Print, Polemic and Mobilization
Certainties were easier to find on the battlefield than at the negotiating table: there was a limited number of outcomes, quickly apparent, which had a more or less obvious significance. The experience of battle was in that sense appealing to those looking for God’s hand in this world. At Langport, Major Thomas Harrison, watching the Cavalier army crumble before the heroic attack of the New Model across a river and up a narrow lane lined with musketeers, ‘with a loud voice [broke] forth into the praises of God with fluent expressions as if he had been in a rapture’. Oliver Cromwell seems to have been particularly persuaded by such signs. At Marston Moor, he exulted that God had made the enemy ‘as stubble to our swords’, and of the great victory at Naseby he wrote: ‘this is none other than the hand of God, and to Him alone belongs the glory’. Like Harrison he was equally certain about Langport: ‘Thus you see what the Lord hath wrought for us… Thus you have [Langport] mercy added to Naseby mercy. And to see this, is it not to see the face of God?’1
By the time final victory came, however, it was not at all clear what it meant, either in the limited sense of what the parliamentary coalition had ended up fighting for or in the deeper sense of what cause God had smiled upon. As a practical problem this was more difficult for the victors – it was clear that the royalists would now be negotiating a rearguard action. But in three stages Parliament had taken measures which put its cause in a different light: the administrative and financial escalations of 1643; the military alliance with the Covenanters; and the formation of the New Model, with all that was taken to imply. What was the peace that all this was intended to achieve? Following victory there were plenty of ideas about that question, and attempts to make victory a vehicle for them, but that made the peace no easier to win than the war had been. In the world of print, where these conflicting visions were promoted among overlapping publics, there had been another, less easily quantified, set of costs and benefits. Lost coherence in contemporary debate, a crisis of common sense, created the opportunity to fly kites and make creative arguments; as those opportunities were taken up, so the world of public debate seemed more and more anarchic.
On 19 July 1645, just over a month after Naseby, William Walwyn and a deputation of religious and political radicals were at Westminster, accusing the Speaker of sustaining correspondence with the royalists and with the King. Walwyn was by that time in his mid-forties, the second son of a landed gentleman, a member of the Merchant Adventurers and a medical practitioner of some substance. A conversion experience moved Walwyn from a relatively orthodox predestinarian Calvinism to belief in free grace, accepting love and inner peace. This led him to advocate freedom of conscience, arguing that as long as knowledge was imperfect, men would differ. As a result such differences should be tolerated. Since the world was not divided between the elect and the reprobate, and redemption was available to all, everyone should be free to follow God’s promptings: there should be no human constraint on the conscience. He advocated this position in seven pamphlets published anonymously between 1641 and January 1646. Here was a man for whom the parliamentary cause was the pursuit of full reformation, and for whom, presumably, compromise with the King, which jeopardized freedom of conscience, was an ungodly act.2
While at Westminster on that day in July 1645, Walwyn met John Lilburne, who was there to answer charges about the publication of illicit political tracts. Lilburne had reached his twenties during the Laudian domination of the church, and that had radicalized him. An associate of Henry Burton, he was already a significant figure in radical Puritan circles by 1640 – released from the Fleet prison at the petition of Oliver Cromwell in November and the subject of an upmarket engraving by George Glover in 1641. He was part of the coalition of disaffected Protestants that dominated London’s street politics in the first two years of the Long Parliament. He signed up for the parliamentary army in 1642 and by 1644 had a distinguished military record. By 1645, however, his militancy was leading him away from the military struggle and back to the world of print and polemic. He was worried by Presbyterian plans for the national church and the political influence Presbyterian leaders were apparently able to muster, and irritated both by military differences with his (Presbyterian) commanders and by what he perceived as inadequate recognition by them of his achievements. As a result he began a pamphlet assault on Presbyterian leaders, and the institutions which allowed them influence, which led to the expression of radical political principles.3
Pamphlets by, or attributed to, Richard Overton follow a similar trajectory, which began to intersect with Lilburne’s in 1645. We know much less about Overton: he may have been born around 1600 or around 1615, he may or may not have matriculated at Queens” College, Cambridge (suggesting a relatively high-status background, perhaps), he may or may not have been married to Mary between 1642 and 1644. Unlike Lilburne there is no evidence to connect him with active politics: we do not know if he was in the crowds which shaped political events between 1640 and 1642, and there is nothing to suggest that he undertook any military service. Perhaps this is a difference in generation, or of education. His pamphlets support the view that he had received a relatively advanced education. Although his background and circumstances are obscure, the intellectual journey reflected in the 150 pamphlets and writings attributed to him is relatively clear. Between 1640 and 1642 he contributed to the vast output of anti-Laudian and anti-popish pamphlets. Taking up his pen again in 1644, however, he had moved in a more radical direction, arguing for the mortality of the soul, a publication which got him into trouble alongside Milton. Orthodox soteriology (theological argument about salvation) depended on the continued existence of the soul after physical death – it was the basis of beliefs about heaven and hell (and, for Catholics, purgatory). Overton’s prominence in the world of illegal printing had probably brought him into contact with Lilburne the previous winter, if not before.4
Prior to the chance meeting on 19 July Walwyn and Lilburne had become fellow travellers in the fight against what they saw as Presbyterian intolerance. Lilburne had once been imprisoned for publicizing Henry Burton’s views and, along with Burton, Bastwick and Prynne, had suffered at the hands of the Laudian regime. By January 1645, however, he and Prynne were separated on the issue of Church government. On 2 January, Prynne’s Truth Triumphing over Falsehood had championed, intemperately, the Presbyterian cause. Both Lilburne and Walwyn were prompted to reply, as were Burton and Thomas Goodwin, a leading Independent minister and one of the authors of the Apologeticall Narration. Lilburne’s reply appeared within five days, testimony to the immediacy of the print polemic by this stage in the conflict. It was followed less than a month later by Walwyn’s A Helpe to the right understanding, which argued for freedom of conscience. Richard Overton added his own counterblasts from April onwards, his the more withering and satirical contributions. In April The Araignement of Mr Persecution put Prynne on trial before the Grand Jury of virtuous principles, and this was followed by three pamphlets copying a notorious Elizabethan pamphleteering campaign by Martin Marprelate. In both cases the associations are interesting – laying claim to religious freedom in a traditional institution of English liberties and laying claim to a longer tradition of reformation polemic. A fourth pamphlet, The Nativity of Sir John Presbyter, assumed the form of a horoscope cast by ‘Christopher Scale-Sky, Mathematition in chief to the Assembly of Divines’.5
