Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: books

Starting again

Four years ago I started writing a book: a biography of the seventeenth-century ironmonger, preacher, bookseller, pamphleteer and newsbook editor Henry Walker. I had done most of the research, and finished writing up the early chapters (the first three are now on my page, if you want to read them). And then real life intervened, and I ground to a halt, and the book has sat unfinished on my hard drive for two years. My resolution this year is to start writing it again.

To help me stick to that resolution, I am going to try blogging about my progress. Every week from now on, I will aim to post an update about how I am getting on. It might be a summary of what I’ve done that week, it might focus on a particular source I’m working on, a particular text or protagonist I’m researching, or it might just be an excuse for why I haven’t done anything. But I will try to post something every week or so, even if it’s just a paragraph or two. This first post is about beginnings and ends.

How does one start – or in my case, re-start – the process of writing a book? Four years ago I did it according to the textbook: planning and plotting out each chapter based on my research, and then starting at the beginning of Walker’s life with his baptism in All Saints, Derby on 1 March 1612. I got as far as 1641 before I stopped.

Returning to the draft, though, I have had to confront an enormous mental block about picking up where I left off. Nobody really knew much about Walker’s life before the 1640s before I started researching him: the most that had been found was records of his time as an apprentice ironmonger in the late 1620s and early 1630s. I have found a lot more, but inevitably there are gaps that I have had to fill in through educated guesses and speculation. Writing up Walker’s early life, I didn’t have existing accounts to consider or react against. From 1641 onwards, however, Walker starts selling and publishing pamphlets, and becomes much more visible in the historical record. Many historians, from the the early twentieth century onwards, have written about Walker’s career from the outbreak of the civil war and onwards.

So picking up the draft chronologically where I’ve left off feels quite daunting – stepping into well-trodden ground where there is huge amounts of primary source material that has been picked over in secondary sources. Not having written anything for two years, I’ve found it hard to dive straight back in just at the point where it is hardest to say something new or original.

Instead I’ve chosen to begin at the end. According to his ODNB entry, in the early 1660s Walker more or less disappears from the historical record. After lots of digging, I have been able to reconstruct a skeleton framework for the last twenty years of his life:

  • 1667 – appointed curate of Petersham chapel.
  • 1671 – Henry’s wife, Mary, dies and is taken back to St Giles Cripplegate (where they had first lived when married) to be buried.
  • 1674/75 – is warden of the yeomanry of the Ironmongers’ Company.
  • 1681 – gives a copy of Andrew Willet’s Synopsis Papismi (1634) to the Ironmongers’ Company.
  • 1687 – dies of the stone and is buried in St Giles Cripplegate.

If I was updating Walker’s entry in the ODNB I would simply list these events, and that would be that. But that is hardly enough for a chapter in a full biography that is meant to be an epilogue to Walker’s life. So I am having to resort to other means to fill in the blanks – by reading the parish registers to get a sense of the rhythm of Walker’s job, by reading the court book for the Ironmongers’ Company to see what dinners he attended and when he was fined for non-attendance, and by reconstructing what his grown-up daughters were doing by this point from mentions in his will.

None of it quite adds up to a substantive chapter, at least not compared to what I will end up writing about Walker’s career in the 1640s and 1650s. At best it is a process of writing someone’s life by reconstructing the milieu in which they lived and hoping it leaves a subject-shaped gap; at worst it is simple speculation. But it does give me a gentler way in to re-starting the process of writing, with some small, manageable chunks of drafting that aren’t too scary. So I am beginning at the end, hoping that the act of going backwards is what will ultimately send me in the right direction.

Books with names but no bodies

In recent days I have been enjoying Adam Smyth and Gill Partington’s edition of Critical Quarterly on missing texts. As the title of their introduction asks, what is the material history of books with names but no bodies?

As it happens there is one particular book for whose body I have been searching recently: To Your Tents, O Israel by Henry Walker. The events which prompted its writing are well-known: on 4 January 1642, Charles I had made famous attempt to arrest five leading opponents in the House of Commons: arriving at Parliament only to find, in his own words, that ‘all the birds are flown’. Charles was determined to track down the rogue MPs, and believing that they were still in hiding in the capital, he decided to confront the Corporation of the City of London.

At about ten o’clock the following, Charles was taken by coach up the Strand towards the Guildhall. By the time he got there, a substantial crowd had assembled to meet him. After addressing the Corporation, Charles dined with London’s Sheriff, George Garrett, at his house in Aldermanbury Street next door. After their lunch was finished, he emerged and made his way back to his carriage. At this point the crowd surged and shouts went up of ‘privilege of Parliament’. This was the moment that Henry Walker, a 29-year old ironmonger turned writer and bookseller decided to throw a self-penned text into Charles’s coach.

