As accusations and explanations swirl around the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings and his trip to Durham, you might wonder if at the moment he is as much an archetype as an individual. He is often described by the media as a Svengali, yet some of what shapes his presentation in the popular imagination may lie much further back in the Middle Ages in the figure of the evil counsellor. The original Svengali appears in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby, transforming the title character from a tone-deaf and hopeless singer into a talented star through his hypnotism. His name soon becomes shorthand for a dominating, controlling, charismatic individual. Thinking of Cummings as Svengali positions him as a puppeteer managing the career of a Prime Minister who could not function without him, but it obscures the part played by counsel in the debates which surround him.
A Special Advisor (or spad in Westminster slang) like Cummings is an unelected official at the heart of government. Spads rise to prominence not through Svengali’s hypnotism but via exceptional successes: leadership campaigns, referendum victories and election landslides. Once in power, politicians reward them with well-paid positions of considerable influence. Their role, according to their Code of Conduct, is to ‘add a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers’. Such spads, it argues, thus allow civil servants to remain neutral and apolitical.
It has been striking how issues of counsel, especially scientific advice, have become highly politicised as the British government responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have become acutely aware of the identities and actions of both scientific and political advisors; the validity of Cummings’ presence on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) was hotly debated. Cummings’ notoriety is reminiscent of a much older archetype, one who frequently appears in the plentiful crises of late medieval British political history. This is the wicked counsellor who whispers evil counsel direct into the king’s ear and is thus blamed for royal misrule by those who would reform governance. Tolkien’s Gríma Wormtongue, though he owes something to the character of Unferth in the Old English epic Beowulf, is a fictional version of one such figure, poisoning the mind of King Théoden of Rohan.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle warned that ‘tyrants are always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered’, establishing a connection between misrule and bad counsel which was teased out in medieval works of political theory. The Middle English poet Thomas Hoccleve, writing one such text in 1410–11 for Prince Henry, the future Henry V, tells the young Hal: ‘Cheesith eek good men, and away shove / The wikkid whos conseil is deceyvable’ [moreover choose good men, and shove away the wicked whose counsel is deceitful]. This is not simply virtue for its own sake: in fact truthful counsel was thought essential for medieval monarchy to function correctly. A king should take counsel from a range of advisors who collectively represent to him what is needed for the ‘common profit’, the public good. If flattering, self-interested sycophants surround the sovereign and prevent truth-telling from reaching him, governing for the public good quickly becomes impossible.
As Joel Rosenthal has chronicled, the removal of evil counsellors was a legal fiction which underpinned many baronial rebellions. Rather than being seen to revolt traitorously against the king himself, the nobility focused their complaints against particular named advisors and their ‘evil counsel’. Particular stereotypes coalesced around those considered unsuitable as counsellors: they were too young or they were low-born men who amused the king for their own advancement. The normal processes of counsel were corrupted as the king took advice not from his peers, the nobles and senior churchmen who claimed to represent the entire nation, but from a much smaller group of insiders, often imagined as living self-indulgent and dissolute lives within the luxury of the royal household. As John Watts has recently written in a collection of essays on Anticorruption in History, ‘a complicated malfunction of the political system was transmuted into the crimes of a small number of individuals’.
Evil counsel could, in extremis, even form part of the rationale for replacing a king. As I explained in my book on The Creation of Lancastrian Kingship, Richard II was accused of silencing truthtellers and surrounding himself with unsuitable advisors in the list of ‘notorious flaws’ which were said to justify his deposition by Henry IV in 1399. Yet Henry himself was accused in the Long Parliament of 1406 of being surrounded by a household ‘raskaile’ [rabble] who should be sent away from the king to prevent their undue influence. Dominic Cummings is depicted both as a member of the elite who pretends to be a truth-telling outsider and as a scruffily-dressed non-politician who is outside of the conventional boundaries of politics. Whatever he is in reality, Cummings is far from the cliché of the apolitical wise counsellor and hence his presence at the heart of power is highly contested. His actions and influence are, like the members of Henry IV’s royal household, closely scrutinized by his political opponents.
John Watts goes on to explain what was so useful to the medieval political sphere about the notion of evil counsel: ‘Attacks on evil councillors were the best available means of venting dissatisfaction and providing the circumstances in which some kind of settlement could be created.’ Though these attacks were fictions for camouflaging baronial power grabs or revolt, they were also often the catalyst for increasing accountability through bureaucracy and institutional rules, and through the limited involvement of commoners in systems of government. Evil counsellors, a kind of dysfunctional medieval spad, were frequently lightning rods for much larger strains and stresses in the political system, and were sometimes the impetus for moderate reforms.
We still fear the undue influence of behind-the-scenes counsellors, standing as they do outside of more accountable structures of elected officials and politically neutral civil servants. Perhaps we share the medieval fantasy that if only evil counsel were removed or more closely supervised, governance would be much improved. It is no coincidence, though Cummings’ own choices have clearly played a considerable part in the current controversy, that the role of the spad is quite so prominent at a time of national crisis.
Jenni Nuttall is a lecturer in English at Exeter College at the University of Oxford. She is the author of The Creation of Lancastrian Kingship (2007) and Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide (2012). She tweets at @Stylisticienne.