Inventing a Republic

by Nick

I’m currently midway through Sean Kelsey’s Inventing a Republic: the Political Culture of the English Commonwealth, 1649-1653. I’m finding it a slightly frustrating read.

Inventing a Republic, by Sean Kelsey

As a straightforward narrative history of the iconography of the     Commonwealth it is very good. There are some outstanding sections that reconstruct the decisions taken by the Council of State and the Rump: for example, on the design of the new Parliamentary mace, and its promulgation throughout England; or on the development of a Commonwealth “standard form” for ambassadorial protocol. The chapters on spectacle and on icons are particularly good at giving a sense of the detail of how the Commonwealth expressed itself and was expressed visually.

What grates slightly is the argument that Kelsey lays on top. I use that form of words deliberately because it seems, at times, as if the argument is disconnected from the details set out in the individual chapters. Kelsey’s stated aim is to allow the Commonwealth to speak in its own voice – if you take this as meaning an analysis of the Council and Rump’s various methods of self-expression, rather than an attempt to access a more fundamental “truth” behind what previous historians have argued, that’s fine. But he couples this aim with a desire to argue that the Commonwealth was more radical and creative than historians have given it credit for, and that this is particularly true in how the regime represented itself. This is where I start to find a bit of a disconnect. Lots of the examples Kelsey deploys show a fundamental lack of radicalism in their style or subject matter. Kelsey himself admits that there is little evidence of the Rump’s political culture drawing inspiration from the models of classical republicanism. So where does the regime turn instead? Not to a middle ground based on concepts of the “public” or similar, as faras Kelsey’s evidence can tell us; instead, it is to straightforwardly early seventeenth-century monarchical imagery. It is modified only inasmuch as references to the king are removed – so the crown jewels are broken up, for instance. There is also a limited element of retrenchment on certain expenses. But otherwise, the regime recycles and re-presents the iconography of its monarchical predecessors. Is this radical? Arguably no. Is it creative? Well, potentially – but part of that judgement rests on how well it works. A look at other periods shows that it can work extremely well – for example, part of the success of the early Christian church was arguably down to how well it anchored itself in a reconfigured version of the “pagan”/polytheistic past, hence creating an “invisible” break between the pre- and post-Christian empire. And that’s the question that Kelsey doesn’t quite answer. How well does this re-deployment of conventional pre-civil war political imagery work in mending the fracture in the English polity during the 1640s – at carrying out the task of “healing and settling the nation” that was so important to Cromwell and many others? After all if we are to believe that political iconography shapes as well as reflects the success or failure of a regime – and can do so just as effectively as economic, religious or social policies – then the Rump’s political culture is of vital importance in answering the question of whether/why it ultimately failed. It’s not a question I feel I can answer very well, and although Kelsey’s book is what has made me think of the question in the first place, he doesn’t quite arrive at the answer yet.

One other gripe is the lack of theory in the book. I think it would have benefited hugely from a chapter summarising the historiographical and theoretical framework behind the study of seventeenth-century political culture, and the extent to which this can or cannot be applied to the Commonwealth. As it is the book has a very solidly empirical feel, but little “superstructure” to it. That said, despite these slight disappointments, it has got me thinking rather deeply about the issues it raises.