Remaking the Local Community

The Politics of Parishes at War

Speaking on 9 December 1644 about the previous summer’s campaigns, Oliver Cromwell had warned that ‘the people can bear the war no longer’. His point was that it was important to win the war before that point was reached, although others might well have drawn a different conclusion from the same observation.1 About the temper of the times, however, he seems to have been absolutely right. Nine days later, at Wem, in Shropshire, 1,200 clubmen gathered to defend their communities from the consequences of the war.2 In fact, at a number of points during 1645 the garrisons and field armies of both sides encountered local forces of this kind. Hereford had been besieged by 5,000 clubmen in March, while another group had effectively assisted the parliamentary army following Langport: capturing royalist horses, arms and fleeing soldiers, blocking the roads to Bristol and joining in the siege of Bridgewater. On other occasions in the western campaigns, however, Fairfax and Cromwell had met less friendly clubmen, particularly in Dorset, where the claimed neutrality of some clubmen was rightly suspected to be a cover for royalism.3

Although they differed from locality to locality and over time (after September 1645 it was clear that Parliament was going to win, and so a neutralist stance had a different meaning), this was recognizably a general phenomenon. Such mobilizations have been identified in four broad groups: in Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire, between January and March; in Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset between May and September; in Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex in September and October; and in south Wales and the border between August and November.4 In the end they posed little threat to the garrisons and field armies, and both royalists and parliamentarians asserted military control over them at different points, but fighting a war with such movements in train would clearly become complicated.

Comparatively little is known about the clubmen. In Shropshire the movement seems to have been prompted by the ill-discipline and depredations of royalist troops under Vangerris. Elsewhere there was a similar relationship between the activities of a particular commander and the organization of resistance – in Herefordshire it was Barnabas Scudamore’s troops and in Somerset it was Goring’s.5 More generally, of course, it was in counties which saw the most active campaigning by field armies that the clubmen were located: the counties enumerated above were all prominent in the campaigns of the previous two and a half years. But there are some puzzles. There were no clubmen in the counties of the east Midlands, Cheshire or Lancashire, where there was a lot of military activity, and in Worcestershire the clubmen originated from the area of the county least affected by the fighting.6

The initiative in Shropshire found echoes in meetings in Worcestershire in March 1645 at Woodbury Hill and Malvern, the same month that clubmen had laid siege to Hereford.7 By that time men were also being mobilized in Dorset and in May large numbers of men from Dorset and Wiltshire assembled at Gussage Corner, near Wimborne St Giles (Dorset). On 2 June there was another large meeting, at Castle Cary, Somerset.8 The Sussex movement arose from a meeting in September, but was over as an effective protest four days later.9 The numbers involved were impressive. In Berkshire it was claimed that 16,000 people had joined and in Wiltshire and Dorset it was claimed (and not denied) that 20,000 men could be raised within forty-eight hours.10 If remotely true, this compares favourably with the military mobilizations of the two field armies, which took much longer and did not reach numbers significantly beyond this.

Some of the movements seem to have had identifiable preferences between the two sides – those in mid-Somerset were probably pro-parliamentarian, as were those in the cheese-producing country of Wiltshire, while those on the Dorset downlands and in Worcestershire were fairly clearly royalist.11 Information about how the movements were mobilized is patchy, and there were undoubtedly differences among them. But, despite these differences, there were some underlying similarities in the ways that these movements harnessed traditions of communal self-government and applied them creatively to the new conditions of massive military mobilization.

In Somerset the clubmen were drawn from among the ranks of the yeomanry, and the most significant leader was of a status just below that of the gentry. Four leading figures in the Shropshire movement, who can be tentatively identified, were village notables and a minor clergyman. In Herefordshire the leadership seems to have come from among the ranks of the village worthies, too.12 In a number of other cases, however, gentlemen and clergy joined the movements, and that may have changed their aims. Nonetheless, the clubman associations bear testimony to the traditions of village self-government that remained very important during the 1640s. They expressed their politics in demonstrative forms which were also familiar from a longer tradition. The Somerset men wore ribbons calling for peace and truth, and everywhere they generated petitions, delegations and declarations. In the south-west they often convened at the sites of ancient hill forts, places used for other such communal gatherings.13 It may be, in fact, that the clubman associations took root most strongly where gentry influence was weak – in areas with extensive smallholdings and a correspondingly more limited gentry presence – since when a gentry leadership existed these energies were likely to be channelled in other directions.14 There is some evidence of mutual awareness – the Somerset clubmen clearly acted in the light of what had happened to their fellows in Dorset, for example; there were connections between the Herefordshire and Shropshire movements, and between the events in Shropshire and rumours of a rising in Monmouthshire.15

A central concern of the surviving manifestos seems to have been the regulation of soldiers” behaviour and of garrisons. In Herefordshire the intention was to ‘have the governor and soldiers out of [the garrison at Hereford]’ but in Wiltshire the demand was more limited: that each side reduce the number of garrisons, and that those which were really necessary be maintained at local charge and put into the hands of ‘the… county’, unless command was transferred by order of both King and Parliament.16 In fact the Herefordshire demands seem more anti-war than the more formal positions stated elsewhere, but it might be significant that they are often reported from a letter from a semi-hostile observer, Colonel Massey, the parliamentary governor of Gloucester. In fact, it might be that clubmen were strong where military command was weak – where there was no authority with which to negotiate the demands of war.17

In Dorset and Sussex, where fairly full manifestos survive, clubmen do not seem to have been against formal taxation either.18 The Dorset association was mobilized to ‘preserve ourselves from plunder and all other unlawful violence’. This was to be done through local men of note: ‘the ablest men for wisdom, valour, and estate, inhabitants of the same’ were to be appointed for each town, tithing, parish and great hamlet. They would set watches, disarm soldiers caught ‘plundering or doing any other unlawful violence’. Searches would be undertaken only by local officeholders – the constables and tithingmen. In Sussex too a principal complaint, and motive for the movement, was that ‘by free quarter and plunder of soldiers our purses have been exhausted’. They also complained of

insufferable, insolent, arbitrary power that hath been used amongst us, contrary to all our ancient known laws, or ordinances of parliament… by some particular persons stepped into authority who have delegated their power to men of sordid condition whose wills have been laws and commands over our bodies and estates.

But this was not opposition to formal, warranted exactions. They distinguished between known ancient laws and ordinances, but the complaint was about completely unwarranted and arbitrary actions – they did not denounce constitutional innovation, but lawlessness, and they did not denounce the cost of the armies, but its unregulated impact. In Dorset the quid pro quo of local regulation of unlawful violence and plunder was that ‘the weekly contribution money and all other provision and necessary maintenance for armies, if it be demanded by a lawful warrant directed to an officer of the place, be not denied, but every man as he is able in some reasonable proportion forthwith to contribute’. Quarter would be provided if by Order Martial, ‘the soldier is to be friendly entertained, he behaving himself fairly’. In Sussex a catalogue of maladministration and illegality in the raising and spending of money was a prelude for a demand that ‘five or six gentlemen’ be appointed by the county’s MPs to take accounts there. Sequestration was not denounced, but those subject to sequestration were to be given a speedy and fair hearing according to the processes laid out, and those who had complied with royal authority during the time of its pre-eminence should not be punished. They also called for local participation in the division of the burden of taxation – again the point is to regularize the impact of the war.

What we know of the Worcestershire movement confirms this impression. The Worcestershire Grand Jury in October 1644 had petitioned the Governor of Worcester that ‘whensoever any soldiers… shall commit any robbery or violence, the county may rise upon them and bring them to justice’, and petitioned in similar terms in January 1645.19 This disposition seems to have been reflected in the subsequent clubman movement, which has been characterized as anti-disorder, not anti-tax: the Woodbury league committed itself to support a royalist declaration laying down orders for the assessment; they did not denounce the tax in itself. The royalists gave commitments to submit the demands of the war to control by legitimate local officers – for example, Grand Jury approval had been sought for a new military association in the west. But it was in part the formation of this association which prompted the Shropshire movement, which sought to reassert the authority of local notables and established local institutions.20 These various local initiatives had in common a desire to regulate the war by the means local communities had traditionally used to deal with the demands of national government. In general they did not oppose taxation or garrisons per se, but plunder, free quarter and crime: these were movements for the better regulation of the war as much as for an immediate end to it.

Implied in these manifestos is a sense that the war was something external to local life – like bad weather it was something to be dealt with rather than abolished. In Dorset, for example, those raising an outcry or assembly for or against either side would no longer enjoy the protection of the association and in Sussex their proposals were predicated on their own defence of the county’s frontiers.21 But there are clear signs that the national political debate that caused the war was not external to local discussions. The Wiltshire movement called for a settlement on the basis of the Protestation and the treaty of Uxbridge, demanding that once a negotiation was opened the King (not both sides) should enter a cessation.22 Many clubmen referred to the recent failure of the Uxbridge negotiations, suggesting that their patience was worn out by the failure of negotiations. In Shropshire, in fact, they may have been responding directly to a royal proclamation from the late summer of 1644, calling for the raising of provincial forces under commanders of their own choosing, to march on London and force Parliament to seek peace. Both the Somerset and Shropshire gentry had subsequently petitioned for peace.23 Like the clubmen in Wiltshire those in Somerset and Worcestershire echoed the language of the Protestation, while in Worcestershire their demands were also permeated by the language of moderate royalism. In Worcestershire, however, this moderate royalism was compounded with the virulent anti-popery more easily reconciled with the parliamentary cause. In Dorset, only Protestants, and those not in arms for either party, would enjoy the protection of the association.24 In a number of cases, too, attachment to the Prayer Book, as distinct from the Directory of Worship, seems to have played a significant part. In Sussex they complained of ‘the want of church government, whereby our churches are decayed, God’s ordinances neglected, orthodox ministers cast out without cause and never heard, mechanicks and unknown persons thrust in’.25

These national arguments were refracted through the prism of local concerns for the regulation of religious and civil life. The clubmen were not anti-government, or apolitical, but they were focused on immediate local realities. They have been dismissed as apathetic and untouched by the great issues of the war, or celebrated as the moderating voice of the local community. In general, however, they were not turning their backs on the war and its practical needs, nor on the issues: they were clearly engaged with national politics at the same time that they sought local regulation of the demands of the war. Their demands were publicized in print, as were denunciations of them by their opponents. Their local campaigns were prompted by, and fed back into, developments in national politics.26

These movements were a creative adaptation of traditions of self-government at the King’s command, an attempt to accommodate new realities, and pressing political concerns. They combined formal and informal aspects of village authority – patterns of government and of collective action. It is quite likely that they wanted an end to war, armies and taxes, but they did not say so: these local initiatives sought an accommodation with national politics, not immunity from them.

