Wednesday, 26 July 2017

John Gurney and the English Revolution

‘Action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing ‘– Gerrard Winstanley

There is no denying that the death of John Gurney was a sad and terrible moment for both his family and the history community. His passing at such a young age of 54 of cancer, removes from the scene a gifted historian whose work was starting to produce results on a level of the great Christopher Hill, with whom he met at Oxford on some occasions.

Gurney was not a Marxist historian but his latest work published after his death showed a profound shift to the left in his thinking. His paper Gerard Winstanley and the Left is insightful and thought provoking. It is certainly one the best analysis of left wing historiography of the English Revolution.

Contained within his writings is an excellent example of the Historians Craft. I never met him but had some correspondence with him towards the end of his life. Even with this brief connection, I could tell he was a historian of great ability and tenacity. This was recognised by his friends and colleagues. In a tribute to him, Scott Ashley wrote “John was someone who in both his professional and personal lives could sniff out a story and extract the gold from the archive that made time and place shine fresh. To walk with him around North Shields was to see the streets and buildings with different eyes, not only in the sometimes prosaic now but as part of a more poetic then, as home places to Commonwealth-era churchmen, eighteenth-century ship captains, Victorian professionals. Among the many things I learned from John during the years, I knew him was that being a historian and making a home, physical and imaginative, were part of a common enterprise”[1].

Gurney spent most of his historical life studying the area around where he lived. However, his work on the Diggers and Gerard Winstanley was far from parochial. In many ways, he was instrumental in bringing a fresh perspective to the Diggers and Winstanley. He produced two books on them Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007 and Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013[2].  Both books took our understanding of the Diggers to a new level.

John had many skills as a historian, but three leap out at you. He had a capability to explain complicated historical issues in a way that any one could understand. Secondly, he brought his subject to life and thirdly his stamina to spend significant amounts of time “grubbing in the archives”.

To deep mine, an archive may to a lay person seem odd, but this ability gave him a more in-depth insight into the complicated problems faced by revolutionaries such as Winstanley. These seventeenth-century revolutionaries were working without precedents in which to guide their revolution.

If Gerard Winstanley is more well known and highly thought of today, it is because of Gurney. It is hard not to agree with Michael Wood’s claim that Winstanley’s place in the pantheon of English literature and political thought should be higher than previously thought. Wood believes he should be put alongside Hobbes and Harrington as one of the great writers of English prose of the seventeenth century. We should not forget that Winstanley was also a man of action as well as words. In 17th century eyes, he was as dangerous revolutionary.

Historians Craft

Gurney’s attempt to recreate the past and therefore understand it is done with much empathy and imagination. There is also a doggedness and intellectual objectivity about his work. While some historians seek to make an objective understanding of history, Gurney was almost religious in his pursuit of historical truth.

Gurney’s work exhibited a disciplined approach to complex historical questions. He recognised that he did not know everything about his area of expertise. But his work did show an honesty which enabled him to have a greater understanding of his role in the presentation of facts.

Gurney was also mindful of presenting his work in a way that was never apart from its moment in time. Gurney’s approach was similar to the French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013.

The book is a meticulously researched, scholarly and well-presented. Gurney provides us with a good understanding of the origins of the Digger movement. It has been praised for setting an “extremely high standard for local histories of this sort and must rank alongside similar studies such as Eamon Duffy’s acclaimed The Voices of Morebath.

Gurney was clear that the study of Winstanley should be not solely of historical value but must have a contemporary resonance. He says: “Today knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the left.

More specifically, his ideas and achievements have remained prescient, inspiring generations of activists and social movements”. He believed that Winstanley “has in recent years also been invoked by freeganism, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim Who was to him as a significant precursor”.

Gurney’s book is invaluable when it starts to trace the origins of Winstanley’s radicalism. Gurney did not subscribe to the theory that it was solely down to the war radicalising people such as Winstanley. Gurney believed that radical views were being expressed all over the country before the outbreak of civil war.

