The Tudors: Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

Popularly she was known as “The Virgin Queen” and “Good Queen Bess.” Edmund Spenser honored her as “Gloriana” in his 1590 masterpiece, The Faerie Queene. Will Durant called her “The Great Queen” in his monumental The Story of Civilization. In the eyes of history, Elizabeth represents the apex as well as the conclusion of the Tudor dynasty. She became a celebrated god-like figure as well as the embodiment of an emerging empire. Indeed, the entire epoch was named in her honor -the Elizabethan Age- a fabled golden age of England.

Latter day historians have looked back with deceptive nostalgia on the Elizabethan era for its extraordinary cultural heights -the flourishing of English literature in the works of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe. It was also the age of exploration under Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, and the burgeoning scientific Enlightenment under Francis Bacon, and most importantly, English cultural euphoria blossomed following the dramatic victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Yet the Elizabethan Age was also a time of great uncertainty. She reigned for 45 tumultuous years. The continuing brutality between Protestants and Catholics had spread all over Europe and it violently turned countries against themselves while also yielding extreme authoritarian sects, like the Puritans in England. And with the memory of the Wars of the Roses fresh in the minds of Englishmen, the security of the crown’s succession was a vitally important question as Elizabeth’s reign drew to a close. The “Virgin Queen” refused to marry and produce an heir despite the growing chorus of advice to do so, and she remained silent on the question of successorship. Would her life and death lead to a new English civil war?

Elizabeth’s Childhood
Elizabeth Tudor was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. She was only three years old when her mother Anne Boleyn was executed amidst charges of treason and unfaithfulness.

Elizabeth was raised and tutored in the household of Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. Following the death of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr remarried for her fourth and final time to a baron named Thomas Seymour. Elizabeth spent her formative years in their household and at Hatfield House under the tutelage of her governess Katherine “Kat” Ashley. By all accounts Elizabeth was a studious pupil. She knew six languages, and translated some of the works of Cicero, Boethius, and Tacitus into English. She was an able musician, she loved hunting, and despite being schooled in the new Protestant doctrine, she privately remained skeptical unlike either her half-brother, Edward VI (a staunch Protestant) or her half-sister, Mary (an uncompromising Catholic). Elizabeth developed a moderate outward theological disposition, and by keeping the passionate religious dogmas of her day at a distance, she gradually molded her character into a pragmatic and capable leader.

At the age of 35 Catherine Parr conceived a surprise pregnancy. During this time, her husband Thomas Seymour took an unsolicited romantic interest in 14-year old Elizabeth. Apparently, he would occasionally enter her room in the mornings and evenings, sometimes scantily clad, and he would tickle her and touch her inappropriately. Occasionally, Catherine would participate. When things apparently went too far, Catherine sent Elizabeth away never to see her again. Catherine Parr died in childbirth a few months later, and after her death, Thomas Seymour tried to pursue a marriage proposal with Elizabeth but he was caught up in legal troubles. He was tried and executed for treason shortly thereafter. The details of the relationship between Elizabeth and Seymour are a bit hazy. When interrogated about Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth remained tight-lipped but the whole experience surely tempered her perspective on men for the rest of her life.

A portrait of teenage Elizabeth shortly before her father’s birthday

During the reign of her half-brother, Edward VI, Elizabeth kept a mostly low profile amidst the radical religious restructuring of the country. When Edward died, Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I, claimed the throne and swung the pendulum back toward Catholicism. Elizabeth, a nominal Protestant, was suspected by the Queen of taking part in Wyatt’s Rebellion against the crown. Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London and she would have almost certainly been executed if any evidence against her was found. Thankfully none ever was found. Elizabeth was allowed to live, much to the chagrin of Queen Mary who secretly despised her Protestant half-sister for the rest of her short life.

The Great Queen
Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England upon the death of her pitiful half-sister, Mary. The jewels of the crown were sent to Elizabeth shortly before Mary’s death, a symbol from the dying Queen that Henry VIII’s plan for the succession was to be upheld. Upon the death of Mary, the church bells of England rang throughout the land while Elizabeth rode through the streets en route to Westminster. She was showered with adulations from the commoners as well as the nobles alike. Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England at the age of 25, the coronation ceremony was presided over by the sitting Catholic Archbishop at Westminster Abbey on November 17, 1558.

In her early reign, the burden of the crown lay heavy on Elizabeth. She had inherited the collapsing scenery of her sister’s regime: both religious and diplomatic challenges were left unsettled. In response, Elizabeth gathered around her some of the most able-minded Protestants of the day: Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and father of Francis Bacon; Roger Ascham, a foremost classical scholar who was also one of Elizabeth’s childhood tutors. However above them all was Sir William Cecil, a strategic, detail-oriented son of a Tudor courtier. He had survived the courts of both Edward VI and Mary, and he became a trusted advisor to Elizabeth for the rest of his life. It was his habit to issue lengthy treatises on particular issues, weighing the arguments on both sides, before ultimately favoring a middle path. His moderate voice was characteristic of Elizabeth’s court, however like her father before her, Elizabeth’s court also embraced the finer things. She donned exuberant garb, like Henry VIII, and her attendant ladies were required to dress in more plain black clothes to highlight Elizabeth’s superiority by contrast (the Queen’s vanity was extraordinary). She was cautious and distrusting, yet she was also an imperious and headstrong young Queen. She was a complicated person: both parsimonious and prideful, cunning and vain, manipulative and sensitive. She rarely summoned Parliament because she did not suffer their criticism or delays in a tolerable manner.

