Elizabethan government

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The more things change...

.. the more they stay the same. Perhaps it’s a special curse afflicting historians and writers of historical fiction, but I keep seeing resonances between the late Elizabethan period and our current political climate. Not straight lines, not full reproductions, but echoes and shimmery reflections.

Who knew what and when did they know it

Devin_Nunes,_official_color_photo_portrait
Devin Nunes

A perennial political question. Sometimes I find it hard to remember why it matters. But here I am, on a morning in late February, reading the Washington Post in accordance with my daily habit, including this article about a memo about another memo. It’s all about the Trump-Russia collusion issue, which is tedious to watch play out in real time, but has potentially very important consequences.

Here’s the article, hope you can still read it. It’s “What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t,” by Philip Bump, February 25, 2018. I’ll give you the second paragraph for the gist:

“Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes’s original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS.”

This whole issue hinges on who knew what at what time. Not exactly the same as my Elizabethan example, but in the same realm.

Who said what to whom and when

As Queen Elizabeth approached her sixth decade, her courtiers began speculating about her Elizabeth-I-Allegorical-Posuccessor. Not openly — that would be treason — but since she refused to name a successor for fear it would result in her immediate assassination, speculation was all they had. The smart money was on King James VI of Scotland, so the most astute courtiers began cultivating his good will early on.

These astute courtiers included, obviously, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, himself a very old man, but with a son’s future to secure (Robert Cecil.) Also eager to advance apace was the dashing Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite and a most impatient man. The earl was aided by his astute and articulate older sister, Penelope Rich, whose sole biography I was reading last night: Maud Stepney Rawson’s Penelope Rich and Her Circle (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1911.)

That biography quoted at length a letter (pp 234-235) to Lord Burghley from Thomas Fowler, one of his many informants, writing from Edinburgh in 1589. Fowler lightly conceals his subjects with nicknames — standard practice in those days. The language has been modernized by Ms. Rawson.

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King James in 1606

“Your Lordship may be pleased to know that I learn that Mr. Richard Douglas, coming last from London, brought down one Ottoman (Robert Dale.) The said Mr. Richard… himself delivered a letter from the Earl of Essex to His Majesty, with credit: both these (gentlemen) were in commission from the Earl to deal largely with His Majesty, to assure him of the Earl’s service and fidelity, and Ottoman to carry back the answer, what was not meet to be committed in writing. … the said Mr. Richard hath a long scroll as an alphabet of cipher to understand them [the letters] by. I can tell few of their names, but the Queen’s Majesty is Venus, and the Earl the Weary Knight, as I remember, but always that he is exceedingly weary, accounting it a thrall that he lives now in, and wishes the change. [borderline treason!] She [Penelope] is very pleasant in her letters, and writes the most part thereof in her brother’s behalf, so as they should be showed to Victor (King James) which they were; and the dark parts expounded to him…. The said Ottoman had many secret conferences with the King, which pleased him exceedingly; and Mr. Douglas won credit where before he had none…”

The smoke from this gun is hugely more obvious than the fog surrounding Donald Trump’s financial relationships in Russia and Central Asia, but the “who sat next to whom and spoke for how long about what” style of evidence seems strikingly similar to me, but then the Elizabethans didn’t have an internet and they weren’t very sneaky about code names either.

What boots it, when all is said and done?

In the event of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it mattered a lot who had said what to which friend of King James and when that What had been said to that Who. It turns out that Robert Cecil had gotten in earliest and made all the right pitches. He had the advantage of his father’s extensive network of eavesdroppers eager to do themselves a favor by writing poste haste. The over-hasty Earl of Essex had already gotten his head cut off for over-reaching by the time James came south. Penelope Rich’s husband divorced her, but she didn’t like him anyway. 

And it will matter a lot if it turns out that Trump really does or did owe a bunch of Russians a bunch of money at any time leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. It will matter a lot if any of his crew solicited the help of Russian troll-masters in manipulating American votes. Who sat next to whom at which event? Could matter.

I remind myself of the letters flying back and forth from England to Scotland throughout the last decade of the sixteenth century now whenever I open up another article about the latest step in this appropriately long and detailed Russian collusion investigation.

Bacon's Essays: Of Plantations

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Massacre at Jamestown, by Matthaeus Merian in 1628

When Francis Bacon speaks of plantations, he means colonies. This essay was published in 1625, so he would have known much about the early colonization efforts of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Virginia Company. The first disastrous settlement at Jamestown was planted in 1607. He would have heard about the massacre of 1622, in which the Powhatan Confederacy tried to get rid of the troublesome interlopers once and for all. Bacon would have heard stories about starvation, disease, Indian attacks, and bitter fighting among the colonists, but this essay shows no sign of any of that. He chose instead to provide his considered opinion about how colonization ought to be done.

Plantation, not extirpation

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Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother, from Captain John Smith’s 1624 Generall Historie

“I like a plantation in a pure soil; that is, where people are not displanted, to the end, to plant in others. For else it is rather an extirpation, than a plantation.” Could there be a milder response to the violent conflicts between English and Indian?

Toward the end, he adds, “If you plant where savages are, do not only entertain them, with trifles and gingles, but use them justly and graciously, with sufficient guard nevertheless; and do not win their favor, by helping them to invade their enemies, but for their defence it is not amiss; and send oft of them, over to the country that plants, that they may see a better condition than their own, and commend it when they return.”