The text has become known as To Your Tents, O Israel because of the passage in scripture it is supposed to have alluded to: 1 Kings 12:16, which told the story of King Rehoboam’s tyrannical rule over Israel. Rehoboam was a tyrant who imposed heavy taxes and harsh punishments on his people. In response, the ten northern tribes of Israel rebelled and formed their own nation. In alluding to these events, Walker was making a fairly heavy handed comparison to the extra-Parliamentary taxation that Charles had introduced under his period of Personal Rule in the 1630s.

However, it’s not actually clear if To Your Tents, O Israel was the title, or even if the text had a title. Nor is it clear what form the text took. It is described variously in contemporary accounts as a “Pamphlet”, “Petition”, “Paper” and “Sermon”. No copies survive and it’s not clear how many were made. We do know, though, that it was printed rather than hand-written. The only direct account we have of the text’s production is by a hostile witness, John Taylor:

He plotted and contrived with a Printer, the said night before to write and print a perrillous Petition to his Majesty, and borrowed the Printers wives Bible, out of which he tooke his Theame out of the first of Kings, Chap, 12. ver. 16 part of the verse; To your Tents O Israel. There was writing and printing all night, and all the next day those Libels were scattered, and when his Majesty had dined, and had taken Coach to returne to White-Hall, Walker stood watching the Kings comming by amongst the Drapers in Pauls Church-yard, and having one of his Pamphlets in his hand meaning to have delivered it to his Majesty, but could not come at him by reason of the presse of People, insomuch as Walker (most impudently sawcy) threw it over the folkes heads into his Majesties Coach.

John Taylor, The whole life and progresse of Henry Walker the ironmonger, E.154[29].

However, details in this account can be checked and verified. The printer was Thomas Payne, whose shop at the sign of the sugar loaf in Goldsmith’s Alley was a stone’s throw from Walker’s establishment in Butler’s Alley in St Giles Cripplegate. It was Payne who, having thought better of his role, shopped Walker to the authorities. In 1650 he received a belated reward of £20 from the Commonwealth’s Council of State ‘‘as a gratuity for his sufferings by printing a book for the cause of Parliament, written by Mr. Walker”. So it does seem clear that the text was in printed form, although it whether it was a book or a sheet is open to question. And it was written and printed overnight, which suggests it cannot have been that long or had a significant print run.

Something which may help resolve the question of what form of printed text it was is a reference two and a half years later in another of Walker’s works: an edition of his newsbook Perfect Occurrences for 30 August to 6 September 1644. At this point Walker was not acknowledging himself as the author of Perfect Occurrences, hence the references in the third-person:

Here followeth a true copie of Master Walkers petition to the king, for which he suffered.

To the Kings most Excellent Majestie.

Humbly beseecheth that your most Excellent Majestie, would be graciously pleased to meditate on that place of Scripture written, 1 Kings. 12. 15. 16. Wherfore the King hearkned not unto his people, for the cause was from the Lord, that he might perform his saying, which the Lord spake by Ahijah the Shulanite, unto Jeroboam, the Son of Nebat, So when Israel saw that the King hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king saying, what portion have we in David, Neither have wee portion in the son of lesse: To your tents O Israel, now see to thine own, &c. The Lord blesse guide and direct your gratious Majestie, and encrease the number of your faithfull loyall Subjects. Amen.

Perfect Occurrences, 30th August-6th September 1644, E.254[28].

So if we can trust Walker’s reprint, it seems that the text was more akin to a printed version of the manuscript petitions that were common for the king and Parliament to receive at the time. And a text of this length would barely take up half a side of quarto, so it seems unlikely that it was a pamphlet or other book: more likely, a single sheet with some copies taken to distribute to the crowd or paste up on walls, and which Walker was fortunate enough to have the chance to thrust upon Charles.

And so this particular missing text is perhaps not as missing as it seems. A version of it turned up, and is still extant, in a later text – and even if it is a summary or rewrite of the original, it does give some suggestions about what the text said and what form it took. Similarly, an apparently unreliable account in a work by one of Walker’s enemies turns out, when checked against other evidence of the London print trade, to have more in it than first appears. There is something quite satisfying about the fact that it is the material traces of other texts that allows at least a partial reconstruction of another text.

