Ironed Corpses Clattering in the Wind

Mark Kishlansky

  • Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms by Tim Harris
    Penguin, 506 pp, £12.99, January 2006, ISBN 0 14 026465 5
  • Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy 1685-1720 by Tim Harris
    Allen Lane, 622 pp, £30.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9759 1

In the 1660s, repression gave way to liberation. Samuel Pepys took great pleasure from his debauching of the progeny of such well-known Puritans as ‘Penny’ Penington, whose grandfather Isaac had been the Presbyterian alderman and mayor of London. The Duke of Monmouth had an illegitimate child with Elizabeth Waller, the daughter of the Parliamentarian general, Sir William. The experiments of the 1650s were swept away as king, lords and bishops were thrust back into power with hardly a shot fired. The armies of the Commonwealth melted away, its tortured succession of governments abruptly ended and its chaotic Church dissipated. The people lined the streets to cheer their monarch, who arrived in London on his 30th birthday.

In contemporary parlance, the Restoration was a revolution, the completion of a circle from king to king. But it was a revolution in a more modern sense: a rapid and unexpected rejection of one form of government for another. Such gyrations would dominate the next three decades of British politics. In 1660, it was not at all clear whether the return of the king was a reversion to normality or simply one more volatile experiment. The period following the death of Oliver Cromwell had been one of governments a-go-go, with at least nine separate constitutional configurations in the year prior to Restoration, some of them also greeted with bonfires and bells. Charles II’s great challenge was to turn momentary sentiment into permanence, and he approached his task with great circumspection. He left every controversial decision unresolved until after a new parliament had set to work, and attempted to balance competing interests whenever he could find moderate proponents of them. His Privy Council was a model of incorporation and it was not his fault that this could not be said of the restored Church. In Scotland, kirk leaders were welcomed back (though the covenant was proscribed) and episcopacy re-established. In Ireland, the Protestant interest was preserved and the Catholics were driven towards the sea (the redistribution of land consigned nearly all of them to the western counties).

For at least a decade, Restoration ministers rode the swell of acceptance, but then the tide turned. Anti-Catholicism, which had so terrorised the previous generation, again drowned out reason. The plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London were seen as divine judgments against a nation that had sinned in so passively readmitting Catholicism, and ‘papists’ were accused of having started both. Although little more than 1 per cent of Britain espoused the old faith, or perhaps for that reason, every calamity became a papist conspiracy, from a spark in a baker’s oven to the humiliating triumph of the Dutch fleet in the Medway. If Catholics weren’t numerous, they were influential, formally as part of the ‘Cabal’ of leading politicians that counselled the king after the fall of his adviser the Earl of Clarendon in 1667, and informally as members of the lieutenancies and corporations that governed each part of the country. The king’s brother, the Catholic Duke of York, was forced to resign his offices soon after the passage of the Test Act of 1673. Though there had been little doubt about York’s religion, when it became public in 1673 it precipitated a crisis. In 1678, a combination of wildly improbable events led to anti-Catholic hysteria, which spread throughout the nation. A conspiracy to murder the king was supposedly uncovered and this resulted in efforts to exclude the Duke of York from the succession. For a brief time during the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis it looked as if Charles’s rule might be threatened, as mobs took to the streets, tub preachers stirred the crowds, and peers and gentry coalesced into a political party – the Whigs – which hoped to force the king to alter the succession. All this political manoeuvring suggested ‘1641 come again’, a comparison that inspired daring or dread depending on one’s point of view.

Then the whirligig spun again. The so-called Tory reaction saw a revival of royal power as Charles ruled without Parliament – even neglecting to call the mandatory triennial session in 1684 – and without making compromises with his Whig opponents. Not only was the Duke of York’s succession reaffirmed in England and made statutory in Scotland, but his interest was secured through a well-planned purge of local Whig officeholders. He acceded to the throne as James II in 1685. The dreaded moment passed without incident and the new king promised to rule according to law and custom. A pathetic rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyll and one in England by the Duke of Monmouth were quickly and ruthlessly suppressed, and the new Parliament pledged its loyalty to the Stuart monarchy with the only gift that mattered, bountiful royal revenue. But the honeymoon hardly survived the wedding night. Against the king’s will, laws against Catholics were rigidly enforced, and James’s attempt to suspend them without parliamentary approval was the beginning of his end. Royal efforts to unite the ends against the middle, offering toleration to Catholics and radical Protestants, created for one of the few times in history a vigorous Anglicanism. Even before the birth of a male heir, James II had lost the political support he needed to rule effectively. After it, a crisis was assured – out of the warming pan, into the fire. Members of his own government connived at a foreign invasion and the generals of his own armies deserted him on the eve of battle. The span between hopeful accession and despairing collapse was only three years. In 1688, the Stuart monarchy suffered its second fateful interruption.

In two large volumes, Restoration and Revolution, Tim Harris sets out to tell the story of British and Irish politics across these three decades. He is especially interested in explaining underlying causes: how could a joyous restoration of the monarchy give way to sullen alienation from it, and then in turn to efforts to undermine its hereditary foundations, to its vigorous defence and finally its overthrow? Harris insists that the story must be set in a British and Irish context. The Stuarts were kings of three kingdoms and faced the challenges of a multiple monarchy. The Restoration that brought England back to the constitutional status quo of 1641 returned Scotland to the ecclesiastical government of 1637 and instituted an entirely new order in Ireland as a result of Cromwellian land redistribution. The monarch faced different and often contradictory challenges in governing these separate kingdoms. The Presbyterianism that Charles II attempted to wink at in England was potentially a rebellious threat to his government in Scotland. The Catholicism that could in England be alternately tolerated and repressed in response to international pressures had to be vigilantly regulated in Ireland, where a minority Protestant population kept alive memories of the massacre of the Catholics’ forebears.

