Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: scotland

How to irritate a puritan: an introductory reading list

I was re-reading the London Root and Branch petition last week for a class and noticed for the first time, amongst the list of religious and constitutional grievances, a very specific issue:

8. The swarming of lascivious, idle, and unprofitable books and pamphlets, play-books and ballads; as namely, Ovid’s Fits of Love, The Parliament Of Women, which came out at the dissolving of the last Parliament; Barns’s Poems, Parker’s Ballads, in disgrace of religion, to the increase of all vice, and withdrawing of people from reading, studying, and hearing the word of God, and other good books.

The London petition was presented to the Commons on 11 December 1640, shortly after the opening of the Long Parliament by Alderman Isaac Pennington, a City MP, along with about 1,500 of his signatories. Around 15,000 people signed the petition itself. The petition had been brewing since the opening of Parliament: on 18 November 1640 the Scots commissioner Robert Baillie noted that:

The Toun of London, and a world of men, minds to prefent a petition, which I have feen, for the abolition of Biihops, Deanes, and all their aperteanances. It is thought good to delay it till the Parliament have pulled doun Can terburie and fome prime Biftiops, which they minde to doe fo foon as the King hes a little digefted the bitternefs of his Lieutenant’s cenfure. Hudge things are here in working: The mighty hand of God be about this great work!

Exactly how the petition was organised is something we will probably never know. It’s possible that organisation centred on the parish of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street, led by John Goodwin. Goodwin had close links to Pennington, who was a parishioner. But the actual process through which signatures were gathered remains unknown.

Most of the petition criticised the religious constitutional policies of the 1630s. What was it about these particular books that merited their inclusion?

A pirated translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria by Thomas Heywood – which dated back to earlier in the century – was re-published in 1640. It’s almost certainly this that is the first objectionable book on the petitioners’ list. For a  particular type of puritan, the Ovidian hero, using theatres and the arena as his hunting ground for one night stands, would  have been unacceptable.

The Parliament of Women is an anonymous satirical pamphlet that is almost certainly by the poet John Taylor. It was entered into the Stationers’ Register on 18 June 1640 which suggests it was still fresh in the minds of those putting the petition together. It features characters like Bridgit Boldface, Mistress Tattlewell and Hannah Hit-Him-Home. Although these are recycled from earlier poems like A Juniper Lectures and The Womens Sharpe Revenge, the timing of this pamphlet just a month after the dissolution of the Short Parliament is interesting too.

Barns is a bit more of a mystery. It’s possible that it means Barnabe Barnes, a poet and playwright from the late Elizabethan period whose play The Divils Charter was about the life and death of Pope Alexander VI. However, I haven’t been able to find any of Barnes’s works that were reprinted during 1640.

Martin Parker was a prolific ballad writer whose career stretched from the 1620s into the 1640s. The content of his ballads was summed up by his fellow pamphleteer Henry Peacham:

‘For a peny you may have all the Newes in England, of Murders, Flouds, Witches, Fires, Tempests, and what not, in one of Martin Parkers Ballads’.

Whether it was his collected back catalogue that offended London puritans, or a particular ballad, is unclear. But it’s interesting that 1640 saw Parker produce a particularly proto-royalist ballad, An exact description of the manner how his majestie went to the parliament, the thirteenth day of April, to mark the opening of the Short Parliament.

Commonwealth to Protectorate


© The Trustees of the British Museum

Patrick Little (ed.), The Cromwellian Protectorate (Boydell, 2007). 218pp.

David L. Smith and Patrick Little, Parliaments and Politics During the Cromwellian Protectorate (Cambridge University Press, 2007). 352pp.

The engraving above is from a Dutch satirical print, and shows Oliver Cromwell in armour, wearing a crown and ermine cloak and holding the sword of justice and orb of sovereignty. Behind is a depiction of the execution of Charles . The print encapsulates one of the key tensions behind the English Commonwealth: a revolutionary event in British history was succeeded by successive attempts to restore stability and, in many spheres, traditional political and cultural forms.

Negotiating and explaining these tensions is one of the key tasks for any historian of the 1650s. But untl recently, the Commonwealth and the Protectorate have attracted less scholarly attention than the early and later Stuart periods. The 1640s in particular have had significant attention from revisionists and post-revisionists alike. By contrast, the 1650s have been reassessed in less detail.

In recent years this has started to change. There has been a significant cultural turn in the historiography of the 1650s. Laura Lunger Knoppers and Sean Kelsey have studied the iconography both of the Commonwealth and its critics. Roy Sherwood has examined the monarchical trappings of the Protectoral regime. Jason Peacey and Blair Worden have extended analysis of mid-seventeenth century print culture into the 1650s. There has also been a move towards more local studies. For example, Christopher Durston has reconstructed the impact of the major-generals in the localities and analysed why their attempt at godly rule failed. Now two additional studies, one edited by Patrick Little on various aspects of the Protectorate, and one by Little and David Smith on the parliaments of the Protectorate, have been added to this body of work.

At first glance Smith and Little’s work on the Protectorate parliaments looks like a move away from these historigraphical trends, choosing a very traditional parliamentary and constitutional topic for study. However, the authors bring a decidely revisionist twist to their analysis, looking at a familiar subject from new angles.  One such twist is a re-examination of the core constitutional documents of the Protectorate. There were six different constitutional documents produced between 1653 and 1657: not just the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, but also the failed parliamentary constitution; the failed monarchical Remonstrance; the Protectoral constitution; and the Additional Petition and Advice. Smith and Little analyse the twists and turns of these texts in detail, drawing out the implications of each document for parliamentary politics.

Smith and Little also examine the factions of the various Parliaments. For example, they analyse the loose “court” group associated with Cromwel during 1654-55, which included Sir Charles Wolseley, Walter Strickland, John Lambert, John Disbrowe, Broghill, Henry Cromwell, John Claypole, Edward Montagu. This mixture of civilians and soldiers makes it misleading to think in terms of broad divisions between soldiers and statesmen. The book concludes by agreeing, to an extent, with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s argument that Cromwell’s problems with his parliaments were of his own making. However, they look not to his disposition as a “natural back-bencher” and instead to Cromwell’s desire to see England converted to godly rule, with no fixed vision for the political form that might take. In joining this with a desire for parliaments that supported his vision, they argue Cromwell was setting himself an impossible task.

The book concludes with an intriguing hypothesis about Cromwell’s successor as Protector, his son Richard. He has often been seen as an ineffective ruler – the nickname “Tumbledown Dick” says it all. The woodcut below, with Richard as the “meek knight” in the middle, sums up his traditional reputation. (AN352990001, © The Trustees of the British Museum).

But Smith and Little argue instead that Richard tried to entrench the rise in power of the Presbyterian faction during the 1650s, spotting which way the tide had been turning during Oliver’s last years. They suggest that Richard’s failure as Protector was actually prompted by the army’s fears that he and his parliament were too strong.

A re-evaluation of Richard’s time as Protector is also one of themes addressed by the contributors to Patrick Little’s edited collection on the Protectorate. Jason Peacey re-examines the Humble Petition and Advice, pointing out that its intention as a monarchical constitution for a system of rule that never materialised left Richard at a profound disadvantage when he inherited the Protectorship. This revisionist focus on central government during the Protectorate is shared by a number of essays in this volume. Blair Worden, for example, looks at Cromwell’s Council of State and reassesses its importance, arguing that it mattered politically only because the army generals were represented on it. Lloyd Bowen and Patrick Little begin a process of bringing out the British context of the English Protectorate, with Little looking at the Irish and Scottish councils and Bowen examining the impact of the Protectorate in Wales.

Perhaps the highlight is a brilliant essay by Paul Hunneyball on Cromwellian architectural style. This extends Sean Kelsey’s findings about the extent to which the Commonwealth drew on and recycled monarchical ritual and iconography. Many state buildings saw significant repairs and improvements.

For example, in 1656 a fountain of Diana designed by Inigo Jones and executed by Hubert Le Sueur was brought from Somerset House to the garden at Hampton Court. The statue of Diana on the top was surrounded by Venus, Cleopatra, Adonis and Apoollo, with sea monsters, boys on dolphins and scallops around it. The statue, depicted to the left, was moved to Bushy Park in 1690.

As Hunneyball argues, the effect of this was to restore the architectural tastes of Charles I in the 1630s. Similar efforts were made to restore Whitehall to its former state. The Banqueting House was requipped with lavish tapestries, with Cromwell personally overriding objections by the Council of State to the high expenditure.

