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Quarrel with the King by Adam Nicolson

Quarrel with the King (2008)

by Adam Nicolson

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Fascinating book, let down by three things. First, the author strains too hard to link everything about Wilton and the Herberts into his thesis on the impact of the 'Arcadia' concept on the people and events of the period. Second, although much of the writing is fine, there are two many lapses into complex and elaborate sentence and paragraph structure, possibly a side effect to the need to make everything relate to 'Arcadia'. Third - at least in my copy - the dire monochrome reproduction of the many portraits - these are so bad that I'd have preferred to do without them altogether. ( )
  NaggedMan | Jun 18, 2014 |
Nicolson traces the family history of the Herberts from the court of Henry VIII through the Catastrophe of the Civil War in the 1640s. He details the power plays and court intrigues in which the Herberts indulged, but it is ultimately the Arcadian ideal that Nicolson is most interested in. Mary Sidney, sister to Sir Philip Sidney, author of Arcadia was married to Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke and mother to William and Philip Herbert, successively the 3rd and 4th Earls of Pembroke.

Nicolson tries to define the Arcadian ideal as expressed both in Sidney's book and Mary's continuations and revisions of it after his death, and in the life at Wilton Castle, the Herbert estate:

This Arcadian heartland is a mysterious place for us; consciously elitist but fiercely Protestant in religion; prepared -- just -- to countenance the overthrow of kings, but courtly to a degree in manner and self-conception; political in its removal from the political world; aristocratic, community-conscious, potentially rebellious, literary, martial, playful, earnest, antiquarian, English, Italianate, and nostalgic. But this is the essence: Arcadia sees an aristocracy not as an element of a controlling establishment but as an essential organ in a healthy state, a check and balance on the centralizing power of the crown and the true source of authority and care in the lands it owns. The vision of Arcadia is not far from the desire for wholeness that the communities of the chalkland valleys wished to embody in their elaborate ancient constitutions.

Nicolson is not naive about the contradictions and disconnect from the daily life of ordinary townspeople and laborers, but he does reveal a certain nostalgia himself for an ancient pastoral England in which the rights and duties and positions of each member of society were understood and mutually dependant on the others -- reminiscent of William Blake and William Morris. Perhaps this is entirely understandable coming from the son of Nigel Nicolson and grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. He and his wife Sarah Raven are Resident Donors, in partnership with the National Trust, of Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens.

The book is certainly a fascinating peek into the rise and fall of the Herbert fortunes in a turbulent period in English history. ( )
3 vote janeajones | Nov 10, 2013 |
While Nicolson's well-researched history focuses on the Pembroke family, his true subject is the shifting English power politics and economic base in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Earls of Pembroke are the perfect representation of the rapidly changing social and political structures at court and in the countryside. The first earl was a 'made man' from Wales who rose through the ranks on the merits of his rather shady talents (he was both a spy and a murderer), and once he arrived, he sought to legitimize his title and his legacy by tying his allegiance to the old manorial system--a system that was already beginning to crumble as the country shifted from a land-based to a money-based economy, and as the London became increasingly centralized. Much of Nicolson's study focuses on the third earl, William Herbert, who perhaps most successfully straddled the fences between two worlds and two eras, working to extend the pastoral ideal of his uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, into the heart of the Jacobean court itself. But the Pembrokes fared less well under Charles I, who so firmly believed in the divine right of kings that he ignored the old chains of reciprocity between king and lords, lords and tenants. Treating the rest of the country as if its sole purpose was to provide the luxuries of an isolated, effete court and cannon fodder for ill-conceived wars was an attitude that disturbed the third earl--and one that eventually led to the outbreak of civil war, the dissolution of the monarchy, and the loss of Charles's head. The family fortunes fell under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, and by the time the monarchy was restored, both it and the ideals of the Pembrokes had drastically changed forever--as had England itself. Nicolson's afterward points out how the gap between rich and poor expanded drastically in the 18th century, affecting in particular those who lived in the outlying counties, where farmers who were once self-sufficient, able to feed and clothe their own families from the direct results of their own labor, were now forced to focus on producing goods for sale and rarely earned enough coins to sustain them.

I found this approach to be an interesting and clever way to address familiar issues in a new way, one that put a more human face on them. Nicolson includes descriptions of well-known portraits of the Pembrokes by VanDyke, Lely, and other famous painters, includes quotes from letters and literature of the day, and provides just enough personal anecdotes about the family and members of their circle to keep the narrative engaging. I do wonder, however, if those less familiar with this period in history and the many persons mentioned in the book might be a bit overwhelmed. While it is indeed an interesting look at history, I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to English court politics. ( )
1 vote Cariola | Jun 3, 2013 |
Nicolson uses the Pembroke family as an exemplar of the English peers as they controlled the countryside under the remains of the medieval customs of agriculture, community and justice. However the family also represents the tension between the life at court, seeking the king's favor in order to gain the lands, alliances and offices that subsidize the Arcadian lifestyle, and the desire to maintain the ancient rights of the nobilty in the face of Stuart efforts to shape England into an absolute monarchy on the Continental model. This book is made more interesting than a mere account of dynastic struggles by the details of country life in Wiltshire, including land holdings, agricultural methods and the pattern of village society.
  ritaer | Nov 7, 2011 |
The Earls of the title are those of Pembroke, Adam Nicolson tracing their story from William Herbert, the first Earl (who married the sister of Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII) through to the fifth, Philip Herbert, who died, more or less ruined, in 1669. Their paradise was centred a few miles to the west of Salisbury on the great estate of Wilton in the rolling Wiltshire Downs, where Philip Sidney, the epitome of Renaissance man, wrote his pastoral idyll Arcadia, and his sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke and wife of the second Earl, reigned over a circle of artists, writers and musicians, all dedicated to creating a heaven on earth, in which artifice would improve upon nature, happy shepherds would frolic in bosky groves, and the social order – everyone in his rightful place and mutually dependent - would reflect the harmony of the spheres. It was a dream rudely shattered by the English Civil War.

