Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: popular politics

London crowds and the Restoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The politics of saltpetre

While digging through the Calendar of State Papers Domestic for Charles I, I came across an interesting dispute from 1630s Gloucestershire about the production of  saltpetre which I thought I’d share.

Saltpetre is another name for potassium nitrate, a critical ingredient for gunpowder. It was typically generated by collecting vegetable and animal waste into heaps and mixing it with limestone, mortar, earth and ashes. These heaps were kept moist from time to time with urine or other waste from stables. Digging for ingredients in outbuildings such as dovecotes and stables was thus an important part of ensuring adequate supplies of gunpowder for the navy. From the reign of Elizabeth I onwards, official saltpetre men were given powers to requisition any suitable deposits they came across.

Collecting saltpetre could prove enormously disruptive to local areas. Backed by support from the centre, the saltpetre men seem to have pushed their weight around in communities:

The saltpetre men care not in whose houses they dig, threatening men that by their commission they may dig in any  man’s house, in any room, and at any time, which will prove a great grievance to the country. In the town where the writer lives they have digged up some malting rooms, and threaten to dig more. They dig up the entries and halls of divers men. If any oppose them they break up men’s houses and dig by force. They make men carry their saltpetre at a groat a mile, and take their carriages in sowing time and harvest, with many other oppressions.

Sir Francis Seymour to Secretary Coke, 14 February 1630 (CSPD)

This clash of priorities has been used by Conrad Russell amongst others to illustrate tensions between crown and gentry during the early seventeenth century as costs and methods of warfare grew during the military revolution of the early modern period. But it also provides examples of clashes of priorities at a much more local level too.

John Giffard was one of the bullying saltpetre men Seymour mentions. He was described by Sir Thomas Roe as “such as would reign over poor
men in their office”. He appears to have come from the Forest of Dean, but crops up as a saltpetre man across the south west of England.

In 1634, Giffard got fed up with resistance from the inhabitants of Gloucestershire and petitioned the Lords of the Admiralty about the difficulties he was having with a William Browne:

Petition of John Giffard saltpetreman to the Lords of the Admiralty. Petitioner being at work at Thornbury co. Gloucester. William Browne who has a good living at Westerleigh and keeps a sufficient plough or team thereupon being charged by the officer to join with one of his neighbours to carry one load of coals from the coal pits adjacent to the boiling house in Thornbury obstinately refused. Petitioner complained of Browne to two justices of the peace who admonished him to do the service but he refused and further assistance the justices said they could not give. And since Browne being warned again to carry one load of liquor from Acton to the boiling house refused. Further Henry Webb of Wotton under Edge has a pigeon house at Wickwar which he keeps in his own hand but has let the land to Richard Batten of Yate, which pigeon house would have yielded a great quantity of saltpetre but Webb and Batten have utterly destroyed the same by carrying the good earth out of the house and laying the same on their pasture ground and divers others in imitation thereof have done the like which will be the utter destruction of that service without timely prevention. Prays that some course may be taken with the party complained of and petitioner satisfied for his loss and hindrance.


Browne appears to have been the same William Browne who is listed as a carpenter on the 1608 muster roll for Westerleigh. In other words, he was a craftsman from amongst the middling sort of people, with enough land in 1635 to have earned some money from it. Browne was imprisoned in Marshalsea prison while the case was heard. But rather than submitting, or languishing in hail, Browne fought fire with fire. He was able to mobilise substantial support to put his case to the Lords of the Admiralty. He managed to enlist Sir Thomas Roe, whose mother had remarried into the Berkeley family in Gloucestershire, to put his case:

Sir Thomas Roe to [Secretary of State] Nicholas. Pain prevents his waiting upon the Lords. Begs Nicholas to read the enclosed, and inform the Lords a truth in behalf of an innocent and honest man, maliciously persecuted by such as would reign over poor men in their office. Would not plead for this bearer [William Browne] before such an audience, and in such a cause as the King’s service, but that he was well grounded that Browne performed his duty willingly, and the testimony he has is from the best men in that division. It is not a less heroic and honest work to protect the innocent than to chasten the refractory, therefore he hopes the Lords will give credit to the informations and discharge him. Prays Nicholas to aid Browne, who, perhaps, in such a presence cannot speak for himself.

