Fear of Words

Mark Kishlansky

  • The Long Parliament of Charles II by Annabel Patterson
    Yale, 283 pp, £30.00, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 13708 8

Annabel Patterson’s passion and sense of justice were inbred, but her belief in what was possible and the drive to achieve it were acquired, learned at a time when women like her were sent to secretarial school. Born in England, she has had a long career in both Canada and the United States; she was a member of the English department at Duke before its immolation, and recently retired from a chair at Yale. Though she is most commonly associated with the writers of the English Renaissance, her production ranges widely, from Virgil to Valéry, as one of her titles has it. While no single set of interests has contained her imagination, many of her best-known books, and now this new one, The Long Parliament of Charles II, are centred on the major figures of the early modern era: Marvell, Shakespeare, Milton and, again, Marvell. Her lifelong struggle has been to achieve freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of the press for 17th-century Englishmen. It is surprising how much success she has had.

The parliament of Charles II that lasted from 1661 to 1678 is fertile ground for Patterson. Variously called the Cavalier or Pensionary Parliament – she avoids both labels – it continued through adjournments and prorogations for 18 sessions before exploding from the dual revelations of Danby’s perfidy in foreign affairs and the Popish Plot. During these 17 years the House of Commons restocked itself by replacing the infirm or the expired, but continued essentially with the core membership that had been selected in 1661. This was an Anglican, royalist core happy to give Charles II what he wanted, especially an annual income, if he would give them what they wanted, especially a measure of revenge for what the royalists had suffered during the civil wars. It was a match made in heaven but resulted in a religious policy from hell: Anglican intolerance that kept Catholics and Puritans outside the established church and barred them from full civic participation. (Interestingly, Patterson displays no moral indignation towards religious intolerance.) This wasn’t the king’s preference, but it was the price he paid for a quiet life, for not having to go ‘on his travels again’. It also led to nearly every political crisis of the reign and ultimately to dependence on secret treaties that were none too secret and to Puritan plots that were none too effective. Beyond that, it necessitated the continued suppression of ideas and a deliberate misleading of the public. Nothing is more likely to raise Patterson’s hackles.

Her first complaint is a conventional one. By tradition and by law, the detailed proceedings of the House of Commons were kept secret. The official journal, maintained by the clerk, recorded only the results of formal business, the progress of bills through their committees and stages of reading, formal petitions accepted by the House and messages sent by the other two components of the institution, the Lords and the king. It also recorded the results of divisions on the rare occasions when they occurred. No record of debates was kept and it was illegal to publish one. Given the rules for speaking from the floor – once only on any given subject – the real action took place in committees or in the committee of the whole, where the Commons enforced a prohibition against note-taking. All of this served a purpose. It was intended to allow individuals to speak their mind without concern for ‘popularity’: people outside parliament couldn’t know who supported or opposed proposals, neither could the king.

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