Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War ​​​​​​​by Adam Nicolson


Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War
by Adam Nicolson
Harper Collins 2008

Adam Nicolson’s new book Quarrel with the King is a searching, thoughtful brief study of the earls of Pembroke (and their often formidable wives and sisters) through two hundred years, but there is another family drama, somewhat less ancient but no less fascinating, unfolding just beneath its surface.

The book’s author is the son of Nigel Nicolson, the prolific author and editor (Portrait of a Marriage, Letters of Virginia Woolf, Napoleon, etc), the co-founder of Weidenfeld and Nicolson, the publisher of Nabokov’s Lolita. And Nigel Nicolson was himself the son of two prolific and best-selling authors, Harold Nicolson (Verlaine, Tennyson, Byron, King George V, The Age of Reason, etc) and Vita Sackville-West (The Edwardians, Knole and the Sackvilles, The Land, All Passion Spent, etc). Adam Nicolson’s book about the composition of the King James Bible, God’s Secretaries, is a solid work of scholarship, but when he shifts his focus to the intricate intangibles that run through families, he inadvertently enters the great echoing literary gallery in which his own immediate forebears have done so much talking. 

Edmund Wilson famously commented on the narrow, elitist outlook of Harold Nicolson’s works, saying he saw the world “through an embassy window.” Virginia Woolf called his writing “incorrigibly shallow” and had equally dismissive things to say about the novels of her friend Sackville-West, who largely abandoned writing for the comforts of her country home, Sissinghurst, and its famous gardens. Harold Nicolson characterized his books as “failures,” but he kept writing them, and people kept reading them. Likewise Nigel Nicolson’s books, many of which have sold well garnered both critics and defenders.

 It’s been said of Harold Nicolson that although he never wrote a boring line, he also never wrote a profound one, but time has begun to sort such things out, as it always does. His biographies of Verlaine and King George V – published some twenty years apart – read remarkably well today, united in a grace of style that also makes his Enlightenment history, The Age of Reason, so enjoyable. And although Sackville-West’s The Edwardians and All Passion Spent seem a bit rococo to the modern sensibility, so too does Orlando, and Knole and the Sackvilles has emerged as far more than the family hagiography its contemporary critics called it. Nigel Nicolson’s literary judgement might have failed him when he championed the excrudescence that is Lolita, but it was surely with him when he was producing his massive six-volume edition of Woolf’s letters, and if his life of Napoleon ultimately fails, it does so for the same reason all lives of Napoleon fail, because there is no way to magnify the importance of a stubbed toe – you can endure it and forget it, but you can’t write a good book about it, even if you’re Harold Nicolson’s son.

And what of Nigel Nicolson’s son? In Quarrel with the King he’s written a very good book, one that has many appeals to the general reader – it shares that in common with virtually everything written by his father and his grandparents, and that sense of family resonance can’t help but reflect on the story he’s chosen to tell, the tale of four generations of Pembrokes and their sometimes smooth and sometimes contentious relations with the crown. 

There are two dualities at the heart of this book, and the foremost of them is that relationship between the King and his so-called “over-mighty subjects.” At the pinnacle of their power, the earls of Pembroke ruled over 50,000 acres of lucrative estates in Wiltshire, a vast network of agriculture and industry and peasant labor and income, all centered on the palatial estate of Wilton (the real-life template for the fictional Arcadia created by Sir Philip Sidney and his devote sister Mary, who was the wife of Henry Herbert, the second Earl of Pembroke). These earls could raise an army of their own, equip and feed it, and march it off to serve whatever cause they chose. In the Tudor age – in any age – that constitutes power. And yet, thanks to the Tudor strengthening of the crown’s centralized authority, that power existed in constant uneasy low-boil competition with the sovereign. 

This was a struggle between two very different kinds of authority, then, one represented by great landed magnates like the Pembrokes, with their ways of doing things since time immemorial, and the other represented by the new power of the king, with its growing cadre of lawyers and clerks who looked only to the king – and the money he could make them – for their futures. Nicolson sees this clearly:

"… this story is about the end of an old world, not the making of a new one. Almost every aspect of the Pembrokes’ view of themselves was retrospective: old family, old authority, old ways of being, old values. And nearly every aspect of what they hated was new: new men, new money, new forms of authority, the new demands of the modern world."

The irony here is that the first earl, William Herbert, was a figure from both worlds. His Welsh nobility went back, as Welsh nobilities tend to do, to the mists of pre-history, and as Nicolson puts it, “As far as he was concerned, he was the 20th Earl of Pembroke, heir in line direct to the previous nineteen, of nine different creations, who had battled their way across the Middle Ages.” But he was also the first earl, rewarded with that revived title in 1551 by young King Edward IV after his part in quelling what looked like a usurpation by Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, who had attempted to mollify the ruthless ways these “new men” went about running their estates. 