Although there is hardly any evidence about the identity of individual clubmen, their habits and activities in Dorset and Wiltshire bore close resemblance to those of enclosure rioters. In April 1643 men from Mere in Wiltshire had issued a proclamation summoning the inhabitants to assemble at White Hill on market day. From there they were to march, with drums and muskets, to throw down enclosures in the forests. Over the next couple of months groups of up to 300 assembled to do this work – a forceful, organized demonstration akin to the later clubman mobilization, rather than a spontaneous riot indiscriminate in its targets. Those rioters who can be identified in these years (not many of the total number involved) come from the ranks of artisans and smallholders, like those who can be identified among the clubmen.27 The connections were even closer in May 1645, when men from Gillingham and Motcombe, en route for a general rendezvous of clubmen near Shaftesbury, tore up hedges and other enclosures. On the way home they did the same, beating a servant of Thomas Brunker (agent to the Earl of Elgin, a major local encloser) and leaving him for dead. As with many other civil war mobilizations, then, the clubmen movement was probably a coalition, and it afforded opportunities to pursue other agendas. Brunker himself said as much: ‘The club army which I feared would put boldness into them concerning our forest business, hath brought them to this insolency, before they stood in some awe of commanders and soldiers, now they respect no man nor will give any obedience to any but contemn all superiors whatsoever and do what they please’.28 The clubman leaders, in fact, may have been rather unusual figures.29

As in the first two years of the Long Parliament the war years provided opportunities for those with other grievances – these were political issues, for sure, but not very directly related to the partisan political issues over which the war was being fought. Over the previous three years the absence of effective quarter sessions and assizes had made it difficult to pursue and punish rioters in the forests of Dorset and Wiltshire.30 The interruption of court activity elsewhere offered similar opportunities to reopen local disputes over resources – in fens and forests those seeking to assert traditional common rights against improvers and enclosers had another chance to stake their claims. The disputes in Waltham and Windsor extended into 1643 and there were other disputes in Duffield, Derbyshire, and in Neroche and Frome Selwood in Somerset. Forest rights were not at issue in the national dispute – attacks on prerogative courts had rendered forest jurisdictions relatively toothless, but the policy of enclosure and improvement, although contested, was not at issue between King and Parliament. John Pym, for example, had been an agent of crown forest policy in the south-west.31

The same was true in the Fens, where parliamentary policy soon came to favour agricultural improvement over established common rights and where Cromwell was no more a champion of the commoners than were the Earl of Manchester or Charles I. But in 1645 sluices were opened on the Isle of Axholme and the houses of French and Dutch settlers attacked. Here the action was explicitly linked to the interruption of effective legal authority. Rioters contemptuously dismissed a Lords order of 10 December 1645 calling for an end to the riots, saying ‘they did not care a fart for the order which was made by the Lords and published in the Churches’, insisting they would go on with their work. These events were a prelude to a sustained attack on the enclosures in the Isle. Elsewhere in the Fens rioting was more limited, but at Whittlesey and Ramsay commoners were clearly aware that an opportunity had come their way.32

Such events were made emblematic of more general problems, of course. All sides sought to mobilize opinion behind their projects, but were also quick to denounce the dangers being courted when their opponents did so. In Kent in 1643, for example, two blacksmiths were at the head of twenty men plundering the house of a parliamentarian gentleman. Parry the Smith was reported as saying, ‘we have sped well here. Let us go to Hadlow and Peckham and plunder there, for they are rich rogues, and so we will go away into the woods’. Smale objected: ‘But we must plunder none but Roundheads’, eliciting a ‘great oath’ from Smith and the riposte that ‘We will make every man a Roundhead that hath anything to lose. This is the time we look for’.33 Royalists in Kent could not be complacent about these attempts to mobilize the men without shirts.

In fact, much of what we know about demonstrations against enclosures confirms that they were disciplined, a form of communal politics familiar from before the war. They were demonstrative – summoned and processing to the accompaniment of drums and carrying arms which were, on the whole, not used against people. They represented a statement of intent. The published version of the demands of the Dorset clubmen made similar reference to the force which underlay the movement – but the point was usually forceful demonstration rather than planned violence.34 The violence which did occur was targeted primarily against property, not persons, and that against persons was not indiscriminate. Similarly, the organization was sophisticated – for example, those throwing down enclosures gathered in groups of two, since that evaded the legal definition of a riot. And they were tactically astute. In Gillingham the rioters apparently aimed at depriving the Earl of Elgin of all profits from the forest, by threats, backed up ‘where necessary’ with assault, destruction of property and seizure of cattle for ransom. Unpleasant this undoubtedly was, but it was not random or apolitical.35 It was nonetheless true that civil war was making all forms of politics potentially more lethal: those opposing the rioters during the 1640s seem more often to have been armed, and that contributed to an escalation of the violence.36

