Barbarous Catholics and Puritan Populists

The Irish Rising and the Politics of Fear

Parliament reassembled on 20 October 1641 and soon after it was presented with a utopian tract called A description of the famous kingdome of Macaria. It was consciously modelled on Thomas More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and took the form of a dialogue in which a traveller, someone with practical knowledge, described Macaria to a scholar in straightforward terms, in the course of a walk from the Exchange – centre of news and trade – out into Moorfields. The traveller’s spare description of the institutions and political practices of Macaria made it clear how political arrangements could be made to deliver fundamental social reform. Some of the institutional practices in Macaria were of direct topical interest in England – for example, that the ruler’s council met annually, and heard complaints only about ministers, judges and officers, whom ‘they trounce soundly, if there be cause’. Others were less immediately topical, but were intended to help ‘this honourable court [to] lay the cornerstone of the world’s happiness’. Five under-councils sat briefly each year, dealing with economic matters (agriculture, fishing, land and maritime trade, and new colonies, or plantations). Any divine who published a new doctrine was considered a disturber of the peace, and suffered death for it, but in order to prevent the persistence of error, a Great Council met each year to debate new opinions. Those that won out in argument were adopted; those that did not were declared false. A college of experience took responsibility for new medicines, and those who produced them were rewarded out of the public purse. These features of life in Macaria, and the enlightened laws passed by the councils, promised not just political peace, but ‘plenty, prosperity, health, peace, and happiness, and… not half so much trouble as they have in these European countries’.1

This was an indirect, and belated, product of the high hopes of the previous autumn. Soon after the Long Parliament had instituted fast days, John Gauden and George Morley were invited to preach. They had both spoken on the theme of the need to pursue peaceful reformation and Gauden had made very positive mention of two leading figures in European Protestantism: John Dury and Jan Komensky (better known to posterity as Comenius). These two were already in correspondence with Samuel Hartlib, a Protestant refugee from the Thirty Years War. Hartlib was, like Comenius and Dury, well-connected with John Pym. He also had the support of Elizabeth of Bohemia and many other prominent politicians. These connections linked parliamentary pressure for the redress of English grievances with the larger European struggle for religious reform and Hartlib was asked to invite Dury and Comenius to London. As with so many other schemes in the first year of the Long Parliament’s life, nothing much had happened to deliver on these high ideals. In the summer of 1641, however, as the political logjam appeared to move and hopes rose, Dury and Comenius finally arrived. Dury had arrived by the end of June, and Comenius came on 21 September, in time for the re-assembly of Parliament.2

Dury was the son of a Scottish minister who was banished to the Netherlands when Dury was ten years old. Dury himself became minister to the Scottish and English Presbyterian community in Leiden and had, therefore, good credentials as a Calvinist involved in the international cause. He had made his name as a campaigner for religious unity, an irenic approach to religious difference intended to produce solidarity in the face of irreligion. Comenius was a victim of the Thirty Years War, a Bohemian exiled repeatedly by the military advance of Catholicism in central Europe. His distinctive contribution to Protestant thinking had been an emphasis on education: appropriate socialization would create good Christians and, therefore, a good society. For him, the pursuit of God entailed, and was promoted by, the pursuit of understanding. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had been blessed with a perfect knowledge of nature, knowledge which was lost at the Fall. To recover that knowledge of nature was therefore to undo some of the effects of the Fall and to come closer to God. Here he was influenced by Francis Bacon’s vision of a unified human knowledge based on experience, tried and proved using the powers of reason.3

It was these ideals which lay behind the utopian tract now before Parliament, proposing a college of experience, rational debate of doctrine and the use of government to make fuller use of economic resources. Macaria was almost certainly written by Gabriel Plattes, one of the ‘impecunious but ambitious innovators whose cause was taken up by Hartlib’.4 In 1639 Plattes had published treatises on mining and agriculture and he had a significant posthumous impact, but his immediate fate was perhaps symbolic of the disappointment of utopian hopes more generally: in December 1644 he was said to have been ‘suffered to fall down dead in the street for want of food, whose studies tended to no less than providing and preserving food for all nations’.5 Others took up these schemes for improving social conditions and knowledge of the natural world, and with some effect, but these hopes do not appear to have caught a very general mood during the years that followed.

Certainly, in October 1641, many people would have been content with a more limited settlement than the extravagant promise of Macaria. The most significant secular grievances from the 1630s had been redressed the previous summer. Charles’s settlement with the Scots entailed the abandonment of his attempts at reform of the kirk in return for a withdrawal of their army. This not only drew some of the sting about Charles’s intentions for the English church, but in leading to the end of the occupation offered financial relief and the possibility of dissolving the English parliament. The Prayer Book was becoming a rallying point for those as worried (or even more worried) by sectarianism as they were by popery. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh the King had begun to present himself as a focus for loyalty, emphasizing his regality. He had even offered to touch approved legislation with his sceptre, imbuing it with his sacred royal authority. This was a gesture unlikely to endear him to his Scottish subjects, implying as it might that the legislation was not valid until it had been so touched. It was, therefore, one with powerful resonance, and his Scottish subjects managed to put him off.6

In these circumstances the hopes of Pym and his allies may have had less potential appeal than their fears: anti-popery offered a better basis for a wider coalition than utopian hopes of the kind expressed in Macaria. Arguments about a popish plot found a ready audience, and were plausible in view of recent events. Charles had been seeking outside support throughout the last two years. He had seemed willing to do deals with Catholics, and against Covenanters and parliamentarians, and was now in Scotland perhaps conspiring against the people with whom he had just done a deal. This might seem to be the conduct of a king in the grip of a papistical conspiracy, or at least of a duplicitous or shifty individual, and many historians have taken essentially this latter view of him. But his behaviour seems more reasonable if we look at these things from a ‘three kingdoms’, or Stuart, perspective. It was not inherently unreasonable of Charles to seek support for his policies in all three of his kingdoms, and to try to use support in one kingdom to help him to govern the others. And he was, of course, acting out of principle, in defending the church and the crown from attack: he owed it to his successors to do exactly that. Nonetheless, it was not surprising that some at least of his English subjects regarded him as unreliable. The plot to get Strafford out of gaol had demonstrated that he was willing to resolve his political difficulties by unparliamentary means; reasonable enough from his point of view but not a welcome thought to parliamentarians. In June we know, although contemporaries did not, that he had considered a plan to use the northern army to overawe Parliament: the so-called second army plot. In July he had entertained discussion of the use of an Irish army to do the same thing. Thus, his negotiation in Scotland had certainly proceeded alongside discussions about how to do away with the English parliament; and those discussions had included consideration of some unconstitutional measures.7

This had certainly been reflected in his actions in Scotland. In October he had tried to carry out a coup against his chief Scottish opponents, the ‘Incident’. How far the King was involved in the attempt to seize Argyll, Hamilton and Lanark is not clear; nor what was to be done with them once they were taken, although assassination was a possible intention. Hamilton’s misfortune here was considerable: a member of the English parliament working for settlement, he had established links with many of Charles’s leading critics; in Scotland he had good relations with Argyll. Rather than putting him in a strong position, as a close adviser of the King, this laid him open to a hostile whispering campaign at court. The man who as Charles’s representative had had to kick his way out of the Glasgow assembly, and whose own mother had threatened to shoot him if he landed in Scotland, may now have been the target of a royalist assassination plot in which the King himself had a hand. Amidst rumours of royalist plotting, Charles attended Parliament to explain himself, but unfortunately agreed to be accompanied by several hundred armed men. Hamilton and the others fled, although Charles strenuously denied that they had anything to fear, and claimed in fact that the plot was invented solely to discredit him. Amazingly, Hamilton seems to have believed him: he returned with the King to England in November.8 For others the Incident made Charles difficult to trust and it continued to be possible to claim that this pattern of behaviour reflected the machinations of international popery. Despite the revelation of the Incident, however, opinion in England was probably drifting in his favour in the autumn of 1641.

It was in that sense convenient, perhaps, that on the same day that Macaria was presented to parliament, 25 October, fresh evidence of papistical perfidy also became available to the English parliament. John Pym received a letter on the floor of the House which purported to contain the dressing from a plague sore. Plague had been prevalent the previous summer but in England, unlike some other areas of Europe, the accusation of deliberate plague spreading was not usual. In fact, there do not appear to have been any other accusations like this in England during the period of the plague’s greatest incidence. Nonetheless it was a disease with political resonances, associated with disorder and divine wrath. Here, though, the problem in the body politic was not internal distemper, but foreign infection. ‘How bold was this attempt of inhumanity… But see the subtlety of the damnable project compiled without all Christianity’. Could papists possibly stoop lower? They would have to, of course, because God’s providential defence of Protestantism forced them to it: ‘God beholdeth all your mischief and saves the righteous from the cruelty’.9


The dressing from a plague sore delivered to John Pym on the floor of the House of Commons

Pym’s apparent brush with death was politically useful, perhaps suspiciously so.10 The fear of popery was a potent tool in fostering support for reform, and offered a powerful means of distracting attention from the perceived corrosion of religious and political decencies over the previous two years. English history, as generations of people had now been taught, gave manifest evidence of the desire of Catholics to defeat English Protestantism and to reintroduce popery: the effort to purify the church by eradicating popery existed alongside a vividly expressed fear of plotting by actual Catholics. In November, Pym was to take respectable anti-popery and use it to support a more or less direct attack on the King. With many secular grievances settled, peace in Scotland and fears about religious anarchy calling forth a Prayer Book petitioning campaign to rival that for Root and Branch reform, anti-popery may have represented a last refuge for some scoundrels.

Religious and political debate in the first year of the Long Parliament had been both open-ended and very public; unlike the Covenanting movement it had been constrained neither by organizational structures nor by a clearly stated programme. The content of the debate can be characterized both in terms of extravagant hopes, particularly for religious reformation, and of deep anxieties about the dangers of popery, sectarianism and what was being said, by whom and to what audiences. Charles’s public performances communicated a regality that was surely appealing to people becoming anxious about social, religious and political order. In the opening weeks of the second session fear was a more potent political emotion than hope, and fears of popery and Puritan populism were quite evenly balanced. That probably put the King in a strengthening position, particularly since so many of the grievances voiced twelve months earlier had now received a statutory redress.

If there was a drift of opinion towards the King, however, it was abruptly reversed in early November, when Pym was delivered more promising material than a surgical dressing. On 1 November, seventeen senior privy councillors came to the Commons to inform them ‘of certain intelligences, that were lately come, of a great treason, and general rebellion, of the Irish Papists in Ireland; and a design of cutting off all the Protestants in Ireland; and seizing all the King’s forts there’.11 This was sterner stuff than the attempt on Pym’s life, and offered a clearer reminder of the need to show solidarity in seeking to preserve the true religion.

Since 1541 Ireland had been regarded by the English as a sister kingdom. Gaelic elites had been invited to surrender their lands to the crown, accepting them back on feudal terms: the initial intention was to transform the Gaelic chiefs into aristocrats like their counterparts in England. Had this succeeded there is no particular reason to believe that the Tudor and Stuart monarchs would have favoured expropriation. That it did not succeed was due in part to the vested interests of Gaelic lords. The crown wanted succession to follow the principles of primogeniture, which lent stability and order to hierarchy, but in Ireland this would have meant cutting off the prospects of younger sons and others who could, under Irish law, hope to succeed through competition. The failure to transform the Gaelic elite into a court aristocracy was exacerbated by the failure of the Reformation, which also created a rift between the crown and its natural allies in Ireland – the group increasingly known as the Old English. Descendants of Anglo-Norman settlers, these groups were, in theory at least, culturally and politically closer to London than their Gaelic counterparts. In practice this was not true, and when both Gaelic and Old English groups failed to accept Protestantism a layer of religious conflict came to overlay these other political problems. A series of rebellions under the Tudors had led to an increasingly hostile policy of expropriation, culminating in the 1590s. In that decade rebellion in the Gaelic heartland of Ulster was eventually defeated and the landowning elite was replaced, largely by Scots. What was once close to the core of Gaelic society was now dominated by Protestant settlers. During the 1590s too, Spenser, one of the flowers of the English Renaissance, had written his View of the Present State of Ireland, a text used to appal modern sensibilities. It argued that the ‘wild Irish’ lived in barbarous conditions, bringing waste to a potentially fruitful island as a result of the corruption of their religion and manners (that is, the codes of social and political life by which they lived). Plantation of laws, civility and religion was the only way to redeem the waste. The creation of this Protestant, ‘New English’ presence in Ireland was a considerable threat to existing Gaelic or Old English elites. By the early seventeenth century Ireland seems to have been regarded by mainstream English opinion as both a problem of order and, under the influence of writers like Spenser, a heartland of barbarity and irreligion.12

