Sunday, September 30, 2012

Scots as Spivs?

In the 1950s, Hugh Trevor-Roper reviewed the then new work by G.R. Elton, Tudor Revolution in Government (Cambridge, 1954), in the columns of The New Statesman, a review that was later published in his Historical Essays (1957). He concluded by tracing what Trevor-Roper and Elton regarded as the solid, lasting achievements of Thomas Cromwell after his death and well into Elizabeth's reign and beyond. The last paragraph of the review reads:

Robert Carr, Earl
of Somerset

Arthur English, in
Spiv character
  • Twelve years later [1612] 'Mr. Secretary' [Robert Cecil], now first Earl of Salisbury was dead; and in that year Cromwell's political system, already rotted from within, crumbled at the heart. How could it be otherwise when a system requiring constant vigilance by efficient, conscientious officials, had been handed over to the gilded spivs of our Scottish kings? The citadel had been converted into a playhouse, and when the attack came, within a generation, the archaic ecclesiastical battlements, desperately built on by Archbishop Laud, were powerless to save it. The Council and its Prerogative Courts, the State Church and the feudal taxes all that was left of Cromwell's political work foundered in that great rebellion. So did his credit. He was the founder of 'Tudor despotism', and the Whigs, unwilling to defend him, jettisoned his body to the papists, hungry for posthumous revenge upon the Hammer of the Monks. In the 1830's they probably did not even know that it was his more durable administrative work whose now obsolete relics they were at last sweeping away. But now that the Whig era is over and bureaucrats, with their virtues and their faults, have become more obvious, we may perhaps allow a little belated praise to the first and greatest, if the most formidable, of our modern bureaucrats: Thomas Cromwell. (Historical Essays, 78)
Never mind the idea of Cromwell as Richard Crossman: coming soon, Yes, Minister Cromwell. Instead, note Trevor-Roper's phrase emphasized above in bold-face.

I am intrigued by the "gilded spivs." Unless one is a British film noir aficionado of the 1490s, anyone born after 1960 could be excused for not following Trevor-Roper's metaphor. Ditto if one lived any time before mid-20th century. Google Ngram Viewer points to John Worby's Spiv’s Progress (1939) as one of the earliest usages, but its reference to small-time criminals of the "fell off the back of a lorry" type rose and fell with rationing in the 1940s and 1950s.

So, spivs at the court of James VI and I? This is a debate with roots in the work of Joel Hurstfield and Linda Levy Peck. More recent work like that of Alastair Bellany might have us examine the language and images that drove the critique of court corruption in the early Stuart period. Thus, it is perhaps in the realm of rhetoric rather than reality that Trevor-Roper's claim can best be analyzed. But those of the older view might be steeled to hold their position by the peculation and worse in naval procurement found in The Jacobean commissions of enquiry, 1608 and 1618, ed. A.P. McGowan (Publications of the Navy Records Society, 116, 1971). In any case, spivs in the 1940s found room to maneuver in the inequalities and inefficiencies found in the rapid expansion and resulting profits to be made in the military-industrial complex.

Which then takes us away from Trevor-Roper's fun at the expense of Scots, and to a useful research question: what is the spiv-equivalent haunting London's back streets in ages of massive military expansion (the 1640s, the 1690s, etc.)? Has anyone done a comparison of the early-modern spiv (procurer/fixer) over time? Answers on the back of a postcard please.

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