The trajectories of these three – Overton, Walwyn and Lilburne – were crossing in the summer of 1645 in response to the Presbyterian campaign to take charge of the parliamentary cause. What cemented this incipient alliance was the political martyrdom of John Lilburne. Although Prynne had ignored Lilburne in the spring, he was prompted into action by a meeting at the Windmill Tavern in the summer. On one account this was convened to discuss the implications of Parliament’s defeat at Leicester, immediately prior to Naseby. At the time of the loss of Leicester, however, the New Model had not been able to engage the royal army, another spring was slipping away and now the royalists had scored a significant military blow. According to Overton’s Martin’s Eccho this was one of the signs of God’s wrath against the persecuting spirit in the parliamentary cause. The meeting recommended adjourning Parliament for a month, to allow members to reacquaint themselves with the temper of those they represented. The Westminster Assembly was to take a similar break. To Prynne this seemed to be an Independent attack on the assembly and the Presbyterian interest in Parliament. This provocation, and the pamphlet attacks on him, provoked A Fresh Discovery of some Prodigious New Wandring-Blasing Stars.6
A new bout of pamphlet jousting between Prynne and his opponents coincided with a print campaign in defence of Lilburne. He had been denounced by Bastwick (another man whom Lilburne had supported in the resistance to Laudianism) on the basis of a conversation overheard on 19 July. Bastwick claimed that in the course of that conversation Lilburne had said that Lenthall had sent £60,000 to the enemy at Oxford. Lilburne was brought before the Committee of Examinations the following week, where, rather than dispute the charge, he questioned the authority of the tribunal and asserted his rights as a free-born Englishman. And, of course, he launched into print, with England’s Birth-Right Justified (10 October 1645). In this he was supported directly by Walwyn, whose pamphlet England’s Lamentable Slaverie appeared the following day, and engaged in a public dialogue with Lilburne.7
One of Lilburne’s gifts was for seeing in his own troubles principles of general significance, and it was this that facilitated the translation of religious freedom into the civic sphere: his serial oppressions at the hands of various civil bodies became the basis for arguments about the illegitimacy of their authority. Walwyn’s view of free grace was the basis of a radical view of the constitution. Secular power ought to be so arranged as to guarantee freedom of conscience, since there could be no free moral agent without civil liberty. These were very clearly practical questions, in the light of Lilburne’s experience. It was an anti-Calvinist position, and one based not on the ancient constitution but on ancient rights. In Lilburne’s hands these ancient rights became the basis for political settlement, a uniform set of rights due to all Englishmen by birth.8
Measured against the flood of pamphlets in these months, this was a fairly insignificant set of exchanges. It is not clear that the arguments for religious toleration made by Walwyn were of more importance to contemporaries than those made by Burton and Williams the previous year, but an earlier generation of historians saw here the germ of a modern, and admirable, politics for in this convergence among London radicals lie the origins of the Levellers. ‘To our generation fell the good fortune of re-discovering the Levellers’, wrote H. N. Brailsford in 1958. For Brailsford it was the Levellers who came to champion popular sovereignty expressed in a democratically accountable House of Commons. In The Araignement, for example, Walwyn had appealed to human reason as a source of authority, combining it with the maxim that salus populi suprema lex (the good or safety of the people is the supreme law).9 As we have seen, Overton had Presbyterian persecution arraigned before a Grand Jury, the voice of the local community. From these ideas, discernible in 1645, sprang a campaign that the army championed, carrying through a political revolution which was of significance to the history of the west as a whole – a people’s army championing ideals resembling the secular democratic values of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West. The practical significance of their ideas, according to this view, derived from their influence over the army: it was from the Levellers, and not from their commanders, that the New Model Army derived its political ideas and ‘democratic drive’.10 Here, too, the exchanges of 1645 offer some support – as well as arguing for the abolition of tithes and for religious toleration, Overton’s Martin’s Eccho argued for the payment of the soldiers” arrears. This was the basis of a political alliance, since refusal to pay up was another sign, so Overton thought, of the sin of Presbyterian half-heartedness in prosecution of the war effort.11
Both claims – about the relationship between Leveller ideas and democracy, and about the influence of the Levellers over the New Model Army – are now contested.12 The rediscovery of the Levellers may have resulted in an exaggeration of their modernity and practical significance to the events of the 1640s. Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn’s convergence in 1645 probably reveals more about the networks and mechanics of 1640s polemics than it does about the motive force of practical politics during these crucial years. Nonetheless, by the summer of 1645 the Stationers” Company was trying to shut Overton down.13
Polemicists in this highly competitive environment were forced to assert the authority of their views. Lilburne’s first defence of himself employed a full ‘apparatus of erudition’: margins stuffed with textual references, a text interspersed with Latin phrases and constant scriptural allusions. His textual authorities included well-established touchstones of constitutional thinking – Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and Coke’s Institutes – but also Husbands” Exact Collection. The latter was itself a confection from the plethora of publications in the first years of the Long Parliament and Lilburne’s deployment of it reflects the ways in which this print culture fed off itself.14 Indeed, the Levellers were themselves a print phenomenon long before they were a ‘movement’ – comrades in arms in the paper war before they had actually met, and sympathetic pamphleteers long before they could have been claimed to have been a party.15
It is now difficult to know what to make of this coalescence therefore: whether it was just paper talk or the expression of the views of a larger constituency. It is possible to see in 1645 traces of radical religious networks with roots in sectarian congregations, mobilizing to secure a complete military victory in order to safeguard the gains made for reformation since the collapse of Laudianism. The convergence of these three polemicists bears testimony to the ways that print had become a source of authority and community in itself. Even if it was just paper talk, in other words, it is still significant. For the generation of the 1950s and 1960s democracy mattered; for that of the early twenty-first century so does paper talk, even if it’s not true.
As the war drew to a close, and victory approached, Thomas Edwards became the leading figure in Presbyterian polemics against these views. A relatively hot Calvinist; he had run into trouble during the 1630s, partly because of his beliefs and partly because of his combative personal style. Naturally sympathetic to the anti-Laudian politics of the period 1640–42 he had, nonetheless, been quick to identify the dangers of Independency – the attack on Laud, and then on episcopacy, was welcome, but beyond that had to lie a comprehensive and reformed national church. In 1641 he had published an attack on Independency which had elicited only one response – from Katherine Chidley. A principal reason for this relative silence was the agreement reached in November 1641 among leading Puritans not to engage in public controversy on the issue of church government. During 1644, however, as the Westminster Assembly leaned increasingly towards a strict Presbyterian settlement, that agreement broke down. The Apologeticall Narration, despite its moderate tone, had set off a heated argument.16
Edwards’s own contribution to the ensuing exchanges did not at the time elicit much by way of direct response. Antapologia, however, did wonders for his career as a hammer of the sectaries, for that is what this campaign meant to Edwards: his critique of Independency concentrated almost exclusively on the sectarian consequences of the dissolution of a national church. Antapologia probably helped to secure him a lectureship at Christ Church, in the heart of the City, where his lectures became major public events (at least, if he is to be believed). People flocked to hear him speak about the dangers of the sects, among them his opponents, who heckled and scuffled as he spoke. This notoriety seems also to have put him at the centre of a network of correspondents shocked by the proliferating problems of maintaining religious order and decency and anxious to give publicity to the excesses of the sects.17
During 1646, exploiting this position, Edwards launched a massive publishing venture – Gangraena. Three parts were eventually produced, totalling over 800 pages, forming an ill-disciplined catalogue of errors, schism and heresy, lavishly and sensationally illustrated with reports of religious excess from around the country. The first instalment, produced in January and February, invited readers to write in with more material, and that helped to stuff the further instalments in May and December with more lurid stories. The timings were significant and each edition was apparently being added to up to the point of publication. This was a calculated appeal for public support for the Presbyterian cause: the first at a moment when renewal of the Solemn League and Covenant was being sought; the second coincided with the promotion of a remonstrance in London, very hostile to the sects, and in favour of the Solemn League and Covenant and a rapid peace settlement on Presbyterian terms; the third when hostility to the army was renewed. This mode of operation, Edwards’s own intemperance and the need to get the books out quickly contributed to their sprawling character. But that also helped to make their point – their very form communicated the sprawling, spiralling danger of the sects.18
Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena
This campaign was more or less purely negative. Edwards nowhere defended or described the correct form of Presbyterian discipline as he saw it. His only concern was with the monstrous profusion of sects, the deadly disease of the Christian body. In this he has been fabulously successful, mined for examples and evidence by his contemporary fellow travellers and by historians seeking to understand and evoke the chaotic profusion of religious experiments in this period. By the same token, however, the question of whether to believe Edwards has been equally persistent. He was immediately labelled as a liar, and his reputation has declined among historians in recent years, suspicious of his purposes and unable to verify his sources.
Edwards probably did not make things up,19 but in any case counting sectaries does not really get at the heart of the problem of order – the issue was not a quantitative one. What was really new and radical about this was that fundamental questions were being debated before a public audience. It had become necessary to argue for, and defend, institutions which had previously been thought to be fundamental to spiritual and social order – learned ministry, a national church. In effect, public approval was being garnered for their place in a settlement even by those who, as a matter of principle, believed that their authority (and political settlement) did not depend on consent. Moreover, this was an escalating difficulty – those who sought to intervene were bound to try to establish the legitimacy of their intervention before a large public. Whatever their beliefs about public opinion, therefore, they courted it, and gave particular political arguments a public function. Radical reformation was now entrenched, cultural legitimacy had been eroded: English people confronted a world of competing certainties in which fundamental truths were no longer easily available.
Gangraena was published as a catalogue, and has some value as such, but it was also a political intervention, offering a window onto the fraught politics of the fracturing parliamentary coalition in 1646. It was a publishing sensation – part one was reprinted three times before the appearance of part two. There were at least twenty direct replies (Walwyn was prominent among the critics) and it was incidentally mentioned in many more. The author became known to contemporaries as Gangraena Edwards, or simply as Gangraena, and he was immortalized by Milton as ‘Shallow Edwards’.20
Like William Lilly, whose career had also been launched in 1644 and took off in 1646, Edwards was tapping into a large market, one characterized by anxiety. As in 1640–42, the future of a church liberated from episcopal control was easily expressed in terms of a problem of order, and discussion of that problem clearly sold well. Gangraena’s sprawling denunciation publicized the dangers, and in its very form demonstrated disorder, but it also offered some comforts. The desire to catalogue, count and categorize was an effort at rhetorical control – capturing the threat but also, by historicizing, taxonomizing and enumerating it, to make it more bounded and limited. It is a relief, in a way, to know that the festering affliction of the body that appears so worrying has a name, even if that name is gangrene.
In the polemical world inhabited by Edwards and his antagonists, an argument which had been postponed in 1641 was now in full spate. Where could the limits of decency be set once episcopacy had gone, and how could they be policed? In Scotland, when the shell of episcopal authority had cracked, there was a fully developed Presbyterian system ready to emerge – wanting only the abolition of bishops and the recognition of the authority of the General Assembly. In England nothing so complete had been growing within: what emerged was not formed and was, to Presbyterian eyes, monstrous. The world portrayed by Edwards, of dissolving limits and unpoliced religious experimentation, a world turned upside down, held appeal for the radicals of the 1960s.21 For contemporaries it was more or less inseparably connected with anxiety.
In these pamphlet debates about war aims, and peace projects, standard metaphors and images were used for partisan purposes but in ways that became controversial, incomprehensible or straightforwardly incredible.22 The 1640s saw remarkable rhetorical creativity, the innovative use of familiar arguments and languages, as much as in more formal conceptual innovation.23 For example, resistance to Charles’s policies was couched in terms of loyalty to the monarch, even when that entailed raising an army through Parliament but without the King’s consent. Opponents claimed that they were protecting Charles from his evil advisers or from himself or, eventually, protecting the office from its present incumbent. By 1646 treason had been creatively reinterpreted to embrace, effectively, advising the King wrongly (Strafford, Laud) and surrendering a city to the royal army (Nathaniel Fiennes). In 1649 it was used to kill the King himself. Political battles were fought out on the scaffolds, where these novel claims were asserted and resisted, Laud and then Charles embracing martyrdom rather than the justice of their end. ‘Strained readings’ is a polite term for the often bizarre, incomprehensible or incredible uses to which standard terms were put. Many people had taken sides reluctantly and conditionally, and a number of people lapsed from activism into inactivity, or changed sides altogether, leading to public argument about what was more honourable – following an initial commitment to a cause, or the shifting dictates of the individual conscience.
Unsurprisingly this was a great age of satire but there was also a very evident desire to uncover the truth. This operated at several levels: most fundamental of all, a desire to know what was actually going on. Newspapers and pamphlets offered true relations and authentic versions at the same time as they denounced the lies of others. It also prompted stylistic innovation. Denunciations of the sensationalist accounts of the Irish rebellion may have given an extra emphasis to the development of a more sober style. Men like John Thomas and W.B. had been keen to maximize fear of the dangers of armed popery, but in response to the charge of sensationalism Thomas at least seems to have adopted a plain style in his pamphlet on Derbyshire, which ‘performed’ reliability and authenticity on its title page, even though it was probably untrue.24 But contemporary chronicling was unashamedly polemical even as it performed this simple reportage. For example, Josiah Ricraft’s account of England’s Champions, written towards the end of hostilities, reviewed the military history of Parliament’s campaigns from a shamelessly partisan angle. His purpose was to promote the reputation of those within the parliamentary coalition who were faithful to the Solemn League and Covenant, interpreted by him as a commitment to Presbyterianism. His account therefore rested on a clear view of which programme of political and religious reform God had favoured by delivering victories in battle. In seeking to establish his political and religious case Ricraft wrote a military history in which the heroes were Leslie, Manchester and Essex. In a manuscript version eighteen senior commanders were celebrated individually, a further twenty-seven given an important supporting role. Oliver Cromwell does not merit individual treatment and he appears in the chronology of Parliament’s military history only for his victory at Stamford and his seizure of Basing House in 1645. According to Ricraft the truth about the second battle of Newbury, so controversial in the parliamentary coalition, was simple: Manchester, ‘this noble General utterly routed [the royalists]’. When it appeared in print in 1647 Cromwell and others had been added, although the judgement on Newbury had remained unaltered.25
Newsbooks also pilloried strained readings of the standard terms of contemporary political discourse: most notably perhaps in Bruno Ryves’s reporting on the actions of parliamentarian soldiers, crowds and religious radicals, which juxtaposed their behaviour with their claim to be acting to preserve religion and liberty. Political conflict in the 1640s was, in that sense, a battle over key words – treason, honour, allegiance, reformation, custom, popery, law – and over the relationship between political claims and real actions. These were closely related problems – definition of terms, accurate description of what was going on and authoritative interpretation of its meaning. For example, one of the texts published by Ryves in 1647 was the Micro-chronicon, a narrative of the battles of the civil war akin to that published by Ricraft. In this case, however, the text probably originated with George Wharton, on whose earlier publication Ryves’s version seems to have rested. Wharton, as we have seen, was better known as the royalist astrologer, the main political opponent of William Lilly.26 Given the bizarre interpretations of standard terms it is not surprising to find a pervasive and more practical concern to understand what important people were really up to, whatever they had said in public: private letters were often published in order to reveal underlying truths; cabinets were opened, and plots discovered.
Even if the facts of the case could be agreed there was plenty of room for disagreement about what they meant. This was particularly true of providential stories – it was often clear that an event carried meaning, but it was not at all clear what that meaning was. For example, an established genre of writing, the warning piece, was put to work. A sinner told the sorry tale of their sin and punishment, which they accepted as just, in the hope that their sad experience would serve to discourage others from taking the same path. These warning pieces were now made partisan – recounting, for example, the punishments consequent on disobeying a royal order to lay down arms, or divine judgements against popish plotters.27 The language of providence, and of monstrosity and wonders, was ubiquitous, but if God’s judgements were plain, the identity of the culprit and the nature of the sin were far less so. In reporting the signs of God’s will in this world there was a double problem: to establish the truth of the phenomenon and then to come to an uncontested interpretation of its meaning. An effect of public discussion of these issues was to make the reading public arbiters of these fundamental questions.28
Perhaps the most profound element of this crisis of authority was the collapse of spiritual authority. As early as October 1642 Thomas Case had attributed conflict to this question of truth: ‘And what is this quarrel all this while, is it not religion, and the truth of God? The truth of Doctrine?, the truth of discipline, the truth of worship?’29 Criticism of tradition and learned divinity made scripture ever more clearly the bedrock of religious knowledge, but scriptural texts were often opaque, ambiguous or apparently contradictory. These were in fact the reasons why unguided access to scripture was regarded as dangerous. Appeals to scripture were made for quite contrary purposes. The injunction in Psalm 105.15, for example, ‘Touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm’, became unstable in its meaning. The royalists claimed, on the basis of long practice, that the King was God’s anointed, and that this clearly ruled out the possibility of legitimate resistance. Prynne argued that the anointed were all God’s chosen ones, and that the injunction was directed at kings – more than a counter-blast since it in fact indicted Charles of already having breached the injunction.30 A veritable Babel of conflicting interpretations emerged, and was intimately connected to the debate about church government, since religious sects claimed spiritual warrant for their practices either from scripture or from personal revelation, liberated (to varying degrees) from tradition and learned divinity.
On the other hand, religious pluralism was denounced in terms of well-established idioms – as a disease or a rupture in the divine order – but exactly which forms of belief were pathogens, or threatened the organic moral order? There seemed to be no agreement as to how to answer this question. Those who took on these questions seemed to John Milton, and presumably to others, to be ‘in wandering mazes lost’. Many polemicists, rather than reasoning high ‘Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate, / Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute’,31 simply cut to the chase: the boundaries of acceptable belief could surely be established on the basis of the behavioural consequences of a prophet’s teaching, rather than on the basis of scripture or authority. If there was a definitive text here it was Matthew vii, 20: ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’. False prophets led the flock to sin. Another response to the sectarian scare was taxonomical, and these taxonomies were also, frequently, historical in content, equating current errors with others in Christian history.32 This process of numbering and taxonomizing both captured the escalating threat and promised, by labelling and counting, to contain it. Ephraim Pagitt’s Heresiography of 1645 promised a description of the Heretickes and Sectaries of these latter times: numbering and historicizing at the same time.33
This was not a war of religion in the sense that the two sides were members of a different church. Neither anti-popery nor anti-sectarianism marked the boundary between royalist and parliamentarian: people on all sides deployed both for polemical purposes. In fact the most vituperative exchanges about the church settlement were within the parliamentary coalition, not between royalists and parliamentarians. It was a war about the identity of a single church, of which all should be members, and which should be organically linked to the political order. Preaching the Word and administering the sacraments were at the core; but episcopal discipline had been broken before a replacement was in place. Church government, so divisive within the parliamentary alliance, and a non-negotiable for the King, was absent. No authoritative source of authority now existed to interpret scripture, and God’s signs in the world. John Benbrigge’s Gods Fury, in its attempt to convince by pre-war means, was a symptom as much as a cure.34
Political cultures are probably best understood as ‘common sense systems’. Certainly, early Stuart political culture was not a coherent philosophical system but ‘a relatively organised body of considered thought’ consisting of heterogeneous, unsystematic, ‘down-to-earth, colloquial wisdom’, something more than ‘mere matter-of-fact apprehension of reality’ but something less than a fully coherent, consciously articulated world view.35 The crisis during the 1640s made plain some of the contradictions in Stuart common sense: for example, between law, custom, providence, prerogative, scripture and reason as sources of authority. Events were forcing people to choose between authorities which had not previously been seen to be in tension. In these circumstances it was clearly tempting to turn to established metaphors and languages as a means of making sense of the times. The language of tyranny, derived from learned works, was deployed by low-born balla-deers to explain current affairs,36 but who was the tyrant? The literature of monstrosity spoke of the ills of the body politic; that of heresiography spoke of the plague of sectarianism. Providentialism – the belief that the active hand of God was manifest in the world, and that it could offer direction in human affairs – was another staple element of contemporary thought which now provided a means to make sense of civil and religious Babel. Anti-popery, already an elastic term, was made to embrace ever wider areas of religious practice, both Catholic and Protestant. But the collapse of spiritual authority made all other forms of authority difficult to negotiate – this was the fundamental challenge posed by the crisis of Reformation politics.
Just as political disruption was both crisis and opportunity, so too was this polemical morass. This intellectual crisis might offer new vistas onto the wilder shores of Reformation thought – the late 1640s in England seem to have been a time of creative and exhilarating religious experimentation. Others went beyond Reformation politics, seeking workable truths on other bases. For example, indeterminacy and uncertainty were the context for more fundamental reflection about language. Elsewhere in Europe, an active response to this indeterminacy of meaning was to seek a new, transparent language that did not occlude our access to key ideas. In Spinoza this was a disdain for the ‘language of men’, in Descartes an aspiration for a mathematical philosophy and in Hobbes a careful definition of terms. Many reformers were attracted to the study of Chinese and Arabic. Chinese was attractive as a pictographic language, which communicated ideas, not sounds, and which was comprehensible to those whose spoken languages were quite different. Arabic, while not pictographic, was also a written language shared by people whose spoken languages were quite different. Babel in England gave rise to an interest in universal languages. Josiah Ricraft, the partisan historian, may have shared this interest.37 There were more practically oriented responses too. William Lilly’s demotic astrology offered hope in the face of uncertainty – identifiable and verifiable things to look out for that would offer a guide as to what was going on, and where it would all end. By 1645 others saw more-bracing possibilities, to take charge of events, and sought to make the approaching parliamentary victory a means to realize their own visions.
One such was Samuel Hartlib, a Protestant refugee from central Europe. Hartlib combined aninterest in Baconian science – that is, knowledge based on verifiable experience, and located within a coherent intellectual system which is often regarded as the forerunner of modern natural science – with an interest in the educational ideas of Comenius (Jan Komensky) and John Dury’s interest in the promotion of Protestant unity. Here the key issue was sound knowledge – of nature and of scripture – organized and taught in a coherent way, to produce an educated, properly Christian population. These ideas were presented in Macaria in 1641 and it was at Hartlib’s invitation in 1644 that John Milton wrote Of Education, an outline of an education suitable for a better world, training boys to govern, cultivate and defend their commonwealth.38
A central element of these ideals was the communication of knowledge and experience, and Hartlib was himself a tireless letter writer and, when funds permitted, publisher. Accurate knowledge, and a method to understand its meaning, was also associated with the creation of institutions to validate truth: a college of experience in the utopian tract Macaria (and another college to consider doctrinal matters); the Office of Address in a later and more limited proposal. These hopes had a millenarian aspect too. Hartlib and many of his correspondents believed that in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, Adam had enjoyed a perfect knowledge of creation. Through an active use of the resources around him, Adam was never hungry, or ill, and was at one with God’s Word. Restoration of this knowledge would help to prepare the way for the return of Christ and the saints. This was an active and practical millenarianism, continuously concerned to make productive use of the environment.39
This desire to read the book of nature in order to come closer to God was akin to the interest in astrology, which promised to read in the heavens signs of God’s intentions: the book of nature provided a means to supplement our knowledge of God’s purposes derived from the often inscrutable book of scriptures. Clearly the conditions of the 1640s made that an enticing prospect. According to one modern authority, ‘Astrology was probably the most ambitious attempt ever made to reduce the baffling diversity of human affairs to some sort of intelligible order’, and the millenarian Baconianism of the Hartlib circle was scarcely less ambitious. Astrology fostered its own college too: the Society of Astrologers.40
In Samuel Hartlib’s case, intellectual creativity was married to attempts at practical mobilization. He had visited England in 1626 and settled there in 1628, pursuing an ambitious programme of educational reform throughout the 1630s. In 1641 and 1642 it looked like his moment had come: convinced that the English were under a special dispensation from God, he was able to secure visits from Comenius and Dury and was clearly building a significant amount of support in Parliament. Although this moment passed – interest in Macaria gave way to a more immediate fear of armed popery – he was tireless in mobilizing support for projects throughout the 1640s and 1650s. A crucial element of many of them was the more effective use of God’s bounty: the chemical manufacture of saltpetre (an essential ingredient of gunpowder, but also a powerful fertilizer); setting the poor to productive work, making idle hands useful to the commonwealth; or promoting Atlantic trade, which would maximize use of natural resources, increase knowledge and strengthen the commonwealth. Other projects included sponsorship of a woollen tank and testing torpedoes in the Thames, an interest in jam-making, bee-keeping and the cultivation of silk worms in Virginia. Behind these projects lay a single vision, of making full use of natural resources and political opportunities to edge the world back to a prelapsarian harmony with nature. Like astrology, this offered to lend meaning to the current confusion, and to provide a guide to the truth in conditions which made that an elusive commodity. As a series of practical proposals, it was given impetus and public appeal by the political circumstances of the 1640s, and in 1646 it seemed as if his time had come again.41
In 1644, the year of Marston Moor and the first signs of serious fracture in the alliance with the Covenanters, Hartlib had published two pamphlets enjoining correspondency among the Protestant churches. In August 1646, with a parliamentary victory looming, he published The Parliaments Reformation, a characteristic attempt to take advantage of a moment to push forward his larger agenda. His interest in saltpetre had reflected the difficulty of acquiring this crucial ingredient of gunpowder, and had concentrated on artificial manufacture rather than digging up pigeon lofts for the material in the nitrogen-rich droppings. It was a practical project, helping to meet a practical need while at the same time removing a common grievance. It would also push forward chemical knowledge and employ the poor. This latter concern was at the forefront of his concerns in the 1646 pamphlet – an injunction to use Parliament’s power to force men to be good:
because the major part of the people do never move to any good work willingly before they are commanded; and the command must be upon a penalty too, else they will do little; now consider, who can impose a command on the subject for the carrying on of a good work, and to lay a punishment upon the neglecters of the command, but a parliament’s power.
The pamphlet laid out practical proposals to house the poor, and employ them working on hemp and flax. He anticipated concerns about the effects on trade and the interests of clothiers, and made detailed suggestions about funding (including, for example, the use of fines on sins such as drinking, swearing, Sabbath-breaking and adultery to help meet the costs of the scheme). Overall, it was a plan for ‘such a godly and politic government; that the godly and laborious poor may be countenanced and cherished, and the idle, and wicked poor be suppressed’. Full reformation would come through the education and employment of the children of the poor – orphans, those with careless parents, or those with godly but indigent parents. These, he thought, were ‘the greatest part of the children in the kingdom, and most of them are like to become wicked members to the Commonwealth without this government’.42
This was clearly at an angle to the main political business of 1646, but it was a creative response to a widely remarked problem – poverty – and a new possibility – that Parliament might use its political muscle to promote reformation in the fullest sense. Behind it lay a distinctive vision of how to establish social, economic and political truths. With his eyes on this larger game, Hartlib was non-committal on the details of practical settlement in church and state:
I conclude with my prayers to God for the prosperity of this work; and that God will unite King and Parliament, to carry on this holy, godly and charitable work, that the poor children unborn may praise God, for the Parliament’s preservation, and the Kingdom’s reformation, for which we owe to God praise, and prayers, and all spiritual service.
In June, Hartlib had been granted £100 by a parliamentary committee dominated by Independents, but in August advertised this project as a concern for the new Presbyterian church.43
Hartlib enjoyed such minor but significant patronage from successive parliamentary regimes, and associates of his occupied important places in, for example, the drafting of the navigation laws (which governed the English and then British empire for a hundred years) and the survey of Ireland following the English conquest during the 1650s.44 He was at the centre of a network of correspondents and fellow travellers, and promoted their shared vision in print. In those respects his efforts were like those of many other pamphleteers, mobilizing and galvanizing opinion, taking advantage of the press and political opportunities, to promote a particular agenda. In his case the aim was not a constitutional settlement of a particular kind, but the promotion of full reformation – one embracing all social problems and not just doctrine, church government and forms of worship.
Hartlib had close personal connections with Oliver St John and John Pym and was, we can presume, sympathetic to the more radical wing of the parliamentary cause, committed to the use of Parliament’s power to transform, not merely defend. Cheney Culpeper, one of his regular correspondents, certainly was.45 But Hartlib maintained correspondence with people of widely differing religious and political opinions: at the heart of his correspondence was a willingness to suspend differences about issues which were beyond human certainty in order to further human knowledge. Searching for a means to more secure knowledge in the future seems to have entailed for Hartlib and his associates a willingness to live with uncertainties in the present. It allowed for toleration of differences in spiritual matters, and for co-operation with those of differing opinions and temperament.
Hartlib’s circle were important to the promotion of knowledge of the natural world and saw this as closely connected to the political crisis in England. Others also took advantage of the practical opportunities to pursue intellectual enquiry. Richard Wiseman, for example, gleaned much important surgical knowledge from his wartime experience and it is possible that the supply of corpses allowed for increased anatomical observation in wartime Oxford. It has often been claimed that there was a connection between Puritanism and science, and the Hartlib circle have been central to that discussion; in any case, it is clear that there was a connection between these wartime conditions and science. It was in part a matter of free intellectual expression, and the more or less inviting possibilities of the changed print market. But it was also a matter of practicalities – the great Thomas Hobbes, for example, was drawn into a debate about the mechanics of the sword stroke, something of immediate interest but long-term significance to the science of mechanics.46
Hartlib’s circle are well-known because of the riches that survive in his papers, but there were clearly many such networks in this period. One with which his interests eventually intersected was a group of London merchants, with interests in New World trade and associated with the Independent congregations in London. Bound together by their hostility to the great merchants of the monopolistic Chartered Companies, men like Maurice Thomson, William Barkley and Owen Rowe can be seen at the cutting edge of the radicalization of the parliamentary cause throughout the 1640s. Their time was to come in 1651, when their in fluence can be seen at work in the transformation of state regulation of overseas trade.47
Another set of transatlantic ties was also crucial – that between the exiled godly and those who had stayed at home. Hugh Peter returned to put fire into the belly of God’s soldiers, and Roger Williams came back in search of a charter for his godly community, pausing to reignite the divisions among the London godly over the correct form of church government. The diversity of these networks, and their intersecting, overlapping and sometimes conflicting visions, contributed to the confusion of post-war politics. In the next three years Lilburne, Walwyn and Overton would unite as ‘Levellers’, championing popular sovereignty as the basis of political order. Thomas Hobbes, already on a rather singular route, may have started work on his classic Leviathan in 1646, refiguring the classical heritage accessible to early modern gentlemen (Hobbes was a tutor in an aristocratic household) to argue for a new political world.48 Milton, in Areopagitica (1644), had already made a case for freedom of speech as the best means to arrive at truth; an argument of second nature to Western liberals in the twenty-first century. Such intellectual creativity, and the fluidity of political alliances, prompted attempts at a fundamental rethinking of politics.
Creativity was manifest in the content of arguments, in the forms in which they were expressed and the means by which they were disseminated. It was a product of the fluidity of the two coalitions and doubts about what would constitute a successful peace; and of escalating war efforts which had made both things more rather than less complex, and which sought to mobilize opinion and support among wide and overlapping publics. The resulting polemical morass exposed fundamental elements of political culture to sustained critical observation; and that public debate was far less socially bounded than was considered decent before 1640.
It was not the novelty of the problems which made this crisis remarkable. The problems of, for example, the origins of religious and other truths, the nature of the Christian community, and the relationship between religious and secular authority had all generated traditions of learned argument. What was remarkable about England in the 1640s was the depth and extent of their public discussion, the urgency with which they imposed themselves, and the creativity of some responses to them. Polemical fury had created a world of competing certainties: about the personal honour of particular individuals such as Nathaniel Fiennes, the trustworthiness of the King or the impropriety of revealing his private correspondence. Rival claims and rival accounts of the same event created a problem of authority: the authority of truth-claims. Expert testimony from physicians was a means of fixing the meaning of Pym’s death; Laud’s equally contested death was discussed in terms of martyrdom and hypocrisy. Print accelerated, generalized and amplified particular causes. Pamphlet debates articulated anxieties and uncertainty even as they laid claim to the truth, and in the course of the controversies some authors responded very creatively to these opportunities. Print was a means to mobilize, and the forum in which anxiety was amplified and creativity flourished.
One response to this effect of print was, of course, repressive. The lapse of licensing in 1641 had been unintentional, and a series of press-licensing measures followed, often in periods of acute political tension. Book-burnings were in a sense more than measures of censorship: they declared particular publications anathema to civil, Christian society. Whether an act of censorship or a statement of repugnance it was not only the content of the argument that attracted repression – it was often the form of expression. The 1643 Licensing Ordinance, for example, had cited ‘seditious’ texts as a problem, but in a longer list which was primarily concerned with civility: ‘false, forged, scandalous, seditious [and] libellous’ publications. Free speech in Parliament required that people have the freedom to speak – denunciation, misrepresentation, dishonourable satire all made the free exchange of views impossible. Secrecy about public proceedings, in Parliament and village bodies, was designed not simply to exclude the vulgar, therefore, but to allow political elites to discuss freely without the danger of their divisions becoming public, or the fear of public censure preventing them from making an important argument.49
With the spectacular growth of print these questions had become much more pressing. Some burnings – for example, those of Roger Williams’s Bloudy Tenent or of the Book of Sports – reflected a deep hostility to what they contained. Others seem more particularly a response to tone and form. Dering’s collection of speeches, burned in February 1642, had been scandalous to the proceedings of the House, rather than particularly offensive in their opinions. In early 1646 a collection of declarations published by the Scots was nearly burned, at a moment of tension in the military alliance – although in the end only the preface suffered this fate, presumably on similar grounds to Dering’s.50 Another case may have been the spoof of the parliamentary Souldiers Catechisme.Both armies were provided with catechisms, capturing the justness of their (conflicting) causes in apposite scriptural citation. The parliamentary catechism was issued seven times and there was a fake eighth edition, satirizing the use of biblical language in such an obviously godless enterprise.51 Questioning the religious basis of the parliamentary cause was hardly unusual – but executing such a dangerously false and counterfeit text as a way of making the case was clearly offensive. Of course, these values were interpreted politically – satire in a good cause was unlikely to be proposed for burning – and so what was burned at any particular point reflected the influence of particular opinions. The general principles seem to have been fairly consistent, however: John Milton (whose pamphlet had been burned along with Overton’s in August 1644) was unusual in arguing that there should be no prior restraint. Licensing, on any grounds, ran the risk of suppressing truth as well as error, and it was better to allow error than to suppress truth.52 Most contemporaries were less excited about expanding truth than they were anxious about proliferating error and the corrosion of political decencies, however.
Polemic and mobilization, along with the attendant anxiety and creativity, were not only a matter for pamphlet readers, however. Soldiers and civilians of humble status were confronted by the material costs of the fighting. If they could not avoid these realities of war it is also unlikely that they could avoid the political principles that the war raised. The circulation of rival proclamations (something taken very seriously by both sides), the raising of armies and of money, and the elaboration of local bureaucracies to achieve this: all these things forced an engagement with the arguments and costs of the war. So, too, did the many independent mobilizations – petitioning campaigns, the clubmen movements and the religious ginger groups anxious to impose their view of an appropriate settlement. The presence of garrisons and passage of field armies, perhaps even service in them, all fostered political education, and engagement.