In a previous essay, Gurney elaborates on why the Digger’s achieved a level of local support in Cobham “Local support for the Diggers may also have been connected with Cobham's marked traditions of social conflict. The manor of Cobham, a former possession of Chertsey Abbey, had passed into the hands of Robert Gavell in 1566 and was to remain with his family until 1708. During the later sixteenth century the Gavell family became involved in a long and protracted series of disputes with their tenants. In a case brought in the court of Requests by William Wrenn, a Cobham husbandman, Robert Gavell was accused of overturning manorial customs and of infringing his tenants' rights, by seeking to extract more rent than was customarily paid, and by spoiling the timber on Wrenn's copyhold. He was also charged with attempting to escape the payment of tax by shifting the burden on to his tenants, laying 'a hevy burden uppon the poorer tennants contrarye to the Ancient usage, equitie and Consciens'Actions against Robert Gavell and his son Francis were resumed in the court of Chancery during the 1590s by tenants seeking to halt the continued assault on manorial custom” [3].

Who Were The Diggers

Gurney was one of the few contemporary historians involved in the study of Early Modern England who understood the importance of class in understanding the English revolution and its radical wing.
Gurney is correct to say that there has been no unified theory regarding the class basis of the Diggers. To say this is a complicated question. Even historians such as A L Morton and Christopher Hill changed their position numerous times.

The Diggers along with other radical groups who sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century and act upon them.

From an ideological stand point, they were far ahead of the likes of Cromwell and Ireton. Their weakness while being sympathetic to the poor, 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 Diggers or that matter did the larger group 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 a lot of the poor to be made more equitable. 

Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007

Gurney’s study of his local area in this case Surrey was not done from a parochial viewpoint. A survey of local events correctly done can add to a more broad and objective understanding of events.
Brave Community was the result of painstaking investigations. Somewhat surprisingly it was the first full-length modern study of the Diggers. 

It was well-received by academic historians. One review of Brave Community by Henk Looijesteijn described it as “a study that successfully blends social and intellectual history in recreating the environment in which one of the most original thinkers of mid-seventeenth-century England originated and acted. As such, this book should be regarded as the starting point for any student of Winstanley and the Digger”.

Gerrard Winstanley and the Left

Gurney’s last essay Gerrard Winstanley and the Left is a very significant piece of work. It lays the critical ground work for a further examination of the left's attitude towards the English revolution. Gurney understood when writing about left wing historiography on the English Revolution that you had to be aware of the pratfalls especially when writing about the Communist Party Historians Group. One must be cognizant of the enormous amount of ideological baggage these historians carried around. It must be said that some of this baggage was not in always in perfect condition.

In many ways, this essay is in microcosm a summation of Gurney’s whole body of work. He was very much at the height of his powers when he wrote this article. Gurney acknowledges that it is only recently that the words of Winstanley have been fully appreciated.  However, he believed that it is not the case that nothing of note was written before the 20th century. He thought that Winstanley’s ‘extraordinarily rich body of writings’ were read and studied between the years 1651 and the 1890s.

As he wrote in the essay “The historical legacy of the Diggers is usually seen as being very different from that of their contemporaries, the Levellers. If the Levellers were misremembered, the Diggers have been understood as being largely forgotten before the 1890s, with professional historians playing little part in their rediscovery.  It took, we are told, the Marxist journalist and politician Eduard Bernstein to rediscover Winstanley quite independently of academic historians when he spent part of his exile in London working on the section on seventeenth-century English radical thinkers for Karl Kautsky’s Die Vorla¨ufer des neueren Sozialismus. 

Later, in the 1940s, it was Marxist historians associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain who are said to have picked up Bernstein’s baton and created the image of a communist and materialist Winstanley which remains familiar to this day. The left’s responsibility for, and role in, the rediscovery and promotion of the Diggers can, therefore, seem quite clear and uncomplicated. There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. For one thing, the Diggers had, before the 1890s, never fallen from public view to the extent often imagined. In fact, it seems that they were reasonably well known over the centuries — and perhaps even more accurately remembered than the main stream Levellers, who were often confused with them. It is also evident that early detailed research on the Diggers was not confined to the left and that Bernstein was by no means alone in taking an interest in Winstanley’s writings in the 1890s”[4].


Where does Gurney’s work fit in with today’s in today’s historiography of the English Revolution? Due to no fault of his own Gurney’s work on Winstanley is an oasis in a desert of revisionism.

As Michael Braddick points out, revisionists have “have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes”.

The historian Mark Kishlansky’ has a habit of cutting down the radical heroes of the English Revolution. It is perhaps surprising that he recommends Gurney’s book saying “this is a clear-eyed yet sympathetic account of one of the most baffling figures of the English Revolution. Gurney's painstaking research provides a wealth of new information that is assembled into a highly readable narrative. An informative and thought-provoking book.”

Kishlansky despite recommending Gurney’s book he is keen to downplay Winstanley who according to him was “a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions”.

Kishlanksky inadvertently raises an interesting question. What was the relationship between Winstanley’s religion, his economic status and his politics? As the Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter says “for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism[5]”.


Gurney’s work on Winstanley and the Diggers is the start of a new form of historiography on the English Revolution. His work is ground breaking in many ways and is an antidote to revisionist historiography.

Gurney is correct to state there has never been what he calls a definable left-wing interpretation of the Diggers and Winstanley or to be even more precise there has never been a consistent classical Marxist position on the Diggers.  It is hoped that Gurney’s work is used to further our knowledge of the radicals of the English Revolution and present a more unified theory as regards these radical gentlemen of the revolution.

[1]  Brave Community: A communal and personal tribute to our friend and colleague, John Gurney (1960-2014)
[3] Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham- John Gurney
[4] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney.
[5] Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958

Saturday, 8 July 2017

1666: Plague, War and Hellfire Hardcover by Rebecca Rideal- 304 pages-Publisher: John Murray- ISBN-10: 1473623537

Let the flaming London come in view, Like Nero's Rome, burnt to rebuild it new

The Second Advice to a Painter by Andrew Marvell

“sure, so sad a sight was never seen before as that city is now lying in ashes”-

 Lady Elmes

It is fair to say that 1666 was not a very good year to be in London or England for that matter. In rapid succession, she was struck by a deadly plague that wiped out swathes of the population. The second war with the Dutch caused mayhem and much bloodshed for both nations and to end with London was struck by a deadly fire.

All these events are told with a fair degree of panache by Rebecca Rideal in her new book. The book which reads like a historical novel with bits of academic essay thrown is based on a significant amount of original archival research and makes use of little-known sources. It is safe to say the that Rideal did her fair share of “grubbing in the archives”. Rideal has claimed her approach is novel, but this has been hotly contested.Regarding publications, 1666 joins a very crowded market. Lloyd and Dorothy Moote’s The Great Plague and Adrian Tinniswood on the Fire of London are two which come to mind.

Rideal has not attempted to differentiate her book from these by claiming to have found new evidence. However, she does try to place the events in a more broader context of the bourgeois society. Rideal is correct to point out that 1666 was a crucial turning point in English history. The devastation caused by these events did, however, enable the bourgeoisie to hasten further the process of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

It was also a time when some of the finest representatives of the bourgeoisie were around. 1666 saw Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, complementing Robert Hooke's microscopic discoveries. It was also when the great John Milton completed Paradise Lost. Last but not least was the rebuilding of London by Christopher Wren. The three events mentioned in the book came at a time when England in the seventeenth century witnessed a fundamental change.

As the 21st-century Marxist writer David North wrote the “17th century started to fundamentally change the way man saw the world. Up until then, mankind's worldview had largely been dominated by the Aristotelian worldview. 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.[1]

The book outlines that the fire and plague cruelly exposed the class divide and class relations in England at the time. The poor endured the most of both plague and fire. The rich could either stay in their well-built houses to wait out the fire and plague, or they could move out of the city with their possessions. The poor had no such luxury.

As Lady Ann Hobart complained in a letter “I am almost out of my wits, we have packed up all our goods & cannot get a cart for money, they give 5 & 10 pound for carts … I fear I shall lose all I have and must run away … O pity me.”

As Rideal explains the fire was only extinguished when the rich allowed some of their houses to be blown up or knocked down to provide a firebreak. If the rich people had acquiesced to their houses being blown up earlier the fire could have done less damage.

The fire caused widespread panic and paranoia. Riddeal cites one gruesome incident in graphic detail when a Frenchwoman in Moorfields had her breasts cut off after the chickens she was carrying under her apron were mistaken for fireballs. Many foreign nationals especially French or Dutch were accused of starting the fire was attacked by the mobs.


1666 is a debut book and tells the story of that year in narrative form and borrows heavily from the genre of History from Below. The book written during her research on her PHD is orientated to the general reader but does retain a good academic level. Her use of anecdotal evidence is very well done.

The reader will see in her book a contradiction in that it is part “public history” and part academic history. This reflects Rideal’s current predicament. A foot in both camps is a difficult place to be but not entirely impossible, but Rideal will have to make a choice.

Given her life history, I would say she will continue with a more publicly minded history. She was born in Chester in 1983. She studied history at Leeds University. Her MA was completed at University College London. She is a founding member of the History Vault and had an early career in television. This would tend to point her future career more in the public history arena.

Her main historiographical interest lies with a study of the 17th-century England. Her time spent in television will keep her in good stead for the future. If she does manage to combine Public history with a more academically minded history, then that would be a novel approach.

She describes this method.  “The thing is I am a procrastinator,” she says, “and the way that I combat procrastination is by coming up with something that in my mind is even more important than the thing I am supposed to be doing. So I start something, and that takes over everything, and then I start something else.”

Much of her book is grounded by using contemporary accounts. Although she sometimes gets carried away causing one writer to say that her style is more to do with live television than with dead history.
She recognises this saying “There are probably lines in there that I will cringe about afterwards. There are certainly some that I took out because I was pushing it too far. I am really, nervous about this being published because I’m so nervous about the way I’ve written it, the language that I’ve used, the fact that I’ve written a narrative history before I have written a PhD. I feel very, very conscious of all those things. It is frightening.”

The book does not follow a logical pattern and tends to jump from one event to another. This seems to be the unorthodox style that Rideal has adopted. Once you get used to it does make the reading interesting and allows the historian to set a fast pace almost novel-like. The question being does Rideal want to pursue this style of history writing or as she comes to the end of PHD pursue a more conventional academic style?

Twitter Wars

Not everyone is comfortable with her style which is their right, but as a historian, she should start to develop a thicker skin. That does mean she must put up with the personal abuse she has received on Twitter. Much of the abuse appears to be provoked by the fact that she is an attractive female historian. The general thrust of the abuse is the simple fact that she is a female trying to make a living out of public history writing.

The writer Graham Smith has sympathies for Rideal when he recounts “I have some sympathy with these grumblings. Back in 1982, I returned from completing an MA in Social History at Essex to my first university armed with a poster for Leonore Davidoff’s course. I was just pinning it to a noticeboard when the department’s senior professor of economic history spotted me and declared, ‘Women in History, Graham? Whatever next?’

However, as others have pointed out, the fact that the struggle to go beyond hegemonic discourses continues suggests that winning once is not enough. My belief is that evidence of a new generation reinventing ways of taking up that fight should be a cause for celebration rather than condemnation. As tends to happen on Twitter, battle-lines were drawn, allies and enemies were quickly made, and exchanges sharpened after those initial criticisms of Rideal. On one side were historians who clearly identified with Rideal, especially those aiming to make a living from producing popular histories. On the other, for the most part, were historians working in universities, some of whom began to question whether Rideal was even qualified to write early modern history”.[2]

He continues “these days, the battles within ‘the profession’ are mainly over resources and too often fuelled by egotism. With its proponents organised into warring tribes according to the periods and places they study or corralled into sub-disciplinary groupings, History is fractious even within the academy. In all this sound and fury, and despite constant internal sniping, the discipline has been traditionally slow to innovate, and much of the sparring is about maintaining rather than extending boundaries. It is worth noting, for example, that those pioneering courses in women’s history and oral history at Essex were taught in the Sociology Department. While members of other disciplines frequently offer support for new ideas, historians – too often operating as lone scholars – revel in knocking lumps out of one another, reserving spite for those who try to innovate. The result is that in open competition for resources, most obviously for research grant income or in the formation of mutually beneficial research partnerships, historians do not achieve the same results as, say, political scientists or human geographers. Nor are we as prepared to look after our researchers or early career colleagues as would be the case in economics or sociology”.

Although I use Twitter, I am not a fan of using it for public debates on historical matters. It is too short and how you can explain complex historical differences in 140 character it is just absurd.


The book has been well received but that is not to say it is without criticism. One writer has pointed out that the book tends to concentrate too much on what was known about an individual at the time and to leave it at that according to one reviewer “she refers several times to mysterious rumours about Sabbatai Zevi, the charismatic rabbi who, in Turkey in 1665, proclaimed himself the Messiah. “Questions over the authenticity of Sabbatai abounded,” she says and leaves it at that as if nothing more can be known. However, there is a vast amount of scholarship on this extraordinary man, whose conversion to Islam in 1666 shocked the entire Jewish world; we do not need to confine ourselves today to contemporary rumours”.[3]

My criticism of her does not arise from the book which is very enjoyable it stems from her theoretical position or historiography. Recently she stated, “The time of the grand histories that are all about male figures is coming to an end,”. “I think people are understanding now that there were women around, too, and they were doing important things.”

The main advocate of this type of history was the historian Thomas Carlyle. If that were all she was staying, then no one would have too many complaints. However, as the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky was fond of saying "every sociological definition is at bottom a historical prognosis."

Rideal’s prognosis is that more history should be written from the standpoint of Gender and race. It is high time that the absurdities of basing a study of history on race, gender, and sexual orientation end. The fundamental division in society is not race or gender but that of class.

As North explains “The logic of class interests’ rules politics. This is a basic truth that is frequently forgotten, especially by academics, which tend to evaluate political factions by subjective criteria. Moreover, their judgments are influenced by their own unstated political biases, particularly when it is a matter of evaluating a dispute between opportunists and revolutionists. To the petty-bourgeois academic, the policies advocated by the opportunists usually appear more “realistic” than those advanced by the revolutionaries. However, just as there is no innocent philosophy, there are no innocent politics. Whether foreseen or not, a political program has objective consequences”.


Rideal is a gifted young historian her debut book 1666 is an enjoyable book. Her chosen subject is probably one of the most interesting times in not only British history but world history. If Rideal wants to write more academically minded stuff which she will have to for her PHD, then she will have to develop a different technique because the one used for this book will not do as it has severe limitations. This is not to say that Rideal’s book does not meet main academic standards. Her use of source material is carefully chosen mostly and up to date, and she provides footnotes for all citations and statistics.There is no point hoping the book gets a wide readership as it already has but I would recommend taking on summer holiday.

Further Reading

[1] See Buettner, Ricardo, and Katharina Buettner, ‘A Systematic Literature Review of Twitter Research from a Socio-Political Revolution Perspective’, in ResearchGate, 2016

[2] Oh, O., C. Eom, and H. R. Rao, “Role of Social Media in Social Change: An Analysis of Collective Sense-Making During the 2011 Egypt Revolution,” Information Systems Research, vol. 26, no. 1, pp.210–223, 2015.

[3] Lea, Richard, ‘Rebecca Rideal: “The Time of the Grand Histories Is Coming to an End”’, The Guardian, 25 August 2016. [accessed 3 September 2016].

[1] quality, the Rights of Man, and the Birth of Socialism-By David North -24 October 1996-
[2]Beyond Us and Them: Public History and the Battle for the Past on Twitter by Graham Smith-