He was convinced, as all Europeans were, of the vast superiority of their own cultures and practices. It’s the way of all people, I suppose. Justice and courtesy would have gone a long way in making English colonization more successful in the long run. There was a lot of room. We would have overwhelmed the aboriginal inhabitants eventually, since agriculture supports larger populations, but it could have happened more gradually, with less bigotry and violence. My $0.02, at Jacobean rates.

Don’t be greedy

“Planting of countries, is like planting of woods; for you must make account to leese almost twenty years’ profit, and expect your recompense in the end. For the principal thing, that hath been the destruction of most plantations, hath been the base and hasty drawing of profit, in the first years.”

Bacon’s readers would understand the analogy of an investment in woods perfectly. You have to wait for the trees to grow, after all. Until then, it’s just a patch of ground. You can hunt in it, but not much else.

Choose your settlers wisely

rogues
Thieves and rogues

“It is a shameful and unblessed thing, to take the scum of people, and wicked condemned men, to be the people with whom you plant; and not only so, but it spoileth the plantation; for they will ever live like rogues, and not fall to work, but be lazy, and do mischief, and spend victuals, and be quickly weary, and then certify over to their country, to the discredit of the plantation. The people wherewith you plant ought to be gardeners, ploughmen, laborers, smiths, carpenters, joiners, fishermen, fowlers, with some few apothecaries, surgeons, cooks, and bakers.”

He might have added, don’t bring a shipload of gentlemen adventurers either. They won’t know how to work, even if they could be goaded into the manual labor required to build a town.

Later he adds, “Cram not in people, by sending too fast company after company; but rather harken how they waste, and send supplies proportionably; but so, as the number may live well in the plantation, and not by surcharge be in penury.” Harken how they waste; there’s a delicate phrasing.

Consider the victuals

Finicky Francis — advice about provender is the largest component in this essay.

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Jerusalem artichokes

“In a country of plantation, first look about, what kind of victual the country yields of itself to hand; as chestnuts, walnuts, pineapples, olives, dates, plums, cherries, wild honey, and the like; and make use of them.” We’re still looking for the country that has olives, cherries, and pineapples, though I suppose he knew perfectly well those fruits didn’t grow in the same sorts of places.

“Then consider what victual or esculent things there are, which grow speedily, and within the year; as parsnips, carrots, turnips, onions, radish, artichokes of Hierusalem, maize, and the like.”

Woohoo! A new word, ‘esculent.’ Here’s OED: “Suitable for food, eatable.” First citation? Francis Bacon. He probably made it up.

“For wheat, barley, and oats, they ask too much labor; but with pease and beans you may begin, both because they ask less labor, and because they serve for meat, as well as for bread. And of rice, likewise cometh a great increase, and it is a kind of meat. Above all, there ought to be brought store of biscuit, oat-meal, flour, meal, and the like, in the beginning, till bread may be had. For beasts, or birds, take chiefly such as are least subject to diseases, and multiply fastest; as swine, goats, cocks, hens, turkeys, geese, house-doves, and the like.”

He advocates a sort of communalism, all farming the community plots and sharing rationed portions of the produce.

Keep an eye out for profit

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Medieval iron smelting

Don’t rush into the commercial aspects of your venture, but do keep your eyes out for ways to pay back your investors as soon as may be. You might try planting tobacco. There seems to be plenty of wood in most cases, so watch out for iron. “If there be iron ore, and streams whereupon to set the mills, iron is a brave commodity where wood aboundeth.” Takes a lot of fuel — and water, which he doesn’t worry about — to process ore.

Other options are harvesting bay salt, pitch and tar, or growing silk. That last seems highly unlikely, although the Spanish successfully planted both silk-growers and mulberry trees in Oaxaca. Bacon probably read those accounts as well, at least the ones translated into English.

“But moil not too much under ground; for the hope of mines is very uncertain, and useth to make the planters lazy, in other things.” If all you have to do is scoop up a pan-full of gold every month or two, why bother to grow crops?

Limit the government, but not too much

“For government, let it be in the hands of one, assisted with some counsel; and let them have commission to exercise martial laws, with some limitation.” Remember that God is always with you. 

“Let not the government of the plantation, depend upon too many counsellors, and undertakers, in the country that planteth, but upon a temperate number; and let those be rather noblemen and gentlemen, than merchants; for they [the merchants] look ever to the present gain.” It is also the function of noblemen and gentlemen to govern, though he doesn’t say this.

Location, location

Jamestown_and_James_River
The cradle of the Republic: Jamestown and the James River

“It hath been a great endangering to the health of some plantations, that they have built along the sea and rivers, in marish and unwholesome grounds. Therefore, though you begin there, to avoid carriage and like discommodities, yet build still rather upwards from the streams, than along.”

I’m reading Libbie Hawker’s excellent novel Tidewater, about the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy. She says the settlers suffered from a lack of fresh water seasonally, as the tide flowed higher, making the river water briny. The semi-starved men were forced to haul water from fresh springs at a considerable distance. 

 

 

Bring in the women and leave no man behind

“When the plantation grows to strength, then it is time to plant with women, as well as with men; that the plantation may spread into generations, and not be ever pieced from without. It is the sinfullest thing in the world, to forsake or destitute a plantation once in forwardness; for besides the dishonor, it is the guiltiness of blood of many commiserable persons.”