The Interregnum and Non-Elite Royalism

October 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

About this post

What follows is the aborted introductory section of my dissertation prospectus, the kind of grandiose “Since the beginning of
time…” thing you write in order to understand the scholarly conversation you want to join. Inevitably, it’s largely a rehashing of what other people have said about your field, which in my case is royalism during the Interregnum. (My dissertation, which investigates the shifting constructions of non-elite royalism in popular print over the course of the 1650s, owes a great deal to the twin volumes on royalism during the 1640s and 1650s edited by Jason McElligott and David L. Smith, and the fine work of Angela McShane and Lloyd Bowen.) I’m not especially proud of these fumbling paragraphs (or even still agree with them), but they helped me get started and might be useful to other students of politics and culture during the 1650s. When I wrote them, I was unaware that Kevin Sharpe had died of cancer late last year. That he died on Guy Fawkes Night seems fitting for a historian entranced by images and the Stuart dynasty.

The historiographical backstory

Derek Hirst observed in 1996 that the years of the British commonwealth and protectorate were “the temporal equivalent of Eeyore’s Gloomy Place,” at least as far as many historians were concerned. Anyone who wanted to map Britain’s social and cultural terrain during the republican years, he wrote, “might find it difficult to locate the decade on a highway to anywhere” (369).

These days, the cultural contours of the 1650s are easier to pick out of the gloom owing to a period of unusual productivity in seventeenth-century historical scholarship coincident with the rise of post-revisionism.[1] In the post-revisionist view, revisionist historians, in rejecting the grand narratives of Whiggery and Marxism, came dangerously close to suggesting that profound political divisions in mid-seventeenth-century Britain had little to do with its crises and tumults. Because post-revisionists inherited a deep distrust of the political agendas of teleological argument, they looked for politics elsewhere. They found it in places their colleagues in English departments had discovered nearly thirty-five years ago: the products of culture, particularly texts and images.

The “cultural turn” of post-revisionists in departments of history has coincided with an unusually productive period in seventeenth-century historical scholarship. The co-mingling of literary and historical realms of knowledge and ways of seeing has inspired a number of brilliant essays and major monographs in the last few years by Kevin Sharpe, Alastair Bellany, Paul Lake, Ann Hughes, Richard Cust, Thomas Cogswell, and Steven Pincus. Their scholarship, like Sharpe’s Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England (2000), often proudly acknowledges a debt to the work of new historicists, often Annabel Patterson, whose political preoccupations and methods of inquiry permeate the best of post-revisionism. [2] Interdisciplinary exchanges between scholars of history and literature have grown so promiscuous that it seems nearly impossible to say whether the parent of a monograph on Milton, Barebone’s Parliament, or the chapbook trade resides in a department of history or English.

Still, new -isms inevitably perpetuate old silences. The silences in post-revisionist are inherited from the earlier scholarship new historicism produced. Although new historicists had hoped to demonstrate that all cultural texts, from Paradise Lost to an inventory of fishhooks, were equally valuable sources of information about the world they inhabited, but in practice, normative aesthetic values tended to win out. And the victory of high culture in new historicism had a predictable social corollary. Using Stephen Greenblatt’s rhetorical strategies as a pattern, a great many new historicists placed a figure of powerful state authority at the center of their analyses, a presence around which the essays swirled in a kind of dread fascination with power. A strain of that fascination with the literary and ruling elite runs through post-revisionist scholarship, which continues to produce important monographs and articles on Charles I, Cromwell, Marvell, and Milton. But not all post-revisionist work is partial to elite culture. Among the most brilliant examples of post-revisionist scholarship is Peter Lake’s The Boxmaker’s Revenge (2002), an analysis of an extraordinarily peculiar feud between a London minister and a  box maker that allows Lake to challenge twenty-first-century scholarly aversion to seventeenth-century radical polemic.[3]

Lake’s book and others’ notwithstanding, the politics and political culture of ordinary people are mostly missing from post-revisionist projects. We still know relatively little about the ranges of political allegiances, opinions, and expressions of dissent among the majority of England’s inhabitants, the people who comprised, in Keith Wrightson’s estimate, about 98 percent of the population during the years between the execution of one king and the crowning of another. What were their political struggles and strategies? If their allegiances shifted, how, why, and when?  How did they regard regimes that profoundly challenged ancient assumptions about their relationship with each the state and those whose political views chimed or clashed with their own? Why were there apparently so few widespread political protests or demonstrations of support among the ordinary folk? To ignore silences this loud allows space for us to imagine that the majority of England’s inhabitants had no strong political opinions or agency worth investigating, thereby perpetuating, in E. P. Thompson’s famous words, the “enormous condescension of posterity.”

