Out of the loop?

by Nick

Council of War

When I first started working in government, there was an e-mail forward that used to do the rounds every so often with a satirical collection of civil service jargon and what it meant. It’s since made its way online [PDF] and one of the definitions that is not only funny but also true is this one:

Loop (as in “in the loop” or “not fully in the loop”)
A very important phrase especially for those who are not fully in the loop as it can cause resentment and lead to temper tantrums. It is a measure of how important you are as to whether you are in or out of the loop at any one time.

I was reminded of this definition recently when re-reading Filippo de Vivo’s fantastic book about the politics of information in early modern Venice. De Vivo unpicks the various layers of society in which Venetian politics were conducted, tracing the importance of political information for people at all social levels. One of the themes he illuminates is the growing role of what he calls ‘information professionals’ in the conduct of Venetian politics:

Venice also hosted a large constituency of people with a professional interest in political information – diplomats and their agents, authors and newswriters, groups living at the margins of early modern politics… As well as bonding with patricians, ambassadors also surrounded themselves with a more heterogenenous host of intermediaries, people who were not fully part of formal politics but who networked their way into the secrets of the powerful through favours, personal friendship or money… Information professionals were part of the political system, helping communication between different members of the political system. (Filippo de Vivo, Information and communication in Venice: rethinking early modern politics (Oxford, 2007), pp. 4, 74.)

I suppose my own job could quite aptly be described as an ‘information professional’: as a ‘policy wonk’ (a less flattering title, but still fair) much of my role revolves around collecting information and providing it, in mediated form, to others. And then it struck me that my dissertation has also ended up gravitating towards a study of information professionals. In unpicking the evolution and impact of the early Commonwealth’s newsbooks, a substantial chunk of my current draft looks at the roles of their various authors, licensers, printers and publishers. They are people whose names only appear briefly in the major political histories of seventeenth century England: people like Gualter Frost, who was secretary to the Derby House Committee then the Commonwealth’s Council of State, or Henry Walker who went from marginal pamphleteer to state-licensed journalist and sermoniser. Even John Rushworth, secretary to Fairfax and the council of the army, is probably better known for his collection of newsbooks and bricolage-style history of the 1640s than for his role in politics.

All these men certainly fit the definition of  living at the margins of early modern politics. Historians have also often gone out of their way to marginalise them. The original Dictionary of National Biography described Rushworth as a ‘historian’, only amended in the 2004 edition to ‘historian and politician’. Frost’s DNB entry focuses on his nepotism and dismisses his attempts to write political propaganda for the Commonwealth. He suffers in comparison to his successor, John Thurloe, who is more often seen as a sophisticated political puppet-master. Walker is probably best known for an incident in 1642 where he threw a scandalous pamphlet into the king’s carriage, than for his relationship with the army and the Council of State.

Yet my suspicion is that all of these men played bigger roles in the politics of the 1640s and 1650s than historians ordinarily allow. What is striking about all three is how widely their careers stray from one type of information to the next. All were involved in editing newsbooks, and some licensing them as well. All wrote or ghost-wrote political propaganda. Walker preached sermons praising Cromwell and the army, while Frost and Rushworth kept records of extremely high-level political meetings. They all had roles that involved shaping or reshaping the political information which grandees used to make decisions, and on which (some) citizens of the Commonwealth (partially) based their political ideologies and allegiances. Their role, basically, was to keep other people in the loop.

Frost, for example, started his career as manciple of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and also wrote almanacs on the side. In the late 1630s he began acting as courier for the Junto in their secret correspondence with the Scots. In 1644 he then became secretary to the Committee of Both Kingdoms, the crucial administrative development of Parliament’s military superiority, and stayed with it as it evolved into the Derby House Committee then the Council of State. He would not have stayed so long unless he was trusted: and his role would almost certainly have quietly involved a great deal of what civil service jargon today calls ‘stakeholder management’ – keeping different factions on side.

Similarly, Rushworth started his career as assistant clerk to the Commons, but rose to become secretary to Fairfax and to the general council of the army. During the mid-1640s and then from 1649, he acted a licenser of newsbooks and pamphlets, helping to shape the material the public read. He also ghost-wrote some of the accounts of battles that were sent to Parliament by Fairfax and subsequently published. During Pride’s Purge, in particular, he seems to have played a crucial role behind the scenes in uniting the army grandees with Independents in Parliament. When a group of purged MPs demanded to see Fairfax, it was not Fairfax who answered them, but Rushworth – by letter, hand-delivered by Edward Whalley (one of the Council of Officers).

Walker, too, seems to have been closer to the political centre than has sometimes been realised. Indeed he seems to have lived with Cromwell for some period of time during the late 1640s. During the trial and execution of the king he was able to give detailed coverage in special daily editions of newsbooks due to his links to the army. He was also sufficiently powerful to request, and be granted, his own licenser in a struggle with Gilbert Mabbott during the late 1640s. By the time of Cromwell’s death, it is possible he was acting as a groom of the bedchamber to the Lord Protector.

There are various reasons why such men don’t loom larger in accounts of early modern politics. Their activities were not always ones that tend to leave traces in the historical record. Politicking that is carried out face-to-face or through meetings only survives if a record is kept of it in minutes or a journal. There is also a sense in which historians may be unwilling to grant ‘bureaucrats’ a role in proceedings. It is easy to speak of decisions ‘made’ by Charles I or Oliver Cromwell – partly these are synecdoches for ‘the state’, ‘the monarchy’ or ‘the Commonwealth’, but in an age of personal monarchy early modern rulers were extremely powerful. Nevertheless, they still had a small but significant machinery of government to support them in making decisions and in executing them. Historians are now more alive to occasions where royal proclamations were ghost-written by others, or where key decisions were made on the advice of others. But typically the advisers focused on are still political grandees such as the earl of Clarendon. People like Frost, Rushworth and Walker have been studied in most detailed not in accounts of high politics, but by Gerald Aylmer in his history of the development of the English civil service. It’s true that all three reflect a growing centralisation of officials, a shift from men-of-business attached through patronage to great aristocrats to salaried officials employed by the state. Nonetheless, it might just be the Sir Humphrey in me, but I suspect there is more to them than that.

My image is a woodcut illustration of an army council, probably the Council of War, taken from the frontispiece of A declaration of the engagements, remonstrances, representations, proposals, desires and resolutions from His Excellency Sir Tho: Fairfax, and the generall councel of the Army (London, 1647).