“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England bath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government. “
Colonel Rainborowe – New Model Army Soldier
“the necessitous people [the poor] of the whole kingdom will presently rise in mighty numbers; and whosoever they pretend for at first, within a while they will set up for themselves, to the utter ruin of all the nobility and gentry of the kingdom.”
C Hill The English Revolution 1640
When it comes to the poor in the English Revolution there have largely been two trends in English Revolution historiography. The first is either to ignore them completely or to downplay any form of politicisation or radicalization.
The second in its worse form has been to exaggerate their role and in some cases equate them with a 20th/21st century proletariat. This is not to say that there was no “revel, riot and rebellion” during the English Revolution but it was not on the scale of the French or Russian Revolution after all the 17th Century revolution was a bourgeois revolution not a proletarian revolution.
Having said this it would be foolish to ignore the significant radicalization of the poor during this time. While the quote from a seventeenth century country parson’s should be used with some caution (I found it on a radical left website but so far have been unable to trace its source) it nonetheless expresses a general heightened class consciousness amongst a growing section of the population that was quite clear as to the polarizing nature of the civil war.
“Against the king, the laws and religion, were a company of poor tradesmen, broken and decayed citizens, deluded and priest-ridden women, . . . there rode rabble that knew not wherefore they were got together, . . . tailors, shoemakers, linkboys , etc.; . . . on the king’s side. . .all the bishops of the land, all the deans, prebends and learned men; both the universities; all the princes, dukes, marquises; all the earls and lords except two or three; . . . all the knights and gentlemen in the three nations, except a score of sectaries and atheists. “
The first part of this essay will examine the poor and its leadership. The second part will examine the significant studies on the poor by historians and the third part the rise of Mercantilism in the context of the significant economic and political changes in Europe.
It would be correct to say that there was a genuine fear that the 17th century civil war would provoke the poor into the realms of social revolution. Now in many cases this fear was misplaced and exaggerated for political gain. I am however a firm believer of the old adage that there is no historical smoke without historical fire.
This essay will examine both primary and secondary published sources. While I would love to conduct some original research this would extremely difficult given the fact that most of the sources so to speak have been tapped and my time is somewhat limited. What will be original will be that the essay will seek to restore some aspects of a historical materialist approach to the subject of the poor.
This approach has been under systematic attack for well over three decades from a number of revisionist historians enough to make Lawrence Stone’ describe the history of the 17th century as “a battleground which has been heavily fought over…beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way”.
These ferocious scholars have largely caricatured Marxism and according to Nick Beams “One of the most frequently employed caricatures of Marxism is the claim that it argues that ideology is just a cover for the real economic motivations of social actors. Accordingly, Marxism is “disproved” by the discovery that individuals act, not according to economic motives but on the basis of powerful ideologies. Marxism does not deny that historical actors are motivated and driven into action by their ideological conceptions, and it does not claim that these ideologies are simply a rationalisation for the real economic motivations. However, it does insist that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved”.
In many ways in order to know what the poor were thinking it is important to examine their relationship with the Levellers. The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky essay on the question of leadership can help in this.
“In reality leadership is not at all a mere “reflection” of a class or the product of its own free creativeness. A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions. Precisely for this reason the working class is often caught unawares by war and revolution. But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party. The Marxist, i.e. dialectic and not scholastic interpretation of the inter-relationship between a class and its leadership does not leave a single stone unturned of our author’s legalistic sophistry”.
G W F Hegel was fond of saying “all that is rational is real”. As Trotsky explained “this means that every idea that corresponds to objective needs of development attains triumph and victory. In the final analysis Cromwell’s ideas were more attune to societies needs than the Levellers.
Having said this Leveller ideas were able to influence significant minority of poor people. How conscious were the poor of fighting for social change is up for grabs but Cromwell was very clear when he said what kind of soldier he was looking for “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else. Letter to Sir William Spring (September 1643)
While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion which essentially was not that different from that of Cromwell 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.
This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. 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 reformed on the basis of certain fundamental ‘native rights’ safeguarded even from a sovereign parliament: religious toleration, no tithes. The attack on parliament as 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 limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. Rainborowe stated that ‘The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government’.
This seemed all very democratic but ‘freeborn Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill says ‘The Leveller conception of free Englishmen, was thus restricted, even if much wider, than that 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’.
To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism 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 majority in parliament. Again Hill explains ‘Defending the existing franchise 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 persons in whom all lands lies and those 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 other smaller groups such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he call the “lunatics”, “you must break these men or they will break you”
The importance of the Levellers and to some extent the Diggers that they represented the aspirations of the poorest section of society. They were not a mass movement of the poor. While their ideas had very explosive social implications, the necessary objective conditions did not exist at the time.
1 The Clarke Papers –William Clarke Royal Historical Society.
2 Mark Kishlanksy’s Ideology and politics in the parliamentary Armies 1645-49
3 Carlton p199 Ch9
4 S Porter the Destruction in the Civil War
5 G M Trevelyan Social History of Britain
6 C Hill in the Century of Revolution