Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: england

J. Charles Cox

The Rev. John Charles Cox (1844-1919) was perhaps one of the most influential English local historians of the nineteenth century. Anyone studying early modern Derbyshire quickly comes across his work. He published dozens of books, including calendars of local records, a four-volume history of Derbyshire churches, and a detailed study of All Saints, Derby. Even if you don’t know anything about Derbyshire, you may still have encountered his influence if you are interested in early modern parish history. In 1879, Cox published the first edition of a guide on How to Write the History of a Parish that would become the textbook for generations of historians and genealogists. It discussed step-by-step the local and national sources needed to reconstruct the history of an early modern parish. It was a runaway success, and was reprinted a number of times.

Cox was born in 1844 in Parwich in Derbyshire. He attended Repton and Somerset College in Bath, before starting a degree at Queen’s College, Oxford in 1862. Financial pressures – he was the second son and needed to find a secure income – led him to leave after three years without taking a degree, to take up a position as partner at the Wingerworth Colliery Company. Two years later, he married Marian Smith, the daughter of a local squire with whom he would go on to have ten children. They settled in Belper in Derbyshire.

Cox quickly got involved in local politics, becoming a magistrate and sitting on a number of local boards. He was a Liberal who became friends with Sir Charles Dilke, a high-flying politician who would become notorious in 1885 after an alleged fling with Virginia Eustace Smith during the first year of her marriage to the MP Donald Crawford. He was a trade unionist who became a regular on the left-wing speaking circuit in the 1870s, stating:

That there should be classes that exclusively labour, and others that exclusively enjoy, and have the privilege of unlimitedly expending the fruits of other men’s labour, is opposed to reason, justice and Christianity.

To the left of the Liberal Party, he diverged from Gladstone over disestablishment of the Church of England and the Church’s role in education. Just before the 1874 election he stood as an Education League candidate in the Bath by-election, against a sitting Liberal MP. The latter’s supporters caused uproar at an open meeting Cox was addressing, throwing him out of a first-floor window. Fortunately he survived his defenestration, as members of the local constabulary were standing beneath and managed to catch him.

In 1879 Cox started studying for the priesthood at Lichfield Theological College, becoming an Anglican priest in 1881. After a series of livings he was awarded a lucrative Crown placement in Holdenby in Northamptonshire. With a parish of fifteen people, this left ample time to devote to the historical research into parish archives that he had already been carrying out in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. During this time Cox was also taking pioneering approaches to what he called the ‘parish state’: insisting that the local could not be understood without reference to the national, an approach which is now second nature to post-revisionist historians of early modern England. In line with his politics, he was particularly concerned that the poorer members of past societies had the right to have their voices heard, and made innovative use of vestry minutes to uncover the plight of the poor in early modern parishes.

Many of Cox’s works are now out of copyright and are starting to appear on the Internet Archive. I also cannot recommend highly enough Elizabeth T. Hurren’s excellent article on Cox in Rural History (2008), from which much of the biographical information in this post is drawn.

Describing the news

How do you describe what “news” means? If you try define it – whether simply as new information, or as information about current affairs presented through various media – it renders it almost banal.  Equally, to analyse in detail the range of overlapping shapes and identities that news as a concept can take is also very difficult.

And yet like art, or pornography, we all know what news is when we see it. Living in a news-saturated culture, almost without thinking we use a range of linguistic and conceptual shortcuts to make sense of what we understand by news. Many of these draw inspiration from the communication circuit in which news exists. Titles are one such short-cut. We know instinctively what we will find in the Daily Mail – “asylum seekers cause cancer” – just as much as we know what to expect from the Sun – “Tracy, 18, says she’s supporting David Cameron because of his policies on tax breaks for glamour models”. We are so familiar with some titles that we give them nicknames: the Thunderer, the Grauniad, the Indie.

Authors are another shortcut. The names of columnists like Polly Toynbee or Richard Littlejohn will forever be associated with particular styles of writing and world-views. Mention “Dave Spart” to any Private Eye reader and they will instantly call to mind the kind of left-wing pundit the term satirises. Verbal and sartorial tics single out newsreaders and the editorial line they represent much more quickly than any kind of analytical language. John Snow’s ties are Channel 4 News in the same way that Martin Bell’s white suit symbolised something about his particular style of foreign news reporting. We know what is going to happen when Trevor McDonald utters the words “and finally”.