Elizabeth’s coronation (c. 1600)

Elizabeth’s first crisis was the ongoing religious factionalism in the nation. She convened Parliament in January 1559 to address the growing concerns. Unlike her two predecessors, she pursued a policy of via media (“middle way”) regarding religious extremism. Sir William Cecil brilliantly maneuvered compromise between the divided Catholics and Protestants. Ultimately, the price of the Queen’s Supremacy over the Church and in Parliament was the compulsory acceptance of Cranmer’s Protestant Book of Common Prayer. The new Act of Supremacy became law in May 1559. Per David Starkey: “The result was a Church that was Protestant in doctrine, Catholic in appearance and which would, Elizabeth hoped, satisfy all but a handful of extremists on both sides” (315). Elizabeth later issued her famous 39 Articles in 1571, which attempted to blend Protestantism and Catholicism, and like her father before her, Elizabeth commissioned a new Bible be created (however, the question of English Biblical authority was to fall to Elizabeth’s predecessor King James I, who commissioned the massive undertaking of the King James Bible).

One of the more radical religious sects that arose out of this period was Puritanism. They were a strong breed of fervent Calvinists of the Genevan variety. Above all, they were skeptics of the Anglican doctrine. Around 1564 they became known as ‘Puritans’ as a pejorative because they wanted to purify England of any theology not found in the New Testament. They were proponents of a strict theocratic despotism. Of the Puritans Winston Churchill writes: “It is at this point that the party known as the Puritans who were to play so great a role in the next hundred years, first enter English history. Democratic in theory and organization, intolerant in practice of all who differed from their views, the Puritans challenged the Queen’s authority in Church and State, and although she sought for freedom of conscience and could maintain with sincerity that she ‘made no windows into men’s souls’, she dared not let them organise cells in the body religious or the body politic” (263).

Not only was England divided within, but also it faced threats from abroad. England was a political cripple bandied about between Spain and France, the Pope was betting Elizabeth would be willing mend the relationship with the Church to ease the infighting and threats from foreign Catholic powers in Europe. Everywhere men of England feared a return to the Wars of the Roses and it instilled a stark political and religious divide among opinions between those who believed the reforms had gone far enough, and those who pushed for ever greater reforms. The distinctions of the day were made clear: Cavalier and Puritan, Churchman and Dissenter, Tory and Whig. However, Elizabeth disappointed the Church by turning away from the rule of Rome -she reclaimed the ecclesiastical role of the sovereign like her father, Henry VIII. Elizabeth professed not to convict any man, but she also said there could not be two religions in the country. Thus, under the guise of national unity all churches in England were openly converted to Protestantism. All people were forced to swear that salvation came through faith alone (i.e. the Lutheran justification) rather than by good works, and the Calvinist interpretation of the Eucharist was enforced as a spiritual metaphor rather than the physical embodiment of Christ. Anglicanism officially became the law of the land. Much of the country remained privately Catholic until and unless further punitive laws were leveled against Catholics. Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth, as well as support for a plot of several united Catholic countries to invade England. Persecution of Catholics followed in England. Many hundred of Catholics were burned at the stake, hanged, drawn and quartered, or otherwise tortured. Yet England still avoided a grotesque slaughter like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France against the Huguenots in August 1572.

While Fortune favors the bold, Fate humbles the proud. Three years into her reign, Elizabeth contracted smallpox -a disease which few people survived in the 16th century. The prospect of the Queen’s death caused great anxiety among her advisors because there was no clear successor to the throne. It meant there would almost certainly be a constitutional crisis and a civil war or else invasion from abroad. For many days Elizabeth clung to her threadbare life, with her advisors on edge, however she miraculously survived the disease and fully regained her faculties. The only legacy was that smallpox left her skin horribly scarred and disfigured, with half of her hair was absent her head. For the rest of her life she would don lavish wigs and starch cosmetics to hide her physical decay. Around this time, Elizabeth’s youthful beauty had begun to fade. In addition to her skin and hair, Elizabeth’s teeth were severely rotten. She was a lifelong lover of sweets -an expensive commodity for only the wealthiest Englishmen- and her habit cost her most of her teeth while the remaining teeth appeared yellow (apparently, Elizabeth distrusted dentistry). In later years, certain foreign ambassadors had a difficult time understanding Elizabeth when she spoke as her words emanating from her toothless mouth were garbled.

Nevertheless, despite her physical ailments she is rumored to have carried on several affairs. Her lifelong love was for a childhood friend and nobleman named Robert Dudley earl of Leicester. He was already married to an ailing wife but that did not stop Elizabeth. One morning, Mrs. Dudley was found dead under suspicious circumstances -her neck was broken after falling down a flight of stairs. After the woman’s death, Elizabeth seriously considered marriage with Robert Dudley but she was prevented from doing so by the more conservative voices on her council, particularly Sir William Cecil. Robert Dudley eventually remarried another woman and Elizabeth openly expressed disgust and distaste with his new wife for many years to come. She also entertained marriage proposals from foreign dignitaries, such as Philip II of Spain, Eric XIV of Sweden, the Archduke Charles of Austria, and the Duke of Anjou along with his brother. She is rumored to have had infatuations with various other noblemen: Robert Devereux the earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh. However, Elizabeth never seriously pursued any of these opportunities and she remained unmarried all her life.

The ambiguous status of Elizabeth’s marital pursuits led to her second great crisis which loomed over the rest of her life. This was the question of successorship. With an unmarried queen, England had no direct inheritor to the throne. Her court grew impatient. The stability of England lay in the succession of the crown but Elizabeth modeled herself on being wedded to no man but rather to her whole realm. She even wore an inauguration ring to symbolize her marriage to England. Elizabeth’s great power and controversy lay in her silence regarding a successor. If she chose a successor, Elizabeth privately feared a rebellion or an assassination attempt by the parties of opposition. Would Elizabeth marry an Englishman like Robert Dudley? Marrying an Englishman would inevitably earn the ire of half her court. Or instead would she marry a foreigner? Elizabeth had witnessed the dangers of a foreign king when her half-sister Mary was betrothed to Philip II of Spain, a union which spawned widespread hatred and condemnation. Despite Parliament’s pleas for Elizabeth to marry and produce a child, an angry Elizabeth remained silent and obstinate.

Meanwhile there was Mary Queen of Scots.

Mary Queen of Scots
“Mary Stuart” was the daughter of the house of Stuart, James V of Scotland. Mary was a mere six days old when she became Queen of the Scots following the death of James V. She was a descendent of the Tudor family: Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret Tudor (sister to Henry VIII), married King James IV of Scotland. They gave birth to James V of Scotland who married Mary of Guise -the parents of Mary Queen of Scots.

Portrait of a young Mary Queen of Scots by François Clouet circa 1558-1560

Mary spent much of her childhood in France where she married the Dauphin of France, Francis. She was Queen consort of France for one year from 1559-1560 until he died. Then she returned to Scotland and several years later she married for love to her half-cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley –“a weak, conceited youth who had both Tudor and Stuart blood in his veins” according to Winston Churchill (264). Together they had a son, James (the future king of England), but their marriage was a disaster and it spurred old feudal factions in Scotland. Darnley was a hot-headed, violent man. Mary’s enemies used Darnley to disrupt her court -at one point he intruded and threatened the pregnant Queen. At the same time, Mary’s favorite guests from France were highly unpopular, and one man, Mary’s secretary and musician named David Riccio, was seized and stabbed to death in Mary’s presence. Darnley had become convinced Riccio had an inappropriate relationship with his wife. Mary’s enemies nimbly used Lord Darnley against her.

In an act of desperation Mary apparently conspired to murder her husband. In February 1567, Darnley’s residence was destroyed by a mysterious explosion, and he was found murdered in his garden (the murderous image is mirrored in the death of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was generally believed to have orchestrated Darnley’s death, but he was acquitted of the charge in April 1567, and the following month Bothwell married Mary Queen of Scots -many suspected that Mary had, in fact, wed her husband’s murderer and thus she was either complicit in or at least acquiescent to the murder. The marriage to Bothwell caused Mary’s Protestant subjects to rise up against her. Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and in July 1567 she was forced to abdicate her crown which passed to her one-year-old son (James VI of Scotland). After an unsuccessful attempt to regain her throne, she fled southward begging for protection from her cousin once removed: Queen Elizabeth I of England. However Mary’s arrival in England was a disaster from the beginning. Her Catholic presence in England quickly became a threat to the Protestant crown. Numerous conspiracies arose against Elizabeth. In the eyes of the Pope, Mary was the rightful successor to the crown of England and Papist enemies abroad used Mary’s protection in England as an opportunity to subvert the rule of Protestantism. Catholic Spain leaked spies (i.e. Jesuits) into the country to rouse the Catholic North against the Protestant South. Tensions with Spain grew as England’s textile trade with the Netherlands expanded, and Elizabeth reluctantly supported the Netherlands in their dispute with Spain. The Queen’s court grew paranoid of growing Spanish threats. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign she employed a covert string of spies across the country -her court carried out an elaborate string of espionage activities stretching across the isle under the Queen’s “Spymaster,” Sir Francis Walsingham. Foreign threats abounded, from Spanish Catholic “Papists” to Mary Queen of Scots.

Privately, Elizabeth was sympathetic to Mary Queen of Scots. They were of the same blood and Elizabeth was averse to meddling in international affairs. Perhaps in some ways Elizabeth admired Mary. The tall, charismatic, and at times erratic Mary Queen of Scots was everything Elizabeth was not. In fact, the two queens never actually met. They exchanged letters while Mary was exiled in various English castles, and their letters offer a unique glimpse into two distinct styles of governance. They were unquestionably rivals. On the one hand, Elizabeth was a shrewd and cynical tactician who remained unmarried and childless, while Mary was a reckless and gregarious romantic who was thrice married and had secured her succession with the birth of a son. In some ways, each woman’s strength was the other’s deprivation. At any rate, the temporary stability of England lay in Elizabeth’s balanced governance, but the future of England belonged to Mary’s progeny.

After eighteen and a half years in captivity in England, Elizabeth finally and reluctantly ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots but only after a dangerous plot known as the Babington Plot was discovered. The Babington Plot was a Spanish attempt to invade England via Anthony Babington, assassinate Elizabeth, and instate Mary as the rightful head of England. Upon the discovery of Mary’s covert correspondence inside a beer barrel cork, she was found guilty of treason in 1586. Although calmly denying any involvement, Mary was beheaded the following year at Fotheringhay Castle in a solemn but brutal ceremony. She wore crimson brown, the traditional color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church, and she donned a wooden crucifix believed to be part of the true cross of Jesus. She lay her head down on the block and stretched out her hands muttering her last words in Latin “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”). Her beheading was particularly barbaric. It took the executioner several blows to Mary’s neck before her head was eventually hacked off. The executioner then picked up her severed head and held it before the crow declaring “God save the Queen” but the bloodied head accidentally slipped out of his hand and down to the floor revealing that Mary wore a wig. Mary’s true hair was short and grey. Her lifeless head rolled off the scaffold and onto the floor while blood spilled all over the room. It was a gruesome scene.

