Fenmen

Ronald Hutton

  • Fenland Riots and the English Revolution by Keith Lindley
    Heinemann, 259 pp, £16.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 435 32535 3
  • Commonwealth to Protectorate by Austin Woolrych
    Oxford, 433 pp, £22.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 19 822659 4

In previous centuries most histories of the English Revolution were coloured by the rival ideologies of Royalist and Roundhead. In the past few generations the division has tended to be drawn instead between the followers of Karl Marx and those of Samuel Gardiner, between those who see political action as an expression of tensions within society as a whole and those who see the vital political events as occurring at the centre and echoing in the provinces. The two latest books upon the period represent, in very different ways, the latest developments in the second tradition. Both possess other similarities, which mark them as belonging to the same stage in the life of man as historian. Both are monographs, produced by professionals with a long career of research behind them, basing their work on an analysis of all surviving sources for their subjects. Both, moreover, display what I might term ‘the growth of consensus politics among Civil War historians’, establishing their work in a sequence produced by those with whom they differ only on details.

Dr Lindley sets out two purposes for his book: to examine the character of the local resistance to drainage schemes in the 17th-century Fenland, and to relate this to the causes, course and consequences of the English Revolution.

His conclusions in respect of the first appear definitive. The contemporary risings in the western forests studied by Buchanan Sharp were the work of a section of local society whose interests had been neglected in planning the development of those areas. By contrast, the resistance to Fenland drainage projects was that of a whole community, from the gentry (including Oliver Cromwell) to the landless. There were qualifications to this picture, when wealthier inhabitants were bought off and agitators had difficulty rallying a following, but in the case of each one of five major drainage projects a complete cross-section of the community affected seems to have been mobilised. Sympathy for this opposition extended to local office-holders, resulting in the heavy-handed intervention of the central government. Moreover, resistance to drainage was based not on blind conservatism but on the practical truth that all the projects served the interests of the projectors at the expense of those of local men. It was waged on many levels, from destruction of drainage works to pleas in the central law courts, and, after half a century of struggle in the face of unsympathetic central regimes, it was successful. One by one the projects were dropped or emasculated, though in some cases the obduracy of Fenland geography proved as effective as that of the people.

The whole story has important implications for our picture of the place of local people in the political and legal system of early modern England. On the one hand, their initial respect for the national legal framework testifies to the Fenmen’s belief that in normal circumstances they were beneficiaries of it. On the other, their subsequent direct counter-measures indicate that they were quite capable of looking after their own interests if that framework failed them.

The second theme, of the relation of the disturbances to national events, is less consistently satisfying. It is announced at the opening with the declaration that the support of Charles I’s Government for the drainage schemes illustrates the absolutist tendencies at work in that regime. Yet it is soon apparent that such projects were attempted before Charles’s reign, by a client of Burghley under Elizabeth and by the Earl of Exeter under James. They were advocated by such ‘apolitical’ writers as Camden. During the 1630s the promoters of the works included the King and courtiers, but also a local entrepreneur, Sir John Monson, while the largest scheme of all was undertaken by the Earl of Bedford, one of the leaders of the political group self-consciously opposed to other royal policies. Thus the tension appears to have arisen not from a division between court and country but from prejudices entertained against Fenlanders by the rest of English society. It might be added that Fenland drainage had been advocated by James and represents another of those reform projects which the Jacobean regime discussed but did not implement, earning the condemnation of modern writers who fail to praise Charles’s Government for enacting the same ideas.

Dr Lindley goes on to trace the manner in which the disputes became the subject of an argument between the two Houses of the Long Parliament, commenting that the resulting increase in political tension assisted the process of political breakdown. Doubts concerning this proposition are raised by the date of the clash in question, in early 1641, a time when the trial of Stafford must have made the Fenland problem seem insignificant and a concordance between the Houses, not a division, was the decisive development. Another assertion, that the riots helped convert Englishmen elsewhere to Royalism as the cause of order, is not substantiated, for the author turns instead to a detailed and convincing examination of the impact of the Civil War upon the Fenlands. The presence of Bedford among the projectors prevented any simple identification of their opponents with the Parliamentarian cause, and in general Fenmen were oblivious to the great issues of the war and revolution. Their main concern appears always to have been the defence of their local interests, a view of the rural commons endorsed by Dr Sharp, and by the various writers about the Civil War Clubman organisations. The local history of early modern England is starting to appear like a two-way mirror – actions at the centre had profound effects upon the localities but the vision of provincials remained nonetheless limited to their environs.

