England's Descent into Tyranny

Elyot, Thomas, Sir (1490?-1546)

The image of gouernaunce compiled of the actes and sentences notable, of the most noble emperour Alexandre Seuerus, late translated out of Greke into Englishe, by sir Thomas Elyote knyght, in the fauour of nobilitee

London: Imprinted in the house of Thomas Berthelette, 1549


Octavo: 14 x 9.5 cm. [11], 167 [i.e. 174], [3] lvs. A-Z8, Aa4

Bound in modern calf. Title unobtrusively strengthened at inner margin, small wormhole in blank margin of final four signatures, 16thc. ownership inscription on final leaf and 2ndleaf. A fine copy, with only a few small blemishes, of an extremely rare book. PROVENANCE: Thomas Hervey, 16thc. signature on leaf A2, possibly the courtier Sir Thomas Hervey (c. 1515/20-1575), who served as Knight Marshall to Mary Tudor. Sir Thomas was the son of Sir Nicholas Hervey, Henry VIII's Ambassador to the Emperor Charles V.

The amusing, manuscript poem on the final leaf reads:

This booke is I knowe not wose [whose]

wherefore he may go wipe

his nose yffe he haue the pose

"The last of Elyot’s great works, 'The Image of Governance', a life of the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, is far from being a straightforward life of an ideal emperor. The 'Image' is actually a complex, bitter, and at times savagely satirical rumination on princely power and its perversions, probably prompted at least in part by the fall of Elyot’s patron and friend Thomas Cromwell. Many of the details highlighted in the text seem designed to comment upon contemporary events and Henry’s slide into tyranny in the course of the 1530s.

The Descent into Tyranny and the Fall of Cromwell:

"The Image of Governance proves… to be a very powerful and original political text, in many ways Elyot's equivalent of More's Utopia. It, like More's text, uses a range of ironic and satirical effects to explore contemporary social and political issues. And Elyot had still more obvious reasons to fictionalize the contemporary origins of his work than the former Lord Chancellor. He employed his text to touch upon some extraordinarily sensitive and urgent issues in the spring and summer of 1540; issues that, if he had discussed them directly, would have brought him into grave danger of prosecution under the Treason Act. For Elyot, while on one level commending his royal subject, would nevertheless also bring the authority and dignity of the King into question, and in ways that would be hard to defend against allegations of malice... [Elyot] almost certainly fashioned the most significant portions into their published form during the summer of 1540, intending them as a coded commentary upon what was probably for him the most personally traumatic event of the Henrician Reformation, the fall and execution of his friend and patron Thomas Cromwell, and the culmination of his own long campaign to counsel Henry VIII towards virtue and cure the ills of the public weal."(Walker, " Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation")

A forgery of a forgery:

"In the Preface to 'The Image of Governance', dedicated ‘To All the Nobility of this Flourishing Realm of England’, Elyot relates an engaging story about the origins and gestation of the book. It was, he claims, while he was searching through his papers for some reading matter, 'whereof I might recreate my spirits, being almost fatigate with the long study about the correcting and amplicating of my Dictionary ...[that] I happened to find certain quires of paper which I had written about ix years passed.'

"These quires proved to be his own translation of a Greek life of the Emperor Alexander Severus (AD 222–35) written by his secretary ‘Eucolpius’, a work that had so ‘marvellously ravished’ Elyot when he first read it that he had immediately attempted to translate it into English for the benefit of his countrymen. The copy of the original text that he was using had, however, only been loaned to him by a Neapolitan gentleman named Pudericus, who had unexpectedly asked for it back, forcing Elyot to leave the project unfinished.On returning to the material later, he was again struck by its eloquence and utility, and, recalling his promise in 'The Governor' ‘to write a book of good governance’ as a companion volume to that text, saw that this translation might redeem that pledge, since ‘in this book was expressed of governance so perfect an image’. So, having made good the untranslated portion of Eucolpius's text, ‘as well I could with some other Authors, as well Latins as Greeks’, he now offered the completed text for publication.

"The story is, on first reading, a plausible one. The bulk of 'The Image' seems to have been prepared for the press in late 1540, and the Preface (traditionally the last section to be written and printed) was completed in early 1541.So the original translation would have been undertaken, on Elyot's estimate, in around 1532 or 1533, the time at which he was working on 'Of the Knowledge' and his other translations and adaptations from classical sources. Notes produced at that time might plausibly have been put aside to lie unconsidered until they were fortuitously rediscovered in 1540.

"Yet, as Uwe Baumann and others have suggested, there is an artfulness to Elyot's presentation of the details that casts doubt upon the supposedly simple story he relates.Indeed, the seemingly idiosyncratic details prove on closer inspection to be very carefully chosen. That nine-year gap which Elyot cites between starting the translation and publishing it, for example, actually conforms to Horace's dictum that any book should be allowed to lie fallow for nine years to allow time for reflection and amplification before publication. More fundamentally, the original Greek text written by ‘Eucolpius’ which Elyot cites as his source seems to have been itself an invention. Certainly no such text has survived or is known to have been extant in Elyot's lifetime. Elyot's citation seems actually to be part of a complex game of literary allusion. For what he was really translating was not a lost Greek text but an extant Latin one, the Lives of Alexander Severus and Heliogabalus attributed to Aurelius Lampridius and contained in the so-called Historia Augustae, a text in which he would have found one ‘Eucolpius’ named as the Emperor's secretary and biographer.Furthermore, modern scholarship suggests that this text was itself a clever literary hoax, purporting to be a compilation of Lives written between the late third and early fourth centuries AD by six different hands, but probably the work of a single author, writing a century later.

"That Elyot was translating from the 'Historia' and not the spurious Greek text is evident from the printed marginalia in 'The Image', which actually cite ‘Lampridius’ as the relevant authority at various points. So Elyot was not only failing to do what he claimed to be doing in his Preface, but revealing as much to his readers as he did so. Not that his more scholarly readers would have needed such obvious clues to the spuriousness of his claims, however, for the decision to cite the mysterious ‘Eucolpius’ as his source would almost certainly have already aroused suspicions. For the original ‘Encolpius’ (seemingly itself an onomastic pun—literally ‘windy one’ or perhaps, ‘windbreaker’) was a wonderfully apt name for the author of a fraudulent biography, especially so inflated a text as Elyot was finally to produce. Rather than giving the spurious nature of his source away completely at the outset, however, he chose to amend the name slightly to ‘Eucolpius’ a less obviously comic name (although he might have intended it to suggest ‘good wind’, ‘blown up’ or, even, ‘very windy’),leaving the full extent of the joke to be discovered by those willing to trace his sources back to the Historia itself.

"A further hint that The Image should not be read simply at face value is offered in the final section, where the story of the fateful interruption by the Neapolitan bibliophile Pudericus is itself cast into doubt. For there the text offers a rather different reason for its own abbreviation, based on the state of the manuscript rather than the needs of its owner:

'HITHERTO is the report of Eucolpius: much more he wrote, as it seemed, for diverse quires lacked in the book. Wherefore, to make some perfect conclusion, I took the residue out of other which wrote also the life of the Emperor.'

"Hence not only the manuscript but the owner too, the otherwise unknown Pudericus and his need to recover his book, may have been Elyot's own invention."

ESTC S111496; STC (2nd ed.), 7666