Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Writings of Exile in the English Revolution and Restoration: Philip Major, Ashgate March 2013

‘Bene vixit, qui bene latuit’ (‘He has lived well, who has led a quiet life’).Ovid

Who sits at home too bears a loade Greater than those that gad abroad

From ‘Misery’ (1650), by H.Vaughan, in A. Rudrum (ed.), Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems (New Haven, London, 1981)

Phillip Major’s new book is a welcome addition to research into areas of the English revolution that have been long neglected. Major’s book on exile joins a growing list including Geoffrey Smith’s look into Royalist exiles during the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth, and the same authors The Cavaliers in Exile 1640–1660.

Major’s research into royalist exile both internal and external has according to one writer “contributed much new and original research and written work on the subject exile”. Major’s work should be read alongside numerous other studies which in the last five years have filled a large number of gaps in royalist historiography. Whether this has changed our understanding of royalism remains to be seen. Any increase in our understanding must be allied to a study of previous historiography from both left and right wing historians.

Given the amount of material that remains to be archived and written about on the subject of exile Major’s book is an important contribution to this research.   The book is both austere in look and content. One problem is Major‘s use of near impenetrable language that would put even the most enthusiastic reader off. I understand that these type of books must have a certain academic standard but there is a danger that this type of language becomes available to a select few.

As the English writer George Orwell wrote “The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find—this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify—that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.[1]

The date range covered by Writings of Exile 1640-1680 is broad and difficult. This is probably why Gaby Mahlberg[2] felt that the book was a little “disjointed”. Although one writer defended this approach by saying “it challenges conventional paradigms which assume a neat demarcation of chronology, geography and allegiance in this seminal period of British and American history. Crossing disciplinary lines, it casts new light on how the ruptures -- and in some cases liberation -- of exile in these years both reflected and informed events in the public sphere”[3]

 Major’s writing style is not for the faint hearted. The academic tone and language that permeates the entire book is set in Chapter One Edward Hyde: Case Study of a Royalist Exile. Hyde was a significant figure both during the revolution and the restoration of the monarchy. His History of the Rebellion according to one writer “served to formulate and crystallize the social philosophy soon to be known as Toryism. As an historical rhetorician and portrait painter, there can be no doubt that Clarendon ranks among the greatest; the strength and resilience of the Tory view of history may be estimated from its present prevalence and influence”.[4]

Hyde’s exile begun on Isles of Scilly, Jersey and other places during the 1640s and 50s. His second exile was in Montpellier in the late 1660s and 70s.

His fall from power would have had a deep psychological impact on him. However major’s book does not really examine how politically Hyde dealt with what was tantamount to a political exile. I am not sure the best way to understand Hyde’s political exile is through his writings ‘Contemplation of the Psalms.

During his periods of exile Hyde attempted to form a broad spectrum of political and religious alliances. While he would have experienced a great deal of personal, psychological and family problems due to exile, he did not go quietly into the good night.

In many instances he sought to form a myriad of alliances in order to pursue his political and social agenda. As Mahlberg said looking into his ties with republican and Leveller activists abroad would be a very good research topic.

She goes on to say that “There are intriguing links between Clarendon and his protégé republican Henry Neville exiled to Italy in 1664 for their mutual benefit, for instance, while the firebrand Algernon Sidney made various overtures for office to the Restoration regime before plotting to topple it. Further leads worth exploring point to Catholic Rome, where both royalists and republicans had their own secret networks, and towards the Huguenot south of France, where in the later 1660s we find both the fallen first minister Hyde and the fallen republican Sidney.”

While Major is within his right to study and research what he wants. One should not draw from this study of Clarenden’s lesser religious writings a belief that that these should be elevated above his political or literary writings.

It is clear that many Royalist exiles sought to ransack the bible in order to understand what had happen to them. For many protestant Royalists “both the Established Church and its liturgy remained decidedly alive, if maimed and disoriented. Gathering in the private chapel of Sir Richard Browne, the royalist diplomat in Paris, and under the chaplaincy of John Cosin, dean of Peterborough, many Protestant royalists recast their newfound hardship in familiar religious terms. Whether forced into exile by parliamentary ordinance or voluntarily following the Stuarts in hopes of restoration, those who attended services at Browne’s chapel turned to Scripture and divine example in order to comprehend defeat.[5]

In Chapter two on ‘Ceremony and Grief in the Royalist Exile’ Major continues his theme of royalist exiles seeking to continue their religious practises into exile. The chapter explores royalists’ attitude ‘to the death of fellow exiles, as well as friends and family left behind in England’.

According to Major “there is considerable evidence, much of it again found in Evelyn’s Diary, for the continued observance by royalist exiles of the full panoply of Church of England services, including those of Holy Communion, christening, marriage and even the ordination of priests and consecration of bishops. Yet while, while each of these ceremonies played an important role in engendering a sense of cultural continuity amidst the rupture of exile, the rites of burial provide a particular poignant and recurring motif in the extant contemporary literature. Exile is an extreme environment in which people experience an acute sense of change and behave in revealing ways”.[6]

Chapter 3 deals with ‘Royalist Internal Exile’. Major focuses on the exile of royalists from London and their internment in the countryside. These royalists built up a network of friends who shared political and religious beliefs.

 The chapter is an elongated paper [7] which appeared in the Review of English Studies. It is pretty clear from Major’s work on the subject of internal exile that the subject has been heavily under researched.  Parliament during the civil war according to Major developed a large number of measures to ensure large scale royalist exile.

Again royalists refused to go quietly into internal exile. Many royalists responded by launching a barrage of poetry in order to understand their predicament.In (John) Berkenhead’s poem, ‘Staying in London’, Major states, “provides a window into the royalist literary response to banishment from London, and also allows us to explore its nuanced relationship with other cavalier verse of defeat and exile. Communicating hope and fear, secrecy and indecision, and the sometimes surprising level of enervation which these combinations can generate, it also incorporates more unambiguous royalist literary notions, such as imprisonment, though even these are by no means always treated in a similar way. Perhaps most singularly, the peculiar nature of exclusion from London during the English Revolution, with its concomitant anonymity and reduction in status, seems to turn the cavalier poet in on himself, to the brink of self-loathing, until, ironically, he eventually longs to leave the capitalç‘O tear me hence’çof his own volition. On this evidence, like their external equivalents, measures of internal exile such as the Act for Banishment have not only far-reaching physical, but also psychological, repercussions, not least for those who attempt to defy them”

Chapter four ‘William Goffe in New England’ discusses the regicides exile in America. As Gaby Mahlberg mentioned in her review three royalist chapters to one parliamentary is a little one sided. You get the feeling that if the other way around the author would be accused of undue bias. Personally I find this chapter the best. In the sense that Major writes in a manner that is easier to understand without dumbing down the history.

Goffe was a significant figure in the English revolution and Major does give him the respect due. As Major points out there is a significant difference between royalist and parliament exiles in so much that many of the parliamentary exiles were regicides and were hunted down without mercy.[8]

Like Hyde in chapter one Major tries to find similarities between Goffe’s and Hyde’s use of the Psalms and other Biblical texts in their exile writings. Like Hyde earlier in the book Goffe spent large parts of his exile wondering how he lost power so quickly and very rapidly become exiled in a strange land. Major concentrates heavily on exiles turning to religious literature but research can only take us so far. Republican revolutionaries like Goffe had no means of learning from past revolutionary struggles so they turned to the bible. Historians should not limit their research to a man’s religious proclivities.


Like a said earlier this book is not for the faint hearted. The book is part of a broad shift in historiography of the English revolution. The last twenty or so years have seen a major shift away from the dominant Marxist historiography. One of the byproducts of this shift is over the last five years we have witnessed a proliferation of Royalist studies. Major’s new book enters into this territory. Despite being well written and researched his use of language which is largely impenetrable to the wider reading public could lead to this type of historiography being open to a select few.

[1] Politics and the English Language George Orwell, 1946
[3] A review of "Writings of Exile in the English Revolution and Restoration" by Philip Major
Author:  D'Addario, Christopher Issue: Seventeenth-Century News: Vol. 72, Nos. 1 & 2;

[5] The Devotional Landscape of the Royalist Exile, 1649– 1660 Mark R. F. Williams
[6] Funerary Rites in the Royalist Exile: George Morley's Ministry in Antwerp, 1650-1653
Philip Major -
[7] ‘Twixt Hope And Fear:John Berkenhead,Henry Lawes, And Banishment From London During the English revolution
[8] See review- Killers of the King - The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I Hardcover – 11 Sep 2014 352 pages Bloomsbury Publishing - ISBN-13: 978-1408851708ttp://

Monday, 4 May 2015

Review: The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements ISBN-10: 1472204220 11 Sep 2014

The Crimson Ribbon is a very well written and researched debut historical novel by Katherine Clements.  The supreme test of a historical novel is how well the author blends fictional characters with real life figures and events. The Crimson Ribbons passes that test.