It is to their credit that the early Stuart kings did not necessarily share these views, or give in to them, and in the late 1620s the crown, anxious to secure financial support from Ireland, adopted a conciliatory attitude towards Gaelic and Old English opinion. Both groups were concerned about the policy of plantation, seeking secure title for their lands, and some freedom to follow their religion under the crown. The Old English, previously regarded as the natural agents of the crown, sought to defend their political and social status from the newcomers. A miscellany of concessions, known collectively as the Graces, was negotiated in the later 1620s in return for the promise of money intended to make the Irish government self-sufficient, and able to withstand a Spanish attack without drawing on English money. Prominent among them was a recognition of title to lands which had been held for more than sixty years: a safeguard against expropriation and plantation. This echoed concessions granted elsewhere under the Stuart crown, and offered considerable reassurance to Irish landholders. The Graces also offered to relieve Catholics from some of the civil disabilities under which they lived – being barred from office and practising the law, for example.13

There were influential sources of opposition to the Graces, however. Both the Church of Ireland and the Dublin administration opposed them, or at least the most significant of them. Under James Ussher the Church of Ireland had taken a distinctly Calvinist direction, in advance of the Church of England. In fact worship was governed by Irish articles drawn up by Ussher, rather than by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, and although they did not directly conflict, they differed in emphasis in the direction of a more thoroughgoing Calvinism. The Church of Ireland, a hot Calvinist church amongst a majority Catholic population, was hostile to Catholicism in principle and a natural ally of those hostile to the interests of Catholics. New English settlers were often convinced Calvinists and many of them, particularly of course the Scottish settlers in Ulster, were not particularly sympathetic to the Laudian church. They had a material interest in the protection of the interests of existing planters, and of their church, and religious, political and strategic interests in the further promotion of plantation. The Dublin administration, not unnaturally, tended to regard the Church of Ireland and the New English as its most important allies. As a result concessions by the crown to Gaelic or Old English interests were not likely to be welcome to the church, New English settlers or the Dublin administration.14

On the promise of grants of taxation the crown had negotiated the Graces in spite of these complexities, but they were never finally conferred. In 1628 peace with Spain and France reduced the need for money, and the Graces were a casualty of the changed political environment. Hopes rose again in 1634 when Thomas Wentworth, now Lord Deputy in Ireland, called a parliament. He hoped to put Irish government on a secure financial footing – to make it pay for itself – and this led him to seek means of conciliating Gaelic and Old English interests. In return for financial support granted in the first session of the parliament Wentworth had held out the promise of a revival of the Graces, and an end to the imposition of recusancy fines on those who failed to attend the national church. Justified as a spur to conversion and therefore a godly measure, they had also proved an attractive financial expedient in the past. As it turned out, however, the parliament granted the money without, in the second session, giving the promised concessions. Indeed, it was clear that Wentworth favoured further plantation, for financial reasons and the other standard arguments: the promotion of civility and Protestantism, and therefore of loyalty and security.15

But this did not create the basis of a close alliance between Wentworth and the Protestant interests in Ireland. Wentworth also favoured bringing the Church of Ireland in line with the Church of England, which meant pushing it in a Laudian direction, and he was suspicious of the vested interests in the Dublin administration. In both cases a central priority was to uphold the direct authority of the crown, and these policies bear some resemblance to the priorities pursued in both England and Scotland during the same period. As in England the religious issue was particularly divisive. In 1634 Wentworth compelled adoption of the Thirty-Nine Articles in Ireland, and this was a prelude to sustained pressure to move Irish doctrine and practice in a Laudian direction. These measures acquired a directly political and strategic importance in the light of the Prayer Book rebellion. For many Protestants in Ireland, particularly in Ulster, the religion of the Covenanters was much more congenial than that of the Church of England. It was as a means of discouraging that alliance that Wentworth imposed the Black Oath – requiring them to abjure the Scottish National Covenant and to swear allegiance to King Charles.16

Crown policy was creating a common cause for advanced Calvinists in all the three kingdoms. Catholic leaders in Ireland, both Gaelic and Old English, on the other hand saw an obvious threat in the rise of the Covenanters and, in the Long Parliament, of English ‘Puritans’. Both Covenanters and English Puritans were hostile to Irish Catholicism and therefore relatively favourably inclined to plantation and the interests of the New English. But Gaelic and Old English leaders were also hostile to Wentworth because of his evident desire to promote Protestant interests in general, and their failure to secure the Graces. Thus, although there were obvious conflicts between the interests of Ireland’s various political groups, hostility to Wentworth was a common cause, and many parties in Ireland went along with the attack on Wentworth in the English parliament. This also reflected a more general pattern in Irish history – a willingness to go over the head of the Lord Deputy or Lord Lieutenant, and to appeal directly to the King. In 1640 the Irish parliament sent a remonstrance denouncing Wentworth’s government, and covering the whole gamut of Irish political interests, to the English parliament. This was, constitutionally speaking, something of an innovation. The English parliament had no direct role in the government of Ireland, but bringing Irish grievances to the English parliament gave that body a pretext for discussion of Irish affairs.17 Since the English parliament was a safe haven for anti-popish feeling of all sorts, this was not in the long-term interests of Irish Catholics – clearly the King was likely to be a better friend for them.

