Sunday, 13 April 2014

Major-General Thomas Harrison: Millenarianism, Fifth Monarchism and the English Revolution 1616-1660 by David Farr Ashgate Publishing, Limited ISBN-13: 9781409465546

'Religious misery is, at the same time, the expression of real misery and the protest against that real misery." -

Cliff Slaughter

'That man of blood" Major General Thomas Harrison

"The scum and scouring of the country... Deduct the weavers, tailors, brewers, cobblers, tinkers, carmen, draymen, broom-men and mat makers and then give me a list of the gentlemen. Their names may be writ in text, within the compass of a single halfpenny.  Mercurius Elencticus (7-14 June I648), British Library, E447/ II, 226

Major General Thomas Harrison is probably best remembered for his part in the regicide of King Charles Ist. His calling the monarch "that man of blood" will also stay in the minds of people who study and read about this period for many more decades to come.

It is, therefore, a little surprising that Harrison has not had a full modern academic study given that he played such a fundamental role in the English Revolution. It is to David Farr and Ashgate publishers credit that this poor oversight has been largely rectified.

In the past, the absence of such a biography has been because of a lack of source material." Historian C H Simpkinson who in his review Thomas Harrison- Regicide and Major General in the American Historical Review Vol 11 No 1 1905 said "it would be interesting to know what induced the publishers of the Temple Biographies to include in their list Thomas Harrison. It is impossible to make out of him a popular subject. 

Moreover, the facts in his life are too little known to make it possible to write a successful popular biography. Consequently, it would be better to have attempted a life based strictly upon thorough research".[1]

Farr's biography is based on very thorough research.  It is certainly is the most subtle view of Harrison that has previously has been portrayed. As the blurb for the book points out "Unlike the only two previous full-length studies of Harrison, the present work makes use of a full range of manuscript, primary and secondary sources, including the vast range of new material that has fundamentally changed how the early modern period is now understood. Fully footnoted and referenced, this study provides the first modern academic study of Harrison".

One difficulty Farr sought to overcome was that Harrison is best known for his role in the regicide of Charles 1st. Harrison was one of the foremost republican leaders during the English revolution. He was never forgiven by later monarchists for this role, and his death was a brutal and bloody affair.

He was hanged, drawn and quartered by the Restoration government in 1660. Harrison's gruesome fate was witnessed by Samuel Pepys who wrote of him "To my Lord's in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart is shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again".[2]

Given that Harrison's later life is better documented than his earlier work it is understandable that Farr in his book employs a thematic, rather than a chronological approach, as the introduction says in order "to illustrate the role of millenarianism and providence in the English Revolution, religion within the new model army, literature, image and reputation, and Harrison's relationship with key individuals like Ireton and Cromwell as well as groups, most notably the Fifth Monarchists".

The book is subdivided into three main parts. The first part starts with an analysis of Harrison's last few years of life. Farr seeks in this section of the book to explain Harrison's problem in coming to terms with the political collapse of the Interregnum regimes. A collapse he had no social, political or military answer to. It must be said that he was not the only radical figure to fail to understand his fall from influence and power. Harrison's only answer was to put his faith in God, believing that his fall from power had been pre-ordained.

This answer may have suited people living in the 17th century, but I am afraid people residing in the 21st century need a little more. One of the few historians to examine the defeat of the radical groups was Christopher Hill. Hill controversially sought to understand how the radical groups fell from Providence so quickly. He believed that Milton's Paradise Lost was a "mediation on the reasons for the revolution's failure."His conclusions were a little pessimistic especially when he drew incorrect comparisons with 'other failed revolutions.

Part two examines "Harrison's years of 'power." Farr spends a significant amount of space in this part of the book evaluating Harrison's political activities and how they impacted on his role in the New Model Army and his major part in the trial and regicide of the king. Farr's research into regicide is a welcome change from modern revisionist historiography. Geoffrey Robertson agreed that revisionist "historians rarely have a good word to say about the trial".

Harrison was one of the first regicides to be put on trial and publicly executed. Leading monarchists and the king saw Harrison as the leading Puritan revolutionary. Important both politically and militarily enough to act out their very public revenge. Of the 59 regicides, Harrison was third only to Cromwell and Henry Ireton in the leadership of the revolution. Also, he was a key individual in the process that brought Charles to his execution. A swift show trial and implementation were meant to demonstrate to the population that revolutionary action should be discouraged.