A number of themes emerge from these two books. One is the return to constitutional documents as a focus for study, and the impact that these had on high politics. Another is a more negative depiction of Cromwell’s period as Protector. Smith and Little argue for more emphasis on his failings to manage his parliaments, whilst Worden analyses a number of “senior moments” during his final years. Richard Cromwell, by contrast, emerges as a more sympathetic figure. It will be interesting to see whether these themes are developed in further works on the Protectorate in the coming years.

Great ideas that originated in the pub – part 96

I’m reading Tim Harris’s wonderful Restoration at the moment, and I just came across a lovely anecdote of some students in Edinburgh plotting to burn an effigy of the pope after a night down the pub.1

There happened to be hanging up in the pub a copper plate showing an engraving of the pope being burned in effigy in London – part of the Whig demonstrations against popery and arbitrary government during the Exclusion Crisis. A plan was hatched: Edinburgh too would have its pope-burning. The students had a whip-round amongst friends and raised enough to hire a carver to make an effigy with:

Cloathes, Tripple Crown, Keys and other necessary habilments.2

Edinburgh University tried to prevent it taking place by offering the students a bond:

We the students of the University of Edinburgh considering the Dangerous Consequences might attend the burning of the Pope on Christmas-Day, do bind ourselves not to do it upon that Day, or any Day hereafter.3

Unsurprisingly, not many students signed up.

News of the plan spread, and soon others in the town got wind of it. They were met by soldiers stationed round the town in an attempt to prevent it, but it went ahead, the procession noisily shouting “no Pope, no Pope”. It was eventually stopped when it got to the High Street, at which point the ringleaders decided to blow up their effigy with gunpowder. Beats Rag Week hands down…

My image is taken from the broadside The Solemn Mock Procession of the Pope, Cardinalls, Jesuits, Fryers &c. through the City of London, November the 17th, 1679. It shows three lines of a Whig procession ending with the burning of the pope in effigy outside Temple Bar.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

1. Tim Harris, Restoration: Charles II and his Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (Allen Lane: 2005), pp. 187-189.
2. L.L., The History of the late proceedings of the students of the colledge at Edenborough (1681), Wing / 461:05.
3. Anonymous, The Scots demonstration of their abhorrence of popery with all its adherents (1681), Wing / S2025.

Forthcoming books

Skimming through the Palgrave catalogue, I’ve noticed a couple of books that will be out in December that may be of interest.

The first is a collection edited by John Adamson on the English civil wars. The contributors and essays are:

– Introduction – High Roads and Blind Alleys: The English Civil war and its Historiography: John Adamson.
– Rethinking Royalist Politics, 1642-49: David Scott.
– Anglicanism and Royalism in the 1640s: Antony Milton.
– Perceptions of Parliament: Faction and ‘The Public’: Jason Peacey.
– The Baronial Context of the Irish Civil Wars; Jane Ohlmeyer.
– The ‘Scottish Moment’, 1638-45: Alan Macinnes.
– Centre and Locality in Civil War England: Clive Holmes.
– The Politics of Fairfax’s Army, 1645-49: Ian Gentles.
– Rhetoric, Reality, and the Varieties of Civil War Radicalism: Philip Baker.

The second is edited by Patrick Little and is on Oliver Cromwell. It looks very much like a successor to John Morrill’s outstanding edited volume of essays on Cromwell from the early 1990s.

– 1636: The Unmaking of Oliver Cromwell?: Simon Healy.
– ‘One That Would Sit Well At the Mark: The Early Parliamentary Career of Oliver Cromwell: Stephen Roberts.
– ‘Lord of the Fens’: Oliver Cromwell’s Reputation and the First Civil War: S.L. Sadler.
– ‘A Despicable Contemptible Generation of Men’?: Cromwell and The Levellers: Philip Baker.
– Cromwell in Ireland Before 1649: Patrick Little.
– Oliver Cromwell and the Solemn League and Covenant of the Three Kingdoms: K. MacKenzie.
– Oliver Cromwell (alias William) and Wales: L Bowen.
– The Lord Protector’s Servants and Courtiers: Andrew Barclay.
– John Thurloe and the Offer of the Crown to Cromwell: Patrick Little.
– ‘Fit for Public Services’; The Upbringing of Richard Cromwell: Jason Peacey.