Grub Street in 1641

Imagine that it’s the very end of 1640. You are in your late twenties, and have lived in London since your late teens after starting an apprenticeship in 1629. You have been exposed to the social and intellectual ferment of the capital’s puritan lectureships, and possibly even to some of the more controversial ideas in circulation in the city’s godly underground. Your master’s stall is a stone’s throw from the heart of the London book trade around St Paul’s, from where you will acquire a critique of Catholicism published in the same year as you are made free from your apprenticeship. There have been running battles over the position of the altar table in your parish church of St Giles Cripplegate, and the vicar and vestry (one of whom had daubed a crucifix on the church wall) are at daggers drawn with other more godly members of the congregation. You’ve just come back to London after a year spent studying theology at Cambridge, and want to play your part in fighting the religious changes being introduced by Archbishop Laud. You decide you want to to write and sell puritan books. Where do you start?

This is the situation that the ironmonger Henry Walker found himself in at the end of 1640. The transition from ironmonger to clergyman and pamphleteer may seem unusual to us: contemporaries certainly commented on it, particularly Walker’s critics, for whom it was evidence of a base, uncultured intellect. But if we look at the geography of Walker’s career at this stage of his life, it becomes clear that his shift from ironmonger to bookseller and writer actually may not have been that difficult.

In the late 1630s, Walker was working as an ironmonger in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate. He lived there with his wife Mary, and from September 1639, his first daughter Anne. He seems to have lived in Butler’s Alley, in between Grub Street and Moor Street: at least, that is where a pamphlet sold by him in 1641 gave his address, and in the absence of any other evidence we can assume that is probably where he was trading from in the late 1630s too.

Even at this stage, Grub Street was starting to become synonymous with a certain part of the London book trade. By the time the Walker family moved to Cripplegate, the parish had already been a focal point of London’s book trade for over seventy years. Robert Crowley, for example, the parish’s vicar first from 1565 to 1568, then from 1578 to 1588, had earlier in his career been an underground printer who published some of the earliest Protestant propaganda. By the late 1630s, Grub Street and the surrounding courts and alleys were becoming home to printers who would play a comparable role in producing puritan and Parliamentarian propaganda during the civil wars and beyond.

I’ve plotted on the map below some of the printers with whom Walker cooperated during 1641 and beyond. The map is from John Strype’s Survey of London (1720) so is not contemporary: however, the fire of 1666 did not reach Cripplegate, so it is fairly safe to assume that the core of the street plan would have been the same 80 years beforehand.




It quickly becomes clear that Walker would not have had to go very far to find help with his ambition to print and sell books.

The Walkers’ house and premises was in at the Moor Lane end of Butler’s Alley, a narrow passage that met Grub Street at its other end. I’ve marked this with a red star.   A short walk down Butler’s Alley, taking a left turn at the end onto Grub Street past the sign of the Flying Horse, was Honeysuckle Court: site of the printing house of Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, close by the parish’s lower pump. I’ve marked this with a blue star.

Alsop was a veteran of the book trade, having begun printing in around 1616 with his former master, Thomas Creed. Fawcett in turn had become Alsop’s junior partner in around 1625. A state investigation into the book trade in 1634 concluded that Alsop was ‘unruly’, whereas his partner Fawcett was a ‘poor man’, but ‘the abler man and better workman and better governor’. Alsop and Fawcett printed the first (surviving) book that Walker wrote, and I have concluded from bibliographical analysis of other texts that he wrote and sold in 1641 that they played a role in printing a number of these, too.

A few minutes’ walk to the west, close to the church of St Giles, was Andrew and Jane Coe’s printing house. I have marked this with a green star. Andrew took up his freedom in 1638 and texts with his imprint begin to appear from 1642 onwards. It was to the Coes’ press that Walker took his first newsbook Perfect Occurrences to be printed.

A little further west, at the sign of the sugar loaf in Goldsmith’s Alley off Red Cross Street, was the press of Thomas Paine and Matthew Simmons. I’ve marked this with a yellow star. Like Alsop and Fawcett, this pair would find themselves in trouble with the authorities on a number of occasions in 1641 for illegal printing. Paine was the printer who produced Walker’s infamous petition of January 1642 titled To Your Tents, O Israel: Walker had allegedly borrowed a bible belonging to Thomas’s wife to consult when writing it. Faced with the prospect of serious charges – Walker himself only avoided execution after intervention from Charles I – Paine shopped Walker to the authorities, although by 1650 when the political climate was rather different, he received a gratuity of £20 from the Council of State to recognise the difficulties he had experienced during the trial.