Before the war the middling and poorer sort had on occasion deployed the language of authority in order to legitimate their own claims. These opportunities were increased during the 1640s, by the greater variety of political languages available. Partisanship became a common feature of local disputes – disputes in Warwickshire over the legality of soldiers” actions, for example, reveal how deeply the languages of national politics had penetrated; elsewhere malignant contested with well-affected, and scandalous ministers were denounced.53 Thomas Miles was prosecuted at sessions in late 1648 for saying ‘that the parliament men were rogues and traitors, and that he would be one of the first to cut their throats and that the Lord General [Fairfax] would die like a rogue and rot limb from limb’. He counter-sued that the witness against him, Anne Smith, had scandalized the Queen. Smith not only denied this but claimed in her petition: ‘it is dubious… whether any suit can justly be commenced against [her] in the name of the Queen, so long as she is declared traitor by both Houses of Parliament’.54 Others claimed to be of ‘approved fidelity’, or to have suffered for upholding order against those who ‘did give out very opprobrious and railing speeches against the parliament’, or suffered ‘opprobrious words against the parliament’ while carrying out its commands: partisan identities were self-consciously adopted throughout England.55 People with reputations for malignancy were not good friends to have. William Flacke was anxious to dissociate himself from Richard Filch, ‘a person disaffected to the parliament and an enemy to the present government’. Flacke was present at a particularly violent outburst, but was anxious to point out that he had been ‘incidentally in his company’.56
Memories of actions during the war clearly persisted long after. Francis Smith, of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, was sued in 1651 for the price of a prayer book ordered while he was churchwarden ‘about the beginning of the late troubles’. It was a replacement for one taken by soldiers and was itself destroyed. Smith claimed he had counselled against ordering a replacement, but had been overruled by the minister, Mr Jewell, ‘one not well-affected to the proceedings of the parliament’.57 Richard Harrymon, a butcher from Beverley, was known five years after the war as ‘a notorious delinquent who has been in actual arms against the parliament and a great plunderer of the goods of divers persons that were well-affected’. Disputes over actions during the war might persist for years: men were prosecuted for taking horses seven or eight years later, and such law suits could be a considerable expense.58 After the war, ordinances excluded malignants from office, and this gave scope to those like the ‘well-affected inhabitants’ of St Ives, Cornwall, to invoke central authorities against local officeholders. They claimed to lie ‘under a heavy burden and great oppression by reason of the insolency of these magistrates who now bear office… who for the most part were in actual rebellion against the parliament’.59
Larger principles could be made relevant to particular issues as easily in the Lincolnshire fens or the forests of the West Country as by politicians in Parliament. Iconoclasm offered a practical means of demonstrating the progress of reformation, but also threatened the triumph of ignorant zeal; the clubmen mobilized in order to mediate the new realities with more established institutions of local politics. Both had significance in every village and town, and both were almost immediately contested print phenomena. Pamphlets were an adjunct to these campaigns, and a response to these practical problems, not a separate world.
Print contributed to the mobilizations which rendered institutional politics unstable and, feeding off itself, fostered a lush and confusing world of comment and polemic. In that world there was an intertwining political and cultural crisis with implications for the practical order of local communities. And this was an accelerating problem because the cacophony of opinion fostered tremendous intellectual creativity which in turn became the basis for further practical political mobilization. Presbyterians, religious independents, political mavericks, astrologers, witch-hunters and natural philosophers all found a voice in a freer intellectual environment – robbed of its commonsensical certainties and the practical means to choke off dangerous public debate. At the same time it placed a premium on establishing fundamental truths. Sceptical commentators forced Hopkins and Stearne to defend themselves; Hartlib encouraged communication among natural philosophers in order to speed up the improvement of human understanding; innumerable authors theorized on the nature of the Christian community. Those with a solution to peddle could look to the world of print, and to support from the churches, the Covenanters, Parliament, and the City, or from wider publics. The excitement is impossible to separate from the trauma and anxiety from which it resulted, and to which it contributed.
In the months before and after Naseby, clubmen movements had creatively interpreted traditional forms of authority in differing though related ways, while others had pursued old material grievances or grudges against the committeemen. In East Anglia, in the summer of the New Model’s victories, witches were purged from local communities in unprecedented numbers. By the end of the war Samuel Hartlib thought he could see the opportunity to promote his vision of universal reform through practical proposals leading towards full reformation. Those with more-concrete constitutional and religious demands were by then sharpening their quills, or rather their moveable type. For it was not just the content of the argument that rendered politics unstable; it was the use of these ideas to mobilize opinion among competing and overlapping publics.
Edwards, Prynne, Lilburne, Walwyn and Overton inhabited a world in which arguments escalated: rapid, fixed and detailed responses called for endless responses, in which the polemical edge was honed and fundamentals were outlined.60 Print was crucial both to the practical complexities of politics and to the creation of the sense of chaos and confusion on which Lilly and others were trading. The explosion in the number of titles being produced, from a rapidly increasing number of presses, was dominated by down-market, ephemeral and time-sensitive publications – tomorrow’s ‘bum fodder’, often with the same value as testaments of truth.61 The use of print, petition and demonstration for all these purposes created a sense of disorder, and in the ensuing arguments individuals adopted increasingly polarized positions. Civil war – both the real one and the paper combats – was throwing up new forms of authority, and new sources of solidarity: gathered churches and textual communities, excisemen and garrison commanders, magistrates, witchfinders and clubman leaders.
As with the material impact of the fighting, however, these obvious costs were to some extent offset by the opportunities presented; taking up those opportunities further accentuated the problem. Some of the creative responses to these problems were bracingly radical – in secular politics, on issues of church government and, at a more fundamental level, on the possibilities of harnessing human reason in order to come close to God and achieve a secular millennium. Public discussion ranged far more widely than the formal peace negotiations – war had spawned arguments more profound and open-ended than who could have a negative voice in relation to legislation, or control of the militia.
Even if Charles had been inclined to be helpful on these narrower issues (which he does not seem to have been), it was not clear what he should be asked to agree to, or even whom he should try to settle with. Edwards and Cromwell were supposed to be on the same side after all and both had taken the Solemn League and Covenant. Initiatives for settlement, in these conditions, did not arise only from Parliament and the court, and ranged far beyond the issues of 1642 – one of the complexities of the post-war position was to be the rise of new sources of authority, new promoters of settlement. It was this practice of mobilizing opinion which had destabilized the Long Parliament, and it was no less significant following the war. Some were relatively opportunistic, some direct contributions to the debates about church government. All of them were a product of the war, and were organized in ways that took advantage of the practical conditions of life in wartime England.
A very common reaction to these conditions was a desire to resume normal politics but none of the partisans – constitutional or militant royalists, Presbyterian or Independent parliamentarians – could claim that desire as their natural territory. All had, in one way or another, violated these principles and practices. And no group on the parliamentary side could command sufficient support to force Charles to deal with them.