Paper size is yet another. We have tabloids, and we have broadsheets, and the two have very diffierent associations, which is perhaps why the Guardian caused such a fuss when it moved to the new Berliner-style format a while back. The chances are these two terms will remain in use long after newspapers – in the sense of news printed on paper – have died out. This is certainly true of another term linked to the production of papers. Fleet Street is still the collective term for the British press thirty years after Rupert Murdoch killed off any physical association between that area of London and journalism. Readers can also define particular types of news. “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” lives on fifty years after the term was first popularised, despite the likelihood that very few people remember its origins.The regulars of the BBC News “Have Your Say” section are, for me at any rate, swiftly becoming Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells 2.0.

Our understanding of what news means is thus deeply shaped by and rooted in the cultural forms and agents that bring it to our attention. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people in mid-seventeenth century England – who lived in an equally news-saturated culture – used the same kind of techniques to make sense of news as it evolved in front of them. What follows is a scattered account of various primary sources I have come across that, in some way or another, use various stages in the news market’s communication circuit to try to analyse or define the concept of news in civil war England. Rather than try to analyse them at this stage, I have simply described them. (This may or may not turn into a more considered post at some point).

As quickly as newsbooks were born, their titles took on an identity of their own. The 1642 tract A Presse Full of Pamphlets traced the corruptive influence of print to the invention of the first ever newsbook:

But in hope of more gain to himself by undoing of others, put the first Copy of the Diurnall Occurrences that was printed to a Printer, and then came all other things true and false to the Presse.

From this point on, individual titles started to stand for particular styles of writing and different shades of politics. Here for example is the frontispiece to a satirical pamphlet poking fun at the early royalist newsbook Mercurius Aulicus:

AN352667001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

A reader has written “Sir John Birkinhead” [sic] underneath the woodcut, but it is worth noting that the original pamphlet didn’t need to name the newsbook’s editor: the title was enough. During the 1640s newsbooks were as much the subjects of pamphlet literature as politicians or generals. The image below, which shows the front pages of two warring pamphlets laid out alongside each other, is a good example:

For a time there was even a trend for editors to bring out titles diametrically opposed to their enemies, and signified as such by having the prefix “Anti” in their title. Probably the most meta and paradoxical of these is Mercurius Anti-Mercurius, which tries to do itself out of a job even in its very title:

In layout and style this is (deliberately) almost identical to real newsbooks, from the title and series numbering through to the poem on the front page; and yet it proclaims itself not to be a newsbook. Pamphlets like this are an indication of how quickly the innovations of the 1640s – bear in mind the newsbook was only invented in 1641 – became normalised and integrated into the political and cultural vocabulary of contemporaries.

Nevertheless, editors themselves also became a recognisable shorthand for certain types of journalism. Of all the newsbook editors, Henry Walker probably attracted the most mud-slinging. Royalist newsbooks developed a range of nicknames for him, including ‘Beelzebubbs  brindled  Ban-dogge’,  ‘Sirrah  saffron-chapps’,  ‘Athiestical  liar’,  ‘Parliaments News-Monger’,  and ‘Rusty  Nuncio’ (the second and last a reference to his red hair). Ever since, Walker has been associated with a kind of pedestrian journalism that relies on press releases and official titbits rather than ‘real’ investigative scoops. This is to impose Victorian and twentieth-century categories of journalism onto a period in which “journalism” (if we can even use that word) meant rather different things, and is also a bit unfair on Walker. But informed contemporaries would probably have known what royalist editors were getting at when they presented Walker as the symbol of  what they saw as an arrogant, godless Puritan regime.

The 1647 pamphlet A fresh whip for all scandalous lyers went so far as to assemble a mock-encyclopedia of newsbook editors. Its primary aim was probably satirical, so it is problematic to seek to match the personalities it describes too closely to real editors. As a source of biographical details it may well be inaccurate. Nevertheless, for contemporaries to have found it funny it must have at least had the ring of truth. Here are some extracts from its pastiches of Samuel Pecke and Henry Walker:

I must beginne with the Diurnall Writer first… I may not unfitly tearme him to be the chief Dirt-raker, or Scafinger of the City; for what ever any other books let fall, he will be sure, by his troting horse, and ambling Bookselers have it convey’d to his wharfe of rubbish.