During her lifetime, Mary had married for love which produced a son (the future King James I) and she also married for lust which ended disastrously. In the end, she lost her queenship, her son, and her life while Queen Elizabeth endured.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada
The zenith of Elizabeth’s reign came in 1588. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots coupled with Elizabeth’s support for the Netherlands against Spain led to open conflict with the Spanish Empire. Additionally, England began exploring the coasts of the New World, where the plundering Spaniards had looted the Aztec and Incan Empires (in present-day Mexico and Peru). Spain felt it held a monopoly on the Americas but England sent the privateer, Sir Francis Drake, to raid the Canary Islands and the coasts of ‘New Spain.’ His voyage was a success and he managed to outrun the Spanish ships as he escaped to ‘Alta California’ and landed at Drake’s Bay (which he claimed for England as “Nova Albion”) located in present-day Northern California. Sir Francis Drake is also famous for accidentally circumnavigating the world. He became infamous in Spain as the “Master Thief of the unknown world.” His raids on Spanish ships along the west coast of South America played a significant part in the advent of war between England and Spain, as did his infamous raid on the Spanish galleons off the coast of Cadiz in 1587. Meanwhile, on the Atlantic seaboard Sir Walter Raleigh founded England’s first attempted settlement in the New World -the Roanoke Colony whose surrounding lands were named “Virginia” in honor of the ‘Virgin Queen’ (however the land where the colony once existed is located in present-day North Carolina). The colony quickly failed and Sir Francis Drake rescued some of the starving colonists on his return to England. Those that remained were never seen again. Several theories exist as to the fate of this colony. At any rate, it was not until the reign of James I that the first permanent English settlement was founded at Jamestown in 1607 in the modern state of Virginia.

With all this in mind, Spain was ready for a naval conflict with England. The Spanish Armada was prepared by May 1588. It consisted of 130 ships, 2,500 hundred guns, and 30,000 men. The goal of Hapsburg Spain was to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth. However, in some ways the battle was over before it even started. Faster English warships attacked Spanish galleons while en route to England and while docked off the coast of Europe, near lands governed by the Duke of Parma. The conflict sent the Spanish Armada in chase and they were soon met with inclement weather. The Armada was forced to retreat but prevailing winds pushed them northward around the difficult horn of Scotland before returning home to Spain. Many ships were wrecked along the craggy coastline amidst stormy weather. Per Winston Churchill: “There were no boastings; they recorded their dissatisfactions. But to the English people as a whole the defeat of the Armada came as a miracle… England emerged from the Armada year as a first-class Power. She had resisted the weight of the mightiest empire that had been seen since Roman times. Her people awoke to a consciousness of their greatness, and the last years of Elizabeth’s reign saw a welling up of national energy and enthusiasm focusing upon the person of the Queen” (272-273).

The “Armada Portrait” of Elizabeth showing her hand on the globe, symbolizing the new English empire.

Despite the fact that the Armada was largely defeated by unprofitable weather, the demise of the Spanish Armada while crossing the Channel led to an outpouring of English patriotism and euphoria. Elizabeth was celebrated in the burgeoning theatrical scene by the likes of Edmund Spenser, and in the works of Shakespeare which starkly turned away from theological premonitions in celebration of English royal history and classical mythology. Elizabeth became the figure-head for a new English renaissance. Sir Water Raleigh described Elizabeth as follows: “riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus.” The celebratory attitude led to the founding of the East India Company via a charter granted by Elizabeth to an ambitious group of London merchants and financiers in the year 1600. Their initial goal was to challenge the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on the far east trade. Eventually, the joint stock company was to become one of the largest corporations in the history of the world.

Elizabeth had ushered in the heights of the Tudor dynasty, but within a generation the Stuart succession would ebb the tide and weaken the international prestige of England. Regarding the achievements of Elizabeth, Will Durant writes: “By whatever means her subtle weakness could devise, she preserved her country from foreign domination, maintained peace with some brief intervals for thirty years, and left England richer than ever before in matter and mind.”

The Death of Elizabeth
After surviving considerable danger throughout her lifetime and numerous health scares, nearing the age of 70, Elizabeth’s health finally gave out at Richmond Palace in 1603. At the end she fell into a deep depression -she lay upon cushions on the floor, unable to sleep, unwilling to eat, refusing to speak. She and her councilors named as her successor James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the future James I of England). The reign of the Good Queen Bess had reached its sunset.

Regarding the death of Elizabeth, Winston Churchill writes: “In the early hours of March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth died. Thus ended the Tudor dynasty. For over a hundred years, with a handful of bodyguards, the Tudors had maintained their sovereignty, kept the peace, baffled the diplomacy and onslaughts of Europe, and guided the country through changes which might well have wrecked it… The Crown was now to pass to an alien Scottish line, hostile in political instincts to the class which administered England. The good understanding with Parliament which the Tudors had nourished came to a fretful close” (277).


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Will Durant’s chapter on the “Great Queen” in The Story of Civilization, Peter Ackroyd’s Tudors: The History of England From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, Sir John Hayward’s Annals of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (1630), and William Campden’s Chronicles.

The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

“Mason city. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new” (opening lines)

In an age where populist demagoguery has once again captured the hearts of the American voter, it has been illuminating for me to sit down and read the classic novel All The King’s Men, which is loosely based on the career of Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the story of Huey Long bears striking resemblance to our own political epoch.

