The Great Fear

William Lamont

  • Charles I and the Popish Plot by Caroline Hibbard
    North Carolina, 342 pp, £21.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 8078 1520 9
  • Charles I: The Personal Monarch by Charles Carlton
    Routledge, 426 pp, £14.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9485 X
  • The Puritan Moment: The Coming of Revolution in an English County by William Hunt
    Harvard, 365 pp, £24.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 674 73903 5

We shall know more about the origins of the English Civil War when we know more about English Puritans. This seems, on the face of it, an absurd proposition. From S.R. Gardiner’s confident description of the Great Rebellion as ‘the Puritan Revolution’ downwards, we have not lacked studies which linked Protestant religious attitudes to the coming of the Civil War. Titles such as Woodhouse’s Puritanism and Liberty or Haller’s Liberty and Reformation in the Puritan Revolution pay homage to this tradition. Gardiner, Woodhouse and Haller, in different ways, were showing how Protestant ideals influenced the middle-class constitutionalism of Opposition MPs. Michael Walzer went further in his Revolution of the Saints by arguing that Calvinism was a modernising ideology. With breathtaking audacity, he leapt from case-studies of Marian exiles to New Model soldiers belting out battle hymns, in pursuit of his thesis that revolutionary dogma was to be found in mainstream English Puritanism and not (as was often supposed) merely in a sectarian lunatic fringe. There was no danger in any of these studies of the religious dimension being squeezed out of an explanation of the origins of the English Civil War.

But was it the right religious dimension? We still lack biographies in depth of key religious figure such as Stephen Marshall, Cornelius Burges, John Goodwin, Edmund Calamy, Henry Burton and others. They flit tantalisingly through the pages of Valerie Pearl’s valuable study of the London revolution of 1641, or Anthony Fletcher’s equally important analysis of petitioning on the eve of Civil War. It is no paradox to say that we are weighed down with tomes on Puritanism and still lack biographies of Puritans.

If we had them, would our explanation of events between 1640 and 1642 alter radically? I believe that it would. I base this on my experience of writing about two such Puritans, William Prynne and Richard Baxter. In the process of writing these studies I changed my mind about ‘the Puritan Revolution’. In an important new book, Charles I and the Popish Plot, Caroline Hibbard has tackled the origins of the Civil War by documenting the Catholic intrigue at the Court of Charles I from the late 1630s to the outbreak of Civil War. Her findings complement my own in a number of ways.

I called my study of William Prynne, Marginal Prynne. Contemporaries gave him this nickname: an awed, if ironic tribute to the thin trickle of text, and great flood of marginal citations, which characterised a Prynne pamphlet. In another sense he was anything but marginal. A lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, he had been in the forefront-Of the pamphleteering war on Archbishop Laud. He had twice been punished in Star Chamber by the loss of his ears (God made them grow again by a miracle the first time, according to Prynne), and he was exiled to the Channel Islands from 1637 to 1640. This same man, restored to favour when the Long Parliament was summoned, was commissioned by Parliament to write the official apology for its cause in the Civil War. And he was a Puritan. No doubt about that, even if there is nothing but doubt about the use of that epithet in general. He recalls H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’ He attacked Caroline Teddy Boys in his first tract against long hair; the second work was a sustained whine against drinking. He wrote the longest, if not the most weighty, attack on stage plays, defended the Sabbath and attacked entertainments. As early as 1938 William Haller in his. Rise of Puritanism had suggested that a close critical study of William Prynne would throw new light upon ‘the Puritan Revolution’. And a few pages on he showed why such a study would not do anything of the kind: ‘Prynne was just the kind of person to turn the doctrines of the preachers into reckless assault upon the existing order ... his avowed aim could be construed only as the overthrow of everything established in the church’.

Quentin Skinner has written well on how the ‘set’ of the observer influences the historian’s approach to his documents. I began reading Prynne through Haller’s eyes (and, before him, Gardiner’s). Seeming contradictions were effortlessly resolved into my framework of interpretation: it was a long time before I recognised that the framework itself had to be dismantled. Among my unexpected discoveries I would emphasise two. First, Prynne was a lawyer. He wrote a great many pamphlets before the Civil War, but hardly one touched on the great constitutional controversies of the day. Far from articulating a concern that monarchy might be growing absolutist, he seemed worried that the Crown was losing its grip (in particular that the Royal Supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs was being systematically eroded by high-flying clergymen). Second, Prynne was a Puritan. As such he hated, above all, those high-flying clergymen who had gathered under the wing of Archbishop Laud. Yet he called himself a member of the Church of England, and, in defending the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, he argued that he was only preserving the traditions of the Elizabethan Church against new-fangled innovations.

Prynne and his colleagues can now be shown convincingly, not as Bakunin-type fanatics planning some ‘revolution of the saints’ when the Long Parliament convened in November 1640, but as angry and confused conservatives, seeking to restore an idyllic Elizabethan past. But these same men, or some of them (and these would include Prynne), would be fighting for Parliament against King in 1642 and championing a ‘root and branch’ destruction of bishops. A criticism of my study, and of other revisionist works, is that we are better-informed, as a result, about why the Civil War did not happen at any period before 1642, than about why it did happen in 1642. It is certainly true of my study that it becomes imprecise and vague at just the point where I try to document Prynne’s change of mind in 1641. Yet I remained convinced that there was a change of mind in Prynne, and not just a convenient shedding of masks.

It was through studying another Puritan, Richard Baxter, that I came more fully to understand Prynne’s mentality on the eve of civil war. Nor is this surprising. Baxter may have been a much-loved devotional preacher, but it sometimes seems as if his main claim to fame is that he produced the classic explanation for the origins of the Civil War. Joyce Malcolm has recently written of ‘the almost religious reliance’ placed by later historians on Baxter’s word. That word commanded attention by its balance: ‘But though it must be confessed that the public safety and liberty wrought very much with most, especially with the nobility and gentry who adhered to the parliament, yet was it principally the differences about religious matter that filled up the parliament’s armies and put the resolution and valour into their soldiers.’ Naturally Baxter emphasises the religious dimension: after all, he was a minister. But he does not emphasise it too much. Indeed it comes out in a rather backhanded way. ‘Public safety and liberty’ weighed most with nobility and gentry, but religion took with the people. It was religion which filled the Parliamentary armies with God-fearing zealots; it was religion which caused ordinary people to fear that the Irish Rebellion was the prelude to greater Catholic atrocities.

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