Browne and Roe’s tactics here were shrewd. Working people were not supposed to speak up in early modern England. As Andy Wood has argued, popular unrest was conceived of in overwhelmingly auditory terms: as “ill words”, as “hurly burly”, as “commotion”, as “noise”. Only after the civil wars did the word “mob”, from the Latin mobile vulgus, become the favoured description. In presenting Browne’s case in this way, Roe was seeking to appropriate and work within the confines of a normative elite vocabulary that would have otherwise rejected his petition out of hand.

But Browne and Roe also realised that they needed to draw on other cultural capital to get him off the hook: namely the support of local people in presening Browne as a pillar of his community. Roe attached the following letters to support his case:

1. Thomas Chester to William Browne. Replies at length to a letter from Browne on the power given to Giffard under his deputation to take carts and ploughs for the conveyance of saltpetre liquor, and his remedy in case of refusal or interruption by appeal to the next Justice of the Peace. Orders for facilitating the service had been made by the justices at Thornbury. Does not believe that Giffard would have any cause of complaint if he appealed to the justices when there was reason for so doing. Alman-Knowle, 19 December 1634.

2. Inhabitants of Alveston, co. Gloucester, to the Council and Lords of the Admiralty. William Browne has been a willing payer towards carriage to the saltpetre works at Thornbury; also, when his plough was pressed for their parish for the carriage of a load of coal, he agreed with Montague, a coal carrier by horse, to convey it in, because his plough was weak and the ways unpassable. 16 January 1635.

3. Inhabitants of Westerleigh, co. Gloucester, to the same. Certify that William Browne never refused rate for carrying water and coal to the saltpetre works at Thornbury, but, being pressed for two places at once, remarked, that he thought it unreasonable, having but one plough, and that many men paid nothing in this service because they kept no ploughs. 18 January 1635.

4. John Street and others to the Council. Certify that the plough of William Browne, when he was warned last for Westerleigh parish, for carriage to the saltpetre works at Thornbury, was unable to carry above half a load, by reason of their poverty and weariness with other carriages, whereupon Browne excused himself to Giffard by letter. 18 January 1634-5.


Browne’s case is not remarkable. Seventeenth-century working people seem to have appealed on many occasions to the law, and were able to take their cases to the highest courts.  But there were still limits to the agency that this gave them. The odds were still stacked overwhelmingly against plebeian people in early modern England. Like they were for Browne: on 0n 30 January he decided discretion was the better part of valour and took a different route to getting released.

Petition of William Browne prisoner in the Marshalsea to the same. Upon complaint of Mr Gifiard master of the saltpetre works at Thornbury co. Gloucester was sent for by a messenger and is now imprisoned. Expresses sorrow for any offence and prays enlargement.


The Lords of the Admiralty quickly decided that Giffard’s complaint was justified:

Lords of the Admiralty to the Keeper of the Marshalsea. Warrant to set Edmund Barker at liberty. Minute of a like warrant to set at liberty William Browne with a clause that he should pay 6l. to John Giffard and all fees. The same to Thomas Chester Justice of Peace for co. Gloucester. In examining the complaint against William Browne perceive there has been great neglect in Chester in not assisting the deputy saltpetreman in the performance of his works and this fault lie has aggravated by certifying on behalf of Browne whom he could not but know to be a delinquent, Browne having been complained of by the deputy to Chester and another Justice of Peace Forbear to call him to account for this neglect hoping this admonition will render him henceforth more ready to give assistance in that service as there shall be occasion. 31 January 1635.


As Andy Wood has put it, popular agency could be exercised in early modern England by those who were determined, clever or lucky enough, but it was “something won from a profoundly unequal, and often cruel, class structure”.

For more on saltpetre men see:

1. Charles Edelmen, Shakespeare’s military language: a dictionary (2000), pp. 295-296.

For more on the politics of silence and the limits of popular agency see:

1. Andy Wood, The 1549 rebellions and the making of early modern England (Cambridge, 2007).

2. Andy Wood, ‘Subordination, Solidarity and the Limits of Popular Agency in a Yorkshire Valley, c.1596-1615’, Past & Present, 193 (2006), pp. 41-72.

The Mowing-Devil

The Mowing-Devil is a quarto pamphlet printed in 1678.1 It tells the story of a farmer whose field of oats was destroyed by the devil, after the farmer rejected the price asked by a mower and said that the devil could mow it instead.

