern translation see also Beno Weiss and Louis C. Pérez, Polydore Vergil’s De Inventoribus Rerum (Nieuwkoop, 1997).
NOTE 6 De Rerum Inventoribus has been edited under the title On Discovery by Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge Mass. - London, 2002). More accurately Copenhaver published a modern edition of the 1499 version containing Books I - III only. John Langley has produced an English translation of the 1521 version containing all eight of the Books Polydore eventually wrote (New York, 1868). It may be read here. For a more modern translation of the whole thing see also Beno Weiss and Louis C. Pérez, Polydore Vergil’s De Inventoribus Rerum (Nieuwkoop, 1997).
NOTE 7 Catherine Atkinson, Inventing Inventors in Renaissance Europe: Polydore Vergil’s De Inventoribus (Tübingen, 2007); the Rev. Jonathan Arnold, “Polydore Vergil and Ecclesiastical Historiography in his De Inventoribus Rerum IV - VIII,” in P. D. Clarke and C. Methuen (eds.), The Church on its Past, Studies in Church History, 49 (Woodbridge, Suffolk - Rochester, New York, (2013), pp. 144 - 156.
NOTE 8 According to John and J. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses (Cambridge, 1924), I.iii.438, Ridley, who haled from Uthank, Northumberland, received his education at Paris as well as Cambridge, was admitted to the B. D. in 1515/6 and received the D. D. in 1518. He held various rectorships, including the London one of St. Botolph’s, Bishopgate, was a prebend of St. Paul’s, and published sermons. He died in 1536.
NOTE 9 Denys Hay, Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters (Oxford, 1952) p. 49.
NOTE 10 Leland’s Antiphilarchia has never been printed. It is preserved in Cambridge University Library ms. Ee.5.14, executed by a professional scrivener for presentation to Henry VIII, and a small number of other mss. which all seem to be complete or partial transcriptions of that one. It can be partially read here.