Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 June 2021
In a piquant aside in his propitiatory treatise, The Tree of Commonwealth, Edmund Dudley remarked on the want of ‘lerninge of vertue and conning’ among the chivalrous classes of England, adding that this was the reason why ‘childeren of poore men and meane folke’ were promoted to high office. How, if at all, Dudley meant these words to bear upon himself is not clear: although he is to us the very epitome of a legally trained and low-born evil councillor, he was actually a Sussex gentleman, the grandson of a baron in a cadet line and the nephew of a bishop. It was a literary commonplace that noblemen lacked learning, and Dudley was far from alone among contemporary pundits in suggesting they should be better educated. What gave his views an edge – besides his personal notoriety and the peculiarity of his circumstances – was his attempt to provide a sociological explanation for the supposed rise of councillors who had been ‘y-broughte up of noughte’: those ‘caitiffs and villains of simple birth’, who were so widely denounced in the second half of the fifteenth century. Where public opinion complained about the ‘covetise’ of these men, Dudley presented their education as a positive reason why they were so influential. In doing so, he drew on other strands in contemporary discussion of counsel: first, approbation for training in the humanities – classical rhetoric, history and philosophy – as a preparation for service to the res publica or commonwealth; and, second, admiration for wisdom, expertise and impartiality – not the olympian detachment of the wealthy landowner, assumed to be above bribery and self-promotion, but the disengagement of the professional administrator from lordly networks and court factions. Dudley's words thus evoke two of the major themes in historical discussion of the decades around 1500: the rise of a class of ‘new men’ in place of the ‘old nobility’; and the arrival of new kinds of training – in the reviving classics or the common law – at the heart of government.
Once upon a time, it was axiomatic that these themes were interwoven: two different facets of the emerging Tudor despotism, founded on the destruction of the medieval baronage and the rise of a newly educated and secular ‘middle class’. For much of the twentieth century, however, such views were under attack.