Humphrey Crouch, Hugh Peter and a parliamentarian owl

by Nick

If you’ve ever used early modern pamphlet literature as a source, the chances are you’ve come across a few books where the author and/or the publisher remain anonymous. Sometimes this is just because the content doesn’t need the author listed – for example a reproduction of a letter or sermon. But often it’s because the content is controversial or scurrilous, and those involved don’t want to make their connection known.

Nevertheless it’s sometimes possible, with a bit of hard work – and by stealing some techniques from bibliography – to identify authors and publishers. I spent most of Thursday afternoon trawling through Early English Books Online looking at woodcut initials, illustrations, cracked print etc that might match those in a pamphlet I’ve been working on. Combined with other contextualisation this can be a useful way of tracking down who the printer of a particular work was. It can also often be very dull, but it does mean you get to trawl the depths of EEBO for things you’d never normally see.

Thursday was a case in point as I came across various ballads by Humphrey Crouch. The first was Come buy a mouse-trap, or, A new way to catch an old rat: being a true relation of one Peters a Post of Roterdam, who temping [sic] an honest woman to leudnesse, was by her and her husband catch in a mouse trap (1647). The ballad tells of how Peters took a woman to the tavern to try to seduce her. She offers to sleep with him for a crown before going home to tell her husband about the trap she’s set. Later that night Peters comes by, reaches under the door for the key as they’ve planned, and is caught by a mouse-trap. Here’s the moment itself:


Peters is almost certainly Hugh Peter, the Independent minister who was closely linked to Fairfax and Cromwell. By 1647 Peter was a significant player amongst the army grandees – John Lilburne called him the “grand Journey or Hackney-man of the Army”. He drew heavy criticism from anyone not on his side, whether royalists or Levellers, criticism that was probably partly deserved – he seems to have been one of those “love me or hate me” charismatic preachers, with a sometimes boastful side. From 1633 to 1635 he had been pastor of the church at Rotterdam, which makes it likely that he is the Peters of the poem – particularly when you consider the other sexual libels being flung at Peter at this time. Just a few of many examples include:

  • In 1649, Peters was cast simultaneously as the murderer of Charles I and the seducer of John Lambert’s wife by the anonymous author of The famous tragedie of King Charles I basely butchered (1649).
  • He was cast as the character Sodome in Cosmo Manuche’s The loyal lovers (1652).
  • His sexual exploits were a staple of royalist newsbooks, most of which were not averse to mentioning Peter’s exploits.

You can find out more about Peter’s alleged activities, along with those of Cromwell, Ireton, and Marten – at least according to their royalist detractors – in Jason McElligott’s The Politics of Sexual Libel. What’s interesting, though, is that Crouch was not a royalist. He was a solid, middle-of-the-road Protestant who supported the Book of Common Prayer but disliked Laudian introductions during the 1630s. And 1647 is quite early for this critique of Peter, too.

Another wonderful example of Crouch’s ballads is My Bird is a Round-Head (1642). I had wanted to blog about this in some depth but upon Googling for it I found Blogging the Renaissance had got there first. Still, it’s a lovely tale of a sports-loving Northamptonshire man who keeps an owl called Roundhead. A nosy, over-zealous Puritan neighbour reports him to the JP for setting up a maypole and his owl’s provocative name. Here is the neighbour getting cross at the owl and the maypole:


There is a very good exegesis of the poem at the Blogging the Renaissance post – including an explanation of why the owl may have been chosen (not least because of its round head). But I thought I’d add a bit more historical context. Northamptonshire’s gentry remained parliamentarian during the civil wars, but the county itself was in the frontline and saw lots of fighting (not least the battle of Naseby). Linked to this are divisions in the area’s agrarian ecology. An already mixed agriculture saw significant enclosure and the conversion of arable land to pasture. David Underdown has argued that arable areas were far more likely to preserve “traditional” patterns of belief in how parishes should be ordered than wood-pasture areas, which he sees as being the vanguard of a more puritan moral order, particularly amongst the gentry and parish elites. Although not all of England fits into Underdown’s regional ecology model (eg East Anglia provided solid support for Parliament but was not a wood-pasture region), it adds a suggestive context as to why Crouch picked Northamptonshire – to what extent was it seeing the development of two different cultures during this period?