The Perfect Occurrence Writer… his whole face is made of Brasse, his body of Iron, and his teeth are as long as ten-penny nayles… Witnesse how many times hath he taken and killed Prince Rupert, and Prince Maurice, and Sr. Ralph Hopton: he hath an excellent faculty to put a new title to an old book, and he will be sure to put more in the Title page than is in all the booke besides.

The means through which newsbooks were produced and distributed also seem to have become associated with particular definitions of news. The title of one early critique from 1642 name-checks everyone involved in this process:

This is not to suggest that titles, editors, printers and sellers were the only language through which contemporaries were able to analyse and discuss the news market of the 1640s. There are various sophisticated critiques of newsbooks and the news industry from many contemporaries. My favorite of these is probably still this jaundiced editorial from an early edition of the Briefe Relation, one of the first ‘official’ newsbooks issued by the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles I:

To have no Newes is good Newes, it is a symptome of a placid and quiet state of affaires. The subject of newes which is most enquired for, is for the most part of Wars, Commotions, and Troubles, or the Composing of them.

Even for the lay reader, though, there were other ways to approach the concept of news than its constituent actors. The woodcut below – from Matthew Hopkins’s 1647 pamphlet A Discovery of Witches – is famously used to illustrate many textbooks’ accounts of early modern witchcraft:

But almost unnoticed at the bottom left, it also personifies news as a bit-part character in the form of a weasel:

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.

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.

A speech I’d like to have written

Regular readers will probably have picked up that my day job is as a civil servant in one of the big UK Government departments. I deliberately don’t post about anything work-related – this is a blog about history, after all – but I figure I’m on safe ground with this post.

Officials working on policy often have to draft speeches for Ministers. These can range from keynote addresses to major conferences through to very much more technical speeches for specialist audiences. I found a great example of one of the latter recently that I would love to have been asked to write.

While searching for something else, I found a speech that Lord Falconer (Lord Chancellor until last year) made in 2004. It was to mark the 350th anniversary of the Whitelocke treaty between England and Sweden.

If you haven’t come across Bulstrode Whitelocke before, here’s a bit of background. Born in 1605, he was a lawyer and MP who became involved in supporting John Hampden’s resistance to Charles I’s fiscal policies in the 1630s. He was involved in the early failed negotiations with the king and later in the 1640s became a keeper of the great seal. He managed to hedge his bets with the trial and execution of the king: he was a member of the committee that prepared the charges, but never attended, and he stayed at home on the day of the execution itself.

In November 1652, he recorded in his memoirs that he chanced upon Cromwell late one night in St James’s Park, who asked him “what if a man should take upon him to be king?”. Whitelocked reportedly advised Cromwell against, although there are limits to the reliability we can place on this source. In 1653, Whitelocke became ambassador-extraordinary to Queen Christina of Sweden, the topic of Lord Falconer’s speech. He negotiated a treaty of peace which, as Lord Falconer makes clear, has never been repealed.

Whitelocke is important for historians of the seventeenth century because of his writings. He left two substantial works, the Annals (a narrative of public events up to 1660 which draw from his journal), and his Memorials which are a tidied up version of his journal (not quite a diary, as Blair Worden has pointed out). Both of these are fantastic sources for those reconstructing the high politics of the 1640s and 1650s.

The man himself has found less favour with historians. He’s been seen as a pragmatist, or less charitably as a trimming official concerned with saving his own skin. Probably the most memorable judgement is that of Thomas Carlyle, who characterised him as ‘Dryasdust’: ‘our Pedant friend’ but one whose prose did demonstrate ‘occasional friskiness; most unexpected, as if the hippopotamus should show a tendency to dance’. But as an official myself I’ve always had a bit more sympathy with him.

Lord Falconer’s speech is a wonderful potted history of relations between the two countries in the mid-seventeenth century. There is the obligatory delight at Whitelocke’s unusual first name, praise for Queen Christina, and a summary of Cromwellian foreign policy in 1654. And whoever drafted the speech has a wonderfully dry sense of humour. Take this line:

First, and most importantly, it sought to establish a contractual basis for long-term peace and amity between our nations. Perpetual peace, indeed (the 1654 Treaty was nothing if not ambitious). 350 years is a solid start, you will agree.