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In My Good Books

The Journal of the Last Tudor King

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
22 October 2005

The first English theorist of life-writing, Roger North, coined a word which never made it into usage. In a general essay composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century (but not published in full until 1984) he used the word idiography to cover both journals and memoirs. "Whoever hath a mind either his family or the public should profit by his example, and would be known to posterity truly as he was, ought to keep a journal of all the incidents that may afford useful remarks upon the course of his life…"

The practice might help a man see his errors and avoid "exorbitancies" that might stain his reputation. The pleasure of looking back on the past might compensate for the daily effort involved, although North admits that there are many who "had rather carry guts to the bears than write a letter." He tells us there are many examples of this kind of idiography, and that "The petit journal of Edward VI, even a youth, may be a pattern for the greatest men."

As it happens, Edward VI's journal, his Chronicle as he calls it, was published recently in a cheap and accessible edition (England's Boy King, the Diary of Edward VI 1547-1553, edited by Jonathan North, Ravenhall Books £14.99). The manuscript, now in the British Library, runs to 68 pages, and is clearly complete since the entries cease only as the king enters his last illness.

Tudor prose is not always the most enticing to read, so it is with mixed feelings that we discover from the editor that "the language has been updated, the punctuation modernised and, in some cases, sentences restructured in order to assist the reader."

Still, here we are with the chronicle in hand, annotated and legible. It begins: "In the Year of our Lord 1537 a prince was born to King Harry the Eighth by Jane Seymour, then queen, who within a few days after the birth of her son died and was buried at Windsor Castle." And the author of these words is undoubtedly the prince himself who, in the very next sentence, which recounts his christening, omits mention of the fact that his godmother was his half-sister, the future Queen Mary I.

Later we will see Edward or his Council persecuting Mary for her faith. So on 18 March 1551, "The lady Mary, my sister, came to me at Westminster where, after salutations, she was called, along with my Council, into a chamber where it was declared how long I had suffered her mass in hope of her reconciliation but that now, there being no hope, which I perceived from her letters, unless I saw some amendment, I could not bear it. She answered that her soul was God's and that she would not change her faith, nor hide her opinion through contrary doings."

Mary had her own resources, and the next day's entry reads: "The Emperor's ambassador came with a short message from his master threatening war if I would not allow his cousin the princess to use her mass."

What we desire from a journal is a person's sense of himself. Edward's self-consciousness is bound up with ceremonial. He is always the centre of attention. A French ambassador arrives, and "he came to see me being equipped and saw my bedchamber and went hunting with hounds and saw me shoot and saw all my guards shoot together. He dined with me, heard me play on the lute, saw me ride, came to me in my study, supped with me and so departed to Richmond."

Edward is interested in pageantry and sports: "I went to Deptford… where before supper I saw certain men stand upon the end of a boat, without holding anything, and charging at one another until one was cast in the water." After supper, a mock assault on a castle with "clods, squibs, canes of fire, darts made for noise and bombards." On another occasion he sees bears hunted in the Thames, and also "wild fire cast out of boats." At the marriage of Amy Robsart to Dudley, "certain gentlemen tried to see who could be the first to take away a goose's head which was hanged alive on two crossed posts."

The countryside is full of unrest: "There was a privy search made through all Sussex for all vagabonds, gypsies, conspirators, prophets, ill-players and such like." In Essex, a conspiracy is detected to bring people to Chelmsford and "spoil the rich men's houses if they could. Such woodcock!" But this last kind of comment is rare. Of his uncle, the former Protector, Edward writes: "The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock in the morning." But as to the young king's feelings, we are left guessing.

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The essay by Roger North forms the preface, unpublished in his day, to North's lives of various members of his family. It was edited and published in full for the first time in General Preface & Life of Dr John North edited by Peter Millard, University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Millard has a note on "idiography": "An interesting word that does not appear in OED, and which was probably coined by North. The term 'autobiography' was not available to him (OED gives 1809 as its earliest appearance) but, in any case, 'idiography' here appears to designate writing about oneself that includes both journals and autobiography."

North would have read Edward's "petit journal" in Gilbert Burnet's History of the Reformation (1679-1715) where it was first published. The new edition is based on the text as it appears in Literary Remains of King Edward the Sixth (edited by John Nichols, 1858), but modernised.

North says that "there are many kinds of idiography", but he does not list many. In addition to Edward's journal, he has the De Vita Propria by Cardan (Girolamo Cardano, about whom I shall be writing shortly), Bassompier (François de Bassompière's memoirs) and Archbishop Laud's journal.


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