Issue 70 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) Published March 1996 Copyright International Socialism


A review of A Fletcher and P Roberts (ed), Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain (London, 1995)

Lee Humber

This collection of essays centres on the English Revolution and brings together nearly all of the people currently setting the pace in the study of the subject. It has been compiled to celebrate historian Patrick Collinson's contribution to the area and contains some absolutely fascinating material.

There are all sorts of ways to learn from these articles. Some are just very interesting, like Peter Roberts's piece on the developing state's first attacks on vagabonds and wandering minstrels in the 16th century, or Peter Lake's excellent piece on Puritanism and popular pamphlet literature in the 17th century. The articles by Conrad Russell and John Morrill are of particular relevance since these were two of the leading proponents of the anti-Marxist revisionism which marked the study of the English Revolution in the 1980s. But we should start with Keith Thomas on 'Cleanliness and Godliness in Early Modern England', since his short piece is a wonderful historical study.

Thomas is president of Corpus Christi college, Oxford and president of the British Academy, but don't let that put you off his books, Religion and the Decline of Magic and Man and the Natural World. One of his strengths is his ability to link ideological issues with the material circumstances in which they occur. For example, his short piece in this collection considers the issue of personal and social hygiene throughout the 17th century as peasants thrown off common owned land thronged to increasingly overcrowded towns and cities looking for work. He traces the religious arguments used to encourage cleanliness, arguments for and against cleanliness from the medical profession, how cleanliness was used as a mark of social distinction and how ideological offensives to promote personal hygiene were used to help preserve social order. On this last point Thomas quotes, among others, the social reformer Bishop Berkeley writing in the 1750s on Irish immigrant workers:

A little washing, scrubbing, and rubbing, bestowed on their persons and houses would introduce a sort of industry, and industry in any one kind is apt to beget it in another... You shall not find a clean house inhabited by clean people, and yet wanting necessaries; the same spirit of industry that keeps folk clean being sufficient to keep them also in food and raiment.1

The information Thomas amasses tells us a lot about the very practical political reasons behind the do gooding of the middle classes of this period.

Equally illuminating is what Thomas tells us of the medical profession in the 1640s. In 1648, one year before the king was beheaded, as progressive ideas flourished and London authorities proposed to erect public baths for the first time, the Royal College of Doctors argued that too much bathing was morally and physically harmful, 'effeminating bodies, and procuring infirmities, and...debauching the manners of the people'.2 It is a small point but it does tell us that ideological ferment even reached this seemingly obscure corner of social life. It also gives us an interesting insight into the standards of medical science before the English Republic was proclaimed. It is Thomas's ability to weave these disparate strands together into a coherent whole which gives his work its power, even though his last paragraph conclusion to this particular piece does peter out disappointingly.

The meat of the book for Marxists is undoubtedly the two middle pieces by the terrible twins of revisionist history, John Morrill and Conrad Russell. Morrill is Reader in Early Modern History at Cambridge and author and editor of 15 books. His most recent, The Nature of the English Revolution, contains 20 of his most influential essays, some of which would have been read by any student studying history over the last decade or so. The fun for socialists reading Morrill is in sharpening a Marxist analysis of the English Revolution through arguing against him.

Morrill's article is entitled 'A British Patriarchy? Ecclesiastical Imperialism Under the Early Stuarts', in which he attempts to discuss why the English church became more interventionist in Scotland and Ireland from Elizabeth I in the late 16th century through to the 1630s and the rule of Charles I. Early on Morrill explains Elizabeth's relative lack of enthusiasm for imposing the English church's will over the borders in this way:

The reluctance of Elizabeth or her bishops to get drawn into the internal affairs of the kirk [Scottish church] was based in part on English indifference to developing closer cultural and institutional links with Scotland; in part on English fears that once broad strategic objectives in Scotland had been secured, there was a danger for the English in being felt to be interfering... and in part on the queen's instinctive dislike of active policies anywhere.3

This is fairly typical Morrill fare in that it begs far more questions than it answers. For example, were the English simply indifferent to developing closer links with Scotland, or incapable of doing so for all sorts of economic and political reasons? Was it really the case that Elizabeth shied away from 'active policies' (a term which itself needs justification) because she was instinctively against it? If we try to shade in a little of the economic and political realities of Elizabeth's reign, answers begin to suggest themselves.

