Monday, April 30, 2012
In what senses can we describe certain political, religious and social movements of the English Revolution (1640-1660) as radical?
Just how useful is the adjective ‘radical’ in describing or categorising the Minority religious, political and social movements that emerged in the course of the English Revolution? In an age when stalwart and staid country squires led armies in rebellion, sat in judgement and then condemned to death, a divinely anointed monarch and the most hard headed of pragmatic politicians believed genuinely in the imminent arrival of King Jesus and the Reign of the Saints, how does a historian assess what makes a radical in this, the most radical of ages? Equally it is also clear that there was at the heart of the intellectual and social ferment of the Revolutionary years a flowering of new dissident ideas, of new concepts of civil, social and religious liberty, that grew independent of, and in opposition to, both the old regime and the emerging power of the gentry. Although it is true that there are serious weaknesses in the use of the term ‘radical’, which is anachronistic, and has the potential of misleading the reader into ascribing the 17th century radicals views and motives not of their own, it is difficult to find a term which more adequately fits them. There are those who have recently argued against use of the term radical at all; Clark and Condren have argued that Radicalism was a term created in the early 19th century to describe a specific form of politics; democratic, atheist, and pro free trade, and by using the term for very different conditions and politics of the 17th century created a false impression of the nature of those movements and suggested continuities between the ‘radicals’ of the 17th century and modern politics which were not necessarily present1. This also created the danger of isolating the ‘radicals’ from their own circumstances and conditions and rewriting them in modern terms in order to provide historical justification, or criticism, of modern ideals and movements; writing in The Times in the wake of the April 1st G20 demonstrations Dave Horspool contrasted the demonstrators with the example of Gerald Winstanley and the Diggers: “Unlike the Meltdown protesters, they made no attempt to attack anything - “we shall not do this by force of arms”, but by good example. It would be heartening to think that a few of this week's activists will read up on the words of their non-violent, environmentally friendly, making- poverty- history forebears: “For where money bears all the sway, there is no regard of that golden rule, Do as you would be done by.” The pacifism that Horspool commends so highly was adopted by Winstanley’s followers in the wake of 7 years of civil war and defeat of the old regime and monarchy, pacifism was possible only because “kingly power” had, it seemed, been broken. Tony Benn, writing on the anniversary of the Putney debates, attributed the Labour party’s recently junked Clause 4 to the direct influence of the Levellers. It is largely due to the work of the left wing historian Christopher Hill and especially his 1968 classic, The World Turned Upside Down that the movements and individuals who dwelt on the margins of 17th century society during the years of the Great Rebellion have become far more well-known and have received far more historical attention than many of the revolution’s more mainstream participants. The inspiration for Hill’s work was found in his political activity and membership of the Communist Party in the 1940’s and 50’s. The Communist Party Historians Group, of which he was a founding member, set itself the task of “reclaiming” a hidden radical British history from “conservative historians who had been responsible for the conformable, reassuring, self-satisfied platitudes of Whig history.” Hill and a number of other historians notably A. L. Morton and Rodney Hilton attempted to challenge the orthodoxy of the time which found the entire civil war and interregnum an embarrassment which it was generally agreed was better off never happening. What positives for the evolution of British society and the development of British democracy that could be identified from the turmoil of the 17th century were to be found entirely in the controlled and ordered ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689 and certainly not in regicide and rebellion. The problem inherent in the CPHG project was its loyalty to, and dependence upon, a Moscow based dogmatic state Marxism which imposed on historians a rigid ‘stageist’ theory of history which demanded that the English Revolution must have been a ‘classic’ Bourgeois one and that whatever other causes and impulses might be stated by the participants themselves were unconscious expressions of the class war hidden behind the religious language of the time. Hill, and the majority of the leading members of the Historians Group, left the Communist Party in protest at the brutal Soviet invasion and crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but the Soviet methodology from which he drew much of his earlier work and gained during his post graduate work in Moscow in the 1930s continued to play an important part in his work. One mistake which is inherent in the History Group method is to association of the radicals as being advocates of a larger silent mass (perhaps reflecting the Groups communist politics in which the party considered itself as being the vanguard and ‘Tribune of the oppressed’). There is little evidence that the Levellers especially saw themselves as being in any way as being in a separate class or party from the rest of the revolutionary party. Cromwell, in the course of the First civil war repeatedly made statements and took positions that associated him with the most radical sections amongst the army, defending Lillburne both on the battlefield and in Parliament associating with radical officers and causes and setting himself forward as a champion of those who were willing to fight the war to the finish against the old guard of parliamentary grandees- above all the commander of the parliamentary army, the Earl of Manchester; “..