The success of the first Earl in building up the fortunes of his family owed something to his ability to bend with the wind of change. Described by Nicolson as a ‘Welsh hardman’ and ‘a bear with pretensions’, William Herbert was fortunate in believing ‘in the religion which the king or queen of the day required him to believe in’. But by the time of the fifth Earl, a Royalist in his heart but a Parliamentarian in his head, such vacillation was no longer counted as virtue.

The Arcadian ideal espoused by the Pembrokes in their heyday also depended on the ability to ignore any inconvenient reality which might obscure the dream, such as the living conditions of the villagers who provided the labour to beautify the landscape and satisfy the material needs of the big house. Nicolson restores the balance by giving at least as much attention to the lives of the lower classes in and around Wilton as to their lords, making rich use of contemporary court records and petitions.

He is not always inclined to stick rigidly to facts, however, making several bold conjectures during the course of his book. The first is to wonder whether, in the daughter of Dr Moffet, ‘the most famous spider expert in England’ and a frequent visitor to Wilton, he has discovered the identity of Little Miss Muffet, who so famously sat on a tuffet. There is nothing apart from the name to back up this identification, but it makes a nice story.

A more contentious suggestion is that the young Will Herbert, born to Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and the second Earl in 1580, may have been the inspiration for the first 126 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Will Herbert was of ‘exactly the right age’, according to Nicolson, for ‘an early middle-aged Shakespeare’ to have fallen in love with him in the late 1590s. Perhaps, he opines, the Countess had even commissioned the poet to write the first 17 sonnets as a deliberate encouragement to her (then 17-year-old) son to settle down and get married. Well, maybe.

But Shakespeare was certainly a presence at Wilton, and Nicolson’s next conjecture is far more convincing. This concerns the staging of As You Like It at Wilton in December 1603, in the presence of King James. Nicolson interprets the event as an attempt by the Countess to persuade the King to spare Sir Walter Raleigh – who, according to court gossip, was once her lover – from the executioner’s block. The King got the message and Sir Walter was conveyed to the Tower instead.

Though for the most part this book is immensely readable, at times the author is unnecessarily obscure. What, for instance, does it mean to describe the Wiltshire Downs as ‘a place that feels like its own middle, the deepest and richest of arrivals’? And he does write with something of an agenda, assuming that all his readers will agree that ‘the world of the Pembrokes was one which none of us could tolerate now’, and that ‘modern ways’ are always best.

He also gives no sign of recognising, or being interested in, the ways in which Arcadian ideals influenced later generations of artists, musicians and poets, including the 19th-century Romantics and 20th-century composers of the English pastoral tradition (sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘cowpat music’). W. B. Yeats, lamenting a dead friend as ‘our Sidney and our perfect man’, also comes to mind. But Nicolson chooses not to explore any of this, implying instead that the ‘dream of perfection’ vanished, never to return, dispelled by a mixture of Oliver Cromwell and market forces.

[An edited version of this review first appeared in The Telegraph in January 2008.] ( )
  Virginia_Rounding | Oct 1, 2011 |
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Quarrel with the King is the title of the American edition. In Britain the book has been published both as Earls of Paradise and Arcadia.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061154318, Hardcover)

Spanning the most turbulent and dramatic years of English history—from the 1520s through 1650—Quarrel with the King tells the remarkable saga of one of the greatest families in English history, the Pembrokes, following their glamorous trajectory across three generations of change, ambition, resistance, and war. With vivid color and fascinating detail, acclaimed historian Adam Nicolson recounts the story of a century-long power struggle between England's richest family and the English Crown—a fascinating study of divided loyalties, corruption, rights and privilege, and all the ambiguities involved in the exercise and maintenance of power and status.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:21 -0400)

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Spanning the most turbulent and dramatic years of English history -- from the 1520s through 1650 -- Quarrel with the King tells the remarkable saga of one of the greatest families in English history, the Pembrokes, following their glamorous trajectory across three generations of change, ambition, resistance, and war. With vivid color and fascinating detail, acclaimed historian Adam Nicolson recounts the story of a century-long power struggle between England's richest family and the English Crown -- a fascinating study of divided loyalties, corruption, rights and privilege, and all the ambiguities involved in the exercise and maintenance of power and status. - Publisher.… (more)

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