The period to which Morrill refers comes at the end of the 16th century in which huge amounts of land and property had changed hands as Henry VIII led his crusade against the Catholic church and its great wealth. Estates with a capital value (in today's money) of 15 million to 20 million found new owners.4 New class forces and class interests arose, with new ideas to justify their influence and power. Confusion reigned as medieval certainty and rigid social stratification were slowly nudged aside by the practice and values of a new kind of society. As R H Tawney puts it:

In practice, since new class interests and novel ideas had arisen, but had not yet wholly submerged those which preceded them, every shade of opinion, from that of the pious burgess, who protested indignantly against being saddled with a vicar who took a penny in the shilling, to the latitudinarianism of the cosmopolitan financier, to whom the confusion of business with morals was a vulgar delusion, was represented in the economic ethics of Elizabethan England.5

This wide range of opinion and the political consequences of it are reflected in the infighting around Elizabeth at court throughout the late 15th century. For example, in 1587 Sir Christopher Hatton was appointed Lord Chancellor of England after steadily courting the Queen's favour throughout the 1570s. A crypto-Catholic throughout this period, he was instrumental in getting John Whitgift appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Whitgift was not a Catholic himself but he was keen to defend the existing structures of the church, largely established by Catholicism, and hold back the tide of Puritanism which had gathered pace up until his appointment. The Earl of Leicester, formerly the queen's favourite and throughout an advocate of Protestantism, found himself on the defensive over these events. He tried to reassert his influence at court by arguing for an aggressive foreign policy in defence of Protestantism across Europe, in particular to defend the Dutch rebels then fighting against the rule of the Catholic King of Spain. But these ideas brought him into conflict at court with Lord Burghley who, though an enthusiastic supporter of Protestantism, was worried about the diplomatic and financial implications of English armies trooping off to northern Europe.6

This great political instability at court, which reflected that in the country generally, did not allow for decisive policies. If you cannot be sure whether your own religion is crypto-Catholic or fully Protestant what sort of religion do you try to impose on your neighbour? Elizabeth wasn't instinctively indecisive - after all, with the Poor Law of 1572, strengthened in 1576 and again with the Vagrancy Act of 1598, she was certainly decisive when it came to attacking the landless. Her indecision was caused by the fine balance of competing political forces around her at court.

By the time Charles came to the throne in 1621 the political and economic uncertainty of Elizabeth's time was fast becoming a crisis. But we look in vain to Morrill for any sense of this. In comparing James I of England with his son Charles, Morrill writes:

James was attempting to...arrogate to himself and a clique of bishops the power to change the liturgy of the church. But faced by a storm of criticism, James backed off... Charles was not to move far from his father's intentions, nor from his preferred means. But whereas James backed off in the face of a fiercer resistance than he had anticipated, Charles was to blunder on to catastrophe.7

The question left unanswered is why did Charles feel the need to reassert his rule so aggressively? To answer this we must move out of the realm of religion and look at the economic and political world in which the battle of religions took place.

By the time Charles came to power, all sorts of social forces had begun to develop whose economic interests did not coincide with those of the king or the members of the ruling class he favoured. This is particularly true of that layer of society which Brian Manning has described as the 'middle sort of people' - small land owners, craftsmen, shopkeepers, traders and others. This layer was deeply influenced by Puritanism. From their ranks came Oliver Cromwell and the dynamic core of the parliamentary party during the English Revolution.8

In his recent book, Merchants and Revolution, Robert Brenner reflects the extent to which the economic aspirations of the 'middle sort of people' were being denied when he explains that the aim of the chartered companies (those merchants with royal permission to trade overseas):

was not merely to keep out poorer, badly connected traders so as to restrict the numbers participating in the trade; it was especially to prevent entry into overseas commerce by the city's shopkeepers, small producers and ship captains, whatever their wealth... Moreover, many of them were by no means poor, and an important minority...undoubtedly possessed sufficient wealth to pursue overseas trade.9

The aspirations of the 'middle sort of people' to break out of the constraints the king and his supporters forced on them are vividly reflected in the Petition of Right of 1628. The bill, moved by a Puritan dominated House of Commons, bluntly puts the case for parliament controlling the finances of England, including those of the king. It was a direct challenge to the old order. As the petition states:

It is declared and enacted, that from thenceforth no person shall be compelled to make any loans to the king against his will, because such loans were against reason and the franchise of the land; and by other laws of this realm it is provided, that none should be charged by any charge or imposition, called a Benevolence, or by such like charge, by which the statutes before-mentioned, and other the good laws and statutes of the realm, your subjects have inherited this freedom, that they should not be compelled to contribute to any tax, tallage, aid or other like charge, not set by common consent in parliament.10

For Charles to have accepted such a bill would have meant putting himself under the financial, and therefore political, control of parliament. Already independent royal income was flagging. Sales of royal lands by James I had reduced income from this source by a quarter. Charles's right to raise revenue by charging customs on overseas trade was in dispute, parliament refused to grant him the traditional tonnage and poundage taxes and he was forced to introduce a hated Ship Money tax which only added fuel to the growing fire of class hatred.11 Rather than accept the Petition of Right, Charles chose to dissolve parliament in 1628. This was not the act of a blundering buffoon but a conscious attack by the king on his economic and political rivals in the Commons. It is in this context of class conflict and hardening class positions that we must understand Charles' future actions - from raising Ship Money as a source of income to attempting to impose his ideological rule through dictating codes of religion in England and Scotland and attacking Puritanism in all its forms.

Conrad Russell, Professor of History at Kings College London, is a more enigmatic character. His books include Parliaments and English Politics and The Causes of The English Civil War, written at opposite ends of the 1980s. His article in this collection discusses the union between England and Scotland from 1603-43. It is an interesting piece with some interesting detail. But what it lacks entirely is any sense of the economic relationship between the two kingdoms or how the relationship changed according to the rhythms of political struggle. For example, the Scots' economic situation is summed up in a passing remark on the 'comparative poverty of the Scottish nobility'.12 Nor is there any reference to the deepening of class divisions in England during this time and how this might have affected Scottish nobles and merchants. Yet these issues are key to understanding why the Anglo-Scottish alliance was fundamentally strengthened in 1643 when Scottish forces joined parliament's side in the English Civil War.

In 1643 the House of Commons promised money and religious and political influence throughout the realm to religious progressives in Scotland. In September that year the Solemn League and Covenant was enacted by parliament promising to 'sincerely, really and constantly... endeavour in our several places and callings the preservation of the reformed religion in the Church of Scotland...against our common enemies; the reformation of religion in the kingdoms of England and Ireland'13 - a declaration of support for parliament and against the king. A few months later a combined force of English parliamentary and Scottish Covenantor armies scored the first decisive victory of the Civil War, defeating the Royalists at Marston Moor. The promise of religious influence very quickly turned out to be a dead letter. But the allegiance had served its purpose, tipping the military/political balance in parliament's favour. This was the decisive factor pulling the two countries together. The union between the English and Scots was not a gradual coming together of two cultures, as Russell suggests. It took a great leap forward in the 1640s directly because of the English Revolution.

You are almost certain to come across the opinions of Morrill and Russell if you delve into the history of the English Revolution. They were both involved in the so called 'History Debate' of the late 1980s and early 1990s which, as you may remember, was a Thatcherite project to further the 'British' content of teaching of history in schools and colleges. Both spent large parts of the Thatcher years attempting to dismiss the notion that Marxist analysis had anything useful to offer the study of history. Interestingly both have reappraised their anti-Marxist position in the years since Thatcher's political demise. Indeed, after the onslaught against Marxist techniques of historical study throughout the 1980s, in the early 1990s many historians began to rediscover at least some of the great strengths of historical materialism.

Another of the featured writers in this volume is Peter Lake. Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, his work is more difficult to get hold of but is well worth the effort. His books include Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church and Anglicans and Puritans? Presbyterianism and English Conformist Thought from Whitgift to Hooker. They might sound a bit dry but they are in fact fascinating studies of the inter-relationship between ideological and material forces in the 16th and 17th centuries, valuable for their detail and insight.

His piece here is 'Popular Form, Puritan Content?' It reflects on the seemingly incongruous coming together of two distinct forms of publications of the mid-17th century - the Puritan conversion narrative - written to build the ranks of the Puritan faithful - and the popular murder pamphlet - written purely for entertainment and profit. Lake focuses on two examples of this alliance, the stories of the hangings for murder of Nathaniel Butler and Thomas Savage. Lake argues that these two represent the:

logical outcome of that process of glossing murder narratives, a commercial literary form, whose saleability almost certainly resided in its most titillating, even pornographic aspects, in terms of certain central Protestant or Puritan doctrines and attitudes.14

Furthermore Lake explains that:

For all the Puritan credentials of the authors - respectable Presbyterian divines in the case of the Butler narrative, notable nonconformists in the case of the Savage pamphlet - both accounts retained many of the central characteristics of the average murder pamphlet. Both seemed designed to exploit the buzz of notoriety and rumour surrounding peculiarly unpleasant murders.15

That Puritan ministers - those stuffy, aloof people in the black capes and black hats - could be sufficiently socially aware to tap in to the popular consciousness in this way is quite a revelation and helps bring them and their movement to life. Lake maps out in fascinating detail the involvement of the Puritans in the trials of the two murderers, sketching out what the murderers and the Puritan movement gained from the alliance. Puritan ministers visited both Savage and Butler in the condemned cells in the run up to their hangings. Their aim was to bring the felons to a full realisation of the extent of their sins, and to offer them redemption through accepting Christ. The Puritans left full accounts of the conversations and emotional interactions between the felons and their clerical mentors so we learn that, though Savage thought a simple repentance would be enough to save his soul, the Puritan ministers had other ideas. As Lake explains:

It became clear that he needed first to be brought 'to a sight and sense of the corruption of his nature and of the sinfulness of his heart'. Confronted with the depth of his own sin he would have to acknowledge that his own puny tears and sighs of repentance counted for nothing.16

According to the Puritan ministers Savage required the full treatment. This of course put the ministers in control of Savage's spiritual welfare - he would be ready for eternity when they said so. The gallows work of the Puritan ministers helped further the Puritan cause in many ways. It also clearly helped the felons come to terms with the barbarity of their punishment. According to the numerous and varied sources which Lake quotes, both Savage and Butler went to their deaths calmly, in the certain knowledge that they were at one with Christ and therefore assured of salvation. This of course was also marvellous propaganda for Puritanism. As the felons made their way through the crowds to the scaffold, the gathered masses could not but marvel at how at peace with themselves the condemned men were. And of course, as Lake points out:

If God could save such unregenerated and desperate sinners he could save anyone... Such cases were, therefore, a powerful corrective against hopelessness for all Christians languishing in despair at the enormity of their own sins.17

Lake's great strength is the way in which he connects up the ideological aspects of the religious battles being fought out throughout this period with the social and political aspects. His summation of the motives behind the Puritan murder/conversion pamphlets is wonderfully succinct and dialectical:

As ever with Puritan piety, the internal was inextricably connected to the external, the private, interior world of spiritual introspection, linked to the external world of public policy and godly reformation.18

In my opinion Lake's piece is the highlight of this useful collection. For anyone just starting to get to grips with the period the book maps out some of the main areas of importance and contention. Those with a wider knowledge of the period will find it stimulating and useful. There is no definite political agenda mapped out in the book, which is refreshing coming after a period which has seen numerous collections of essays with a particular, invariably right wing, axe to grind. In this sense the collection reflects the more open climate of debate in historical study today. True, none of the demons of the left, like Brian Manning or Christopher Hill, were asked to contribute. But at least a number of the authors displayed a more than passing knowledge of the Marxist techniques of historical study. And that, after a decade which has seen Marxism driven on the defensive, is to be welcomed.


1 G Berekeley, 'A Word to the Wise', The Querist (1750), quoted by Thomas, p80.

2 P Chamberlen, 'A Paper Delivered...for Bathes and Bath-Stoves' (1648), as quoted by Thomas, op cit, p74.

3 A Fletcher and P Roberts (ed), Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain (London, 1995), p211.

4 R H Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London, 1987), p168.

5 Ibid, p172.

6 D MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England 1547-1603 (London, 1990), p45.

7 Religion, Culture and Society, op cit, p221.

8 B Manning, English People and the English Revolution (London, 1991).

9 Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (London, 1993), p83.

10 Ed S R Gardiner, The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution 1625-1660 (London, 1979), p66.

11 C Hill, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 (London, 1986), pp41-42. 12 Religion, Culture and Society, op cit, p241.

13 S R Gardiner, op cit (London, 1979), p267.

14 Religion, Culture and Society, op cit, p318.

15 Ibid, p318.

16 Ibid, p319.

17 Ibid, p330.

18 Ibid, p332.

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