The patterns of support and opposition were complicated. English dissenters could see repression in Scotland as an example of arbitrary government, and anti-Catholic Anglicans could attack concessions to the Gaelic Irish as popery without ever criticising the English government of Charles II. While English Whigs staked their nation’s future on excluding the Duke of York from the throne, Scottish lairds were passing legislation that ensured James’s accession. The possibility that exclusion could set off another round of civil war was one of the key reasons for opposing it.

This British and Irish perspective adds a new dimension to an old story. One of the traditional glories of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was that it was bloodless – an odd description, given the carnage that took place in Ireland when James II attempted to regain his crown by force. In the past, historians have been largely oblivious to events outside England, and dead Irishmen were thought to be a small price to pay for securing a Protestant succession: they were hardly worth mentioning when stacked up against the Bill of Rights. Harris convincingly demonstrates the impact that the three kingdoms had on each other, and especially the ways in which Whig propaganda presented events in Scotland and Ireland as a cautionary tale. Neither Charles II nor James II visited their other kingdoms while ruling England, but this should not obscure the pains they took in governing them.

Harris has, however, allowed the British dimension to obscure the European one. The later 17th century was a critical period in Britain’s integration into the European state system, and marked the beginning of its continental dominance. That the Duke of Lauderdale has more index entries in Restoration than Louis XIV, and the Earl of Tyrconnell nearly as many as the Prince of Orange in Revolution, reflects a misconception of where power lay. It is impossible to believe that more people in Britain feared the popery and arbitrary power represented by Charles II’s government in Ireland and Scotland than that represented by Louis XIV’s expansionist wars. If the Duke of York’s Catholicism was the worst kept secret in Restoration England, the next to worst was the French subsidy that kept Charles II independent of Parliament in the 1670s. Even today, the idea that England was invaded and conquered by the Dutch in the 17th century raises hackles.

Harris also emphasises what he alternately calls ‘public opinion’ or politics ‘out-of-doors’. Like a number of other young historians, such as Michael Braddick and Phil Withington, he believes that even a divine-right absolute monarchy rested on the consent of the governed. Previous generations of scholars took that consent to be implicit and to reside in the institution of Parliament, but Harris and his peers wish to see it embodied in the ‘people’, loosely defined. We are told that there was a higher level of literacy than has been supposed, more local service – perhaps one man in ten served in some official capacity – and more semi-organised mass political action than is usually recognised. Following the Civil Wars there were petitions and addresses presented to both king and parliament, badges and symbols which showed political affiliation, great public carnivals of accession day celebrations, anniversary remembrances and carefully organised ‘spontaneous’ burnings of effigies of the pope. (Politics out-of-doors in Scotland and Ireland mostly took the form of failed risings and rebellions, not at all the same thing.) Harris meshes these activities together in an attempt to show the power of popular politics. Following his own earlier scholarship, he demonstrates that politics out-of-doors was not the monopoly of the opposition. Tories learned to play the same game, and even if he doesn’t quite believe that their ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations were as representative of public opinion as the Whigs were, he sees them as a critical component of the Tory reaction of the early 1680s.

The way we understand the structure of 17th-century politics is crucial to the way we interpret its unprecedented events. Historians have for a while been pushing the development of Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ back further than the 18th century. Studies of coffee houses, of publications designed to be read aloud, of mass meetings (theoretically banned by the Clarendon Code) and petitioning campaigns have suggested that what was taking place was a recognisably modern form of politics. It’s easy to forget that we are describing a monarchy rather than a democracy when so much can be made to look so familiar. But there is also plenty that can’t and shouldn’t be made familiar. Kings refused to justify their actions or, as in the case of the secret Treaty of Dover (signed by Charles and Louis in 1670), were deliberately misleading about them. Divine-right monarchs didn’t always care about the opinions of their citizens. Kings reigned, a concept so out of fashion as to be almost unrecoverable.

Harris has little interest in the Stuart monarchy, and his account of Restoration politics is almost always off-centre: Clarendon, the Cabal and Danby, who signed the letter inviting William of Orange to invade, make little more than cameo appearances. The Falstaffian Charles II is stripped of personality. The account of James II in Revolution is more conventional in that Harris blames the king for everything that goes wrong, a reasonable assessment of political responsibility though not a penetrating attempt to understand the king’s point of view. Although he is very strong on the pro-government publishing campaign orchestrated by Sir Roger L’Estrange, he is less able to demonstrate that the Crown directed this and other elements of Tory propaganda. When James II did embark on a political campaign to change the members of his government it seems to me to have been an astounding innovation rather than a continuation of the manipulation of public opinion.

Harris disarmingly writes that had he been alive in the later 17th century he would have joined Monmouth’s rebels when they tried to oust James II in 1685, an exotic preference chosen by very few at the time. Those who rallied to the side of Monmouth – Charles II’s illegitimate Protestant son – must be counted among the most extreme bigots in a bigoted age, because they forsook the allegiance they owed their lawful monarch for no other reason than that he was a Catholic. When others made that choice three years later, they justified it by what James II had done rather than by what he was. Harris’s sympathies are unabashedly radical Whig – no surprise for a modern liberal academic – and his account begs comparison with the incomparable Macaulay:

Somersetshire, the chief seat of the rebellion, had been saved for the last and most fearful vengeance. In this county 233 prisoners were in a few days hanged, drawn and quartered. At every spot where two roads met, on every market place, on the green of every large village which had furnished Monmouth with soldiers, ironed corpses clattering in the wind, or heads and quarters stuck on poles, poisoned the air and made the traveller sick with horror.

Fortunately for Harris, not all the rebels were hanged. He might have escaped with the lesser punishment of exile to the New World.