God’s Englishmen: Midland and East Anglian Gentry in the English Revolution, 1619-89; part three   Leave a comment

Restoration, Renaissance and Revolution.


012The half-century of Stuart rule that followed the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, was a time of contrasts and contradictions. Court and Country people alike rejoiced to throw off extreme puritanical constraints and to return to traditional sports and pastimes. At the same time, preachers warned against the debauchery of the age and Suffolk had more Nonconformist assemblies than most other counties. East Anglia was still the industrial heartland of England, yet the new draperies were following the old into decline. The shipyards decreased in importance but Suffolk mariners and men o’ war took part in the principal naval actions of the Dutch wars, some off Suffolk’s own coast. Poverty, unemployment and vagrancy continued to mount steadily, but more fine houses were built in this period than ever before, and the Age of Enlightenment was reflected in the gracious living of the elite of Bury and Ipswich. The gap between rich and poor was steadily increasing. When England welcomed back Charles II it rejected the republican experiment of the Commonwealth and rejected egalitarian ideas. All men who could do so aped the manners and fashion of the court.

When the King visited Newmarket, or stayed with the Arlingtons at Euston, local squires and their wives clamoured to see what the ladies and gentlemen of the court were wearing.

When burgesses called professionally or socially at the country mansions of the great, they took careful note of what they saw and had copies of the furniture made for their town houses. Meanwhile, the labourers and weavers continued to bear their burden of poverty with as much good grace as they could muster.

013The establishment of Newmarket as the home of the sport of kings brought court and country closer together than ever before. Charles I had instituted the first cup race in 1634, but it was his son who laid the firm foundation of royal patronage. He came to Newmarket almost every spring and autumn to race his horses against those of his courtiers. John Evelyn, the diarist, recorded how,

By night we got to Newmarket, where Mr Henry Jermyn lodged me very civilly. We went immediately to court (the King and all the English gallants being here at their annual sports), supped at my Lord Chamberlain’s and next day after dinner went to the heath, where I saw the great match run between ‘Woodcock’ and ‘Flatfoot’, the King’s and Mr Eliot’s of the Bedchamber, many thousands being spectators…

Royal patronage encouraged courtiers and noblemen to build houses in and around Newmarket. The most magnificent was the mansion which Henry Bennett, Earl of Arlington, erected for himself at Euston. Having shared the hardships of exile with Charles, he returned with him to share the trappings of power. He became Lord Chamberlain and a member of the Cabal, Charles’ group of intimate advisers. A man of great taste, he amassed considerable wealth, so that Evelyn said of him that he was given to no expensive vice but building and to have all things rich, polite and princely. In the diarists’ opinion,

Euston Hall was a very noble pile, built in the French style, formed of additions to an old house, yet with a vast expense, made not only capable and roomsome, but very magnificent and commodious, as well within as without, nor less splendidly furnished. There were formal gardens, an orangery, pleasure gardens, a lake and a canal formed by diverting the nearby river. The park, which had a circumference of nine miles, enclosed a herd of a thousand deer.


Bury St Edmund’s shared in the enthusiasm for building which inspired so many in this new, gracious age. Suffolk gentlemen and well-to-do burgesses erected town houses or built classical facades on to medieval or Tudor structures. This spate of fashionable building of country houses, town hoses and facades gave impetus to a well-established local industry. There were important brickfields at Ipswich, Woodbridge, Woolpit, Aldeburgh, Beccles and numerous other smaller places. Restrictions had been placed on the use of timber for building since Elizabethan times, since there were dwindling stocks of oak for the navy. By the late seventeenth century, genteel society was, in any case, turning up its nose at timber-framed buildings. When Lady Fiennes visited Bury in the 1690s, she sweepingly condemned nearly all its buildings as old-fashioned and rambling. No doubt her bells were jingling more rapidly as she left:

Ride a cock hoss*

To Banbury Cross

To see a fine lady

Upon a white hoss* 

With rings on her fingers

And bells on her toes

She shall have music

Wherever she goes.

*hoss is Midland English for horse, still in use.

