The use of history, and the just rules for composure of it, have been so well and fully described heretofore by judicious writers, that it were lost labour and a needless extension of the present work to insist by way of introduction, upon either of them.
So wrote Thomas May in the preface to his The history of the parliament Of England, which began November the third, MDCXL, published ‘by authority’ in May 1647. John Langley, who had licensed it for publication, pronounced it ‘an impartial truth; and judge it fit for public view by the printing’. Authority lay in this official licence, but also in the claims of a truthful discourse. ‘I will only profess’, wrote May reassuringly, ‘to follow that one rule, truth, to which all the rest (like the rest of the moral virtues to that of justice) may be reduced’.1
It was an impossible task. May was writing against the background of the increasingly public collapse of the parliamentary coalition, splintering under the enormous pressure of making peace. By the time his book was complete, and available in a handsome folio edition, the New Model was close to rebellion against its political master and was becoming the champion of a programme for which no-one had been fighting at Edgehill. A history of the still-sitting parliament could not be anything but contested in those circumstances.
May knew this as well as anyone:
The subject of this work is a civil war, a war indeed as much more than civil, and as full of miracle, both in the causes and effects of it, as was ever observed in any age; a war as cruel as unnatural; that has produced as much rage of swords, as much bitterness of pens, both public and private, as was ever known; and divided the understandings of men, as well as their affections, in so high a degree, that scarce could any virtue gain due applause, any reason give satisfaction, or any relation obtain credit, unless among men of the same side.2
Tacitus himself had faced such difficulties, and certainly those of us labouring in the area of seventeenth-century studies have good reason to share May’s unease. May’s appeal was to the court of public opinion, ‘to the memory of any English man, whose years have been enough to make him know the actions that were done; and whose conversation has been enough public to let him hear the common voice, and discourses of people upon those actions,… whether such actions were not done, and such judgments made upon them, as are here related’.3 Like many of his contemporaries, and without much greater success, May sought to rise above the polemic and broadcast the truth, appealing to the ‘people’ and the ‘common voice’ as the arbiters of it.
May was writing for a society accustomed to viewing its present condition against much longer histories: mapping contemporary experience onto received accounts of classical history (May had translated Lucan); or against the universal Christian history. Contemporaries continually found parallels for their condition in the annals of Greek and Roman civilization, and in the Bible: precedents and examples which lent meaning to the current chaos. Political conflict arose from the disputed meanings of current affairs, understood against a historical backdrop. Meaning, politics and history were closely intertwined.
In the polemical battles of the 1640s, for this very reason, history had been much abused:
there are many ways besides plain falsehood, whereby a writer may offend. Some historians, who seem to abhor direct falsehood, have notwithstanding dressed truth in such improper vestments, as if they brought her forth to act the same part that falsehood would; and taught her by rhetorical disguises, partial concealments, and invective expressions, instead of informing, to seduce a reader, and carry the judgement of posterity after that bias which themselves have made.4
Bruno Ryves’s chronicles of parliamentarian excess were sourced, but hardly unbiased; Ricraft and Wharton’s chronologies of battles selective, though not invented.
Histories pretending to impartiality rested on another common contemporary practice – of collecting. In fact May’s history was published by Moses Bell for George Thomason, the greatest collector of them all. Collecting was not necessarily more neutral an activity than chronicling. Thomason’s politics are almost invisible to us – almost but not quite.5 Other collections had a more or less directly political purpose: Husbands’s collation of parliamentary declarations in the spring of 1643, perhaps, or the army’s book of (edited) declarations four years later. They were certainly put to use, immediately. Lilburne held Parliament to account using Husbands and at Putney the agitators and radicals held the army grandees to account using their own Book of Declarations, while the Agreement of the People was in turn measured against those declarations. Each cause was defined by public statements which were collected: historicizing and fixing, offering a point of reference in a wild polemical world. Clarendon, writing against May, also collected his papers; John Rushworth, subject of suspicion in 1640 because of his command of shorthand, collated important documents in his Historical Collections (the first part was also published by Thomason); Clarke took careful notes of the meetings at Putney. Without these histories, and these collections, we would have much poorer access to the experiences of the 1640s, but all of them are flawed, and partial. Many of the authors collected by Thomason were more deliberately so.
In these conditions, of partial or even false reporting, trust was essential to claims about truth – truthfulness was a social or rhetorical quality, something performed as much as demonstrated. May favoured a plain style which found applause among a Victorian audience, although his impartiality is less credited now.6 An unvarnished style, with copious factual support, was a common writing device during the 1640s. Tales of plots, wonders, miracles and prodigies were buttressed in these ways, and by external sources of authority: credible witnesses of social status, the origin of the information in a private (and therefore more reliable) communication, or in the revelation of a private collection – cabinet or closet. Truth was at a premium, and contemporaries were creative in their approaches to claiming access to it: trust was the crucial quality, and a very difficult one to foster.
In May we hear the voice of many contemporary anxieties: about the direction of current events, measured historically, and the related difficulty of agreeing what had happened and what it meant. In his anxiety to foster trust, as a necessary preliminary to promoting belief, he shares much with our own politicians – the projection of a reliable image was crucial to the arts of political, or historical, persuasion. Much contemporary polemic focused on these questions – the persistent whispering campaign, sometimes a shouting campaign, about Charles’s untrustworthiness, scurrilous accusations about Cromwell’s private life. In Thomas May’s appeal to a truth outside the subjective view of an individual historian we can also hear the voice of modern professional history in its hubristic pomp: in its claims to be able to arrive at a definitive account. If we ever really did have confidence in the possibility of such a definitive account, we have lost it now. Ours is in some ways a less historically conscious society than May’s, or the Victorians”. History is more often a diversion or entertainment than a guide to action, or to justice – a stock of stories to divert rather than experiences in which we can find ourselves reflected, informed, or even corrected. Remote events such as the English civil war are very unlikely to be recruited as a detailed guide to action in current political affairs. That may be a mistake; but it may be one reason why the current generation is more comfortable with a plurality of meanings, or parallel realities and alternative values.
Thomas May certainly saw some advantage in this multiple perspective: ‘If those that write on the other side will use the same candour, there is no fear but that posterity may receive a full information concerning the unhappy distractions of these Kingdoms’.7Milton, surprised, offended but not cowed by the hostile response to his arguments about divorce, went further: he embraced this clash of opinion as the best route to the truth. Our generation is more sceptical about the possibility of such final truths, and more likely to find more than one meaning in the events of the 1640s. Emphasizing this indeterminacy has contemporary warrant too, since those who lived through the wars certainly did. It was a conflict fought with pens as well as swords, and which ‘divided the understandings of men, as well as their affections’. In fact, in a sense, it was what the war was about.
Killing the King did not settle the arguments. For most people, even many of those most responsible for carrying it out, the execution of Charles had not been the main business of civil war politics, the abolition of monarchy even less so. Those who carried through this revolution subsequently declared England to be a ‘Commonwealth and Free State’, to be governed by the supreme authority, ‘the representatives of the people in Parliament, and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as officers and ministers under them for the good of the people’. These ideals were neatly expressed in the new Great Seal: ‘1649 in the First Year of Freedome by Gods Blessing Restored’. The central image was not a head of state, but the representative of the people, the expression of their sovereignty. In practical terms, however, this vision proved more difficult to realize than simply by maintaining government ‘without any King or House of Lords’. Throughout the 1640s the strength of the parliamentary alliance had been as a negative force – anti-Laudian, anti-episcopalian and, eventually, explicitly anti-Caroline. As a movement for a positive and defined end it had been liable to fissure, and this continued to be the case.
In the regicide we might see the consummation of a number of revolutionary impulses: the army purged the Commons of its corrupting elements, hoping thereby to create a body more nearly representative of the people; the purged Commons shed an inhibition and passed an Act without the consent of the Lords or the King; the King was held to be a man, answerable like all others to the representative of the people, his interest subordinate to the salus populi, and capable of treason against the state erected to defend it; the children executed their father. But this was, even in the last days, a reluctant consummation. In these final weeks the party who most wanted Charles dead may have been Charles himself: in his martyrdom lay the best hope for monarchy as he understood it, more attractive by far than the various emasculations being proposed to him. It was probably personally appealing too. Unable to ‘deal’ with rebels, it was better to call their bluff, to let them paint themselves into a corner and be forced to commit this final, monstrous, barbarity.
If we can be reasonably sure what the regicide meant to Charles, then, its wider meaning was more complex. Although this was clearly not a popular act, there were at least two Londoners who were actively thrilled by these events: Phineas Payne, the boastful man about town, intent on impressing countrymen; and Samuel Pepys, the equally boastful schoolboy.8 Moreover, consternation at the regicide did not necessarily imply support for Charles Stuart’s politics or behaviour, or a commitment to the brand of royalism that he had championed. But it remains the case that Charles’s killers did not have a message with the clarity of Charles’s royal martyrdom. John Milton identified the main point, titling his response Eikonoklastes: the transformation of Charles’s life and death into an ornament of the church called forth the demand for further breaking of images. Milton’s work appears to have enjoyed far less success than its target: there seem to have been only two editions in England before 1690, in 1649 and 1650, and one French one in 1652.9 It was not just the textual image of the King that was attacked. In 1649 and 1650 Parliament issued a series of orders against Stuart images and it was these, increasingly, that were to be cleansed, rather than the churches themselves. Statues of James I and Charles I at the west end of St Paul’s were demolished and the inscriptions erased. The statue of Charles at the Royal Exchange was beheaded, its sceptre removed and the legend inscribed: ‘Death of the last royal tyrant in the first year of England’s liberty restored, 1648’. Two weeks later the remnants of the statue were removed, leaving only the inscription.10 This was a political erasure rather than a revolution in aesthetics: the people responsible for this cleansing were quite willing to buy items from the King’s art collection, and images of Cromwell during the 1650s owed a lot to the same iconography from which the Stuart monarchs had drawn.11
The erasure was only partially successful. There was a market for some of the more impressive portraits, which were sold rather than destroyed. A large bronze equestrian statue of Charles I, commissioned by the Earl of Portland before the troubles broke out, was acquired by residents of Covent Garden in 1644. It was by then inadvisable to erect a new monument and the statue was put in the churchyard of Covent Garden for the time being. Despite an instruction ‘to break the said statue in pieces to the end that nothing might remain in memory of [Charles I]’ the statue survived, buried in the ground, until the Restoration. It now stands in Whitehall, on the site of Charing Cross, close to the spot where Charles was executed. The greater success was in attempts after the Restoration to erase the memory of the republic. Cromwell, who came to embody the authority of the new regime, adopted monarchical trappings, but had to wait until 1899 for a public statue outside Parliament.12
Many of the most important legacies of the 1650s were unintended or at least unforeseen consequences of the conflicts, or means to some other end. The defence and security of the new regime were established using the machine created in civil war. Decisive campaigns against pro-Stuart forces in Ireland (1649) and Scotland (1650–51) were marked by crushing, perhaps pitiless, victories at Rathmines, Drogheda and Wexford (1649) and at Dunbar (1650). Defeat of a final Scottish incursion into England at Worcester in 1651 effectively ended the cycle of wars in the three kingdoms (see Map 5). There followed successful naval campaigns against the Dutch and in the Caribbean. Forced to defend themselves against internal and external threats, the nation’s governors created military resources unprecedented in English history, achieving military dominance within Britain and Ireland and laying the foundations of a powerful maritime empire. And although Eikon Basilike was more successful than its rebuttals, the 1650s were a lean time for active royalism – defeated in arms, and reduced to a rump of ineffectual plotters for most of the decade. In exile the heir to the throne enjoyed a thin time of it, he and his court frequently an embarrassment to their hosts. Barbados and Virginia were made to submit to the authority of the Free State, and the military means created to achieve this became also the means to regulate and direct the trade of the colonies. The foundation of the navigation system was the foundation too of the first English (later British) empire, and it contained the central contradiction of later imperial life – the forcible imposition of English liberties, and their costs. By the mid-1650s this ambition was translated into armed conquest in the Caribbean, and the Commonwealth was recognized and wooed by the major European powers. Cromwellian England was a nascent global power and secure against domestic opposition.
The equestrian statue of Charles I at Charing Cross, pictured soon after it was erected
The Cromwell statue in Parliament Square, pictured soon after it was erected
These partial and ultimately outmatched efforts at destruction, and the achievement of security at home and abroad, were not the sum of the republican achievement, however. Anxiety, confusion and discord continued to spur intellectual, rhetorical and communicative creativity.13 In an important sense 1649 was a moment of opportunity, at which definition could be given to the people, their representative, their religion and the purposes of government. For this reason it was the opening of ‘the epic years of the English political intellect’.14 The opportunities were so plural, however, that any practical solution would simultaneously be a rejection and a limitation. There followed successive attempts to set limits and boundaries, to give definition to the new dispensation, and this created new victims and martyrs beyond the ranks of the defeated royalists. This fertile legacy of political argument, however, far outlived the failures and compromises of the 1650s.
In a way, the failure of monarchy, Parliament or local government to contain and resolve conflict in 1640–42 represented the dissolution of political community. This posed a profound challenge, and gave rise to an enormously destructive civil war, but it was for some an exhilarating experience, rich in reflection on what it meant to belong to a political community. It was prompted by a religious protest in Scotland which fractured the English peace. Rival, plural mobilizations gave rise to loose coalitions, held together by fear. Print accelerated, generalized and amplified the resultant argument. During the war further escalation resulted in further acceleration. Pamphlets engaged with one another, sharpening, refining, escalating and radicalizing arguments. This became a political crisis with great social depth, not just or even principally in print, but in all the practical attempts to mobilize – pamphleteers, armies, iconoclasts, witch-hunters, clubmen, Levellers, protesters and petitioners. The social depth of the crisis was important not just in itself, but because it was part of the crisis. Intellectual coherence was challenged by multiple mobilizations around common-sense values – Protestantism, law, honour, treason, loyalty – for partisan purposes among overlapping publics. This process of mobilization fractured a common-sense system, making manifest contradictions and encouraging the development of new ways of imagining the world. If killing the King did not end the arguments then neither did the declaration of the first year of England’s freedom: it set off another round of paper combats over what that was.
In particular, further reformation had opened up the boundary problem – the attack on the authority of bishops removed the umpire of questions of theological error and decency in worship. The ensuing debate operated on both levels – where were those limits (fought out using popery and sectarianism) and, more fundamentally, who should decide, and how? The two archetypes which drove polemic during 1640–42 – anti-popery and anti-Puritanism – were well-established world views, religious in tone, but embracing visions of social and political relationships too. But they expressed fears about the edges of the reformed faith rather than certainties about its core.
Regicide did not answer this uncertainty and the 1650s saw an unresolved debate about the nature of the Christian community. On what basis should Christians be gathered into communities, and who should decide the boundaries of acceptable belief and practice? Here the regime was minimalist – allowing latitude but marking the outer limits with draconian measures. Acts against adultery and blasphemy set the fundamental limits of decency: unquestioned sins were markers of unacceptable belief and practice. The question of authority and conscience settled on the issue of toleration – what could be tolerated? When James Naylor rode into Bristol on a donkey, his followers laying leaves before him, he was performing his belief – that each of us has the spark of the divine within us. For many others, though, this was a demonstration of the dangers of toleration: the claim to be Christ himself. Naylor was prosecuted for ‘horrid blasphemy’ and Parliament spent some time discussing which physical punishments might fit this awful crime. Toleration, in a post-Laudian world, still did not mean freedom of belief and expression; nor does it now.
Redress of secular grievances about the limits of the prerogative was transformed into quite novel claims for the powers of Parliament over armed force, and the composition of the executive. In a kind of analogy with the religious arguments a practical boundary question – about the powers of the monarch – gave way to a more fundamental question about how to decide the issue. The claims of custom, law and tradition gave way before arguments about sovereignty (of parliaments and even the people); claims for sacred or divine kingship were challenged by arguments about a providential mandate for a clean slate. An escalating public debate about the meaning of key words, and about fundamentals, gave rise to considerable creativity.
Some of the most exotic products of the creative chaos belong on the wilder shores of Reformation thought, and some were constructive attempts to apply traditions of communal demonstrative politics to the new situation. But some belong with the Enlightenment rather than the Reformation – dealing with the relationship between the individual and the state, rather than with the proper relationship between traditional powers and liberties. The Levellers and Thomas Hobbes (whose masterpiece, Leviathan, was first published in 1651) were not typical voices, and nor were their arguments the ones that were necessarily at stake, but they indicate the beginnings of a passage from the world of reformation to the world of enlightenment. Going into the 1640s the political crisis was being driven by the politics of reformation; by 1649 something like enlightenment politics can be observed close to the centres of power. It was this, rather than the constitutional experiments of the 1650s, that was the really revolutionary product of the crisis of the 1640s.
Much of this was faltering, anxious and, for many, reluctant – amidst the trauma of war those with creative solutions to sell were not all pursuing these forward-looking arguments, and those doing so were often regarded as beyond the pale. The pursuit of a settlement was a practical question, but it had to be tackled against the background of these anxious, creative, chaotic politics; and support had to be mobilized among diverse and often incompatible constituencies. Nonetheless intellectual ferment was at least as visible as a creative power.
On these questions the civil war and regicide spawned arguments which rumbled on for generations. Sovereignty and toleration were at the heart of argument into the nineteenth century, and no workable settlement was achieved, arguably, before 1715. Cromwell, it is often said, was torn between an inspirational, exhilarated godliness, which spurred him to imagine new worlds, and a more pragmatic desire for healing and settlement. He is often accused of abandoning or betraying the dream, but others certainly did not, not in the 1650s and not under Charles II either. And their legacy was important in the wider British Atlantic world and beyond, long after England’s eleven-year interregnum had been legally annulled. This revolution, the challenge of new visions of the good (Christian) political community, was a long one, resonating in our own time. How to reconcile groups with conflicting transcendent visions within a single political community is a question which has not lost its edge. The Covenanters had an answer for a united society confronted with an ungodly ruler; the English grasped for answers in more plural conditions.
Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne, editorializing on a report of a spectacular volcanic eruption in the Azores in July 1638, wrote: ‘Let the speculative ponder, and the philosopher search out the cause of so portentous an effect, in as much as the mathematician seeks rects for his judgement, and the historian knowledges for his discourse’.15 It was no easy task to discover the meaning of meaningful events.
For those who lived through the civil wars it was no easier, and many continued to feel betrayed by the cause they had felt they were fighting for. At the same time, opportunities were taken up by networks of activists, creating effects that were not at first thought of, or aimed at. Experiences of these portentous events were confused and diverse: startling creativity arose alongside great trauma. It had no single voice and no single significance; it transcended the immediate practical problems of political settlement, and was not definitively expressed in any of the subsequent constitutional solutions. This story, of creative confusion, was relevant not only to the 1640s and not only to the English – it inflected the revolutions in America and France, fostered the rise of a great power, was significant to the history of European republicanism and to the roots of the Enlightenment. Experiences of these conflicts were plural, ambiguous, divided and contrasting; their potential meanings equally diverse. In the end, events so portentous as the sufferings of the 1640s, and the multiple responses to them, deserve to be remembered not for a single voice or consequence, but because they provide many knowledges for our discourse.