Clubmen evidently mobilized in ways that drew upon these traditions of popular protest, and those forms of protest clearly persisted. In that sense, clubman leaders were trying to inflect a more traditional form of communal demonstration as a contribution to the politics of the civil war. Whatever their actual politics, in relation to the civil war and more immediate local issues, the clubmen were an unwelcome addition to the political scene. Colonel Massey had been bemused and suspicious of the Herefordshire clubmen, noting that they had resisted his invitation to ‘join with me in observing the parliament’s commands’.37 Here was the rub – they were mobilizing without warrant, while at the same time claiming to uphold lawful regulation of violence and financial exaction. Their warrant, we might assume, derived from the local community – a claim with rather radical implications, if spelt out clearly, which it was not. Few English people relished the thought of armies being raised at the initiative of village worthies, without gentry or aristocratic leadership. It was a parliamentarian newsbook which expressed the fear that ‘They will have an army without a king, a lord or a gentleman almost’.38 It was also a practical issue, of course – Massey had noted that the Herefordshire clubmen wanted his help, ‘(for they dare trust me), but they will not yet declare themselves for Parliament but they conceive themselves able to keep off both the Parliament’s forces and the King’s also from contribution and quarter in their county’.39 Neutralism was usually interpreted negatively by partisans, as covert sympathy for the other side. In Herefordshire, when the opportunity arose, the royalists crushed the clubmen, and the New Model also dispatched those considered hostile with little ceremony. The parliamentary coverage of the movements varied between relish of their anti-royalism in Herefordshire, and contempt for their illegitimacy in Sussex and Hampshire (both movements that took off in the face of an incipient parliamentary victory). Charles, on the other hand, made reassuring noises, but could not restrain the excesses of his commanders which fed the movements.40

Derbyshire did not see clubmen, but Sir John Gell, the parliamentary commander in Derby, did meet with a similar expression of communal politics in the summer of 1645, in the form of protests against the excisemen. The excise was a particularly unpopular tax – resented for the fact that it fell on goods regarded as necessities such as meat and salt, and for the fact that it was in the hands of outsiders, not local officeholders. Worse still, those excises that fell on inland commodities were often raised in marketplaces. The arrival of commissioners, and their intrusion into the marketplace, created a potential confrontation, and in that confrontation the poor might have allies among local officeholders.41

In May 1645 the Derby Committee had written to the Speaker of the House of Commons complaining that the excise was a burden on the countrymen and the soldiers.42 This coincided with the organized demonstration encountered in Derby by John Flatchett, an excise sub-commissioner, on 23 May 1645, a market day.43 It may be that the committee invited the protest; they certainly did little to help Flatchett face it down. Flatchett and his men had been at work for five or six days prior to that, but on market day two women went ‘up and down the town’ beating drums and proclaiming that anyone unwilling to pay the excise should join them and beat the commissioners out of town. Beating a drum was a means of summoning people to work – as on the roads in Blackheath in 1640 – as well as the work of communal protest – as in the enclosure riots in Wiltshire in 1645.44 Commissioners in Haverford West had a similar experience the previous September, beaten out of the marketplace by angry women from whom the authorities were apparently unable to protect them. Women were prominent in market disputes because it was they who handled the day-to-day transactions of the marketplace.45

Seeking help from the mayor, the excisemen were told that they had brought it on themselves and could expect little help. Clearly, they could expect no sympathy either. The mayor did, however, take the excisemen to see the Recorder (the city’s legal officer), Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Gell. He said that one of the women beating the drums was married to a soldier and that he dared not interfere for fear of causing a mutiny. In any case, the mayor said that he had not heard any drums, although the effect of that intervention was rather spoiled when one of the women beat her drum on the market cross, underneath his window. The mayor did then go out to speak to her, and the drumming stopped, but it turned out that he had promised that the excise would not be collected until a reply was received to the letter sent to Parliament. Admitting defeat, the excisemen left it at that.46

Six weeks later they returned, and again there were no problems until market day. On that day, however, 4 July, Edward Burrow, a soldier who had been assisting the excisemen in delivering warrants and distraining goods for non-payment, was chained to the bullring by protesters from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is this detail that suggests that the hostility was here directed against the excises on meat. The drumming was also heard again, but when the excisemen went to Colonel Sir John Gell, one of whose troopers it was who was chained to the bullring, they got no help in collecting the excise (or, as they put it, upholding Parliament’s ordinance and authority). Gell, asked either to punish the women or to take them into custody, replied instead that ‘he did not use to meddle with women unless they were handsome’.47

This disturbance was clearly more than an uprising of the dispossessed, unable to bear the burdens of the war any longer. The tensions between the excisemen and the local authorities were not uncommon. Neither was the apparent sympathy of local governors, who were perhaps accepting their much-stated obligations to protect their poorer neighbours or entering into an unusual alliance in order to protect their own authority from encroachment.48 At the same time the intertwining of military and civil authority was not necessarily easy, but the ambiguity also meant that soldiers were not necessarily the enemies of the people, or anonymous outsiders. Although the armies depended on the excise for their pay, soldiers were sometimes associated with resistance to its collection, and in 1647 the attitude of a radicalized army to the proposed abolition of the excise was ambiguous.49 In Derby there was at least a four-way tension: between army, excisemen, local civil authority and the local population. Again this may not have been unusual, and in these multi-dimensional local conflicts appeal to authority was common. It was Parliament that should reply, the presence of their representatives should ensure collection and refusal to pay was an affront to Parliament’s authority. As with the fen and forest disturbances, there was order within the disorder – the protest was organized, targeted and employed a symbolism that communicated a specific grievance.

Authority in English villages was exercised personally and its effectiveness rested as much on local reputation as formal warrant. The civil war created new offices, staffed by people who did not have the qualities of a natural governor, or the local reputation and influence to mediate conflicts. Arbitrariness was often a personal quality as much as a formal one – as the clubmen’s petitions had made clear. Here the poor and disaffected could find common cause with their social superiors whose own pre-eminence was challenged by these new offices. Excisemen were denounced in terms of a biblical plague – caterpillars devouring local crops to feed their own insatiable appetites. Behind this hostility lay a brute fact – they were earning a living through the collection of taxes rather than collecting taxes as part of the obligations of a prominent local man.

