In 1633 Thomas Wentworth arrived in Ireland – and despite great administrative efficiency, managed to separately outrage each of the components of Irish Society Meanwhile in London, William Prynne and John Lillburne stood form against tyranny.
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Right then folks, we are back to old England and to the events of the 1630s. We are back, baby. Or at least we are in part, but actually, if I may beg a boon, as we sail back from the Americas, a green island appears first in our way, and as I might start with said emerald isle first, a tadge further west than blighty. Because, as I believe has been mentioned, probably ad nauseam, we are talking about the Wars of Three Kingdoms here. So let’s three kingdom together shall we!?
As I believe I have often remarked, the Stuart kings didn’t have an easy task – each of their three kingdoms had its own neuroses and peculiar problems and characteristics, and often these would be directly in opposition and inflame the situation in their sisters. And Ireland of course, was no exception; and in Ireland, even more than Scotland, his dad had handed down father to son, a small, heat sensitive thermonuclear device ready to go off at any moment, in the form of the protestant plantations in Ulster. The situation was already complicated; you are comfortable I would expect about the traditional division of Ireland into the Catholic Gaelic Irish, who constituted about ¾ of the population, the Old English, also fiercely Catholic, the usually wealthy descendants of Norman conquering families, and the New English, fiercely protestant new arrivals from England, mainly in the Pale around Dublin, but also in Ulster. Now we have a new element to add – Presbyterian Scots among the Settlers of Ulster. Keep in all these groups happy would have been the task of Solomon. Or Hercules. Depending on the approach adopted.
In the 1620s also, further fissures appear which will be continuously relevant. It might be thought that the Catholic Gaelic Irish and Old English should pull together, and there was some indication this had happened to a degree with inter marriage, but only to a limited degree. The English attitudes towards Ireland were continually racial – they considered the Gaelic Irish way of life backwards and barbarous, and the Tudors and James had sought to ‘civilise’ them, in inverted commas – namely to make British. That kept the rift between Old English and Gaelic Irish nice and fresh. And with deep irony it was enhanced by the Catholic church in the 1620s and 1630s, since the after the counter reformation it did not approve with the way things were carried on in Ireland, I think that’s happened before almost a millennium ago. When I say irony, I mean the sad kind, rather than the funny kind.
Which does appear odd, because actually despite the headline of protestant persecution, the Irish catholic church was in rude health; in practice, persecution was episodic at best, and the people were well served by plenty of priests; but the local Irish custom was very different to International Catholicism, Tridentine Catholicism, after the Council of Trent; Irish localism had a preference for the regular clergy, like monks, rather than secular clergy, like priests, and the Franciscans were particularly supportive and popular. The spearhead of reformed Catholicism came with the Jesuits. The youth of Old English were often educated abroad in Spain and elsewhere, and so they came back fired up with the new ways, while the Gaelic Irish stuck to their old ways. So the Vicar General of Armagh, David Rothe, acknowledged as the virtual leader of the Catholic church in Ireland, spoke of the local church in words that are horribly similar to the language of the English in their civilising mission, writing that the Catholic church should
Eliminate barbarous customs, abolish bestial rites, and convert the detestable intercourse of savages into polite manners and a case for maintaining the commonwealth.
The point of all this is that here is another point of difference that helped maintain fissures even in Catholic Ireland. It would take some mighty force to see the world in the same way.
Charles had one thing going for him – what several of these factions did agree on, was in a reverence for the monarchy. And it is the monarchy that the Old English in particular sought to rely, to maintain their position, freedom and influence. Parliament and the Irish Privy Council might once have been where they could look, but as we’ve seen in Elizabethan days the Dublin government had become dominated by New English; and in 1613 James had packed the Irish parliament so that, in a complete reversal of the population profile, protestants outnumbered Catholics. For the Old English, then, direct access to the king was critical. Access was all the more important, because as English common law was applied in Ireland, many landowners found themselves being challenged as to the validity of their title to land, and the Dublin government was not much given to resisting the opportunity this gave them to extort money, land and opportunity. The fortunes of the Old English, then, were intimately tied up with the fortunes of the Stuart monarchy, and they struggled with all their might to convince the Stuarts that their Catholicism was in no way at odds with their loyalty to the king.
