Wednesday, 15 July 2015

God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660–1720, by Brodie Waddell. The Boydell Press. 2012; pp. 273. £60.

Even after a cursory look at the work of Brodie Waddell it becomes clear that he holds an empathy with the oppressed and working people both past and present. He delivers his history with a passion that is all too absent
His particular brand of people’s history is heavily influenced by historians who came from the Communist Party Historians Group. One of their many contributions to the study of Early Modern England was the historiographical genre “history from below” or ‘people’s history’. His new book is heavily influenced by E P Thompson especially his Making of the English Working Class.

Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and his other major works have a common theme in that they have a tendency to obscure the class character of rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition
As Ann Talbot writes “This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the Soviet bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries during the 1940s. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front”
The historian David Parker[1] has played down the influence of the Soviet CP on the historians inside the CPHG. According to Parker the British Marxists were not “imprisoned in a straight jacket –either economistic or Stalinist-from which they later escape”. This is a very generous evaluation. This political blindness appears to be a problem amongst modern historians.

This is Waddell’s first book but he has a significant body of work inside and outside academia. His blog contains numerous articles based on people’s history genre. In 2013 along with other likeminded historians they held an Online Symposium titled “The Future of History from Below”: Waddell along with over twenty likeminded historians recently announced on the blog a follow up online symposium, ‘The Voices of the People’. The series of articles will further examine the history from below genre. While this is an extremely useful exercise I have a number of reservations. Number one being that at no time has an orthodox Marxist historian been invited to contribute to the subject and secondly none of the essays examine the political origins of the genre in any great detail
The revival of the history from below genre seems to coincide with a growing dissatisfaction amongst some historians and the wider public with capitalism. It cannot be a coincidence that we have over the last six years witnessed the near collapse of the capitalist system and growth of social inequality unprecedented in over a century and seen the rise of a new form of history from below historiography.

Like a large number of revisionist historians today Waddell sets out in his introduction the quite considerable task of seeking to overturn large swathes of previous historiography on his chosen subject. However his criticism previous Marxist and Whig historiography gives succour to more conservative revisionist historians

Waddell admits that for a substantial part of the twentieth century early modern historiography in Britain and internationally has been dominated by a disparate number of historians who in one way or another profess to be Marxist or Marxist influenced. As one writer put it that “notions of early modern social change have been informed by a series of teleological transitions–from feudalism to capitalism, community to society, and so on”.

I am unable to tell how much Marx and Engels Waddell has read but his book does not present their writings in any great detail. It is clear that he does not agree with their politics or historiography. In his book and to a certain extent his blog [2] he rejects the notion that early modern society can be best understood when one accepts that it undertook a transition from feudalism to capitalism.

I believe the book would have benefited from a closer study of Marxist methodology. In fact like most modern history books Waddell’s is very light on methodology. While not directly concerning the material in the book  Engels work on the family would have given us a deeper insight into the lives of “ ordinary  17th century people, “According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other”[3].

Waddell rejects Engel’s historical materialistic outlook. He instead leans heavily on the work of E. P. Thompson whose work for too long has been described as Marxist. Despite borrowing a few phrases or quotes from Marx or Engels Thompson’s work is really a negation of orthodox Marxism
His use of the term “moral economy” has been presented as a sort of Marxist analysis. The concept of a “moral economy” is usually attributed to Thompson it was in fact the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov who first expounded on this idea in the 1920s,

Despite making a few carefully worded criticisms of Thompson’s “moral economy” he largely accepts his premise. What is the moral economy according to Lancaster University “the Moral economy' might be defined as a kind of enquiry focusing on how economic activities of all kinds are influenced, structured and legitimized by moral sentiments, values and norms, and how in turn those are reinforced, compromised, or overridden by political economic pressures”.

No matter how you try you wrap it up this theses have nothing to do with any Marxist concepts or methodology. Waddell has a tendency to separate what people thought about religion, duty and community from the significant economic changes that took place in the seventeenth century. Waddell like Thompson rejects the relationship between Base and superstructure.

As one reviewer put it “Waddell does not claim to be an expert on new forms of economic development that came about during the later Stuart period. In the latter half of the book Waddell details activity of the people. He cites numerous strikes, protests, and communal actions that took place across England between 1660 and 1720. Due to his political blindness these events cannot be placed in relation to their political or social context. His tendency to separate base and superstructure means his observations are superficial at best and are “treated only as manifestations of a more general sense of collective identity and agency”

This separation between base and superstructure has become the hallmark of a number of historians that write on the history from below genre. Despite being labelled as out of date and unfashionable what Marx wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is still a valuable guide to understanding the changes that took place in people’s lives in the seventeenth century “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life
 "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production”.[4]

While Waddell correctly points out in the book that the lives of working people in early modern England, were to a degree influenced by the economic changes taking place after the revolution. But he rejects the premise that their social being determined their consciousness. Again the book would have benefited from Marx’s analysis in The German Ideology: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct afflux from their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, and metaphysics of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. Real, active men, as they are conditioned by the definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men in their actual life process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process." [5]

Despite its shortcoming on methodology the book does have merit. It is to Waddell’s credit that in order to present his ideas he uses a wide range of sources, low priced pamphlets, Sermons, songs, broadsides. The books shows his extensive use of archival sources such as court records, guild and company records, and parish registers
The book is divided into three sections, each examine the concepts in the title, God, duty, and community. One problem encountered by Waddell is the paucity of records that enable us to have a good idea of how “ordinary” people viewed the religious developments and how they impacted on economic life.

It is clear that during the English revolution traditional religious beliefs started to receive a beating as David north points out “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[6]
Waddell can reject Marx ,Tawney and even Weber all he likes but evidence points to large sections of society both poor and rich alike sharing similar if not the same attitude towards God and to some extent property.

Despite calling for a new approach to historical research much of Waddell’s ideas have been developed already by a body of writers and historians who advocated a “cultural turn”. Like many “new” approaches Cultural Studies started life as an attack on revolutionary Marxism, It is hoped that Waddell’s future work does not too far down this road.

Other reviews

[1] David Parker Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution –Debates on the British Communist Historians-1940-1956.
[3] The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan preface to the First Edition, 1884
[4] Marx, Karl (1977). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers: Notes by R. Rojas.
[5] German Ideology, 1.c. p. 13-4.
[6] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism By David North 24 October 1996

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.