God’s Fury, England’s Fire

God’s Fury, England’s Fire. A New History of the English Civil Wars.
by Michael Braddick.
London: Penguin Books, 2008.

In the summer of 1642, the bookseller Nathaniel Butter [DNB] put on sale a quarto pamphlet about a strange fish caught at Woolwich. A relation of a terrible monster [EEBO] told the story of a fish shaped like a toad, but with the hands and chest of a man. It was five feet long, with the tail alone a foot long, with two huge fins on each side. The wife of a butcher was so terrified by it that she swooned and exclaimed: “Oh the devil in the shape of a great fish”.

What has this got to do with a history of the English civil wars? An obscure tale to us, the significance of the fish to contemporaries was easier to see. Toad-fish and other monstrous births were omens: Pliny the Elder, for example, had said that toad-fish only came ashore in exceptional circumstances. The only time known to Pliny was during the year Nero was born. The Jewish historian Josephus likewise told a story about a heifer giving birth to a lamb in Jerusalem, six months before the city was sacked by Vespasian. There were also more recent examples, such as a whale being beached at Dieppe just before Francis I was taken prisoner at the battle of Pavia. The author of the pamphlet did not mince his words about the possible significance of the toad-fish:

These unnaturall accidents though dumbe, do not withstanding speake the supernatural intentions and purposes of the Divine Powers, chiefely when they meete just at that time when distractions, jars and distempers are a foote in a Common-weale or Kingdome.1

The fish was landed at Woolwich on 15 July 1642. Three days earlier, Parliament had resolved to raise an army for the defence of the king and for the preservation of true religion. The pamphlet underlines the fact that England stood on the brink of military conflict by bundling the toad-fish story with an account of a skirmish at Hull, which was being besieged by the king’s forces. The immediate question of any reader would have been whether Pliny and Josephus were right: was the ominous creature a sign of destruction to come?

The story of the toad-fish helps to give us some of the social context as England went to war. It’s the kind of story that would never feature in a straightforwardly political or military history of the civil wars. But it’s just one of a huge range and number of sources that Michael Braddick uses to write his history of the wars, a history which shows the renewed influence of social history on the study of early modern politics. In recent decades, English seventeenth century historiography has been split between the two: revisionist historians of the politics of the civil wars moved away from Marxian analysis in a rejection of interpretations like that of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning, but in doing so arguably lost some of the wider social context to the period. By contrast, although the “new” social history of early modern England also moved away from Marxian historiography, it did so by finding inspiration in other disciplines, like anthropology and sociology. As a result, the two became for a time rather separate. God’s Fury marks a growing trend to reconnect the two strands. It firmly answers Patrick Collinson’s call in 1990 for “social history with the politics put back in, or an account of political processes which is also social”.2

Braddick’s structure is both chronological and thematic. The narrative starts with a summary of Reformation politics in the three kingdoms, and a character sketch of the Personal Rule, before proceeding through the Bishops’ Wars, the politics of the Long Parliament, the Irish rebellion, and then into the war and its key landmarks – Edgehill, Marston Moor, Naseby, the Putney debates, the trial of Charles I. So far, so traditional. But Braddick breathes new life into this structure by using each chapter as a jumping-off point for wider social or political themes.

A chapter on the Irish rebellion, for example, allows him to dwell on the construction of factional politics in print, as pamphlet and newsbook writers sought to counter each other with increasingly lurid stories. Braddick analyses some of the atrocity stories that started to circulate once news of the rising broke in London. He also carries out a close reading on a pamphlet that relates how John Pym was sent a plague-sore plaster in the post, and how he unwrapped it theatrically on the floor of the Commons. The pamphlet carried a large woodcut of Pym on the front and generally does much to impress on its readers Pym’s importance to the defence of the kingdom. The pamphlet was printed for W.B., who Braddick deduces to be the bookseller William Bowden. Bowden had published a number of tracts about Catholic plots, and was quick to stock pamphlets about the alleged atrocities carried out during the rising. Braddick hypothesises, convincingly, that Bowden was part of a network of printers and booksellers publishing rumours about the rising but also bolstering Pym’s position within the Junto. But he goes further than this, too, linking the incident in to a wider treatment of the development of the newsbook, something which would transform the political and public sphere in the 1640s and onwards. Braddick is particularly strong on the importance of print culture more generally. Joad Raymond and Jason Peacey are both thanked in the acknowledgements and the influence of their work is clear – Braddick is very good at analysing print culture as a thing in itself rather than just as a source for other themes, in other words as something that was one of the drivers of events.