The central character of the book is Ruth Flowers a very believable creation of the author‘s imagination. Flower’s life intersects with the real life figures of Oliver Cromwell and Elizabeth Poole.

Clements treatment of Cromwell and Poole is very disciplined and accurate. It is always tempting for a novelist to play fast and loose with history and historical figures. Cromwell is a very well-known and written about figure and does not play too greater part in the book. Poole on the other hand is not well known and Clements has a bit more space to creatively explore her life.

The opening chapter of the book is probably the most violent I have ever read and explores the treatment of women who stepped out of line with the authorities. The English revolution brought about a significant politicization of all sectors of society none more so than women. In 17th century England women were allowed to be seen but not heard.

While it was dangerous for men to question the existing political and economic set up, for women at the beginning of the 17th century it was nearly impossible. But women of all classes managed to be heard and some cases very loudly.

The explosion of printing presses enabled women with little money to spread their ideas and propaganda to a wider audience than ever before.

But this had a severe price. The ruling elite correctly saw this radicalisation of women as a direct threat to their power and privileges. The women who spoke up, formed groups and joined the radical parties such as the Levellers Fifth Monarchists and even Baptists or Quakers were seen as a plague and in many cases labelled witches.

According to the writer John Carey “a woman could be publicly humiliated, ducked or bridled merely for scolding her husband, neighbours – or government”. In the book it was Ruth Flowers mother who was murdered
The book highlights the precarious nature of women who step outside the bounds of society. The descent into poverty, prostitution and sometimes death was all too real. Given the growth today of young women who for one reason have left their family home and have descended into poverty and homelessness with little protection from the state shows that despite the novel being set in the 17th century it has a contemporary feel to it.

Clements character Ruth is well written and believable. The fact that real life characters similar to Flowers existed during the war has largely passed historians by. Another aspect of the war that has only recently been addressed is the tremendous growth of printing presses during the revolution. I maybe wrong but it looks like Clements’s book is the first novel to broach the subject.[1]. Much the way the internet has given a voice to people who would never be heard so did the illegal printing presses in the 17th century. As one writer put it “words really do have power”.

Elizabeth Poole

Having read her writings it is clear that Poole was a very political young women. She was close to a few of the radical groups that were prevalent at the time. It has been said that she was close to the Fifth Monarchists.

The story of Ruth Flowers is used by Clements to keep the novel ticking over. But by a long way the most interesting real life character is Elizabeth Poole. It is clear from even a cursory research for stuff on Poole that not much is known about her life, even her birth and death are not agreed. According to the Oxford dictionary of National Biography she was born 1622? died. in or after 1668

Poole’s main claim to fame was her intervention into the debate over the fate of Charles 1st. According to Manfred Brod[2]. “It was into this situation that Elizabeth Poole entered towards the end of December as a kind of consultant prophetess. After some preliminary hearings of which little is known, she was received in a plenary session of the council of officers on 29 December. She told of a vision she had had, in which the army, as a healthy young man, cured the nation, as a sick woman, of its disease. The power of the army, she explained, came from God and must not be given away. Several officers, including Ireton, spoke to approve of her presentation. Immediately afterwards, Lilburne came in with a petition, A Plea for Common-Right and Freedom, which contained detailed proposals for the conversion of the council of officers to a national executive body. Plainly, Poole had been brought in to play a mediating role between officers and Levellers”.