Certainly he had men like William Herbert in mind. In 1549, while Herbert was away on his estates in Wales, his tenants in Washerne revolted, tearing down the park fences he’d erected to enclose deer runs and killing as many deer as they could. When word reached Herbert, he marched to Wiltshire at the head of a hastily-gathered army of his Welsh tenants and proceeded to slaughter his English tenants. Edward IV notes it in his diary with his usual dispassion, but Nicolson is clearly mesmerized by the sheer violence of the incident:

"It is worth pausing for a moment to consider exactly what was done here in the service of Arcadia. Remember the dog chains in the old armory [at Wilton], the bills and pikes, the halberds with which you could spike a man and then cut him. Almost certainly Herbert would have used a sword on his tenants. The favorite and usual strokes in the sixteenth century were not fencing-like thrusts – a slightly later, European development  - but rather more woodmanlike slashing and severing: the cutting of the head from the shoulders, the cutting off of an arm or a leg, and the slicing stroke down through the head. This could be dramatic. There are records throughout the Middle Ages of sword cuts leaving the severed halves of the head hanging down to left and right on either shoulder. Sometimes the sword was smashed into the head with such violence that it cut down through a man’s torso to his hips, with his body folding apart like a carcass in an abattoir. Skeletons from medieval battles, unearthed and examined, often have multiple wounds: both legs cut off, sometimes apparently from a single sweeping blow with the sword; parts of the skull cut away in several pieces; occasionally many wounds of which any one would have been fatal; bodies left halved."

And although Herbert would probably have enjoyed knowing that at least somebody thus appreciates all the effort he went to, Nicolson isn’t as awestruck as he appears – he seems to know that William Herbert was a terrifying, illiterate, grasping thug, and the contrast this sets up with Herbert’s far more refined and elegant descendants, many of them poets or the patrons of poets, is never far from our author’s mind. He often returns to the great Van Dyke painting of the family at the height of its power, and never more so than when contemplating the brutish man who made it all possible:

"And so when you look at the beautiful boys in their beautiful silks in the Van Dyke painting, or out across the coiffed perfection of the lawns at Wilton, or at any sign of aristocratic elegance, these moments of 1549 are what need to be remembered. Behind the grace and the nonchalance of riches hangs the mask, with the hatchet mouth and hooded eyes, of the man-killing condottiere founder of the dynasty."

(Which isn’t to say Nicolson isn’t ever carried away by the savage grandeur of it all … as, for instance, when he’s pondering on what old William’s motivations may have been for enclosing those parklands in the first place, thereby depriving so many of his tenants of the land they needed to grow their food:

"Why was it done? Not only to feed the vanity of a Tudor magnate but also to provide a place of peace and calm in a life of extreme anxiety and stress. The sufferings of the villagers of Washerne are a direct product of the tensions and struggles at the Tudor court."

One might almost laugh at this, except for how bitterly all those villagers wept – would their tears have been less bitter if they’d only realized that it was tension that evicted them from their homes and forced them to watch their children beg and starve? Tension, and not some roaring, beetle-browed climber intent on his own personal aggrandizement?)

The main reason the dichotomy keeps coming up, the main reason it’s so stark in the case of the Pembrokes (and not, for instance, in the case of the Percys or the Campbells), is precisely because popular culture has forgotten beasts like that first William Herbert and tends to remember the Pembrokes – if it remembers them at all, although Nicolson’s book will help to change that – through their connection with the arts. 

Two connections, mainly. The first is the great English romance Arcadia, begun around 1578 and composed piecemeal throughout the following decade by both the Countess of Pembroke and her older brother Sidney.  Although the work underwent many radical changes before it was eventually printed, its heart stayed the same: Arcadia, a rural paradise where, as Nicolson puts it, “there is nothing much to do but fall in love and have adventures.” The brother and sister envisioned Arcadia as a holdout against the cold winds of change they saw sweeping through their world, and Nicolson again notices the contrasts involved between creator and creation:

"Sidney’s life was strung between literature and politics. He was born with a gift for fluency, a rhythmic ease that flooded English sensibility with a new and extraordinarily feeling for the beauty of the flowing phrase. Largely through him the current of English poetry and romance turned from the blocky, rough-cut directness of mid-sixteenth-century poetry to something sweeter and more liquid."

The second literary connection comes in the next generation, when Mary Sidney’s son William Herbert, as the third Earl of Pembroke, becomes the patron of William Shakespeare. Patron, Nicolson argues, and many things besides:

"There have been many candidates for the beautiful, aristocratic, reluctant-to-marry sexy young man addressed with such overwhelming passion in the first 126 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but none fits the circumstances as closely as Will Herbert: from a family of immense standing, which was of famous beauty in both men and women, with the initials W.H., those given by the publisher’s dedication of the Sonnets in 1609 to “The Onlie Begetter of These Insuing Sonnets”; of exactly the right age (born in April 1580) for an early middle-aged Shakespeare to fall in love with in the late 1590s; with a history behind him of his parents commissioning poets, whom they had known professionally, to urge him on to virtuous paths; seen as the “green shoot” of the family, with the next generation’s harvest latent in him, imagery on which Shakespeare memorably drew; and, as it turns out, with a wild and amorous nature but a deep reluctance to marry, exactly the subject of the first seventeen sonnets."

There’s an odd shifting going on here, and at times it seems as if Nicolson is unaware of it. Two or three lines after this quote, he writes, “The poems feel like what they were: a commission, a birthday present, a paid-for imploring, dedicated to the understanding that only by the complex of marriage and negotiation, of getting and begetting, can a person defeat his own mortality. That in effect is the voice of worldliness, of a good deal well done.” So what’s this business of falling in love, then? Not to mention the fact that several of the other candidates fit the bill quite as nicely as pretty, featherbrained Will Herbert – the most famous being, of course, pretty, featherbrained Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. 

In any case, the family’s fortunes rose not with Will (whose, shall we say, wayward tendencies could not have been cured by a phalanx of Shakespeares) but with his brother Philip, who was extremely pretty but no featherbrain at all, though he acted the part (well enough to fool Nicolson, who calls him “not very clever”). He caught the eye of the new King James I and held the monarch’s affection specifically by down-playing his own accomplishments (he let it be known – to the king and everybody else – that the only things he really knew or cared about were horses and dogs). Honors, preferments, properties, and cold, hard cash followed in such a gushing torrent that the Pembroke clerks back at Wilton could hardly keep track of it all. 

This Philip’s son, the 4th Earl of Pembroke, faced a thoroughly unenviable crisis in the 1640s, and it’s the crisis central to Nicolson’s conception of his grand subjects: the choice between their own local autonomy and their loyalty to the king, from whom so much of their glories had come. That this is no choice at all – that all subjects who aren’t traitors owe their ultimate loyalty to their king (whether that king is good or bad, weak or strong, makes no difference whatsoever) – can hardly be expected to delay a modern writer like Nicolson, who’s more concerned with the dramatics regardless.  And there were plenty of dramatics, including an incident that took place on July 19 1641 in a committee meeting of the House of Lords, when an enraged Pembroke struck a fellow councilor with his rod of office and was sent to the Tower by Charles I, who also deprived him of his berth as Chancellor. 

Pembroke thought this was hard use for somebody who’d been as energetic a servant of the king as he’d been, and shortly afterward, when Oliver Cromwell led a faction of traitors in a successful armed uprising against the king. Pembroke was forced to choose sides, and he chose for the so-called parliamentarians – based on his estimate that their greater strength would enable him to protect Wilton and all the rest of his property. In the end, his lands came before his king who, legend has it, went to the block with this prayer on his lips: “Look upon my misery with Thine eye of mercy and let Thy infinite power vouchsafe to limit out some proportion of deliverance unto me.” It was, as John Milton was scandalized to learn, a line from Arcadia.

But alongside this duality in Quarrel with the King is another, more (as our author would put it) “subterranean” than the first but also considerably odder. When Philip and Mary Sidney were creating their Arcadia, they were indulging in the Pembroke family’s growing nostalgia for the good old days when heavily landed barons such as themselves were veritable mini-kingdoms (when Philip of Spain stopped at Wilton on his way to marry Queen Mary, the whole affair had very much been handled as a visit of state), owing only the most token of allegiances to the king – or queen – in London. This is understandable, though myopic, if you’re actually living at Wilton during the fourteenth century. It becomes progressively more difficult, as the centuries roll on, to hold to the rightness of such a view, especially in light of those desolate behalved villagers in Washerne. 

When viewing the exploits of these flashy Pembrokes from the vantage point of the 21st century, readers may allow themselves to be momentarily caught up in the pageantry of it all, but at some point the dictates of modern historiography – not to mention the sacrifices of the Mrs. Pankhurst, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, et al – will force them to admit something along these lines: “Sure, all this makes for great reading and is valuable historical information, but it can’t have been very enjoyable for the hundreds of thousands of voteless, voiceless, prospectless poor people whose labor made it all possible in the first place.” In other words, although it’s endlessly diverting to read about great landed estates like Wilton and the dictatorial barons who ruled them, we wouldn’t – we shouldn’t – want them back?