We can assume that Walker’s connections with these printers had a commercial context. It is likely that Walker paid to have most of his pamphlets printed by them. There may also have been a religious or political side to them: Payne’s colloboration on To Your Tents, for example, may have been done in return for cash, but given the risks and the uproar throughout London over the attempted arrest of the five members that prompted Walker’s petition, it seems more likely that it was a plot hatched together. But mapping the geography of these connections makes clear that there was another side to them: these printers were also Walker’s neighbours. Walker would have passed them in the street and seen them in local alehouses. He worshipped alongside them every Sunday in Cripplegate church. He probably saw Thomas Fawcett’s daughter Sara buried in September 1636 after succumbing to the plague, followed by Bernard Alsop’s son Abraham a month later. They were probably acquaintances, perhaps even friends.

So Walker’s move into writing and selling books no longer looks quite such a leap. He was living in a parish full of printers and booksellers, and it would not have taken much to turn over at least part of his shop to book-selling. Ironmongers had relatively basic shops, needing little in the way of specialist equipment other than a table, steelyard balance and scales. There is evidence that a number or ironmongers in this period diversified into selling other items, including books. Whenever it was that Walker decided to begin selling books – whether in the late 1630s or only in 1641 after coming down from Cambridge – he did not have to look far for stock. And when, at the end of 1640, he had finished the manuscript of his first book, he only had to walk five minutes to discuss prices with Alsop and Fawcett.

Horses, People and Parliament

Gavin Robinson, Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War: Extracting Resources and Constructing Allegiance (Ashgate, 2012).

‘Parliamentarian’ and ‘Royalist’ are two of those words that it’s easy to throw around unthinkingly. Partly it’s because they are such a convenient shorthand for a set of concepts that are too complicated to express succinctly, that we can forget the nuances that come with them. But as the introduction of Horses, People and Parliament points out, it’s also because they are bound up with the particular way civil war allegiance has been defined in the twentieth century:

Essentialist assumptions about identity are so deeply embedded in the English language that they are difficult to challenge, or even recognize. It feels perfectly natural to say that a person was royalist, and awkwardly unnatural to say that a person did royalism.

Gavin’s starting point, following the lead set by Rachel Weil, is that there is much profit to be made from thinking about the external aspects of allegiance: what a person did, rather than what a person felt. This can feel counter-intuitive for historians conditioned to trying to reconstruct individual beliefs and collective mentalities. A person’s actions, after all, can be carried out unwillingly or due to necessity, rather than through free will. But as Gavin points out, the sources for reconstructing what a seventeenth-century person thought are much less abundant than those for reconstructing what the same person did.

And for contemporaries, actions could be just as, if not more, important than their beliefs. For MPs and county committee members struggling to fund the war effort, allegiance was ultimately about providing resources in cash and in kind. For a certain kind of godly puritan, a dry, legalist adherence to godly doctrines was inferior to a vigorous, outward-focused style of worship which turned those doctrines into practical actions. Seventeenth-century concepts of gender were as much performative as they were essentialist. Contemporaries did not necessarily privilege beliefs over deeds.

Following this idea to its logical conclusion may mean, as Gavin argues, that we need to jettison the terms Royalist and Parliamentarian altogether. Too often one comes across accounts of seventeenth-century men and women which say ‘she was a Royalist’, or ‘he was a Parliamentarian’: only to find out that this is based on a single tax they paid, item they sold, or statement they uttered. As Gavin points out, if civil war identities can be reduced to a mixture of only five binary oppositions – class, gender, religion, ethnicity and which side was picked – that still leaves thirty-two different sets of identities.

Allegiance, then, is messy and complicated. Rather than seeking to tidy up the mess, Horses, People and Parliament tries to use empirical evidence of how MPs and county committees sought to supply their armies with horses in order to uncover and describe it. Although Gavin seeks to draw out trends where he can, what emerges most from his analysis is the individual, and how hard they are to put into boxes. There are elite women like Lady Leye of Dichley, described in one account book as one of ‘severall men’. There are middling sort men like the vicar Cornelius Burges, who orchestrated a petition to Parliament offering a cavalry troop to Parliament, previously assumed to have been a example of localism but also with links to the junto. There are horses like those belonging to Captain George Thompson, ‘one blacke w[i]th two white feete and a blase downe his face, the other a bright bay’, or like Gunpowder and Sparks sent by the Earl of Lincoln as part of a group of seven. All of these individuals, whether human or animal, refuse easy categorisation.