There appears to be no proof that Poole met Lilburne but is clear that she was very sympathetic towards him and the Levellers and used their documents in her arguments against Cromwell and Ireton

“ I Have considered the agreement of the people that is before you, and I am very jealous lest you should betray your trust in it (in as much as the Kingly Power is faln into your hands) in giving it up to the people; for thereby you give up the trust committed to you, and in so doing you will prove your selves more treacherous then they that went before you, they being no wayes able to improve it without you. You justly blame the King for betraying his trust, and the Parliament for betraying theirs: This is the great thing I have to say to you, Betray not you your trust ”.[3]
She then according to Brod in 1653 “ [4]Poole forced her way into the pulpit of the chapel of Somerset House in London and preached in favour of Lilburne, then on trial for his life. The congregation was a socially prominent one, and the action was widely and sensationally reported in the newsbooks”.

Despite being strong on plot and history there is an overriding weakness in the book which is the near absence of politics.  Clements use of real figures such as [5]William Kiffin (1616–1701), while being historically accurate leaves out his political relationship with figures like Poole.
Kiffin in Clements book is correctly portrayed as being extremely hostile to Poole’s personal indiscretions his real hostility is her perceived association with the radical groups especially the Levellers and Fifth Monarchists, according to Michael A. G. Haykin “During the late 1640s and 1650s Kiffin emerged as a skilled spokesman for the fledgling Baptist movement. In 1646 Kiffin and Knollys were involved in a public debate in Coventry with two paedobaptists, John Bryan and Obadiah Grew. Kiffin was a signatory to the dedication in Walwins Wiles (1649), an attack on the Levellers usually attributed to John Price”.

“Kiffin also played a prominent role in the expansion of the movement beyond London. Extant documents from places as far afield as Wales and Northumberland, Ireland and the Midlands reveal Kiffin's involvement in planning the establishment of new churches and associations, then in giving them advice and counsel, and generally in providing stability to the Baptist cause during these early days of the movement. One critical moment came in May 1658, when, at the meeting of the western association of Baptist churches in Dorchester, some individuals who were sympathetic to the potentially subversive politics of the Fifth Monarchy movement sought to convince the representatives of the churches in the association to espouse publicly the ideals and goals of this party. Kiffin, who was present with other representatives from the churches in London, successfully persuaded the western association not to commit itself in this direction. While some of the Fifth Monarchy movement appear to have been relatively harmless students of the Bible, others had definite revolutionary tendencies and were convinced that they should take an active, even violent, role in the fulfilment of the prophecies of Daniel. Open and widespread adherence to these views by the Particular Baptists would have had harmful and serious repercussions for the Baptist movement.”[6]

Historical novels are notoriously hard to place within current historiography of the English revolution. Academic work are easier. While carrying out research for her novel Clements mentions Christopher Hill as one of her influences. Hill despite being an academic historian belonged to a group of Communist Party historians who pioneered the history from below genre.  Clements book is a historical novel from below.

Personally I liked the book. It works on two levels it is a very well written book and the storyline is plausible. The history is well researched and accurate up to a point. An examination of the politics of the characters in the book would have made the book a better read. Apart from this nit picking I would recommend the book to those interested in the subject. The Crimson Ribbon has been extensively review both in the mainstream media and given the number of blogs mentioned in the blurb quite heavily in the blogosphere deserves a wide readership.


[1] See also Gutenberg's Apprentice - 2014 by Alix Christie  
[3] From the writings of Elizabeth Poole
[5] Michael A. G. Haykin
[6]   Kiffin, William (1616–1701),

Further reading

Liberty and the Right of Resistance: Women’s Political Writings of the English Civil War Era Jacqueline Broad 

A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England, a Reader edited by Curtis W. Freeman [book review]
Extracted from Manfred Brod: ‘Dissent and Dissenters in Early Modern Berkshire’ (DPhil thesis, Oxford, 2002). Chap 5:  Shooting for Jerusalem: John Pendarves  

Friday, 24 April 2015

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill - Lyttelton Theatre

The Play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill is currently playing to packed audiences at the Lyttelton Theatre in London. The play has been well received by a diverse audience.

Past reviews have been on the whole appreciative. The Financial Times said “Churchill shows us an age of unbelievable fluidity in the social order...” The play reminds us sombrely that such moment of potential pass: they either come to nothing in the first place, or the old order is soon restored. Michelle Terry and Helena Lymbery each excel in the Putney sequence”.