Austin Woolrych’s book concerns a world of high politics where the provinces exist only as an anonymous public opinion and impinge only in the form of infrequent petitions. It is a narrative of the year 1653, which witnessed within eight months the expulsion of the Rump Parliament, the convention and collapse of Barebone’s Parliament and the institution of the Protectorate. Its pace is careful, its detail very dense. This is, unmistakably, the work of a master historian, intended to endure. The evidence is minced so finely that a microscope would be required to detect imperfections in it. Where it is insufficient to sustain a conclusion the author feels no obligation to concoct one, though he may suggest possibilities. Every assertion is anchored to references of full length and perfect clarity.

Professor Woolrych undertakes the investigation of four major problems. Why did Cromwell dissolve the Rump? Were the aims of the army officers the same in 1653 as in 1647? Who conceived Barebone’s Parliament and for what purpose? Why did it fail? On the first of these he draws a blank. There is no firm evidence for Cromwell’s motives in expelling the Rump, and Inherent Political Probability provides at least three explanations. This illustrates the integrity of the author, but it is still a shock to be reminded that the most intensive historical research can sometimes produce only a permanent puzzle.

The other questions, however, prove soluble. The aims of the officers remained constant from 1647 till 1653 and after: for regular Parliaments elected upon a reformed franchise and a redistribution of seats, for an improved legal system and for a broad state church without tithes and with toleration of separatist groups. These men, sitting in their General Council, conceived a nominated Parliament as the obvious means to obtain these ends when even a purged elected assembly had failed them. Ultimately, it seems as though the resulting Barebone’s Parliament collapsed because it was sabotaged by John Lambert, in order to institute his alternative scheme of the Instrument of Government. His intrigue was made possible by a growing sense of need for strong government when both foreign and domestic enemies were stirring, and by the division of the assembly itself between radicals and moderates. This last division was based in great part upon a difference of class, the radicals being of lower status than their opponents and with less of a stake in the existing order. It represents an unexpected reappearance of social conflict and of Christopher Hill’s revolutionary ‘middling sort’ in the history of the period.

The most impressive, and also the most frustrating, quality of the book is its austerity. Professor Woolrych pursues his chosen objectives with a determination which leaves little time for peripheral considerations. Thus the personalities which are presented most carefully are those of the faction leaders of Barebone’s Parliament. Yet plainly the decisive force behind all the events was the Army, and this remains in the background for most of the narrative. The majority of characters are illustrated only by their part in events. At times the insights provided are powerful. Hesilrige emerges as one of history’s great destructive forces, a fomenter of crises and confrontations which repeatedly ruined his cause. Aspects of Cromwell’s nature are revealed which no biographer has noted. He is shown not, as too often in the past, as a Philosopher King driven mainly by the irreconcilable impulses of his mighty nature, but as a politician having to reckon with the practical pressures of the moment. The problem of his millen – arianism is solved, as he is shown to have been a devout pragmatist, believing consistently in a future reign of the saints which God would create in his own time. Important but more fleeting light is cast upon the two men who have always been portrayed as opposing each other across Cromwell like heraldic supporters, Harrison and Lambert. The former’s commitment to a seizure of power by the saints is shown as more gradual, and his influence over Cromwell much less, than has been believed. His influence over the Army i stated as important, but little more is said o this. Lambert is described as a brisk young general of great ability, but it is clear from his role in events that he was much more than that. Professor Woolrych remarks that hi provisions for the powers of the Protector’ Council ‘prompt interesting speculations’ concerning his ambitions, but then draws back from making them.

The very quality of both these books provokes a regret which is probably unrealisti and certainly ungrateful. They take their place in a sequence of excellent monographs or the period. Both authors are equipped to have produced instead, with a less stable foundation of evidence, a more general work in their chosen field. As they stand, these book will be appreciated by an academic oligarch of a few thousand colleagues, students taking special papers and exceptionally dedicated la readers. Their pleasure will be gained at the expense of the much larger public whose interes in the period is not matched by an ability to comprehend the minutiae of the problems in volved in it. No doubt it is a sensible adage to look after the pennies and let the pounds arrive in due course. But the time is approachin when a visitor to the history of the Civil War and Interregnum, expecting a few crisp note to tuck into a pocket, will be confronted instead with a ton of gleaming copper.