Celia Fiennes, the subject of one of the best-known nursery rhymes, was born in 1662, was, in many ways, the perfect feminine antidote to all those serious puritan gentlemen of the previous century, though granddaughter to the parliamentarian First Viscount Saye and Sele. She was one of the first women to write a book about her travels, called Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary. In it, she described Banbury in favourable terms, and she is reputed to be the source of the well-known nursery rhyme, ’Banbury Cross’. She was said to have often ridden to London on horseback, passing through Banbury on her way. Not only was she an excellent rider but she also dressed very fashionably, wearing little bells on her shoes. The market place had an ancient cross, which was destroyed by puritans earlier in the century, but it continued to be called ’The Cross’ because it was in the middle of the wide High Street where the major roads of the time did indeed intersect.

When Charles II came to the English throne, England was still a society with several speech varieties, of which Scots was one. The suggestion that there was a proper way of pronouncing and a right way of spelling would have seemed strange to most people. The spelling of many writers and printers of letters demonstrates this. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had experimented with the English language as no other writers before or since, making it sing. The writers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had boundless admiration for their Elizabethan predecessors, but they believed the situation had got out of hand. The language, like the mass of English society itself, was unruly, unrefined and ill-defined. The poet Laureate Dryden, related to the great gentry families of the Midlands exclaimed how barbarously we yet write and speak. Many shared this view, as if they wanted to send the language itself to school. How best to bring order to its written forms in particular, was one of the most serious problems facing the literary establishment.


One of the main impulses behind this search for order was the need to assimilate the new vocabulary, swelled almost beyond recognition, of the scientific and political revolutions of the seventeenth century. The scientific revolution reached its high point with Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Newton was a member of the Royal Society, founded in 1662, primarily as a forum for scientific discussion. However, the seventeenth century definition of scientific was broader than most uses of the term have been since, in keeping with the concept of The Enlightenment. It members included a broad range of interests, not simply those involved in the natural sciences. In 1664 it was reported that,

There were persons of the Society whose genius was very proper and inclined to improve the English tongue. Particularly for philosophic purposes, it was voted that there should be a committee for improving the English language; and that they meet at Sir Peter Wyche’s lodgings in Gray’s Inn once or twice a month, and give account of their proceedings, when called upon.

Developing a scientific model was one approach, following a deductive method. Another was more inductive, the revival of Latin, which was still the language of mathematics and theology. In addition, it had a regular grammar, spelling conventions and a systematic style. John Dryden was the finest English stylist of his time, partly because he sometimes translated his ideas into Latin to find a way of expressing it clearly in English. Of course, lawyers and literature professors still do this. Latin was the great example of a language that had lasted, precisely because it was ordered. Another gentleman poet, Edmund Waller observed :

001But who can hope his line should long

Last, in a daily changing tongue?

While they are new, envy prevails;

And as that dies, our language fails…

Poets that Lasting Marble seek,

Must carve in Latin or in Greek;

We write in Sand…

While these scientists and men of letters found clarity of style in Latin, other men of learning looked to Louis XIV’s France, as in other matters following the Restoration, for a means of purifying their native language from Barbarism or Solecism. The Italians had purified their language by publishing a specially commissioned dictionary and Cardinal Richelieu had established the Académie Francaise with a special charter to labour with all possible care and diligence to give definite rules to our language, and to render it pure, eloquent and capable of treating with both arts and sciences. However, the idea of an English Academy, which had been projected throughout the seventeenth century, never really caught on in the imaginations of the scientific and literary élite. In fact, it was widely mocked (see pictures). However, the Royal Society’s Committee for Improving the English Language did meet. At one of these meetings, the diarist John Evelyn produced an ambitious project involving the production of a Lexicon or collection of all the pure English words by themselves, but the plans were shelved. In 1697, Daniel Defoe proposed that with an Academy to decide on right and wrong usage, it would be as criminal to coin words as money. At the turn of the century, however, one writer in particular addressed himself to the issue of standards in English. Jonathan Swift focused his hatred of progress in a series of letters and pamphlets on the condition of the English language. Taken together, these writings amount to the greatest conservative statement for English ever put forward.

Born in Dublin in 1667 into a well-known Royalist family, Swift had literary connections from early in his life, in particular through his cousin, John Dryden. His early work provoked Dryden to comment, Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet. Although best-known as the author of the satirical journal, Gulliver’s Travels, he had already turned the power of his pen on many topical subjects, to devastating effect, including on the state of the English language:

From the Civil War to this present Time, I am apt to doubt whether the Corruptions in our Language have not at least equalled the Refinements of it; and these Corruptions  very few of the best Authors in our Age have wholly escaped. During the Usurpation, such an infusion of Enthusiastick Jargon prevailed in every Writing, as was not shook off in many Years after. To this succeeded that Licentiousness which entered with the ‘Restoration’, and from infecting our Religion and Morals, fell to corrupt our Language…

As a clergyman, Swift detested the way that abbreviations and abridgments were creeping into church, alongside the use of vogue words by young preachers, such as sham, banter, mob, bubble, bully, cutting, shuffling and palming. He felt that had it not been for the provision of the Bible and the Common Prayer Book in English, it would have proved impossible for any of his contemporaries in the reign of Queen Anne I to understand anything of what had been written in the reign of King James I, for those books being perpetually read in Churches, have proved a kind of Standard for Language, especially to the common people. His finest statement on the language is made in a letter written to Robert Hartley, Earl of Oxford, and the leader of the then ruling Tory Party, published in 1712 under the title A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. He took up the seventeenth century idea of an English Academy. However, the concept of a prescriptive society of this kind still ran contrary to the amateur tradition of English literary scholarship. In many ways, Swift’s view of the state of the English language, and the gap which existed between its spoken and written forms, reflected the evidence of the growing gulf between the aristocracy and gentry on the one hand, and the ordinary folk on the other. Although a Tory, Swift shared many of the views of the radicals in the English Revolution. Like many of them, he was fiercely critical of the new world in which money ruled, whose excremental vision extended backwards to a golden age when gold and repression were both unknown.

002The amateur literary tradition in the second half of the seventeenth century is perhaps best represented by John Bunyan (1628-88), born at Elstow in Bedfordshire, as the son of a poor brazier or tinker. His parents had been cottagers, and his wife described him in 1661 as a tinker and a poor man, therefore he is despised and cannot have justice. Having served in the parliamentary army during the civil wars, he joined an independent congregation in Bedford in 1651. He was terrified by thoughts of hell, and wishes that he might be a devil to torment others. Despite his doubts, or perhaps because of them, he became a fine preacher. His preaching led to his imprisonment after the restoration, spending much of the next fifteen years in jail, and it was while there that he began to write his books. By the time Bunyan was writing his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), men and women had come to know the Bible so well that their relationship to it was almost passive. In Grace Abounding texts are hurled around in Bunyan’s imagination like thunderbolts of the Almighty. The Bible spoke directly to men who believed that the day of the Lord was imminent, and their appeal to the past, through authentic documents (whether the Bible or Magna Carta), became a criticism of certain types of rule.

Bunyan’s most famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678, an allegory based on Bunyan’s own spiritual life, which he had given account of in Grace Abounding. Bunyan’s language is a happy mixture of homespun phrases and echoes of the English Bible. His other well-known work, The Holy War (1682) uses imagery of warfare to construct another allegory. The eloquence and power of the simple artisans who took part in the political and theological discussions of this period is staggering. Some of it comes across in print: Fox the shepherd, Bunyan the tinker, Nayler the yeoman. John Milton was right in his confidence that God’s Englishmen, not just his gentlemen, had significant and eloquent things to say, which only the tyrranical duncery of bishops had prevented them from saying; and that any future attempt to censure them would be an undervaluing and vilifying of the whole nation, and a reproach to the common people.

One object of the restoration  had been to put tinkers, shepherds and yeomen back in their proper callings, but Bunyan remembered a lot from the revolutionary decades: More servants than masters, he wrote, more tenants than landlords, will inherit the kingdom of heaven. God’s own, he wrote in the same year (1658), are most commonly of the poorer sort. He also reflected on the sad condition of those that are for the most part rich men. Wordly Wiseman, Formalist, Hypocrisy, like Antichrist, were all gentlemen: Madam Bubble, the Mistress of the World, was a gentlewoman. Mrs Wanton was an admirably well-bred gentlewoman. Mr By-ends was a gentleman of good quality, related to lords, parsons and the rich. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, were of base and low estate and uneducated. Faithful was brought before Lord Hate-Good for slandering several of the nobility and most of the gentry of our town.  We can see The Pilgrim’s Progress as the greatest literary product of this group of itinerant writers. As he walked through the widerness of this world, Bunyan laid himself down in a den which he lighted on: Pilgrim’s Progress was the dream he then dreamed. Bunyan’s outlook .is that of the itinerant small craftsman, for whom society has been loosened up. His hero in Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the people: the law and its courts will not give him justice. As Christopher Hill has commented,