The proliferating committees of Parliament’s local administration also prompted this kind of hostility. Rancorous conflicts between established local gentlemen and committeemen, or between committees and sub-committees, have been documented in Cheshire, Staffordshire, Kent, Cheshire, Sussex, Somerset and elsewhere. They all resonated more deeply, with a more humble objection to these forms of authority and the burdens they imposed. In fact, in most counties there was no dramatic difference in the status of the county’s governors, but there was a proliferation of offices, complicating the relationships between them and fostering jurisdictional disputes and rivalries. These arguments were not only about the personal qualities of this emergent group of governors – there were clear worries too about how their powers might be formally limited, an important concern in discussions about excisemen too.50

It seems that 1645 was an important year for the development of these disputes, as a campaign to abolish the committees built up a head of steam, creating common cause among partisans with quite different views on what the national settlement should look like.51 It is again striking how the new conditions of the 1640s also offered opportunities for new kinds of mobilization – in print, for example. Humphrey Willis, the clubman leader of whom we know most, published a pamphlet denouncing the Somerset county committee in 1647, and many of these county disputes were retailed for a national audience. As with the exemplary stories of providential judgements, local political battles were retold to a national audience through the London presses. Local battles in the parliamentary administration were pursued at Westminster, and used there as emblematic of the larger issues in the conflict.52 The basis of local order was experienced as a local issue, but was of national significance, and had significance for the national political battle.


Times Whirligig, by a former clubman leader, satirized Somerset’s new low-born governors

In Warwickshire, however, these disputes had an ideological dimension – they resembled a local version of the national debate about what costs were acceptable to secure a victory. The county committee was dominated by militants and their defence of their powers against the Earl of Denbigh’s association early in the war was in their eyes a defence of the county’s capacity to fight the royalists. Similarly, their defence of themselves against the sub-committee of accounts, which was dominated by Denbigh’s supporters, was a defence of their capacity to fight the war. Taking accounts in that context was a more loaded political statement, and both moderates and militants could identify their local cause as part of the larger national argument. As John Bryan argued in a sermon in 1646, people should not resent or murmur at the impositions of Parliament, ‘seeing we enjoy our lives, liberties, privileges, estates and religion (all which were at stake and almost lost)’. The great difference between these taxes and ‘those which formerly our taskmasters laid upon us’ was that ‘Those were in design to ruin and enslave us to arbitrary power, these are to preserve us from it’.53 Willingness to pay could be a test of commitment: as two Lancashire constables complained to the Justices, they had collected a rate and paid it to the benefit of the ‘public’, but could not collect it in full because some refused and also ‘withdrew others (honestly affected) from co-operation’.54 During the war, both nationally and locally, a desire to take accounts was often closely linked with a criticism of policy – it was how the money was being spent which was at stake.55

These disputes were not necessarily localist in the sense of inhabiting a narrowly bounded political world, oblivious to the larger battles being fought out in London and Oxford and on the battlefields. They might also reflect a habit of seeing the big issues in terms of local arrangements. This was a habit of thought familiar to all those who had heard a local sermon or read any seventeenth-century legal writing – small transgressions threatened the gravest sins or contraventions of the most fundamental principles. As with any other political argument in the 1640s, the attack on committeemen might be a vehicle for a number of purposes.

These local movements to defend or attack the powers of individuals or institutions were not a retreat into an apolitical bucolic idyll, but a resort to forms of solidarity and authority common before the war. A community, however, was a political body, whose institutions, obligations and membership might be contested. Community politics were not necessarily harmonious, and values such as tradition and deference might be means to attack those in power as well as to cow those without it. Certainly, local communities in early modern England were not the happy organic bodies of later nostalgic myth. New forms of authority, and new languages of politics, provided new kinds of local political order, and the resistance to these new orders drew on tradition and the new opportunities for the pursuit of local grievances thrown up by the war. Clubmen, excise rioters and attacks on committeemen were print phenomena too, publicized for a national audience. Others engaged with the national political scene more opportunistically – in the fen and forest disturbances, for example. But even here the disputes were not separate from, or unaware of, national politics, and they too might be played out for a national audience.

Close to the centre of these communal politics was the self-governing parish, which was under threat. The spiritual role of the parish was also threatened by the development of other forms of communion and by the loud polemical battle over the identity of English Protestantism. In some respects the ties of community might blunt the edge of religious zeal so that, for example, the abstract threat of popery was not always identified closely with actual Catholics living near by. Similarly, a frequent complaint of the godly was that the ties of neighbourliness blinded people to the dangers of religious error: that a kind of ‘popular pelagianism’ existed, in which it was thought that agreeable fellows would be saved, that a good neighbour must be a good Christian. Worse, it was said, countrymen mistook forms of idleness and sin for a virtuous good fellowship. All this said, however, it is very striking that the embrace of neighbourliness and community was provisional. Scolding women, disobedient servants, and the disreputable or vagrant poor – those who fell outside the boundaries of locally acceptable behaviour – could expect little charity or fellowship.56

On the other hand, successive attempts at purgation had corroded the legitimacy of some of the institutions through which Christian community had previously been fostered, notably the parish as a unified religious body. Partisan religious contest robbed the church, or particular incumbents, of the claim legitimately to embody the local Christian community. Ministers were ejected at the petition of their parishioners; others intruded into their places might face ‘much opposition from disaffected persons’.57 This was at the heart of the controversy over Independency, of course, and differences about the essence, and expression, of Christian community had been expressed through ejections of scandalous ministers and iconoclasm. County committees were frequently divided over what should replace bishops and parishes – to what extent membership of a congregation should be voluntary or geographically determined.58 The counterpart to that, of course, was the extent to which the parish remained a spiritual community. Church courts, previously reasonably attractive institutions through which to police local spiritual life, had ceased to function in 1642.59