In the late 1620s they were helped by the need of Charles’ government for money to fight their wars; and at the 1626 parliament there appeared to be a way forward. Catholic peers drew up a petition for ‘Matters of Grace and Bounty’ from the king – which become known as the Graces. They put a team of 11 together to visit Charles – 8 Catholics, 3 protestants; and with Charles they actually hammered out a deal. In return for 51 Graces, they would agree to taxation of £120,000. The Graces majored on religion and land rights, and therefore illustrate the main concerns of the Old English. So for example one was that challenges to land rights would not be pushed back further than 60 years, and so limited; and that Catholics would need to take only an oath of allegiance to take office, not an oath of Supremacy. Why is that any better you ask? Well, the oath of Supremacy required recognition of the king as head of the church, and not the Pope.
So, this is one of those moments where you think Irish history could have taken another, better path. But it wasn’t to be. The Deputy of Ireland, was Viscount Falkland. His son, by the way, was a great friend of Ben Jonson and all that, and would be a moderate advisor to the king. But Falkland Senior as Deputy of Ireland, failed to bring the Graces to parliament to be passed, and peace meant the pressure for money was less important. The protestant church of Ireland went potty against the Graces, angry that their position was being undermined. The sum total of all the fire and fury was that, despite having paid half the money, all that happened was for some of the Graces to be introduced by royal prerogative. You might think this is fine or at least something; but really it wasn’t; not only was this only partial it did not give the legal recognition needed by parliament to stop unwanted challenges to land title. It was, in a word. Not good. In two words.
Well, there matters lay. Despite the multiple issues, there remained some things to give the Old heart. As we have seen, Charles was more worried about radical Calvinism than he was about Catholicism, and that applied in Ireland too, especially to the Ulster Presbyterian Scots. The relative lack of persecution, or at least its sporadic nature, meant that the Old English comfortably pursued their Seigneurial version of Catholicism in their halls, and masses were often held openly even in Dublin. The Old English were embedded in towns as well as country, and in the growing trade with England of cattle, and hides in particular which helped their finances. Meanwhile many found their future outside Ireland; some in Britain, others the continent; and yet more in the Thirty Years war. Yes, we have talked about the Scots and English going to the continent to fight for the protestant cause; the Irish were equally enthusiastic, and maybe 32,000 of what were called ‘idle swordsmen’ would fight for catholic armies. When they returned, they would form a militarised core, imbued with the principle of the counter reformation. Watch this space.
And anyway – maybe Charles’ the new Lord Deputy of Ireland would set things straight. Ah ha, a new Lord Deputy, well who would that be? His name, ladies and gentlemen, was Thomas Wentworth, a bluff Yorkshireman, whose name I think you will recognise. Now you might remember that Tom had been a right royal pain in the right royal backside once upon a time so much so that Charles had targeted him with a promotion to keep him out of the 1626 parliament – kicked him upstairs sort of thing. But Charles also recognised a man worth winning over; so he flattered and promoted him on other ways and it worked – he came over to the royal side, and not just for the cookies. And to be fair if you wanted to have someone on your side in a brawl in the local where the local hard man after 10 pints is angry about your outrageous 3 dart finish from 158 and has a smashed a beer glass held lightly but firmly in his right hand – Thomas Wentworth was not a bad choice.
Thomas Wentworth will one day be promoted to the Earl of Strafford, so it might be worth just giving the lad a brief bio; and actually there is a very fine portrait of him which I have put on the episode post on the website; from this, the historian Jonathan Healey in his new book ‘The Blazing World’ describes him as having
The hard stare of the zealot and the busy diligence of a particularly determined accountant.
The thing about Thomas was that he was combative, even fighty – I am not going to say that is a feature of your Yorkshireman, because that, my friends would be a stereotype. So I’m not going to say it – scrub it from the record please – but the Wentworth and the Saville family had all manner of argy bargy over local supremacy and control of selection as Member of parliament. The way one contemporary would put this personal characteristic, with classic understatement, was
Nature hath not given him generally a personal affability
Although one of his friends claimed he was
Sweet in personal conversation
So, suspecting Thomas would be as ardent a defender of royal rights as he had been of parliamentary rights, Charles brought him into the tent doing that thing people do in that slightly unpleasant metaphor instead of standing outside and doing that thing inwards. In 1628 he made him Baron Wentworth, in 1629 President of the Council of the North and member of the Privy Council. And Charles’s instinct was good in the sense that while arguing for the Petition of Right, Wentworth demonstrated his fightiness of behalf of parliament, it did not for a moment suggest he was anti royalist, no ma’am; he was just super keen for the king to behave according to his understanding of the constitution. So, he was more than content to serve the king, according to the idiom of his class. In July 1631, then, Charles appointed Wentworth to be the Lord Deputy of Ireland, although he didn’t actually arrive until 1633. Just by way of a plot spoiler, Thomas was to deliver an impressive achievement during his tour of duty.
He was clear about his aims – to make Ireland financially self sufficient, to bring the Irish church into closer alignment with England, and to continue the process of Anglicising the Irish – or to civilise them, as he would have put it. So, fair do’s, he’s aiming high, the lad. Irish debt alone stood at £76,000; there was a sense of incipient danger – a member of the Irish PC had recently written that the Irish protestants could expect
To perish in our Plantations by Fyre and Sword if they ever take up arms
Meaning if the native Irish took up arms; and as for the church, well, we’ve just heard how well that was going. On the church thing, actually, he had a double whammy on his hands; not only was support for the Catholic church still rock solid; but the Protestant Church of Ireland was itself something of an outlier, being more Calvinist in tone that the Church of England, and not at all active in evangelising.
Wentworth’s approach was to divide and rule in a sense; or not necessarily to divide, but to have a policy designed specifically for each group, so that they could be manipulated accordingly in line with his boss’s requirements. Let us start with religion. Wentworth was a good pal of William Laud – they wrote to each other, with a tendency to gossip – they had a pet name for Treasurer Weston for example. So, it was Wentworth’s fervent wish to bring the Church of Ireland into line with that of England – by imposing the Canons of 1624 on their necks and the 39 articles. Both of these things were very strenuously resisted by James Ussher, the primate of all Ireland as Archbishop of Armagh. The convocation of 1634 was therefore deeply controversial; in the end irresistible force met immoveable object, and resulting in a small twister that was a new set of Irish canons. Even this was not really acceptable to the Church of Ireland, and Ussher led a campaign of passive disobedience and non compliance, or a go slow. Given that it included items such communion tables at the East end and the Book of Common Prayer these new canons outraged the Scottish settlers of the north and the New English of the Pale – in spades.
The Catholic Old English were of course not averse to the arrival of Arminianism, nor to the church of Ireland having its wings trimmed; and they were not averse also to Wentworth seeming to be rather nice to them; the foot was lifted from the pedal of recusancy penalties for a while, and soon after his arrival he actually met the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, and was making positive noises about giving statutory approval to all the much longed for Graces. The Graces would give legal underpinning to some limited element of toleration, and crucially, to land rights which I know I have mentioned but it’s always good to punch the bruise. They should have realised that, as I have learned, when someone is being unusually nice to you against the run of play – it could just be that they are after something.
But look, they were desperate for the confirmation of those Graces, so when Wentworth proposed a parliament, they were up for it; Charles on the other hand was horrified – parliament, four letter word – but Wentworth convinced the boss that in fact it was 10, and he was on top of this – it wouldn’t be like England. Charles let his deputy had his head, but you can be sure his finger was held lightly but firmly over the buzzer, the buzzer of dissolution.
The game was as before – just in case you every find yourself leading a medieval parliament do not in any circumstances fall for the old ‘you grant me subsidy, then I’ll deal with your grievances’ line. It is not a winner. In a parliament still heavily skewed towards protestant members, the Old English went along with granting 6 subsidies to the king before grievances were sorted. Then when it came to confirming the Graces – well, Wentworth refused to confirm the crucial one – the one that confirmed land rights. The Old English members felt betrayed, tried to disrupt the rest of parliament, but the damage was done – the king had his subsidies, but not their Graces. Job, from the Wentworth point of view, done.
Now Wentworth was no lover of Catholics, but it’s quite likely that he was happy to see most of the Graces confirmed – but his priority was to make Ireland self financing, and to do that he needed that thing about confirming land rights in his hand as a weapin. So after parliament was done, plan B emerged – well, B1 and B2. Yes – Old English Catholic landlords, you can confirm your land rights, through me, Lord Deputy of Ireland – but it’ll costcha, pony up, form an orderly queue. At the same time he pursued restoring alienated church lands acquired by the Old English, in line with the Laudian policy of getting the Church onto a firmer financial footing. And then while we are at it, here’s a new plantation scheme for you all – in Connacht province. It’ll be based on surrender and regrant – you give us your land with dodgy, not issued under English law titles, you’ll get ¾ of the land back with bullet proof title, and we’ll keep the rest for plantations. Sweet. Not a popular policy with either Old English or Gaelic Irish.
Aware that he had not yet antagonised everyone, Wentworth turned to the plantations of the north. I think it is fair to say that Wentworth was not a fan of the Protestant Settlers
A company of men the most intent upon their own ends that I ever met with
He was to say. The issue for him was that the settlers had never fulfilled their end of the bargain in terms of the amount of investment, and in generating the right number of settlers. So the undertakers of the scheme were pursued to complete their obligations – none more so than the City of London. Now as far as London was concerned this accusation was received just as it would be by a premier league footballer being delivered of a yellow card – arms wide, jaw dropped, outrage expressed in furious protest. As far as they were concerned they’d been forced into investing a bundle for naff all return – most un-business like. And yet in 1631 they found themselves referred to the Star Chamber, a commission of Enquiry and darn me, would you adam and eve it, they were fined £70,000 and forced to surrender their patent to Londonderry, with a cool 40,000 acres of land reverting to the crown. Nice work if you can get it. Tyranny what tranny. In 1639, Charles set up a commission to manage the land, with resulting rent racking. Now London, as we will explain, would be critical in the coming troubles. They would not forget this outrage when choosing sides. And the finally, the Ulster plantations were anyway a running sore for native Irish – and the rent racking of the new commission did not help.
So, I spoke of an impressive achievement for Wentworth. His achievement was to have antagonised every element of the notably complex Irish society. And yet interestingly, he often gets quite a good write up, as an effective, firm and unbiased administrator, who managed an Ireland that appeared to be a country mile from any trouble; its finances more secure, administration in control, reform in progress. There are a few broad reasons for this. Wentworth was unbiased. But it’s the kind of balance that goes with the old gag – you know, ‘I like Emma she’s very balanced – she’s got a chip on both shoulders’. No single one of the groups felt the crown was favouring another – because they were all hacked off.
Secondly, Ireland, unlike England really, was having a bit of an economic boom – things were good under English rule financially speaking. Population was rising, reaching a peak of about 1 ½ m in 1641; annual trade customs were rising – partly from Wentworth’s administrative efficiency, but also increasing exports to England, especially in hides, livestock, butter and barrelled beef; and also manufactures such as linen and wool. Urbanisation was increasing; Dublin had hit around 20,000 people, Galway, Waterford and Limerick expanding, Cork now had 5,500 people. The benefits were not just to the New English and the planters, Old English were also doing well; Catholics had less to worry about in terms of persecution, and priests attended to their congregations pretty, much unmolested.
And then finally – Ireland as far as Charles was concerned was a success story – in 1638 it actually contributed £10,000 to the royal treasury, and Wentworth claimed the Irish treasury was stuffed with £100,000 – and meanwhile no news of angry responses to his government had reached home – Wentworth made sure of that, he had carefully and forcefully prevented the Old English nobility from making representation direct to the king. Another source of worry for the Old English, by the way, for whom as we said access to the king was critical for their security.
And so when the balloon went up – and the balloon will go up ladies and gentlemen – everyone will be a little surprised, no one will see it coming. I had a mate at work called Andy once upon a time, still a good friend, and I said admiringly to one of his team how incredibly calm and in control he looked. Said team member laughed – harder than I thought quite decent, actually. And said ‘ooh he’s like a duck is Andy – looks calm, majestic and slightly podgy on the water – underneath his little legs are paddling like fury’. Not an entirely suitable analogy for early 17th century Ireland but I offer it up to you – calm on the surface, boiling with nervous energy underneath.
Okally Dokally ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls across to London we shall fly, completing our journey home. It is summer, 30th June 1637, and there is a right old rumpus let me tell you, a right old rumpus and make no mistake – crowds of people cramming forward towards a grim instrument of public punishment – the pillory. There were numbers of places for pillories in London in 1637 – you might be taken to Tyburn in Westminster, or Old Palace Yard; or Cheapside, Cornhill or the Old Bailey in the City, or at Charing Cross somewhere in between.
Anyway, there is a maimed man standing by the pillories, probably at Cheapside because he’d been brought from the Tower, and as a market place there are plenty of people able to get a sight of the condemned man and revel in his humiliation and shame for betraying society with his deviance. Pour encourager les autres. He’s accompanied by two other folk, but it is his turn for punishment to be visited on him first. He is in front of the enraged crown – but enraged by his punishment; not enraged by his social deviance and what he had done, but for the indignity of his punishment and its unworthiness. William Prynne – for ‘tis he – and his companions – had been condemned to be fined a completely un repayable £5,000 each, to have their ears cut off, their noses slit – I mean – yuk – and to be branded on their cheeks – SL for seditious Libel, and then thrown into prison for life. Before punishment though they get to address the crowd – presumably to give them an opportunity to confess themselves unworthy sinners, but nothing doing, they all three will switch the amp to 11, ‘harangue’ setting. William Prynne’s blood is up, before the executioner starts to do his bloodletting, of course; and he shouts his defiance to the crowd, declaring that
‘if the press were open to us we could scatter this kingdom about his ears
He compared the severity of his punishment to Good Queen Bess’s time – unfavourably I should point out – he called for the crowd to resist the tyranny of which his punishment was such a dreadful example
Stand firm….for the cause of God and his true religion
And that they should not deliver themselves into ‘perpetual bondage and slavery’.
When he’d finally run out of words and the executioner came forward to do the deed, Prynne with some impressive sense of drama for a man who had written so furiously against the evils of theatre, declared
I have chosen rather to fear the fyre of hell than the fire on earth; come burn me, come scorch me, I bear in my body the mark of the Lord Jesus
OK, rather grim quote coming up, if you’d like to turn away to a safe space. OK? So, the burly executioner did his job, as burly executioners do, that is their thing to be burly and grim. There is a lot of blood. Here’s the slightly gruesome commentary on an onlooker – I should say the executioner had clearly not completed his college day release NVQ level 1 in Public Maiming:
Then Mr Prynne’s cheeks were seared with an iron made exceeding hot; which done the executioner cut off one of his ears and a piece of cheek with it; then hacking the other ear almost off, he left it hanging and went down; but being called up again he cut it off
Some members of the crowd come forward to dip the resulting precious blood in their hankies – for which purpose of course a hankie is perfectly designed; one man came forward and offered to hold the pillory a little higher to ease Prynne’s pain. It was becoming clear that this piece of exemplary punishment designed to terrify the crowd was not having the desired effect. It might encourage les autres in an autre direction.
Now that was bad, but it was about to get worse. The three offenders were despatched to three corners of the kingdom to live the rest of their lives in prison, Caernarvon, Launceston and Lancaster – and without the prosect, incidentally, of a nice parole board a few years down the line. Their journeys turned into processions. Word spread like wildfire they were coming, and people turned out all along the way to cheer, wave and shout encouragement. In the words of expert media executives in the Stuart version of sharp shiny suits, ankle stranglers, winkle pickers and purple glasses, it was a public relations disaster, darling. William Laud once said, rather grimly that
Fear is the beginning of wisdom’
But from Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, with Yorkshire bluntness, gave an uncompromising verdict
When a prince loseth the force and example of his punishments, he loseth withal the greatest part of his dominion
Now look, if you are looking for possible uncomplicated heroes – I doubt it would be William Prynne. Not sure there is such a thing anyway. Discuss. ChatGPT are there any heroes any more? A puritan so dry h could turn the Pacific into the Sahara, a man given to writing long diatribes against, well pretty much any kind of fun to be honest, not the sort of bloke you’d call Prynny in an affectionate way while slapping him heartily on the back before downing the next pint of Rebellion Ale. So, how did we get to this, and what does it all mean? How did Prynne get to be the toast of the people? And before Prynne writes me a letter in the strongest possible terms. I should say I mean toast of the singed bread variety rather than alcoholic, but that doesn’t really work. Sorry Pyrnney.
We have already noted I think that one of the reasons why Laud’s reforms were so divisive was not simply their nature, but because for once they were driven through with determination; that the leeway and flexibility that had marked local religious observance was nailed down. For Charles, this was all about enforcing the message. To do this, he had three tools. The first was the High Commission of the church, to enforce church discipline. I would like to say that no one expects the High Commission but sadly by 1640 they did. It is not necessarily that the High Commission threw a lot of ministers out of the church for non observance of the 1624 canons, although about 30 were; it was more the constant interrogation of practice, the prosecution of infringements, and the fear that accompanied that kind of constant harassment. This was no kangaroo court – it took its procedures seriously, so it is worth noting Charles tried to operate within the law; but combined with the unpopularity of the Laudian reforms, its zeal struck fear of tyranny into the hearts of ministers and congregations, and inflamed divisions; so 115 ministers in the diocese of York alone found themselves hauled up in front of the High Commission for transgressions, with resulting fines. It gives a feeling of the times that Laudian supporters tried to stop people complaining of prosecutions they saw as Justice with
odious nick names of tyranny and persecution.
If you fell foul of the Commission, the punishment could be severe; Peter Smart preached against innovations and was forced to answer articles against him on oath; we’ll hear of that again, essentially that means the accused were forced to potentially incriminate themselves; he was deprived of his living, degraded, fined and imprisoned.
The laity suffered as well – for refusing to kneel maybe, or absenting themselves from church because they disapproved of Laudian ceremonies. Possibly worst of all of these, maybe even worse than the fear, was the knowledge in communities that complaints from ordinary people would be followed up – and many of these prosecutions were initiated by local people. If you disagreed with your fellows’ religious views or just didn’t like the cut of their gib and were out to get them, here was a way. It was deeply divisive and spread an atmosphere of distrust.
Second tool, then was censorship, or more broadly to control the public sphere, debate and expression of views deviant from the royal line. Charles famously communicated little with his public after the last parliament; but he and Laud did encourage a slew of Arminian publications. Despite the law they had made against disputatious religious tracts, they then did not prosecute them while at the same time they did crack down on similar Calvinist tracts. They wanted to operate within the law essentially – but not in the sense of allowing even handed debate, and few were fooled.
In terms of censorship, Charles had two tools. The first was prepublication licencing; you had to be approved before publication by High Commission, Star Chamber or Privy Council. The second was by the law of treason and seditious libel after the fact. In the 1630s both of these were interpreted more widely than ever before – a greater range of books were deemed to fall foul of sedition or of religious policy – so sedition, for example, was interpreted not just as advocating rebellion; but opposing religious policy. Whereas the Elizabethan church had focussed on those outside the Church of England – Catholics or protestant separatists – the Stuart monarchy prosecuted those within the Church of England as well. It’s been calculated, then, that censorship was imposed more than five times more frequently under the Stuarts than it was under Elizabeth. In addition, the government was ready to go to greater levels of violence to silence dispute, raiding bookshops and destroying presses. Complete control was impossible – but the effort to do so, was itself terrifying.
Which brings us then to Star Chamber. Hands up those of you who have heard of the Star Chamber as an infamous tool of repression? I’m interested, because when I was a lad it was sort of symbolic.
Anyway, Star Chamber did not start as such, not in intention back in the days, when Wolsey’s fertile mind gave it birth. We’re all proud of Common Law but there’s no denying that the system of justice was jolly complicated. The Court of Star Chamber was not subject to common law, but to the concept of equity, under the king’s prerogative. At its best it provided fast and much cheaper and fairer justice, a way to prevent the rich and powerful buy their way through the legal system, intimidate juries, witnesses and judges; such a Sir John Rous, a JP who had wrongly condemned two women to be imprisoned and whipped in 1628. He was prosecuted and condemned by Star Chamber. Right to the end, the judges and privy councillors who peopled it took its role and procedures seriously.
But but but. In the end it was outside the processes of common law, and subject to manipulation in the wrong hands. If you were a king out to make a very public and very severe point so that no one could avoid it, then this was the tool to use, and it could be used, and was used, as Tim Harries has described it, as an instrument of terror. Punishments could be much harsher than common law, although I believe not including execution; but it could still be used to visit punishments which were not penal, proportionate to the crime – but exemplary; to make a point that if you cut up rough or if the king doesn’t like the cut of your jib you were not safe, this could be you.
And so although it continued its work in favour of the poor or victims of legal aggression, there were a series of very high profile cases designed to keep people in their lanes, and their mouths shut. Alexander Leighton in June 1630 was prosecuted for criticising Bishops, ordered to pay a ludicrously high fine of £10,000, degraded, sentenced to stand in the pillory, whipped, have his ears cut off and nose slit and have SS, sower of Sedition branded on his cheeks, and spend a life in prison. It was by Star Chamber that William Prynne had been successfully prosecuted.
And then there was John Lilburne. We are going to hear a lot about him, Levellers and all that. John was the son of minor Gentry in the North East, and one of three brothers. The three brothers Lilburne would be an interesting example of how the civil wars divided family; the eldest, Robert Lilburne, would be a Cromwellian soldier and regicide. The youngest brother, Henry, started parliamentarian and defected to the royalists in 1648. John Lilburne’s name will live forever, as the founder of the first genuinely radical political movement preaching equality, social justice and political equality in world history.
Ok, that was me making wild unsubstantiated claims. Will it? Is it? Was it? I must have missed someone in a far off land, so do put me right. Answers on a postcard. Whether or not we can hit the heights of good, better, best, the political ideas that came from the Levellers movement are extraordinary, and the start of modern politics, to my mind. And in absolute line with that, John Lilburne was a gobby, Fighty, Northerner, cussed beyond the point of infinity, so stubborn it would make a mule look flighty. He’d have driven me up the wall.
He said of himself that he wasn’t the ‘dronnesst’ boy at school. I have no idea what this means, and nor, frankly, does the OED but I’m going to guess this means he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the draw, or maybe hardest working. Some North Eastern dialect word. Well, whatever dronnesest means – he wasn’t it. He came to London as an apprentice and drank deeply of the wine of puritanism. Sorry, the nice cup of tea of puritanism. To the point where he flirted with separatism. He knew Dr John Bastwick, who was punished next to William Prynne, Bastwick already admired the young man’s energy and intellect. Lilburne was there in the crowd as Bastwick, Prynne and his colleagues were maimed and marched off to prison.
Early 1637, Lilburne was involved in printing his teacher’s anti episcopal book; given that it was anti episcopal, obs, he didn’t get away with it – someone fingered him, he was discovered. To be fair, he was given the chance to defend himself; first to the chief clerk of the attorney-general, then to the attorney-general, Sir John Bankes. I do not know what was said but I suspect ‘yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’ did not issue from Lilburne’s lips. Then or ever. So – Star Chamber it was then.
