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1 March 2023

Britain’s original culture wars

A new history of the 17th century reminds us how bitter ideological conflicts have shaped our democracy.

By Rowan Williams

From time to time in this engaging narrative of 17th-century Britain, Jonathan Healey describes the conflicts of that era as a “culture war”. The analogy is of limited usefulness, but it reminds us that bitter ideological stand-offs over what many consider abstruse questions are not a thing of the past. In the 21st century we have our own “theologies”, our own confessional or denominational tribes with their complex codes and passwords. It may also prompt us to think that today’s culture wars represent a hugely oversimplified set of binaries. People do not on the whole identify with the absolutist and mutually exclusive positions that drive media melodramas. Most are looking for pragmatic ways forward, damage limitation, and a settlement that can more or less be lived with.

So it was with the era of the English Civil War, which Healey rightly frames within a period of serious political turbulence extending over the best part of 60 years. There were of course deep and fundamental disagreements about the source of legitimate political authority. The belief in “divine right”, the direct dependence of the monarch’s authority on God, which the Stuart dynasty so fiercely defended, stood in stark opposition to the belief that sovereignty was inherent in the people as a whole. But the latter position was by no means a guarantee of republican – let alone “democratic” – views. You might be a monarchist who believed that “the people” had made some sort of primordial contract with monarchy, signing over its sovereign power to a sole ruler. But the question then was whether that delegation of power was conditional on a ruler’s good behaviour or was in effect permanent and irrevocable. Many different positions on this spectrum were possible – which is why, when war broke out in 1642, many supporters of King Charles I were less than enthusiastic about his understanding of divine right.

The conflict was fought with increasing savagery, and the outcome was no foregone conclusion. But, while the increasing professionalism and ideological passion of the parliamentary forces played a major role in that outcome, so did the king’s inability to sustain the confidence of supporters who had begun the war with reservations about his style and policy. His increasingly desperate attempts to secure support in Ireland and Scotland alarmed a substantial number of his English backers, and he was increasingly isolated.

The irony is that the absolutist view of royal authority was the really radical element in the political mix of the age. Medieval theorists were routinely lukewarm about unchallengeable and centralised royal power, and there were powerful voices insisting that an incompetent or unjust ruler could in an extreme case be confronted and removed by senior and responsible citizens. Both Catholic and continental Calvinist thinkers in the 16th and 17th centuries had continued to defend this – which was one of the things that brought down on them the full force of both the Tudor and the Stuart establishments.

[See also: The best books to help you understand Putin’s Russia]

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In the 17th century, as Healey shows, there was a steady shift towards the idea that the “contract” with a monarchy was only one way of expressing the sovereignty of the people. What if the people could organise themselves without a single ruler in the traditional style? Popular consent itself was being reimagined as something more than a formal acclamation by magnates or even by a parliamentary assembly of merchants, landowners and clients of the aristocracy. In the great debates of 1647 held in and around the parliamentary army headquarters in Putney, just outside the city of Westminster, when the King was already under arrest, there was serious discussion of whether there should be universal consent from the governed for the system of government. The counter-argument that this should be restricted to those who had a long-term interest in the well-being of the realm as wage-earners or property-holders still prevailed (as it would for a couple of centuries more), but the genie was definitely out of the bottle. Spokesmen for the army rank-and-file insisted that their men were not mercenaries, but were fighting precisely because they believed they had an investment in the state and its good order. Political authority must receive informed consent: from now on, leaders would need constantly to persuade, not only to inspire or coerce.

[See also: Beneath the culture wars, we are not nearly so binary]

Unsurprisingly, in the 17th century published argument flourished. The still relatively new technology of widely distributed printed matter was deployed with huge energy on all sides, and it was becoming possible for a bright young writer to make a living as a public commentator in the news media. One of the figures who crops up throughout Healey’s book is Marchamont Nedham: sometimes called the first real journalist, he put his writing talents to work for both sides of the national conflict at different points (he was for a while a sort of director of communications for Oliver Cromwell), and helped to establish a style of literate but pungent public debate. The busy and noisy world of coffeehouse discussion was gradually coming to birth, blossoming fully in the century that followed.

Just as modern culture warriors of wildly diverse conviction use the same techniques and the same platforms, so in the 17th century the new media world was not the preserve of radicals. Although Healey mentions it only briefly, in 1649 the publication promptly after Charles I’s execution of the Eikon Basilike (which means “Royal Portrait” in Greek), a book of prayers and meditations supposedly written by the king in his last days, was a significant development in the perception of the monarchy (as well as in the cult of the “Royal Martyr” himself). Depicting the king in the privacy of his cell and allowing him to present a personal apologia, it opened a door into a very different imaginative world from that of earlier reigns, and the book was a bestseller (much to the chagrin of the new regime).