The description of Lady Leye, in particular, is a wonderful vignette that captures some of the paradoxes in how contemporaries conceived of allegiance (and how different these can be to our own conceptions). It is a minor niggle, but I would have liked to have seen more on the role of gender in unpicking twentieth-century categories of allegiance. Gavin has been inspired by work by Ann Hughes and others, which analyses in a contextually-specific way what contemporaries understood by gender, to do the same for allegiance. Chapter one, in particular, uses gender as a way to unravel the monolithic identities – ‘well-affected men’, and so on – that were imposed on those who provided resources to Parliament. Other chapters look at how the wives of delinquents could exercise agency beyond that of their husbands, and at how concepts of masculinity were tied up with how Parliament defined and ‘othered’ its enemies. However, the focus is not quite as sustained in subsequent chapters as it is in the first (although bonus marks for the reference in the index under ‘men’, which simply reads passim).

But I like the messiness of what emerges from this analysis. It builds on recent historiography that sees contingency and chance as critical to the origins and outcome of the civil wars. And it stresses the way in which allegiance was fashioned or constructed, rather than necessarily innate. Actions could foist identities upon people unwillingly just as much as they could carefully craft an allegiance. Those appearing before the Committee of Compounding, for example, were quick to stress what they had done to support Parliament, or at least what they had not done to support the king. But those providing horses for Essex’s army in 1642, or for the Eastern Association in 1643, could equally provide them only with reluctance or at the hands of requisitioners.

I also love Gavin’s argument that, on this definition, animals could have allegiances just as much as humans. Horses had their own temperaments, and did not always respond to human attempts to control them. Given how essential horses were to civil war armies – not just for cavalry, but for supply as well – their willingness or unwillingness to comply could be just as important as human decisions about whether to provide king or Parliament with resources.  There are shades here of ‘for the want of a nail’, not just in terms of how battles were fought but also in terms of how resources were gathered.

Where the book is perhaps a little less systematic in unpicking traditional labels is with the third member of the trio in its title: Parliament. The horses and people who feature in the book emerge very strongly as diverse individuals. So too do MPs, whose identities were complicated by their twin roles in their constituencies and Westminster. Gavin is careful with his language, using royalist and parliamentarian rarely (and then only without capitals, and usually to describe how the terms have been used by others). Even so, despite stressing the factional divisions amongst MPs, at points in the book Parliament itself to some extent retains a single identity. This is a difficult point: terms like king and Parliament are synecdoches behind which lie much wider groups of people, but history books would be unreadable if we didn’t employ them. Nevertheless, there were a few points in this book where Parliament does things, and where I wondered: who actually did this? On any given day, the attendance in the Lords and the Commons varied; the motivations of the men attending may have been different; the influences of local committees, petitioners and men-of-business may have varied. Parliament did not have a single will or an essential, internal identity – despite the conventions of parliamentary language that survive to this day, and which would like you to believe that it does.

Horses, People and Parliament has important things to say about how parliamentary armies were supplied with horses, overturning a number of orthodoxies about how Parliament (see? I’ve done it too) went about the task, and about the priority it gave it. But at its heart, the book is an argument: a challenge to historians to think more widely about the vocabulary and methodologies they use when analysing and describing civil war identities. It has certainly succeeded in challenging me.

Disclaimer: Gavin kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I commented on a chapter or two of it in draft as well as following the early stages of some of its ideas on Gavin’s blog. I hope I have not pulled any punches as a result (and I suspect Gavin would be the first to encourage me not to hold back with criticism!).

Peter Sterry, fast sermons and Quakerism

So I am sitting at my desk at work when a friend, who has an even bigger obsession with books than me, wanders over and says, “Do you know about Wing numbers?”.

“Um, yes. Why?”

“Can you look one up for me?”

“Yes, okay.”

I open up ESTC and find the short title, then look it up on EEBO. It’s a sermon called The Spirits Conviction of Sinne, preached by Peter Sterry in 1645. While I am doing this, my friend gets out a bound octavo book and opens it up to the same title page that I’m looking at on EEBO.

“When’s your birthday?”.


“Happy birthday!”, he says, and passes the book to me. It turns out it is a collection of Sterry’s sermons to Parliament during the 1640s and 1650s, together with a few other surprises too.

Now I am obviously very lucky to have friends who see collections of seventeenth-century sermons and immediately think “I know who would like that”. As an inadequate token of gratitude I did some digging into the provenance of the collection and thought it would be interesting to share it.

The five sermons by Sterry that the book includes are:

  • The Spirits Conviction of Sinne. Opened in a Sermon before the Honorable House of Commons [26 November 1645].
  • The Teachings of Christ In The Soule. Opened in a Sermon before the Right Honble House of Peers, in Covent-garden-Church [March 29, 1648].
  • The Clouds in which Christ Comes. Opened in a Sermon before the Honourable House of Commons [27 October 1647].
  • The Comings Forth of Christ In the Power of his Death. Opened in a Sermon Preached before the High Court of Parliament [1 November 1649]
  • England’s Deliverance From the Northern Presbytery, compared with its Deliverance from the Roman Papacy: or A Thanksgiving Sermon Preached [5 November 1651].