Hoping to make capital out of this obvious point, Charles had offered concessions to Old English leaders during Strafford’s trial. In return for financial support he promised to cancel future plantations, recognize the security of title of lands held for sixty years or more and to confirm other concessions initially offered in the Graces. Further concessions were offered in July, again in return for promises of financial support. These offers were tactical, of course, and the tactics soon changed. The Edinburgh parliament took up the case of an Ulster settler who suffered as a result of the Black Oath, forwarding his case to the English House of Lords. As the temperature rose in London, the offer to confirm the Graces was withdrawn and the Irish parliament was formally subordinated to the English one.18

These political disappointments led some prominent Irish leaders to rebel. In its inception the rising was an elite movement intended as a coup against the Dublin administration, which did not have the interests of many Irish people at heart, and against strongholds in Ulster which might become a threat to Catholic interests. The aims of the risings were to secure parliamentary independence under the crown, security of title to lands and freedom of worship without financial or political penalty. This was a form of politics familiar from Tudor England: a loyal rebellion, designed to present grievances from a position of strength. It was not conceived as a separatist, nationalist or even anti-Protestant movement, but an attempt by elite figures to secure extra leverage in making their case to their king. Magnates in Tudor England had made a similar case, that their Catholicism could be reconciled with political loyalty to the crown. Force was a means to secure a change of policy, typified in the proposal that the Earl of Ormond, who was both Protestant and of Old English extraction, should replace the despised Lords Justice in Dublin.19Significantly, however, most of the leaders of aristocratic rebellions in Tudor England had ended up dead.

The initial plan had been that on 23 October risings in Ulster would coincide with an attempt to seize Dublin Castle but the Dublin conspiracy was betrayed the night before and the chief conspirators arrested. Ormond had already withdrawn to the family seat at Kilkenny, and it remains unclear whether or not he knew about the impending attack on Dublin Castle. The Ulster risings did bear fruit, however. Building on a coalition against plantation and in favour of the Graces, it brought together the aspirations of the Gaelic and Old English leadership. Increasing indebtedness had led to hostility against the settlers in Ulster and that also fed into the support enjoyed by the leader of the rising there, Phelim O’Neill. The Ulster rebels declared themselves to be in arms in defence of their liberties, not against the King – a claim typical of risings in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. It seems clear that at this stage the Irish Catholic nobility felt that they could call off the rising if their political demands were met – they seem to have made that offer explicitly.20 Outside Ulster, however, in the other three provinces, and in Ulster once the rising was underway, significant social tensions were released.21

For Protestant settlers the rising evidently came as a surprise: they said so, and it is clear from statements taken about the rising that many of them had not fortified their houses or taken serious measures to protect themselves. However, although it was not in origin a religious protest, it came to be one, and was certainly seen that way in England. Forceful expropriation led to physical violence and there was at least an element of religious hostility in those attacks.22 It is difficult to believe that the rising had no basis in real tensions between ‘natives’ and ‘newcomers’.


English reports of atrocities in Ireland were wildly exaggerated

Whatever the actual course of events on the ground, atrocity stories quickly began to circulate in England, both orally and in print, along with fevered rumours that the Irish were coming. VVorse and worse nevves from Ireland reprinted a letter read to the House of Commons on 14 December, reporting how in Munster the ‘rebels’:

exercising all manner of cruelties, and striving who can be most barbarously exquisite in tormenting the poor Protestants, wheresoever they come, cutting off the privy members, ears, fingers, and hands, plucking out their eyes, boiling the heads of little children before their mothers” faces, and then ripping up their mothers” bowels, stripping women naked, and standing by them being naked, whilst they are in travail [labour], killing the children as soon as they are born, ripping up their mothers” bellies as soon as they are delivered…23

And so on. The pamphlet goes on to name names, dates and places, but the modern consensus is that these pamphlets reveal more about the imaginations of the authors and readers than about events in Ireland. Although there were more measured voices, these stories offered for a receptive audience in England a manifest proof of the existence of the popish plot and the horrors to which it could give rise.

Worse still, on 4 November, Sir Phelim O’Neill published what purported to be a commission to him from the King. His purpose was to claim support for his Irish aims, by claiming to act to preserve the King from the hostility of Puritans and Parliament.24 The impact on Charles’s prospects in England could hardly have been worse. The rebellion fused with the already extant fear that Charles was either untrustworthy or in the hands of a papist plot which aimed to extinguish English liberties and to corrupt the English church. These and similar responses in Scotland persuaded the Old English that the prospects for Catholics in Ireland were dismal and in December 1641 they declared their support for the Ulster rising. O’Neill’s tactics therefore triggered an unhealthy set of reactions with apocalyptic views in England and Scotland of the Irish and of Catholics. The result was to transform what was perceived to be a Catholic rising against Protestants into an actual rising of Catholics against Protestants.

Little more than two months after news of the Irish rising reached London any pretence of normal parliamentary government had collapsed. At the point when news of the rising reached London, parliamentary commissioners were in Edinburgh with the King. They were sent Additional Instructions about the necessary armed response to the Irish rebellion which could hardly have been more inflammatory. The seventh instruction attributed the great ‘miseries, burdens and distempers’ in the King’s dominions over recent years to the ‘cunning, false and malicious practices’ of men close to the King’s counsels. This party had been ‘favourers of Popery, superstition and innovation, subverters of religion, honour and justice’ and ‘factors for promoting the designs’ of hostile foreign powers. Not only this, but they had also sought to disrupt the relationship between the King and his parliament. Money granted by Parliament had been spent unprofitably, or on schemes which were positively detrimental to the state, and while Parliament had laboured to purge ‘corruptions’ and restore ‘decays’ in church and state this same party had laboured to suppress the liberty of Parliament. In response to the power of this group, and the threat that it posed to Parliament and religion, Parliament had to attach strings to any money granted to deal with the Irish rising. The eighth instruction, accordingly, called for the King to change his counsels, listening to such men ‘as shall be approved by his Parliament… that so his people may with courage and confidence undergo the charge and hazard of this war’. This was a crucial escalation from the Ten Propositions of June, which had asked the King to remove counsellors unsound on ‘religion, liberty, [and] good government’, and to replace them with men ‘his people and parliament may have just cause to confide in’. The new demand, for active approval by Parliament of the advisers, was accompanied by a threat that made an important distinction, by citing the ‘trust which we owe to the state and to those whom we represent’. That could, potentially, justify their finding another way of ‘securing ourselves from such mischievous counsels and designs’ and giving control of money for Ireland to ‘such persons of honour and fidelity as we have cause to confide in’.25

On the same day, 8 November, Pym tabled what has become known as the Grand Remonstrance. A committee on the state of the kingdom had been at work on ‘a remonstrance of all the present evils and grievances of the kingdom, to present to the King’ as early as January. While Pym sought to maintain a sense of impending crisis in Westminster, it was clear by early August that it was not shared in the provinces, and the original committee of twenty-four was replaced by a committee of eight, which evidently made rapid progress. In the autumn one more meeting sufficed to add thirty-four clauses relating to the second army plot and the Irish rising. In the subsequent debates eight more clauses were added, and six were enlarged, but the Grand Remonstrance as we have it was largely the view of the world that Pym’s circle had held in August.26 The Irish rising confirmed them in their views, reinforcing the message of the plague sore about the real problem that confronted the English state.

The Grand Remonstrance elaborated on the themes of a popish plot to subvert religion and liberty, detailing specific instances from the date of Charles’s accession onwards, and citing resistance to the wholesome reforms promoted during the previous year. This was done at very great length – a total of 204 individual points were made for the King’s consideration. The preamble went further than the Additional Instructions by naming the actors in this plot. They were not only the ‘Jesuited Papists’ but also the bishops and ‘corrupt part of the clergy, who cherish formality and superstition’ as the best means of sustaining their own ‘ecclesiastical tyranny and usurpation’. These two were joined by counsellors and courtiers who for private reasons had found it helpful to pursue the interests of hostile foreign powers. The aim of this plot was to cause differences between the King and his people over the prerogative, to suppress the purity and power of religion, to unify those most friendly to these aims and to sow division in the ranks of those most likely to oppose it, and to disaffect the King from his parliament. It was a complex phenomenon, of course, but there was a clear essence: ‘As in all compounded bodies the operations are qualified according to the predominant element, so in this mixed party, the Jesuited counsels, being most active and prevailing, may easily be discovered to have had the greatest sway’.27

This was a remarkably provocative document intended to firm up support for further reform, and support for the King in resisting the threat of religious and political disorder. It followed on from anti-Catholic measures taken on 1 November but escalated the claims of anti-popery.28 In effect, the Grand Remonstrance presented the King to himself as the stooge of a conspiracy dominated by Jesuitical aims, supported by corrupt churchmen and counsellors pursuing private interests. Of course, such a government could not be trusted with the prosecution of the war in Ireland and this latter point was spelt out for good measure in the accompanying petition. The malignant party, in addition to all the aims already enumerated, had sought ‘the insurrection of the Papists in your kingdom of Ireland, and bloody massacre of your people’.29 To support the war without first changing the counsels of the King would be to give money and arms to those responsible for the rebellion in the first place. Thus, although it had moderated certain key demands – in particular dropping Root and Branch reform – it did not find the middle ground.30

Even for those who believed all this, in every detail, it was difficult to believe that you could talk to a king this way, or at least do so with any hope of success. Looking back on it later, Clarendon remarked more on the divisiveness of this means of proceeding than on the rights and wrongs of the particular grievances:

It contained a very bitter representation of all the illegal things which had been done from the first hour of the King’s coming to the crown to that minute, with all those sharp reflections which could be made upon the King himself, the Queen, and Council; and published all the unreasonable jealousies of the present government, of the introducing Popery, and all other particulars which might disturb the minds of the people, which were enough discomposed.31

To many contemporaries this was simply wrong in principle, but even if it was not, it was impolitic to proceed in this way since it gave the King no real option but to reject the analysis.

After a twelve-hour debate on 22 November the remonstrance was passed by the Commons by the narrowest of margins: 159-148. It was even more impolitic, and an even greater breach of decorum, to make this case and the associated demands publicly, but this too was done after an even more controversial debate. By a vote of 124-101 it was agreed that the remonstrance could be ‘published’ but not ‘printed’: that it could be circulated in manuscript copies, in other words. In the course of the debate Geoffrey Palmer had threatened to enter a protestation against the decision to publish, an intervention which nearly caused a fight and was later considered to have been intended to. The inhibition about printing lasted until 15 December, when the Commons voted by 135-83 to allow the printing of the remonstrance. These divisions reflected the growing difficulty of sustaining consensus in Parliament and the growth of open division. In going ahead without the Lords, the Commons were also, perhaps, making a point. There were significant misgivings though. As Dering put it: ‘I did not dream that we should remonstrate downward, tell tales to the people, and talk of the king as a third person’. Increasingly obvious partisanship in Parliament represented a significant political change.32

Clearly, what gave strength to those pushing these measures forward was a belief in the imminent danger of the popish plot. Over the winter of 1641-2 politics in England was conducted against the backdrop of terrible stories from Ireland, and the fear of popery in the provinces was all too evident. Security measures taken in Parliament helped fuel rumours in Norwich, Guildford and London that papists were going to fire the town. A troop of forty armed Catholics was reported in London, and a few days later it was said another troop had arrived from Lancashire. A recusant in Buckinghamshire caused panic when he was stopped with letters that he had carried through Lancashire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, and which he destroyed when captured. Searches of recusants” stores of arms took place in many parts of the country and mysterious movements or assemblies caused panics in Bedfordshire and Berkshire. Portsmouth was gripped with a fear that the governor was going to take the fortress, in preparation for a French or Irish invasion, and in Staffordshire, it was reported, people were so frightened by rumours of popish plots to attack them while they were defenceless in church that ‘they durst not go to Church unarmed’. Rumours spread through the West Midlands in late November, from Lichfield to Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and from Kidderminster to Bridgenorth. Ludlow, Bewdley and Brampton Bryan spent the night of 19-20 November ‘in very great fear’. A similar panic spread in West Riding towns early in 1642. Civic authorities in Newcastle, Hull and Berwick all appealed to Parliament for protection in late 1641, Berwick on two occasions. Panics also seized Liverpool, Conway and Beaumaris, and Lancashire towns ordered the arrest of strangers, Catholics or men riding at night. In January 1642 a skirmish took place resulting in the death of Catholics and Protestants. This was the third of five such peaks of anti-Catholic panics between 1640 and 1642, all of them related to particular political crises. It was over by the early summer, but revived again in August.33

This panic about popery fed, and probably fed upon, the output of the presses.34 During the third week of November letters reporting events in Ireland had flooded into London and this gave rise to a publishing innovation: the newsbook. On 29 November, the Heads of Severall Proceedings appeared, published by John Thomas. The appetite for news was well-established, and had been satisfied in previous years by manuscript newsletters or ‘separates’. There had been hostility to publishing Parliament’s proceedings in print, and Dering had got into quite serious trouble for doing it. In fact during the Short Parliament note-taking had been banned, and, in the Long Parliament, John Rushworth was regarded with some suspicion because of his proficiency in shorthand, leading to a formal investigation.35

At the same time that inhibitions in Parliament were lifting, the apparatus of control was dissolving. News-related pamphleteering was peaking: Thomason had collected around sixty titles per month since the trial of Strafford, and that total now reached ninety. The publication of the Grand Remonstrance both recognized and encouraged the growth of this political world of print, by addressing ‘the people’ as competent judges of history and politics. At the same time, country petitions were being printed – their appeal thereby directed not just to the named recipient but to a wider political world of potential fellow travellers. The brakes were now completely off and January 1642 was the biggest month in Thomason’s whole collection – 200 titles, dropping back to ninety by May. This was the spring of the ‘paper war’, in which fundamental political questions were canvassed before a print audience.36

This is the context of John Thomas’s decision to publish his newsletter of parliamentary business. He had connections with Pym, who had proved himself an eager publicist over previous months, and was a prime mover behind the publication of the Grand Remonstrance. Earlier in the week Thomas had published a pamphlet reporting the Incident. What was particularly important about the Heads of Severall Proceedings, however, was that it was a serial. He published another the following week, and soon had numerous competitors. The boom lasted until March 1643, when Parliament successfully enforced licensing.37 By that time a series of long-term newsbook titles accounted for half of Thomason’s collection – clearly the newsbook eroded the market for the one-off political pamphlet.38

An immediate implication of this was an increase in the supply of news. During the 1630s the services of professional letter writers seem to have cost around £20 p.a. The Earl of Bridgewater seems to have paid something like this to John Castle in return for perhaps three letters every two weeks.39 A little over a year later 1d bought 5,000 words of news each week; for his £20 Bridgewater could have had 4,800 titles (more than ninety each week). More important than the potential banquet that this provided for Bridgewater was that readers who could not possibly have enjoyed the services of a newsletter writer could, for less than one ninetieth of the price, have a weekly newsletter which was fuller, and not necessarily less well-informed, than that of a professional letter writer of the 1630s. Increasing the supply of information is not, of course, a guaranteed way to foster clear understanding, and many readers may have felt that they enjoyed fewer certainties as a result of this news revolution. John Castle had been scrupulous about identifying and weighing sources, advertising particular reports as ‘likely to be true’, distinguishing between rumour, report and news in complex ways. Nonetheless, Bridgewater was unsure what to believe: ‘the various reports of the news of this time be such that no great credit be to be given to the rumours spread abroad’.40 Newsbook writers were evidently aware of this difficulty and quickly came to proclaim their bona fides on their title pages: The kingdomes weekly intelligencer: sent abroad to prevent misinformation; Mercurius Civicus; Londons Intelligencer as truth impartially related from thence to the Kingdome to prevent misinformation; The moderate: impartially communicating Martial affaires to the Kingdom; or the Mercurius anti-mercurius, which claimed to be ‘Communicating all humours, conditions, forgeries and lies of mydas eared newsmongers

There are some suggestive connections here. The pamphlet about the plague sore had been printed for ‘W.B.’, possibly the bookseller William Bowden, who was active in these months. Bowden is known to have published a number of tracts recounting stories of Catholic plotting and in December he published a number of pamphlets retailing the atrocities of the Irish rebels. John Thomas’s pamphlet about the Incident used the same woodcut as W.B.’s pamphlet about the plague sore. Like Bowden, Thomas was also active in publishing pamphlets about the atrocities carried out by Irish Catholics. It may be that this reflects a network of printers and booksellers working hard to promote awareness of the popish plot and the image of Pym as the main bulwark against its success.41 It is clear that the plague sore and the Irish rising were useful to Pym and he may actually have used them.


John Pym portrayed in the forefront of the battle against popish conspiracies

Fear about the popish plot fed on uncertainty about events, an uncertainty that in turn fed rumour and anxiety. These issues were reaching out beyond Parliament; perceptions of local events were coloured by these larger anxieties while at the same time reports of these events fuelled the crisis of confidence that lay at the heart of the failure of the political process. Pamphlets sold by their covers – the titles are actually abstracts which sell the book from the shelves of the stalls. What publishers and authors put on the covers probably reflected their sense of the market and it may therefore be significant that in 1641 ‘plot’ and ‘conspiracy’ were unusually prominent terms.42 Excluding official publications and newsbooks, the impression is quite dramatic: in November 1641 Thomason collected eighty-eight pamphlets, of which nine had ‘plot’ in the title, two more promised discussion of ‘conspiracies’, and others discussed ‘bloody plots’ and ‘bloody attempts’.43 An increased supply of information did not in this case solve the central political difficulty of uncertainty and the problem of establishing trust, but it greatly amplified rumours. In March it was reported that 154,000 settlers had been killed (the real number may have been nearer 4,000)44 and some estimates went as high as 200,000.45 And, to reiterate, this Catholic rising was said to have enjoyed the support of the English king.

