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When was the Tudor Revolution?

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When was the Tudor Revolution?

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Published by University of Leicester Press Office for University of Leicester in Education and also in Communities

Leicester academic studies some surprising origins of a famous historian’s best-known theory

A new study at the University of Leicester shows some surprising origins of a famous historian’s most famous claim - in a need to get published.

Over the years thousands of people studying History at school, college and university have been asked ‘Was there a Tudor Revolution in government?’ The question was thrust upon them by The Tudor Revolution in Government (1953), the first of many books by Sir Geoffrey Elton (1921-94), the world-famous historian (and uncle of Ben Elton).

According to Geoffrey Elton, Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell made a revolution during the 1530s: out went the medieval structure at the centre, in came modern methods for running the country, and out went the Pope at the same time. But where did Elton’s theory of revolution come from in the first place?

Dr Ian Harris of the University of Leicester’s School of Historical Studies has been doing research on Elton, reading his unprinted correspondence as well as his published works. Amongst many findings, it emerges that the idea of revolution came to the fore because Elton wanted to publish his research in book form.

The Tudor Revolution followed from Elton’s Ph.D. thesis. The Ph.D. focussed on reform of central government when Cromwell was Henry’s chief minister, and extended into the 1530s the lines of interpretation developed about administration in medieval England by Thomas Frederick Tout (1855-1929). It did not emphasize revolution – and Elton was uncertain whether the Reformation was more Cromwell’s work than Henry’s: the evidence was indecisive, any verdict must be ‘personal’.

After Elton approached an academic publisher with a revised version of his Ph.D. late in 1950, he was told that he lacked a unifying theme. Over the last weekend of January 1951, Elton plumped for a revolution in government and for Cromwell as its author.

Thus Elton aligned himself with earlier English historians, who had written about the 1530s as one of revolution and had made Cromwell central to it. James Anthony Froude (1818-94) and John Richard Green (1837-83) had written about England’s destiny and had identified Cromwell as the man who devised and executed the plans that made it happen. On the other hand, Elton still wrote largely in terms of reform, not revolution, and his headline claim never convinced everyone.

Dr Harris said, ‘Geoffrey Elton’s story is about self-identification with a new country. He came to Britain at eighteen, a refugee from Hitler, and by his early thirties emerged as a vigorous continuator of the historical interpretation that emphasized England’s greatness.’

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