This is not every sermon Sterry published, but it is nearly all of them. And they are all significant sermons: placed together, they tell something of the story of the puritan victories of the 1640s and the growth in religious radicalism that the same decade saw.

The first three are fast sermons. These had become established as a Parliamentary tradition by the 1620s and were significant in the 1640s as a venue where preachers favoured by Presbyterian and Independent grandees could be used to fly religious and political kites to an audience of MPs or peers. They stopped in 1649, at least as regular sermons, but extraordinary fast sermons carried on after that date.

The 1645 sermon is the first one Sterry ever preached to Parliament. He was chaplain to Lord Brooke, who along with other disaffected peers like the Earl of Warwick and Lord Saye and Sele had played a significant role in leading Parliamentary opposition to Charles I during the early 1640s. Brooke was shot by a sniper while laying siege to Lichfield Castle in 1643. After that, Sterry became part of the Westminster Assembly of religious divines. The sermon is fairly conventionally puritan, in that it focuses on the role of the holy spirit in redeeming the chosen. But it’s sold by Henry Overton and Benjamin Allen, booksellers with more radical sympathies. Both were partners based in Cripplegate.

The Clouds in which Christ Comes is the first sign of Sterry moving in a more radical direction. It dabbles in the mysticism of Jakob Boehme, who was a German theologian who had various personal experiences of God. It was delivered at a critical time for the Parliamentary side: a coup by the Presbyterians had been seen off but the Independents were now having to deal with Leveller influences in the army. The Putney debates started the day after this sermon was delivered. As a result, the text is rather apocalyptic. The Teachings of Christ In The Soule was preached at a time when Parliament’s relationship with the Scots had broken down, and both were preparing for war. It also shows signs of being influenced by Boehme. Both texts were sold by Robert Dawlman, a specialist in theological literature with a shop in St Paul’s Yard.

The Comings Forth of Christ In the Power of his Death marked Cromwell’s victories at Drogheda and Wexford. By this stage Sterry was preacher to the Council of State, the executive body set up after the death of Charles I which included Cromwell and various of the Independent and New Model Army grandees as its members. It was much more overtly millenarian than Sterry’s previous sermons. England’s Deliverance From the Northern Presbytery marks the defeat of the Scots at Worcester, and argues that this is a greater deliverance for England than having rid itself of Catholics.

The fact that all of these texts were collected in one place indicates someone with a significant interest in Sterry and the radical, millenarian end of puritanism. It is not clear when they were gathered together. The collection is labelled as being bound bound by L. A. Smart, a binder in Gloucester. It seems this was Lucy Ann Smart, who was in business from at least the 1870s onwards, but the binding does not necessarily indicate the date of collection. Nevertheless, I suspect this may well have been the late nineteenth century. Some of the texts have marginalia, and this is not all in the same hand, suggesting they were probably not all collected by one person during the seventeenth century. The Clouds in which Christ Comes has this after the preface, which would appear to be a seventeenth-century hand:

(Incidentally I cannot make out John’s surname and would welcome any help with this).

This book is in the worst condition of them all: it is damp stained and missing the second half. A reader – I am not sure it’s the same one as John – has also been through and corrected the text at various points, in line with an errata page inserted by the printer:

This particular text also has a bookplate (which I have not been able to identify – again, I would welcome any thoughts), whereas none of the others do, which makes me wonder if this one at least came from another collection:

Whereas another text bound in with the Sterry books has extensive marginalia in what I think is a different and later hand:

There is also the question of some additional texts, by authors other than Sterry, that have been bound together with Sterry’s sermons.  The three additional texts are:

  • The preface to Saducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvill. This was published in 1681, after Sterry’s time, and affirmed the existence of witches at a time when learned opinions were not inclining that way.
  • A Victorian reprint (1894) of William Dell’s Doctrine of Baptisms. Dell was, like Sterry, an alumnus of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and another radical preacher, associated with Thomas Fairfax. He was critical of baptism of children.
  • Another Victorian reprint (1864) of Ralph Cudworth’s The True Knowledge of Christ. Cudworth was another Emmanuel alumnus, and this particular sermon sermon argued against blind adherence to rituals,  stating that true Christians were to be spotted by how they lived their lives.