If there’s a chin in the audience that isn’t nodding right now, it belongs to Adam Nicolson. Time and again while reading Quarrel with the King, you get the impression that he not only likes visiting palatial piles like Wilton but that he’d like to live there … and not now, what with the visiting hours and the tours of the shuffling public, but then, when peasants never came up to the Big House and when the squires and their ladies could draw the heavy brocade curtains on fierce driving snowstorms, content in the knowledge that their ‘people’ would be out in that weather, tending their animals and gathering their sticks for the tiny family hearth.  

He cloaks it in all kinds of terminologies, from sociological to psychological, from natural history:

"If someone was found to have done wrong or strayed outside the limits laid down by custom, punishment would be swift. In these ways, the manor could be seen either as system of cooperative balance or, like a coral reef, a world of such intense internal competitiveness that its struggles and rivalries had been frozen into a set of symbiotic duties and obligations, the rivals in a clinch, by which life alone was sustainable."

to environmental:

"Was pastoralism – like the modern environmental movement – the expression of a world realizing that something real and valuable, which previously had been taken for granted, was now under threat and disappearing from under its nose? If imagination is the cousin of memory, then are the dream worlds of Renaissance England in fact the reassembled fragments of a remembered existence that people’s fathers and grandfathers might have considered normal?"

But always there’s a thread of sympathy running through even his most even-handed accounts of what was, after all, a brutal and repressive social system. It’s not like he doesn’t present the reader with all the facts – he does, detailing at length how monstrous old William Herbert used and abused the poor villagers who’d helplessly fallen into his hands – it’s that he seems willfully blind to the darker meanings of those facts, even to the point where he can put forth a wopper like this:

"It is the ideology of an establishment concerned with keeping itself in a position of wealth and power. There is not a hint of democracy, let alone radicalism, but it is a frame of mind that also sets itself against any form of authoritarianism. The workings of the medieval and post-medieval community depend at their heart on a balance of interests, contributions, and rewards."

Sets itself against any form of authoritarianism? Balance of interests, contributions, and rewards? The earnest student of the period simply gapes, at first unable to conceive a reply. The “ideology” in question here is designed for nothing but authoritarianism – whole thriving villages razed in order to construct a pretty park where one family can find some stress relief: that is the very picture of authoritarianism, as clearly and accurately painted as any Van Dyke could ever do. Rewards? You’ll work even harder on the smaller plot of dirt I’ve allotted to you, and if you don’t, I’ll import Welsh mercenaries and slaughter the lot of you like spring lambs … where can anyone find a “balance of interests” in such a reality? 

Nicolson carefully draws up his accounts, but when he asks questions like these:

"Our modern nostrils quiver and bristle at this idea. Can happiness and contentment really come from such radical limitations on individual freedoms? Can the system really be justified when so few seem to benefit in their silks and gilded rooms and so many are condemned to a life of poverty and drudgery in their small poor houses at the edges of their damp river meadows?"

it’s pretty clear his answer is “yes.” 

And maybe this isn’t so strange, when you consider that second family saga playing out in Quarrel with the King – the saga of which Nicolson himself is a part. His father may have been what some would call forward-thinking in publishing Lolita, but he spent the bulk of his literary life looking back, chronicling the great figures of the past (and editing their letters, as in the case of both Virginia Woolf and his own father). And Vita Sackville-West was obsessed her entire life by the fact that antiquated laws of primogeniture prevented her from inheriting Knole, a very old-fashioned duplicate of which she tried to create at Sissinghurst. Her novels are suffused with the glories of an age now passing.  Of World War Two she said, “It is not as if we were fighting to preserve the things we care for. This war, whatever happens, will destroy them.” If Adam Nicolson imbibed even a bit of this family miasma, it’s not surprising that he could end his book with a paragraph as yearning as this:

"It [the world of Arcadia] lived above all in its gatherings: at the village courts, at the masques and tournaments, at the hay harvest and the wheat harvest, at the plays in the candlelit halls, at the great funerals, and eventually at the desperate hilltop meetings during the Civil War. It is a world that has entirely disappeared, but one whose virtues disappeared with its faults."

Harold Nicolson prefaced The Age of Reason with a neat little disclaimer aimed squarely at his many academic critics:

"I shall, I well know, be abused for not having provided references to the numerous quotations that I have introduced into this book. The omission was deliberate, since this study is not intended to be a work of historical research or reference, but to contain portraits of individuals and an account of changing states of mind."

Adam Nicolson need fear no such abuse – his book is laudably documented, indeed an invaluable omnium gatherum of rare and hard-to-access local sources.  If Quarrel with the King should come with its own disclaimer, it would take another form entirely, perhaps quoted from the good Countess herself:

Compasse Sion in her standing
Tell her towres, mark her fortes:
Note with care the statelie portes
Her roiall houses beare;
For that ages understanding,
Which shall come, when we shall goe,
Gladd in former times to know,
How manie what they were.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.