This was not simply a theoretical question: at the same time that these established forms were disrupted, divisive attempts at reformation and purgation were taking place across England. The history of Suffolk was once written as an exemplification of the view that English counties were in general autonomous gentry-led political communities, and that national administrative initiatives were an unwelcome and intermittently effective intrusion. But Suffolk had seen many ejections of scandalous ministers under the authority of a parliamentary committee, and had shared in William Dowsing’s iconoclasm during 1643 and 1644. These attempts at purification of the Christian community were of much more than local significance: in each case the local was understood as the expression of transcendent issues in microcosm.60 Activists could be found everywhere, taking advantage of the times to press their own vision of godly Protestantism.

One of the most dramatic forms of purgation for the Christian community was the prosecution of witches and in 1645 East Anglia saw the largest witch-hunt in English history. At the Essex assizes held on 17 July 1645, three days after Naseby, thirty-six witches were put on trial. Nineteen were executed, nine died in prison and a further six were still in gaol in 1648. Only one was acquitted. Not only was this an unusually large number of trials in such a short space of time; it was also a prelude to a much wider prosecution across East Anglia. In Norfolk forty trials probably led to twenty executions. There were trials in Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely and some boroughs (Yarmouth, Kings Lynn, Stowmarket and Aldeburgh). One contemporary observer, who was close to events, thought that perhaps 200 had been executed; probably an exaggerated, but not completely incredible, estimate: it is likely that 250 people were tried and that at least 100 were executed. A significant proportion of all executions for witchcraft in English history came during this single summer.61

Of course, many more people died in battle – even in Essex, where 800 died in the siege of Colchester in 164862 – but the real significance of witch trials lies in the social tensions that they reveal. The Essex prosecutions are particularly well-documented, and many of the patterns they reveal are familiar from the longer history of witchcraft prosecutions. Nearly 90 per cent of the accused were women, predominantly of lower social status. Their crimes were ones familiar from many other witchcraft trials – causing illness in adults, children and livestock, or blighting crops or other foodstuffs. An influential interpretation of such prosecutions is that they were a means of dealing with misfortune. An explanation for misfortune was found in the behaviour of individuals thought difficult by their neighbours – the stereotype is of an older woman, spinster or widow, of relatively low status, who was unwilling to accept her place in life with due humility. Rather than blame bad luck, or accept a providential judgement on their own lives, the argument goes, substantial villagers found it easier to blame the malice of the poor and marginal. But other tensions were also clearly present, about the proper role of women, something which women themselves were keen to police: women frequently appeared as accusers and witnesses, establishing their own authority as respectable women by denouncing others.63

It is usually presumed that witches did not commit the crimes of which they were accused: although witchcraft can be effective on believers, it seems to modern observers unlikely that witches can successfully harm infants, animals or foodstuffs. Some witches did apparently think that they had done these things, and there is no real reason to doubt the sincerity of the accusations. It does, however, seem likely that these things tell us more about the anxieties of village life than about the actual behaviour of witches. The East Anglian witches seem to fit this pattern – witnessed against by their neighbours, for minor acts of malice achieved by terrifying means, they were denounced by neighbours with whom they had fallen out.64

Prior to the civil war the trend of prosecutions in Essex had been falling, and the great peak of 1645 can make it seem as if Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, energetic ‘witchfinders’, were wholly responsible. But although these trials took place in an area of the country which saw relatively little military action, it is still tempting to see here the effects of the civil war: it may be the war, rather than these men, that was really to blame. Anxieties were increased, and the authorities more receptive to prosecutions, with the result that longstanding tensions were openly expressed. Most immediately, the war created the opportunity for Matthew Hopkins to exercise an authority that in less disrupted times would have been denied to him. He was the younger son of a provincial clergyman, probably in his twenties, and probably lacking legal training. In the winter of 1644–5 his concerns about the activities of a number of local witches were acute, and when they were arrested in March 1645 he gave detailed evidence against a number of them. In other times this would probably not have launched a career. Like William Dowsing, he was a man who before the war would have had little prospect of overseeing such important business. Moreover, there was an overlap between the areas in which Dowsing had been active and those in which Hopkins’s activities resonated.65 It is not fanciful to see these two efforts at purgation as somehow related.

Hopkins clearly played a leading role in promoting the prosecutions, and earned money from them. Hopkins and Stearne resorted to methods which, while legal, were unusual in England. Suspects were stripped naked and searched for the witches” mark – the unusual teat from which their familiar spirits would feed. In Essex a number of women searchers clearly did this work on the basis of some expertise – their names recur in the trial records. The accused were then placed on a stool in the middle of a room, with their feet off the ground, and watched for up to three days without food or sleep. It was hoped that in this time their familiars might come to them. At the end of this ‘watching’ they might be asked leading questions by Hopkins or Stearne, and were also interrogated by other interested parties.66

