Earls of Paradise, By Adam Nicolson

The end of English dreams

After the execution of Charles I, John Milton sneered that the king's final prayer had not been an original composition, nor even Christian, but part of "the vain amatorious poem of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia". Sidney's nostalgic dream of England, Milton believed, deluded the people and empowered tyrants. Now the axe had fallen, the nation would awake.

Arcadia was written in the 1570s at Wilton House, Wiltshire, seat of the earls of Pembroke. The first earl was a warrior turned power-broker, rewarded by Henry VIII with a dissolved abbey, where he built a lavish but architecturally illiterate house. Wilton became a symbol "of enormous riches, profound culture, extensive political and military control", and in the 1630s completed its transformation from Tudor mansion to Palladian "palace in the trees". Van Dyck was commissioned to paint a family portrait, a sublime icon of magnificence.

Awestruck coach parties might not appreciate what once really mattered at Wilton: intense and intricate relationships between house, land and people; mentalities and emotions effaced by time. This sensibility is Adam Nicolson's forte. As traveller and historian he escorts us backwards, encountering evanescent beauty and strangeness and absorbing both. We are shown the brutality of dominance and ambition, alongside the frailty of feeling and imagination. Earls of Paradise is an elegy aching with longing and loss, capturing a way of life in a turbulent era. Nicolson is a terrific writer. The countryside scenery essential to his drama, is described with transcendent sensitivity.

For Nicolson the Pembrokes embody Arcadia, an ideal realm "of bliss and beauty... driven by a hunger for the past and a fear of the future". Fantasy was rooted in political fact. Manorial life was governed by hierarchy, tradition and community – an organic ordering of duty and deference. Modernity – mercantilism, liberalism, statism – was anathema, but loomed like a storm-cloud over a perfect summer's day. Classical laments for the bucolic resonated in a society destabilised by over-population, inflation, religious turmoil and urbanisation. According to Virgil, "beauty on the point of disappearance had the added beauty of evening light, of impending loss as a glow on the untouched cheek".

This is a clever take on the early modern period: here, roughly 1540-1660. Every event from the Reformation to the Revolution has a Pembroke in attendance. Most startling is Mary Sidney, wife of the second earl, the poet's sister, and a Jacobethan culture-vulture of staggering ability. The Sidney siblings made Wilton a screen onto which Arcadia was projected, power encoded in the pastoral.

Their salon included dabbling scientists (like spider expert Dr Muffett) and aspiring literati. Such was Mary's influence, it seems she persuaded Shakespeare to rewrite As You Like It for a royal performance at Wilton, thus moving James I to pardon her ex-lover, Sir Walter Raleigh. She continued her brother's translations of the Psalms, an eloquent expression of Wilton's marriage of Protestant piety and Renaissance court culture.

For all its airy humanism, the Pembroke philosophy rested on inequality and authoritarianism. Nicolson sometimes seems too misty-eyed, although he properly describes the misery of the poor. This was an England where fewer ordinary people owned land and so fell upon the vicissitudes of the market. The Wilton estate covered 50,000 acres, and the family spent £800 on shepherds' costumes for a masque when a real shepherd earned £12 a year. Nicolson observes that the place of the term "privilege" was then occupied by the purer "nobility". Yet nobility led to cruelty and resentment, and the Pembrokes must share the blame for the dissipation of their dream. Rents rose, pasture was enclosed and dissent silenced. The pleasure park "erased the custom of the manor", and when in 1549 tenants tried to restore it – part of a wider rebellion – the earl chased them like game and slew them like a foreign foe.

This was the first wave of a long farewell. Within a century family fortunes had peaked, and for all its grandeur van Dyck's portrait of 1638 was a prophetic tableau of "transience and fragility, of failure and disconnection". Four years later, the question of the relationship between monarchy, aristocracy, legislature and commons demanded an answer. In the 1620s, the grasping pro-Catholic, pro-business culture of the duke of Buckingham had undermined the Pembrokes' "model of conservative wholeness", a depredation continued by Charles I's absolutism.

As Wilton was sucked into civil war, dividing kinsmen and breaking hearts, Arcadianism was appropriated by Parliament as a defence of the ancient constitution against a king who had desecrated the sacred bond. "If the lord had betrayed the copyholders of the manor, the copyholders no longer owed him any allegiance." This development makes Charles's scaffold prayer all the more ironic.

The destruction of the 1640s represented everything the guardians of Arcadianism had feared. Communities were morally adrift, country houses became strongpoints, and in Winchester, Cromwell's troopers fashioned kites from the cathedral's muniments, seizing the present, mocking the past. Most Pembrokes had backed the winning side in order to reform the monarchy and reinvigorate the nobility. These outrages suggested they had failed.

Individualism poisoned pre-lapsarian Wilton, consumerism replaced custom, and "Arcadia in the 18th century became décor, not a hope for society". Rural poverty deepened, and the dark satanic mills inspired new generations of Arcadians from Blake to William Morris to New Age pagans.

"The elite dream of happiness" in England evaporated, and found its best opportunity abroad. In America, wholesome exceptionalism was pitted against European decadence, although here too Arcadianism would be trampled by the leviathans of state and market. Milton understood what Sir Philip Sidney did not: after Eden, man's desire would bedevil his dreams of paradise forever.

Malcolm Gaskill is reader in history at UEA, Norwich; his book 'Witchfinders' is published by John Murray

Harperpress £25 (298pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence