Tuesday, 24 March 2020

The Poor in the English Revolution-1640-1649

"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 is 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-Putney Debates

"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."

Quoted in Christopher Hill The English Revolution 1640

"thus were the agricultural people, firstly forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system."

Karl Marx [Capital]

"This Commonwealth's freedom will unite the hearts of Englishmen together in love, so that if a foreign enemy endeavour to come in, we shall all with joint consent rise to defend our inheritance, and shall be true to one another. Whereas now the poor see, if they fight and should conquer the enemy, yet either they or their children are like to be slaves still, for the gentry will have all. Property divides the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere." When the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, then this enmity in all lands will cease."

Gerrard Winstanley, Digger Leader


When it comes to the matter of the poor during the English Revolution, there have primarily been two trends in the English Revolution historiography. The first is either to ignore them entirely or to place them in the forefront of the leadership of the English revolution alongside radicals from previous centuries representing an unbroken thread of radicalism that goes right up to the present day.

I do not claim that there was no "revel, riot and rebellion" during the English Revolution, but the English revolution was made by the bourgeoisie, not the working class which was still in its infancy.

There was, however, a significant radicalisation of the poor during this time. As this quote shows, "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. "[1]

It was these "sectaries and atheists" that conservative thinkers like Richard Baxter sought to warn the ruling elite about when he wrote "A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England . . . adhered to the king. And most of the tenants of these gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the rabble, did follow the gentry and were for the king. On the Parliament's side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures…Freeholders and tradesmen are the strength of religion and civility in the land, and gentlemen and beggars and servile tenants are the strength of iniquity"[2]. Baxter was one of the most politically astute commentators on the English revolution. His writing expressed a general fear amongst the ruling elite of growing social unrest.


It is not in the realm of this essay to examine every single piece of historiography connected with the poor during the English revolution. It is however hard not to disagree with the words of Lawrence Stone who described the history of the 17th century as "a battleground which has been heavily fought overbeset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way".

A large number of these ferocious scholars have ignored the radicalisation of the poor during the English Revolution or when they did comment on it was done so coupled with a persistent attack on Marxist historiography, with figures like Christopher Hil and Brian Manning taking the brunt of this assault.

While it is clear that up until the late 1960s, there appeared to be a consensus amongst historians studying the English revolution that a study of the poor had to be linked with socio-economic changes that were taken place in the 17th century.

The late 1970s, saw this disappear and was replaced with a consistent attack on Marxist historiography. During an interview by John Rees and Lee Humber, the left-wing Christopher Hill was asked this question "There is a marked trend to separate out various aspects of the revolution, so that cultural development is seen in isolation to, say, economic ones, a trend which is part of a much wider debate taking in the arguments around postmodernism. Would you agree that this is also a great challenge to the economic and social interpretation of history?

Hill's answer was "Yes, all this linguistic stuff of the literary historians ignores the social context. I think that's a very unfortunate phase that literary criticism seems to be going through. I had thought that one of the good things of the last few decades was the way historians and literary critics seemed to be coming together on the 17th century and producing some sort of consensus. This is now in danger with all this linguistic guff. I suppose it's quite difficult for people trained in one discipline to take on board the lessons learnt in others, but any new consensus will have to be one based on looking at society as a whole including literature and religion."[3]

As the Marxist economist, Nick Beams also points out "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 based on 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 motivesthe real, underlying, driving forces of the historical processand to make clear the social interests served by a given ideologya relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved".


While it is essential to understand what motivated the poor to "revel, riot and rebellion" it is even more critical to understand the relationship between the poor and its leaders, which on this occasion during the English Revolution were the various radical groups such as The Levellers and Diggers and to a certain extent the Ranters.

As Leon Trotsky wrote "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."[4]

The Levellers, while being sympathetic to the poor, their perspective of bringing about deep-seated change was hampered by their class outlook that being of small producers, conditioned by their ideology. This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of 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. As John Cooke, a regicide and sympathetic to the Leveller cause 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'. [5]

In order to overcome their contradiction, knowing full well that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate or through the control of the army, the Levellers attempted to find not a revolutionary solution to their problem but a constitutional one.

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 based on 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.

While this was extremely radical for the time 'freeborn Englishmen' excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute 'the people'. As Christopher Hill wrote: "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. However, manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were"[6].

The generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Oliver Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened, it would threaten his majority in Parliament. As 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.'[7]


The other substantial leadership of the poor came from the Diggers. Hill, in his seminal study, The World Turned Upside Down, believed that Winstanley and his Diggers, "have something to say to twentieth-century socialists". In this, he meant that they were an anticipation of future struggles. Hill was cognizant that despite their radicalism, the social and economic conditions had not yet matured for them to carry out a "second revolution" which would have seen the overthrow of Cromwell and broader use of the popular franchise.

John Gurney, who was perhaps the foremost expert on the Diggers recognised the leader of the Diggers Gerrard Winstanley was one of the most important figures to appear during the English Revolution commenting "the past is unpredictable.' So it has proved for Gerrard Winstanley. For all but one of his 67 years, he lived in obscurity, and then he died forgotten. Generations of historians passed over him either in silence or derision. He entirely eluded the notice of the Earl of Clarendon in the 17th century and of David Hume in the 18th. Even the Jacobin William Godwin, the first champion of the Civil War radicals, judged his exploits' scarcely worthy of being recorded', and S.R. Gardiner's comprehensive history of the Commonwealth contained only two references to him, one a bare mention of his name. Then in the early 20th Century, Winstanley was rediscovered, and he has exerted a magnetic pull on left-leaning intellectuals ever since. He is variously credited as the father of English communism, socialism or environmentalism, depending on which is seeking paternity. His notice in the Victorian DNB was a scant 700 words; in the new DNB, it has ballooned to more than 8000. Now he has been canonised by the publication of an Oxford edition of his complete works, the second complete works in a century, more than have been accorded either Hobbes or Locke."[8]

While the Diggers were far more radical in their perspective for the poor, they shared the same class position as the Levellers. No matter how radical their ideas at no point could they overturn class society through revolution. The only class that could have achieved their aims was still in its infancy.

Historians such as John Gurney are a rare bread today in that his study of the poor was done so from a relatively left-wing standpoint. While Hill and Manning tended to dominate the study of the poor during the English revolution, there were a group of historians that were less incline to support a Marxist interpretation of the poor but were sufficiently influenced to carry out important work.

One of many historians that fit the above criteria was D.C. Coleman. While not being close to Marxism was undoubtedly influenced by left-wing historians such as Hill.

Coleman was a multidimensional historian according to his obituary he  "was sceptical about politics and thought religion was largely nonsense. He realised that people were subject to motivation of a variety of sorts and that economic rationality could provide only a partial explanation. He made use, therefore, of economic theory, but did not regard it as the be-all and end-all in the attempt to explain human social behaviour over time, the essence of what he thought economic history should be about.[9]

Coleman points out in one of his writings that early capitalists were conscious that profit could be made by exploiting the large and growing working class. Coleman quotes J Pollexfen who writes , 'The more are maintained by Laborious Profitable Trades, the richer the Nation will be both in People and Stock and ... Commodities the cheaper".[10]

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Coleman's research was his publishing figures on the levels of poverty which are stunning. The levels of child labour that would not look out of place in a third world country today, stating "If the economists and social pamphleteers wanted a larger body of labouring poor, there is no lack of evidence that in mere numbers the poor already formed a very substantial part of the total population. Contemporary comment upon the numbers of poor stretches back into the sixteenth century, at least, and forward into the eighteenth. To Bacon, labourers and cottagers were 'but house beggars'; to a writer of the 1640's it. Seemed reasonable to suppose that 'the fourth part of the inhabitants of most of the parishes of England are miserable, poor people, and (harvest time excepted) without any subsistence', the comprehensive and well-known investigations of Gregory King in the 168o's and 1690s tell an even grimmer tale. He classed 23 per cent of the national population as 'labouring people and out servants' and a further 24 per cent as 'cottagers and paupers', estimating that both groups had annual family expenditures greater than income."[11]

Another historian worth reading is Steve Hindle; he is especially important and essential reading. Hindle's work should be read in conjunction with that of Hill and Manning.

His work on the Levellers backs up my earlier assumption that while Levellers such as John Wildman were sympathetic to the poor, there was also a fear that the levels of poverty and a dearth of food could get out of hand. Wildman states 'The price of food [is] excessive', wrote the Leveller John Wildman from London in 1648, 'and Trading [is] decayed'. It would; he thought, 'rend any pitifull heart to heare andsee the cryes and teares of the poore, who professe they are almost ready to famish'. 'While our divisions continue, and there be no settlement of the principles of freedom and justice', he insisted: trading will but more decay every day: Rumours and feares of Warre, and the Army coming now into the City, makes Merchants unwilling to trust their goods in the City, and exchange beyond sea falles, and there will be no importing of goods, and then there will be no exporting and so the staple commodities of the kingdom which maintains the constant trade, will not tend to the advantage of the labourers, and then most of the poore in the kingdom which live by spinning, carding, & will be ready to perish by famine".[12]

Wildman was echoing a common fear and worry amongst sections of the lower middle class that the impact of the failed harvests of 1647-1650. According to Hindle "Wildman was accordingly convinced that 'a suddain confusion would follow if a speedie settlement were not procured'.

Hindle goes on "Wildman's vivid analysis of the relationship between harvest failure, economic slump, political crisis and popular protest is proof enough that those who lived through the distracted times of the late 1640s were well aware of the interpenetration of economic and constitutional dislocation. It is surprising, therefore, that historians have made so little attempt to take the harvest crisis of the late 1640s seriously".

Another famous exponent of regional studies of the poor is A. L. Beier. One of his studies was Poor relief in Warwickshire 1630-1660. Beier presented in this essay a view that was supported by a significant number of historins that the study of the regional poor was an important part of a wider national study of the poor.

Beier warned about trying to read too much into these local studies, but a study of such areas as Warwickshire was legitimate. He writes "It would, of course, be dangerous to generalise from the example of one county to the whole of England, but the degree of typicality of Warwickshire and Professor Jordan's findings are encouraging. To study other counties from this point of view may yield interesting comparisons and the discovery of new variables, particularly if areas are found where relief administration in fact collapsed. More generally, however, and assuming that poor relief did not collapse in England during the Interregnum, of what significance was its continued functioning? First, it is clear that the devolution towards local control which took place in this period did not mean collapse or even falling efficiency in administration whether the sort of zealous efficiency characteristic of the Puritan rule was continued after I660 is another question deserving of study.[13]

[1] Christopher Hill-The English Revolution 1640- https://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution/
[2] https://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution
[3] John Rees and Lee Humber-The good old cause-An interview with Christopher Hill- https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1992/isj2-056/hill.html
[4] The Class, the Party-and the Leadership-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/xx/party.htm
[5] Unum Necessarium:John Cooke, of Graies Inne, Barrester.http://famineanddearth.exeter.ac.uk/displayhtml.html?id=fp_00502_en_unum
[6]The Century of Revolution: 1603–1714 
[7]The Century of Revolution: 1603–1714
[8] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney-Past & Present, Volume 235, Issue 1, May 2017, Pages 179–206, https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtx017
[9] Professor D. C. Coleman-Obituary-https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-professor-d-c-coleman-1600207.html
[10] Labour in the English Economy during the 17th Century-https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-0289.1956.tb01570.x
[11] Labour in the English Economy during the 17th Century-https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-0289.1956.tb01570.x
[12] Dearth and the English revolution:the harvest crisis of 1647–50-By Steve Hindle-https://www.huntington.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/dearth-and-the-english-revolution-echr.pdf
[13] A. L. Beier Poor relief in Warwickshire 1630-16601 – Past and Present 1966