The pamphlet is often prayed in aid by crop circle enthusiasts as an example of crop circles being a pre-modern phenomenon. The Wikipedia article on the pamphlet puts this forward as a possibility, as do a number of crop circle websites. One, Swirled News, has carried out lengthy research into the provenance of the pamphlet, examining a copy in the British Library and discovering that there are a number of subtly different modern recreations of the woodcut illustration. At a quick glance it certainly does bear a resemblance to a crop circle – it looks like there are concentric rings of crops being pressed down by the devil.

However, the crop circle enthusiasts don’t really talk about the text of the pamphlet itself. A closer look makes the crop circle theory seem less likely. There is no mention in the text of patterns or concentric circles in the oats. The pamphlet goes on to say that after the farmer had abused the mower, his field was observed to be on fire during the night. The next morning, the field was:

totally devour’d by those ravenous Flames which were observ’d to be so long resident on his Acre and a half of Ground.

Below is a close-up of the woodcut on the pamphlet’s title page.

A close look shows what actually appears to be flames either side of the oats. Although the devil is cutting the oats down with a scythe, I’m fairly confident this is a representation of the diabolical flames consuming the field, rather than the devil cutting patterns into it. The pamphlet does then claim that the next morning, the oats were perfectly mown, and it’s possible that this may have been the way they were destroyed – but I suspect fire is the more likely explanation.

A close reading of the text reveals at least two rather different contexts that would have made much more sense to contemporary readers than speculation about crop circles. One is religious. The pamphlet starts with a proof of God: if devils exist, then there must be a Hell in which they live. If there is a Hell, there must be a Heaven, and hence there must be a God. The way in which the pamphlet deploys imagery of the devil can tell us something about its intended readership. Its imagery owes much to late medieval conceptions of the devil, in which he (or occasionally she) could appear as a physical being. This often presented the devil in a humorous or socially-inverted context. He appeared in medieval “merry tales” and mystery plays, often in a sexual or scatological context. Such images would have been recognisable by those at all levels of society during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.2 By the mid-seventeenth century, however, this late medieval conception of the devil was being challenged. Godly puritanism emphasised the power of the devil, putting the struggle with him at the centre of spiritual life. However, this challenge was not entirely successful – medieval conceptions of the devil continued to live on amongst much of the population of England.3 So this pamphlet would have had more appeal to those in rural communities who remained attached to the rhythms of the old church, who had turned against puritan tendencies.

The second context is a classed one. The pamphlet is fairly explicit in its representation of the power relationships between the farmer and the mower. The farmer is a “rich, industrious farmer”. The mower is a “poor Neighbour”, who:

endeavour’d to sell the Sweat of his Brows and Marrow of his Bones as at dear a Rate as reasonably he might.

But the farmer won’t give him a fair price for his labour. After some sharp words, the “honest Mower” runs back and offers to do the work at a much lower price than he’d ever offered to anyone else. But the farmer is having none of it, and makes his quip that the devil will mow the field before the mower does.

The farmer here – at least as far as the pamphlet’s author is concerned – stands guilty of breaking the moral economy of their rural community.4 The mower has offered a fair price within a framework of what is acceptable, and even offers to do the work at a loss. But the farmer rejects this, and by stepping outside the moral economy pays the price. It seems likely that the fire in the field was caused not by the devil, but by the mower or at least by friends or family members within his community. Again, this context would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary readers – a cautionary tale, perhaps, for middling sort landowners, and a comforting assertion of traditional values of fair play for rural wage labourers. Only a minority of this latter group might have been able to read the pamphlet, but all would have been able to see the illustration, and discuss it or have it read to them by those who could read.

In short, The Mowing-Devil is probably not the representation of an early crop-circle that enthusiasts want it to be. In focusing on the woodcut, they’ve missed a much more interesting side to the text that tells us something about late seventeenth-century popular politics and religion.

1. Anonymous, The Mowing-devil, or, Strange news out of Hartford-Shire being a true relation of a farmer, who bargaining with a poor mower about the cutting down three half acres of oats, upon the mower’s asking too much, the farmer swore that the devil should mow it, rather than he… (London?, 1678), Wing / M2996.
2. Darren Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England (Sutton: Stroud, 2000), pp. 16-23.
3. Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England, pp. 58-89; Nathaniel Johnston, The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006), pp. 1-8.
4. E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century”, Past & Present, 50 (1971), pp. 76-136.