Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
Sir Henry Wotton (1568–1639)
 
[Born 9th April 1568, at Boughton Hall, in the Parish of Boughton, Malherbe, Kent; educated at Winchester, and New and Queen’s Colleges, Oxford; travelled on the Continent from about 1590 to 1599, spending five of these years in Italy; on his return attached himself to the Earl of Essex, whom he accompanied on two sea-voyages and on his Irish expedition; on the discovery of Essex’s plot secretly quitted the country for Italy; about 1602 was, under the assumed name Octavio Baldi, admitted to an audience by James VI. at Stirling. After the accession of James I. he was three times sent ambassador to Venice, besides being charged with several diplomatic missions in Germany, including an embassy to the Emperor Ferdinand II., in the affairs of the dethroned Queen of Bohemia and her family. On his retirement in 1623 he was promised the reversion of the Mastership of the Rolls, but obtained the Provostship of Eton College. In 1627 he took deacon’s orders. He died at Eton in December 1639.]  1
 
THE ROLL of our notable prose writers, like that of our poets of genius, would be incomplete without the name of Sir Henry Wotton, which is illuminated by something beyond the afterglow of the great age to which, both by his nurture and by his sympathies, he belonged. For he represents more distinctly perhaps than any other of his contemporaries the militant Protestantism which counted for so much in the whole life of their age. Like Bacon, he formed part of the younger generation which passed from the service of the great Queen into that of her successor. Had it been morally possible for James I. to allow their counsels to determine permanently the balance of his judgment, European history might have taken a different course. But this by the way. What concerns us is the type which in Wotton is so cherished by Englishmen. Advanced Protestants in their religious views (for to call them Puritans would be a misnomer), these heroes of an unheroic age were, it must be confessed, unhampered by too nice a scrupulosity in their methods of political conduct, and well fitted to co-operate with the statesmen who enjoyed the confidence of Henry IV., or contributed despatches to the Chancery of militant Calvinism in the Empire. Wotton, before he became a diplomatist himself and wrote despatches which lie outside our present range, and of which, for the rest, but few seem to have been preserved, took occasion to put forth a manifesto of his opinions which is certainly not lacking in plainness. In his later days he advised a young aspirant in his profession always to tell the truth, more especially since nobody would ever believe it to be such. But the spirit of The State of Christendom, written shortly before the death of Queen Elizabeth, and the largest and most important of Wotton’s extant prose writings, is that of a self-confident aggressiveness without arrière-pensées. It opens with a plain statement that in the weary days of the author’s foreign exile there had occurred to him, among other possible ways of bringing about his return, the notion of “murdering some notable traitor to his prince and country”; but that on second thoughts he had not carried out the scheme, as likely to entail upon him both danger and disquietude. In the body of the essay he argues very audaciously, and at the same time very subtly, in defence of such disputable acts as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of the Duke of Guise, but he is not less prepared to show cause why King Philip of Spain should be lawfully excommunicated and deposed, and dealt with accordingly. An argument conducted in this practical fashion may serve to show that revolutions, such as were attempted in the state of Western Christendom alike by the Calvinist propaganda and by the Catholic reaction, are not made with rose-water; but no refinements of style could render it pleasant reading, and to these indeed it makes no pretence. With this treatise should be compared Wotton’s youthful letters to Lord Ford from Germany, which breathe the same defiant spirit. I have extracted from The State of Christendom part of an interesting passage on the relations between the King of Spain and “the Turk” of the period, in order to show the forcible directness of which Wotton was capable when he allowed his English Prose to remain unadorned by the quaint conceits and Italian phrases which abound in his “familiar” letters. His chief attempt in the field of natural science, for which he always retained a keen interest, was in Latin, and the work of his Oxford days; but his treatise on The Elements of Architecture is in the vernacular, and to the full as readable as any modern pamphlet on house-decoration. More ambitious in design, but, like nine-tenths of his writings, only fragmentary in execution, is the Survey of Education; or, Moral Architecture, which consists of aphorisms and a preface, the latter interesting as seeking to place education on its true, i.e., psychological, basis. The historical pieces are similarly unfinished, unless we should except the not very profound quasi-Plutarchian parallel between Essex and Buckingham, and the servile panegyric “to” Charles I. This king loved epigrams, and Wotton the making of them—witness his famous definition of an ambassador, as sent to ‘lie abroad,’ on behalf of his country—a witticism, wickedly published by Scioppius several years after date. The panegyric contains a more academic saying of which its author wished mention to be made in his epitaph, thus “Englished” by Izaak Walton:
        
“Here lies the first author of this sentence:
‘The itch of disputation will prove the scab of Churches.’
Inquire his name elsewhere.”
  2
  We might well wish that he had, among his many designs, carried out that of a Life of Luther, with a history of the German Reformation; for nobody better knew how to correlate a great man and his times, and he had in him both enthusiasm and humour enough to understand the genius of the great Reformer. Wotton’s own religious meditations have nothing specially characteristic in them, but they breathe the fervent piety which lends their deepest charm to his later letters, and which reveals itself even in the chance expressions of so personal a “report” as that which I have extracted from his letters to Sir Edmund Bacon,—to my mind next to the Poems the pleasantest part of the Reliquiæ Wottonianæ. It is necessary to turn to this varied collection from Izaak Walton’s delightful but imperfectly balanced Life, which presents to us the Provost of Eton in his cloistered retirement—a solitude of study and prayer—rather than the enthusiastic “servant” of Elizabeth of Bohemia, the eager friend of Father Paul, the courtier, the politician, and the wit. And to those who are not content with a mere glance at Wotton’s prose, fragmentary as it is, most passages of his Remains will I think suggest a combination of characteristics rare in the style even of a highly cultivated writer, unless he is at the same time a man of convictions rooted in principle and matured by experience.  3
 
 
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