Another very effective example is a section looking at astrology and prophecy. Braddick uses a foray into the works of William Lilly as a wider exploration of the importance of astrology: how astrologers took sides, how the popular market for astrology developed, and the importance of prophecy too. He explores the influence of Mother Shipton, as well as looking at the royalist George Wharton’s famously inaccurate prediction about the battle of Naseby. Braddick uses thematic passages like this extremely effectively to place the political, military and religious conflicts in a wider social context. They are interesting in themselves as self-contained summaries of the latest academic thinking on particular points – some of the footnotes are discursive essays in themselves. But they are never digressions. They serve to explain not just the course of events, but why things happened as they did: what it was about 1640s England that meant the wars turned out in a particular way.

It’s significant that Braddick starts his book with a summary of Reformation politics. Even the title immediately makes it clear that religion is going to play a central role in his narrative. The narrative that Braddick is outlines is of a religious crisis with political implications – Charles I’s mishandling of the Personal Rule may have been a trigger in the shorter term, but for Braddick the conflicts of the 1640s hark back to the crisis of the 1620s, and even before that to the unfinished business of the Elizabethan settlement. 25 years on from John Morrill’s seminal lecture to the Royal Historical Society about Britain’s wars of religion, Braddick’s account picks up and expands these themes.3 He combines this with a strong sense of popular agency and ideology in explaining why it was that those outside Westminster went to war. He is sensitive in dealing with the fact that views held in one year could mean one type of allegiance, whereas the same views held 12 months later might mean choosing an entirely different allegiance. And (drawing on John Walter and Andy Wood) he unpicks the complexities of popular allegiance exceptionally well, sketching out how local political and religious ecologies could drive allegiance in particular directions while not making it inevitable – a good example being the Derbyshire tin miners, who on paper ticked all the boxes to side with Parliament, but who supported the king in return for remission on the tithe of tin. The political turn in social history makes its influence felt here, with Braddick being careful to suggest that what might on the face of it look like economic motives to choose sides should not be dismissed as non-political.4

If I have any criticisms, one is that the book, for me, slightly fails to capture fully the military aspect to the wars. Descriptions of battles fall slightly flat, although they are certainly detailed and comprehensive. Another slight letdown is that the book does not fully engage with the arguments of John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt, although this is not Braddick’s fault: The Noble Revolt emerged as God’s Fury was going to press. But Adamson’s book is likely to change the high political narrative of the early 1640s, as well as make historians think further about the connections between the Junto and London crowds. It will be interesting to see what future works of synthesis make of Adamson’s arguments.

But this is a rich and rewarding book. I learned a lot from it, and it has made me reconsider my approach to some of the key issues in this period (for instance my views on the politics of the Personal Rule). And I suspect I will be dipping in and out of it for some months to come. It manages to combine an incredibly comprehensive synthesis of current scholarship with a pacy narrative and strong arguments. If you’ve got any interest in the period at all, it’s a must-buy.

If you’re interested in getting some other opinions about the book, there have been a number of reviews elsewhere:

  • Guardian. Keith Thomas liked the book but felt let down by Braddick’s post-modern conclusions.
  • Spectator. Robert Stewart praised it for marrying an account of high politics with a dissection of why the English people went to war.
  • FT. Diane Purkiss gave it a mixed review, criticising the book for summarising topics she would rather have seen more on, but acknowledging the book’s usefulness for undergraduates.
  • THES. R.C. Richardson disagreed with Purkiss, arguing that it was unlikely to be used as a textbook but praising the narrative and its coverage.


1. A relation of a terrible monster taken by a fisherman neere Wollage, July the 15. 1642. and is now to be seen in Kings street, Westminster (London, 1642), p. 3.

2. Patrick Collinson, De Republica Anglorum: or, History with the Politics Put Back (Cambridge, 1990), p. 14.

3. John Morrill, The Religious Context of the English Civil War, in Morrill (ed.), The Nature of the English Revolution, (London, 1993), ch. 3.

4. Andy Wood, The Politics of Social Conflict: the Peak Country, 1520-1770 (Cambridge, 1999), and Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2002); John Walter, Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge, 1999).