Books and Power in Tudor England
The Renaissance Library of Sir Thomas Smith (1513–77)
Now housed in Queens’ College, the library of Thomas Smith offers a unique insight into the role of the book as an instrument of power in Tudor England. Never before had learned reading played so essential a part in the realm of politics and governance. As an intellectual near the epicentre of Tudor politics Smith was well placed to put into practice the latest humanist ideas that sought to exploit classical learning as a means to resolve weighty problems of state.
Born to humble beginnings, Smith studied at Queens’ where through sheer ability he rose above more well-heeled contemporaries to reach the uppermost echelons of University life before achieving high office in the administrations of two Tudor monarchs. Whereas for many humanists classical learning offered simply a route to cerebral enlightenment, for Smith and other Cambridge colleagues intimacy with the Latin and Greek legacy supported their credentials as regal advisors in governance. That this faith in ancient learning contributed to some disastrous setbacks together with Smith’s failure to realise the initial promise of a highflying career need not diminish his interest to us today. Indeed, whilst the writings of Smith reveal nascent ideas in modern governance that would prove influential, the many failures endured by this abrasive ‘intellectual in office’ offer a most human counterpoint to the wider events of the period.
Much more than simply a record of the wide-ranging interests of a Renaissance man, Smith’s carefully annotated book collection offers unique insights into the Renaissance mind. In his doodles we see an engagement with books invoking the intersection of learning and action that for many Renaissance readers offered an ideal route to good conduct and governance.