The blazing world: a new history of revolutionary England, by Jonathan Healey, hardback, 492 pages, ISBN 978-1526621658, Bloomsbury, 2022, £30. Paperback edition due March 2024. Kindle and eBook editions available.
The 17th century was a revolutionary time in England, and elsewhere in Britain. Jonathan Healey, Associate Professor of Social History at Oxford University, has written a lively, informative book about the period.
Charles I was the ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625 until 1649, when he was executed after being indicted for treason by the English Parliament, tried and found guilty.
That alone was a revolutionary act at a time when monarchs, and many of their subjects, believed in the divine right of kings to rule. But there are wider lessons about power and politics which resonate today, over 300 years later.
Charles leaned towards Catholic absolutism which led to growing popular opposition to his rule. The crisis stimulated popular activity: mass protests became constant features of English life after 1640.
The resistance brought about what Healy describes as “…still one of the greatest explosions in political and social creativity the country has ever seen”. People remembered that the common law said that people should not be bound by new laws without their consent.
A pamphleteer, Henry Parker, wrote, “Power is originally inherent in the people.” This gained wide currency – not the sort of idea any rulers can live with.
“The power is in you, the people; keep it, part not with it.”
One of the parliamentary New Model Army’s chaplains told soldiers gathered in Marston church near Oxford, “…the power is in you, the people; keep it, part not with it.” The republican John Parker wrote that all government “is in the people, from the people, and for the people.”
But the king hit back. In December 1641, he ordered his local militia in London to act, “by shooting with bullets or otherwise, to slay and kill such of them as shall persist in the tumultuary and seditious ways and disorders.” A few days later, he led 400 soldiers to Parliament to try to arrest by force five MPs for treason. But he failed: the people stopped him, his soldiers turned back.
Healey describes how the people were crucial, “At key points, the opposition of a significant segment of the English population…had prevented Charles from keeping control. The breakdown wasn’t just about mistakes by politicians and the king. It was about the politicisation of the English population.”
He cites widespread and persistent opposition – reluctance to mobilise against the Scots, twice electing opposition MPs in 1640, petitions to Westminster and much more.
Demonstrations against the king’s adviser Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford led to his execution and sparked rebellion in Ireland. Iconoclasm, the breaking of religious images in 1641 was as much aimed at the political authority of the church as it was against Catholicism. And, most of all, the great popular uprising in London in the winter of 1641-2.
Charles left London. Throughout the following months he raised an army in opposition to parliament – revolt became civil war. On 13 November 1642, near Turnham Green, then a small village west of London, “some 20,000 or more had gathered: soldiers, militia, citizens, apprentices...It was a mass mobilisation of Londoners.
“Once more, the people of the capital stood ready to resist their king…In the face of the massed ranks of soldiers and Londoners, the king’s army had shrunk back from a fight…The king had failed to get the quick victory he needed.”
Decades later, the people were once again the decisive force, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, which brought William of Orange to the throne. This was a genuine revolution, both in its making and in its effects. The people ousted James II, the son of the executed Charles, not by a palace coup, nor a foreign invasion.
Healey takes up the story as William made his landfall on 5 November . He explains that all was not lost for James, who had a much larger army gathering west of London. Crucially James was also in possession of the Tower of London, then an armed fortress dominating the city.
James believed he had the military means to meet William in battle and to put down any uprising in London. James arrived back there 11 days later. He was met by a huge show of support from the population, but that abruptly faded.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes had observed earlier in the century, “the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people.” And the people had no belief in James, few wanted to fight and die for him. Abandoned by the people, he fled the field, before a blow was struck.
Healey sums up, “In the political sphere, the key principle that monarchs were accountable to the law, and to their people, were now firmly established. The regicide, often seen as a misstep, was based on this idea. The Revolution of 1689 gave a more acceptable face, associating it not with republicanism or Puritanism or with the military, but with a moderate Anglicanism.”
But there was more. Healey argues that “…society was undergoing profound, if gradual, changes that were ushering in a more modern landscape”. This ranged in scope from “…the establishment of a robust system of welfare to the poor, to the gradual reduction of interpersonal violence, to the disappearance of witchcraft prosecutions, to the slow decline of capital punishment.”
Meanwhile the economy developed a sophisticated market system based on efficient farming and international trade. Characteristics of mediaeval life gradually disappeared – famine, plague, even regular urban fires as brick building became more common.
Healey describes a transition in the life of our nation, “In the vogue for ‘improvement’ lay the seeds of agricultural revolution, and in the increased use of coal lay the foundations of an industrial one.
“Politics was no longer about monarchs.”
“All this was also accompanied by the beginnings of a vast imperial project that would bring violence around the world, and misery to millions of enslaved people. …The most revolutionary thing about this century, though, was that politics was really no longer about monarchs.”
He might have added that enslavement happened at home as well as aboard. But the 17th century had set the seed for wage slaves to be able to work out their own destiny and for the creation of Britain as a nation.