Monarchy was finding that it had to justify itself in the same courts of public opinion as its critics – and it made a reasonable job of it. Charles I was a complex, enigmatic personality, genuinely devout, cultivated and humane. But the mixture in his character of high principle and deviousness (a bit like his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots) did not serve him well. His intense commitment to absolute monarchy and to the form of Christian organisation that he believed most consistent with this commitment, meant both that
he refused to compromise with any settlement that offered only a toleration of his religious convictions, and that he was ready to engage in what sometimes seem like spectacularly underhand and deceitful tactics in order to secure victory.

He aroused deep loyalties, but was not good at returning them. He lost allies by his indifference to how his tactics irritated supporters – people like the shrewd and competent John Williams, Archbishop of York, who finally made peace with the parliamentarian forces in north Wales after a long and courageous effort at coordinating the royalist resistance, because he felt the king was prolonging the bloodshed needlessly with his serpentine politicking.

The Eikon Basilike represented Charles as saying that he would sooner lose his crown than betray his conscience. But his conscience proved unhappily flexible about the means taken, not so much to avoid losing the crown as to avoid compromising the hegemony of the Church to which he was so passionately attached. One of the poignant elements in Healey’s book is the record of the various offers from parliament refused by Charles that would have allowed most of what he believed in to survive – but only as one religious option among others, which was wholly unacceptable to the king.

[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]

Not that religious liberty was an agreed principle on the non-royalist side. The idea of a national religious establishment was still largely taken for granted, the question was what its structures should look like. It was left to a few determined figures such as Cromwell himself (a member of one of the smaller and more egalitarian Protestant groupings) to secure a certain degree of religious tolerance – and even this would still allow the barbaric mutilation of the eccentric Quaker, James Nayler, in 1656. Catholics were throughout the century regarded as potential terrorists whose civil liberties should be curtailed.

This was partly the long legacy of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (Healey reports the “official” version of the plot, and does not mention the persistent suspicion that the authorities were better informed than they admitted about the conspiracy, and played a part in orchestrating its denouement). After the assassination attempt against James I, no amount of evidence for loyal citizenship by Catholics ever quite did away with the belief that secret agents were around every corner, eager to slaughter true believers and establish a papal theocracy.

The public hysteria over the completely fictitious “Popish Plot” between 1678 and 1681, concocted by the deplorable priest Titus Oates – a figure whose malice and mendacity would have guaranteed him a political career in some 21st-century states – shows how deep this prejudice went, and how readily legal process could be corrupted under the pressure of populist agitation. The plot’s body count was high, and Charles II’s administration behaved cravenly.

Some of the darkest strands in the history of the century come into focus here. Apart from the mindless venom towards a minority community, there is the growing power of the London mob – the shadow side of popular sovereignty, the raw force of violent pressure on lawmakers, and the suspension of ordinary legal procedure to deal with real or imaginary crises. The classical tag Salus populi suprema lex, “the people’s well-being is the supreme law”, was used by monarchs and parliaments alike to justify grave abuses of legal process. These included the deployment of “acts of attainder” to allow the execution without proper trial of supposed traitors (such as the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud in the 1640s), not to mention the legal quagmire of the king’s own trial.

Another irony is that so much of the energy behind parliamentary resistance to absolutism came from an appeal to the “ancient constitution” that common lawyers liked to talk about. This was a harking back to a supposed golden age of contractual monarchy and locally rooted liberties, an ideal that was suppressed by the later “Norman yoke” – the result of a foreign invasion supported by the papacy. It was a historical fiction but a powerful and persistent one, and not easy to reconcile with the readiness to invoke a state of emergency and to deny accused people the right of defence.

[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

Healey very wisely has few if any heroes (though he shows an understandable warmth towards the parliamentarian John Lambert, whose unshowy integrity comes across so clearly in the record). He does not let us forget that royalists and parliamentarians were both complicit in the developing slave trade, that John Locke, icon of rational and liberal tradition, held views on the working and non-working poor that would have won him praise from Margaret Thatcher’s government (as well as providing a philosophical justification for appropriating land from indigenous peoples), and that both armies killed non-combatants in large numbers.

He provides an impressively fair-minded guide to the age and its battles, and if the narrative energy flags a bit in later chapters (after all, James II is no more successful in stirring excitement among modern students than he was in commanding enthusiasm among his subjects), the early sections are absorbing and vividly conceived. Like many excellent contemporary narrative historians, he makes good use of local colour, opening with a splendid evocation of how in rural Cumbria a traditional popular celebration involving various sorts of festive anarchy and gender-reversal could be skilfully reworked as a protest against the threat that Puritan theology posed to a close-knit patriarchal society.

The nature of political legitimacy, the threats of populist frenzy, the longing for transparent representative structures and the debates over their limits, the power of media and the manipulation of images in political life: as Healey indicates, these are not remote issues. He enables us to see the deep continuities in the period, and to understand how the arguments that dominated the 17th century have had a profound and formative effect on Britain’s democracy today.

The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England
Jonathan Healey
Bloomsbury, 512pp, £30

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission