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.

This, of course, was a fiction. The king was well informed about what was said and done in the Commons, but he couldn’t be informed officially. This policy had kept more than one member out of prison during the reign of Charles I, and the Commons plea for freedom of speech, made at the beginning of each session by the speaker, was a claim to be free from royal sanction. Parliament still policed its own members and more than a few were called to the bar for going too far. Sir John Coventry, whose story is told in Patterson’s dazzling prelude, might not have had his nose slit open, supposedly with the king’s approval, if he had been disciplined by his peers for casting aspersions on the king’s morals. The privacy of debate was also intended to enforce the doctrine of collective responsibility, even in an era beginning to be marked by the appearance of loose coalitions that would acquire the names of Court and Country before they came to be called Tory and Whig. This secrecy also allowed for corrupt bargains, unholy alliances and the self-interested actions for which the members of this Long Parliament became famous.

It may also account for the paucity of sources from which historians can derive the Long Parliament’s history. The first half of Patterson’s study is an examination of those sources, from the publicly printed royal speeches that frequently opened sessions and stated Charles’s objectives, to the privately preserved diaries of individual members. Charles’s speeches were constructed with multiple audiences in mind and though Patterson, following Marvell, describes them as ‘menacing’, they do not read that way. Many are framed against rumours the king insists are untrue and jealousies he wishes to dispel. Given the fact that the printed speeches were prefaced with portraits of the king or with the royal arms, they were meant to carry authority, even beyond the seeming authority of publication. The public received no other official news of communications between the king and the Commons, since the replies that the members carefully crafted went unpublished.

Members kept diaries partly to enhance memory and partly as a form of esprit de l’escalier, recording interventions never made and speeches never given. They were rarely created for the purpose of informing posterity, the use to which Patterson puts them by carefully comparing the accounts to be found in them with other surviving sources to reconstruct what may have been said in the House. Parliamentary diaries are seductive as historical sources, especially when they provide inside information. They are more likely to record the speeches of leaders than of backbenchers, to be beguiled by a clever turn of phrase than a complicated legal argument, to highlight the unusual and the idiosyncratic. They are also prone to error. Historians of the parliaments of Charles I, from which many more diaries have survived, have developed sophisticated and cautious procedures for using them. The more conspiratorial and hidden the story, the more credit Patterson is inclined to give it. She is especially attracted to the salacious and gossipy entries in Pepys’s diary but almost always rejects his financial reports to the House as contrived or dishonest. Despite her best efforts to tell a tale that’s never been told, we must conclude that what happened in the House stayed in the House.

Where there is secrecy there is curiosity. The ban on reporting the proceedings of the Commons was difficult to enforce, especially against private news services that kept subscribers in the country informed of recent events. These tended to centre on the forbidden and the sensational, the kinds of topic the official Gazette of court news avoided. Some might have a high degree of accuracy but the news they reported was news that could be heard on the Exchange, in the coffee houses, or through the indiscretions of eyewitnesses. They were always more plausible than true, except when they were sent by members to their constituencies, like Marvell’s letters to Hull, of which Patterson makes good use. Alongside them were the ‘scofflaw pamphlets’ that defied the ban on reporting parliamentary proceedings and risked the wrath of the censors and punishment by the state. These were often brilliant oppositional accounts of Caroline policy, playing on both the susceptibility of an ill-informed public to conspiracy theories and its tendency to religious bigotry. They too, as Patterson ingeniously demonstrates, fed the hunger for forbidden knowledge by telling what seemed to be insider tales and secret histories, and forecasting disasters that were still just preventable. The two most famous, A Letter from a Person of Quality, in which Locke seems to have had a hand, and The Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government, composed by Marvell, were electrifying. Copies were suppressed, rewards were offered for the identification of the authors and government penmen were paid to write responses.

Patterson sympathises with these scofflaw pamphleteers; for the king she has no use at all. He was ‘petulant’, ‘disingenuous’ and ‘insolent’, ‘a deceitful crook’. At one point she admonishes him for being ‘a naughty boy’ and quotes Pepys disapproving of the king’s debauchery. She is not much happier with the members of the Long Parliament. They seem to fall for every pathetic appeal Charles made for money; were willing to believe speeches she brands ‘outright lies’; and cheerfully accepted bribes the court offered in return for their ‘dog-like devotion’. The suppression of ideas and of speech made possible their many more than nine lives, though it has never been shown that those, such as Sir John Reresby, who were recruited mid-stream into this parliament behaved any differently.