(I)t would not be well until Manchester was but Mr Montagu”, and “God would have no lording over His people’, are sentiments not far from the utterances of many levellers. The close proximity of many of those who can be seen as the chief spokesmen of the radicals to the leadership of the army make it easier to see them as being a wing of the Independent Puritan elite, who only stepped out from that position when once the army had beaten the forces of the royalists and imprisoned the King. Cromwell and the generals were beginning to sketch out the shape of the future regime and the politicised New Model through its elected Agitators were concerned that they should have a say in the new world which they had had such a part in creating. The Leveller leadership were concerned that there was no place in Cromwell’s new Commonwealth for the small men of property and thus made common cause with the Agitators. Cromwell is simply the most prominent example of another problem with the use of the term radical; it implies a fixed, set and fully developed position, however the truth is far more fluid, in the rapidly changing situation of the revolution those who had been on fringe, on the very extreme in 1638, such as the Scottish Presbyterians, whose refusal to accept Charles’ Bishops and book was to first spark the crisis, and whose army was to tip the balance of the first war, would become guardians of privilege and royal power by the end of the decade; the Kirk had not changed but the world around them had changed utterly. Without over riding ideological positions men who were radical at one point, or over one issue could find themselves on the side of the existing order at the next; Ireton, for example has been recognised as being on the radical fringe of the Independents, a passionate advocate of the need to pursue the war to the end and for the need to try and execute the King, a radical advocate amongst the revolutionary and radical Independents, and yet Ireton was also the chief witness from the generals against the Agitators and Levellers at Putney. Sexeby, an agitator and Leveller at Putney, is later a colonel in Cromwell’s army in Ireland and Scotland, later still an agent for Cromwell amongst Huguenot rebels in France and in the end a conspirator, reputedly with royalists, in an attempted assassination attempt on Cromwell, this criss-crossing from radical opposition to stalwart of the regime suggests that the Political radicals should be considered less as the ‘voices of the voiceless’ and more in the role of junior members of the elite vying for a place in the new order. At the heart of the revolution was religion, for Hill and the other history group members who had grew up in the 1930s and survived the war to be faced with the prospect of nuclear backed extermination the threats they faced came from secular political sources, and the hope that they sought in the soviet system was also secular and political, the religion that they came into contact with (in the shape mostly of the Church Of England) was benign in its ineffectualness. It was natural for them facing a wealth of religious writing emanating from the most radical of the 17th century revolutionaries to assume that this was a codified expression of deeper, more secular concerns, Even when engaged in a study of the role of the Bible in the seventeenth century revolution Hill said that: “This book focuses on a few areas where the bible was directly influential in matters other than the – in the modern sense- strictly religious.” Today after the experience of the Iranian Islamic republic, the Taleban’s attempts to return Afghanistan to the 7th century and the brutalised religious child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the idea of a religiously based revolution is far less outlandish and the type of governance that such a revolution might produce would be treated with far less equanimity than that showed by the historians of the 1950s and 60s. Before the collapse of the old regime and its power of censorship in 1642, the major religious forces that existed were the ‘Laudian’ Church of England, with the pomp and ceremony of Charles Stuarts ‘popish’ innovations and the rebellious Presbyterian Scottish Kirk. However most English puritans were outside of both Kirk and the official church, gathering together to form congregations of like- minded souls, persecuted by the Laudian authorities these ‘Independents’ attracted into their ranks a wealth of dissenting opinions united in both their opposition to the oppression of the Laudians and also extremely distrustful of any attempts to impose a conformity upon them. The ending of censorship allowed the production of a flood of pamphlets and newssheets which were consumed by a population which was by the standards of the day highly literate. Parliament’s first call for troops was answered in the main by the Godly; those who were most threatened, who felt they had most to lose by the threatened arrival of a royalist Irish Catholic army to London. As the imminent threat to London diminished the parliamentary army expanded out of their metropolitan base they took upon themselves the duty of purging the churches of Arminian decoration and ritual, the Godly example of the parliamentary armies attracted to their ranks more and more of the most convinced independents and the army’s developed a increasingly militant religious self image. The army became a hothouse of religious and, partially political, debate, as the Godly soldiers searched heir bibles for some precedent for a God fearing people in rebellion against their King. Chiliasm, never far from the surface in Christian reform movements, came much to the fore as many became convinced that they were the army of the saints preparing the ground for the imminent arrival of King Jesus and the final defeat of the Antichrist. In the areas which were occupied by godly regiments, local independents and other sectaries were able to find safe havens free from the threat of persecution by Justices of the peace or church authorities. Radical preachers were sure of an appreciative audience. Cromwell in his preference for the plain but godly rather than members of the aristocracy to serve as his officers, encouraged the religious radicalism of the army but did not cause it. It is when the question of Ireland that dispels the illusion that the radicals of the 17th century are the contemporaries of today’s liberals, the English revolution did not take place in a vacuum, it was a part of a far wider crisis of religion and society that was taking place across Europe, like all good English protestants the radicals had been brought up reading Foxe’s Lives of the Martyrs and believing that the Pope was the Antichrist and that Catholicism was ever waiting and planning the destruction and forced conversion of England’s Godly Kingdom. National myths around the fortitude of the Marian martyrs, the heroic thwarting of the Spanish Armada, the evil machinations of Jesuits and Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot encouraged a climate which has been described as ‘The Beleaguered Isle’.In the course of the revolution many were convinced that England was predestined to launch a protestant crusade to liberate he embattled protestants of Europe and pursue the Antichrist to his den in the Vatican, in 1657 the Quaker George Fox urged Cromwell to capture Rome and overthrow the Pope. Catholic Ireland had risen at the very start of the Civil war, the newssheets and chapbooks deluged London with horror stories of thousands dead at the hands of the vengeful papists and amongst the radicals there was if anything even more clamour for harsh measures in the suppression of papist Irish treachery, Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland and the subsequent military operations have been seen in hindsight as being at least partially concerned with removing radical regiments from the political scene, but as Christopher Hill ruefully notes: “The Irish were cast in the role of Antichrist, the enemy of all the revolutionaries stood for.” Quakers, Agitators, fifth Monarchists and Levellers all took important roles in the Invasion army and considered the war necessary and Gods will: “The work of Justice in Ireland... Prospering under the standard of the interest of Christ.” Those who dreamt of a world turned upside down and the establishment of the ‘Reign of the Saints’ have become far more memorable than those who overthrew a divinely anointed king, dared to try him for his crimes and cut his head from his shoulders. Movements such as the Diggers who were, at most, made up of a few dozen adherents have passed into the national consciousness whilst men who made the revolution, like Henry Ireton or William Waller, have been consigned to the dusty outskirts of historical marginalia. Attempting to apply the term Radicalism to the minority sects and movements of the 17th century without sufficient qualification is Anachronistic and a hostage to the fortune. In this respect the revisionist critics of Christopher and the radical historians are justified. However, it must be acknowledged that the English Revolution was not, as old Whigs and young revisionists would pretend, a mere power struggle between social elites that did not touch the lives of the ordinary people at all, there is at its heart a fundamental shift within society itself that took place during the years 1640-1660. Ordinary men and women broke through the limits of the old order and started to make a new one for themselves. Radical may be an insufficient appellation, but in the absence of a better term it is the one that we are stuck with, we must therefore learn to identify and read the writings of the radicals in their 17th century context. The first use of the term radical applied to the participants of the English revolution was by the 19th century Historian Macaulay: “In politics they (the independents) were to use the phrase of their own time, “Root- and- Branch men,” or, to use the kindred phrase of our own , Radicals.20” Root- and- Branch men (and women) is a term that fits the radicals of the 17th century very well indeed. Bibliography Benn, T., Set my people free The Guardian Sat. 13/05/2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/may/13/election2001.uk10 Burgess, G., "A Matter of Context: 'Radicalism' and the English Revolution", in M. Caricchio, G. Tarantino, eds., Cromohs Virtual Seminars. Recent historiographical trends of the British Studies (17th-18th Centuries), 2006-2007: 1-4 http://www.cromohs.unifi.it/seminari/burgess_radicalism.html Friedman, j. The battle of Frogs and Fairford’s flies: Miracles and popular Journalism during England’s revolution in Sixteenth century journal XXXIII/3 1992 Hill, C. The experience of defeat London 1993 Hill, C. A nation of novelty and change London 1993 Hill, C. The English Bible and the Seventeenth century revolution London 1993 Horspool, D., “G20 protesters owe a debt to the diggers” The Times April 4th 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6028098.ece Humber, L. And Rees, J. The Good Old Cause- an interview with Christopher Hill in International Socialism 56, Autumn 1992 Thomas Macauley: from History of England, Volume I London 1880, pp. 90-95. Found at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/macauley-cromwell.html Trevor-Roper, H.R. The General Crisis of the 17th Century Past and Present, No. 16 (Nov., 1959) Weiner C.L., the beleaguered Isle: A study of Elizabethan and early Jacobean Anti Catholicism Past and Present 1971 51