London crowds and the Restoration

by Nick

There is an interesting post by Lucy Inglis over at Georgian London about the moment, in March 1660, when a painter went into the Royal Exchange and obliterated the inscription by the statue of Charles I that had been symbolically beheaded in 1650:

Exit Tyrannus, Regnum Ultimus Anno Libertatis Anglicae Anno Domini 1648, Jan 30.

I hadn’t come across this incident before, but I’m not so sure – as Lucy suggests – that it’s necessarily evidence of different parts of London society uniting to welcome Charles II back to London. So (in the nicest possible way!) I thought I would set out some counter-examples.

It’s true that this is certainly the traditional way of looking at the events of 1659 and 1660. C. H. Firth’s history of the period argued that the London crowd had become alienated by the heavy taxation of the Protectorate and the Commonwealth which followed it, which combined with the economic downturn of 1659 led them to welcome Charles II back. Firth’s account contrasts this with the role of the London crowd in forcing Charles’s father out of London in 1642.

There is certainly something in Firth’s arguments. Merchants and tradesmen alike were under pretty severe economic pressure during this period. But as subsequent historians like Tim Harris have argued, there are some things about this narrative which are jarring. One is the tendency to see the crowd as a monolithic entity capable of switching allegiance depending on the circumstances. “The crowd” exists only as a perception in the minds of individuals: crowds themselves are a collection of individuals, who will have joined it for a range of motives, and one crowd is not the same as another.

Early modern crowds were certainly capable of what might be described as mindless or at least non-political violence. But they were also just as capable of highly targeted and politicised acts of violence. The poachers and woodcutters who killed the Earl of Middlesex’s deer in 1642 were targeting a potent symbol of his gentility, in response to grievances about their treatment at his hands. Likewise, enclosure protestors who ransacked the muniment rooms of manor houses were attacking the legitimacy of those oppressing them. And early modern crowds, or at least their leaders, were equally able to strategise. The apprentices who petitioned Parliament in 1647 for their rights to holidays planned their march well in advance, and backed it up with printed advertisements scattered about the streets and pasted up and down London’s walls. All of which means we need to be careful when ascribing uniform motives to crowds, and equally careful of not stripping their actions of a political vocabulary.

Another counter-argument to Firth’s narrative is the circumstances in which the painter expunged the legend by Charles I’s statue. By March 1660 neither Cromwell was in power. Oliver had been dead for a year and a half and it had been nearly a year since Richard had resigned the Protectorship. England was ruled once more by a republican Commonwealth with power constituted in a reformed Rump Parliament. It was the Rump, and the steps it tried to take to protect independent sects, that prompted many of the actions taken by Londoners during 1659 and 1660. It is a mistake to read too much royalism into their demands: foremost in the demands of the various petitions from that time, and of the various crowds which protested, was a call for a free Parliament to protect their rights. Some saw these rights as religious: their rights as mainstream Presbyterians or Puritans. Some saw these rights as economic: their right to earn a living and to be protected from the effects of the downturn. There is an argument that at least some of the Londoners who welcomed Charles II back saw him as the best way, in the circumstances they faced, of guaranteeing those rights.

Equally, many of their protests were neither quiet nor dignified. 5 December 1659 saw a crowd of rock-throwing apprentices quashed only at sword- and gunpoint by a detachment of 2,000 soldiers. A number of apprentices were killed. February 1660 saw several regiments in London mutiny, more violent protests by apprentices, and the military occupation of the Common Council of the City of London’s Corporation by the army. Even the incident with Charles I’s statue is ambiguous. A contemporary pamphlet claimed that it was actually done at the instigation of General Monck, the architect of Charles II’s return:

Providence… check[ed] these exorbitances after a long tract of time, by causing the Right Honorable, and Ever-noble General Monck, to be a happy Instrument in carrying on (without bloodshed) the blessed returns to our due Obedience, and of hard-hearted and implacable Rebels, to become patient and loving subjects; who (to his everlasting Memory let it be recorded) ordered that abominable Superscription of EXIT TYRANNUS as a Capital offender to be expunged.

The loyal subjects teares, for the sufferings and absence of their sovereign, Charles II (London, 1660), British Library, Thomason Tracts, E.1017[29], p. 4.

While this may seem – and probably is – too good to be true, it does indicate another problem facing anyone trying to reconstruct early modern crowds, which is the likely interaction between different social groups in organising and conducting protests: whether that be aristocrats, the middling sort, apprentices, wage labourers, men or women. Trying to unpick these layers isn’t made easier by the fact that many of our accounts of crowds of this time are filtered through the lens of the authorities, whether they be personal accounts of political elites, printed literature aimed at or censored by elites, or court records reflecting official rather than hidden transcripts. One of the quotes Lucy cites about London’s reaction to the Restoration is an example of this:

Bow Bells could not be heard for the noise of the people.

This quote comes from the Diurnall of Thomas Rugge, a manuscript now in the British Museum compiled about events from 1659 to 1672 (Additional MSS 10,116-10,117). A barber by trade, in compiling his Diurnall Rugge mixed his own knowledge with that of friends and blended it with contemporary printed accounts such as those in newsbooks and pamphlets. As a result it is hard to know whose views it gives, and asides like this may just as easily reflect accounts of the Restoration sympathetic to Charles II as they do reality. And ultimately we can never know whether all those cheering were doing so through joy, through fear, or because it was what everyone else was doing.

Then again, it’s partly the ambiguities in the sources that allow historians to argue back and forth about the nature and existence of popular politics. And – like the reader of a paper I wrote who objected to my preferring to use the phrase ‘crowd action’ instead of riot – I’m equally aware that my own views on early modern crowds can be criticised as overly schematic, idealised and reflecting twenty-first century liberal concerns!