ELYOT, Sir Thomas


ELYOT, Sir Thomas The boke named the governour

London, [Thomas Marsh], 1557


8vo. ff. [viii] 216. Black letter, some Italic. Title within woodcut architectural border (McKerrow and Ferguson, 52), woodcut initials. ll. from the Boke of Godly Prayers used as endpapers. C19 armorial bookplate of the Earls of Macclesfield to front pastedown, their armorial blindstamp to first few leaves. Light marginal water-staining or age-yellowing, especially to last third of book, marginal worming to final few leaves, not affecting text. A good, clean, well-margined copy in contemp. blind-ruled and -stamped calf, rubbed, slight damage to edges and spine, lacking ties

Important early treatise on theory of the education of princes and the ruling clan by Sir Thomas Elyot (c.1490-1546), diplomat and scholar. In 1511, he accompanied his father, Attorney-General to Elizabeth of York, on the western circuit as clerk to the assize, a position which he held until 1528. The various legacies and honours bestowed upon Elyot seem frequently to have brought him more trouble and expense than they were worth. Cardinal Wolsey decided in his favour in a dispute over estates in Cambridgeshire, also making him clerk of the Privy Council; a knighthood followed in 1530. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell, however, Elyot complains that he never received the emoluments of his office, and that the empty honour of a knighthood merely put him to further expense. The publication of the Boke named the Governour in 1531, dedicated to Henry VIII, served to win him the king’s favour, but also a series of troublesome commissions. He was sent to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to try to persuaded him to take a more favourable view of Henry’s proposed divorce from Catherine of Aragon; at the same time, he was, if possible, to apprehend William Tyndale. The expedition made him unpopular in most quarters, and involved him in near-ruinous expense. A request to Cromwell to be excused his duties as sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire was denied, and he also failed to receive any of the spoils which might have been expected from his role in the inquiry instituted by Cromwell prior to the suppression of the monasteries. Elyot’s friendship with Thomas More brought further difficulties.

The present work is the most important of Elyot’s writings. First published in 1531 and humanist in approach, it argues for a system where the monarch has unlimited power and discusses the educational needs of such future princes, from reading to exercise and music. Its popularity may be gauged by the number of editions it ran through in the sixteenth century, of which this is at least the sixth. Book I of the Governour defines the ‘Publike Weale’, equated with the Latin Res publica, and outlines Elyot’s arguments for the domination of the state by a single monarch. The example of the ‘radical democracy’ of fifth century BC Athens is cited with disapproval as “a monstre with many heedes” which was never “certeyne nor stable”. Elyot next considers the upbringing and education of the future ‘Governour’: the selection of his nurses and tutors; the authors he should read, and in which order; the importance of physical exercise and hunting; and the cultivation of the virtues of prudence and circumspection. He advises that artistic inclinations should not be discouraged, and that “daunsinge is not to be reproved”. Book II moves on to the qualities and policies to be exercised by the mature Governour. Affability, placability, mercy and benevolence are key qualities, but Elyot is also aware of the importance of the external trappings of power, such as demeanour and royal regalia. The Governour is advised to choose his friends wisely, and avoid flatterers. Book III elaborates further on the exercise of power, focussing on justice. Justice, Elyot states, should be observed even between enemies, and he urges “pacience in sustayninge wronges and rebukes”. Throughout, Elyot’s arguments are illustrated by examples from Classical antiquity, and his general thesis is that there has been a decline in the quality – and quality of education – of rulers, which he hopes this treatise to at least partially remedy. It is not simply a handbook for rulers, however, but is intended to be aspirational, a manual for “all ye reders that desire to haue your children to be gouernours”.

“This books is not only the earliest treatise on moral philosophy in English, but the first of an imposing array which introduced into England the cultural and political ideas of the Renaissance.” Pforzheimer I 354

STC 7640; Lowndes II, 736; Printing and the Mind of Man, 61 (1st edn).

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