Milton persuaded himself that it had been a fortunate Fall. I do not think Bunyan would have agreed. He knew more about the heaviness of the burden, more about the puzzling word of Mr Badman, the free market and petty commercial reality, than Milton ever did, living without labour on the income of his father’s usury had left him. But each of them, starting from fallen man, can show the divine in man slowly winning its way back, in Milton’s case to ‘a Paradise within thee, happier far’, in Bunyan’s to a confidence that triumphed over the torments and early death which were the fate of the itinerant.

Across East Anglia, as in Bedfordshire and large parts of the Midlands, it must have seemed, In the second half of the seventeenth century, that the poor would be a permanent presence. The fishing ports of Suffolk lost their battle against the sea. In 1652 the inhabitants of Walberswick had appealed to the government for aid for their town, now one of the poorest towns in England with not one man living in the town that has five pounds per year of his own. In 1695 they unroofed most of their decaying church to repair the south aisle, tower and porch, which was all they used from then on. They were not the first parishioners to do so; Coverhithe’s magnificent fifteenth-century church was dismantled in 1672. Dunwich, Blythborough, Southwold and, to a lesser extent, Lowestoft, all shared the same fate as their harbours either disappeared or became too unreliable for regular use by the fishing fleets. In 1670 the county had only fifty-nine fishing boats and the King gave his personal support to a company set up to restore the east coast fisheries. It was only the first of several such ventures that, despite the injection of large amounts of capital, failed.

It is therefore not surprising that more and more fishermen turned to smuggling, which became a regular and highly organised industry in this period. When the Commonwealth government and its late Stuart successors slapped heavy taxes and duties on a variety of commodities, they threw down a gauntlet to mariners, foreign traders and English consumers who refused to be balked by such restrictions. Large smuggling associations developed with headquarters at Dunkerque, Flushing, Ostend and Calais. They ran cargoes across to the coves and small harbours of Suffolk, because they were father from London. Local mariners went out in their small boats to collect cargoes from the hundred and two-hundred ton ships which anchored offshore under cover of darkness, then carried the casks and chests of tea, tobacco and spirits to regular hiding places where they awaited distribution. Illicit goods were stowed under the altar at Theberton church, beneath the floorboards of Leiston’s Nonconformist meetinghouse and behind the pulpit at Rishangles, sometimes while the minister was preaching from it. The trade not only provided brandy for the parson, baccy for the clerk, but a living for many families which otherwise might have starved.

Some young men sought adventure and escape from grinding poverty in the army or navy. The soldiers were called upon to fight first of all in the Low Countries, and then in France and Ireland. Suffolk men who served in the Royal Navy found themselves engaged in battles much nearer to home. The Dutch wars brought enemy ships close to the coast for the first time since the Spanish Armada. Ipswich shared in the general decline of the coastal towns and ports, but the new danger led to a flurry of activity as the town built thirty-two armed merchantmen for the navy, and press gangs scoured the towns and villages of East Suffolk in search of cannon fodder. On 3 June 1665, gunfire was heard coming from a point fourteen miles NNE of Lowestoft. The English and Dutch fleets fought all day, the sound of their cannons roaring carrying across Suffolk and Essex, as far as London. Then, in the late afternoon, came the sound of one almighty explosion, but it was only the next day when the frigates returned from the battle to unload two thousand prisoners and three hundred wounded at Southwold, that the Suffolkers learnt of the destruction of the Durch flagship, De Eendracht, and the complete rout of the enemy. Most of the coast towns had to share the burden of caring for the wounded and prisoners in makeshift hospitals and camps, Southwold receiving six thousand pounds and Ipswich eight and a half thousand for their services.

Over the next few years, amid frequent rumours of Dutch invasions, repeated calls were made for Suffolk to provide men and ships. In 1667, twenty-six small ships were impressed as fire ships into the navy, and the county militia had to be kept in a constant state of readiness. The dreaded invasion took place on 2 July 1667, when the Dutch made a combined naval and military assault on Landguard Fort with the object of capturing the new dockyard at Harwich. Although the English fleet balked the naval part of the expedition, the small Landguard garrison had to face a determined attack by 1,400 Dutch soldiers who landed at Felixstowe and advanced along the beach. The garrison kept up a musket barrage until, after several hours, the assailants retreated in confusion. The demoralised and hungry soldiers had then to wait half the night on the sands for the returning tide to enable them to refloat their boats.

039Five years later another great sea battle was fought off the Suffolk coast, and this time spectators could follow its course. In mid-May 1672, the Anglo-French fleet under the command of the Duke of York and Edward Montague, now Earl of Sandwich, followed eighty-eight Dutch ships up the Channel. They then made the mistake of putting in at Sole Bay for careening. At dawn on 28 May they were surprised by the enemy, caught with their sales furled and with many of their men still sleeping off the effects of the previous evening’s carousing in the taverns of Southwold. With a haste next to panic, the allied fleet weighed anchor and tried to manoeuvre away from the lee shore, but the Dutch raked their enemies with devastating fire. This was concentrated on the Prince and the Royal James, carrying the English admiral and vice-admiral.

Sandwich’s Royal James took the worst of this. Mastless and with half her company dead, she was encircled by the enemy men-o’ war and baited by fire ships. She might have been relieved by Sir Joseph Jordan’s squadron, but he sailed past her to go to the aid of the Duke of York, much to the outrage of one onlooker:

I like not his fighting nor conduct, I wished myself on him to have saved that brave Montague, for he was in the wind of him and might have come down to him… I was so near as I saw almost every broadside and was in hearing and whistling of the shot.


It was about mid-day when a Dutch fireship ran into the Royal James. The flames reached her magazine and she disintegrated with a sickening roar. Two weeks later, bloated and scarred, Montague’s body was picked up by a local ketch. It still bore the George and Star of the Garter. The body was conveyed to Landguard Fort from where it was taken a week later for a magnificent funeral in London.


In June 1685 Henry Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was commissioned by James II to raise a new regiment of Foot in the county. However, the new unit was of no use to James, as Protestant East Anglia declared for William of Orange in 1688 and its new regiment, under the command of Henry Wharton, fought against the deposed king in Ireland, serving with distinction at the Battle of the Boyne the following year. The East Anglian lads went on to fight King William’s wars against King Louis in France and the Low Countries. However, at least they no longer had to fight against fellow Englishmen on their own soil.


Religion continued to be an important issue in Suffolk for many years after the Restoration. The Commonwealth had given rise to a plethora of sects, ranging from the more orthodox Independents, Congregationalist and Baptists to the Quakers, Brownists and Fifth Monarchists. Harsh laws were passed against all those who would not conform to the re-established Anglican Church, including Presbyterians such as Richard Baxter. They were reinforced, with brief, more tolerant interludes, until 1689. Ministers were ejected from their livings, and Nonconformist services had to take place in secret. Preachers who were caught, or who continued in defiance, were thrown into prison.

Such persecution did not stop the Dissenters and when limited toleration became the official policy of the reign of William and Mary’s reign, new chapels sprang up all over the country, and throughout the county. Nowhere was Nonconformity stronger than in Suffolk. The elegant places of worship they built are continuing proof of their devotion, vigour and wealth. Bury, Ipswich, Needham Market, Walpole and Framlingham all have fine examples. When Defoe visited Southwold, he attended divine worship in the parish church with twenty-seven local people. Walking past the dissenting chapel afterwards, he could see that it was full to the doors with God’s Englishmen and Englishwomen. At its end, the seventeenth century had indeed witnessed a Glorious Revolution.

    042Above: Whitehall from St James’ Park, by Peter Tillemans. The Coldstream Guards drill in front of the House Guards Building, under the Union Flag, while Charles II strolls through the park with members of his court.


Printed Sources:

Robert Latham (1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Christopher Hill (1972), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. London: Penguin.

Christopher Hill (1972), God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Robert McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Glenn Foard (1994), Colonel John Pickering’s Regiment of Foot, 1644-1645. Whitstable: Pryor Publications.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles: A guide to the legendary and sacred sites. London: Ebury.

Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: OUP.

Mabel Richmond Brailsford (1927), A Quaker from Cromwell’s Army: James Nayler. London: The Swarthmore Press.

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