Certain Puritan preachers of the mid-seventeenth century enjoyed a renaissance in the nineteenth century due to interest from nonconformists, who were quick to see parallels with their own beliefs. Sterry in particular had preached in 1656 – at the time of the controversy over James Nayler – about the need to treat Quakers kindly. The similarity between the concept Sterry had of the holy spirit, and Quaker views on the inner light, means that Victorian Quakers were probably able to absorb his works fairly easily into their own worldview.

The likelihood of it being a Quaker who collected these sermons is increased when one realises who the printer of the two reissued sermons was: John Bellows in Gloucester, who was well-known to contemporaries in south-west England as a Quaker. So it seems likely that the books were collected by a Quaker connected to Bellows in some way, or who was at least from Gloucestershire or the surrounding counties. Beyond that, though, I’ve drawn a blank.

Grumpy rants

This was the headline that loomed out of the Metro on my morning commute today. (Note to non-UK readers: the Metro is a free newspaper handed out at tube and train stations every weekday morning).

Things have changed since the 1640s, and in 2011 there is not really a mass market for puritan pamphleteers any more, so I was pleased to see that the Metro had covered the forthcoming auction of a number of Prynne’s works at Bonhams on 22 November. No other newspapers bothered to report it.

I smiled at the reference to Prynne’s books, ‘the vast majority with long-winded titles’: as if Prynne was the only early modern writer to succumb to that particular vice… but the way in which the article describes Prynne did make me stifle a groan. Calling Prynne a moralist is a bit like saying that Ian Paisley isn’t that keen on Catholics: it’s not inaccurate, but it doesn’t really begin to capture the complexities of his political and religious beliefs.

Although Prynne harked back to an idealised vision of the Elizabethan church under Whitgift, his critique of the duels, drinking and masques of the 1630s was far more than the nostalgia of a grumpy old man. It was an urgent and intensely political critique of the damage Prynne thought was being done to the Church of England by Laud and anti-Calvinism. He stood up for the principles he argued for with some courage: in 1637, when Prynne’s cheeks were branded and the remains of his ears cropped, the executioner cut some of his cheek away by mistake and left part of his ear dangling.

The article also skips over Prynne’s role in the outbreak of civil war, fast-forwarding from the Personal Rule to the Restoration. It doesn’t mention the mixture of martyr and hero that he became for many of those disaffected with Charles I’s political and religious innovations, or his role in the trial of Laud. I found this interesting given the language the article deploys, consciously or sub-consciously, to describe Prynne: ‘grumpy’, ‘rants, ‘railed’. This vocabulary, or its early modern equivalents, is not a million miles away from that used by some of Prynne’s opponents: in particular, Peter Heylyn.

Heylyn first became involved with Prynne when compiling a scathing critique of Histriomatix for Prynne’s trial in 1634, and clashed with him in print on numerous occasions during the 1640s and 1650s. After the restoration, Heylyn set out to rehabilitate Laud, and in the process did a good job of doing down Prynne. This, combined with the stereotype of the Puritan killjoy and hypocrite, spreading division and sedition while preaching moral reform and unity, has cast a long shadow on popular views of Prynne (and on the Wikipedia entry about him, which I suspect may have been the source for some of the information in the article).

So two cheers for the Metro for covering Prynne and his books: but minus one for the comparison to Victor Meldrew. I don’t believe it…

Sign of the times

How much can you tell about a person from their signature? One legitimate answer to that question is nothing. That’s probably the right answer if you interpret the question in terms of whether the idiosyncrasies of someone’s handwriting reveal anything about their personality.

In other respects, though, a signature can be incredibly revealing. This is particularly the case for the early modern period, where a person’s signature – on a title deed, on a will, on a book – may be the only surviving material trace of their existence. From a humanist perspective, seeking to recover what we can of the past, finding someone’s signature is exciting.  It is a way of connecting with someone long gone, across a void of hundreds of years. And while trying to discern actual personality traits from signatures may be a dead end, the material aspects of a signatures can still tell us things.

Signatures are a means of expressing one’s identity in textual form. The fact that they became, and remain, the primary legal means of asserting one’s identity means that there are all sorts of culturally-specific assumptions bound up with them. To know how to write, you had to know how to read: the latter was taught before the former. The fact that a person in the sixteenth or seventeenth century could write their name instantly tells you something about them. It also tells you something about how their contemporaries might have perceived them.  The ability to sign one’s name demonstrated to others that you had at least some degree of education, and that you had a certain amount of agency with which to engage in the worlds of commerce, politics or law.