This process – torture, watching and leading questions – undoubtedly made the accused suggestible. Escalation followed, as networks of witches were ‘revealed’. Although this allowed Hopkins to inflect the prosecutions with his own views, he clearly also drew on the beliefs and participation of many others. At the initial trials, in fact, he was just one of ninety-two witnesses. This is not to deny the importance of the role of the witchfinders, but to suggest that local communities, galvanized by debate about Christian purity, and subject to providential stories of the moral message of fortune and misfortune in this world, were plainly primed for the purging of witches from their midst.67 There was a similar outbreak in Kent in the same years, perhaps significantly in the quarter sessions, a lower court without full-time judges, in the absence of assizes.68The restraining hand of county administration was absent or limited. Arthur Wilson, star witness of the Stour Valley riots in 1642, was also a sceptical observer at the Essex assizes, and such scepticism seems to have restrained prosecutions in Lancashire in 1633.69 But in 1645 Hopkins and Stearne went out to look for witches and, apparently shocked by what they found, provided a service taken up with some enthusiasm by local authorities (the boroughs of the Suffolk coast paid £20 for witch prosecutions in these months) and the neighbours of suspects.70

Accepting that the accused witches were not guilty as charged, the stories told about them (since they were not actually true) attract psychological analysis – what anxieties were being expressed in these fantasies? The stories about witches in the 1640s reflect anxieties common to other periods of witch-hunting, but also anxieties arising from the war. One pamphlet told how soldiers searching for food on the eve of the battle of Newbury came across an old woman who was able to make a boat move against the current in a way that clearly suggested supernatural power. They tried to kill her, placing a carbine against her chest, but the bullet just bounced off. Another soldier, enraged, tried to run her through, but the sword could not penetrate her body. Only once they had taken a traditional remedy against the power of the Devil – letting blood from the veins crossing her temples – did she become vulnerable. At that point her fate seems to have been connected with anxiety about the war: ‘is it come to pass that I must die indeed? Why then his excellency the earl of Essex shall be fortunate and win the field’. The Devil’s side would lose. But there was another less obvious anxiety here too, about male potency and combat. Enraged by the failure of their weapons the men were mocked by the woman, ‘though speechless, yet in a most contemptible way of scorn, still laughing at them [as they tried to kill her] which did the more exhaust their fury against her life’.71

There was an established connection for contemporaries between witchcraft and rebellion (modern readers need think only of Macbeth, although contemporaries might have read it too in Lucan’s Pharsalia). Signes and wonders from Heaven interpreted the witch-hunt in East Anglia as another sign of God’s anger at the divisions in civil government: alongside reports of the witchcraft prosecutions it related the story of two monstrous births – one human and one feline. ‘It is said, that pestilence, the sword and famine are the searchers, wherewith the Lord draws blood of sinners’ and since there is no-one who has not ‘felt the smart of one, if not all of those forenamed scourges: no, no, there is none alive but hath smarted in one degree or another, even from the King to the beggar. Ergo, we are all sinners’. Wonders and marvels were further evidence of God’s anger, ‘strange comets, seen in the air, prodigies, sights on the seas, marvellous tempests and storms on the land… Have not nature altered her course so much, that women framed of pure flesh and blood, bring forth ugly and deformed monsters; and contrariwise beasts bring forth human shapes contrary to their kind’. It was in punishment for these sins that ‘the Lord suffered the devil to ramble about like a roaring lion see[k]ing to devour us’, not least in East Anglia, where ‘a crew of wicked witches, together with the devil’s assistance [have] done many mischiefs’.72

In East Anglia, under torture, the accused produced stories that probably reflected an amalgam of educated and vernacular wisdom about witches. There was more mention of the Devil than in most previous English trials, and that may have been the result of the accused answering leading questions after torture and harsh treatment. It was a fundamental belief of the learned that witches enjoyed their power from the Devil. But the details of the confessions – the forms taken by the familiars, the names that they were given – do not seem to belong to the world of the learned demonologist.73 It is more than possible that the particular anxiety about the Devil, about meetings where books were read, and about a familiar called ‘Newes’, reflect the particular tensions of civil war England. The preaching of hotter Protestants, anxious about the work of the Devil in this world, was common in East Anglia. In national political debate the relationship between the visible and invisible church was of central importance, and the presses continually harped on the spread of the sects. Essex, like Suffolk, had seen campaigns to purge malignant clergy and enjoyed the attentions of William Dowsing. There had also been many examples of relatively spontaneous popular iconoclasm between 1640 and 1642.74


Matthew Hopkins ‘watching’ two witches, whose familiars include one called ‘Newes’

There were more direct connections with the war too. Signes and wonders claimed that the Norfolk witches ‘have prophesied of the downfall of the King and his army, and that Prince Robert shall be no longer shot-free: with many strange and unheard of things that shall come to pass’.75Rupert, we should remember, was held by many to be the main obstacle to a negotiated peace at this point. There was an association between Rupert and witchcraft: his pet dog was represented as a familiar and he himself referred to both as an incubus and as a devil.76 It was not the first time that the power of an evil adviser of a monarch had been associated with witchcraft. Strafford, on the scaffold, had apparently answered a charge that he had been prey to the ‘witchcraft of authority’, an echo perhaps of a Puritan argument that worldly glory was one of the Devil’s snares, tempting the sinner to forget the larger glory of the heavenly kingdom. As William Perkins had it, ‘the power of this Prince of Darkness manifests itself herein by works of wonder, transcendent in regard of ordinary capacity… to purchase himself the admiration, fear, and faith of the credulous world’. Parliamentarian propaganda made a general association between the popish plot and the Devil’s wiles, and Charles himself was touched by these charges of diabolism. Cavalierism in general became a species of demonic activity. Royalists, on the other hand, charged that witchcraft was closely tied to the sin of rebellion.77 The East Anglian witch-hunt was quickly invested with these meanings too. John Hammond, who printed Signes and wonders, saw it as a judgement on the whole people – he published a number of wonder pamphlets in these months with the message that everyone should look to their own sins in order to avoid similar judgements in the future. That it took place in parliamentary territory was, of course, fuel for the royalists, but The parliaments post turned this into a gender issue: ‘There is an infection in wickedness; and the spirit of the Cavaliers because it could not prevail with our men, hath met with some of our women, and it hath turned them into witches’.78

