Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 11. George Cavendish

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XV. Chroniclers and Antiquaries

§ 11. George Cavendish

Few books have had a stranger fate than George Cavendish’s Life and Death of Thomas Woolsey. Written when queen Mary was on the throne, it achieved a secret and furtive success. It was passed in manuscript from hand to hand. Shakespeare knew it and used it. As I have said, both Stow and Speed leaned upon its authority. First printed in 1641, it was then so defaced by interpolations and excisions as to be scarce recognisable, and it was not until 1657 that a perfect text was given to the world. And then, for no visible reason, it was ascribed to William, not to George, Cavendish. The uncertainty had no other excuse save that William, the better known of the two, was the founder of a great family. Speed gives the credit where it was due, to George—and Speed’s word was worth more than surmise. However, all doubt was long since removed, and to George Cavendish, a simple gentleman of the cardinal’s household, belongs the glory of having given to English literature the first specimen of artistic biography. Steadfast in devotion, plain in character, Cavendish left all to follow the fortunes of the cardinal. He was witness of his master’s pomp and splendour; he was witness of his ruin and his death. He embellished his narrative with Wolsey’s own eloquence; he recorded the speech of Cromwell, Northumberland and others; and he imparts to his pages a sense of reality which only a partaker of Wolsey’s fortune could impart. But he was not a Boswell, attempting to produce a large effect by a multiplicity of details. His book has a definite plan and purpose. Consciously or unconsciously, Cavendish was an artist. His theme is the theme of many a Greek tragedy, and he handles it with Greek austerity. He sets out to show how Nemesis descends upon the haughty and overbold, how the mighty are suddenly cast down from their seats, how the hair-shirt lurks ever beneath the scarlet robes of the cardinal. This is the confessed end and aim of his work. He is not compiling a “life and times.” He discards as irrelevant many events which seem important in the eye of history. The famous words which he puts in the mouth of Wolsey dying might serve as a text for the whole work: “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the king, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

That his readers may feel the full pathos of Wolsey’s fall, he paints the magnificence of his life in glowing colours. Titles are heaped upon titles. The boy bachelor grows to the man of affairs, the ambassador, the king’s almoner, the chancellor of England, the archbishop of York, the cardinal. In lavish entertainment, in noble pageantry, the cardinal surpassed the king. His banquets “with monks and mummers it was a heaven to behold.” The officers of his chapel and of his household were like the sands in number. He moved always in a procession. “He rode like a cardinal, very sumptuously, on a mule trapped with crimson velvet upon velvet, his stirrups of copper and gilt; and his spare mule following him with like apparel.” Is it any wonder that fortune “began to wax something wroth with his prosperous estate”? Almost at the outset, the note of warning is struck. The sinister influence of Anne Boleyn begins to be felt from the moment that the cardinal comes between her and the love of lord Percy. In other words, fortune “procured Venus, the insatiate goddess, to be her instrument.” The king’s displeasure at the slow process of divorce is heightened by the whisperings of Mistress Anne. And then, at Grafton, the blow falls. The cardinal is ordered to give up the great seal and to retire to Esher. Henceforth, misfortunes are heaped upon him, as they were heaped upon Job, and he bears them with an equal resignation. He is stripped of wealth and state. His hopeless journey from town to town brings him nearer only to death. The omens are bad. A cross falls upon Bonner’s head as he sits at meat. When the earl of Northumberland, charged to arrest him of high treason, visits him, “Ye shall have such cheer,” says the cardinal, with the true irony of Sophocles, “as I am able to make you, with a right good will … hoping hereafter to see you oftener, when I shall be more able and better provided to receive you with better fare.” So, at last, he dies at Leicester, dishonoured and disgraced, stripped of his splendour, abandoned by his train. And Cavendish, speaking with the voice of the tragic chorus, exhorts his readers to behold “the wondrous mutability of vain honours, the brittle assurance of abundance, the uncertainty of dignities, the flattery of feigned friends, and the fickle trust to worldly princes.”