We would know next to nothing about the political dissent of ordinary people during the civil wars and afterward were it not for the indefatigable archival work and intelligence of Marxist and left-liberal historians of the twentieth century, notably Christopher Hill’s examinations of mid-century radicals and his student David Underdown’s studies of Somerset during and after the civil wars. Hill’s brilliance seems to have stifled our ability to look for dissent in unexpected places. Non-elite political dissent in the 1650s seems to be the bailiwick of the already-radical, the province of the Leveller, Digger, Fifth Monarchist, or Quaker movements whose protests took extraordinary, non-normative form—Gerrard Winstanley’s “trespass” on St. George’s Hill in 1649, for example, or James Naylor’s donkey ride into Bristol in 1656.

It’s natural to assume that “popular royalists,” as non-elite allegiance to monarchical government is termed in recent academic discourse, expressed half-hearted opposition to parliamentary and protectorate authority. The most powerful challenge to this perspective, to my mind, lies in a single article in Royalists and Royalism during the Interregnum (2010), an essay collection edited by Jason McElligott and David L. Smith that concretizes the fairly recent phenomenon of “royalist studies” in the context of the 1640s and 1650s. The growing canon includes Royalists and Royalism during the Civil Wars, edited by Jason McElligott and David L. Smith (2007), Geoffrey Smith’s Cavaliers in Exile (2004), Jerome De Groot’s Royalist Identities (2004), Jason McElligott’s Royalism, Print and Censorship in Revolutionary England (2007). In “Seditious Speech and Popular Royalism,” Lloyd Bowen is uninterested in examining the plots and prosecutions of elite royalists that preoccupy much of the new scholarship. After sifting through records of cases that came before the Upper Bench, assizes, great sessions, and quarter sessions, Bowen found that the people most often hauled before the bench for speaking sedition were middling sorts—mainly artisans and tradespeople—and a surprising number of women and yeomen. And he confirms the consensus that outbreaks of royalist seditious speech corresponded to moments of peak political stress, particularly during the commonwealth, and that its central targets were the Rump, Cromwell, “tub preachers,” the army, and excise-men. Scandalous speech was more often than not delivered expressed in language affirming social hierarchy: “knaves,” “rogues,” and “dishmakers and coblers.”

Most intriguing for me is Bowen’s observation that relatively humble people—like Humphrey Butler, a seller of cosmetics from Somerset—“appropriated and deployed” the “supposedly elite political culture of royalism” (56). Drinking the king’s health at a gathering in early 1650, Butler enjoined “all you that are cavelears com alonge with me.” He conceives his royalist identity as allowing him freedom to issue orders to and move freely among those who outrank him.

Reading in and around the works I’ve mentioned, and many others I haven’t, led to this project, which evolved from simple curiosity about the lives of relatively humble Englishmen and Englishwomen whose royalist sympathies were out of tune with the times, when opposition to the commonwealth and protectorate governments and support for the Stuart monarchy were not only not normative, but could be punishable by law.


[1] Neither historical revisionism nor post-revisionism is a discrete or coherent philosophy, so assigning historians to one camp or the other is an artificial business. However, most acknowledge that the collection of Conrad Russell’s essays in Unrevolutionary England, 1603–1642 (1990) represents the epitome of early modern revisionist history. The post-revisionist cadre is often assumed to Kevin Sharpe, Ann Hughes, Richard Cust, Thomas Cogswell, Steven Pincus, and Peter Lake.

[2] Unlike Sharpe, Patterson is untroubled by metanarratives that champion the rise of liberalism. See, for example, Nobody’s Perfect: A New Whig Interpretation of History (2002) and Early Modern Liberalism (2006).

[3] Still, I think it’s worth noting a tinge of low comedy in the stories and seventeenth-century print scholars choose to drive post-revisionist monographs and articles that place non-gentry in the center. In them echo the anecdotes that became a rhetorical tic in early new historicist work.

Works Cited

Hirst, Derek. “Locating the 1650s in the English Seventeenth Century.” History  81.263 (1996): 359–83. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Jan. 2012.

Bowen, Lloyd. “Seditious Speech and Popular Royalism, 1649–60.” Royalists and Royalism during the Interregnum. Ed. Jason McElligott and David L. Smith. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. 44–66. Print

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§ One Response to The Interregnum and Non-Elite Royalism

  • Terry says:

    I’m researching the Interregnum for my Master’s degree in the UK. Your introduction is well-grounded in the contemporary historiography, but would it be possible to read (if it has been completed, that is) your full dissertation? It would be of great interest. Thanks, Terry.

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