Harrison was proceeded against because he was seen as a personification of the revolutionary republicanism that had seen the first and only Republic in English history. The show trial aimed to make the regicide illegitimate in the eyes of the population. It did not work too well. So much so that the bourgeoisie has for centuries sought to remove it from history.

According to an article in the February 2014 issue of History, Today even the new immigration test has eliminated the entire period of the civil war because "the wounds are still too fresh."[3]Conservative historians have in the last analysis sought to deny that all of modern England grew up out of the revolution in the seventeenth century.

Chapter 3 is certainly the most problematical in the sense that Farr's use of words such as "textual" is a little ambiguous. Take for instance this quote quote "in October 1660, the restoration regime staged show trials of the men it regarded as either the greatest immediate threat, the most culpable for the regicide or most responsible for the subsequent non-monarchical regimes. Harrison's execution was also reinforced in the text to disseminate the example as widely as possible.

Harrison had felt impelled to act in 1642 and, in 1660, the dynamic of religion still prompted him to make a final protest. Harrison, by the unrepentant stand he took at his trial and the courageous manner in which he met his death, and also the textual representations of his actions also provided a contrasting example of protest and continued allegiance to what he regarded as a godly cause. The contradictory messages from the same events can be seen in the differing textual responses they provoked and how they were read. Harrison's stance and the responses to it, whether textual or 'real', can also be seen as partly responsible for the limits of the overt restoration repression".[4]

I do not like Farr's use of the word "textual" it tends s to give far to much credence to the work of historians such as the late Stuart Hall who was in or around the Communist Party of Britain. Hall advocated cultural studies as a way of analyzing the past and present historical and political problems. As was pointed out in a recent obituary of Hall "Cultural Studies originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards.[5]

Farr correctly points out that the trial was considered risky and in some cases bordered on the reckless action of the ruling elite at the time. Harrison still had considerable if passive support amongst sections of the lower middle classes.

To his supporters, he was an example that despite coming from a poor and relatively obscure background, a man could rise to the highest positions in the state. While not being openly for Harrison's revolutionary politics, i.e. his republicanism Farr does an excellent job of restoring Harrison's reputation. Unlike many modern-day historians, he believes that Harrison's behaviour during and after the war was significantly influenced by his earlier life and economic position. Farr describes him as being on the "fringes of merchant and lawyer networks."

Farr suggests Harrison was "radicalized by his experience in the armies of the Eastern Association and new Model to emerge as an extreme millenarian at the centre of the army's revolution of 1647–49 and the developing Fifth Monarchist movement to late 1653". That Harrison was radicalized during the civil war is, without doubt, however, I believe that his strong republicanism and his support for the Fifth Monarchists were also a product of radical ideas that were developing before the outbreak of the Civil war. London pre-civil war was an attraction for any radical group or individual to express their beliefs and to win new supporters.

It is to Harrison's eternal credit that he very publicly denounced the king as 'that man of blood in early November 1647. A full two years before the king was due to be executed. On this particular issue, Harrison had considerable support inside the New Model Army for this action.

Harrison sought through prayer meetings to find the answer to complex political, social and even military problems through God. Harrison was not a great theoretician despite being a strong letter writer he published no significant body of work and nothing in his papers show a clear theoretical understanding of republicanism, notwithstanding this handicap it must be said he was a little more farsighted than Cromwell.  This did not stop him standing at "Cromwell's shoulder as a fellow millenarian, perhaps a reminder to Cromwell of, in his most opportune moments, his desire for a hagiocracy. The calling of the nominated assembly, more commonly known as the 'Barebones Parliament', in July 1653 was, perhaps, the closest Britain came to a theocracy and, on the surface, at its heart appeared to be Harrison and the millenarian Fifth Monarchists".[6]

As was said earlier, the previous historiography regarding Harrison leaves a lot to be desired. The last book-length study of Thomas Harrison came out in 1939. Varley's account of Harrison appeared in the 'highgate worthies' series. C H Simpkinson's did a series of lectures that were made into a biography.

Harrison is given a brief comment in Maurice Ashley's 1954 Cromwell's Generals. Harrison's New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was by Ian Gentles in 2004.
One way around this problem is to examine as Farr has done and that is to place Harrison in the context of his membership of the Fifth Monarchist movement. 

The Marxist Cliff Slaughter once said 'Religious misery is at the same time the expression of real misery and the protest against that real misery." [7]The Fifth Monarchists did express  the "sigh of the oppressed." Given that the Fifth Monarchist was not only a sizable group but wielded considerable influence, it is baffling that Left historians like  Christopher Hill's wrote so little about them.

Hill's The World Turned Upside Down contains next to nothing on the Fifth Monarchy group. The Pseudo Left David Renton believes the Leveller's, diggers were of more importance.[8]A cursory look at previous historiography on the movement would uncover a degree of confusion as to exactly the origins of the group. A study undertaken in 1912 has the Fifth Monarchists alongside the Baptists.

As C. Eden Quainton said" he Quakers and Fifth Monarchy men, for example, were certainly entitled to be called Anabaptists, but the label meant nothing except dislike when applied to the Presbyterians.  Anything, however, in the nature of millennial belief or hope was certain to be called Anabaptist, as was the case with Fifth Monarchy opinions, which were adopted by many Anabaptists, especially in the army".[9]

Any study of the group would have to take into consideration Bernard Capp's 1972 study.  Capp placed the Fifth Monarchists in their broadest possible context being principally an urban movement and appealing to people below the gentry. In modern terms, this was a movement of the minor petty bourgeoisie. Many of the members of the Fifth Monarchists had a real fear that the civil war would reduce them to penury.
One right-wing pamphlet at the time wrote of the Fifth Monarchy men "The scum and scouring of the country.... Deduct the weavers, tailors, brewers, cobblers, tinkers, carmen, draymen, broom-men and mat makers and then give me a list of the gentlemen. Their names may be writ in the text, within the compass of a single halfpenny.  Mercurius Elencticus (7-14 June I648), British Library, E447/ II, 226.

It is hard not to agree with Capp's assertion that Harrison and his Fifth Monarchy friends did not have a coherent set of beliefs and should not be seen as a political party. While this is true if you examine them from the standpoint of the 21st century, but if you consider them in the sense of the 17th century the fact that 40,000 people had similar beliefs and were prepared to fight and die for their beliefs this was a politically significant body of people.

They faced the same problem as other radical groups such and the Levelers and Diggers in that they came from a relatively similar class background as the leaders of the revolution, Ireton, and Cromwell. While political differences were apparent, especially regard equality and the franchise.

The fifth monarchists 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 limited capacity for abstract thought. To some degree, I agree with Perez Zagorin that there were similarities with other radical groups such as the Levellers, and Diggers.

In other areas they were radically different, sections did advocate a violent overthrow of society so much so that they were persecuted and were spied upon by Cromwell's spymaster general John Thurloe. In the end, they had no program to bring about social change. Sections of the group were in favour of bringing in a Mosaic code. This collection of religious edicts were extremely authoritarian and bordered on a form of clerical fascism.

Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. 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.

Christopher Hill's review of Capp's book praises him for his research that opposes the general view from conservative historians that they and other radicals were a "lunatic fringe." While having similarities with the Leveller's a significant difference was their opposition to the extension of the franchise. Also, unlike the Levelers, the Fifth Monarchists were far more interested in extending the revolution abroad. John Roger's argued, "how dust our Army to be still, now the work is to do abroad."

Farr's book pays considerable attention despite a paucity of information to the pre-1642 Harrison. Farr correctly states that Harrison's "millenarian outlook" was shaped by a developing religious ferment, his meeting of like-minded military people in the Eastern Association and his economic position in society. "Farr provides considerable evidence that Harrison was no great shakes as a politician it is common knowledge that he "was a failure as a political leader, primarily due to his being 'sadly wanting in the arts of political strategy' or because of his 'lack of patience for administrative routine' by considering in detail Harrison's engagement with the daily parliamentary routine in his time as an MP".

Part 3 examines Harrison's time in the New Model Army and the link between his socioeconomic status and his political and military actions. He was a loyal and valuable member of the army.  Farr attempts in his book to examine to what extent Harrison's political and military activities were influenced by socioeconomic factors. Farr draws upon the work of Ian Gentles, who has written extensively on the political, social and economic makeup of the New Model Army participants. In an essay called The New Model Officer Corps in 1647- Gentles is one of the few historians who has bothered to analyze who did the fighting in the civil war.

Gentles writes "As absorbing as this debate continues to be, it is noteworthy that few historians in the twentieth century have had anything to say about those who did the actual fighting. Over 100,000 men put their lives at risk on behalf of the king or parliament. While many of them had been pressed into service, thousands of others, mostly cavalry, took up arms voluntarily. Why were so many ready to kill and to risk being killed? Is there any correlation between their social origins or their economic interests, and their allegiance in the civil war? This study attempts to answer this question about the revolutionary army. It was the New Model more than any other body of men that forced the pace of cataclysmic events between I645, the year of its founding, and i653 when its leader Oliver Cromwell expelled the remnant of the Long Parliament. Can anything be discovered about their socioeconomic profile? Is there any link between the sociology of the army and its political radicalism"?.

It is with this spirit of inquiry that Farr examines the link between Harrison's socioeconomic background and his military and political actions. As is stated in the introduction "Harrison's history in his native Staffordshire, particularly the economic, political and religious circumstances of the Harrison family in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Harrison's roots are then further developed by illustrating how important his move to London was in shaping why he became a parliamentary activist at such an early stage, as well as laying the foundations for some of the key political, economic and religious connections of his later life. It enables the text to finish on a rounded picture of the trajectory of his life from 1616 to his execution in 1660, rooted in the personal and economic factors that have been overlooked in light of his high-profile religious and political radicalism but were very much part of who he was".

Some objective problems do come up when examining a soldier's beliefs in the New Model Army. The main one being a lack of historical data, especially for rank and file soldiers. Gentles, therefore, concentrates his research on the upper sections of the army's hierarchy.

Social mobility in the military was very fluid according to Gentles "we would expect men who did not enter the army as commissioned officers to come from humbler backgrounds than those who did. At least thirty-seven, or nearly a sixth of the 238 officers, are known to have arisen from the rank of private, corporal, sergeant or quartermaster. This is in striking contrast to the royalist armies, where the policy was never to promote non-commissioned officers to commissioned rank. Data about social status are available for only fifteen of the thirty-seven, and not surprisingly, they were mostly merchants, tradesmen, and small yeomen. The other twenty-two, about whom nothing has been uncovered, are unlikely to have been more exalted in their status".

Gentles concludes with a point "The radical dynamic which was unleashed by the potent brew of anti-popery, antinomianism, and Puritan egalitarianism was accentuated by the youthfulness and the low social status of the New Model officers who articulated it." It is a shame that there is little of this kind of research into socioeconomic influences on political or military decisions. After all, it was Cromwell who knew the importance of socioeconomic status, the man about whom Cromwell said he would 'rather have a plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.'

To conclude, Farr's book is a highly enjoyable read. More importantly, it has shone a bright light on a person that deserves far more research. Also, he has shown the Fifth Monarchists to be an important part of the English Revolution. While far more needs to be studied on the republicanism expressed by the group. Farr's book should be read straight after Capp's work. The book deserves a broad audience and would be a comfortable read for a general reader as well as the more academic one. Hopefully, it will be placed on university reading lists in the future. I am hopeful the paperback version will be a little cheaper.

[1] Thomas Harrison- Regicide and Major General by C H Simpkinson-American Historical Review Vol 11 No 1 1905
[2] The Diary of Samuel Pepys-13th October 1660.
[3] Reluctant Regicides, Toby Haggith and Richard Weight, History Today February 2014
[4] Major-General Thomas Harrison: Millenarianism, Fifth Monarchism and the English Revolution 1616-1660 by David Farr Ashgate Publishing, Limited ISBN-13: 9781409465546
[5] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism
[6] Introduction Major General Thomas Harrison David Farr- Ashgate 2014
[7] Religion, and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labor Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958
[9] Cromwell and the Anabaptists during 1653 Author(s): C. Eden Quainton Source: Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 1932), pp. 164-178