Fear of the popish plot was driving political action beyond the bounds of decency and was reciprocally related to the growing publicity given to political discussions. This produced a polarization of political opinion, however, not simply a drift of opinion to Parliament. By the time that the Grand Remonstrance had been passed Charles was back in London. His progress southwards from Scotland was marked by conspicuous displays of loyalty, and his entry into London on 26 November was the occasion for another lavish display. This was a deliberate political manoeuvre of course: Charles had not previously indulged in a formal entry into his capital city, a lack that has struck subsequent commentators as significant by comparison with the greeting accorded to the Puritan martyrs the previous year.46 The King was, of course, the essential element of any settlement, and this interest in public political theatre surely rested on that knowledge.

On entering London, Charles was ‘brought in with a Hosanna at one end of Town, [but] he found a Crucifige at the other’, wrote James Howell a short time later. In the light of the controversy over the Grand Remonstrance and the warmth of his own reception in the City, Charles cannot be blamed for thinking that his opponents in England might now have gone too far and that this division of opinion could play in his favour. In any case, Charles could hardly be expected to concede to the demands of the Grand Remonstrance, given the public analysis on which those demands were apparently based. Thus, while he was feted in the City, the ‘Remonstrance framed’ in Westminster could expect ‘but cold entertainment with His Majesty’.47

Charles, by emphasizing the threat of Puritan populism, played to a resurgent royalism based on a concern to preserve political and religious decencies. Acknowledging the petition and the ‘declaration of a very unusual kind attached thereunto’, his answer first objected to the publication of the petition and remonstrance. He would have hoped for a chance to answer but this decision robbed him of the time to consider his response. He had also hoped that their own ‘reason’ and regard to the King would have dissuaded them from proceeding in this way, or at least that his express view that they should not would have restrained them. He was, he said, ‘very sensible of the disrespect’ that it implied. Beyond these concerns about the integrity of the political process, he naturally rejected the history presented in the petition and remonstrance, and promised to consider the proposals in a ‘parliamentary way’, although his answer sounded dubious about all the principal proposals – removing the Bishops” votes in the House of Lords, alienating control of his choice of counsellors and giving undertakings about Irish lands before the war was even fought. It was significant, perhaps, that the answer said that Charles was in search of support for the ‘royal estate’, in contrast to their concern for the state and those they represented. But the key issue was that Charles could plausibly suggest that he was the safeguard of parliamentary courses, rather than these populist hotheads and, perhaps, that their views of the interests of the state were corrosive of the royal estate.48

If Charles was harsh on popularity he was also stringent on Puritans, without using either term. On 10 December he issued his own declaration on religion, which largely echoed the Lords declaration of 16 January, calling for worship according to the laws of the realm, and for severe action against those who undermined that worship: ‘the present division, separation and disorder about the worship and service of God, as it is established by the laws and statutes of this kingdom… tends to great distraction and confusion, and may endanger the subversion of the very essence and substance of true religion’.49 An attack on a conventicle in the City on 19 December shows that crowds could be mobilized against sectaries as well as against bishops.50 In a sense this was a battle for the middle ground. The Grand Remonstrance had accused papists of driving a wedge through Protestantism and here was the counter-charge – that Puritans were splintering and weakening the practice of the true religion. In the coming years it was partly on these grounds that radical Protestant sects were to be accused of popery.51

The passage of the Grand Remonstrance was a pivotal moment in English politics in several ways. It crystallized a conflict between the popish plot and the fear of Puritan populism; those promoting concern at the machinations of Jesuits, their allies and dupes were appealing outwards, confirming fears about populism and making it increasingly difficult to secure concessions which left the dignity of the crown intact. There was a widening gap between the rhetoric of the two sides: Thomas May (writing in 1647) thought that it was at this point that ‘ordinary discourse’ became polarized.52 The constitutional implications of the remedies proposed by the Grand Remonstrance further confirmed that political demands had escalated uncomfortably. For those actively engaged in national politics, it would be difficult to get out of this not simply because the claims being made were so likely to be rejected, but because the way that political negotiation was being conducted was dangerous in itself. Many who felt Parliament had right on its side on religion, foreign policy and the prerogative might well come to feel that the greater threat to political well-being was posed by democracy or anarchy.

Above all, this was a triumph for coalition-building on the basis of fear rather than hope. There had been a drift of opinion towards the King over the summer, and at the heart of this revival of Pym’s fortunes were fear and distrust; and in particular the impossibility of trusting the King and his advisers. Simonds D’Ewes noted in his diary during this tense autumn that ‘The logicians say that the final cause is the first in intention though it be the last in execution: and so here let us but look to the ultimate end of all those conspiracies and we shall find them to be to subvert the truth’.53 Extravagant anti-popery was combined with conscious popular appeal, and this found echoes on the streets and in the counties. Much of the appeal of the Grand Remonstrance lay in the purchase of anti-popery, which was greatly increased in the wake of the Incident and the Irish rising, and the burgeoning print market escalated the uncertainty in more than one way. It also began to justify increasingly direct attacks on the Queen’s freedom of worship.

Pushing through the Grand Remonstrance, however, and moving against the Queen in this way, came close to over-bearing the weight that could be sustained by anti-popery and the King was not in an isolated political position in taking a strong line against it. If conspiracy theorists could see in the demands of the Irish leaders the machinations of the popish plot, others could see in the Additional Instructions and the Grand Remonstrance the clear imprint of Puritan populism. The polarized opinion manifest at the heart of government was manifest too in the counties, where the Prayer Book petitioning campaigns were taking off. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that this was good news for the King: there had been no such polarization when Parliament had assembled in November 1640.