Nor were signatures simply a passive means of asserting a pre-set identity to others. They also provided a means for early modern men and women to fashion and refashion their own identity. Commonplace books, for example, often contain the owner’s signature, in many cases written out over and over again, or in different styles of handwriting. In some cases these signatures show an identity which was already worked out; in others, one which was still being tried on for size.

I recently managed to find the signature of a civil war pamphleteer from a very early stage in his life. This is the signature of Henry Walker, in the book of oaths sworn and signed by apprentices of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers:

The full oath reads:

Me[mora]nda that I Henry Walker being apprentice unto Robert Holland Ironmonger doe promis by my faithe and truste to be obedient unto the M[aste]r and thees our wardens of the company of Ironmongers of London and to their successors all the days of my life in witnesse whereof I put my hand Henry Walker

Walker made and signed this oath at Ironmongers’ Hall in Fenchurch Street, near Aldgate, on 20 January 1629. He was sixteen years old, and had probably only recently arrived in London after a comfortable childhood spent in Derby, a member of one of the town’s governing class.  His father had died in October 1627 and it seems likely that Walker was forced to seek his living rather earlier than he might otherwise have done. Later in his life he complained he had been ‘taken from the school to the shop’.

The Ironmongers’ Hall that Walker knew does not exist any more. Its current version sits hidden behind the concrete barrier of the Barbican on Aldersgate Street. The building Holland and Walker were familiar with dated from 1587, when a new building had replaced the ramshackle collection of houses that were there beforehand. We can only imagine what it looked like inside when Walker took his oath: wood-panelled or maybe plaster, perhaps hung with tapestries. But Walker’s signature does give us a means of connecting with the sixteen-year old who stood in that building: newly arrived in London, having left his brothers and sister behind to start a new life with a strange master.

By signing his name, Walker was stepping from one world into another. He was leaving behind Derby, a town of about 3,000 people in which he would have known most people by sight, if not by name. And he was entering London, a city with a rapidly shifting population  nearly one hundred times bigger than that of Derby, in which he knew nobody. London was a terrifying city for those who were not born there. One apprentice called Thomas Raymond, sent to the capital to live with his uncle William Boswell, found the violence which ‘young lads do undergo’ upon arriving in London ‘a very dreadful sight to a young country boy’. Another, Edward Barlow, from Prestwich in Lancashire, was greatly confused by the sight that met him at London Bridge:

‘seeing so many things in the water with long poles standing up in them and a great deal of ropes about them, it made me wonder what they should be’.

He did not realise that they were ships, ‘for I had never seen any before that time’.

Of course, Walker’s signature does not tell us anything about his reactions on moving from Derby to London. As he signed his name in the Ironmongers’ records, he may have felt confident or he may have been nervous. We have no way of knowing. But his signature in itself reveals an aspect of his life that has not been known about before: his years as an apprentice in trade, before a belated period of study at Cambridge and entry into bookselling and pamphleteering. It is a snapshot of a time when he had little power or agency, separated from his family and bound by strict codes of behaviour to a master for seven years.

By contrast, another record of Walker writing his name survives from the end of his life. This is from a book he donated to the Ironmongers’ Company in 1681:

Walker made his gift shortly before the end of his life: he died in February 1687. We can see a very different identity being asserted here. Walker was by now one of the eldest yeomen in the company, and while he had given up participation in the trade by 1642, he continued to be an active member of his Company. He continued paying quarterage until the end of his life, and served as warden of the yeomanry during the 1670s. The way Walker seeks to fashion his identity in this inscription is very different to what he had written 52 years earlier:

This book of Dr Willets Synopsis was given to the Worshipfull Company of Ironmongers by Henry Walker minister of Petersham in the county of Surry, and surrogat to the bishop of Winchester, and a [..] of the said Company of Ironmongers and sometimes Hebrew professor at the ahcadamy in Whitefryers and ordinary at the assizes in Surry by the appointment of the bishop of Winchester.

Here again, Walker’s signature and inscription cannot tell us much about his feelings when he donated the book: whether he was proud, regretful or bitter about the progress of his life. But they do show a man who placed some kind of value on membership of the Ironmongers’ Company, and who wanted to make clear his achievements outside the Company’s trade. The book he donated may also have been significant: it was a 1634 edition of Andrew Willet’s Synopsis Papismi, printed in the same year that Walker was made free from his apprenticeship. I cannot prove that Walker obtained this book in that year, but it is just possible that it was a gift to himself or from others to mark his emergence into the adult world.

Walker’s signatures hint at all sorts of lines of inquiry that have been helpful in uncovering other areas of his life. Just as importantly, though, they have enabled me to feel a connection, of sorts, across hundreds of years to someone whose humanity might otherwise have been lost on me.