It was only when Charles’s tangled relations with Louis XIV were unravelled, or rather when the more unseemly aspects of them became public, that the mutually reinforcing interests that kept this parliament alive broke apart. Given her penchant for open government, Patterson delights in revealing the secret terms of the treaties Charles II made with France. Payments by one state to ensure an alliance with or the neutrality of another were not unknown in this period and backhand payments made by foreign lobbyists to government ministers were commonplace. Charles II’s foreign policy was certainly unprincipled (as was everyone else’s: both Charles I and Cromwell explored realistic opportunities to partition the Protestant Dutch Republic) but, as historians have shown, it was not necessarily corrupt. As he said himself, why shouldn’t he be paid to do what he was going to do anyway? Arcana imperii was the prerogative of the crown and also a necessity of state. To criticise the king and his ministers for conducting diplomacy behind locked doors is simply to criticise diplomacy.

Secrecy and therefore censorship was a way of life in early modern England. There was the economic censorship of the Licensing Act, which returned control of printing to the Stationers’ Company and ensured that they would protect their capital investment by refusing to publish unlicensed books and by identifying those who did. There was the religious censorship of the Church, in the hands of the bishop of London and his clerks, who exercised what might be thought of as prior restraint, negotiating over words and phrases with authors and printers to ensure that no impure thought obtained an imprimatur. Finally there was the political censorship of the indefatigable Sir Roger L’Estrange, His Majesty’s surveyor of the press, who licensed everything from almanacs to theatre bills. No one believed in the virulent power of ideas more than L’Estrange and he was a one-man Médecins Sans Frontières in his determination to eradicate them.

For this generation of English people, fear of words was not abstract. They had seen their country torn apart by the combustible consequences of ideas, one set opposing another and struggling for supremacy, not in wars of pamphlets, but in wars fought by armies. Treason consisted of thought and word, not just action. The laws of slander were rewritten to make convictions easier and punishments more crippling. The crime of Scandalum magnatum defended the hierarchical social order as much as it did the nobility by criminalising nearly every form of jest, rumour or aspersion cast on one of its members. The epitome of this hate speech legislation came early on: the Act of Oblivion of 1660 made it a crime to use any ‘words of reproach’ that called to mind the late troubles. It effectively barred name-calling. To rail against censorship was to bay at the moon.

Two considerations stand out immediately. The first is the indisputable fact that so much of the greatest literature and political theory in the English language was created in this period of restraint. Hobbes, Filmer, Harrington, Donne, Milton, Marvell and Dryden were all alive on the same day. Throw in Shakespeare at the beginning and Locke at the end and you have a pretty good line-up of creative geniuses who were able to get their arguments across. Many explanations have been offered for this seeming conundrum. Writers wrote in codes clear to their intended audience but opaque to everyone else. Pastoral settings were critical of the court; references to Rome espoused republicanism. The censors were either gullible or culpable, too stupid to find the obvious messages or too willing to let them be sent. A variation on this theory is the one in which obscure clues are hidden in a form of secret writing. Some of these were so obscure they have seemingly remained concealed for centuries until some modern scholar reveals the real meaning of a 16th-century play. It used to be thought that Locke composed his letters this way, informing his friend Edward Clarke of the number of soldiers that needed to be raised by suggesting a number of lime trees be planted. This might have kept his intentions hidden from the authorities but sadly they also eluded Clarke, who went about planting the trees. An explanation not in vogue, and one that would not appeal much to Patterson, is that not all artists in all eras believed it their duty to be subversive, to live outside the bounds of accepted practice, to be ‘scofflaws’. Self-censorship can operate in more ways than simply preventing authors from saying what they want to say; it can help them fix limits on what it is appropriate to say.

Thinking about free speech in the 17th century is complicated for another reason. In 1678, as the Long Parliament was dying, a tale was told and retold, printed and reprinted, of a plot to murder the king and his brother and to establish a Catholic hegemony in Britain. Conspirators were everywhere; they would stop at nothing, not even the murder of a London magistrate. The idea of the conspiracy, hatched by Titus Oates, a disreputable but peculiarly persuasive informant, spread just like the epidemic diseases that men like L’Estrange compared them to. The depravity of man and the diligence of the devil were a potent combination. Within weeks there was no other subject to discuss but the Popish Plot, a fabricated fantasy that created public hysteria and confirmed private paranoia. Catholics who had lived peacefully with their Protestant neighbours for decades feared for their lives, fled abroad or hid in country houses. Protestants, many of whom believed the London Fire and the Great Plague were also Catholic conspiracies, now became priest-hunters. Barely restrained mobs roamed the streets of London, both for protection and to settle scores. Informers became principal sources of information, and the more conspiratorial their stories the more credibility they possessed. In the end, 15 men went to the scaffold. It is instructive that the king’s first instinct on hearing of the plot was to keep it secret. Presumably, his fear was that it would incite the very regicide it predicted. But Charles II knew the value of controlling information and the dangers of unleashing it. It is hard to argue against Patterson’s presupposition that the people of 17th-century England would have been better off with free expression and a free press. They also would have been better off with an automatic washing machine.