Politics in London were also becoming more polarized. The triumphant entry of the King had rejuvenated street politics, and in late November and December it was calls for further reform that dominated. In Common Council elections in late November the balance of power shifted towards those promoting reformation, and this was associated with constitutional change in the City and in many vestries.54 A second Root and Branch petition was presented on 11 December to mark the anniversary of the first one. In the final days of December crowds thronged around Westminster demanding a response, and seeking the exclusion of the bishops and popish lords from the House of Lords while the future of episcopacy was being discussed. They were also confronted by Colonel Lunsford, a clash which revealed the currency of two stereotypes of enormous significance for the future. Lunsford’s men were referred to as ‘Cavaliers’ while the apprentices were derided as ‘Roundheads’: party affiliations were becoming visible among the populace at large. Demands for Lunsford’s removal from command of the Tower of London became another rallying point, and one of constitutional significance.55 Violence was barely constrained and increasingly partisan, and there can be little doubt that these disturbances affected parliamentary business.

Charles now embarked on a high-risk strategy, against this background of increasingly unruly politics in London, and fear that his wife (who was increasingly openly attacked as the heart of Catholic influence at court) was becoming the target of the kind of campaign that had killed Strafford. On 4 January 1642 he entered Parliament with a body of armed men in search of five members of the Commons and one of the Lords whom he had identified as the principal architects of his troubles.56 He had intended to try them for treason on seven counts: attempting the subversion of the laws of the kingdom and depriving the King of his regal power; attempting to alienate the people from their King; attempting to draw the army from its obedience to the King; inviting and encouraging a foreign power (Scotland) to invade; attempting to subvert the right ‘and the very being of Parliaments’; in order to do this, attempting ‘by force and terror to compel the Parliament to join with them in their traitorous designs, and to that end have actually raised and countenanced tumults against the King and Parliament’; and conspiring to levy, and actually levying, war against the King.57 This was not perhaps as unprovoked as is sometimes implied: it followed immediately after an accusation of treason against twelve bishops. Nehemiah Wallington certainly seemed to appreciate the significance of the juxtaposition, giving the running heads to these pages of his notebook ‘xii bishops charged with treason justly’ and ‘Six worthy members of the house charged with treason unjustly’.58

The attempt on the Five Members was a bold move, which would certainly have broken the deadlock, but it is difficult to see it as anything other than politically foolish, although the charges were no more extravagant than those laid at Charles’s door by the Grand Remonstrance. There is evidence of co-ordination between Pym’s circle and the Scots prior to the invasion of 1640, and of Pym’s connection with the incitement and countenancing of tumults.59 Of course, the worst outcome was to suffer the outrage without bagging the targets. Famously, when Charles arrived the birds had flown, forewarned that something was up. This ensured that the coup was a failure, and left the Commons free to express its unrestrained outrage at this invasion of its privileges. The declaration ‘touching a late breach of their privileges’ made no bones that the King had come to Parliament with ‘many soldiers, Papists and others, to the number of about five hundred’.60

On the following day Charles went into the City to demand that the members be handed over but this visit revealed the extent to which he had lost control of his capital. Common Council men elected in November had taken their seats early, and the City was already in the hands of men with whom Charles was unlikely to want to deal. The meeting became disorderly, as cries of ‘Parliament, privileges of Parliament!’ mingled with cries of ‘God bless the King!’ Charles withdrew, but as he did so the outer hall rang with the cries of assembled citizens, ‘Privileges of Parliament!’ Such was the hostility on the streets of London that, on 10 January, Charles left his capital.61 As has often been noted, Charles was not to return until he himself was tried for treason in 1649.


The triumphant return of Parliament men following the King’s departure from London

Parliament had adjourned its sitting on the grounds that it was not safe at Westminster. On 11 January its sitting was resumed. Having left town the previous day Charles was spared the sight of a triumphant return of the Parliament men, the accused members among them. It was an orchestrated demonstration of support for Parliament, marked by banners and streamers, celebratory volleys and a flotilla on the Thames. Shouts against bishops and popish lords were heard and, along with copies of Parliament’s condemnation of the breach of its privileges, copies of the Protestation were prominent – fixed to the tops of pikes and sticks or on muskets, worn in hats, pinned to coats or attached to banners. A copy of the Protestation had also been thrown into the King’s coach on his retreat from the Guildhall. The message was clear: Parliament was the guardian of the Protestant faith: its privileges and the true religion stood together.62

If the English response to the Covenanters? invasion in 1640 had disappointed the King, the response to the Irish rising must have come as a blow to the solar plexus. The question of whether the King could be trusted with an army to put down the rising was immediately at the forefront of English politics. Even if this doubt was groundless, of course, it did not make it any more likely that the King would seek to conciliate it. Both sides played on commonly held fears, rhetorical exchanges heated up and an increasingly polarized political argument spilled out onto the streets, into the presses and out into the counties. The high hopes expressed in A description of the famous kingdome of Macaria had not held the centre of political debate; fear was triumphing over hope. Indeed, 1641 had become the year of plots – fears of popish plots in rural England fed on the revelation of actual plots in London. Two army plots, the attempt on the Five Members and the Incident, the revelation of Strafford’s plans for the Irish army – all this created a political atmosphere in which trust was at a premium. But it was not all on one side – on 5 January 1642 an associate of one of the constables of the Tower had claimed that Pym and the others accused of treason ‘did carry two faces under one hood’ and that Puritans, not papists, were at the root of the current trouble.63 The vastly increased output of pamphlets and then newspapers did little to lower the temperature either. If titles are a guide to what publishers thought would sell, it is clear that they saw a large market in this uncertainty.

These panicky politics had led to political escalation. Parliament was no longer acting as a consensual body, but was increasingly partisan. Members were actively courting public opinion and were certainly not trying particularly hard to put an end to street politics. Executive powers were being claimed too: in the fevered last weeks of December, Parliament had called out military forces on its own authority, and the Common Council of the City of London had formed a Committee of Safety with similarly questionable powers. Most importantly of all, the King had removed himself from London. In that sense, and many others, parliamentary politics in England had collapsed; the nation’s ills were no longer being addressed by the King-in-Parliament.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!