About Huey Long
Huey “Kingfish” Long came from Northern Louisiana, a rural section of the state where populist resentments were strong against the more prosperous southern cities of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette. Long was a former traveling salesman, a failed businessman, and a higher education drop-out. He attended a few different colleges before being admitted to the state bar in Louisiana. As a lawyer he began litigating a series of lawsuits against big monied interests and even won a notorious Supreme Court case against the Standard Oil Company which spurred him into politics. He won a landslide victory as Governor of Louisiana in 1928 under the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” -a phrase he borrowed from an earlier 19th century American populist, William Jennings Bryan. Long took his “kingfish” moniker from the Amos & Andy radio program.

At the time Louisiana’s infrastructure, education, literacy, poverty, and healthcare were all atrocious. Yet it was also the height of the economic expansion before the bubble was set to burst in 1929. Few people in Louisiana had felt the effects of the financial growth. At the time Louisiana was dominated by the Democratic “Old Regulars” who largely held sham elections. They echoed the familiar old “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy and mainly pursued policies that favored the planter class. When Huey Long entered the scene he was a different kind of Democrat. He modeled himself on being a righteous ‘defender of the common man.’ Politically, he promoted an ambitious progressive redistribution agenda (he criticized FDR’s New Deal because it did not do enough to support the common man) and yet he also autocratically threatened assassinations and in some cases physically or verbally assaulted his political opponents. Nothing was too low brow for Huey Long. He held raucous rallies throughout the state and dealt with hecklers violently. He wore white linen suits and often relied on insult-lobbing in order to bulldoze the opposition. The mud-slinging was ceaseless. He lambasted the media which rightly criticized him for staging mass firings and promoting blatant nepotism. In response, Long created his own newspaper which was more favorable to his public image. He took a publicly neutral stance on the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in Louisiana at the time, yet he also avoided the standard race-baiting tactics of other Southern politicians. His focus was squarely on economic concerns for the downtrodden people of Louisiana.

In his best moments, Long is fondly remembered for his massive public works projects such as the construction of Louisiana’s first highway system and the provision of free textbooks for students. In truth, his policies did a lot of good things for Louisiana’s poor and dispossessed. However, at his worst Long was a political boss whose tactics were outrageous and Machiavellian. He was impeached in the Louisiana state house for disregard of decorum and perceived dictatorial ambitions. Predictably, he decried the impeachment effort as a hoax sponsored by elites and corporations. Politically, he supported a wealth tax, a “Share Our Wealth” initiative, and he was an advocate of massive federal spending and stimulus. He issued mass firings, often erratically threatening people who disagreed with him, and he publicly argued with his own state Attorney General. He hired state convicts to raze the governor’s mansion and build a new one fashioned in the image of the White House (he hoped it would prepare him for his own future presidential ambitions). As with most populists, Huey Long was first and foremost concerned with his own pride. His impeachment, which was in part connected to his efforts to raise taxes on Standard Oil, led to a massive unruly brawl in the state house. He privately admitted fear of being convicted in the state senate but was saved thanks to a group of political allies who publicly pledged to vote “not guilty” regardless of evidence against him. Following the impeachment trial, Long aggressively campaigned against his enemies, and he continued his public rallies where he prided himself almost exclusively on the applause of the mob. His term as Governor ended when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, however he still refused to relinquish his gubernatorial powers to the Lieutenant Governor. It caused a very public stand-off and, amazingly Huey Long’s tenure ended with a minor insurrection. Does any of this sound familiar? Long’s legacy remains controversial to this day. Opinions on Huey Long vary, some ranking him among either the best or the worst governors in American history.

At the end of his term as governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he continued his highly controversial tactics, and his firebrand style of populism was even perceived as a threat to FDR. Huey Long’s career ended when he was assassinated in 1935 at the Louisiana state capital where he was attempting to gerrymander a district against a political opponent. The son-in-law of his opponent approached Huey Long and shot him point-blank in the torso. The blast killed him.

All The King’s Men
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is the embodiment of Huey Long. He is a bombastic reformer whose values are challenged when he begins employing morally ambiguous tactics in order to enact long-promised reforms. The fascinating contradiction is that Willie must use illicit means to gain power in the hopes of securing beneficence. Does he ultimately achieve a greater good? The novel remains somewhat elusive and it mainly examines Willie Stark’s career through a glass darkly. Lord Acton’s famous maxim comes to mind in this novel, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout the novel, Willie and his minions are ruled by their own ambitions, while clinging to power in a godless world where justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Robert Penn Warren was always troubled by the comparisons between Huey Long and Willie Stark, but the comparison is nevertheless fitting despite there being a few minor differences. Whereas Huey Long’s political career was launched by a devastating flood, Willie Stark (a.k.a. “the boss”) is vaulted into a politics by an accident at a children’s school. Both men share a spectacular start to their respective political careers, only to find an equally devastating downfall.

The novel is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former political reporter who becomes Willie Stark’s morally conflicted right-hand man. As a good newspaperman, Jack reflects on his time with Willie Stark and he wonders –was there some underlying principle that made it all happen? Near the outset of the novel, Jack recalls Willie’s ability to speak to a crowd: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, it’s coming.” In the early parts of the novel we find “the boss” stumping through a small town, connecting with ordinary people, posing for carefully constructed photo ops. We also see him berate people, harass the news media, and threaten a judge (Judge Irwin). But this is not just any judge. This particular judge supports an impeachment effort against Willie and the situation puts Jack in a compromising position –mainly because Judge Irwin is one of Jack’s childhood family friends.

Jack hails from an upper class bubble known as Burden’s Landing, a place that seems to be immune from the problems facing the state. Throughout the novel Jack offers lengthy reflections on life and family, as well as his failed attempt at a doctorate and marriage, both of which he suddenly abandons. He works for “the boss” neither for love nor money, so why does he remain? In a way, Willie Stark gives meaning to Jack’s lawless, licentious, and amoral life. When the boss asks him to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins describing himself as a ‘historical researcher’ who hunts down anything on the good judge because “there is always something…” After considerable sleuthing, Jack discovers that early in Judge Irwin’s career, he bribed his way into a job at the electric company that pushed out an older man out who then killed himself in order to offer an insurance windfall to his sister. Jack traces this information to a letter kept by the deceased man’s sister.

Sometimes stories are started and then continued later in the novel. Examples include Jack’s childhood memories, attending graduate school (only to drop-out), his romance with a girl named Anne Stanton (which falls apart), his friendship with Anne’s brother Adam Stanton, and their father the former Governor (predecessor to Willie Stark), Jack’s attendance at law school, and his ‘perfectly adjusted’ marriage to Lois which Jack also abandons –“Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.” The background of Jack Burden unfolds in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. One of the best reflections in the novel is when Jack offers details of his ancestors’s and their role in 19th century American slavery as well as the Confederacy during the Civil War. This chapter is mostly focused on Jack’s great-uncle, Cass Mastern. In many ways, Jack Burden is still living in the great waning shadow of his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

In the end, Jack returns to the home of Judge Irwin to reveal the dirt he has discovered, but even the noble judge had forgotten his own mistakes -at least at first. Both Jack and the Judge share certain things in common. They have both lived according to their own set of morals in order to secure promising lives for themselves, however there is a certain quality of virtue in Judge Irwin that we see lacking in Jack. After Jack leaves Judge Irwin’s house, the judge shoots himself through the heart. He prefers an honorable death to the life of shame and disgrace. Shortly thereafter, Jack discovers from his mother that Judge Irwin was, in fact, his true father. Thus in an indirect way, Jack has killed his own father.

Not long after the judge’s suicide, Willie Stark is also assassinated at the State Capitol rotunda by none other than Jack’s childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who has discovered an affair between Willie Stark and his sister, Anne Stanton. All The King’s Men becomes an exploration into the nature of evil and corruption in politics –when all are guilty, none are above reproach. Thus there are remarkable dangers inherent in populist leaders. And behind every noble king is a knave (or a “hatchet man”) like Jack Burden.

Interestingly enough, I enjoyed the 1949 film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel more than the book itself (click here to read my review of the 1949 film). The story of the downfall of Willie Stark is dark and compelling –impressive in scope– but stylistically the novel descends from a particular Faulknerian modernist strain that can be a challenge to track for the less sophisticated reader (like myself). It contains long wandering diatribes that have a tendency to burden the reader with too much abstraction. I wanted to enjoy reading All The King’s Men far more than I actually did while reading it.


Here are some memorable quotations from the novel that should hopefully offer a glimpse of Robert Penn Warren’s verbose style:

“It [the boss’s house] looked like those farmhouses you ride by in the country in the middle of the afternoon, with the chickens under the trees and the dog asleep, and you know the only person in the house is the woman who has finished washing up the dishes and has swept the kitchen and has gone upstairs to lie down for half an hour and has pulled off her dress and kicked off her shoes and is lying there on her back on the bed in the shadowy room with her eyes closed and a strand of her hair still matted down on her forehead with the perspiration. She listens to the flies cruising around the room, then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance and she listens to the flies. That was the kind of house it was” (33).

“…maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the things you want most to walk away from” (66).

“…it is possible that fellows like Willie Stark are born outside of luck, good or bad, and luck, which is what about makes you and me what we are, doesn’t have anything to do with them, for they are what they are from the time they first kick in the womb until the end. And if that is the case, then their life history is a process of discovering what they really are, and not, as for you and me, sons of luck, a process of becoming what luck makes us” (94).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying” Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go when you grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went” (405-406).

“…there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all” (468).

“So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden’s Landing.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
(661 -closing lines).


The novel’s title is taken from “Humpty-Dumpty,” an old English nursery rhyme that can be traced to the reign of Richard III or Cardinal Wolsey in 16th century England. At any rate, the title is linked to the theme of political rise and subsequent corruption followed by a spectacular fall from grace.

The novel originated in 1936 as a play by Robert Penn Warren called Proud Flesh. In the play, the character of Willie Stark is replaced by Willie Talos (whose name is based on the brutal character of Talus in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 play, The Faerie Queene). Penn Warren called his Talos character “the pitiless servant of the knight of justice” and “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” Ten years after the 1936 play was published, Penn Warren published All The President’s Men, his signature novel. Nearly a half century later, Noel Polk, a Southern academic, took it upon himself to create a “restored” edition of the novel in which Willie Stark is replaced with Willie Talos. The new edition caused quite a stir among literary critics. Apparently it contained significant departures in style from the original. Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates offered the following critique of the revised version:

“…the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.

That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”


The 1947 Pulitzer Prize
1947 was the last year the Pulitzer Prize category was awarded for the best “Novel.” From 1948 onward the title was changed from “Novel” to “Fiction.”

The 1947 Novel Jury was composed of three returning jurists from the previous year. The Jurists were: John Chamberlain, a memorable book reviewer who worked for a variety of publications throughout his career including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Life, Fortune, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He taught Journalism at Columbia University. The other two Novel Jurists were: Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). The third member of the 1947 Novel Jury was Orville Prescott, an esteemed book reviewer for The New York Times for 24 years whose tastes generally leaned toward more conservative novels (i.e. against the grain of Valdimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar). He was a highly regarded book reviewer who became a historian of the Italian Renaissance in his later life.


About Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren (1904-1989) was a fascinating Southern man of letters. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer in the categories of both Fiction and Poetry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice). He also won a variety of honors in his lifetime including the Bollingen Prize (a biannual poetry award issued by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University), the Robert Frost Medal (a poetry award issued by the Poetry Society of America), Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate), the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Fellow, the National Medal of Arts, the three aforementioned Pulitzer Prizes, and he delivered the distinguished Jefferson Lecture in 1974 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Robert Penn Warren was born along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He attended Vanderbilt University and UC Berkeley. He also studied at Yale where he became a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford and receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early writing career, Penn Warren was associated with the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of writers who extolled the virtues of the agrarian south but he later distanced himself from any defense of racial segregation. He openly defended the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren is also often associated with the “New Criticism” movement, a philosophy that encouraged careful close readings of classic texts (the movement was sadly cast into the ash heap with the advent of modern critical theory).

He taught for years at Vanderbilt University and Louisiana State University. Today his home has been converted into a museum known as the Robert Penn Warren House in Prairieville, Louisiana. He was married twice and had two children. In his later years he fled the South and lived in Vermont and Connecticut. He died of prostate cancer in 1989.


Penn Warren, Robert. All The President’s Men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, New York, 1946 (reprinted in 1974).

Information on Huey Long was provided by several sources, including Ken Burns’s 1986 documentary entitled “Huey Long,” narrated by David McCullough and featuring interviews with a variety of people including Robert Penn Warren.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Who Is Voltaire?

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris in 1694. He was raised with a Jesuit education (Latin, theology, rhetoric, and so on) but his auspicious upbringing quickly became a thorn in the side of the French establishment. He was a brilliant student who wrote extensively about the lavish corruption of 18th century French society. His blistering satires and critiques were largely directed at the decaying Catholic French monarchy and its rigid censorship laws as well as its self-aggrandizing ecclesiasticism. Today Voltaire is regarded as the essential Enlightenment man. He carried the skepticism of Montaigne as well as the humor Rabelais. He was a more potent enemy of superstition and religious fanaticism than either Erasmus or Hume. Victor Hugo likened Voltaire to the whole of the 18th century -he contained within himself both a Renaissance and a Reformation.

1724 Portrait of Voltaire

Voltaire had a rocky relationship with his father. As a young man Voltaire scandalized his father by wanting to become a writer of poetry and historical studies, but his father insisted that he become a lawyer. Voltaire pretended to work as an assistant to a notary while spending most of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, Voltaire was immediately moved into a new job working for the French Ambassador to the Netherlands. During this time he had an affair with a French Protestant refugee. When the affair was discovered Voltaire was forced to return to France where he spent his time in Paris writing and criticizing the French aristocracy and the church.

Needless to say, his writings were not well received by the French establishment (his own father regularly called him a “rascal”) and Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717 where he wrote his first tragedy, Oedipe (1718), a rationalistic re-telling of Sophocles’s Oedipus. While imprisoned, he took on the nom du plume: Voltaire. Its origins are somewhat mysterious though perhaps it is an anagram of the Latinized spelling of his first name, or else a reference to his childhood nickname le petit volontaire (“determined little thing”). At any rate, Voltaire was imprisoned again in 1726. He was released only on the condition that he leave France. He was exiled in London where he was connected with Alexander Pope, Congreve, and Jonathan Swift. Voltaire became an admirer of English society and culture. He was particularly impressed with the English Constitutional Monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy. During his travels he was also quite taken with Dutch society and its prosperity as well as its tolerant liberal character in contrast to France’s groupthink and widespread superstitious enforcement. After two and a half years abroad he returned to France where he wrote about his preference for England in his Letters Concerning the English Nation in 1729. It caused an uproar for its praise of England (“perfidious albion”) over France and he was again forced to flee Paris. As the letters were publicly burned and censored, they continued to grow in popularity eventually becoming a rallying cry in future years for French revolutionaries.

Voltaire settled at a chateau in Lorraine with an educated woman named Madame Émilie du Châtelet. She encouraged his literary efforts which led to Le Siecle de Louis XIV (1751), several historical tragedies, a history of the French civil wars, a biography of Henri IV of France (the Henriad), and a translation of Newton’s Principia. Together, Voltaire and the Madame conducted numerous Newtonian experiments. In fact, Voltaire was the chief advocate of modern science in France, particularly of Newton contra Descartes. He was also one of the leading proponents of the new style of English theatre that he experienced while exiled in London -he brought Shakespeare with him to mainland Europe where Shakespeare was still a relatively obscure name.

When Madame du Châtelet died in childbirth in 1749 (a child from another lover) Voltaire moved to Brussels and then to Berlin where served as chamberlain to Frederick II of Prussia but he was soon forced to flee after a dispute. In 1753 he moved to a French estate outside Geneva and settled with his niece (apparently he may have had an affair with his niece). Here, he completed his most acrid work, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759, along with a variety of other romantic picaresque novelettes. The book is, in part, an Enlightenment satire of Leibniz’s philosophy of ‘optimistic determinism’ (i.e. “all is best in the best of all possible worlds”). In total, Voltaire’s writings would fill 99 volumes.