The fight against witches was a godly work, and one described in martial language, requiring personal valour and other masculine values. As one writer had it in 1648:

The late lamentable wars began, yet God was good to us in discovering many secret treacheries… And many superstitious relics were abolished, which neither we nor our godly fathers (as ye have heard) were able to bear. Since which time, ye knew, many witches have been discovered by their own confessions, and executed; many glorious victories obtained (beyond any man’s expectation) and places of strength yielded.

Once again, it seems, there might be a connection between the work of Dowsing and Hopkins. Dowsing, for example, thought that a victory for Fairfax at Nantwich owed something to his own successful destruction of images at Orford, Snape and Saxmundham on the same day. Hopkins and Stearne’s evidence, and their account of themselves, can plausibly be seen as a means of dealing with social and spiritual chaos through an assertion of masculine control. That control rested in part in a physical violence which recalls accounts of male violence against women during the wars: a way of maintaining masculine identity in the face of violent and chaotic uncertainties.79 Although the physical safety of women was usually respected, and stories of rape are rare, there were atrocities involving women near the fighting. At Naseby the massacre and mutilation of women camp followers was apparently an ethnic as well as a gender crime – this was an unusual story, but might be read as a masculine response to disorder, fear and female potency.80

Although not all the witches were women, the bulk of them were and a wider anxiety about the stability of patriarchal order is an important context for these trials, or at least for their representation in print.81 The parliaments post had made a standard observation about the greater vulnerability of women to spiritual error, linking it to witchcraft in a way which was common to contemporary thinking about witches. It was also a common theme in writing about the dangers of sectarianism, a form of diabolical temptation. There was a common association between the Devil and over-zealous godliness, with sectarian excess the obvious fruit of the Devil’s work.82 These associations between the Devil and unbridled zeal, and between them both and sectarianism, were clearly close to witchcraft fantasies. Conventicles and covens were imagined in similar ways, with women prominent in both.

In numerous ways the women who petitioned, published or prophesied tried to present themselves within the bounds of conventional gender roles, but the pamphlet literature of the 1640s is full of anxieties about uppity women. Looking at the witchcraft prosecutions in Tudor and Stuart England as a whole, it seems clear that men and women saw in witches a threat to orderly gender relations.83 We cannot put Hopkins on the couch to prove that the prosecutions were a response to these anxieties: this may not have motivated him or any of the other participants in the witch-hunt. Even so, we can be fairly sure that the hunt acquired larger meanings in the world of print, and that these anxieties about masculinity and patriarchy were among them.

Before the war the local community had not been understood only in terms of neighbourliness and mutual support but also in terms of good government. Local notables held offices in the church and state, and used their authority and discretion to bring order and harmony to their parish. Constables, churchwardens, overseers of the poor were effectively arbiters of local decency. Parish communities formed around strongly held notions of order, hierarchy and authority, and membership of the community was policed. Local officeholders and village worthies might exercise a close and oppressive control over local sociability and sexual life. The village greybeards exacted deference in return for a fatherly care – it was by no means a bucolic paradise, but a very stable reconciliation of social status and political authority. Parish community was also marked ritually – the agricultural cycle, the devotional calendar and the life-cycle of the individual were marked out by public ceremonies. In towns the civic year was also marked, and strong corporate structures integrated individuals into a social body. These practices resolved conflict – communities were not marked by the absence of conflict so much as by collectively acceptable means to reconcile and live with it.84 By the end of the war many of the established routines of village and county government were still in place, or had been reestablished. Crimes were punished and social policies implemented. In some cases these activities were hampered or complicated by military authorities, or the administrative structures erected to fight the wars, but much had survived.85

Nonetheless, during 1645 there is plenty of evidence that the experience and perception of disruption, and the publicity given to advocates of other forms of social compact, called forth an active attempt to refurbish older forms of community for the new world created by the war. The material costs were difficult to bear, and the new forms of authority and political mobilization presented a challenge to the ideals and institutions of local government. In a sense this was a crisis in community – the formal and informal sources of authority through which local conflicts had been reconciled, order established and protection provided. Established patterns of authority and ritual were also challenged by the threat to the territorial basis of religious community. Was communion for those of a like mind, or all those living together? And what forms of ritual life could bring people together in a shared community?

Drawing on traditions of self-government in these challenging times, there were active and creative responses to these problems during the latter stages of the war. For, just as with the financial balance sheet, there were opportunities as well as burdens. By 1646 the war had provided opportunities to work off grudges, to redress local wrongs, to further a particular view of reformation, to promote pet projects, to make money, to assume local office. The war created the problems addressed by clubmen, excise rioters and witch-hunters, but also created the opportunities for obscure people to promote their own solutions. It had unleashed energies and arguments that went beyond the issues at the heart of peace negotiations. That affected formal negotiation – inducing both caution and urgency – but also provided the basis for activists to pursue purposes quite different from the formal war aims of the military parties. Anxiety, opportunism and creative adaptation were symbiotically linked; and they resonated deeply in English society.

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