The play is set amidst the English Civil war so knowledge of this event is a must before seeing or reading the play. The blurb for the play by Churchill sets the scene “1649. After years of bloody civil conflict, an exhausted England is in the hands of radical extremists. Turning the country upside down, Parliament’s soldiers kill the King and take power into their own hands. Theirs is a war to establish Heaven on Earth. This is the story of the most terrifying decade in our history. Struggling to find a voice in the face of unspeakable suffering, a group of ordinary men and women cling to the belief that they will be shown a glimpse of unspeakable, transcendent glory”.

Churchill wrote the play in 1976 and the first productions of the play have a Kafkaesque sparseness to them with only a table and six chairs for props. In contrast, today’s production is a little more expensive but in places is visually stunning? Having not been performed for a good while the play marked as one writer put it “a major UK revival of Churchill’s seminal play brought to the stage by Polly Findlay and the stellar creative team behind Thyestes (Arcola) and Eigengrau (Bush)". The play also marked Churchill’s first collaboration with the Joint Stock Theatre Group.

In her programme notes Churchill correctly bemoans the fact that the English revolution and particularly its radical groups get scant attention in modern school history. Churchill’s plays concentrates on three main groups the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters. While there are programmatic distinctions between the groups there is much that unites them. While Churchill does not examine the role of Quakers in her play many leading figures of the Levellers, Ranters and Diggers would end their days paid up members of the Quakers. 

One word of warning the play as far as I can see does not follow any chronological order. One critic cautioned that audiences may “find themselves disoriented by the swirl of events and even by the style of storytelling. In all productions it seems that six actresses and actors repeatedly switch roles while playing dozens of characters. Identification is often deliberately blurred.

Churchill throughout her career to date has tackled complex historical questions in a simple but thought provoking way. Earlier plays have included “Fen" which was about farm workers in England and "Mad Forest" on the Romanian revolution. She has also not been scared to use theatrical different techniques such as the use collage form.

The plays title taken from the Digger Pamphlet The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire [1]“JEHOVAH ELLOHIM Created Man after his own likenesse and image, which image is his Sonne Jesus, Heb. I. verse 2. who is the image of the Invisible God: now Man being made after Gods image or likenesse, and created by the word of God, which word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us; which word was life, and that life the light of men, I Joh. 2. this light I take to be that pure spirit in man which we call Reason, which discusseth things right and reflecteth, which we call conscience; from all which there issued out that golden rule or law, which we call equitie: the sum me of which is, saith Jesus, whatsoever yee would that men should doe to you, doe to them, this is the Law and the Prophets; and James cals it the royall Law, and to live from this principle is calld a good conscience: and the creature Man was priviledged with being Lord over other inferior creatures, but not over his own kinde; for all men being a like priviledged by birth, so all men were to enjoy the creatures a like without proprietie one more than the other, all men by the grant of God are a like free, and every man individuall, that is to say, no man was to Lord or command over his own kinde: neither to enclose the creatures to his own use, to the impoverishing of his neigh- bours, see the Charter, I. Gen. from 26. vers. to the end of the Chapt. and see the renewing of the Charter to Noah and his Sons, Gen. 9. from the I. vers. to the 18.

Despite much of the language of the play being couched in religious phraseology it is clear that many people were starting to examine their place in the world and were starting to express a profound disagreement with the way they were being governed.

As David north wrote “until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way.[2]

The Play

The play consists of two acts and examines the revolutionary events before and after the  Putney debates of 1647 . The first group examined by Churchill are the Levellers. They were by far the biggest and most organized of the revolutionary groups. The high tide for this group was the Putney debates and Churchill correctly places an abridged account of them at the center of the whole play.

That Levellers were not the only group to couch their writings and speeches in religious garb. According to Marx “Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk. Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again”.[3]

Putney debates

While much of the play has been written by Churchill she still manages to accurately and skillfully to weave real events and words spoken at the time. By far the strongest part of the play is the partially verbatim transcript of the Putney Debates of 1647, which saw rank and file soldiers and commoners arguing for a broadening of the democratic franchise and an end to social inequality this was opposed by Cromwell, Ireton and other leaders of the revolution.

The quotes for this production come from Geoffrey Robertson’s book[4]. At the Putney Debates Cromwell was clearly taken by surprise by the arguments of the Levellers. But once Cromwell and other grandees recovered their composure they opposed every demand by the Levellers to extend the franchise.  