Voltaire lived out much of his remaining years at a vast estate in Ferney along the Franco-Swiss border. In 1764 Voltaire’s major philosophical work, Dictionaire Philosophique was published which was an alphabetized dictionary. After many years, he was finally able to return to Paris where he was honored with a laurel wreath of the theatre where his successful play, Irene, was being performed. Voltaire never again left Paris and he died there on May 30, 1778 at the age of 83 -shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

In his introductory appreciation of Candide André Maurois writes: “In the eyes of posterity, nearly every great man is stabilized at one age of life. The Byron of legend is the handsome youth of 1812, not the full-grown man, prematurely ageing, with thinning hair, whom Lady Blessington knew. Tolstoy is the shaggy old peasant with a broad girdle circling his rustic blouse. The Voltaire of legend is the thin, mischievous old man of Ferney, as Houdon carved him, sneering, his skeleton form bent under its white marble dressing-gown, but bent as a spring is bent, ready to leap. For twenty years Voltaire, at Ferney, was a dying man: he had been one all his life.”

Voltaire is often mistaken for a French revolutionary -while imprisoned in the “Temple” Louis XVI lamented that the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau had destroyed France (the writers and philosophers are often blamed for social unrest, not unlike Socrates in ancient Athens). Rousseau and Voltaire were the two chief voices in France for a kind of naturalism coupled with rationalism, however they were not the causes of the brewing tensions that exploded in the French Revolution, they were merely vocal symptoms of the need for reform. Despite being honored post-mortem by the revolutionaries, Voltaire would have been horrified by the French Revolution (Voltaire was a Constitutional Monarchist and was a fierce opponent of fanaticism).

He was a theist in name, but a humanist in fact (not unlike many of the founders of the American Republic -in fact Voltaire was friendly with the likes of Benjamin Franklin who persuaded Voltaire to become a Freemason). Voltaire had an unquenchable lust for life despite being cursed with a somewhat frail physical constitution. Per André Maurois, “… he was marvelously alive; and mankind, dreading boredom even more than anxieties, is grateful to those who make life throb with a swifter, stronger beat. In the downpour of pamphlets, epistles, stories, poems, and letters that showered on France for so many years from Cirey and Berlin and Ferney, there were trivialities and excellences. But everything was swift and bright, and Frenchmen felt their wit coming alive to the tune of M. de Voltaire’s fiddling. A graver music some may prefer, but his must have had charm in plenty, for after more than a century France has not yet wearied of what has been so well called the prestissimo of Voltaire.”

As Will Durant notes in his Story of Civilization: “What is left to us is too much the flesh of Voltaire, too little the divine fire of his spirit. And yet, darkly though we see him through the glass of time, what a spirit!”


For this reading I used André Maurois praise of Voltaire in his introduction to Candide, along with Will Durant’s chapter on Voltaire and the Enlightenment in his Story of Civilization.

Working Through Book I of Euclid’s Elements

Recently I re-worked my way through all forty-eight propositions of Book I of Euclid’s Elements. In the book, Euclid offers a captivating introduction to classical geometry, which straddles the world of perfect abstraction on the one hand, yet it also relies upon certain physical principles found in the world around us. For example, in some propositions we experience a kind of imagined motion, or even a gravitational pull that governs Euclid’s visual demonstrations. We use this concept of weight and motion to demonstrate our abstract lines and shapes. In the Elements Euclid serves as a guide while we learn about lines, circles, angles, triangles, and rectilineal figures (all of which rely upon the unproven acceptance of Postulate #5, the “Parallel Postulate”).

As I went through the book this time I was struck by the unfolding plot of the Elements. Insofar as the Elements has a narrative, the plot of Book I begins by introducing us to equilateral triangles and it concludes by proving the equality of all right angles in equilateral figures (triangles and squares). Throughout the book we glean a sense of equality (equilateral triangles and rectilineal figures) while other shapes like circles are merely used to create triangles and rectilineal figures (in other words circles are subordinate to other shapes). Right angles are knowable and equal everywhere, whereas obtuse or acute angles may have varying degrees of distinction -the word mathematics comes from the Greek for ‘the knowable things’ or ‘the art of the knowable things.’ In Book I of Euclid’s Elements, the knowable things share equal attributes.

In Euclid, the concept of spatial area also begins to appear from Proposition #4 onward (“parallellogramic area”). We imagine a sense of transposition that may possible (i.e. that equal triangles may be placed directly on top of one another). What purpose does the concept of spatial area serve for Euclid?

Euclid’s Elements concludes each proposition with the Latin short-script of either Q.E.D. or Q.E.F. Q.E.D. stands for quod erat demonstrandum (or “what was to be shown”) or Q.E.F. or Quod erat faciendum (or “which had to be done”). Euclid used the Greek original of Quod Erat Faciendum (Q.E.F.) to conclude certain propositions that were demonstrations of figures rather than proofs of theorems. For example, Euclid’s first proposition of Book I shows how to construct an equilateral triangle, given one side, and it is concluded with Q.E.F. however most propositions are concluded with Q.E.D.

Lastly, there are by my count 11 reductio ad absurdum proofs (in Latin “reduction to absurdity”) in Book I of the Elements. The first reductio occurs in Proposition #6 (another proposition contains two reductios, as well). The reductios add to the force of the previous propositions by adding a hypothetical converse which, when proven, becomes impossible (“atopon” or literally ‘placeless’ or ‘impossible’ or ‘strange’ or even ‘foreign’). The reductios show us what is truly ‘impossible’ or ‘foreign’ in classical mathematics.

The following images capture my notes on completing the forty-eight propositions of Book I of Euclid’s Elements:


For this reading I used the wonderful translation of Euclid’s Elements by Thomas L. Heath from Green Lion Press. Mr. Heath was a Cambridge scholar who translated Euclid directly from the original Greek in the early 20th century.