In Star Chamber, Lilburne’s defence was thoroughly typical of the man. Essentially it didn’t get past stage one, similar to Charles in 11 years’ time really. He refused to take an oath because he argued that as a Christian he could not be forced to take an oath. And then that he would not testify arguing that under Common law, a defendant could not be forced to incriminate himself – see above. It’s thoroughly typical because Lillburne was not a man to play to anyone else’s rules; and because he had a touching faith in the rights of freeborn Englishmen. In fact, Common law said no such think, but the fact that he believed it did, and later the fact that he believed Magna Carta promised him all sorts of rights it did not, he would try to move mountains. Such is the power of faith. Here endeth the lesson, now please turn to hymn 356…I always wanted to be a minister. Oh well.
Well, the grandees of the Star Chamber’s collective chin wobbled so much even my Granny would have been impressed. They were…outraged. Scandalised. Well I never did. And they picked up the book and threw it at John’s head. The crime, and I quote of ‘insufferable disobedience and contempt’ – I mean not just contempt of court, but insufferable contempt of court I’ll have you – was added to the printing thing. He was sentenced. And duly on 13th February 1638 – a chilly day I’ll be bound – he was taken from the Fleet prison, and tied, as he would later write, to ‘a cart’s arse’, and towed all the 2 miles to New Palace Yard in Westminster, being whipped as he went with a knotted rope. There he was put in the pillory.
At that point, I’d go schtum, probably for the rest of my life, but John, of course, vented his fury to the crowd on the injustice of it all, until he was gagged. See what I mean? Gobby. When he was gagged, his friends distributed pamphlets, when he was in the Fleet he smuggled out writings about his experiences and how thoroughly rotten it all was, and how the episcopal church was no true church. His experience also gave him confidence. From the Fleet, he wrote
‘I assuredly know that all the power in Earth, yea and the gates of Hell itselfe shall never be able to move me or prevaile against me, for the Lord who is the worker of all my workes in and for me, hath founded and built me upon that sure & unmoveable foundation – the Lord Jesus Christ’.
With powder kegs like John Lilburne about, it seems inevitable that there would be an explosion. As we have mentioned, ‘tis is the time of the Great Migration when many chose to leave. Lucy Hutchinson was an English poet and Translator who lived through the civil wars, and was one of the Godly. She married Colonel Hutchinson, who was a regicide, but both of them objected to Cromwell’s Protectorate. When her husband died in prison in 1664 she undertook to write a biography of her husband, which is one of the most often used sources to give a flavour of the time. This is how she saw the Carolean persecution of her fellow Calvinists
The puritans were more than ever discountenanced and persecuted, insomuch that many chose to abandon their native country and leave their dearest relations, to retire into any foreign soil or plantations, where they might, amidst all outward inconveniences, enjoy the free exercise of God’s worship. Such as could not flee were tormented in the bishops’ courts, fined, whipped, pilloried, imprisoned and suffered to enjoy no rest, so that death was better than life to them.
So – a powder keg. But a powder keg, as Guy Fawkes had realised to his destruction, needed a spark. For all the furious words, rebellion was no longer easy in England. Even a hundred years before, or maybe 150, the country would have been full of martial lords with reams of armed tenantry ready to pick up the sword or pike or whatever and follow where they were told. England wasn’t like that anymore – the elite were thoroughly dainty and civilised, and most couldn’t fight their way out of a brown paper bag, or indeed, squash the proverbial. They all needed a spark. And the flash of light would come from the north.
That’s all for now every one I hope you have enjoyed the offering. Thank you all for listening, it’s always lovely to get your comments and reviews and so on, and now at last we head into to he maelstrom together. Until next time, then, Good luck, and have a great week.
 Foster, RF ‘Modern Ireland’ p47
 Healey, J; ‘The Blazing World’ p107
 Hunt, T; ‘The English Civil War at first hand’, p13