Ireton spoke for the Grandees when he said “no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom... that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” Thomas Rainsborough a Leveller countered by saying  “I really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.”[5]

The Levellers were defeated at Putney and before long were wiped out as a coherent political organization. The play does attempt to grope for an answer why the Levellers and other revolutionary groups failed to develop the revolution in a more left wing direction. In this matter Churchill fails. But in this failure she is not alone. Accomplished historians like Christopher Hill struggled to provide a significant answer to this conundrum. Hill says “The Leveller conception of free Englishmen was thus restricted, even if much wider, than the embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were”.

It is hardly possible in this review to explore in any great detail but a sober evaluation should be made. The Levellers appeared to take on many of the characteristics of a political party in the years 1645-46. This is a contentious issue and has been disputed. They were the radical wing of the Independent coalition and were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. As an aside William Clarke who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets found in his collection was over eighty Leveller pamphlets. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had not an insignificant support in the army.

The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

The Levellers themselves were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralization of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion they had no programme to bring about social change, they never advocated a violent overturning of society.

Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained “I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient”.

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it. A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be refounded on the basis of certain fundamental “native rights” safeguarded even from a sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The Agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.

The one real chance the Levellers had to put their ideas into practice was to gain control of the army. The development of the new model army was central to the outcome of the English civil war, who controlled the army controlled state power. The Levellers had agitated for the arrears of wages to be paid and that indemnity for actions committed during the civil war be granted. This agitation had won them considerable support in the army.

In the end as Churchill writes in the Play the only thing the Levellers got out of Putney was the promise of Cromwell to take things to a committee.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of a majority of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his position in parliament. Again Hill explains “Defending the existing franchise Cromwell son in law, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine ‘that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here’. The vote was rightly restricted to those who ‘had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’. Namely, ‘the person in whom all lands lies and that incorporation’s in whom all trading lies”.

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded for all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. This argument completely confused Rainborowe and undermined his argument.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men or they will break you” Cromwell declared. By May 1649 the Levellers had been defeated in battle and their influence in the army and in civilian life disappeared.

In many respects the true revolutionary of the civil war were Cromwell and his New Model Army. While not agreeing with the revisionists that the Levellers were an insignificant movement, they should not also be hyped into something they were not. They were essentially a movement of the lower middle class that sought to extend the franchise on a limited basis. The reason this failed was that the social and economic basis for their ideas had not yet developed in this sense their egalitarian ideas were a foretaste of future social movements, not communistic but more in the tradition of social democracy.

The size and variety of the audiences for the play denote that ideas discussed have a deep resonance with the people today and the play does have a contemporary feel to it. The questions of democracy and of social inequality, the treatment of women, wars and revolution and the subjugation of Ireland are in many senses still with us.  

The play works on many levels. People without a knowledge of the Levellers will still get a lot out of it. The more academically minded person will also have their intellect satisfied. I would recommend the play whole heartedly.

[1] LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, or A Discovery of the main ground, original Cause of all the Slavery in the world, but cheifly in England: presented by way of a Declaration of many of the welaffected in that County, to all their poore oppessed Country men of England, &c. First Published: 1648, anonymous Digger pamphlet;
Source: From George Sabine, ed., The Works of Gerrard Winstanley (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965);

[2] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism, By David North 24 October 1996
[3] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx 1852

[4] The Putney Debates (Revolutions Series) Paperback – 22 Oct 2007
[5] —Putney Debates record book 1647, Worcester College, Oxford, MS 65. Spelling and capitalisation as in the original manuscript.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Critical Review of A People’s History of Scotland- by Chris Bambery Verso, 320pp, £12.99

It is usual for new history books to fall into two broad categories. One is the history book that has no obvious connection to recent historical or political events. The second is a book that is very political and is released to coincide with ongoing historical or political events. It is the second category that Chris Bambery’s new book falls into in that it is deeply connected to nationalist politics in Scotland.

As the title alludes this is a history of the ‘ordinary people’ of Scotland. According to one writer it “looks beyond the kings and queens, the battles and bloody defeats of the past. It captures the history that matters today, stories of freedom fighters, suffragettes, the workers of Red Clydeside, and the hardship and protest of the treacherous Thatcher era”.

I have a number problems with this book. To begin with Bambery never defines what he means by the people. Bambery’s somewhat unrefined thinking lends itself to him making empty generalizations. In the realm of philosophy these are known as abstract identities. What is bad about this type of imprecise thinking is that it presents according to  David North an “inadequate mental representations of reality: The material world simply does not consist of such internally undifferentiated phenomena”.[1]

Bambery promises us “a corrective to the usual history of kings and queens, victorious battles and bloody defeats.” The first hundred pages or so the author struggles to find any of these ordinary people. In fact the only ordinary people he finds were people who made the tactical difference at Bannockburn, because they were mistaken for reinforcements by the English troops.

Know Your Historian

Bambery’s choice of the genre of people’s history has become popular again. This form of historical study was made extremely popular by the Communist Party Historians Group. The problem is that pseudo left groups like the Socialist Workers Party which Bambery used to belong to have unfortunately assimilated worst aspects of this genre such as a nationalist outlook.

It is especially important when reading this kind of history that the reader knows the politics of the historian or as E H Carr was apt to say “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog.[2]

I am not saying that Bambery is a dull dog but there is a surprising absence of both his politics and of the organisation he once belonged perspective on Scottish history. I find this a little strange despite his break with the SWP he does not say anything about their position regarding Scottish history.

Bambery has belonged to a number of pseudo left groups in the UK. He began as a member of the now defunct the International Marxist Group he then moved to the Socialist Workers Party. He resigned from the SWP in 2011 having served on their Central Committee and joined International Socialist Group. The SWP lost a significant number of its members to the ISG who were politically active in Scotland.

As far as I can tell Bambery shares much of the SWP positions on the recent independence campaign in Scotland.  The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) lined up behind the SNP in the Yes campaign, proclaiming separatism as the only basis on which to oppose austerity and militarism. Bambery despite leaving the SWP shares their perspective on Scottish separation.
The ISG’s latest articles go so far as to call for alliances with the SNP, asserting that “the Left will look like a backward break on the movement if it doesn’t initiate the support of the SNP where necessary”.[3]

The IMG alongside the SNP believe Scotland is a classless nation. Bambery ignores the fact that Scottish nationalism and the SNP has always had a pronounced right-wing element. "Class antagonism is a thing quite foreign to the Scottish spirit. It was unknown here until it was imported from England.... In Scotland there is no such inherent feeling of a separation between classes."[4]

Further Criticisms

Like I said above it is important to know the authors politics because in this case it so colours his historiography. While this is not an academic history of Scotland some of Bambery’s comments are less than precise and in a lot cases his history contains an absence of class based history. Bambery’s method has very little to do with historical materialism.

Given the sweep of history you could forgive the author for brevity when it comes to certain periods of Scottish history. But the price he pays is a lowering of a critical analysis of the movements and figures portrayed in the 330 or so pages.

Perhaps not so forgivable is his repeated glorification of myths and invention of traditions that permeate Scottish historiography. This flaw in Bambery’s approach is neatly captured by his statement,

‘Legends will appear throughout this book, and in a way it does not matter if they are real, because a legend can take on a life of its own and so inspire a future generation.’[5]

Bambery seems to have uncritically adopted Hegel’s words when he said  “Every nation has its own imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the nation’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination.”[6]

The failure to critically examine these legends, or as one writer says  “to explore the complex and contradictory relationship between the history and the myth, prevents the book from becoming anything more than a greatest hits of radical – a slippery political term at the best of times – Scottish movements “. His decision after twenty three pages to recommend Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart because it gives “a good account of William Wallace’s life.” Backs this observation up.

Scottish Enlightenment

Bambery's gloriification of Scottish figures from history comes to the fore when dealing with the Scottish enlightenment. It is undoubtedly true that Scotland produced some important figures during the enlightenment period but even these figures were part of an international fraternity and many of them never conceived themselves as promoting nationalism. Bambery’s raising them above other European figures is both wrong and will increase nationalist sentiment.

People’s History Genre

For certain subjects the use of the genre people’s history or for that matter narrative history is both useful and enjoyable. Bringing to the attention of a wide audience people who history or for that matter historians have forgotten is both legitimate and needed. However it is not very useful when dealing with very complex historical processes. 

Bambery sees Scottish history through nationally tinted glasses. Its ruling elites were more democratic. Its enlightenment figures better and its working class more militant and left wing. This relentless populism flies in the face of history.

Bambery’s reckless promotion of Scottish exceptionalism tends to whitewash actual historical events.  After all even a leading member of the Scottish bourgeoisie Thomas Johnston was forced to describe the Scottish nobility as "a selfish, ferocious, famishing, unprincipled set of hyenas, from whom at no time, and in no way, has the country derived any benefit whatsoever". Bambery for some reason sought to cover up who Johnston was first describing him as a "19th-century historian" and only later identifying him as “Scotland's most charismatic Secretary of State”.

The English Bourgeois Revolution

Bambery’s nationalist outlook is reflected in the number of historical events that are not even attempted to be examined within their proper international context. Perhaps the most glaring one is Bambery’s attitude towards the English bourgeois revolution. Given the importance of this historical event it gets strangely very little space in the book.

Bambery given his extensive knowledge of the Communist Party’s use of the history from below genre would have known the tendency amongst Communist Party historians and other radical writers to portray radicals such as the Leveller as struggling against foreign invaders.

Ann Talbot writes “serious Marxist criticisms of Hill are that he always maintains an essentially national approach to the English revolution, which he does not place in an international context, and that he has a tendency to romanticise the religious movements of the period and to be too dismissive of their rational intellectual descendants such as Newton and Locke. In part these characteristics arise from the national orientation of his social class and reflect even in Hill vestiges of the Whig outlook that imagined a peculiarly English political tradition rooted in millennial seventeenth century visionaries like Bunyan that was entirely separate from Enlightenment thought. More significantly it reflects the influence of the popular front politics and national outlook of Stalinism”[7]. Bambery’s People’s history continues this attitude.

Unfortunately Bambery shares the same outlook as the Communist party. Except his nationalism is not English it is Scottish. In this book Bambery rejects the theory of the English bourgeois revolution. He puts forward the premise that the revolution was in fact a “war of three kingdoms”.

The central premise of this argument is succinctly described by Jane Ohlmeyer when she said “the English Civil War was just one of an interlocking set of conflicts that encompassed the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century”[8]. I do not know Bambery that well to say that this has always been his take on the English revolution but it certainly was not his former party. It is not in the realm of this article to discuss at any length the extent that the SWP has moved away from the central premise of the English bourgeois revolution but the fact that Bambery held a revisionist and conservative position on this seminal event is an indicator of the type of dissent that has existed in the last decade inside the SWP.

Scotland as a Nation

The main theme of this book from the first few pages to the last is to give impression that Scotland from a very early period was a nation slowly making itself through its struggles against oppression. Bambery’s assertion is that ‘freedom was finally won on the field of battle at Bannockburn,’ the concept that Scotland was a nation before 1707 permeates a growing body of work of both politicians, writers and historians alike.

The different strands of Scottish nationalism believe that Scotland was a nation before the 1707 Act of Union. In their book Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan brag that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe”, [9]this belief that Scottish people have been oppressed for centuries is historically inaccurate and leads to the tendency for workers on both sides to the border to be played against each other.

Bambery plays very fast and loose with this history. It is clear that the Scottish bourgeoisie and aristocracy was in pretty bad shape before 1707. Before union the failure of the Darien scheme in the 1690s had a massive economic impact. The plan which was to build a predominantly Scottish trading colony in Panama ended in financial disaster for Scotland’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie.

While it true that large sections of the population opposed the union the bourgeoisie and aristocracy in Scotland clearly saw that their sectional interests were best served by union.

Writer Neal Ascherson stating, “It’s a cliché that the Scots ‘punched above their weight’ in the empire, and it’s misleading. They seldom competed directly with the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the ‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company…. Scottish capital was thus a full partner in the expansion of British imperialism. This embraced deep involvement in the slave plantations of the Caribbean and American South.”

To conclude this has not been an easy book to review and given the wealth of history covered and in some cases not covered further articles on this subject will appear in the future. I do not feel the need to repeat my many criticisms of this book. I do like the genre of people’s history when it is done well but Bambery’s promotion of Scottish nationalism dressed up as Scottish history leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

[1]   A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners By David North
 17 April 1997
[2] E H Carr What Is history
[5] A People's History of Scotland by Chris Bambery
[6] Hegel 1795 (Berne) The Positivity of the Christian Religion
[8] ://
[9] T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p180.